Social Improvement by Design

Studio C’s design thinking workshops reinvigorate the social sector

click to enlarge L-R: Brittney Kreimer, Ramsey Ford, Kate Hanisian and Mike Baker
L-R: Brittney Kreimer, Ramsey Ford, Kate Hanisian and Mike Baker

On May 18, in a room equipped with only whiteboards, tables and chairs, branding and innovation consultant Cindy Tripp explains the process she implemented at Procter & Gamble for seven years: design thinking. Typically she speaks to research or marketing firms, but today, it’s mostly nonprofits.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re working for a for-profit or nonprofit — human-centered design is important,” Tripp says. “I’ve yet to find anyone who didn’t find it helpful.”

The free workshop was part of Studio C, a collaboration between social innovation firm Design Impact and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, to coach organizations in design thinking. “Design thinking” is a buzzword, which means to creatively address problems, find answers and implement solutions for the people, by the people.

Stanford University’s — one of the first design thinking programs in the country — lays out the procedure in six steps: research, interview, create solutions, create projects to reach the solutions, create prototypes and test. 

Technology companies like Apple and Google use design thinking to imagine what products people want and then try to create them. Social innovation firms like Design Impact use it to create an equitable society. 

“Design has the power to make development more inclusive,” says Ramsey Ford, Design Impact co-founder. “Creating a product is not the main goal, but to instill design capacity into organizations so they can use the tools to better support the people they serve.”

The company formed Studio C to teach any nonprofit six design thinking topics — from research to prototype creation — for free, from April to September. Assignments are given after each new lesson is presented. A few days later, organizations meet again to share and critique their work.

Organizations can register online for one session or attend all of them sequentially. (Of course, to know the assigned homework, you must attend the previous session.) There are also stand-alone workshops, like Tripp’s, which anyone can attend — not just nonprofits.

Design Impact was formed in 2008 to combine Ford’s work in design with his wife Kate Hanisian’s work in the social sector. The goal was to provide nonprofits and social innovators with the same access to creative and strategic design support that large-scale businesses have in order to design products and services people really need. 

For four years, they taught organizations and communities in India the same steps Ford used when he redesigned the Swiffer for P&G in 2007, finding problems and strategically designing solutions to solve them. Those collaborations formed projects like a nutritional supplement for malnourished children and an MBA program on innovation and leadership at a Mumbai college. 

When the couple couldn’t sustain the work, they moved Design Impact back to their hometown to apply the same techniques they used on India’s social sector to the Midwest.

In 2013, the couple met Mike Baker, the United Way director of community impact, to discuss design thinking — a method Baker had just discovered from a United Way donor and P&G strategist. The United Way needed a solution to stay on track to meet six goals they set for Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana in 2011. The Bold Goals initiative includes mandates that 85 percent of children be prepared for kindergarten and 90 percent of the labor force be gainfully employed by 2020.

In Studio C, organizations assess problems they identify — from needing overhauls in marketing to their own structural design. For the Northern Kentucky Community Action Council’s Head Start program, it was a problem with membership development. Last year, they teamed with the Housing Authority of Covington in Studio C to tackle City Heights, a public housing complex thought to be unable to reach the free, government-sponsored preschool for low-income families due to lack of transportation.

“We were working off an assumption,” says NKCAC Head Start Director Laurie Wolsing.

To determine exact problems, Studio C assigned participants to interview the people they serve. Instead of going door-to-door, NKCAC and the housing authority attached a bubble machine to the back of a van and drove slowly through City Heights, disseminating cookies, toy bubbles and Head Start information. 

It turns out transportation wasn’t the issue.

“Parents immediately thought Head Start meant school and school meant desks, and that wasn’t right for their three-year-olds,” Design Impact’s Ford says.

So they invited families to a simulated outdoor classroom with various learning activities, along with a petting zoo, bounce house and snacks. Additional similar events were planned. By the end of the three-month recruitment, enrollment increased from 10 to 34 children.

Experimental opportunities like that are often luxuries for the typically understaffed and under-budgeted social services. Before Studio C, Wolsing promoted Head Start by leaving flyers on the reception desk at the City Heights community center. The new solution was a guess.

“We don’t know if these ideas will work; we didn’t know if taking a bubble machine to Northern Kentucky would lead to more families in Head Start,” Baker says. “I can’t say we didn’t have people question it, but we have to learn to step back from our demands.”

Those demands include grant requirements to decide if a proposed project will create its proposed solution. While Baker says 90 percent of funding still goes to proven solutions, Studio C allows the United Way a chance to support social sector innovation. Six Studio C projects, which aid the United Way’s Bold Goals, can apply to receive direct support from Design Impact in six-week workshops. One of those projects can then be awarded a $20,000 implementation grant.

Incentives like these help the United Way stay on track with the Bold Goal initiative for 2020. They spend more time implementing best practices — like advocating universal, voluntary preschool and increasing the reach of job training programs — than discovering creative solutions. But for Baker, every strategy is a step forward. 

“There are potentially breakthrough solutions ready to be discovered that can work alongside existing strategies,” he says. “Achieving (the goals) means we’ve improved the quality of life of thousands of our neighbors.”

Learn more about STUDIO C and find upcoming classes at .