How To Turn Colleges Into Incubators For Changemaking Design

When working on social good projects, designers can team up with design students. If done right, it can lead to great work and setting young designers on a future path to social good.

Like with many industries, the design field gets hit up for pro-bono work all the time. And this makes sense. Social causes need good creative, too. And the reality is that many of us designers want to do more than just design; we want to be a part of work that is bigger than ourselves. The problem is that often that work takes a small army, or time that is seemingly impossible to obtain. In a perfect world, a team of researchers and hungry creatives would join forces to make the world a better place. But maybe we live closer to that perfect world than you think. The reality is that such a team exists–it can be found at any university.


So how do you harness the potential of universities and their students to take on global design challenges? It may be easier than you think:

1: Identify a project that has truly great potential

How far reaching is the impact of what you want to do? Who will benefit? What are the desired outcomes (and the potential pitfalls)? The best projects have the ability to boldly address an issue but also transform all people involved–you, the students, the professors, and those affected by the issue. Make sure that the scope of the project is reasonable, but that it has great potential to catalyze great change.

This education campaign about malaria came out of a collaboration between the author’s design studio and student designers.

2: Choose to work with a university that fits the needs of the project

Is your project research oriented? Service oriented? If you want the best possible outcome, you need to identify schools that are aligned with the goals of the project; some universities have cultures that will be more conducive than others. Take time to test the environment and get to know the priorities of professors and students. Choosing the right college, the right class, and the right professor could have tremendous results. Additionally, choose a university that has a culture of excellence. You’ll be working together on real issues affecting real people; choose a university that doesn’t take that for granted.

3: Be friends with the professor

The goal here is true collaboration. The project will sink or float based on the collaborative relationships you foster. If the professor you choose to work with is ultimately not on the same page, it has the potential to jeopardize the experience for the students and those affected by the issues you’re addressing. Choose to work with a professor whom you respect and cares about the things you care about. It will only make the experience more exceptional for everyone involved. Don’t forget, you also stand to learn quite a bit from this professor, who has made long-standing commitment to learning and teaching.

4: Ensure that the project makes students feel needed

Nothing is worse than signing on for a project that promises great things, only to realize you’re spinning your wheels for a cause-less cause. Make sure, before you’ve pitched a project to a university, that it will offer real, life experience and tangible deliverables. When students sense that they are a necessary component to a project, their investment is higher and their work is more valuable. Don’t sell them short or you will sell the cause short.

5: Be an integral part of the project

For students, universities tend to function dually as a window to the world and a shelter from the world. While students often have opportunities to expand their horizons in college, more often than not, they have few touches with people outside of academia. By picking a project that requires your participation, you have an opportunity to give back and offer a valuable, professional perspective to students. It can also serve as a platform for building future work relationships; you never know if one of those students will turn out to be an ideal job candidate at your company.


Ultimately, opportunities to ignite social change and create innovative, purposeful projects exist. Our ability to take part is simply predicated on the steps we take to ask for help. By stretching ourselves and reaching out to universities, we stand to gain incredible learning experiences for students, professors, and ourselves. We also have the pleasure of taking on meaningful, cause-oriented work that will not strain our companies’ capacities. It affords us the freedom to invite others to join us in impactful endeavors that will be mutually beneficial and transformative for everyone involved.