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Learn How Successful Social Impact Design Firms Work, With These Helpful Case Studies

Proactive Practices packages lessons from the work of Ideo.org, Proximity Designs, and Mass Design Group so that anyone can understand how to use design to solve global problems.

It’s not uncommon for newly graduated designers to want to work on solving social problems rather than creating luxury condos or the latest iteration of a consumer product. But it’s less clear how to build a career in social impact design.

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A new website called Proactive Practices looks at the business models of existing firms working in the space, such as Ideo.org, Proximity Designs, and Mass Design Group. In detailed case studies, they look at how the firms started, what they do, and how they survive financially–all to help other designers learn how they can build similar practices of their own.

Mass Design Group’s work on this school is one of the many projects they’ve completed in Rwanda.[Photo: Iwan Baan]

Designers Gilad Meron, Nick McClintock, and Mia Scharphie started researching social impact design firms to help plan their own careers, and then realized that there was a gap in available information. While it’s easy to find articles and case studies about particular projects, it’s much harder to learn about business models.

“There wasn’t a lot of talk about the practices behind those projects,” says Meron. “I think that was really what we were most passionate about exploring–finding out whether or not it’s possible to sustain a whole practice focused solely on this type of work.”

Utile made this print as part of its study of housing in Sommerville, Massachusetts.[Photo: via Utile]

Over three years, they interviewed designers at each firm. Part of the reason that the information hasn’t been shared in the past might be the fact that designers are already stretched thin doing their day-to-day work–but that means that the rest of the field can miss useful insights.

“Practitioners don’t always have the time to stop in and to figure out what’s working and what’s not working,” says Scharphie. “And all of that learning stays embedded within the practice’s experiences.”

Using the case studies, designers can find new strategies for running aspects of their business. Mass Design, for example, thinks of clients as partners, and that often means that they fundraise together with them, rather than waiting for a client to show up with funding in hand. The case studies also each include specific financial data.

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[Image: via Utile]

“There’s just something about being able to see the numbers that helps you say, okay, I know how many projects or what revenue do I need to keep this number of projects going, or this level of work going,” she says.

The case studies also talk about the founders, whose grit and entrepreneurialism made these firms succeed.

“The common trend amongst all of them is there is either an individual or small group of individuals who are clearly the leaders of that organization and who have very visibly put in more time than makes sense, and continue to do so,” says Meron. “And regardless of any challenges or barriers that come up, they find innovative ways to get around them.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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