The new movement recruiting designers for social good
@Harvard CS ’19, @Uber SWE intern, @DormRoomFund Partner, @CodingItForward Co-founder. http://athenakan.com
Design Gigs for Good’s call for “design-for-goodery kindred spirits.”
Amonth and a half ago, Sarah Fathallah and Mollie Ruskin created Design Gigs for Good, a job board showcasing opportunities at the intersection between design and social impact. In fewer than 30 days, several hundred members signed up. Design Gigs for Good now hosts more than 200+ job postings and has logged almost 10,000 unique site visits. I had the chance to hear their story.
The two met in a tiny design agency somewhere between 2011 and 2012. Young and trying to find their feet in the industry, they explored different sectors of the design for social good space together. “I kept moving around because of immigration reasons and Mollie kept following me for some reason,” Sarah recalls with a laugh.
While their paths have since diverged, they remain perfect complements. Sarah innovates in the field of international development design; she has spoken at Mobile World Congress, coached design for several Stanford courses, and designed for the World Bank. Meanwhile, Mollie is a trailblazer in the civic tech space; she co-founded The U.S. Digital Service after serving as a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We weren’t trying to start a thing,” Mollie remembers. She and Sarah instead asked around to see if anyone knew of or wanted to make a job board featuring design gigs for social good. No one did.
“I had enough people who I had talked to about this who texted me later, saying, ‘Have you made that board thing yet? I need a job.’”
“So we just decided to do it.”
150+ jobs and 100s of members later…
Doing “that board thing” has proven to be the right decision. In addition to their great traction, Sarah and Mollie have since expanded from a Google Group to a Twitter that automatically posts each new opportunity in the space. More than a month after Design Gigs for Good’s launch, people continue to randomly reach out to them and say that they were looking for this exact job board. Excitement audible in her voice, Mollie tells me, “it’s really awesome to know that [Design Gigs for Good] is providing this service to people.”
Sarah also notes that, surprisingly, some of the most positive feedback has come from designers who are already employed. They tell her that Design Gigs for Good brings transparency to a historically opaque and fragmented space. Not only can designers have a useful resource for job hunting, but they can also watch the industry grow in real time.
What stops design for social good
I was perplexed. Why are jobs in the design for social impact space so difficult to find? After all, organizations in the industry are always in need, and “design for social good” is a broad term. Mollie and Sarah have defined “social good” on the Design Gigs for Good website as “working toward some kind of world betterment.” “Design,” meanwhile, includes but is not limited to: product design, user research, and user experience work. Although design attempts to make products more accessible for the masses, the field itself is in reality very closed.
Barrier 1: Design is often about who you know.
“There were so many young designers that were leaving school and corporate design jobs who were interested in using their skills to make meaningful impact and so many available opportunities,” Mollie excitedly recalls. She pauses, “but there was no way for people to find them.”
Organizations that are looking for designers often rely on informal social networks — “friend groups, professional groups, or listservs that are very exclusive.” She continues, “People would email me and ask, ‘Hey do you know a designer for this? I’m trying to hire for one.’”
“I was really frustrated at how that was all based on people’s immediate social capital — it didn’t feel very democratic.”
Network-based recruiting can have unintended consequences. “Relying on this word-of-mouth approach to hiring makes it even harder to build diverse companies,” Mollie explains, as people tend to refer people similar to themselves. This is particularly a problem for social impact work. Projects in the space often serve underrepresented populations; therefore diversity and inclusion are “foundational to the success of the work.” Sarah and Mollie are working to address this problem. By crowd-sourcing job opportunities, Design Gigs for Good opens the industry to a more diverse community of designers.
Barrier 2: There is (was!) not a centralized location for design for good job postings.
In early 2017, the two were in between jobs at the same time and exploring other options. They quickly grew frustrated.
“We would find opportunities that were more design-specific and jobs in the social impact space, but not any that combined both,” Sarah remembers.
There are some design boards that focus on a specific industry, Sarah acknowledges. But, designers who don’t know what industry they want to enter are unlikely to find them. If they do, the boards often use industry-specific technical language that make postings inaccessible to designers who haven’t worked in the industry before. For designers just beginning design-for-goodery, this can be a real challenge.
Barrier 3: There is peer pressure to take corporate design jobs.
Similar to the tech scene, designing for social impact represents just a tiny slice of the industry as a whole. Meanwhile, opportunities to design apps or sneakers receive much more attention. Mollie sighs. “There is such a pipeline into that space and there are a lot of role models and conversation about that.”
Sarah and Mollie hope to showcase enough opportunities that making the leap to design-for-goodery becomes more attractive and feasible. With Design Gigs for Good, designers can “visualize what it’s like to use all of their skills in school to do really impactful, meaningful work.”
Barrier 4: Design is often seen as of lower priority for cash-strapped organizations.
Although private sector practices are making their way into the public sector, design continues to struggle. Sarah observes that in organizations with limited resources, “design can be seen as frivolous.”
“Conversations often lead with tech and engineers and then someone realizes that they’ve come up with an idea without it being grounded in understanding of user needs.” – Mollie
They’ve seen progress, however. Whereas Code for America, a non-profit that organizes people to build technology for local governments, was once very tech-focused, human-centered design is now at the core of how they operate (especially with Coding it Forward mentor and friend Erie Meyer helping to lead!). Mollie is hopeful that Code for America’s influence on its local government partners and on other civic tech groups will bring design to the forefront.
Further, the two have seen larger non-profits and other multinational organizations, especially those with innovation or R&D arms, hire designers. Organizations are also beginning to shift away from traditional pilot programs towards human-centered design practices.
“There’s a lot more demand for designers in international development — still nowhere near the scale of like the hiring you see in the private sector — but it’s there.” – Sarah
Tips for those designing for good
While still under the umbrella of the design industry, design-for-goodery requires a completely different set of skills. In an industry that is so hard to navigate, designers must adapt.
Tip 1: Speak the language of the organization.
Sarah advises for designers to learn the vocabulary of the social impact space, whether it’s health care, government, international development, or more. Part of being a designer is “translat[ing] what it is that you’re doing in design into whatever language they understand and reveal what it actually is.”
Sarah also adds that “design may not be the thing that gets you through the door.” Currently, Sarah is volunteering with a refugee resettlement organization, building a professional development curriculum for resettled refugees.
“What I’m doing is design, but they don’t know I’m doing design,” she laughs. As she conducts user research and develops course materials, she laughs,
“It may not be the name that the organization calls it, but they see the value of it.”
Tip 2: When job hunting, research the design team at the organization.
Mollie advises designers to look for “whether or not you’re going to be the first person at that organization doing that work or whether you’re joining a team of like-minded people.” Because there are a lot of new design teams being built out in government and NGOs, designers are often alone, even if the job is a director-level position.
She also adds, “where the team you’re being hired into sits organizationally will really impact the experience that you have.” Depending on if the organization trusts the design team and is open to change, a designer’s job can vary significantly.
Tip 3: Pick an area you’re deeply passionate about.
The path to designing for social good is riddled with myriad obstacles. As such, the two argue that designers in the space must find their passion project — something they’d be willing to take a pay cut for, work longer hours on, and endure more frustration because of it.
Mollie concludes: “find what will make all of it worth it.”
Tip 4: Be ready to evangelize.
“Just because you see a job as as UI/UX designer doesn’t mean that other people who work there will know what that means.”
“Be ready to do a lot of teaching and coaching,” Sarah advises. Designers who are the first in their organizations “have to interface with other departments, higher-ups, and colleagues that might not understand what it is they do.” Relating her experiences in design for international development, Sarah remarks that she has to coach people “about what design is — it’s not exactly making things pretty.”
Tip 5: Be flexible.
“Overwhelmingly, these jobs are jobs where you’re going to be more than just the traditional definition of your discipline,” Mollie warns. She recalls her time at The U.S. Digital Service when designers would be asked to conduct qualitative research and put together event strategies — tasks out of the scope of traditional design. Many had never done this kind of work before and felt out of their element. Mollie advises designers in the social good space to adapt to any organizational structure; even formalized roles and leadership can’t be expected.
How to begin designing
As for students who want to enter the design for social good space, Sarah recommends volunteering for non-profits. It doesn’t work for everyone because people come from different backgrounds, Sarah acknowledges, “but the way that I’ve gotten started and gotten a lot of my portfolio work out there was through pro bono work.” For those who can afford the time, volunteering allows designers to align their portfolios more with where they want to go.
Mollie agrees. “Find an organization that you’re passionate about and offer to volunteer or do an internship with them that is outside of the technical domain that you’ve been working in,” Mollie suggests. These places almost always have no resources dedicated to design, she continues, but they also give beginner designers the flexibility to learn how to design for a wide variety of settings.
Plans for the future
More and more organizations in the social impact space are hiring designers, but there is still a long way to go. Mollie and Sarah hope for Design Gigs for Good to be the central hub for those at the intersection of design and social good.
“The world is certainly not low on problems that need work. Right now, it feels like the most useful things that we can do are share the skillset that we’ve learned and evolve the space to bring more people into it.” – Sarah