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In the second of this three part discussion on emerging trends in design, I discuss Design for Good, the AIGA initiative to activate design-driven social change with Michelle Ronsen of Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

Academy of Art University interview, part 2 from Doug Powell on Vimeo.

I had a great experience as a judge for the 2010 Sappi Ideas That Matter program last summer. Along with my fellow jurists, Casey Caplowe, Armin Vit, Jessica Helfand and Matt Rollins, I reviewed 170 proposals for design-driven social change ideas vying for grant awards between $5,000-50,000 out of a total pot of $400,000 pledged from Sappi for the North American ITM program. The ideas ranged from simple but impactful communication design concepts like informational materials about a Pit Bull rescue program (submitted by Jessi MacNamara), to wide-ranging global ecology programs like the BP oil spill program undertaken by the Ocean Conservancy (submitted by Imaginary Office). Some of the ideas were, quite frankly, underwhelming, but a staggering number were very strong and our panel struggled mightily to select 27 recipients. Click here to view the 2010 recipient proposals.

The application deadline for the 2011 ITM program is July 15. The application process is remarkably simple and streamlined, hence it’s a great opportunity for designers new to social change space to test the waters. One of the requirements of the program is that designers partner with an established non-profit organization on their proposal.

Here’s a link to a “behind the scenes” video from the 2010 judging, produced by Arvi Raquel-Santos of Weymouth Design.

Tom Fisher, Dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design introduced the half-day Disruptive Effects conference by stating that we are facing “wicked problems that engage multiple stakeholders and will require iterative solutions.” There was a time not long ago when words like these spoken at a design conference would have been considered a bit dramatic. After all, we’re just the ones who make it all look pretty, right? In fact, Fisher was setting up an afternoon of vigorous, inspiring discussions in which designers were being called on to contribute at the highest level of social discourse. Three speakers, including game design guru Jane McGonigal, IBM interaction designer Tom Erickson , and U of M researcher Nora Paul challenged the couple hundred attendees to step out of our comfort zone as we begin to envision this new role for designers.

Jane McGonigal made the most profound case for this by taking us through a simulated game that resulted in a growing list of more than 200 ideas for how a “World Without Oil” might function.

Here’s a clip of Jane McGonigal’s recent presentation at TED:

Below are my—somewhat cryptic—notes from Jane McGonigal’s. For more notes, links, and commentary, check out the very active Twitter hashtag: #disruptfx Read the rest of this entry »

children-holdingkirans-mediumAs societal values continue to evolve, social entrepreneurship has become an increasingly growing business category. Defined as entrepreneurial ventures that have a goal of social change rather than strictly financial gain, I see social entrepreneurship as a close cousin of the emerging area of service design, which I’ve discussed at length on Merge (Continuing the Service Design Conversation, September 4, 2009). It’s easy to spot fundamental design principles in empathic concepts like solar powered trash compactors and needle-free injection devices.

But regardless of whether the primary goal of these businesses is financial gain or not, they still require money—and sometimes in significant amounts—in order to fulfill their vision. So, where does a social entrepreneur go for funding? Well, as the business category grows, and the success stories accumulate, the funding community is beginning to pay attention. Last spring, BusinessWeek.com ran a series of articles on social entrepreneurship which included this overview of angels, venture capitalists and foundations that specialize in this area. Included on the list are: Acumen Fund, Commons Capital, Investors’ Circle, and others.

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Additionally, BW.com has an ongoing series of profiles of 28 of America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs featured in this slideshow. More recently, the site ran an update on one of the stories from the original 28: D.Light Design which pledges to commercialize and sell solar-powered LED lamps to those living on less than $5 a day in Africa and Southwest Asia, a safer, cheaper option than the more common kerosene. D.Light Design recently secured $6 million in venture funding.

Picture 16Recently I was asked whether the focus of Merge is strictly on capitalistic entrepreneurship, or whether I view social entrepreneurship through the same lens. A look back at my posts on the work of Participle, The Better Project, Firebelly Design and others provide the answer to this question: I see very little distinction between these two categories. Both require designers to dramatically alter the way they do business, both require not just a brilliant idea but also careful planning, and both require money—whether the desired outcome is financial gain or purely social change.

On the “social change” side of things, Project M has popped up a few times in my Merge posts, and I have been meaning to contact M founder John Bielenberg to write a proper piece on this groundbreaking concept (Steven Heller interviewed John recently for AIGA Voice). I’ve had a fascination with Project M—the purpose of which is to inspire designers, film makers and artists to use their talent and creativity for the greater good of the world—since I first heard about it when John and I were on the AIGA board together five years ago. At that time Project M was just launching and I still remember the palpable sense of “holy shit, I can’t believe I’m really doing this…” in John’s voice as he talked about his vision. That quality of danger and even recklessness is integral to Project M and is borne out in the results of recent sessions: last year’s Iceland Design Blitz, and Buy A Meter from 2007.

Now I see that Project M will be partnering with Winterhouse this summer on a two-week program bringing twelve individuals together to create a design project of lasting value for a rural community (Project M has always had this intriguing element of reality television to it). Winterhouse is, of course, the design practice of Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand (who also serve as editors of a fairly well-known design blog, among various other endeavors). The Winterhouse Institute, established by the couple to focus on non-profit, self-initiated projects that support design education and social and political initiatives, recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop social impact programming across the design industry.

(Yes, you read that right…$1.5 million. More on that to come)

Despite having missions that seem to point in generally the same direction, I see a tension between the edgy, rebellious Project M and the stately, academic Winterhouse. I’m hopeful that this tension will make for exciting results this August. Regardless of the outcome, though, it’s undeniable that the partnership of Project M and Winterhouse brings together some of the truly progressive entrepreneurial thinkers in the design world.

Applications are due June 15 for the Project M/Winterhouse program, which will be held August 15-30 in Falls Village, Connecticut (do you think they’ll need an audition tape too, like Amazing Race?).

Here’s a clip of the Project M Iceland Design Blitz from 2008 in which participants express the double meaning of the Icelandic word ”ÓRÓI which has the double meaning of disturbance and wind chime or mobile:

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