This is the third in three installments of an in-depth look at the future of design education… the designer as social entrepreneur.
The idea of being an entrepreneur for many causes anxiety when faced with the realities of affording health insurance, generating enough income, and saving for retirement. Others see it as a means to achieve personal and professional dreams without having to answer to anyone in management. Add the adjective “social” in front of entrepreneur and the fuzziness of success increases. A social entrepreneur focuses on promoting social good through entrepreneurial activities, however the idea of profit isn’t necessarily economic, but instead human capital. This is a challenge for anyone to overcome, let alone an undergraduate design student. It is increasingly clear that the global economic and environmental obstacles humanity faces requires these important discussions in the classroom and consequent actions outside.
The third project of my EDGE course asked every student to use the experiences from the first two assignments to serve as catalyst in creating a social entrepreneurial venture in just four short weeks. The deliverables for the project included not only a visual proposal but also a clear business plan. The second project (building the design studio of the 21st century) also included a business plan as an outcome, so it was hoped that the second time around would prove to be easier and more fruitful for the design student.
To begin the third project, the students asked themselves “what does the world need that I can best provide?” and “what should I do for the world?” They also dove into reading “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition” by Martin and Osberg. These initial prompts filtered into an in-class discussion about core thematic concepts and draft project proposals. Conversation was slow at first and somewhat unexpectedly the project outcomes and details were vague and unpolished. After reflection, Social Entrepreneurship, despite the assigned reading, still seemed too foreign of a topic to the majority of the class. The reading, lecture, and discussions over a week period were not enough to build a strong enough foundation for further investigation.
In past experiences teaching content-rich design studios; my teaching style is more effective when it takes a more organic form. As difficult concepts are presented in lectures or within readings, my expectations of student comprehension are, at times, overblown and backtracking and reframing of themes are necessary. As I have taught difficult issues like sustainability to design students prior to exploring Social Entrepreneurship, my flexible course planning allowed me to rethink class investigation on the “fly”. As student comprehension seemed lacking, I included the watching of portions of the PBS “New Heroes” series to help provide more inspiration and guidance for the design students. The TV series aided in creating many more solid entrepreneurial concepts. The ideas, however, were still very broad and needed significantly more focus. For example, one student decided he was passionate about American politics and wanted to engage in an entrepreneurial venture to fundamentally change how lobbyists function in Washington DC. As important as his challenge was, it was too large of a topic to take on in a four-week schedule. Instead, we discussed focusing on a particular element of lobbying that was exploiting the public and how more awareness could be generated and in what media formats. What skills did he possess that he could utilize to help launch this project? How could he create awareness about this topic that he could sustain? How, if money was necessary to move this project forward, could he support the project in the next few months and beyond? It was determined his skill-set as a designer was primarily more web-focused, so creating an online awareness tool that linked to web petitions and provided current news was the right option. As money was important for hosting costs and working with technologists was necessary as the site grew, he began a business plan that included the possibility as forming a PAC to seek online donations and grant funding.
Three strong outcomes from this project were successful because each student was passionate about the chosen topic and lived those values in their daily lives.
Graphic Design Junior Annaka Olsen, a designer passionate about local foods, developed an online tool called Farmer’s Harvest that allows anyone with internet access to find farmer’s markets near their homes. Aware of similar sites, she found what was needed to set hers apart was a more clear, organized, and memorable design and identity. The site not includes a means to locate a farmer’s market near them, but also provides listings of produce that are in season depending on the month. This feature promotes a more healthy macrobiotic diet that is better for our health and the planet. Annaka hoped to also cut carbon emissions caused by the shipping of food by promoting local food consumption through the search tool on her site.
Nicole Hammonds, a junior in Graphic Design, is an ardent fan of building tasty and nutritious sandwiches with hopes of one day being an important philanthropist. Combining these two passions led her to develop a business plan for a walk-in deli called Pocket. Pocket sells grilled organic pocket sandwiches in which twenty cents from the sale can be directed towards a humanitarian or environmental charity of the consumer’s choice (malnutrition, world crisis, and cancer research). Similar to the success of Buffalo Exchange (resale clothing store) and Tom’s Shoes, after a purchase, the hungry customer can select a pocket on the wall to place their donation. It’s a win-win situation, where not only are the masses fed a balanced meal in the restaurant, but also halfway around the world.
Vinay Srinivasan, a recent design graduate of the University of Illinois, focused his social entrepreneurial venture on a family project that hopes to help educate rural Indian children (ages 8-11) about themselves and the world. Entitled Project Karna, after the pious Indian warrior who fought against misfortune, the educational program focuses on a different topic every year. In the first version, Vinay and his cousins have proposed games and visual activities that help provide basic health information about bathing, brushing one’s teeth, and washing hands. Each one of the lessons is broken up into three weeks of daily 45-minute workshops. Each week features a different topic and each day features new activities to reinforce the learning process. They have already made inroads to different schools and communities in India through family members and seem to be already off to an amazing start.
The project itself, as explained in post-semester student evaluations, truly opened the students’ eyes to other professional possibilities that exist for the designer. The topic of Social Entrepreneurship was a large subject which took longer than expected to unravel and grasp, however one that the students were inspired by. The time length of four weeks wasn’t long enough to get the results both my students’ and myself expected, but it is possible that with a different framework of concept introduction prior, the project time length could work. What was clearly evident as student ideas progressed in this third assignment was that it is vital before anyone considers being a social entrepreneur; to be 100% passionate about the topic they pursue and feel truly competent in the skills needed to make this happen. Not everyone can execute a good idea, however the designer has the ability to see a project through from beginning to end without much outside collaboration. This is why, again, I find the designer to be in a perfect position to branch out of strictly service-related jobs to create positive change as a social entrepreneur.
Social Entrepreneurship is a topic that must be discussed in the design curriculum. It provides not only practical business skills for the student, but also philosophical and conceptual learning opportunities vital to the growth of themselves as citizens and human beings. As the world continually faces huge systemic issues (climate change, poverty, war, racism, etc.), designers like doctors, lawyers, and engineers will all need to play a vital role in solving our wicked problems to create a sustainable future.