Five years ago when I began putting together small-business education for budding social entrepreneurs and creatives at General Assembly, there was a buzz in the air around startups. The journey of a would-be entrepreneur starts with coming up with a great idea, putting together a team of friends and close colleagues, learning a wide variety of new skills and then launching. It's nothing less than exhilarating. I know because I've built two organizations and since 2011, I've been advising startup founders. But what most people don't know, because it's not publicized nearly as much as 30 under 30 lists, is that most startups (and projects) fail. If you Google "why startups fail" you'll actually find hundreds of articles, lists and stories of failure. There are even conferences, blogs and communities like Failfaire, Founders @ Fail: Failure is Fuel, Failcon, The Failure Club, Admitting Failure, Hindsight and my favorite: the International Conference on Engineering Failure Analysis.
So what do startups and failure have to do with social impact design? Everything.
For the past year I've been running 30 Weeks with my co-director Marianne Aerni, a hybrid program—part incubator/part education program—that transforms designers with product ideas into founders of their own companies. 30 Weeks was dreamed up and is funded by the Google Creative Lab in partnership with the creative business school, Hyper Island. Our teaching methodology is based on experiential learning. It's what we call learn by doing. In the case of 30 Weeks, our designers "learn by launching." We are essentially a laboratory for creatives who, as of Day 1, are catapulted into startup land. Many of our designers enter the program with ideas for apps, websites and hardware. About 25% want to design businesses with a social impact focus.
Social impact design starts and ends with design—design thinking, design strategies, etc. not merely fonts and typefaces. The "social impact" part of social impact design results from a designer's desire to create something that will positively affect social change. But if you want to create positive change you will need to ask yourself the same questions that a startup entrepreneur asks herself:
• What problem am I solving?
• Why and for whom?
• Who are my "customers" (the recipients of the work you desire to do) and do they actually see value in what you hope to provide through your project?
• What information have you gained from your research?
• What is your value proposition?
• What work has already been done in your area of focus?
• Is the impact you want to create feasible?
• How much money do you need?
• Where are you going to get it from?
The bottom line is that if you don't have answers to the above questions before you get too far, your chances of succeeding are minimal.
Recently, I gave a talk at the 2016 HarvardxDesign conference. The theme was failure. Instead of the usual lists you often see, I put together a list of the character flaws that lead to failure. These flaws are the very same that apply to designers who are working on social impact projects.
Ignorance - Assume nothing. Do your research!
Arrogance - You might have learned something from another project that you think is applicable to your current way of working. But it's a faulty conclusion. Start with a curious beginner's mind.
Laziness - Social impact projects add a layer of complexity that don't factor into non-impact projects. Don't draw quick conclusions so you can "get on with it." Short cuts almost always end in failed projects.
Impulsivity - Social impact design projects have many moving parts. Making quick decisions will only hurt your project. Begin by talking to people who've worked on similar subjects. Put together a strategy that guides you through the steps you'll have to go through to get to the finish line. Imagine that your project is a labyrinth and your task is to find your way out.
Grandiosity - When it comes to international development projects, there's a lot of pressure to scale quickly in order to create the maximum impact. Funding is hard to come by and as a result, many compromises are made. But shortcuts, more often than not, lead to negative results even with the best intentions. When you're in startup mode I suggest you adopt the philosophy "small is beautiful." You will have a hundred things hitting you at once. Figuring it out as you go along is the default strategy and very far away from a winning one. Soon after you're ready to move forward with your product or service you'll need to spend ample time learning about the community you hope to serve. What are their challenges? The obstacles they face? Why are you the right person to work with them?
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At 30 weeks we embrace failure with one caveat, we want our designers to do it quickly. We've designed our program that is built on the concepts of ideate, validate, iterate. That cycle continues until a designer lands on an idea that we think is actually feasible and financially viable. Our WiFi password is fail fast and our black coffee mugs say in white type "Fail, fail, and fucking fail again" a gift from Jason Bacher, the co-founder of Good Fucking Design Advice.
Check out their manifesto. It's fucking great.
Some print motivation from Good Fucking Design Advice
So here's my advice to you:
Deal with your fear and learn to embrace failure. It's a tremendously valuable teacher.
Realize that working on a project requires hard business skills so take the necessary time to educate yourself. You'll have to create budgets so embrace Excel. When I hear "I don't do numbers" here's what I have to say, "Good luck!"
And finally, Take advantage of OPM (other people's mistakes). Mistakes are inevitable so surround yourself with other social impact designers.
Shana Dressler is the Executive Director of Google's 30 Weeks, an incubator that transforms designers into founders who are equipped with the entrepreneurial skills, knowledge and tech know-how to create products and start impactful companies.
A deeply committed social entrepreneur, Shana is widely recognized as the first person in New York to organize rigorous educational programming for social entrepreneurs and creatives interested in achieving both financial sustainability and measurable impact. Since 2011, when she founded the Social Innovators Collective, she has been creating and leading workshops on funding and business development for social enterprises and nonprofits at General Assembly, the Social Good Summit, and social enterprise conferences at Harvard, Columbia, New York University, Brown, the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and others.