Ramsey Ford On Inclusive Social Design To Create Sustainable Change In Communities


Ramsey Ford has practiced design from seemingly every perspective: as an award-winning product designer, a design professor, a maker and an entrepreneur.

His design background gave him a unique perspective for solving complex problems and his passion for social justice inspired his Masters thesis on what designers could learn from community organising. This intersection of design and social justice was the start of Design Impact’s founding idea of embedded design – deeply engaging design as a change process in organisations and communities.

Ramsey continues to advance the conversation on inclusive design through workshops and speaking engagements such as the Public Interest Design Institute, IDSA International, and Unite for Sight Global Health and Innovation Conference. Ramsey regularly shares his perspective on social design through outlets like Design Observer, FastCompany, Innovations and Product Design Hub. His work has also been published in the Public Interest Design Practice Guidebook and Leap Dialogues.


Ramsey discusses the challenges involved when using social design to tackle issues in organisations and communities, as well as providing broader insights into social innovation and designers as change agents.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to a career specialising in design and social innovation? [2:27]

[Ramsey Ford] - My design background is industrial design. I studied at the University of Cincinnati, and then practised as an industrial designer for several years. Throughout that entire process, I'd always been interested in what design can do to create a positive impact in the world, and really, when I was a young designer, just didn't have the capacity or the wisdom to understand how to really apply design to those contexts. I did volunteering and a lot of different kinds of work, but never really was able to find that key way of getting in there.

After practising  for a few years, I went back and got a Master's degree. I studied the intersection of community organising and human-centred design, and paralleled the processes, and tried to understand where the two could leverage each other to create more sustainable in communities. Based on that work, with my partner Kate Hanisian, we co-founded Design Impact, which is really doing just that.

As design director of Design Impact, what sort of projects are you involved then, and how are these projects creating positive social change? [3:43]

The past year, I've been working on a half-dozen projects, but I would say there have been two really large ones that have taken a lot of time. One of them's in the city of Columbus, Ohio. I'm working with the United Way of Central Ohio on building a financial capability network. Basically, the idea is that they've got a number of organisations that provide financial services, credit scores, and strategies for savings and retaining wealth for low to moderate-income individuals, but they weren't working in collaboration. There's a lot of gaps of service, very different standards across, so we worked with a lot of those different organisations to bring users into a process of understanding what the real needs in the community were, and then convening organisational leaders together to start to identify and generate a network so they could actually work together moving forward. That was one of the key processes that I've been working on this year.

Then the other one was with Jobs and Family Services, which is a major government-sponsored social service agency in the United States around Dayton, Ohio, which is where we're headquartered. In that process, what we were doing was applying the design process with front-line staff to increase staff understanding of the agency overall. It's a 1,000 person agency that serves about 500,000 people a year in the region. To get staff to collaborate better both vertically and horizontally to provide better customer service and thus outcomes. We're in the second year of a programme there that takes about 75 staff at a time and has them go through a human-centred design process as a form of improving customer service and developing them as leaders.

Both those projects take up a lot of my time, but outside of that, I'm helping run the organisation. We're an 11 full-time staff organisation that's pretty consistently working on about eight different major projects, really just supporting other team members on the work they're doing as well.

They sound like some really interesting projects, Ramsey. What do you believe are the fundamental ingredients, that are necessary when designing alongside these communities to ensure that the outcomes that you create produce positive social impact? [6:11]

The core thing is really just running an inclusive process, so looking for every and all opportunity to involve your core user.

For us, a lot of times that's either a community member, or community members representing whoever actually lives within a geographic space that we're working, or within an organisation, it's a cross-section of staff, so often focusing on the voices that aren't normally at the table, bringing them really closely into a process. For us, we're looking at whether it's improving outcomes in a community, or improving access in a community, or doing the same thing with an organisation, we feel like the essential ingredient is to have that community-level or front line-level organisational people in as part of the conversation.

There's a lot of other things that come around and really help us do that, but...

if we don't have buy-in in that space, then we're really not going to create sustainable change within communities and organisations.

Yeah, absolutely. Are there any particular processes, tools, or methodologies that you commonly use throughout these projects? [7:37]

Yeah. Our overall methodology is based on a human-centred design process, where you're doing framing, discovery, synthesis, ideation, piloting, and implementation in that sort of space. We also borrow really heavily from leadership development principles, so the idea of really getting individuals to see how they relate to whole organisations or communities, getting people to work more effectively in teams, and then communicate with each other across differences. We take this human-centred design, leadership development. We sprinkle in when necessary various concepts from organisational change or adaptive leadership, various things from the entrepreneurial space like lean startup, and put together approaches that really fit what the community organisational needs are. We're pulling a lot of tools and methodologies from all those different areas to really make change happen.

I imagine there could be various reasons why projects could fail, or common reasons why these types of projects fail. One, I would assume, would be if the community then doesn't take ownership, but have you seen any other really common reasons? [8:57]

Yeah. A lot of times, projects fail, or programmes, or campaigns fail for lots of different reasons. A really key one, though, is leadership. It's buy-in. As much as we talk about bringing the community to have a seat at the table of making those decisions, if leaders aren't bought into that process, if they're not bought into the idea of a change process in general, or just paying lip service to the idea that their organisation needs to change the way it works, or that new ways of thinking about community organising need to occur, then projects fail.

If they don't have that buy-in, if they don't have that decision-maker really supporting the process and investing in it, there's no way they move forward.

That's been really hard learning for us over the years, is trying to understand when we have that and when we don't, because the success or failure of our projects and programmes really hinges directly upon that. It is a hard thing, I think, sometimes to tell on the front end, because you don't know the politics of a space, going in often, unless you do a lot of groundwork and research specifically on that.

Yeah, absolutely. If you were to be working with a government, for example, how might they most effectively communities in order to tackle complex issues? [10:28]

I think a lot of times what we see when we talk to community organisations up to local governments... We have not done work with government outside of a city or county level. I'll be speaking from a local, regional perspective rather than a state, national perspective. But a lot of times, there's a lot of mechanisms that governments use to speak directly with citizens, and a lot of them aren't very creative or engaging. They don't necessarily make it easy for people to give their perspectives. There may be a lot of invisible barriers that aren't necessarily perceived by anyone that keeps people from coming and being a part of those spaces. You're thinking about government feedback loops on development projects and things like that.

A lot of what we're doing within that space is finding, what are the ways that we can take these questions and decision-making contexts out of the spaces that they are in and take them more directly to community members? Whether that's setting up at a public festival or in a park, or taking things to a barber shop or to a library, we're breaking it out into more accessible spaces. Then, once we're in those spaces and once we have people that are engaging and talking to us, making those spaces active so they're not just a passive listen and then come to a microphone and give a response, but they're conversational, and there's a bubbling up of opinions that can emerge from small group conversation. A lot of what we suggest is really breaking up that work, taking it to people, and making it more creative.


You've worked in this field for a little while now, Ramsey. How have you seen this design and social innovation sector transform and change over the last five years or so, and where do you see it heading? [12:24]

It's still a nascent space. It's still an emerging space. It doesn't have a time defined in it, but it's been growing a lot. I remember back, a lot of the focus I think originally in this space was on an international development perspective. I don't know exactly why that was. For us specifically, it was because of the product design background that I had, and thinking about developing enterprise solutions based on physical, tangible products. I think with the emergence of design strategies, service design over the past decade plus, you've seen social design move in those directions, and a lot of that is space that's really appropriate for working on complex problems.

This idea of using design thinking, doing deep design research, applying design on a strategic level, designing things that aren't material but they are actually policies, programmes, services, positions, has emerged as a space.

That's really opened up this social design field to whole new opportunities of engagement.

You're seeing the design field itself mature into these more complex spaces, but then you're also seeing some acceptance in larger institutions, funding spaces, the government space specifically, especially under the Obama administration, around engaging designers and offices of innovation.

You're seeing that even at municipal levels, usually from a data perspective, but it's still right next to a design perspective on innovation.

I think there's a lot more opportunity than there was before. There's a lot more awareness. A lot of the work that we used to do was just making people aware of what we're even talking about when we talk about social design.

Now there's a lot more understanding that even as a social sector practitioner, design thinking or human-centred design has a lot to offer. I do feel like there's a lot less barriers for designers coming into this space now.

There's still not an abundance of positions relative to interest. It's still a very tight space with unclear career pathways.

For the designers out there who are becoming or who are budding social entrepreneurs, wanting to get something out there into the world that's going to create some positive impact, what advice would you give to them, those who are really keen on starting a purpose-driven enterprise? [15:10]

I think it's sometimes a hard thing for young people to hear in this position, because a lot of them are upwardly socially mobile. They're in this generation where if you're ambitious, you have to be ready to move from city to city, but I do think the quickest way to find entry into this space is to really establish a sense of place where you are. Because there's not a lot of straight career paths where you can say, "I'm going to go get a job at Design Impact," because the reality is there's only a dozen organisations like ours in the United States. There's a couple hundred positions that are available, and then the entry-level positions aren't really existing in some of the larger institutions. [So designers should] really develop a localised understanding.

When you understand the local context, local politics, when you start showing up with that understanding and with that expertise, you can start to build relationships. It's really about building those relationships and that understanding, which will give you opportunity to apply a design skill set within the context.

Some of those first opportunities may be free opportunities. They may be voluntary opportunities, but if you can establish that you understand and that you're going to consistently show up, and that you're going to be an authentic relationship, then you will have a lot more opportunities to actually do that work with those partners, because they're not going to bring you in as an outsider, and it's not like there's a lot of jobs being posted in this space for people with less than eight years of experience.


Are there any countries, Ramsey, that you believe are really leading the change when it comes to social design and innovation? If so, what are they doing that you think that other countries could adopt? [17:19]

At least in the U.S., we point to the Scandinavian countries for being just ahead of the curve generally with their public institutions and how they treat their citizens as humans.

When I think about social innovation, and where we really have to go, and where we butt our heads up against it in the U.S., so many things that we're working against are established policies of our federal and state governments, which mainly aren't meant to harm, but often create lots of barriers to success both individually and for whole communities.

I believe that there's a lot of things that those Scandinavian countries, and granted they're very different... you can't compare them one to one with the United States, but I do think that they have a lot of policies in place that are way more progressive and to a certain degree innovative in terms of actually delivering more equity into a society.

That's some great insights. What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating some great social change, whether it be locally or nationally? [18:26]

Lately this year, I've been really thinking about social change, and social design, and innovation, and thinking about this concept of collaboration.

What's helping create social change is when people, whether they're within a specific community or in an entire region, are figuring out how to work together.

To me, it's a really innovative space because it's not necessarily how our social spaces have been built over the past few generations, this idea of looking across sector to collaborate, looking to share information, and live in a relatively non-directly competitive space together.

I'm usually inspired by people doing that. Today I was just in Columbus, Ohio, just to do a learning trip, where I went up with a group of people mainly for Cincinnati Children's Hospital to visit the work that's being done by Nationwide Children's Hospital in the Columbus region. I was really impressed with the work they're doing. They've been working really intently with communities. They have a couple of really close community partnerships with community-based organisations. They've got partnerships with some other funders like Chase Bank. They have partnerships with the city of Columbus or the metro government. All of those different players are coming together to invest in some fair housing policies and investments in this specific south side neighbourhood.

I didn't see the before and after, and they're still in process, but it's one of those really intentional processes that's put together over years and decades with public sector, private sector, social sector partners coming together with community closely there aligned to really improve outcomes within a specific community. I found it really inspiring. It was really neat work. It's work that has flaws. It's work that could be done better.

It's work that has a long way to go, but it is the kind of work that I feel when we talk about community change or social innovation, that's what I think it looks like. I think it looks like collaboration. I think it looks like people thinking creatively about how they can work together.

Yeah, fantastic. It sounds like a really inspiring project, and very grassroots-driven, which is fantastic.

Yeah. It was really neat just to ... Granted, I had a voyeur's one-day pass to check it out. There's always devils in the details, but I was really impressed with it today.

To finish off then, Ramsey, what books would you recommend to our listeners? [21:18]

So many books. If someone's in design school and is just interested in this, two books that really touched this off for me. One was Victor Papanek's Design for the Real World. Really outdated in awful ways, but really inspiring. It resonated with me deeply as an industrial designer specifically.

Then William McDonough's Cradle to Cradle, around just this vision of possibility, and specifically within a sustainability space. His perspective on, "We can create change. Change is possible," is really powerful. For young designers, I recommend those.

Then for me, what I've been reading about, some influential books, are just other change processes.

What always scares me is when you've got people who are design thinkers or human-centred designers and are really such strong adherents to the process that they think everything, every problem is a design thinking problem that needs to be hit with a design thinking hammer.

For me, I think reading about other change processes, reading books on adaptive leadership, on lean startup, on social labs they're related processes but I think as a designer they'll seem accessible, they'll make sense, but then just picking them up and trying to understand, when does it make more sense to run a lean startup model for prototyping versus a traditional human-centred design model for prototyping. When does it make sense for us not to necessarily run a brainstorm but actually sit down and have a knee-to-knee conversation using more of a World Café model?

There's lots of different models out there for change, and I think when we think of ourselves not necessarily as social designers but as change agents with communities, it's helpful to have a broader toolkit to pull from.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


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