Durell Coleman On How To Measure Impact & Create Positive Social Change With Human Centred Design


Founder and CEO Durell Coleman established DC Design to solve ambitiously big problems in the world. Focusing on societal challenges such as poverty, human health, access to opportunity, and environmental degradation, DC Design is a mission-driven, for-profit company that works collaboratively with marginalised communities and private, public, and non-profit sectors to affect change.

Durell started DC Design in 2012. And as a Stanford graduate, he has infused his knowledge of design into the company’s DNA. Durell uses these skills to create products, services, and strategies that are changing the world for global nonprofits, Fortune 100 companies, and the world’s best educational institutions.


Durell Coleman shares some of the positive social impact being created through his consultancy DC Design, whilst exploring how to use human centred design and the design thinking process to create exciting and meaningful impact. 


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

[Rachel Stevens] - You have quite a history working with socially conscious and socially driven projects. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you found yourself following this path of social entrepreneurship? [2:38]

[Durell Coleman] - Sure, absolutely. I think for me to tell that story, I have to start at the beginning, which is when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I told my Mum what I wanted to be when I grew up. She said, 'what do you want to be?' I said, 'I want to be an inventor.' She said, 'how are you going to make money?' I said, 'I'm going to have my own company that makes things and sells them.' But the very next year tragedy struck my family. My brother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and I think that experience of seeing him diagnosed with cancer, go into remission, come out of remission, fight that, and then pass away when he was 14... that whole experience and, and how it impacted me, really opened my eyes to the challenges that we face as a society. The things that don't work as well as we say that they should work, or where the story book ending doesn't work the way that it does on TV. So I really began to focus my efforts on, 'how do I create things that improve quality of life, how do I create things that, to me, feel like they have meaning?' And that led me down this path, towards, social entrepreneurship and learning more about human centred design as a process that would aid in that in that approach.


I can really see from your history and from your past why that's such an important thing for you to be able to create such impact. You're the founder and CEO of DC Design, which is part consultancy, part educational organisation, aimed at solving ambiguous problems in the world. Could you please explain for our listeners more about what you and your team are doing there and what are some of the big drivers of this passion you so clearly have for social impact? [3:59]

Absolutely, So we're a design firm that creates strategies, products and services to address social challenges. Essentially, we're looking at the things that keep people from rising, keep people from accomplishing what they want to accomplish in life, and often we're doing that by looking at the needs of those who've been left out of the current system; people who haven't been designed for. So a lot of our focus is around issues that relate to criminal justice reform for example, foster care, education, healthcare. All of these are issues where there is a population that has been not designed for and who doesn't experience positive benefits when interacting with those systems. So we look at how we can use the design process to redesign those systems or redesign the things that come out of the system so that people have a better chance to succeed in life.

I'd love to hear a little bit more about some of the specific projects that you guys have been working on a DC Design in recent years as well... [5:19]

Definitely. One is a big project on criminal justice reform. We're working with a government in California and looking at their criminal justice system, thinking about how they prepare for the next three years, as they approach helping people transition from being in jail to being out of jail. So we're looking at jail re-entry and the way that we're doing that is really, I think, where our impacts come in or where our process comes in, and that is by talking with all the stakeholders in the county and looking at what is necessary in order to fill the gaps that currently exist. So if you really think about it, people go to jail right now, and it's not really a system of restoration, its not a system of rehabilitation or redemption in any way.  It's actually just a system of punishment. So someone goes to jail, they're in jail for six months or they're in jail for three years, they come out six months or three years behind where they were before. Most often when someone goes to jail, they've committed a crime and most often that crime is the result of some set of environmental factors or or some other circumstances that they have lived within. What we're looking at, is how do you address those environmental circumstantial factors so the people have the opportunity to make different decisions down the line. Another project that we worked on recently, was in the foster care space. We hosted the Hack Foster Care Summit and that was really focused on, again, addressing these underlying challenges that keep foster youth from succeeding the way that they would want to live.

You've been getting some fantastic recognition for your program Design The Future, which is an intensive program for high school students who work to design solutions to real world problems faced by individuals with physical disabilities. For you, what brought about this idea of bringing design thinking into the high school education system and what do you see as some of the biggest benefits, for those involved? [7:04]

Much of what we do is about helping people see the things that they couldn't see before. Helping people see the challenges that exist in our society and what can be done about those. Living in Silicon Valley, I had the opportunity to be exposed to tonnes and tonnes of young people in their teens and into their adult years who had a real ambition for affecting change in the world. They looked at these social challenges, the problems that I've just talked about, and many others, and thought what can I do about this? But when they looked around, they didn't have a lot of examples of how they go from having an idea to really creating an impact on society. So when we were thinking about how we can make an impact on their lives and create educational experiences that would really start to tip the scales towards saying there are social issues that you can address right now, and you can begin to make an impact on real people's lives. Design The Future was born out of that. I also thought back to experiences that I've had designing for an individual with a physical disability. One of the big realisations for me, from that experience, was that there are always these friction points, even though many aspects of one's life might be designed well. For this gentleman, we were designing a below the knee prosthetic that would help him get in and out of the shower. Every other aspect of his life was seemingly covered. But there was this friction point that still existed when he had the transition between one device and another. What I ultimately realised in that process, was that there are these friction points that we can address that begin to help people do the things that they really want to do in life.

Something I've heard you speak about before, is that it can be really hard, particularly for young people, to find an avenue to see where they can create their own impact as well and to feel like they can make that difference. So I think that will be something really inspiring about the Design The Future program for those teenagers to be able to see the direct impact that they're having. [9:18]

Absolutely. The first aspect of it was how can you see yourself as a part of the story of addressing these issues. The second, is that we want to take students from, you can change the world, which is something that we tell high school students all around the world, to here's how you do that. That one week experience in which high school students go from, 'I've never created anything before' (or maybe some of them have been the heads of their robotics teams in high school), but they go from, 'I've never created something for someone else before,' to 'I've come to understand what that challenge is by meeting a real person who's my project partner, and learning more about the challenges that they face specifically,' to coming up with ideas for them, checking in, constantly recognising that they don't have all the answers, and then instead of stopping there at the lessons learned phase, we say, 'well, now you're going to make it, now you're going to build this thing that you verified with your partner is real.' And so we go from being classroom teachers or guides, to being shop TA's in many ways, teaching people how to actually develop a product into something that someone can take home with them at the end of the program that will improve their life.


That's really exciting. At the Hack Foster Care Summit, you mentioned earlier, you guys had to lead over 300 people towards designing solutions for real world problems within the foster care system. As I understand, that wasn't a field you'd ever worked in before, nor had DC Design run something on such a big scale before. How did you guys go about tackling such a complex topic on such a big scale? [10:52]

One of the things that we really think about and emphasise in the design process, is that no one is an expert in everything.

No one has all the answers in any one area and in fact we actually think it's a detriment to believe that you are fully the expert on any one area.

Of course you can have tonnes of knowledge about that, whether it's foster care or criminal justice or climate change, but to imagine that we have all the answers, is to sort of disadvantage ourselves in actually addressing the actual issues. So we take that approach and we looked at the Hack Foster Care Summit and we said, 'this is not a space that you've ever been in.' So it's not a challenge that we've ever worked on, but we do have a skill set that we know we can use for the benefit of others. And in that skillset, one of the things that we're constantly saying is, 'we are not the expert necessarily, but someone else is.' We embrace a concept called co-design where it really comes down to those who have lived with a given challenge; they are the experts on what it's like for them to go through that challenge, that issue. But what we do, is we come into this with a set of design perspectives and a design philosophy, a framework that can help take those experiences that other people have had and turn those into ideas and prototypes that can actually be tested out in the real world and acted on. So that was one of the big mindset pieces that we had to put in place in order to run the Hack Foster Care Summit. It was a really exciting experience.

I understand why co-design is so important, because you need so many different perspectives, so many different backgrounds, so many experiences to gain one holistic and appropriate solution. So it makes a lot of sense. I understand that human centred design and the design thinking process, are both really at the heart of who and what DC Design is. It's also a big part of all your workshops and teachings. Since you've worked with such a broad spectrum of organisations; for profit, non-profit, governmental and it goes on, how do you see these tools utilised differently within such a range of organisations? [12:46]

I think it really comes down to what an organisation needs more than the sector that they're in. So there are organisations that are directly serving end users, and in those instances a lot of the work that we do is around helping them better understand the needs of those end users specifically.

What are the things that the people they're trying to serve are thinking or feeling? What are the solutions that those people have already come up with? What are the pain points that haven't really been highlighted? What are the different ways of framing those pain points so that we can actually take action on them?

There are other organisations though that are one step removed from that, and they’re more on a systems level, and in those instances we actually do a merger of using human centred design and a concept called systems thinking, where we start to map out ecosystems and we look at the system as a whole.

Who are the different stakeholders that come into play that can influence whether something that you put forward, some sort of solution or idea will succeed or will fail?

A lot of times what we find is that the thing that keeps an idea from succeeding is that we haven't fully included the people who had the ability to help it succeed or make it fail, and so we make sure that we identify those things with organisations as well.

That's a good approach to deal with such a diverse group of problems and organisations. In your experience from working in areas like health, the justice system, disability design, education list goes on. When you think back on the projects you worked on, what are some of the main challenges you typically experience and how do you work around them? [14:40]

First and foremost, all of these problems are social problems, which ultimately means that it comes down to how people relate to one another. That is both true in how we've designed the systems themselves to affect people, but it's also true about those who are working within the system, those who work within one given organisation, try to work together with competing ideas for what should be done next.

One of the big challenges that we face is getting various stakeholders aligned and believing in the same process.

The way that we do that is by speaking with a large swath of them; people from various perspectives and try to find the underlying points of connection between their viewpoints. That's a tactic that we use both for addressing the challenges specifically, so issues that someone who's been to jail is facing and trying to get back on their feet, but also we use that process to address conflict between teams. We've seen team conflicts arise often as a result of this process and it's our job to come in and help mitigate that as well.

You're involved with the business and social entrepreneurial world. I'd be really curious to hear what other local or global initiatives you've come across that you think are tackling these really wicked design problems and providing sustainable social or environmental benefits. [16:12]

There are quite a few. One of the things that we face as an organisation, is we're constantly evaluating how we think this process should go. Who do we think is doing this work well? It's sort of an ongoing question for us; who are the organisations that we feel most aligned with on the global scene that are doing this sort of work? A lot of times what it seems to come down to, is that there are initiatives within an organisation that do follow these practices and then there are others that don't seem to. That's my best answer to that question.

On the topic of organisations creating positive social impact, I think one of the hardest things to do is to measure that impact. Do you have any strategies that you think is the best way to measure the social impact of your own business or of another growing business as well? [17:10]

There are few ways that we think about measuring impact. One is always to go for hard numbers where possible. Before starting any project, really thinking, 'what are the numbers that we're trying to affect and change?' What are the things that we're going to measure?

Sometimes that means that in the midst of creating a project, we actually discovered that we need to redefine what the tools for assessment are. So a recent example of that is on this criminal justice project; really looking at how recidivism is defined, how do we define people going back to jail? Is that really the measure of success or are there other measures as well around increases in housing stability, length of time between relapsing when using drugs, things like that, that can be measured as indicators of success. So that's definitely one aspect of it. The other aspect of it is something that we call uncommon measures. Uncommon measures are looking at the things that you don't typically measure as indicators of increased success in a certain area. A lot of times these are qualitative measures, which is one of the challenges between them, but there are often numbers that can be applied to them too. One example might be thinking about education. For example, if there's someone who is looking to redesign how their school culture functions, they want to change how students view themselves and their school, they want to help students see themselves as leaders and have a greater voice and impacts. An uncommon measure of that might be seeing students argue in the hallway about ideas when they weren't doing that before. Or more students participating in class overall might be an uncommon measure of success in those areas.

We're constantly thinking about how do we define both the quantitative measures that are more traditional as well as the qualitative measures that we often take for granted.


I think it's important to have both as well. Very good tactics for measuring impact I think. So since the beginning of DC Design, you've no doubt seen a lot of growth and I'm sure you've had to learn a lot and use a lot of different strategies along the way. Are there any particular business or design tools that have proven to be really invaluable in the development of the daily running of your business? [19:27]

There are a few. One thing that is particular to our business, I think, is becoming more and more true though of businesses as we move forward in time, is that we are a largely distributed team. We work remotely a lot. We come together whenever we're doing major strategy sessions, working on something for a specific client or when we're meeting with that client specifically. So we have these really intense periods where we're together but we have a lot of times when we're apart and so for us really early on and even through to now, the Google suite and Google drive and other software in that family have been really helpful for keeping us all on the same page. Allowing us to co edit documents together and work on things from a distance. We use a lot of Illustrator and sometimes Photoshop in our work as well as we layout frameworks or different designs overall, because a lot of our work is helping a client see the things in a different way than they may have seen them before. So that means taking abstract information and making it into a visual of some sort. Mapping out an ecosystem means actually putting it on paper so you can see where all the linkages are between your organisation and another. And then we also have different tools that we use depending on the type of project we're working on. We are a solution agnostic firm. We're not interested in necessarily just being a product firm, or a services firm, our or a strategy firm. We're interested in saying, 'what is the thing that needs to be done to address the challenge at hand?' So if we're developing an App, for example, we might use Just In Mind to map out how the wire frames work. It really just depends on the type of project that we're working on.

So what advice would you give to the budding social innovators or even those who are currently within a large organisation listening, who have an idea but need to take action to expand or create the greatest impact? [21:33]

First thing I would say is that you absolutely can begin to make an impact on the vast majority of problems and challenges in the world. From human trafficking to climate change, there are ways to get involved in these issues. I think a lot of times just knowing that that's possible is one of the biggest hurdles. The second would be that every major impact, or almost every major impact, starts off small before it's big.

If you really look at impactful organisations, usually what they do is they do a series of small impacts really well, over and over again.

They might scale it up to thousands of people or millions of people, but ultimately they are delivering water to one person repeatedly so that all sorts of people end up with water.

I would encourage anyone who's really thinking about getting into the space of social impact to think about the smallest version of an action that you can take on the issue that you're interested in addressing, and began from there.

The other thing is that we actually have an online course that we've just launched right now. It's in Beta and we're working with past students that we've worked with help them go from idea to impact. It's part of our Design The Future program. For anyone who's interested in learning more of these skills, and being walked through that process and a five-week online program, you can sign up on our website to learn more about that.

To finish off could you please a few great books that you think would inspire our listeners? [23:39]

One thing that I really believe in, is that social impact is part of a larger ecosystem. Sometimes we like to separate ourselves off and only focus on books for example, that would teach us about social impact. But I think books about business, books about life, books about who we are as people, are some of the most inspiring to me, to really understand how to do the work that I do better. And so a few come to mind. One of my favourite books is The Alchemist. I just love the aspirational and inspirational tone of the book, as well as the bit of magical realism to it. So that's definitely one I would check out. Another one that I'm currently revisiting, is the Greatest Salesman in the World, which sounds a little bit aggressive as a title, but it's actually more of a book on how we overcome challenges whenever things aren't easy. So I think that's a really great book too. Good to Great is a really good book, another business book, but it really helps to highlight some of the characteristics of creating impact that exceeds beyond the expectations of those that are around us. And then one more book that I might throw in, would be another strategy book, Blue Ocean Strategy. It really looks at how you go from competing with other people for the scraps of what's been left behind and fighting over those that you want to affect or, the type of impact you want to make. But really start to think a little bit broader, in a way that lets you move out into spaces that other people aren't really inhabiting but it would be necessary for us to be there.


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