Design As a Solution to Social Problems


The Program on Social Enterprise and the Design and Innovation Club co-hosted Robert Fabricant, the Creative Director of Frog Design, as part of the Yale School of Management’s Social Impact Lab. Fabricant, a veteran designer, focused on the value of “design thinking” in social impact work and of the challenges and complexities of bridging these two fields of endeavor.

“Design is about shaping conditions to enable projects to take hold,” of particular value in social impact work where conditions often provide a difficult environment for projects to succeed. Fabricant believes design is at the center of social impact work, as a design perspective provides a basket of tools and skills that can be creatively applied to social innovation.

In particular, Fabricant noted the benefits to social innovation of design’s engagement process. The two-way community engagement process used in design, historically to create and market commercial products, can be translated into a powerful tool of participatory change. This participatory approach can generate creative and solutions to complex and seemingly intractable problems.

Fabricant also noted some of the barriers to realizing the benefits of design in social impact work. Design has a tendency to focus on iconic products, rather than explore fully deeper cultural contexts practices. For example, the clean water straw was an iconic product aimed at addressing water-borne illness issues in developing countries but has received considerable criticism for not being more widely accepted among the target population. The implementation process of design can be long and difficult, Fabricant said, extending well beyond a typical “product development” time horizon. Also funding devoted to design for social impact is still quite limited. Despite these difficulties, design has the ability to create solutions in environments where there is a lack of resources and reliable infrastructure, Fabricant said. As a result, design is a valuable tool for social impact – it can choreograph a community’s creativity to solve local problems.

Cj Lemky