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Design in Development: Silver Bullet or Buzzword?

Last month, as part of the Social Impact Lab’s weekly lunch series, I had the opportunity to speak about the role of design in development. Dan Ostermuller and Joyce Lin, the co-leaders of SI Lab, helped me shape the talk and encouraged me to frame the question of design’s role in development as provocatively as possible.

When SOMers hear “design-thinking,” we think of post-it notes, marshmallows, and Professor Rodrigo Canales. But what does design in international development mean? What does it look like? What should it look like? From infographics to interview techniques, products to programming methods, design in development takes many forms. At SI Lab, we had the chance to discuss the dangers and benefits of injecting design into development initiatives.

I shared case studies from my own experience working at the intersection of design and international development before school and collaborating on an independent study with fellow classmates and the Nike Foundation here at SOM.

After each example, we discussed what design’s role was and what it should have been. The conversation quickly expanded into a broader examination of how design and design thinking are being incorporated into development today.

One classmate questioned whether design was simply a veneer that allowed organizations that could afford it to attract more resources. Another asked how the field work that design firms are increasingly being hired to undertake fits within those firms’ business models. A third argued that we needed to break down the different forms of design—from human factors to graphic design—before identifying which kinds of design can contribute most to development initiatives.

The talk provided an exciting opportunity to share more of my own professional experience, and my long-term interest in both design and development. But more importantly it served as a reminder for me of how lucky I am to be in a place where people happily pack a room on a Wednesday afternoon to share mediocre sandwiches and heartfelt conversation.

As I think about graduating in a few short weeks, it’s those moments that I’ll miss most. Varied backgrounds, with a common desire to ask questions. Shared insights and healthy disagreement. A community that cares about challenging assumptions and each other to get to truth, meaning, and impact.