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Worldstudio’s Mark Randall on Social Design, Woodsy the Owl, and Making an Impact

Can design change the world? Of course. The challenging part is figuring out how to best harness the power of design to make a difference, for clients and causes alike. A pioneer of this tricky, potent, you-know-it-when-you-see-it combination of design thinking and social entrepreneurship has been Worldstudio, the New York-based marketing and design agency that specializes in creating and implementing programs for corporate clients that support their social responsibility platforms. Between projects for the likes of Adobe and The Metropolitan Opera, Worldstudio principal Mark Randall co-founded (with Steven Heller) Impact! Design for Social Change, a six-week summer intensive at the School of Visual Arts that is now in its third year. Meanwhile, interest in the field of design for social impact is surging, and as Randall and friends gear up for a March 1 panel at SVA on the social design job market (a taped webcast will be posted online following the event), we asked him to tell us more about how good design can do good.

How do you define “social design”?
This is a great question, and one that the design community is slowly defining. In the broadest sense, social design uses design thinking and creativity to improve the human condition and to ensure a sustainable future for us all. A social design approach can be applied to a wide range of areas; non-profits and NGOs, civic design, corporate social responsibility, as well as social enterprise and social entrepreneurship.

Was there a particular project or point in your career that got you interested in social design, or was it an area that you gravitated to more gradually?
As a kid growing up in the 1970′s I was engaged by the ecology movement and Woodsy the Owl—”Give a Hoot! Don’t Pollute!” In 1993, David Sterling, who at the time was a partner in the legendary firm Doublespace, approached me to design a logo for a concept business that he was developing. He wanted to create a design studio that incorporated a social agenda into the work that was done on a daily basis. His ideas were unformed at the time, and as we worked on the identity together we discovered that we viewed the world—and design—in much the same way. Our conversations helped to shape what the business could and ultimately would be. Instead of being his designer I became his business partner. David left the business almost ten years ago, but I have continued the work that we do with a great group of collaborators.

What is the outlook (employment-wise and any other wise) for this emerging field?
I think that many of the future social design jobs have yet to be invented. As we continue to define the field for ourselves, we will be able to demonstrate what we can do for potential clients and prospective employers. In some respects, the onus is on us to create opportunities for ourselves for work in this area. But, opportunities are out there now. There are studios that do fantastic work in the civic and non-proft realms, and as corporations develop CSR initiatives it provides designers with more possibilities. The area that is growing—and to me very exciting—is social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. This is where designers remove their client services “hat” to create self-generated businesses, projects, and programs that address social issues.

What led you to co-found and lead SVA’s Impact! Design for Social Change program?
Interest in design and social change has exploded within the last three years. Colleges and universities all across the country are responding to student demand that social design be a part of the curriculum. Professional designers are looking for ways in which to incorporate social design into their practices. A six-week summer intensive was a great way to respond to this interest. And, since we started the program in 2009, a number of one- and two-year graduate level programs have been launched.

Our program is a crash course on the subject and is a great fit for those that do not want a full-fledged graduate-level experience. Many designers already have the skills to do this kind of work, they just may not realize it. Through Impact!, we introduce them to social design in a broad sense, our goal is to give them a clear road map so that when they finish the program they know where to go next.

In some cases, our students use the program as a trial run before going on to graduate school. For many students it helps them to define their career goals; after the program a Portland native moved to New York and landed a fantastic spcial design job with one of the guest lecturers she met in class. We had a group of students from Brazil use the program as a platform to develop their social design business which is now up and running in São Paulo. We place our emphasis in the program on real-world scenarios.

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