Design & Social Entrepreneurship

Cowritten by Dr. Jaewoo Joo

The desire to improve human conditions is an inherent part of being a designer. Since creativity is driven mainly by intrinsic motivation, how can design drive social entrepreneurship? Posing this question to creative professionals on online social networks however, resulted in only a dozen or so comments. It would seem that designers fundamentally see themselves as business executers, not initiators. However, designers, in their supporting role, firmly believe that design thinking can bring tremendous value to the tackling of complex social challenges.

To better understand designers' behavior, we posted forty different Huffington Post articles on multiple crowd-sourcing platforms as well as twenty LinkedIn challenges. We found that designers forwarded articles on business more often than on social issues; however, they were more likely to comment on social issues than on business issues. This suggests designers want to contribute to societal causes and want to learn about business, but do not want to take on the lead. How can designers be encouraged to take ownership of social challenges and leverage their skills to drive change? In other words, how could designers' interests in addressing social issues align with an interest in learning about business and the global need for social entrepreneurship?

One place to start is to examine "the life of a designer." Designers traditionally embark upon one of three paths: working in a corporation, working for a design consultancy, or starting up their own design firm. The cost of setting up shop continues to decline rapidly, so although the risk of starting an agency is high, the financial consequences are relatively low. Could startup design consultancies be the catalyst to engage designers in social entrepreneurship?

The first challenge, when starting a new design firm, is attracting quality clients, with high-profile innovative projects that draw more clients. The second challenge, which also affects established design consultancies, is managing the inherent cyclical nature of the business. Billable hours fluctuate between zero and two hundred percent, usually averaging sixty to seventy percent, causing periods' of "feast or famine." When times are good, competencies, client portfolios and success stories are built. However, designers work insane hours, damaging their health and personal lives. When times are bad, staff is laid off and firms' design competencies evaporate. Therefore, design consultancies real competitive advantage seems to be the effective management of creative free agents.

The competitiveness and survival of design firms therefore depends heavily on managing their creative agents. If designers could turn the cyclical nature of the economy into a competitive advantage by applying their unique skills to social entrepreneurship in times of economic downturn, design would experience a renaissance.

Since social entrepreneurship projects are long-term as compared to product development projects, combining the two types of challenges could help build competencies and produce results within both areas. When the economy expands, design consultancies could create products for corporations, building technology, market and design capabilities. When the economy begins to contract, design consultancies could phase from commercial products to tackling social entrepreneurial challenges, building business, social and cultural knowledge in the process. In this fashion, the workload cycles would even out, the average billable hours could increase and continuous competency building could take place. What might the financial side of this look like?


The model of switching between corporate and social entrepreneurship has parallels to the construction industry, where governments apply Keynesian theory. In this way, construction moves between private industry projects and public projects with the economic cycles. Construction firms make above normal earnings in economic upswings and when the economy turns downwards the governments have their projects done at below normal rates. Applying Keynesian theory and practice could provide a win-win situation for designers, corporations, social entrepreneurship and governments. This kind of creative economy would seem like a good place to begin.

Special thanks to Dr. Jaewoo Joo for researching and co-writing this article.