6 Essential Skills for Design & Social Innovation

Students and job seekers frequently ask me about the skills that they need to succeed at Foossa, the community-centered design and strategy consultancy that I cofounded, or in a related career path. I came up with this list as a starting point for anyone interested in using design as a tool for social innovation.

1. Write Well

Being a strong writer goes a long way. Clear writing signals that you can think clearly and communicate effectively.

Craft compelling stories. Appeal to the heart and to the head. Be persuasive. Be concise. Be memorable. 

2. Prototype 

Prototyping could mean making something out of popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners to coding the minimum viable version of an app. You don’t necessary need high tech prototyping skills, but you do have a bias toward action.

You learn by doing. You learn by making. You prototype to learn. You can think visually and sketch out maps, diagrams, and charts to help inform your thinking. Your sketches could be doodles on Post-Its rather than museum-worthy masterpieces, although strong drawing skills are certainly a plus.

3. Code Switch

You speak the language of business. You speak the language of your clients and of your customers. You speak the language of social innovation. You understand how to define a theory of change.

You know how to reinterpret a creative brief to get down to the essence of what the needs really are.

You can get by in the language of designers and technologists enough to be able to collaborate with them effectively and to manage multi-disciplinary teams. You understand the basics of visual language, from hierarchy to typography. Bonus points if you can code in a programming language.

4. Make Stuff Happen

You know how to manage projects from inspiration to implementation. You break down difficult and complex tasks into manageable steps. You find the courage to put stuff out in the world to see what happens. You iterate until you get it right. Then you iterate some more.

You make community happen. Bring people together and get them involved in collaboration and co-creation. This could mean hosting an event, facilitating  a meeting/workshop, or community-managing an online discussion forum. 

5. Give and Receive Feedback

You know how to conduct a design critique. Help your teammates improve by giving critical insights and new perspectives into their work. You can give and get feedback without making it personal.

You make it about the creative brief and shared goals rather than just your personal opinions and preferences.

You learn how to filter the feedback that you get into “advice to implement” and “advice to take with a grain of salt.”

6. Document, Document, Document

My professors really drove this point home in my masters program. Make sure you document your work, whether it is through blogging, journaling, photos, videos, or a combination of the above. You will need it one day in the future, whether it is for a portfolio or for another project. Pictures, or it didn’t really happen.

This list is a work in progress. What skills would you add? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. If you are considering grad school to help you acquire some of theses skills, check out the MFA Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I teach there. 

Redesigning Museums for Good


A museum is more than a collection of interesting objects.

A memorial is more than a heap or marble or stone.

Each of these types of institutions exist to serve a greater purpose. Whether it’s the British Museum or a local historical society, these organizations create an experience that is meant to inspire some action on the part of those who visit them.

For many years, museums did not take direct responsibility for the conversion point between experience and action — what visitors did after they left the gift shop was their business. But today, some institutions are thinking differently about this key component of their missions, asking tough questions about how the conversion happens and seeking new tools to make sure that it does.


Earlier this year, we went to work on behalf of an institution with an undoubtable moral mandate for action: the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, final resting place for more than 250,000 people killed in the 1994 genocide. Aegis Trust, the organization that built and operates the memorial, wanted to make sure that visitors were offered not just a strong emotional experience at the memorial site and museum, but opportunities to help stop genocide today and in the future. So we sent a team of user experience designers to Rwanda to figure it out.

With the help of the Rwandan people, they did it. In their work the team made use of an array of resources, from experts on museum design to their own personal observations at the memorial site. But they were most inspired by the young people who visited and worked at the Kigali site. In workshops and curricula, portable posters and personal stories, the next generation of Rwandans are figuring out how to convert the story of one of history’s worst genocides into hopeful action in their own lives.

Carefully observing these young people, the designers developed a model the Kigali museum — and all museums — can use to convert profound emotional experiences into action. They nicknamed it “the Inzovu Curve” after the Kinyarwanda word for “elephant,” because the arc users travel resembles an elephant’s trunk. Visitors to a memorial or museum first descend into a state of (often painful) empathy with the victims of violence whose stories they encounter.

Many institutions simply abandon them there; the Inzovu Curve instead advises them to provide additional experiences that lift visitors into a state of compassionate action. The model also identifies specific moments of reflection and transformation that will help equip all visitors to make a difference in the world.

Eventbrite: Redesigning Museums for Good

Music Credits: “Rasputin” by HEPNOVA

#FoossaFinds – 25 July 2014

#FoossaFinds curates insightful readings, awesome events, #SpiritAnimals, and other inspiration. Look for it on Fridays.  Reposted from Foossa.com/blog.


The Social Innovation Revolution Cheryl Heller, SVA Design for Social Innovation Business and social innovation aren’t typical bedmates. But as the rising class of altruistic entrepreneurs takes over, business as usual for designers is being redefined. Taiwan’s Sunflower Protest: Digital Anatomy of a Movement Tracey Cheng, Flip the Media On March 18th, 2014, hundreds of students occupied Taiwan’s parliament, to protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA). A network of tech-savvy volunteers immediately began to use digital tools to broadcast their message to sympathizers and the public. Soon, thousands of citizens rallied on the streets outside the parliament to support the students inside. This movement became known as the “Sunflower Movement.” Here is an inside look at the strategies, tactics, and tools that fueled the Movement. Public Displays of Transaction Chiara Atik, Medium/Matter How Venmo became the ultimate social network for voyeurs and gossips


Subway Sets is back!  Saturday, 2 August 2014, 7:30 PM Subway Sets is bringing New York’s best underground music to the largest rooftop farm in the world for an epic night underneath the stars. Come experience what TimeOut NYC called one of “the coolest things to do on an NYC rooftop”. Get tickets now. TEDxGramercy | Grit  Saturday, 27 September 2014, 4-8 PM Mason Hall, Baruch college, 17 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10010 Get early-bird tickets and suggest speakers.


“Design is not a science, just move things around until it feels right.”


Help save the world’s saddest polar bear. 980x Snooty, the world’s oldest manatee turns 66 66-year-old-manatee-snooty-9