The Sky is the Limit: An Interview with Mariana Amatullo, Designmatters Vice President

The following interview of Mariana Amatullo, Vice President of  Designmatters, appeared in Impact Design Hub. Discover how her process works and what she has learned from 14 years of running Designmatters.

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Allan Chochinov: Mariana, I’d like to start with two questions that I teach my students to ask: What gets you out of bed in the morning and what keeps you up at night? What are you most excited about right now, and what are you most worried about?1

Mariana Amatullo: I would say that what gets me up in the morning and motivates me deeply is living in a moment in time where there is an important call for, and recognition about, the unique value design and designers may bring to shaping and promoting processes of societal change. In this sense, I consider myself fortunate to be participating in a field or inquiry and practice—which gets referred to in a variety of ways as design for social innovation, social design, design for social impact—that is incredibly dynamic, complex and rewarding. What keeps me up at night is the other side of the coin, if you will, of the same motivation: ensuring that we do not fall short on delivering on the promise of design in this space. In other words, making certain that this emergent field not become “the design fad that failed” because we somehow did not honor that promise with the systematic rigor and boundless imagination required for success.

The encouraging news is that there is a cumulative body of knowledge forming and a pluralism of critical and reflexive design practices that are pointing to impact, i.e. what I call “the return on design”. I am fundamentally optimistic, but I also feel a great sense of urgency: there is so much work that remains to be done in the field to articulate, translate, demonstrate, quantify and qualify why and how design can lead us to more humane, alternative futures. And that’s exciting.

AC: Let me pick up on that a bit. It seems that social designers bend over backwards to qualify and pre-apologize for their work. It’s as if the tolerance for failure—which is probably 95% of the time in any “typical” design effort—is so low that covering oneself is a pre-requisite. Or it’s perceived to be very low. What is that all about? Because I think it’s real (and I find it personally infuriating. And chronic.)

MA: That’s an interesting insight, Allan. I guess I would offer three observations. First of all, from where I sit, I cannot say that we have ever taken an apologetic approach with our teams and our projects. If anything, we usually tend to err on the bold side. At the start of every collaboration, my assumption is that we must push the envelope and establish enough dialogue, and ultimately trust, with our partners to precisely allow for a process of experimentation and, yes, failure, to happen and for everybody to be OK with that. Embracing ambiguity and staying in that “liquid” state, as Frank Gehry would say, as long as possible, is actually fundamental to getting to innovative outcomes. It is a very bad idea to compromise with that. (By the way, remaining in that uncertain state and discovery mode is also the mark of true inquiry.) To quote the American philosopher Richard McKeon, few things are certain, so the science of the probable is what prepares the way for all knowledge.

Second, and getting back to your question of why this pre-requisite of covering oneself: sometimes I see the phenomenon as connected to a central concern to validate one’s work… Let’s remember that these are designers leading emergent practices for which there is often no precedent. Inevitably, folks are left somewhat at a loss; they need to experiment in an uncharted terrain and gain legitimacy against dominant cultural norms, values and expectations.

And thirdly, these individuals are typically operating in a context of extremely high stakes. So you are talking about failure that may equate to serious consequences for people’s lives. I, for one, think about that a lot when we engage our teams with communities. In the design for international development arena for example, we can point to a number of “shiny objects” and programs designed with all the best intentions that have failed; they do leave an open wound for all of us. For me they stand out as a reminder of why it is a good idea to not be timid or apologetic, but informed and thoughtful in this space.

AC: Mariana, you’ve got so many projects under your belt—really, years of experience in a field that many people consider quite new—what have been some of the highlights?

MA: Since the inception of Designmatters more than fourteen years ago now, we have taken a curatorial and very intentional approach in developing the portfolio of partnerships and issues that fuel the educational projects and initiatives that we nurture from conception to implementation. So it is always hard to point to specific projects as highlights because doing so inevitably creates problematic omissions.

That said, three projects come to mind as especially significant in advancing our collective learnings. The first one was our initial collaboration with the United Nations Department of Public Information and its Non-Governmental Section, back in 2003. The outcomes of that partnership resulted in the first interactive digital platform for NGOs around the world to participate in the global group’s annual conference—a key forum for civil society’s engagement with the international development issues that converge in the UN’s agenda each year. In today’s context of ubiquitous connectivity, it seems hard to imagine that until that point, there was no mechanism for NGOs distributed around the world to have a voice in real time during this conference unless they were physically present at UN Headquarters in New York. The fresh visual identity and interactive website that our students in the Media Design Practices program designed that year changed that; in delivering a new communication tool they essentially redefined the experience of participants and their stakeholders, and set in motion a whole new set of actionable possibilities for dialogue. While the project was highly innovative and celebrated for its output, more importantly, it opened the doors to many creative collaborations that we have structured since then with various UN funds and agencies. All of it was quite transformative.

AC: I hope you’re going to talk about Safe Agua next?

MA: Yes! Flash forward to the Safe Agua initiative, a project that has been hugely impactful in advancing our pedagogical goals in this space on so many levels. This is an ongoing collaboration with the Latin American-based organization Techo that has invited our students primarily in the environmental and product design departments to be immersed in the field, co-creating with families radically affordable products and services and innovating in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene with an emphasis on arriving at aspirational results that celebrate human dignity and quality of life for communities who live in informal settlements and typically have no access to these basic services. The initiative has resulted in award-winning products and incubated student-led social enterprises, which has been remarkable. But it has also pushed us to experiment with different frameworks for collaboration, field research and participatory design methods that have been quite influential across the board in our undergraduate curriculum.


Finally, a third highlight is the Designmatters Fellowship Program because of its trail-blazing quality. Launched in 2006, this is an initiative that embeds the most talented and accomplished students of Art Center—graduate and undergraduate—in organizations for a semester to work in strategic design projects and serve in many ways as change agents and ambassadors at large for design in organizational contexts where design at this level of skill and execution is either a completely novel resource, or a premium commodity. Today, six Designmatters Fellows a year are deployed around the country and sometimes internationally in this way. They are put on the frontlines of interdisciplinary teams working in very fluid professional environments with high stakes and where the nature of the design challenges at hand are more often than not, new, messy or ill-defined. The fellows are very inspiring individuals to me because of the bold courage and entrepreneurial spirit they always apply to these assignments.  It is no surprise that their fellowship often signifies the start of a new career pathway for them. Our partner organizations are always sad to see them leave, and usually find a way of retaining them in some capacity.


AC: I wanted to move the conversation to careers in the field of social innovation. You were the creator of the Leap Conference a couple years ago [disclosure: I was on the advisory committee] and the event centered on the working world of design for social change. Here, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, right? There’s no point in having social impact design jobs without trained practitioners, but it’s a hard road ahead if the demand for these kinds of designers is not robust.

MA: Absolutely. You know, I think it was no mistake that the subtitle of LEAP had the word frontier in it1, the full subtitle of the hands-on 3-day gathering was “the new professional frontier in design for social innovation.” Perhaps because I am the eternal optimist, the word conjures for me images of an open, unsettled terrain that welcomes disruption, a land of opportunity for designers to exert agency on their social environment. That said, I believe that one of the key outcomes of the conversations at LEAP was the realization of how much urgency remains to start codifying the space and identifying common problems that can help us amplify the viability and sustainability of the career pathways that are being chartered right now.

Alex Aristei

AC: So let’s talk about those codes: What are 5 things that we “know” about the working world in social innovation? And what are 5 things that we’ve yet to completely know?

MA: Tough question. Let’s see…I will wear my triple-hat as a practitioner, researcher and educator to attempt to answer this one.

5 things we know:

1. Interdisciplinary collaboration is the name of the game.

Engaging in social innovation work through design is inherently about stepping into complexity; there is often a need to deal with “wicked problems”—a class of challenges that are complex and systemic in nature. The chances one has to succeed in coming up with new ideas that can be helpful and enhance society’s capacity to meet unmet needs typically requires a set of complementary expertise and experiences on your team.

2. The ability to learn from mistakes matters.

We touched a bit on this earlier: the importance of tolerating ambiguity, taking calculated risks, and accepting failure is part and parcel of the process of invention and experimentation. Social innovation briefs are often devoid of real clues that answer the question, “What does success look like?” So there is a lot of framing and reframing that happens, and it becomes paramount to not only fail fast, but to fail better and learn from that process.

3. This is not work for the faint of heart.

It takes patience, tenacity, courage, initiative, intrinsic motivation, resonant leadership, flexibility, integrity, maturity, humility and of course, imagination, intelligence and skill.

4. Social innovation work can surprise you—for how addictive it is.

I think that sometimes there is an ingrained perception that social innovation work goes hand-in-hand with altruism. When you talk to folks who are hard-core social activists, social entrepreneurs, humanitarians, etc., you learn that yes—a drive for social change and finding purpose in one’s work—“making a difference” in people’s lives is an important driver. It is exciting and it is rewarding. But as a famous physician and founder of a global NGO once shared with me, as you get more and more immersed in the space, you pretty quickly learn that there is such adrenaline generated from the possibilities of action and impact. It can become a compulsive engagement of sorts that is hard to shake off…in the best possible way!

5. (And my all-time favorite): The sky’s the limit!

I think it was the designer Bruce Mau that was once quoted as saying “now that we can do anything, what will we do?”  

Now, 5 things we have yet to know about the working world in social innovation? Well, I suspect there are more than 5, but let’s start with a partial list:

1. Design for scale.

2. Deal with the importance of measurement and evaluation.

3. Keep designers involved in the implementation of the social innovation.

4. Open up more entry points and design pipelines for the next generation of designers to contribute.

5. Overcome resource constraints and pay designers (handsomely) for this work.

My first three points are about some of the challenges that we are encountering in current practices—they are pretty self-explanatory. They come up as the source of contested debates in the latest academic research, and converge with the insights that our colleagues on the frontlines are sharing on a consistent basis.

My two latter points are more illustrative of an ongoing topic of discussion with fellow educators, and certainly refer to critical issues of concern that our students will point to and ask about. They have been a constant in the agenda that I personally champion through Designmatters anytime I am negotiating and helping conceive of a project collaboration with partners.

AC: Finally Mariana, a couple words on finishing your PhD program. I’ve often teased doctoral students that half the point of doing a PhD is to be able to complain about it for 7 years. But you’ve wrapped yours up in half that time! Can you tell our readers the subject, the ambitions for the work, and what it feels like to be done?

MA:  My dissertation is closely intertwined with my practice, i.e. the intersection of design and social innovation. The research addresses the value designers bring to this emergent field. I do this via three studies in which I treat design in a broad cultural context, grounded in the richness of organizational practice. My degree from Case is a PhD in Management, and the dissertation includes project case studies led by inspiring design teams at IDEO.orgfrogMind Lab and the former Helsinki Design Lab, as well as an ethnographic study of the Innovation Unit of UNICEF. Ironically, and because of the paucity of quantitative analysis in our field, perhaps one of the most original contributions of the dissertation is a quantitative study that, for the first time, measures how design abilities and capabilities—known in the literature as “design attitude”-—are in fact significant in advancing positive social innovation outcomes in projects.


You ask about the ambition of the work: My hope is that these insights contribute to deepen our knowledge about the wins and limitations of our practices in design for social innovation, and that they also might put forth, with new evidence and conviction, the argument for design as a strategic organizational capability and a source of momentous potential for human progress.

I have a few more weeks to go before the dissertation defense, and my guess is that I will be reflecting for a long time about what it feels like “to be done.” So I do not have a full answer for you quite yet. For now, let me just share two emotions that are pretty raw: gratitude and responsibility. Gratitude because I’ve had the opportunity to study with some of the most inspiring scholars in their fields; making it to the finish line is also a tribute to those who have rooted for me throughout this doctoral journey: my family, my friends, and colleagues. And responsibility because with a sense of new mastery comes the realization that a boundless set of possibilities open up…and you do wish to do your best to honor that promise. 

Big thanks to Allan and Mariana on an enlightening and inspiring interview on social innovation and design!

Image sources: Designmatters, LEAP Symposium, Tony D, Candice Coh

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