Whenever someone asks me, “What is Social Design and why are you studying it in a graduate degree?” my answer is both short and long.

Social Design is a field which takes design concepts and design thinking together and applies them to the challenges the world has today.

But why am I on this path in Social Design? I had lost my way – overwhelmingly, catastrophically lost my way – over the course of my career in architecture. Designing and making beautiful places no longer brought me a sense of joy; I became acutely aware of the profession’s ability to destroy both our natural environment and our social well-being. I’ve seen projects excavate greenfields to build an “environmental awareness center.” I’ve seen designers ignore the dangerous conditions of those who build their projects, insisting that “it’s out of our control.” I’m passionate about working to address that often-unspoken side of the industry. I’m passionate about working against that indifference. The more I thought about it, the more I became unsettled because this phenomenon exists in most other industries as well, not just design. It exists in the garment industry, the technology industry, the transportation industry. The work we do in our own little bubbles every day sets off a domino chain of effects around the globe. I honestly cannot explain the compulsion to help address this, but my instincts are telling me this is something I am called to do.

I still recognize there is a lot I don’t know I don’t know about Social Design. I hope to keep finding inspiration, resources, and guidance so I can discover where I can contribute, where I fit, and how I can craft a career. And if it doesn’t exist, well, maybe I’ll invent it myself.

For my complete thesis publication in PDF, please see here. Otherwise, individual sections can be accessed below.

Table of Contents

Part I : Problem Definition

Part II : A Card Game

Part III : User Research

Part IV : Research Synthesis

Part V : Letterpress

Part VI.I : Participatory Design (Baltimore)

Part VI.II : Participatory Design (San Francisco)

Part VII : May 8, 2017

Part VIII : Onward

(This page represents an overview of our project. For a complete process blog of the experience, please see here.)

“More youth-friendly clinics!”

Our social challenge here is Baltimore youth aged 15-24 experience an infection rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea that is more than three times the national average (CDC and MDHMH, 2015). In partnership with the Baltimore City Health Department, John Hopkins Center for Child and Community Health Research, and the UChoose Youth Advisory Council, our team utilized the design thinking process to propose solutions to address this social challenge.  Over the course of four months, we listened to the expertise of the youth and the health administrators, brainstormed outcomes, workshopped with stakeholders, and prototyped their ideas.  At the end of 2016, we emerged with two potential pathways forward: an approach to “express STI testing,” and a messaging campaign.



August-December 2016.

Project completed within the graduate program in Social Design at MICA. 

Project team: Matt Barr, Jaynie Chartrand, Maria Isabel Garcia-Diaz, Devika Menon, Patricia Natalie, Molly Reddy, Rachel Serra, and Irina Wong.

Faculty Advisor: Becky Slogeris.

In Fall 2016,  the long-awaited Baltimore Bike Share (BBS) program rolled out to the city.  The Baltimore City Department of Transportation challenged us to conduct design research during its first two weeks to understand the response of early adopters, curious inquisitors, dissenters, and the uninformed public. Through the design research process, we understood their varied needs, motivations, influences, and perceptions of the BBS message.

Throughout the process, we engaged in observational research, conducted interviews, administered surveys, and spent two weeks riding the bikes ourselves. We synthesized the findings into a final presentation back to the Baltimore Bike Share for them to refine and prototype before expansion in Spring 2017.

The images to the right are excerpts from the presentation.  A full version can be found here.

Takeaway: Design research is a delicate balance between listening and “walking a mile in others’ shoes.” Real projects involve very many “others,” all walking their miles in diverging directions. A successful design solution requires a mindful and respectful synthesis of these factors, and a transparent explanation for the decisions made.


November 2016.

Project completed within the graduate program in Social Design at MICA.

Project Team: Matt Barr, Denise Brown, Jaynie Chartrand, María Isabel García-Díaz, Smile Indias, Devika Menon, Naeeme Mohammadi, Patricia Natalie, Molly Reddy, Rachel Serra, Mimi Yang, Irina Wong.

Faculty Advisors: Lee Davis, Thomas Gardner, Mike Weikert, Mike Youngblood.

“We break bread all the time.”

Details is a nonprofit social enterprise which deconstructs buildings to salvage their materials and fixtures which would otherwise be demolished and hauled to the landfill.  The deconstruction crew is tight-knit; many share the common history of facing previous barriers to employment. Our partnership with Details, under the mentorship of George Aye from Greater Good Studio, focused on helping them design and activate their new expanded home.

After extensive interviews with ten of their staff, we worked to draw insights about their current challenges and wishes for their future home.  Patterns started to emerge: they wanted to share more downtime, knowledge, and games. They wanted stronger interactions between administration and the crew members.

Three teams grew out of these insights: one to create a vision for career development and emotional well-being of the crew, one to address the desire for collectivism and community, and finally one team to crystallize all into a logical architectural design.

Takeaways: Grouping by themes became an effective way to process the hundred of pages of interviews; we started to see common threads throughout multiple responses by multiple people. Framing those themes into “How Might We…?” questions encouraged us to think of solutions which addressed the root of the interview responses.


October 2016.

Project completed within the graduate program in Social Design at MICA. 

Project Team: Matt Barr, Denise Brown, Jaynie Chartrand, María Isabel García-Díaz, Smile Indias, Devika Menon, Naeeme Mohammadi, Patricia Natalie, Molly Reddy, Rachel Serra, Mimi Yang, Irina Wong

Faculty Advisors: Thomas Gardner, Mike Weikert, Bori Fehrer.

“Scanning the patient, similar to how we scan products, can be dehumanizing.”

Every day, oncology nurses at Johns Hopkins experience serious challenges with the ID wristband the patients wear during their hospital stay. We heard the nurses express frustration at how the wristbands block their workflow and stigmatize the patients. At the same time, they understand the main purpose for the wristbands: to make sure the right patient gets the right treatment in the right dose in the right route at the right time.

Our goals were to propose solutions which reimagine the wristband — in other words, retain the positive characteristics but address its current challenges. We interviewed nurses and studied analogous models of other wristband usage.  In the end, we proposed three tiers of solutions:

  • Way Out There, and DOPE.
  • Possible, and DOPE.
  • Practical, Still DOPE.

The Armstrong Institute at Johns Hopkins gathered our solutions and brought them upstream to the hospital administrators; current negotiations are ongoing.


September 2016.

Project completed within the graduate program in Social Design at MICA. 

Project Team: Denise Brown, Devika Menon, Rachel Serra, Irina Wong.

Faculty Advisors: Thomas Gardner, Mike Weikert.

In September 2015, I presented at the Seattle Design Festival with a session titled “On Being The Change: Social Impacts of Human-Centered Design.” (Above is a complete screencast.)

I began research on these topics long before the Festival, at my previous architecture firm.  There, I won an internal research grant to explore this topic as it applied to our organization — I examined ways in which we could innovate our social responsibility initiatives and galvanize our efforts in these realms.  I took the themes and concepts that resonated most with me from that research to further develop here.

Early in the process, the Design Festival organizers encouraged all of the presenters to practice “Nothing about us without us.”  In other words, if we are going to talk about a certain demographic or population, we must have included that demographic in our process and in our presentation.  At that moment, I realized I had done too much secondary research and not enough primary research.  As I began to do more listening and less reading, I let go of many preconceived notions and assumptions I’d inadvertently made.  All that is to say — this presentation isn’t a packaging of knowledge I’d already held, but rather a reflection of a process I have not yet finished.

I look forward to the next steps.

After the first phase of my Innovation Incubator fellowship at Perkins+Will , my next step focused on more abstract concepts of positive social impact. I took inspiration from other organizations focused on socially-responsible design and I imagined ways in which Perkins+Will could adopt those approaches and missions. It culminated in a thought catalog of postcards I sent to nearly one hundred leaders and influencers within Perkins+Will and beyond. Some cards were questions for the reader (how do you design for the client’s clients?), others were provocative (what if merits were awarded to the most human-centered projects in addition to the best formally-designed ones?), but all were meant to encourage a groundswell of positive social impact. Five specific postcards were pre-addressed and stamped for mailing to encourage feedback and questions to me.  The cards inspired debates among colleagues and motivated a movement towards more just practices within the firm.

The images to the right are a sample from the book.  Please click here to view complete content.


November 2014 – March 2015.

Project independently developed at Perkins+Will.

Graphics designed in collaboration with Christa Wood.


In late 2014, I won an Innovation Incubator research grant from my firm, Perkins+Will, for my
proposal to explore strategies to galvanize the Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI), which was a corporate initiative that involved two missions: to donate 1% of annual billable hours to pro bono design projects, and to engage the local communities via service projects.

My research project first focused on innovating and energizing the SRI practice. Not all twenty-two office locations were fully engaged in SRI, so I saw an opportunity to galvanize the initiative and design a central source for knowledge and information. I knew some SRI office leaders had valuable knowledge and experience to share, and the challenge was to get that expertise to all corners of Perkins+Will.

My approach to this project involved studying topics about philanthropy in business and conducting primary research with every SRI office leader and other external architectural professionals with passions for social purpose. I captured those lessons learned, collective advice, and best practices into a guide titled “The SRI Mentor.” All twenty-two offices responded positively to the guide, but those who found it most helpful were new Perkins+Will acquisitions and locations who recently experienced a transition in SRI leadership. For them, “The SRI Mentor” provided a roadmap for establishing their SRI infrastructure and for motivating their office’s engagement in the initiative.

Click here for the complete SRI Mentor.


November 2014 – March 2015.

Project independently developed at Perkins+Will.

Graphics designed in collaboration with Christa Wood.

Three weeks.  Two thousand plastic balls. One hundred linear feet of wood.

The project began as a curricular exercise to build ten prototypes of ideas for team-building tools through the lens of Rube Goldberg machines. After extensive research, our team concluded Rube Goldberg machines are convoluted, fantastical, delightful, devious, and complicated chain reactions.

We emerged with ten of these convoluted, fantastical, devious, and complicated prototypes. Most exciting was the Ball Pit idea; it captured the ludic, delightful spirit of Rube Goldberg. In fact, our prototype was simply an origami paper “pit” filled with M&M “balls”. The real ball pit would be a collaborative “huddle room” in our studio.  We rolled up our sleeves, built the structure, and installed it into our studio. Since then, it has fulfilled its promise of being a workspace, most recently for thesis charrettes.


December 2016.

Project completed within the graduate program in Social Design at MICA.

Project Team: Matt Barr, Molly Reddy, Irina Wong

Faculty Advisors: Thomas Gardner, Mike Weikert