Getting started in applying Design for impact

Abram El-Sabagh
3 min readJun 21, 2020
A desk with books, coloured pencils, and A, B, C letters

This blog post will be a bit different. Over the past few weeks, I have been asked about how I got started in Design. Initially, I thought I would share my journey, but journeys are helpful only in understanding the principles, techniques and resources I used to embark on and go through that journey.

So this post will focus on helping beginners get started in Design and impact-driven work. If you’re a seasoned practitioner, you’ll find information on my approach to learning, organisations you could engage with, and helpful resources.

Why should I work in Design?

You have a lot of hours of work during your lifetime, about 80,000 hours. It’s best if you contribute to solving tough challenges. This comes down to a few reasons:

  1. You get the opportunity to improve people’s lives. Focusing on helping others means you can create a positive, lasting influence.
  2. It’s personally fulfilling. There is no feeling like helping others, especially those in need.
  3. Working with people who are collectively working towards making the world a better place. It’s an inherently collaborative approach because you’re all focused on doing your best to achieve a positive outcome.

A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.

- Jackie Robinson

How can I get started?

  1. Identify the problems you care about. For me, I care about problems like malnutrition, injustice, and healthcare. Falling in love with a problem is much more sustainable than falling in love with a solution. As you understand a problem more deeply, the solution might change. If you focus on a problem, you can spend your entire life enjoying your work on that problem.
  2. Look at how organisations and people have been trying to solve the problems you’re considering. You can learn a lot — through the approaches they’re using, the ideas they’re testing, and the solutions they’ve implemented.
  3. Gain experience working across different problems — you’ll quickly see the patterns emerging. I know this is counter-intuitive. Working across problems helps you understand the design methods that you can apply to understand and solve complex problems. This also teaches you the importance of context. Solving the same problem will look different depending on the context in which it appears. One problem in Africa may require a different solution than the same problem somewhere else.

How can I learn quickly?

The best way I know how to learn is a four-step process that I’ve applied and refined over the past five years:

  1. Connect with others working towards the same goal, and seek to understand. Why did they pick a specific method? What was their thinking behind a decision to apply a technique?
  2. Take notes on what you learnt so you can better understand your thinking. This forces you to articulate your thinking and identify gaps. It helps you connect different, seemingly disparate, ideas.
  3. Apply what you learnt in practice. If it’s a facilitation technique, use it and see its effect. If it’s a research method it, apply it and review its strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Share what you’ve learnt and proactively get feedback. This helps you because it means other people can assess your learning. It also means you can scale your impact by helping others learn.

Here you’ll find a list of resources — books, people and communities that you can engage with to learn. It’s not only focused on Design because the best way I know to design is to engage with other disciplines. It included things I’ve engaged with personally, as well as recommendations of top designers.

Side note: One of the best experiences I’ve had is taking part in UNLEASH Lab. I would strongly recommend you apply for it next year!

What organisations are applying Design for impact?

There are several impact-driven organisations. Focus on finding organisations that apply Design, in its many forms, to have a positive impact in your areas of interest. Here you’ll find a list of impact-driven organisations.

I hope this blog helps you get started in the world of Design!

If this post was helpful, maybe I can tempt you to subscribe to my newsletter :)



Abram El-Sabagh

Human-centred designer. ThinkPlace. Designing for positive outcomes.