How I got started with Design for impact

The principles I applied to work around the world on solving complex problems

Over the past five years, I’ve had the privilege of working around the world, tackling problems like malnutrition, unemployment, disaster management, and improving health outcomes. The common thread? Applying Design and Systems Thinking to solve complex problems. In the past few weeks, some people have asked me how I got here. This blog post will cover the principles I learnt and applied on my way. In next week’s post, I’ll cover the resources I’ve found most helpful as I learnt how to design for impact.

A person writing on a whiteboard.

So how did I get here?

Note: I’ll only be talking about major points in my career. But please be aware, this doesn’t mean there is one path, this is just my path and the principles I learnt and applied along the way.

🏃🏽‍♂️ Pursue your interests

The first pivot point was in my final year of university. As part of my degree, the university required students to either conduct a research paper or lead a team to design and develop a software product for a client. I picked the second option. A big part of the reason why is that, at the time, I had been working for the government, and wanted to learn how to lead a team and work for the private sector, as opposed to spend time alone to conduct research. When it came to deciding on the specific project, I picked Design Profile — a psychometric tool that helps people understand their natural design tendencies, behaviours and aptitudes. This introduced me to ThinkPlace, a strategic design consultancy. ThinkPlace was my client for that year, and towards the end of the project, I was invited to apply for the graduate program.

📈 Monitor your learning curve

As I was finishing my final year of university, I applied for many graduate positions and also considered further studies. I got rejected by some organisations and got accepted by a few. When it came to deciding on which to pick, I outlined the advantages and disadvantages of each option. The deciding factor was which position presented the greatest opportunity to learn, and I chose ThinkPlace — both for the impact it’s focused on, and the diversity of opportunities. It turned out to be a great decision, having worked on some of the most impactful projects and meeting some of the best people that I’ll always have a connection with.

When I joined ThinkPlace, I had only come across design in my Human-Computer Interaction course at university. Given my digital background, I wanted to learn how to design different things — whether it’s a service, strategy, or product — in different contexts, for government, not-for-profit or internationally. So I proactively avoided working on digital projects, and instead focused on getting a breadth of experiences. I also pursued learning by working with as many different people as I could, who each had different skills and expertise. This helped me connect with people, and play different roles depending on my team’s strengths and weaknesses.

I came to refer to this as monitoring my learning curve. At any given point in time, I can assess whether my learning is too low, too high, or just right and adjust it accordingly.

👆🏽 Put your hand up

To help my learning curve stay upwards, at each point in time, I put my hands up for different projects — knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do all of them. This led to a few positive outcomes. First, I got to experience working with different people and across different industries. Second, it also meant that I was constantly learning and growing. Third, and most importantly, it meant I had options to choose from. I could then pick the best option at the time. If I had only put my hand up for projects I thought ‘fitted’ specific criteria, then I wouldn’t have an option — I would have to do it. But by expanding my options, I was able to pick and choose depending on my focus at the time. If you’re interested in this idea, you can read more about it here: https://nesslabs.com/optionality-fallacy

🗣 Speak up

Speaking up gives you a choice. By sharing what your goals are with people, a few things happen. First, they keep you accountable. Second, they become aware of your interests and are therefore more likely to think of you when an opportunity arises that you might be interested in. For example, by sharing my interests in working internationally, others knew that I was open to the idea. This meant that when an opportunity arose, they reached out to me to see if I was interested. I could then, again based on my focus and circumstances at the time, choose whether to pursue it or turn it down.

Together, these principles helped me grow in the past five years in applying Design to understand and solve complex problems. These principles are not fool-proof, and I certainly have a lot to learn. But they have proven useful to help me continue to learn and grow in an area that I love — both for the work and for the impact it creates.

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Abram El-Sabagh

Abram El-Sabagh

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