How you can make a difference in people’s lives

Abram El-Sabagh
3 min readMay 14, 2020
Your legacy

Let’s talk about your legacy

Have you ever reflected on your work and thought that there was more you could do to make a difference? You’re spending 8 hours a day, five days a week. That’s 1,920 hours of your life… every year. And all you’re doing is designing and re-designing and re-designing a product or service to make money, and more money, for the company that pays for your bills.

The truth is, design, as I’ve experienced it until now, has been all around making a difference. But as I’ve engaged with Twitter and Reddit, I’ve seen design applied to make money and “help” customers have a great experience. Of course, this work is important, but there’s more you can be doing to leave a lasting legacy — using the same 1,920 hours a year.

The trouble is, you’re stuck where you are. You’ve worked in design for some time, and everywhere you look, you see more products and services that are trying to make a profit. Design as you know it is about delight and conversion and making sure your company can have as many users as possible. Design as I know it is about making a tangible difference in people’s lives. It’s about understanding context and behaviour, and identifying areas where you can create massive impact through small interventions. For you, Design is about working for commercial companies who care about profit. For me, Design is about working with people who care about others and our planet (and some profit too).

There’s a framework for this.. of course, there is

In 1992, Richard Buchanan published an article titled Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. In it, he described four layers of design, where each layer applies the previous layers.

  1. Communications: The first layer is communications — this is what we know as information, graphic and visual design. It includes things like designing a poster or a logo. In this layer, you’ll often hear people talk about ‘appeal’ or
  2. Objects and Artefacts: This layer refers to designing tangible things, like a house or a washing machine. It uses the Communications layers whether it’s to advertise the product’s features or highlight how to use it.
  3. Interactions: This is about designing a new service or digital product. You’re focused on designing an end-to-end experience by creating personas, journey maps and blueprints. In this circle, we hear things like ‘delightful’ and ‘usable’, and ‘pain points’. This is probably where you’re at right now.
  4. Systems and Environments: This layer is about working to understand and change systems and environments. This is where you can make an exponential impact by intervening at a system-level. It’s hard work and very challenging mentally, and equally rewarding. This is where you tackle problems like malnutrition, disaster management and recidivism.

So how can you get started?

I don’t expect you to read this article and quit your job. But there are a few practical things you could do to get started creating your legacy:

  • You can sign up for UNLEASH — it’s a free, week-long trip to a country with 1,000 other people, who all want to make our world a better place. I went last year and it was brilliant to join so many people from around the world, all with one purpose in mind.
  • You can read Design for a Better Future: A guide to designing in complex systems. (Disclaimer: I’m working for ThinkPlace, the company behind this book, but I don’t get any profit from your purchase.)
  • You can watch Banny Banerjee talk about system transformation
  • Or you can chat with me to find out what designing in complex systems looks like.



Abram El-Sabagh

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