The Shoulders We Stand On

Modern design, the birth of the social sector, and where we go from here.

We’re at an unprecedented moment for design and the social sector. The energy and vigor we see in the alliance of these two sectors is propelled by a bold history of pushing and blurring boundaries. However we know we can see further because of the shoulders we stand on. On the day of’s seventh birthday, we give you a brief history of where we came from and where we hope to go.

A renewed humanism in the arts

At the turn of the 20th century, after a period of rapid industrialization, modernism began to take hold in the creative fields as they returned their gaze to craftsmanship and human dignity. Authors like James Joyce and Ezra Pound experimented with new ways to tell stories about the human experience; visual artists moved past naturalism and towards an exploration of humanity through abstraction, playing with color, form, tone, line quality, rhythm, and movement; architects embraced more sociologically appropriate designs grounded in lifestyle and changing technology.

It was in this moment that the Cranbrook Academy of Art, called the "America's Bauhaus" by many, broke down barriers between disciplines, inciting new achievements in 20th-century design. This avant-garde was interested in leading technological advancements in manufacturing and materials that could help us be more human.

A burgeoning social sector

At the same time, another movement was taking shape—one that formed the foundations of today’s social sector. As the industrial age was taking root, people began to move away from rural homes for better jobs in cities, and a robust social sector emerged to fill the gap and take care of education, healthcare, and nutrition in communities. By the late 19th Century, the country’s industrialists started thinking about philanthropy more tactically. At the age of 66 and as the richest man in the world, Andrew Carnegie retired and spread the "Gospel of Wealth." He believed the wealthy people were morally obligated to use the same “genius for affairs” that had made them wealthy to reform society.

“Wealth is not to feed our egos but to feed the hungry and to help people help themselves.”

Andrew Carnegie

An expanding definition of design

Come the mid 1900s, Cranbrook alumni, Charles and Ray Eames began their exploration of manufacturing and materials. Their fascination with molded plywood lead to the inception of brand-new forms, capable of being produced commercially. When the war began, their molded plywood technique was adapted to build leg splints and body stretchers. This would become the precursor to the iconic Eames-style chair and the beginning of a seamless movement across fields, from furniture to architecture, and eventually, to business.

The Eames shifted design to the center of corporate strategy, paving the way for IBM’s proliferation of computing into the business world. And when they visited the Government of India in 1957, they met with people across disciplines which resulted in the establishment of National Institute of Design. In the Eames’ minds, there was no limit to what design could do. When he was asked about the boundaries of design, Charles Eames famously quipped, “What are the boundaries of problems?”

A strengthened social sector

In the 1970s, we started to see the birth of the ‘nonprofit organization’ we know well today (of which there are now 1.5 million in the U.S. alone) occupying themselves providing the services and support that neither the public sector nor the private sector provide. By the 1990s, the massive wealth accumulation and rise of billionaires in this country led to another transformation of the social sector.

The new elite, who continued to play a role in their own companies, expected philanthropy to express their values and yield measurable impacts. They were more focused on global challenges related to health, hunger, the environment, and economic development. Bill and Melinda Gates are shining examples of this with the $40 billion endowment of their foundation which was launched nearly 20 years ago. Their legacy has inspired others to make similarly significant commitments with their philanthropy, spawning the Giving Pledge, where wealthy individuals pledge to give away half of their wealth in their lifetimes. This type of giving became known as “strategic philanthropy” which is more aligned with internal company goals and has defined the last 20 years of philanthropy in the United States.

Over the past few years, even those most supportive of “strategic philanthropy” have become disappointed by the results. An article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review from 2014 acknowledges to the substantial shifts in strategic philanthropy in the past two decades, but also nods at its imperfections.

"We have now come to the conclusion that if funders are to make greater progress in meeting society’s urgent challenges, they must move beyond today’s rigid and predictive model of strategy to a more nuanced model of emergent strategy that better aligns with the complex nature of social progress.”

Stanford Social Innovation Review

Design enters the social sector

Designers around the world have always been compelled to address social challenges. In 1972, Victor Papanek wrote “Design for the Real World” which advocated for the socially and ecologically responsible design of products, tools, and community infrastructures. A decade later, his book was required reading in universities and design schools around the country, some of which were launching design programs dedicated to community development programs. The ties between academia and designers grew stronger and we began to see social impact design projects take off. Organizations like Architecture for Humanity and Public Architecture popped up to usher in designers and architects willing to offer their skills and volunteer for various social impact projects.

However, 2007 was the year things really took off, as foundations began to look beyond strategic philanthropy. The first major shift was a movement from student and volunteer led projects to projects led by professional designers with nonprofit and foundation partners willing to foot the bill. This allowed organizations like MASS and D-Rev to grow teams of world class designers, architects, and engineers, and allowed design firms like IDEO, frog, and Continuum to invest in social impact practices. spun out of this shift, establishing itself as an independent design nonprofit four years later.

The second shift was the strengthening relationship between designers and established nonprofit organizations. To be relevant and significant, design must not only have an intention of pursuing social impact, designers must commit to deep partnerships with existing social sector, public sector, and private sector institutions. MASS Design’s collaboration with Partners in Health, IDEO’s with Acumen, frog’s with UNICEF, and USAID and Bill and Melinda Gates teaming up to bring design to health are great examples of this.’s ongoing relationships with organizations like American Refugee Committee, for example, have lead to innovative and lasting solutions that are redefining the future of humanitarian aid.

© 2018 Eames Office, LLC (

Where do we go from here?

For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, designers have authority, influence, and resources at the highest levels of corporate business. And the social sector is embracing creative, design-led approaches to tackle systemic challenges. Today, the role of designers is not only to create beautiful products, tools, services, and spaces, but to use their creativity and problem solving prowess to address the most intractable challenges of our time. How might we imagine new solutions to poverty alleviation, affordable healthcare, migration and racial equity? How can we apply systems thinking to design comprehensive approaches to network change, not just point-based interventions? As entrepreneurs, business leaders, and philanthropists, how might we harness our influence, creative talent, products and content, and financial resources to support this growing movement of social impact design?

The history of design and the social sector has been a constant movement towards collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and the breaking down of silos. Yes, we stand on the shoulders of giants, but we’re excited to pioneer the expansive space above. There’s much room for growth, and the time is ripe.

Illustrations by Maricruz Meza

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