The pilot program began this summer without much fanfare.
It was small. Only five high school students participated. There was neither a multi-million-dollar grant to pay for it nor much data to prove the strategy would work.
But to the architects of Greater Together Milwaukee’s Creative Corps program, a loosely structured, six-week internship program built around the concept of human-centered design, that wasn’t the point.
Their major concern was with adaptability.
Human-centered design is a longstanding design principle that has become dogma for many people and institutions in the creative industry, including the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. Based around the concept of trial and error, its purpose is to refine product design over time as users interact with it and expose flaws or attributes that could be improved.
In theory, the tinkering process will eventually make the product both easier to use and more useful to consumers, as previously unknown applications are discovered and irrelevant features are discarded.
It’s a concept that has been gaining traction in many industries, including manufacturing, in recent years, and now has caught the attention of leaders in certain philanthropic spheres. Though the nonprofit sector has historically relied far more heavily on careful planning and detailed research than on experimentation, proponents of the theory are hoping it can add a fresh perspective to social programs.
The Creative Corps program began applying the design principle in Milwaukee this summer to address lack of diversity in the creative industry. The idea was to expose students who are part of underrepresented demographics to careers in areas such as design, writing, production and advertising. It also gave them a chance to network.
Here’s how the program worked:
- A group of five high school kids from some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods were given internships at five participating firms in the local creative industry: Core Creative Inc., Hanson Dodge Creative, 371 Productions, Maldonado & Morgan and Posts by Ghost.
- The students were paid for their time through a Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee summer youth employment initiative.
- Interns met with program volunteers each Monday to learn about design principles and get a basic education on the creative industry.
- For the rest of the week, Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., it was up to the interns to figure out what they wanted to learn, and host companies to figure out how best to teach them.
“There was tremendous growth in them, even if at times they looked like they didn’t know what was going on,” said program director Nata Abbott of the participating students. “And same with the companies. It’s really a learning process for the industry and young people and Greater Together; not to just solve a problem, but to solve the right problem.”
Abbott is director of operations and outreach at Greater Together. She has experience in the local nonprofit sector and played a major role in getting the program started.
Before working with Greater Together, she spent 15 years in various leadership roles at GE Healthcare, where she worked as a business analyst, an operations designer, a process designer, a communications executive and a philanthropic leader. Abbott also spent a year working as an economic development adviser to the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan in the 1990s.
“If we’re sitting around waiting for perfect candidates of color to come through our doors, nothing’s going to change,” Abbott said. “But if we want to change the composition of the creative industry in Milwaukee, we have to do something, and try to do something new, to start unlocking this systemic issue.”
In 2015, African-Americans made up roughly 13 percent of the total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but a survey completed that same year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found only 5 percent of those working in advertising or public relations jobs were African-American. Similarly, Hispanic or Latino workers accounted for 11.7 percent of advertising and public relations jobs, despite making up 17.6 percent of the national population.
Though they are optimistic with the progress of its first cohort of students and companies, program leaders have just begun the refinement process and are seeking more partners to maintain or expand the program for another year.
Abbott said that, though it may seem disorganized, the strategy’s speed and flexibility are its greatest attributes.
“You start with what you have; you don’t sit around and write reports and wait for someone to give you $1 million,” Abbott said. “I think you can always come up with something innovative and interesting and impactful. The less you have, the more creative you have to get. If you have a group of people willing to do something together, and they’re willing and able to carve out time, something positive will come out of it and we can build in an operation.”
Abbott and Greater Together are not alone in employing the strategy.
It’s being tested more broadly and more formally at a nonprofit research center at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan called the Johnson Center for Philanthropy.
This spring, the Johnson Center received a $212,000 grant from the philanthropic branch of Michigan-based furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. to explore the effectiveness of the approach. But it began taking a closer look at ways to adopt human-centered design in the philanthropic sector months before it received the grant.
“We’ve been exploring it for just under a year,” said Kyle Caldwell, executive director of the Johnson Center. “The difference that you get to explore in human-centered design versus the typical strategic planning model is that (nonprofits and stakeholders) typically do a tremendous amount of research in the field and look at current capacities, and then for five years you run the plan. Human-centered design says part of that is true. You need to understand landscape. But you also need to understand the people you’re trying to impact. Ask them: what are possible solutions? Experiment and learn from failure. Failure in human-centered design is celebrated, not discouraged.”
The Johnson Center is an academic center that studies relationships among foundations, nonprofits and the problems they’re trying to solve. Caldwell said it has partnered with foundations and nonprofits around Grand Rapids to begin testing the approach, but it’s too early to see how effective it is.
On the other hand, merely thinking about designing social programs differently has been beneficial, he said.
“This type of human-centered design approach really gives us a unique way to look at that nonprofit and foundation ecosystem,” Caldwell said. “It’s been really positive for us to think about how nonprofits and foundations (view) changing their work. If you have a nonprofit that’s really embracing the core elements of human-centered design, you’re going to fail often and celebrate that. That’s not typically how we talk to funders and donors about our work.
Oftentimes, we put a gloss or positive spin on our failure. For an organization like us, where we have both nonprofits and funders, I think it’s a fascinating opportunity to learn about what disruptive theories look like (in action).”