How to design for social impact

Brooklyn-based design agency, Hyperakt helps changemakers tell their stories. We spoke to its co-founder, Deroy Peraza, on how he uses design to amplify social change.

Tell us how you started Hyperakt.

I founded Hyperakt right out of college in 2001. I really had no idea what I was starting, I just knew I wanted to work independently and that I didn’t have the discipline to work under people. Working independently allowed me to learn at my own pace and follow my own direction. A year later, my partner Julia Zeltser joined; we met in college on day one and had a lot of respect for each other’s work. We were both refugees – I was born in Cuba, she was born in Ukraine – from working class families who took no opportunities to succeed for granted.

When did you decide to shift your focus to working exclusively with social enterprises?

We started to focus on social impact in 2009. We realized we could use our design for the public good as a tool for creating greater understanding about complex social issues. We put the tagline ”design for the common good”, and edited our portfolio to reflect work we’d done for the local business, non-profits, the election, and the NAACP. Even though it was the middle of the recession and the economy sucked, we decided to take a bet.

You were really at the forefront of the social impact space.

We knew there was a need for high production value and good design in the space because it was the ugly stepchild of design. Our clients do amazing work but their design just wasn’t on par. So we went for it.

Now that the number of social impact initiatives seem to have increased, how has your business evolved?

For the last eight years, we’ve grown alongside the sector as it’s welcomed the digital realities of our time and gotten more sophisticated in communication. We’ve become more attuned to the way that our clients operate and the trends and movements that are shaping their work, as well as the underlying tenants that have materialized with human centered design as an ideating practice and an approach.

What is human centered design?

Human centered design is about thinking of the end user, and how they’re going to be affected or impacted. I find the entire ideology of human centered design to be very logical and intuitive.

Has design not always been like that?

Things didn’t always play out that way. Design and communication projects were seen through the lens of the priorities, tastes, and point of view of the client and not the end user. It seems like almost a no brainer but it wasn’t happening in large part because there was a gap in understanding or empathy between the client and the general public.

On the Grid

Assuming that social impact businesses have smaller budgets than other kinds of businesses, does in turn, limit the financial growth of your company?

I think there are misconceptions of working in the social impact sector that people don’t have money. Budgets are definitely tighter which requires us to be more efficient and nimble. [That being said], just like a nonprofit or foundation has to pay for rent, they also have to set aside budgets to pay for communication.

The way we make decisions is never bottom line first. We always wanted to run a sustainable business and that our livelihood was secure and that of our staff. However, it was never through the filter of what would be the maximum growth path. What will make us happy? What’s the path to work that we’ll be proud of and the relationships to clients that are meaningful to us?

How do you decide what companies to work with?

Some organizations are no brainers: they’re fighting for a more equitable society or trying to untangle the criminal justice system or the education system. Then there are situations when there’s more of a gray area. Especially when you start entering the social enterprise space when business and social impact go hand in hand. In those situations, we ask ourselves: what are the real motivations of the client, what dent they’re trying to make, what might be controversial in their ideas, and would we feel uncomfortable if we had to defend them? It’s not black and white; it’s a lot more nuanced.

How do you work with clients that know very little about design?

When we’re working with a client who really needs a lot of education and who doesn’t necessarily understand the values of design or really what it is, that’s sort of ground zero. For us, it’s not just about making a logo or a website, it’s about using design as an approach to thinking and problem-solving. What we’re trying to get clients to believe in is the process. If they are active participants in the process and can understand it one step at a time and understand the rationale, they will have greater trust in the final outcome.

How does a business know when they’re ready to start working with a firm like yours?

From a practical sense of running a business, you have to be very attuned to when you’re ready to enter a deep design process. It’s not something that happens quickly and it does require an investment of time and money. I think it’s okay for organizations to be very scrappy until they get their footing.

Vera Institute of Justice

Can you give us an example of how a client’s business has been affected by your work?

The Vera Institute has been around for more than 50 years and has some of the most impressive experts in their field working there. But their website used to make it very difficult to understand what they actually did. The new site we designed for them, which was a deeply collaborative process, immediately increased their profile as a leader in the criminal justice space. The process gave staff a huge moral boost and their new site has led to greater fundraising and success in securing grants.

What makes you proud of the work you do?

We love transformational moments. Basically organizations that have a history and know who they are but aren’t projecting it correctly. They’re rockstars in their field but are wearing khaki pants; basically they’re poorly dressed. Our job is to get their communications to the level of the sophistication of their work.

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