In visual graphic form, “Dick & Rick: A Visual Primer for Social Impact Design” tells the story of two designers working on a city park for a low-income neighborhood. The first, Dick, works in silo and fails to meaningfully engage the community that he is working with, in spite of his best intentions. The second, Rick, makes a point to engage the community around him, ensuring that he has their buy-in every step of the way. And while Dick consults community members on matters once he has a basic design for the project, Rick sits through endless meetings with community members as he tries to find a way for them to work together.

dickrick-4“Rick…demonstrates that community members have important expertise that is vital for the successful delivery of a project. Rick embodies the principle that projects should actively be designed with residents and not just presented and delivered to communities,” explains co-author Theresa Hwang.

Through “Dick & Rick,” the authors aim to show the importance of engaging community members in meaningful “…decision-making processes that shape the design and development of their neighborhoods,” says Hwang. She explains that “designing based on assumptions and good intentions is not enough.”

dickrick-2In the text, the two designers complete their projects over the course of the coming months, with Dick opting to hire an unpaid intern to help him (since it’s a pro bono project, it’s understood that the budget is tight), while Rick finds a way to pay his intern (who also happens to be a volunteer from the community). When the two projects are completed, one remains “unactivated,” failing to garner the interest of the community – in spite of attracting the interest of the media – while the second, Rick’s, becomes a starting point for other projects in the community.

social impactDeveloped by The Equity Collective and the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a group of practitioners that helps designers develop tools to advance social justice in the community-engaged design field, “Dick & Rick” puts forth its message in no subtle terms: it takes people and not just good design to activate a space and make it habitable by communities.

According to co-authors Theresa Hwang and Christine Gaspar, the text attempts to encourage greater critical reflection in the field – although they by no means intend to caricaturize different types of designers. They explain that “Dick and Rick” is a reminder that any designer can be a Dick or a Rick, depending on the circumstances. “We believe [that Dick and Rick] are the same person, which is why they are drawn that way. We think all of us are sometimes more like Dick and sometimes more like Rick, and our goal in this project is to remind us all to try to be more like Rick more of the time,” they explain.

Which is not to say that Rick’s focus on the community detracts from his focus on good design; in fact, the duo argues that effective, impactful work should combine design excellence with community-driven processes. Ultimately, Gaspar and Hwang say, their target is to help designers to be more reflective about their practice and improve their work – all the while encouraging them to have a higher standard for their work. “Community partnership is an explicit part of both [Dick and Rick’s] practices. They are just approaching it with different assumptions, skills and levels of criticality,” says Gaspar.

In demonstrating how good design must also be functional, Gaspar and Hwang emphasize the shift of focus from the financier or owner of the project to the end user – i.e. the community. According to Hwang, perceiving users as the client helps designers calibrate the social impact of the process as well as the end result. “Community-engaged design projects are not just projects located within low income communities or in areas where design is traditionally not present. Community-engaged design leverages the design process to create more decision-making opportunities for community members, so that ultimately they have more ownership and power over where they live, work, and play,” she explains.

Hwang notes the importance of developing soft skills like “…listening, facilitation and strategic synthesis of information…” in designers who are working on social impact projects. “Designers doing this work need to be able to translate community needs and push issues up from first order observations into solvable design problems, not just be documentarians of what the communities suggest,” she adds.

Social Impact for Communities

Earlier this year, we spoke to Field Director and Landscape Architect at Washington Parks and People Jeffrey Catts, who explained how essential the involvement of the local community was in the group’s work to make Marvin Gaye Park a liveable, habitable environment. Based on his own practice, Catts aptly noted that engaging the community every step of the way was key to the success of the project. He also noted the huge time investment required from the team to engage different stakeholders from the community – an issue that remains unaddressed in “Dick and Rick.”

Rick’s approach, which includes lengthy neighborhood meetings, disagreements over priorities and countless hours attempting to reconcile the interests of different stakeholders, clearly consumes more time and energy from both the designer and the community. In spite of that, the two designers appear to finish their projects around the same time. In other words, the actual cost of creating a project that has the buy-in of the community is somewhat misrepresented.

For the co-authors, it is clear that the benefits of saving time or money in a shorter process that does not ensure the buy-in of the community is rarely worth it on the long run. “From any perspective, a project that is unused or unvalued because it doesn’t meet its target audience’s needs is hard to classify as a good use of funds,” says Gaspar. She explains that the flip side is asking for the community’s involvement and then disregarding their input, raising the question of how to ensure that both the designer’s time and the community’s time are respected in the process.

“Community-engaged projects often reap financial benefits once in service. Often times because the project is appropriately informed, the programs flourish, but also begin to ripple impacts in other areas. Using the park as an example, with the construction of a highly successful park and engaged youth programming, there is likely a decrease in spending on public safety. The impact of really good work can be systemic and lead to cost-savings in multiple arenas beyond the project costs,” says Hwang.

“It’s great that so many people are interested in doing design work that has a social impact. But after so many years of that work existing on the ground, we all need to be more critical of how we do that work,” says Gaspar, noting that assuming that designers are “helping those less fortunate” through their work reflects a colonial mindset that is of no benefit to the community.

“We also want to make clear that doing good work is not a one-time thing. We have to constantly re-assess how we’re working and push ourselves to do better…We hoped that this project would be a playful way for people in our field to be able to laugh at themselves/ourselves and take a step back. We want to give ourselves a way to say ‘I was not a Rick this time. I need to work on that,’” she adds.