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Design It Forward: Partnership with a Purpose

Neighbor to Neighbor community development organization

The best thing about complex problems is that they force us to come together.

No one can solve them alone, not as an individual person or as an individual organization, university, or business.

That’s what makes the “Design It Forward” class such a beautiful experience. Now in its third year at NC State, it is an annual partnership between a team of IBM designers, NC State Institute for Nonprofits, NC State College of Design, and various local Raleigh-based nonprofits.

Each year, the staff at the Institute for Nonprofits helps to curate, evaluate, and organize a queue of Raleigh-area nonprofit organizations. This groundwork leads to the discovery of nonprofits with the potential to provide an engaging and dynamic environment for students to work in and learn from. The class, open to all NC State students junior year up to graduate levels, is taught within the NC State College of Design by a team of IBM Designers headed by Steve Kim, Design Director of IBM Blockchain.

For the IBM team, the student aspect is a key focus.  “As instructors we get to bring what we think about and talk about at IBM everyday and take it to the college setting. There’s something really nice about being able to share expertise and experience with people who are in the same place you were at one point,” says instructor Zach Nillson, who works for IBM in user research.

The goal of the class for students is to experience a hands-on, out-of-the-classroom learning process paired with a design thinking curriculum inspired by IBM design practices. Their final assignment is to deliver a design proposal that meets the needs of the nonprofit partner. 

While the nonprofits change every year, this year the class is partnering with Southeast Raleigh-based Neighbor 2 Neighbor (N2N), a community development and after-school program operating in the South Park area of Raleigh since 1994.

N2N serves students elementary through high school and focuses on helping students get back on track with their academics while discovering the “spark” that inspires them to work hard.

The major goal for N2N in working with the Design It Forward program is to increase their capacity to serve. As an organization with rigorous standards of attention and care for each of their students, they want to be able to serve more students without reducing those standards in any way.

Service Done Well

One major challenge often faced in partnerships like the Design it Forward class is that each entity involved has entirely different structures and practices.  

As such, the Institute for Nonprofits serves an important role in helping to establish strong channels of communication when selecting and introducing nonprofits to the class.

The willingness of the IBM designers, NC State students and the N2N team to learn from each other is always evident. N2N has been transparent about the areas they want to improve, while the design students have been clear about their uncertainties and their desire to solve them.

The IBM team operates with the knowledge that the solution begins and ends with the people being served. In return, the nonprofit has been tremendously transparent about their challenges while remaining inclusive about the voices they are bring to the conversation. Additionally, the opportunity to serve adds excitement to the students, as Engineering student Sakshi Sakshi points out. “Having a service aspect to the class is great. It’s so cool to use what we’ve been learning through the years to actually impact people.”

The service aspect also exposes students to a multi-faceted view of design work. The IBM team provides a lot of practical input with the design tools they use on a daily basis. The students are able to learn those tools while also challenging their notions on how design approaches may change with more nuanced situations.

It feels like an entirely different process from designing an app to designing for a nonprofit. Design templates are awesome, but everything doesn’t always line up perfectly and learning where those tweaks are is important,” says College of Design senior Ryan Frank.

For the Institute for Nonprofits, facilitating partnerships like the Design It Forward class is a great opportunity to help students learn to engage with both the public and private sectors. “The goal of this partnership is create impact,” says Elizabeth Benefield, Director of the Institute’s Social Innovation + Entrepreneurship Program. “But these students are getting the added benefits of these wonderful relationships with the Institute, IBM, the College of Design, and the local nonprofits. Partnerships like the Design It Forward class provide rich experiences for everyone involved.”