Applying Adobe Design’s process to social challenges

The tangible impact of our four-day Design Workshops for Good

Illustration by Karan Singh

Late in 2022, Adobe organized a workshop in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Over four intensive days, seven small teams reimagined how to give adolescents, living in armed conflict contexts, access to distance learning programs. More important than the recommendations for how they might tackle this specific issue, was what they learned about applying a design process to future challenges.

Developed in a partnership between Adobe Design and Adobe Corporate Social Responsibility, Design Workshops for Good provide non-profit organizations with a crash course in how to apply design processes to real-world problems. The workshops, one of the ways our team gets involved in pro bono work, are led by Adobe Design facilitators who teach and promote design thinking for product ideas, business solutions, and social causes, by applying design problem-solving to a specific challenge.

The end goal of every workshop is the same: Teams share their top recommended solution to whatever challenge is put forward by the non-profit. To ensure that outcome, we’ve put in place a well-defined process that includes careful choice of our partners, a structured schedule, and a thoughtfully crafted challenge.

How our nonprofit/NGO partners are selected

In addition to the IRC, our past partners include The JED Foundation, Save The Children, Minnesota Street Project, Museum of the African Diaspora, Mary’s Place, The Climate Group, and City Year. Adobe’s Corporate Social Responsibility team handles selecting our non-profit partners; one criterion is that the non-profit is focused on social issues currently affecting the world, but there are others:

Non-profits benefit from the influx of new ideas for difficult problems they may not have had the resources to address but Design Workshops for Good also offer our design team an excellent opportunity to promote the design process, gain new skills and leadership experience, and contribute to our communities. And for volunteers across Adobe, it’s an opportunity to learn skills they can apply in their daily work and to better understand Adobe Design’s work. Those were precisely the reasons Nuekte Peisler–Ermler, a Senior Admin Assistant at Adobe, volunteered for the IRC workshop: “I don’t have a design background and had never done anything like this before, but I was really touched by the work that the IRC is doing. I also thought it would be a good way for me to learn new tools and skills—to educate myself and find design strategies that might help with my own work.”

Structuring the team and defining a challenge that’s “big enough” but not overwhelming

Led by Adobe Design facilitators, teams are made up of volunteers from various disciplines across Adobe and an expert from the non-profit who serves as a sounding board and answers in-depth questions. Depending on the number of design facilitators from our team and volunteers from across Adobe, the size and number of teams varies for each workshop. (For the IRC workshop, there were seven teams each with five to seven team members.)

Every time we hold a workshop there are two things we can count on: 1) time goes by incredibly fast and it never feels like we have enough, and 2) we must always remind people that the final presentation is only a recommended solution… not a final product or prototype.

For each team one person is appointed “co-facilitator” to welcome people as they join, acknowledge when someone might need a break, and ensure that everyone's voice is heard. Kelly Weldon, Staff Designer, Creative Cloud Services, who was one of the design facilitators for the IRC workshop, emphasized the importance of making sure everyone feels comfortable speaking: “If you’re in a workshop and you're not a designer, you might have a fear that your ideas aren't going to be as valuable [as a designer’s contributions]. I try to recognize who isn’t speaking up and ask them, ‘What's the best way for you to communicate?”

Workshops take place over a four-day period, but long before they begin, a challenge is defined to help direct workshop ideas. Crafting these concise, actionable questions can be tricky so we’ve put some guidelines in place to help organizations formulate them:

All attendees take part in a pre-workshop led by Adobe Design that teaches what design thinking is and why it’s useful, and to help deepen understanding of challenges, workshop volunteers are given a short reading assignment selected by the non-profit partner.

For the IRC, Raphaela Chakravarti, Officer, Global Technology Partnerships, International Philanthropy & Partnerships, International Rescue Committee reiterated the importance of that information: “One of the priorities for us was making sure to provide enough background and context for participants before the workshop, but not overwhelming them with too much information. We also wanted to make sure the challenge—How might the IRC engage adolescents living in conflict-affected regions in a distance learning IT program?—was clear and focused enough to spark productive conversations, and that preparation materials provided participants with sufficient context to come to the design thinking sessions well-informed about the complexities of the problem.”

A lot to do in a short amount of time: The outline for the four-day workshops

Every time we hold a workshop there are two things we can count on: 1) time goes by incredibly fast and it never feels like we have enough, and 2) we must always remind people that the final presentation is only a recommended solution… not a final product or prototype.

“When people with different backgrounds come together, with unique perspectives, skill sets, and cultures, you're going to create a more successful solution.”
Kelly Weldon, Staff Designer, Creative Cloud Services

For each workshop, facilitators are given a guide with information about how to structure the days, tips for keeping the process on-track, and a link to the team Miro board but the four days always start with information and end with celebration:

Day 1 begins with a panel of experts from the non-profit (or selected by them) who can speak deeply about the challenge. On the first day of the IRC workshop its Child Protection Team took the time to expand on perceptions about the organization and delve into the project. Raphaela noted : “ A lot of people think of the IRC as an emergency response organization, and that’s a big part of what we do. We’re often on the ground within 72 hours of the start of a humanitarian crisis, performing a needs analysis, delivering emergency services, and working with local partners to meet immediate needs. But more broadly, the IRC also provides sustained programming through the arc of crisis, and our work falls into five broad technical areas, which include health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power. These program areas also have a cross-cutting element of gender equality that informs and guides the full spectrum of our programs and services.”

Day 2 provides time for introductions and a creative, team-naming exercise (there’s usually a theme for these, like: favorite candy + favorite class in school = Team Skittles Math), then moves through the empathize and define phases of the design process.

Day 3 is a continuation of the previous day’s work and begins with further ideation and idea testing with the expert and ends with defining the recommendation. Kelly reiterated the importance of considering what the client might be able to do with your solutions: “At one point, we had close to 20 ideas; we voted to narrow those down to the best 5 to come up with something that felt like it could be packaged as a kind of curriculum that felt cohesive, and not overwhelming.”

Day 4 consists of a presentation where the team shares their recommendation with the non-profit partner (we use Adobe Express because it’s easy to create a professional-looking presentation with a sharable link), and celebration. Because the IRC workshop had seven teams, there were multiple solutions and Raphaela acknowledged that it could take time to implement them: “After receiving all the proposed solutions, our Child Protection team regrouped and put together a preliminary concept note with priority outcomes that included adolescents gaining foundational skills and having increased opportunities beyond hazardous labor practices, improved community-based engagement and mentorship support for adolescent boys and girls, and ensuring adolescents receive appropriate responses to violence and exploitation. Exploring each potential solution and implementation will require more time, but these tangible and proposed solutions are so valuable to our teams.”

At the end of the IRC workshop Kelly summed up best the true value of Design Workshops for Good: “When people with different backgrounds come together, with unique perspectives, skill sets, and cultures, you're going to create a more successful solution.”

Thank you to Ashley Rhodes Roberts and Kim Kerry-Tyerman for their partnership creating, scaling, and sustaining this program, and a massive thank you to all the Adobe volunteers who’ve taken part in it over the years.

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