In August 2017, we led our first Designing for Social Systems (DSS) workshop that focuses on cultivating dynamic, creative and effective leaders. It’s an outgrowth of our Project Fellowship, and gives social sector leaders across the world a new way to learn and engage with the

DSS Background

In April 2017, we completed the fifth year of the’s Project Fellowship program. The 7-month program is based at Stanford, and invites social sector leaders to step away from their hectic lives and immerse themselves in the’s space and culture. These project fellows apply design and systems thinking methods to a specific project in their field. Through the experience, they gain deep insights on their projects and launch experiments that lead to a range of social innovations.

Over the past five years, we’ve made great progress in advancing the program’s curriculum, improving the fellows’ experiences, deepening the cohort dynamics, and integrating design coaches into the program.

However, while we hear from many social sector leaders across the country who want to participate in the fellows program, many told us they could not step away for the several months required. At most, they could commit to about one to two weeks.

So we asked ourselves: How can we share our program’s pedagogy, methods, and experience with a wider set of leaders in a considerably shorter period of time? How can we provide an immersive experience where they can apply design and systems thinking to a particular challenge, and explore how they might apply these methods to their own work when they return home?

Launch of the DSS Workshop

We set to work and created a new six-day workshop: the Designing for Social Systems (DSS). We held our first one in August 2017 with 43 wonderful participants from around the world. This article summarizes the workshop and gives a view into the experience.

When did it take place?

August 27-September 1st, 2017 at the Stanford

Who led the workshop?

The DSS teaching team – Thomas Both, Director of the DSS program, and Nadia Roumani, Senior Designer for DSS. 

Thomas Both, DSS Director

Thomas Both, DSS Director

Nadia Roumani, Senior DSS Designer

Nadia Roumani, Senior DSS Designer

The teaching team was joined by five amazing coaches: Margaret Hagen, Durell Coleman, David Janka, Erik Olesund, and Leticia Britos Cavagnaro.

From left to right: Margaret Hagan, Durell Coleman, David Janka, Erik Olesund, Leticia Britos Cavagnaro

From left to right: Margaret Hagan, Durell Coleman, David Janka, Erik Olesund, Leticia Britos Cavagnaro

Who participated?

43 leaders came from all around the world to participate in the program.

U.S.: California, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Washington, Washington DC and Utah.

International: Australia, France, India, Kenya, Peru, and the United Kingdom.

Participants hold leadership roles in foundations, nonprofit organizations, academia, and the government.  Participants came from a wide range of organizations, including the following:  Los Angeles County Office of Education, UNICEF, WestCoast Children’s Clinic, Seattle Innovation Team, The Health Foundation, Food for Education, Jackson Community Foundation, Office of U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, New School Venture Fund, Ford Foundation, Astrolabe Group, Microsoft’s Civic Engagement Team, Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria Australia, California Prevention Training Center, The Opportunity Institute, iLEAD Academy/Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, Napa County Health & Human Services Public Health Division, and Amherst H Wilder Foundation, among others.


What did participants experience and learn?

The workshop’s goal was to develop more dynamic, creative, and effective leaders. Participants learned human centered design and systems thinking practices and how to apply them to a social sector challenges.

One way to think about how  Systems Thinking and Design Thinking are related is this iceberg model.At the top both methods address what is happening, and going down the iceberg, each work to uncover trends and patterns. Ultimately, both methods get to the underlying why: the values and meaning leading people to do what they do.


Human-centered design is remarkable in its ability to unlock creative thinking and get us moving. Practitioners benefit from understanding people’s underlying needs, making sense of the situation to see the problem in a new way, and rapidly generating and testing ideas. 

In the workshop, we built on the intuitive, exploratory, and experimental nature of design and integrated basic systems thinking tools. We used stakeholder mapping to identify system forces that enable or inhibit the change we would like to see, and identified leverage points. This macro view brought a more holistic understanding of the challenge, and allowed a more strategic and impactful intervention.

There were sessions interspersed throughout the workshop, such as the practical integration of communications design, strategic planning, storytelling, and creating a more dynamic organizational culture.

Check out the workshop’s schedule below.

An overview of the workshop’s agenda

An overview of the workshop’s agenda

What were participant reactions?

The DSS workshop gives you a fresh perspective on approaching problems at work. It’s a rejuvenating, immersive experience that widens your perspective.
— A participant's post-workshop feedback

What is one of the most valuable things you learned during the workshop?

“How to test assumptions with design tools.”

“That leading change is creative work that requires experimentation and play.”

“How to align systems thinking with design thinking – in government, we have a heavy emphasis on the former but a nascent understanding of the latter. I was very helpful to start to get a sense of where the alignment falls.”

“How to be comfortable with discomfort and uncertainty.”

“Build to think. Prototype to probe. Don’t imbed the solution in your problem statement.

“A lot of my job revolves around having hour long conversations with people in the field, whether they be other funders, service provides, or the students we’re serving.  Prior to the workshop, I didn’t have any formalized mechanism for digesting that information. I would take notes and store them in a folder or drive. Now, I have a whiteboard set up behind my computer and after calls I’m working through that step.  I’m using these conversations to think through ways to redesign the toolkits we build.  It’s been enormously helpful.”

A Closer Look: More Details about the 2017 DSS Workshop  

i. Introduction to Design Thinking and Systems Thinking

The workshop began with introductions to both design thinking and systems thinking. As we moved deeper into the workshop, we integrated the two methods. They fuel each other: design is action-oriented, deeply human, and experimental; systems thinking is more holistic and provides a macro understanding of the challenge.

Participants learned how to move between these two methods. Systems thinking allowed them to consider the larger picture and where they might have greatest leverage, while design thinking required them to connect directly with beneficiaries and stakeholders to gain nuanced understanding and insights.


ii. Tackling a complex challenge: the Bay Area traffic citation system

Over the course of three days, workshop participants tackled the messy challenge of the Bay Area traffic citation system. The goal was to identify ways to increase safety for residents while decreasing the undue financial burden on residents. (Future workshops will tackle a different real-world challenge.)

The challenge was presented by our workshop partners: Stanford University’s Legal Design Lab, San Francisco Police Department, SF and Alameda Traffic Courts, and East Bay Community Law Center.


Teams of four to five participants worked together to gain understanding and insights about the challenge, develop hypotheses about the prevailing forces, and build prototypes of selected solutions.

This process included mapping the traffic citation system.


Participants interviewed various stakeholders in the system.

Participants interviewing at SF Traffic Court

Participants interviewing at SF Traffic Court

Participants with the SF Traffic Company, part of SFPD

Participants with the SF Traffic Company, part of SFPD

Teams unpacked and synthesized interviews from the field.

dschool_DSS_0817_PBeaudouin_186 (1).jpg

Teams identified leverage points and designed prototypes to test within the system.

One team’s prototype.

One team’s prototype.

DSS participants (yellow vest and black shirt) testing a traffic citation prototype in the field.

DSS participants (yellow vest and black shirt) testing a traffic citation prototype in the field.

Participants presented their findings to our project partners.


Our goal with this challenge was not to “solve” or “fix” the issue in three days.  Instead, we aimed to uncover meaningful insights about the different stakeholder experiences, needs, and motivations, and identify opportunities and spaces to explore. Our project partners commented that the workshop teams had uncovered some unexpected insights that the organizations could then build upon.  

Following the workshop, Stanford’s Legal Design Lab took some of our teams’ insights and built more robust prototypes that they tested in the Alameda courts the following quarter.

iii. Insights from past fellows and social sector leaders

Throughout the workshop, participants heard from past fellows and social sector leaders. The presenters shared how they have been applying design thinking within their organizations, programs, and policies in bold and innovative ways. They included:

  • Jill Vialet, Founder and CEO of Playworks, and Founder of Substantial (past fellow)
  • Angie McKee-Brown, Director of Innovation and Strategy, The Future Dining Experience, San Francisco Unified School District (past fellow)
  • Kriss Deiglmeier, President of the Tides Foundation

Presenters also shared mini case studies and examples of applied methods, including a session on prototyping experiences, spaces, and policies. These presenters included:

  • Holly May Maloney, teaching fellow, and Design Lead at Design Thinkers Academy
  • Scott Witthoft, lecturer, and co-author of Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration
  • Erik Olesund, DSS coach, and co-founder of Collective Capital

iv. Learning how to apply the workshop’s methodologies at home

With guidance from DSS coaches, workshop participants spent the last two days at the scoping a project and an experiment to run when they returned home.

dschool_DSS_0817_PBeaudouin_173 (1).jpg

The last two days also incorporated practical sessions on communications design, storytelling, and organizational culture. Participants learned how to design nudges in their organization that encourage colleagues to more actively integrate design thinking into the workplace.

v. And along the way, we remembered to play…


More 2017 DSS Workshop Participant Feedback and Recommendations:

What would you advise future DSS Workshop participants?

“Get ready to stretch your mind more than you have in a long, long time.”

“I would say go with an open mind to learn a new approach which will make you question traditional approaches. You can take pieces of it at work or utilize the whole approach depending on your set up.”

“Dive in and spend as little time as possible at the beginning worrying about whether or not you’re doing it right. Take advantage of this opportunity, it’s an amazing way to learn formalized mechanisms for organizing the work you’re already doing!”

“Bring one or more colleagues.”

Next Steps

SSIR Webinar

In December 2017, DSS teaching team Thomas Both, Nadia Roumani, and Omidyar Group’s Jeff Mohr led a two-part Stanford Social Innovation Review interactive webinar on Design Thinking for the Social Sector. The workshop can be watched on demand here.

2018 DSS Workshop

The second DSS workshop is scheduled for June 18-23, 2018 at Stanford University.  Learn more and apply here!

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