Design is a powerful tool, because it not only stretches your imagination to look for solutions that are unique and invisible, but also leverages the power of community insights to influence systemic change.
Aditi Wagh, our next pathbreaker, Design Researcher & Strategist, works at the intersection of research, advocacy and innovation to come up with creative solutions for social impact.
Aditi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about applying her background in social justice, communications, and human-centred design to tackle complex social problems.
For students, to put it in simple terms, Design research and strategy is all about applying creative methods to understand the problem context, uncover unmet human needs and co-create people-centric products, services, and experiences.
Aditi, tell us about your background?
I am a Design Researcher and Strategist. To put it simply, I apply creative methods to understand the problem context, uncover unmet human needs and co-create people-centric products, services, and experiences.
I was born in Ahmedabad and brought up in Vadodara. Since childhood, I was creatively inclined towards arts and crafts, music, dance, and poetry writing. Whether I was good at something or not was secondary.
Growing up in a liberal household with extremely supportive parents was perhaps the reason I made and continue to make professional and personal choices based on what I gravitate towards. We lived in a very tight-knit neighbourhood, therefore the culture of helping the community was a critical part of my upbringing. Annual family trips were a tradition. Perhaps, my love for travelling and conversations motivated the decision to choose a profession that promotes both.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I began my academic journey with Sociology. The discipline offered a profound understanding of social structures, problems, communities, and cultures. My worldview widened; I developed a multi-contextual and multi-disciplinary lens.
Next, I studied Mass Communications, specializing in Journalism from Symbiosis International University. The ability to gather, manage and disseminate knowledge in an articulate, accessible, engaging, and inclusive way is significant to the change building process.
Recently, I also acquired a Master’s in Social Design from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Social design is the application of design methodologies to tackle complex human issues. We specifically studied a creative approach to people-centric solution building called Human-Centered Design (HCD). HCD places people at the center of the design process, meaning that people affected by the challenge are included in the design process every step of the way. This ensures the solutions are tailor made to suit their needs.
Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
After completing my first Master’s, I spent almost 4 years leading strategic communications and advocacy for nonprofits. I worked with causes such as climate change, human-trafficking, sustainable agriculture, child sexual abuse, gender inequity, and social inclusion.
While Communications for Development is a critical tool to foster social and political transformation, I wanted to do more. I was seeking something that would equip me with tools to tackle problems effectively and deliver a more tangible outcome. This search led me to my current profession.
As a Design Researcher & Strategist, I can’t solve complex problems, but what I can do is identify opportunities for change, empathize with the communities closest to the challenge and facilitate sessions that ensure diverse voices make it to the decision-making table. That means coming up with inclusive, feasible and holistic solutions.
Besides, this profession allows me to organically apply all that I have learnt. My practice lies at the intersection of social justice, communications, and design research.
How did you get your first break? Tell us about your career path
I deeply value learning and growth. The larger goal has always been to do work that matters and makes people’s lives simpler and better. My journey so far has been about finding the best possible way to do that.
My first internship was with The Daily News & Analysis newspaper during my post-graduation. While the first few bylines felt exciting, reporting felt mundane and not the right medium to tell the stories I wanted to. The consecutive year, due to my father’s demise, I took up a corporate communications gig with a tech start-up to be with my family. The opportunity came through a friend’s reference. I was a content and digital media strategist occasionally helping with product feedback and marketing. Being my first full-time job, the learning was incredible. But my calling had always been to work in the development sector.
So, while working the full-time job, I co-founded a 2-year pilot project called Goonj with a group of fellow volunteers; we partnered with a feminist NGO, Olakh. Our mission was to create a safe space for underprivileged children and bridge the privilege gap by offering supplementary education, career-counselling, and life-skills training. Goonj was the push I needed to quit my corporate job and do something more meaningful with my time.
Shifting from corporate to development was a big step, especially from a financial standpoint. Thankfully, I was at the beginning of my career path, so I just jumped in. I joined Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a boundary organization working to address climate change. I was responsible for seeing through development communications and policy engagement driven digital and print deliverables. As WOTR engages in verticals ranging across ecosystem-based watershed development, climate resilient agriculture, sustainable livelihoods, etc., my role required thorough research and pan-India field work. I had found my sweet spot between research, communications, and social justice.
After working with WOTR for almost 3 years, I took up the lead communications role with Prerana, a non-profit committed to end intergenerational prostitution and combat human-trafficking. I built an online resource center and knowledge hub to capture decades of research, best-practices, learnings, stories, and ongoing policy discourse. Additionally, I was to develop the organization’s digital advocacy materials, program-specific products, and dissemination strategies.
Working with civil society organizations and extensively travelling to rural India, I found that community insights can be a catalyst for inclusive problem solving. Conversations around transfer of power transfer in decision making and empathy building were absent or restricted to the rudimentary participation. The gap between different systems that should work together for effective functioning of our society became explicit. I wanted to ask the right questions, discover invisible possibilities, and transform this silo model of work into a more cohesive and collaborative process.
Around this time, I came across MICA’s Social Design program that adopts a practice-based approach to equip creative changemakers with the tools and methods to advance equity and social justice. Our cohort worked on a few projects. One of our firsts was smoothening the interdepartmental patient transfer process by designing a consent-based communication model for the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Next, we collaborated with the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing for their Community Ageing in Place – Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) program. Applying HCD, we created prototypes (an early model to test a concept) to improve training and transition, encourage collaborative sharing of best practices, and promote a supportive culture for older adults.
While studying at MICA, I noticed gaps in the Eurocentric higher education system in the United States. Preliminary research reflected the lack of culturally relevant support systems and its consecutive effects on student learning and wellbeing. Therefore, I developed my thesis around co-creating cost and time effective tools based on insights gathered from students, faculty, and staff. I also offered action-based recommendations for universities to build a robust student-centric ecosystem.
Eager to explore the health-tech space, I pursued a Social Design Fellowship through the Center for Social Design, and collaborated with a Baltimore based mobile health start-up, emocha. The mobile app connects primary health providers with patients to encourage medication adherence using Direct Observation Therapy (DOT). I had to explore the possibility of offering the product directly to families, so they could care for their loved ones. This design research project offered the team rich insights around what it is that the patients, their families, and health care providers are looking for. Based on the findings, I provided product development recommendations and a care framework focused on patient needs.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Lack of resources and opportunities
To arrive at any decision, access and exposure to relevant information is crucial. More so when it comes to choosing your career path. In India, Design Thinking is a word that’s thrown around by corporates as a half-baked concept or restricted to user experience (UX) in digital products. The value of applying Human-Centered Design to service delivery and program planning within the governance and civic sector remains unrecognized unlike in the United States and European countries. Thus, the academic and professional options available here are limited. My introduction to this field was through sheer luck, it came from a friend already pursuing it. Having said that, things are getting better. There is an increase in the number of design studios and independent designers taking up social innovation. Furthermore, Chennai has its first Chief Innovation Officer; and Design Thinking is being introduced in the CBSE school curriculum.
Challenge 2: Keeping up with a constantly evolving field
What makes Design Research and Strategy exciting but also challenging is its fluidity. Which methods I apply for my research depends on what is the expected outcome. For example, if I am conducting a needs-analysis to unearth important user insights, offering action-based recommendations, building a service delivery model, or improving user experience; the approach will be tailor made to the project. You can apply design thinking tools, ethnography as well as quantitative methodologies. Finding the coherence in Human-Centered design and Systems Thinking (how different parts within a system interact with each other) and recognizing limitations in both is crucial. To be constantly informed about the discourse within global design platforms and keep your technical skills updated is a challenge.
Challenge 3: Balancing personal and professional lives
To live a full life, it’s important to take the time to process how you feel. This past year has been extremely challenging for a lot of us and our loved ones. When the pandemic hit, I had to leave a project I was working on mid-way and return to India due to the ill-health of my grandparents. For 8 long months, I was the primary care-provider, and it was a full-time commitment. Our family also had a long battle recovering from COVID-19 and unfortunately, everyone didn’t make it out. Post recovery, I took the time I needed to process the difficult experience and figure out how I wanted to move forward. I have found self-care necessary to grow, succeed and prioritize my physical and mental wellbeing. Therefore, I cannot stress this enough – always find your ground before running. Process how you feel to heal.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve as a Social Designer?
Currently, I work as an independent consultant. I build creative solutions for social impact. There is a dearth of professionals working at the intersection of research, communications and social innovation delivering a qualitative output in India. The idea is to collaborate with civic organizations, educational institutions, and social innovation agencies to share acquired knowledge. To listen; build on it and expand my practice. I love what I do as I get to work on a broad spectrum of passion projects and garner extensive experience.
Running your own show requires diligent organization and consistent networking. Especially, COVID-19 has laid a lot of restrictions on having in-person sessions with collaborators, participants or conducting field visits. It’s all online, which means I also sometimes have to offer technical training around digital visual collaboration platforms. The uncertainty of it all and collaborative working, especially with participants who might not have access to the same form of technology is sometimes challenging. But, figuring out innovative research tools is the fun bit.
There is no typical day; it all depends on the project at hand. If interested, you can check out my process and practice at www.aditiwagh.com.
How does your work benefit society?
Design is a powerful tool. It pushes you to stretch your imagination and look for solutions that are unique and invisible. There is value in its interdisciplinary nature, so any skill you have gathered will always find purpose. Social Design pushes you to question your biases and appreciate the power that community insights can have in influencing fundamental shifts. As a Social Designer, you are merely a facilitator, guiding people to design for themselves. Making sure all voices find a seat at the table irrespective of their social, political, and cultural identities is critical. Imagine applying the Human-Centered Design to understand people’s challenges, goals, and motivations; and accordingly framing a policy, building school curriculum, designing how the government delivers services, or assisting a non-profit build a program to influence systemic change. Of course, the scope is unlimited. If people share their needs, and help build an outcome encompassing those needs, that will yield sustainable and impactful results.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Every project is unique and so are the moments associated with it. However, if I had to pick one, I would say it’s my first master’s thesis project, ‘A sociological study on a Denotified Tribe –The Dafer’. The project is memorable for multiple reasons. First, the subject was unique and unexplored. It was my first ethnographic research work; I got the opportunity to closely observe community challenges and the dysfunctional systems that exist. I was quite taken aback by the field findings. This experience laid the foundation for my predisposition to seek a career that applied an interdisciplinary approach. More importantly, my late Professor and mentor, Ms. Mandakini Jha was an external guide on this project; it was a symbiotic collaboration.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
- Connect with people who are working as Design Researchers, Strategists or Service Designers. Don’t hesitate to ask silly questions. The more you interact with people doing work that interests you, the clearer you will be about this profession, its strengths, and limitations.
- Read voraciously and build social literacy. Join design groups, follow social innovation studios you are interested in. Some of the studios to begin would be IDEO, Scope Impact, Vihara Innovation Network, Dalberg Design and Greater Good Studio.
- Travel, India or elsewhere, to improve communication, observe people, find comfort in social interactions, learn how to build trust and rapport with communities. My solo trip across Europe broadened my worldview and gave me life skills that have been valuable to my work.
I want to continue being an enthusiastic learner and seek consistent improvement in my work. I want to collaborate with organizations that are producing path-breaking work. Developing new knowledge, innovative service models, advocacy, building capacities and system strengthening strategies – I am excited for all of it. Also, I plan to travel more, stay healthy and hopefully see through my French learning endeavors.