9/22/2022 Fall ’22 Designer in Residence: Karen Proctor, Improv Lab

Megan Fath. That’s why.
Among other things, Megan Fath is putting the human in human centered design. She teaches Disruptive Design at DSI.

DSI: What’s design for social innovation?

It’s taking the principles of design thinking that we use for product and communication and applying it to social issues. When I was young, designers were just starting to build websites and I didn’t like the adventure because you lost control. At the time you couldn’t anticipate how your design may display on someone else’s monitor. What was interesting then, and what I’m passionate about now, is understanding those moments when we have to cede control as designers and become facilitators in the experiences we want people to have. It’s a lesson for social innovation. My typical design education prepared me to have very tight control over everything and to care deeply about the nuances of form and style. That doesn’t necessarily translate into our current profession.

You can’t control people. You can’t control most of the environment in which they’re having these experiences, so I think it’s more challenging and interesting.

DSI: Could you talk about the work you do?

Conifer is a strategic insights firm of about 15-20 people. We’re a really small group of social scientists and designers who help our clients understand human behavior and strategy for development and innovation. We have a wide range of clients and topics that we’re constantly looking at. Some are “do-good” topics and others are wickedly complicated business problems.


What people say and what they do are two different things. That’s what we specialize in. We try to understand nuanced human behavior, unconscious needs, and motivations. It’s a fun job.

DSI: Could you talk about the importance of having your research focused on the user?

There are a couple of reasons it’s so important. Our research focuses first on the problem of understanding. What a business mind sees as a problem is not necessarily the problem people are having. Many organizations don’t have daily contact with the users of their products and services. For Example, I worked on a project for a textbook publisher at a time where book sales weren’t matching college enrollment. They had previously focused on professors because professors were the ones assigning the book. When professors talked to the publisher about students, they only referenced the students they were familiar with. What we discovered in our research was only a subset of students had active rapport with professors. There were a large segment of students with different needs and behaviors that had gone unaccounted. Consequently, assigned textbooks only worked for a subset of the students. That’s a pretty daunting truth for the textbook publisher to learn. That’s my way of saying why we focus on the people.


To be effective designers we need to understand both behavior and emotion. That’s the root of every great design. Therefore a PowerPoint with percentages or a strategic roadmap based on competitive sets will miss the behavioral and emotional connection.

Often times we have to push past the stereotypes, provide new insights, and empathize with folks to make better, more intuitive decisions.

DSI: What role does empathy play in your work?

I think empathy is tricky. The first step in engaging people in problem solving is to realize that they’re not the ones they’re trying to solve for. If you’re operating from sympathy anything that you’re trying to accomplish comes from “it’s better than nothing”. Whereas if you’re operating from a level of empathy, it’s not only more genuine, it’s much more purposeful.

DSI: How do you pass these abilities and principles on to your clients?

We have a little mantra we never want clients to read or hear an insight. We want them to experience and insight, and that comes through careful collaboration. We bring people along with us on the research. Often times it’s a two-fold process, where you’re not only applying the observations and insights to the people or subject you’re studying but also to the people that you hired. I love every one of my clients and they have deep knowledge. Our goal is to help them see things in a new light that will inspire them to do work differently.

I think one of my best projects was one which by the time we got to the workshop the core team was so comfortable that I probably didn’t even need to talk. That is the level that we strive for. We don’t always get there, but that is the goal.

A lot of design is teaching. It’s the Excalibur of the work. Our design is not about sitting in front of a desk 8 hours a day. We need to go out, experience the world, and be collaborative. If anything, our work is teaching more than making things.

DSI: Could you talk a little about disruptive insights?

I truly believe there are different types of insights. I reject the ones that oversimplify the problem and oversimplify the complexity of the people and environment. Like everything in this process, it’s about iteration and following your gut. Disruptive insights are not the ones that occur on the first pass. They are the ones that linger. It’s like when you come up with a brilliant idea for an approach to a logo. It hits you in those off moments when you’re constantly churning on work and thinking about it.

When I say disruptive, I mean making organizations think and work differently. A regular insight is probably going to get you to change things up slightly, but it’s not going to have a measurable impact over time. A lot of what we’re trying to solve is not going to be achieved by looking at the status quo.

DSI: What would you like to tell students about the program, or about design for social innovation?

It’s about embracing discomfort. It is not a program that sets you up for a methodical and measurable way of working. Often times you are working through a fog and you don’t always know what’s coming. I think one of the things that always strikes me is that students need to be confident in navigating through the ambiguity.

Photo Credits:
Megan’s portrait: Aubrey Hays
136 W 21st St,
5th Fl.
New York, NY 10011
(212) 592–2205