The application of Strategic Design within complex social structures in humanitarian settings.

Humanitarian Design (2/2): Collaboration, Challenges, and Creative Solutions

Part 2  

Collaboration, Challenges, and Creative Solutions

The first post in this two-part blog series, examined the project context and framework, as well as dove into the complexity of applying strategic design methods to humanitarian settings. The second post in this series will discuss the importance of collaboration, the challenges we experienced, and the creative solutions our strategic design team produced in these complex social contexts, and consider the powerful impact strategic design can have in humanitarian settings.


In the context of social design, co-creation happens through facilitating an effective conversation between the provider and the community it provides for. At Iconstorm, our priority is to facilitate this conversation by developing methods to bring both sides to the table through a participatory approach to problem-solving. This requires a multi-faceted understanding which allows all actors to contribute to a discussion through hermeneutic methods and language, with the aim to overcome power imbalances between the actors.

Our design team, while working with OneHappyFamily, conducted several workshops with bespoke facilitation methods to achieve this goal. By the end of our on-site workshop sessions, all the participants and stakeholders had gained new insights into possible solutions towards their problems, as well as an awareness concerning the relationships to each other.

Further, our partners were happy to inform us that several new needs and desires of the community, which they had not previously been aware of, were highlighted and can be applied with immediate effect.


As a strategic design agency working in humanitarian settings, we faced various challenges throughout the project. Despite having best practice expertise in the team, such as ethical considerations, the constantly shifting environment proved to be a challenge. The physical space underwent major changes during the process, but we overcame this challenge by closely working with our partners. We also had to communicate our methodologies and approaches in strategic design more effectively, as many NGOs and private sector companies still view design as merely a style or user experience. Another challenge we faced was the emotional toll on some team members due to the difficult situations faced by the people we were working with. To address this, we held extensive internal discussions through formal workshops and informal exchanges, which helped foster ethically fair and non-patronizing work relationships with the users.

Creating Effective and Efficient Solutions

Identifying the core problems in a social design context can be challenging, but it is an essential step towards creating effective solutions. Researching the context, imbuing complexity, and co-creation are key factors that can help identify the core problems in a social design context. It is important to keep in mind that the design brief is not the final problem statement, and that it evolves with the discovery of new information. As strategic designers, our role is to facilitate the effective consumption of this new-found information by our clients and partners to help them make better decisions.

Through this process, we were able to not only offer design proposals for a new community center that aligns with the needs of its users and the desires of its staff, but also to establish connections with important future partners and devise a strategy to achieve our goals. Furthermore, we developed design guidelines and co-creation methods to increase the maturity of OHF and its partners, facilitating ongoing learning, and introducing new perspectives and approaches to their work. Our iterative and exploratory approach aims to foster more efficient and effective solutions.

Here at Iconstorm, we call this an enhancement of our clients’ design maturity.

To increase design maturity and empower the organization and users for a collaborative journey towards improving the community center, we identified three necessary solution parts:

  1. Strategic guidelines: These included a timely strategy on improving the community center, an actors map, research insights and user feedback, collaboration tools, and a guide on qualitative design processes, along with identified opportunities to improve NGO collaboration in strategic planning and daily business.
  2. Design guidelines: To give people guidance, freedom, and purpose, we created design guidelines as liberating boundaries. These included behavioral dos and don’ts, information system guidelines, ergonomic guidelines, and a style guide crafted with the users.
  3. Design proposals: We created design proposals for each room based on research insights and user wishes. These proposals included functions and aesthetics and connected to value propositions derived from the research.

After an initial evaluation, we held a design workshop with the NGO partners to start implementing efforts. We continue to support communication with the identified partners and have scheduled follow-ups at 6 months and 1 year for long-term impact.


Following this experience, we have gained confidence in the potential impact of strategic design in humanitarian settings and consider it a new area of growth for our agency. Our goal is to raise awareness of the power of strategic design, improve our approach to complex social settings, and ultimately achieve the greatest possible impact for global society. We believe collaboration and facilitation are essential in this field, an external perspective can offer new solutions, and as strategic designers, we are well-suited to undertake and execute transformative projects.

If you are interested in learning more about our strategic design agency and our work in humanitarian settings, we encourage you to reach out to us. We believe that collaboration and partnerships are key to achieving meaningful impact in these contexts, and we are always looking for like-minded individuals and organizations to join us in this mission. If you lead projects in the context of humanitarian and social settings, are interested in the impact of strategic design, and share our passion for creating positive change, we would love to hear from you. Please visit our website or email us directly ( to start a conversation.