Design Thinking

Calling for a Global Design Service Corps

Only a sliver of the world’s population currently benefits from well-designed spaces in which to live their best lives.

The US Peace Corps was birthed on this very day in 1961—mere months after then-candidate John F. Kennedy riled students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor at an impromptu campaign stop, inadvertently calling for the establishment of an international service corps. Kennedy’s promise for such a program sealed the fate of his presidential campaign and elicited 25,000 letters from young Americans.

Early Peace Corps volunteers were focused on two primary activities: education and community development. While the prior logically involved teaching in schools, the latter was more of a catchall—ranging from improving irrigation for farmers to the construction of schools and other buildings.

Although its ranks today are significantly smaller than they were in the 1960s, the Peace Corps remains the centerpiece of America’s civil service to the world. Over 200,000 Americans of all ages have served. Yet the United States’s service corps programs have long struggled to attract and effectively utilize volunteers with specialized skills, such as those from my own field of architecture.

Small numbers of architects, designers, and engineers have been involved in such programs, but the field has far more to offer. The quality of our lives, after all, is inextricably tied to the design of our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and our public spaces. Since the late 1970s, geographers have argued that “place identity” becomes a kind of cognitive “database” against which every single physical setting we encounter is experienced, and conceptions of our own self-perception and potential are shaped.

Unfortunately, only a sliver of the world’s population currently benefits from well-designed spaces in which to live their best lives. In fact, the most vulnerable of the world—the poor, the homeless, the elderly—are the least likely to have access to dignifying physical spaces. The same goes for vital public services. They’re also the least likely to have their voices heard in decisions made on their behalf.

We need to reverse these decades-old trends by creating a global design service corps. Modeled on the best practices of the Peace Corps, this pipeline could place our country’s (and ultimately others countries’) most promising young architects, designers, and engineers to work in community centers, health clinics, libraries, schools, social service agencies, even governments, and other mission-driven entities around the world.

Myriad skill-specific corps programs have emerged in recent years. With over 7,000 members in classrooms today, the largest among them is Teach For America, and now its international counterpart, Teach For All—and both are supported by a mix of corporate, government, and private funding. Equal Justice Works and the Skadden Fellowships are but two examples in law. And perhaps one of the fastest growing fellowships programs is Code for America, which places tech graduates in municipal governments to improve the delivery of public services.

There are roughly a dozen post-graduate fellowship programs geared toward designer types; collectively, however, they provide only a few dozen opportunities for well over 10,000 graduates annually. Among architects, for example, the Enterprise Rose Fellowship is a decade-old program focused on the development of affordable housing. It has placed nearly 40 recent graduates in community development organizations for three-year terms. A related program, called Design Corps, has trained several dozen fellows since its founding, including one this year. Combined, these programs elicit approximately 100 applications each year, with approximately four to six slots between the two of them.

Liz Ogbu working with community members in Tanzania. (Photo courtesy of

A greater indicator of interest can be found in newcomer, which elicited well over 500 applications in only its second year of running a fellowship program, and from which six candidates will be chosen next month. This week a small team of fellows are on the ground in Tanzania, working with more than 100 families on the development of clean cook stoves.

In short, there is a massive appetite for these kinds of opportunities among the next generation of designers, but precious few opportunities. With enormous pressures on governments and NGOs, as well as substantial unemployment in the global building industry (15 percent in the United States by some estimates, although skeptics believe it could be much higher), this jobs-creating program is more needed than ever.

Butaro Hospital, Rwanda. (Photo by Iwan Baan)

A large-scale design service corps could provide many times the number of fellowship opportunities as these existing programs, concentrating them in targeted cities where they could benefit from peer support and cutting-edge leadership development. It could offer a wide array of design expertise to a broad range of entities, and leverage local networks of professional service firms, building material manufacturers, and foundations. Profiled in the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog previously, MASS Design Group did exactly this, employing fellows through Global Health Corps in the construction of its Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, uniting the interests of the Clinton Foundation and Partners in Health.

Butaro Hospital construction. (Photo by MASS Design Group)

The key for this global design service corps will be imparting on its members and its host a clear set of values around the contextually appropriate, culturally sensitive design of both services and spaces. Living on the ground, embedded in communities, the corps also will gain the opportunity to learn directly from everyday people about the true social impact of design. And its members will see and show the world that design and service are not mutually exclusive, but instead a viable career path through which architects, designers, and engineers can put their skills to work for the public good, for once, and for all.

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  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON March 1, 2012 11:36 AM

    Great design has been core to our country since the days of the founding fathers.  Our constitution was an early experiment in design thinking and it worked remarkably well.  Design is core to much of what we export commercially.  It is one of the things that makes our nation remarkable and defines our greatest cities.

    We need to embrace design again as a country and part of that could well be adopting the model John suggests. It is part of renewing our country and raising the bar for what we expect from our government, companies and community. 

    We need to get to a place where we think of bad design as un-American.

  • BY Ramsey Ford

    ON March 1, 2012 05:15 PM

    John- Great article. What really stuck with me was: “Living on the ground, embedded in communities, the corps also will gain the opportunity to learn directly from everyday people about the true social impact of design.” An essential part of making this work is long term embedded collaborations and these types of collaborations require government or foundation support. However, the trend we have seen in funding, especially for design, or business, based engagements is for self-sustaining models. Thanks you for recognizing both the value of long term partnerships, and of the need for government/foundation/corporate support to make them work.
    It would be great to see a Design Service Corp come to fruition—let us know how we can contribute!

  • BY Kate Hanisian

    ON March 1, 2012 05:47 PM


    I agree with Ramsey that it was refreshing to see this post.  Great article.

    As the social design movement grows from a scatter shot of approaches to a standardized development practice, I hope that all of us involved can avoid re-inventing the wheel with our models and collaborate wherever possible. Design Impact’s model of partnering designers with NGOs and living on the ground for fully embedded, 10 month engagements is quite similar to what you are calling for. 

    We look forward to following this conversation and keeping up with the fantastic groups that are doing this work.

  • priyanka's avatar

    BY priyanka

    ON March 1, 2012 09:11 PM

    I know Peace Corps through a guy who was on the forefront promoting PC in Congress.

    As a designer, I learnt a great deal about understanding community through their lens and the value of immersion. Long term commitment is key to integrate, immerse and then begin to work with communities to develop structures that are appropriate. I also very much like Nabeel Hamdi’s approach for architects to move beyond designing buildings into designing ‘support structures’ that enable communities to build for themselves.

  • BY Michael Dixon, FAIA

    ON March 2, 2012 02:44 AM

    Dear John,
    As an architect serving in the Peace Corps currently in Ukraine, I appeciated your timely article very much. I am an “older” Peace Corps volunteer, having had my own historic preservation architecture practice in St. Charles, Illinois, for 31 years. I have brought my experience to Ukraine to the surprise of many, the staff in the Peace Corps and my new Ukrainian friends and co-workers. I have come to enjoy their hospitality and encouragement.  I would encourage joining the Peace Corps by architects with experience to share ... it is truly amazing how rich are the rewards I receive in personal satisfaction and enjoyment of working in a different culture where assistance is needed.
    I have been fortunate to work on restoration projects here in the city of Vinnytsia and in the villages of the region, ensuring that historic buildings and the culture of Ukraine is improved and passed on to future generations to understand and enjoy. One projectI am working on now in the concept stage is the development of a Museum of Folk Architecture and Customs of the Podolian Region which will promote an understanding of the rich culture and traditions in the villages. Side projects abound in a cultural exchange to share American ideas on handicapped accessibility, building safety and code issues. Architects can make a significant impact in the Peace Corps.
    Michael Dixon, FAIA
    United States Peace Corps
    assigned to the Podolian Agency for Regional Development/ Vinnytsia, Ukraine

  • BY John Cary

    ON March 3, 2012 11:46 AM

    Thanks to one and all for your comments. This is a subject that several colleagues and I have discussed for years. It’s one of the things that keeps me up at night and gets me out of bed in the morning, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review seemed like the perfect venue to write about it.

    As Kate Hanisian and Ramsey Ford graciously suggest above, Design Impact is another important model to consider. You can learn more about their good work here: Their 10-month fellowship includes a $300/month stipend to work in India—home to a third of the world’s poor.

    I am familiar, but not familiar enough with Design Impact’s recruitment and placement numbers nor their plans to scale. I make no judgement of their model, but one thing I admire about the Enterprise Rose Fellowship, Fellows Program, and Equal Justice Works Fellowship, et al is their commitment to paying their fellows a more than a living wage, and in some cases a competitive wage. Their stipends range from $30,000=$50,000 annually. To be clear, those are domestic fellowships, where the cost of living may be exponentially higher than in India, where Design Impact is commendably focused.

    In my latest piece for Architectural Record magazine, published a day after this piece, I catalog 14 post-graduate design fellowship opportunities.

    Thank you all, again, for chiming in with your thoughts and ideas. Much more on this to follow.

  • Willard Eastman AIA CSI RPCV's avatar

    BY Willard Eastman AIA CSI RPCV

    ON March 4, 2012 09:09 PM


    Gaining experience in the community in which one would be working is key to any projects success whether in a developing country or here in the states. Long ago and far away as a PC Volunteer in Liberia I was assaigned to work with the National Housing Authority on a Sites and Services seed grant/loan program that had started prior to the coup in early 1980, I arrived that fall. The RHUDO office of USAID was overseeing the implementation of the project led by a consultant team; management consultant/engineer/community development advisors, I was placed there as well at thier request within the design office.
    The Authority was undergoing considerable change as there was a complete change over in upper management personnel. I was fortunate in that I developed a wonderful relationship with a counterpart architect at the authority. The sites and services housing documents for bidding were finally prepared and ready for issue, after much debate and delay around why they were not to be completed houses. They reflected a single room and a wet core, comprised of an enclosed bathroom and an outdoor kitchen under a roof that spanned the two enclosed spaces. With the support and assistance of my counterpart we loobied for the award of bid to five small local contractors to construct 20 units each. This rather than a single award to a larger contractor. We attempeted in an informal manner to get the contractors to work together and pool their resources and negotiate pricing with suppliers whom were generally Lebanese or Indian at the time.
    Not in every location but the “Sites and Services” program undertaken by USAID and other development entities proved successful. Other projects included public toilets utilizing the cast-in-slab carved cement “P” trap toilets/showers as local community “run” maintained facilities, five cent access. This same approach was used to refurbish what had been almost finished prior to the coup then trashed as very large public toilets with outside laundry area and an adjoined concrete slab enclosed by three walls for trash collection. Working with a community association the idea of trash collection at a sanitary facility was nixed and it was determined that the establishment of a location that would be regularly collected away from the sanitary facility and adjacent school was a better idea. The garbage collection area was turned into a location for a car wash the overall facility was managed by the association and the nickle entry fee was required for restroom/showers or laundry. And if you did not have your own TP or soap you had to buy it from the association prior to entrance.
    Much has happened since I departed four years later, the country has undergone total collapse into anarchy and is working hard to rebuild. Unfortunately “lost generations” tose whom never knew school or any normalcy during formidable childhood years are now the ones most likely unemployed or unemployable because opf a lack of skills both social and trade. But the need is great with a capital that has swelled in size to easily three times its population in the early 80’s.
    Design Matters, whether it is the act of planning a development or spaces with others, participation in the process is empowering individually and to the community. My Peace Corps experience was an extraordinary learning experience that taught me much that I take with me each day to work in a small architecture firm and within the community groups that I am engaged.
    I was heartened to read your artcle, I participated in a Design in the Public Interest conference last fall at which the hospital in Rwanda was discussed.

  • Just ran across this on twitter (thanks @johncary!), and would like to throw out there that New Village Press, a child-organization of ADPSR, has just published a book on this very subject. I know that it sounds spammy, but the book, Service-Learning in Design and Planning, really gets at this- contextually appropriate pedagogy, and adjusting the way designers think about “service.” It’s awesome to see the idea gaining traction all over the interwebs.

  • BY Brian Gaudio

    ON March 9, 2012 07:16 AM


    A very well-timed article that raises some critical questions for the public interest movement. As an architecture student at North Carolina State, I am interested in design’s role as a systemic change agent and believe that integrating design-thinking into policy-making and government can be provide a much-needed new perspective to the existing methods. I also found your values regarding the importance of context and cultural sensitivity when forming a global design service corps to be paramount to quality place-based design.

    The question I always find myself asking is how can design schools begin to integrate these sociological and anthropological tool-kits into the curriculum in order to prepare us designers for work in the public interest field?

    If anyone has the answer to this or existing examples, please feel free to contact me: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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