How 3 Global Fellows Are Making Human-Centered Design More Accessible for Social Impact

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

One of the core concepts we teach in the MovingWorlds Institute is human-centered design (HCD), and how it can be used as a tool to increase equity and impact across sectors and disciplines. 

Once relegated to the realm of UX research, HCD has become mainstream: design firms, private companies, NGOs, social enterprises, nonprofits, and even governments are increasingly embracing it both as a problem-solving tool and as a brand differentiator. 

On the surface, this seems like a great thing. But dig a bit deeper, and it quickly becomes clear that not all organizations who claim to use HCD are truly applying it with an equity and impact lens. And as George Aye revealed in his op-ed ‘Surviving IDEO’, even organizations who claim to use HCD for social good can be wielding it to cause irreparable harm behind the scenes. 

This leads to the question: How can you separate the organizations actually using HCD for the greater good from the organizations using it in a performative, equity-washing way?

This is a story about three Global Fellows – Mike Hepler, Natalia Rudiak, & Joelle Atallah – whose quest to answer that question led them to each other, and ultimately, to launch a much-needed resource called the Social Design Directory. Continue reading to learn how!

Tapping into the Global Network

The collaboration began with a post from Mike Hepler (Cohort 10) on the MovingWorlds Institute Community forum. He explained, “I was in the early stages of trying to understand what companies were out there using HCD to make a meaningful social impact, so I put out a question on the MovingWorlds forum asking for advice or if anyone else already had a list of organizations that I could build on to accelerate that search process for myself.”

Mike’s original post on the MovingWorlds Community forum

A few days later, Natalia Rudiak from Cohort 8 saw the post, and knew she was in a position to help. Natalia had been working on a similar project herself, and as part of an earlier cohort, she had a jumpstart on her research and had already established value connections within the MovingWorlds global network. She explained, “I had spoken to the Director of the Institute, Cole, about the research I was trying to do, and he introduced me to George Aye, Founder of Greater Good Studio and one of the MovingWorlds Industry Leaders. His team was working on a similar project, and shared some resources with me including a Pinterest board with a list of organizations. I took those and added them to a larger spreadsheet with variables for each firm – things like location, specialty area, etc. and continued to add to it.” 

Natalia responded to Mike’s post, setting in motion what would eventually become the Social Design Directory. Natalia reflected, “Although I had never met Mike personally and he wasn’t part of my cohort, we were both part of the same MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellowship network and clearly aligned in our interests and goals. I sent him the list I had been working on, and as we got to talking, we realized we really had something here. We knew we weren’t the only ones who were trying to find these kinds of organizations, or the only ones having a hard time sifting through the multitude of diverse organizations in the HCD field. We started thinking: what if we decided to make this a community resource and eventually available throughout the larger world?” 

Different Perspectives Coming Together

Despite having vastly different life experiences, career backgrounds, and areas of expertise, Mike and Natalia were approaching the project from a similar angle: demystifying the human-centered design space for newcomers to the field.

Natalia shared, “Like Mike, I was really captivated by the potential for human-centered design to create sustainable solutions – both in learning about it through the MovingWorlds Institute, and in looking back over my past experience as a policymaker/elected official and realizing that I had in some ways been practicing it all along. I wanted to connect with some of the studios doing this kind of work, but found myself really struggling to separate out those designing for social impact versus those designing for private profit.” 

The same thing was true for Mike, who shared that “even though my PhD work was in nuclear verification technologies, I actually had the chance to design and teach a course on engineering projects for development and taking holistic approaches (ie building a prototype and testing it in the community.) Just like Natalia, I had been practicing HCD without realizing it at the time. So this is clearly something that there are endless applications for across fields and specialties, and Natalia and I had the goal of creating an organized surgical list of organizations that newcomers from any background could use to elevate HCD in their organizations.” 

As Mike and Natalia built out the directory, they remained in close contact with their fellow cohort members about their progress. Natalia shared, “I had developed a close friendship with another Fellow from my cohort, Joelle Atallah, so she knew about the project all along from our personal WhatsApp chats. Coming from a completely different professional background, Joelle was able to add a unique and complementary perspective to the work Mike and I had started. As the project gained momentum, we invited her to join as an official part of the team. Thankfully, she accepted!” 

Unlike Mike and Natalia, Joelle did come from a background in design thinking and HCD. In fact, a big part of why she joined the Fellowship was to learn new ways to apply HCD in her work delivering trainings and working in-house with NGOs. Joelle reflected that, “I realized that there was a need for this type of resource not only for people who were new to the field of HCD, but also for HCD freelancers and practitioners like me who want to learn about other organizations and professionals doing similar work. When I brought the idea to Natalia and Mike, we realized that approaching it from both perspectives could really bring a lot of people who have this HCD interest together in one place.”

Developing the Social Design Directory

With a clear vision, Mike, Natalia, and Joelle got to work, using HCD principles as the foundation of it all. Joelle explained, “When I joined the team, I applied my HCD background to help make a plan for the work we would do to reach the next stage. We did a series of interviews, developed an empathy map, and gathered suggestions and ideas about how people really want to see this information presented and how they plan to use it.”

The team is continuing its outreach and is fully embracing the iterative, continuous improvement approach. “We’ve uncovered a lot of interesting insights so far, and this project will definitely grow bigger over time. We’re still not sure what the next iteration will look like, but will be conducting another series of focus groups. From the initial insights, we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and people really see the need for and value of a resource like this.”

With the help of Mike’s web development skills, the team launched the prototype of the Social Design Directory website at the end of March 2021.

Screenshot from the homepage of the Social Design Directory

The team explained that there are three main uses of the website right now:

  1. Exploring and familiarizing – Allowing people to use it! Whether you’re a designer or new to space, spend some time clicking through the list and exploring the features.
  2. Networking – The public can reach out to people and organizations that they find in the directory.
  3. Learning – Accessing resources about other types of projects and methods for HCD (related to a variety of specialities like architecture, public health, etc.)

Natalia elaborated that, “When we talk about expanding this project, it would be expanding mainly on those three things. Our HCD process will lead us, and we will keep doing focus groups as led by Joelle to continue to see where newcomers and others can derive value.”

Building on Natalia’s comments, Joelle added that, “As the project continues to grow, we hope to add a fourth use of the site, which is collaboration: contributing and sharing to help grow the network. This is an open resource that belongs to everyone in the world who is interested in HCD for social impact. The sustainability and growth of this project is all based on their support and involvement.” 

We are excited to see how this valuable resource continues to evolve, and inspired by the initiative that Mike, Natalia, and Joelle took to get it off the ground. Reflecting on how they all came together, Mike had this to share about the role of the Global Fellowship: “Throughout this entire process, we’ve been in contact with Cole, the Director of the Institute. We’ve periodically touched base for updates, like when Natalia, Joelle, and I first met, talking about the viability of a resource like this, and getting really positive and constructive feedback about what to do next or who to reach out to. As Natalia mentioned, Cole connected us to George Aye, which really helped our project get off the ground in earnest. We’re grateful for his support throughout this process.”

The feeling is definitely mutual. Cole shared, “When these three got together with the goal of creating a more comprehensive and global map of the organizations doing this work, it really got me excited. Not only was it a great way for them to explore this broad ecosystem, but they also modeled this amazing generosity in creating this resource for anyone who wanted to use their skills for greater impact to understand which organizations are truly doing this work out in the world. It’s something that not only is a tool and a resource for MovingWorlds Institute Fellows and alumni, but this is for anyone wanting to use their skills in an organization practicing real HCD.”

We’re grateful to Mike, Natalia, and Joelle for taking the time to share their inspiring story with us, and we hope you’ll check out the Social Design Directory for yourself! Want to get involved and support this project? The team is looking for both marketing and web design support for the next iteration of the project. You can get in touch at

Considering launching your own social impact project? Apply to the MovingWorlds Institute for the network, resources, and guidance to turn your ideas into reality.