Pragya Mahendru on Social Design and Influence

On a beautiful Sunday morning, Pragya sat with us in a small cafe in Brooklyn and told us her journey to becoming a social designer. She grew up in New Delhi, India, and has always challenged herself to get out of her comfort zone. We loved hearing how she defined social design as a practice and her hopes for the future of design. She is now working at the United Nations as a communications designer. She also told us about how to initiate positive change within and outside the workplace. Read on to see why she thinks influence is so important and the secret behind her beautiful tattoo!

Pragya, can you tell me how you became interested in social design?

I grew up in New Delhi, India, which is much bigger than New York. It has 30 million people in the city, and it’s spreading to the entire region! I also grew up in a very large family with a lot of people. As a result, I was always aware of limited resources, and I became really good at sharing. Empathy was built into me from the beginning.

I tailored my education in high school toward architecture and design. Eventually, I moved to Bengaluru in the south of India to continue pursuing art and design. I was totally out of my comfort zone, and I didn’t know the local language or culture. That learning experience was very good for me. India has extreme poverty and a huge economic disparity, and thus has unique design constraints. With limited resources, I learned to use design for social good and using human-centered design principles to create meaningful products and services.

After graduating, I saw my friends going into traditional design jobs. But I didn’t see a career path in India for myself at that time. I was motivated to study more and build my knowledge. I applied for the Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts, and that is how I started my path to become a social designer.

You mentioned that all design needs to be human-centered. How is social design different?

Social design is the application of design methodologies to solve for complex human problems. It is the design of systems and relationships within any community.

Through social design, we leverage interactions between people and their environment to create positive systemic impact. By bettering any one relationship, it has a ripple effect on the entire system.

After studying different types of communities, I have learned that people always know the solution to their problems, but are unable to act on that knowledge. As a social designer, it is my responsibility to uncover the barriers, prototype possible solutions, and empower the community to make the change. I, as an individual, have no knowledge of how to help rural communities. But through the process of social design, I am confident that I can make positive social change.


 Pragya’s thesis project Wealthier with Water where she reimagines the water supply system for rural villages in India

From what you are saying, it feels like the role of designers is changing. What do you see in the future of design?

Designers are amazing creatures because we can adapt to any situation. We take risks and further our practice. This helps us to constantly evolve and enter new fields without inhibitions. I think, in the future, designers will enter all different industries – policy, technology and more. We will start small, make small changes locally, and then scale that to make a bigger impact.

What are you up to now?

I work at the United Nations Development Programme as a communications designer. The UN is such a great organization to start my career in.

It is a very ethnically diverse place of work, where people are brought together with a mission to help development in the world. I sit next to people from all over the world and learning about their cultures is the most exciting part of my job. It is also really good to be in New York, the headquarters of the organization. With 170 offices, the HQ is responsible for all policy, funding, and oversight. I get a unique perspective of development challenges from here.

However, this is a very large bureaucracy. Everything has to be approved at so many levels, and this makes it difficult to get one’s ideas acted upon. Only if you know how to be political and work in the system, can you advance in your career within this bureaucracy. This is also why I do not see myself as part of the UN for a long period of time. I want to gain the most I can from this experience, and then move to a smaller country office where I am closer to the actual programming.

In school, we are taught to be rather idealistic. How do you deal with the compromises you have to make in the workplace?

I refuse to compromise. Okay, sometimes I do compromise, but I try to make the best of the situation.

I bring my passion to my workplace every day. I bring up important conversations and always find a way to make my voice heard. For example, at my workplace, staff members are treated better than consultants, even though they do the same level of work. I got all consultants within the different bureaus of UNDP-HQ together to discuss the grievances of consultants at the workplace. I followed due diligence process, and we are now having conversations with senior management about moving to better contracts for all global consultants in the organizations. From the beginning of this movement, I saw that I was able to get people together, create a sense of community and a common purpose, and rally individuals to take a stand for a bigger issue. I believe these are principles of social design that I was able to deploy.

Both those ideas sound awesome! How do you define power, and what makes you powerful?

I feel like power is influence. If you are the CEO of a company or if the prime minister of a country, you have so much power and influence over people. And what you choose to do with that influence is what makes you powerful, and I believe that influence should be used for positive change. When I am able to create positive change, I feel the most powerful.

What is something that gives you a boost of power when you need it?

An extra boost of “me” is my very first tattoo. I love to ask people what they think it is. Everyone gives different answers. People see birds, dancing clouds, ices cream swirls, and fire… but it is nothing. I created something that is NOTHING! I just made it up. It helps me to not take things too seriously in life and to just have fun with everything I do.


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