The Pivot Moment: Gray Garmon on Design for Social Impact


We interviewed two of our alumni, Gray Garmon and Shadrack Frimpong, about what they learned from the Social Impact House and what they’re working on now. Garmon and Frimpong recently collaborated on a project in Tarkwa Breman, Ghana, where Garmon helped design a community library and campus vision for the organization that Frimpong founded there. This is part of a three-part series on Garmon, Frimpong, and their collaboration; this article focuses on Gray Garmon.

From his freshman year in college through his first few years as an architecture graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Gray Garmon moved back and forth between the worlds of design and social impact. He started off in architecture school as an undergrad before joining the Peace Corps, then returned to school at Penn Design, took time off from his degree to work in Switzerland for international architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron, before founding a social venture focused on composting ventilated latrines. “For the longest time, I’d talk about my life…as kind of a toggle” between these two types of projects, Garmon says. Then he attended the Penn Social Impact House and discovered an “alignment into one path forward, that design and social impact are so much more effective together.” “That’s what I’ve been doing for the last five or six years”: combining his training in design and his passion for making a social impact.

Garmon, fourth from the right, working on a design project with a team in Ghana.

We asked Garmon about what new projects this has led to. He talked to us about a public art project in Dallas, the lessons he learned from the Social Impact House, and his love of teaching the next generation of designers.

Garmon, who now teaches in the School of Design and Creative Technologies at the University of Texas at Austin and is also an instructor for CSIS’s programs, practices Human-Centered Design, a design principle that puts people and their needs first. It’s “a methodology for tackling complex challenges that focuses on understanding people and then using that understanding to take action and make solutions,” he says. Human-Centered Design is an iterative process, creating things to meet people’s needs that in turn lead to a deeper understanding of what people need.

Human-Centered Design puts people and their needs first. It’s “a methodology for tackling complex challenges that focuses on understanding people and then using that understanding to take action and make solutions.”

Human-Centered Design was at the heart of one of his recent projects, a set of storytelling phone booths that he created in downtown Dallas. At the time, Garmon was teaching at Southern Methodist University, and he and his colleagues (Katie Krummeck, Rickey Crum, Edward Li, and Justin Childress) won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to work on a placemaking art project in collaboration with local non-profit design firm [bc]WORKSHOP. His team hacked old payphones and added technology that allowed anyone to walk up  and record a story into the phone or hear stories that others had recorded. The most interesting part for Garmon was not the technology itself but rather talking to the people of Dallas about what they wanted out of the project. He worked with local high school students to collect stories about the future of Dallas and talked to long term residents to gather stories about its past. The WonderPhone project catered to what people seemed most interested in doing when it came to storytelling: either telling their own stories or listening to “the story that somebody left behind.”

Now, Garmon is focused on teaching. At UT Austin, Garmon teaches design classes that are available to students across the university–not just those in the design school. “[I], and my ideas, and my personal work, can only go so far,” he says. While he still works on design projects of his own, he’s come to see education as “an incredible vehicle for amplifying the skills and voices and opportunities of lots of people.” To that end, he’s been using principles of design to rethink higher education. “It’s a little bit meta,” he says, “because we’re using design methods to redesign design education as a way of subverting all education…and we’re teaching design in the process.” Higher education has been around for hundreds of years, and in many ways, hasn’t caught up to the changes of the modern world. “It’s created for a certain type of person and a certain environment, and…like so many other aspects of our society right now, it’s available and ripe for redesign,” he believes. “And that is really exciting.”

Garmon teaching at the Penn Social Impact house in 2016.

Garmon credits his time with the Center for Social Impact Strategy for helping him understand the role of design in social impact, and how he can pass on this knowledge to his own students. He returned to Penn from Switzerland to finish his degree and to be a part of the Social Impact House, and that was where he learned about design thinking, which “was genuinely life-changing.” “I always thought I was speaking a different language,” he says, but the Social Impact House “showed me that there’s a whole community in the world that speaks the same language. It opened up my whole mind.” “It sounds dramatic,” he admits, “but you know, there are sort of these moments where…there’s a pivot that happens. And mine is truly linked to the Social Impact House in the Berkshires in 2012.”

When it came to design thinking, “I always thought I was speaking a different language,” Garmon says. The Social Impact House “showed me that there’s a whole community in the world that speaks the same language.”

For Garmon, one of CSIS’s greatest strengths is its community; so he has particularly enjoyed getting to know even more people through his time as an instructor for the Executive Program and Impact Houses. When he was a student, the Social Impact House helped him figure out the “core” of what he wanted to do, which was to “use design to create the largest possible social impact on the world.” This is what he hopes to impart to his students as well: to “build up the mindsets and practice a handful of tools and methods” they can use in their work, “so that [what] they do is that much more powerful and helps that many more people and makes this whole place better for all of us.”

One project that Garmon has worked on that certainly fits this definition is the library he designed in a rural village in Ghana. This project will be featured soon on our website. For now, you can catch up with Garmon on Twitter or through his personal website.

Gray Garmon is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Integrated Design in the School of Design and Creative Technologies at the University of Texas in Austin. Before UT, Garmon was a faculty member at Southern Methodist University and co-founder of the Master of Arts in Design and Innovation program. He practices human-centered design (HCD): a problem-solving approach widely used in industry, governments, schools and NGOs. HCD focuses on people first. Through specific qualitative research methods, he comes to understand the context in which people are functioning and how understanding behaviors, emotions and motivations can lead to better design solutions.

Garmon holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Science of Architectural Studies from the University of Texas in Austin. Garmon served in Peace Corps Ghana from 2007-2009, is a recipient of the American Institute of Architects Henry Adams Medal, and a University of Pennsylvania Social Impact Fellow. His recent design work includes a partnership with a health clinic and school in the western region of Ghana, an urban plaza prototype called Reimagine Crowdus St., and an NEA funded interactive art project called the WonderPhone.