SBAIC News

Design Studio Picture Impact Exemplifies Small Businesses’ Creativity, Agility & Ability to Affordably Deliver

Sara Thompson, Co-founder & Director of Strategy & Operations and Katrina Mitchell, Co-founder & Creative Director, Picture Impact

In a multi-billion dollar global industry and in an environment full of multi-million dollar firms, small businesses play a crucial role. We may not have resources of large contractors, but what we lack in size, we make up for in our ability to think boldly and pivot quickly, helping our partners innovate and perform.

As a small and women-owned social design studio, we are experienced in meeting the needs of our clients, while surprising them with the breadth and depth of our skill set. For a small shop, we have a lot of expertise, and we need to; being a small business demands that we constantly learn, flex and adapt as we grow and take on new areas.

Small businesses can help enhance program effectiveness. Small businesses can be great partners in: Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) and other iterative, adaptive program structures. Small businesses are able to easily pivot and adopt new practices.  And, we’re able to adapt our scopes of work to meet the evolving needs of the project. With solid back-end policies and light bureaucratic structures, small businesses are able to turn on a dime and contribute to program adaptation in a meaningful and rapid manner. Engaging with small businesses can be a great, low-risk way to innovate and explore new ideas.

Picture Impact is a core team of expert generalists who can think across technical areas. As a small business we are not siloed in our approach. This is partly by design, but mostly through the fact that we simply aren’t large enough to have a segmented structure. Each of us wears many hats, from operations to design, marketing to project management. This ability to think and work across skills, knowledge bases, and roles is very useful in crosscutting thinking and collaboration – all of which is very challenging to do within a larger organization. We each can simultaneously think from the mindsets of multiple roles, bridging ideas across disciplines and technical areas. For example, while developing a curriculum delivery tool for a Feed the Future program in Northern Nigeria, we found a need for stories and images that demonstrated the program’s reach and impact. Our broad skill set allowed us to see this need and easily repurpose images from discovery to communications.

As a small business we have to be flexible, resilient and bring multiple skill sets to our work. We also have to collaborate and use our expertise judiciously, knowing how and when we can contribute most effectively, and when we can’t. There are many opportunities for small, but highly effective, engagements within larger development activities; both as subcontractors and as primes. Small firms such as Picture Impact have expertise in human-centered design and social and behavioral change, and the ability to source and bring together multiple skills sets and experiences.  This makes us a great project partner, from a project’s inception to its completion.  And, our contributions are multi-faceted: discovery and scoping, program and material design, training and capacity building, meaning making and evaluation, storytelling and sharing, and more. While this set of services may seem impossibly broad for such a small studio, it is our very focused set of practices, principles and skills, that allow us to contribute deeply - while being only a small part of an overall budget. So, at a very modest cost, the client gets deep listening, curiosity, relationship, integrity, humility and optimism.

Small businesses can be great thought partners, critical friends, while providing “touch points” along the way. We are not tied to past processes or designs – we are creatively curious and adapt quickly. This is particularly useful during discrete parts of a project or program that require innovative thinking and adaptations, such as scoping, design, adaptation and learning.

Our size necessitates interest and expertise across sectors, and our outside perspective and agility makes us masters at innovation: sparking ideas, providing critical reflection and designing from opportunity, not by rote or constraint. In consultative relationships, we can provide an outside perspective while being intimately aware of the issues at hand.  And, unlike the abilities of a solo consultant, with a small business, you benefit from multiple perspectives while working with one entity.

As a small studio, we are not doers as much as we are thinkers, catalysts and supporters of work at scale. We must operate in a facilitative, light-touch, non-programmatic way–building capacity, leveraging resources and tools and problem solving.  After all, we have to be scrappy and innovative to survive as a small business in this industry.

Being a small women-owned business our market space is not necessarily easy. Our greatest challenge is the industry expectation for us to contribute our thoughts and talents to unpaid projects or think tanks, however altruistic they may be. Generous as we may be, we often cannot afford to participate in such endeavors, offer our intellectual property in co-design workshops, or participate in working groups that require extensive time and resources.

As international development continues to evolve, it is important to remember there are many ways to engage small businesses, particularly in design, innovation and capacity building. Let us help you think through a sticky challenge, or explore a new idea.