5 Tips for Do Gooder Designers

This month in my hometown of Chicago I’m giving an encore of my WebVisions Portland talk, Activism ✕ Technology. After the original presentation, many conference attendees reached out expressing their interest in supporting activist movements through technical assistance, i.e. design and development. This post offers some practical advice for how creative people can get involved in authentic, empathic ways—illustrated by a story of my own well-meaning (and misguided) intentions.

Ten years ago, I got really excited to start a midnight youth running club modeled after urban collectives like London’s Run Dem Crew and NYC Bridgerunners. As a marathoner and Latino living in Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, I thought I was just the guy to do it. I organized the club’s structure, mapped out various street courses and even started working on a brand identity and manifesto.

I was so caught up in the director’s dismissal of my ‘concept’, I couldn’t appreciate his redirection of my efforts or recognize my own myopic view of ‘helping’.

I reached out to the local alternative high school and pitched their physical education director on my idea. Cutting my overzealous presentation short, he told me if I really wanted to make a difference and get to know his students, I should volunteer to help coach his P.E. class.

“Wait. What?!” I thought to myself. “This is a great use of my skills, it’s in my own neighborhood and I am willing to do it for FREE. I don’t want to coach phys ed—I want to help the kids!”

I was so caught up in the director’s dismissal of my “concept”, I couldn’t appreciate his redirection of my efforts or recognize my own myopic view of “helping.” The director knew exactly what this constituency of young men needed because he spent years gaining their trust, establishing meaningful connections and creating powerful learning experiences for them. Looking back it’s no surprise he wasn’t interested in my athletic abilities or youth running club idea.

It took 3 weeks of me volunteering at the high school gym to realize this mismatch of my passion and skills and the complexity of these young men at the intersection of culture, identity, gentrification, gang violence and lack of opportunity—not to mention the very real drama of just being teenagers!

While this situation didn’t involve technology, it’s a clear example of trying to apply talents and solutions without considering the end user first. Looking back, I knew very little about ethnography, observational research, participatory design or user testing—practical methods I now apply to make certain I’m designing and building the right thing for (and with) end users.

So how can designers and developers take action and support social movements? The short answer is to volunteer as a volunteer, first—not as a designer or developer. Fight the inclination to immediately create value and apply your design education, coding abilities, passion for technology and any preconceptions of what you think people might need. In the early days of your involvement, all those things can get in the way of your learning, understanding and empathy-building for the true need states of that nonprofit, foundation or activist group.

Here are 5 simple tips to avoid a volunteer fail:

  1. Identify the movement that matters to you most. Find your local chapter and volunteer to help—without worrying about leveraging your design or development abilities.
  2. Start from a place of service, not skills. Don’t be offended or bummed out if in the beginning you’re asked to help with what feels like basic tasks—trust (and fit) takes time.
  3. Treat your volunteer hours as observational user research. You’re not the expert, you’re not there to “fix” anything. You’re there to bear witness and be helpful.
  4. Look out for unexpressed needs. Workarounds, cheat sheets and cloogy solutions are often indicators of processes (outreach, research, funding, training, service delivery) that you might be able to help improve with design or technology.
  5. Read The Unexotic Underclass by C.Z. Nnaemeka.

Casey Gerald, the co-founder and CEO of MBAs Across America, suggests the thing we need more than anything right now is proximity. And he’s exactly right. It’s very hard to solve the big socio-political challenges we face without having proximity to the people most affected by those challenges. As creators and innovators we’re paid to design the future—but none of our concepts, platforms, apps, devices, systems and social networks will make a difference if we have not truly come in contact with humanity, so that the needs of those on the frontlines have become, at least in part, our own.

Life in βeta #wmcfest

It was an honor to close out this year’s Weapons of Mass Creation Festival.

Here are the seven key takeaways from my presentation (these are things I need to remind myself of all the time):

  1. Balance Strengths ± Weaknesses
    Stop trying to be awesome at everything. Recognize your strengths and limitations and find other people (fine artists, developers, illustrators, photographers, filmmakers, writers, researchers, etc.) to round out the effort. Form like Voltron. The 1980s anime combined 5 characters’ personality and skills into one Beast King GoLion with each team members’ special ability forming a specific piece of the robot. They were good on their own but when they merged and worked together they were the Defender of the Universe. Avoid working in a vacuum. Team up across disciplines.
  2. A Network Takes Work
    Build networks of generosity—don’t keep a balance sheet. When you meet someone, ask yourself, “How can I be valuable to this person?” without any strings attached. Sunny Bates describes a new “connection economy” where genuine, generous connections replace information as the new currency. Internships, workshops and conferences offer inside tracks to mentors and collaborators. Don’t be afraid to reach out to “professionals” or “industry experts” who feel out of reach. You’d be surprised how often you hear back. As Michael Beirut said, “Hijack your mentors.” Whether you end up working on a team or freelancing, the better your network, the bigger your success (see #1).
  3. Titles Are Insignificant
    Education matters. And so do life experiences. All I’m saying is it doesn’t matter where you went to school but rather what you learn. I have a BFA from the Atlanta of College of Art (a school that doesn’t even exist anymore) and no one’s ever asked me about it in an interview—ever.  There’s nothing stopping someone from a no name school from getting hired over someone from Yale other than talent and point of view. You are more than our pedigree, parents’ expectations, your hometown and your job title—you are more than a designer. Start working and thinking as communicators, storytellers, strategists, educators, researchers, synthesizers, trendspotters and futurists.
  4. Remember Your Totem
    Remind yourself, whenever you need a boost, why you love design and what inspired you to develop your visual sensibilities. It could be any object or point of inspiration that remains timeless and a reminder of where and why you started your career. There are 3 things you shouldn’t have as totems: money, fame and creative outlet. If any of those are your driving force for being a designer, you’ll end up compromising and you’ll eventually end up burned out, bitter, frustrated and unfulfilled. Start outside projects for yourself to counterbalance these “anti-totems.” (see #5)
  5. Start a Side Hustle
    Side hustles inform your 9-to-6 work. Your work informs your side hustle. Both get better. One stretches the other. No matter the scale of your project—make something, share it with the world, see where it goes.
  6. Go All In
    The saddest thing in the world is wasted talent. We tell ourselves stories about why we can’t or shouldn’t take risks—eventually these stories become our realities. You playing small, does not serve the world. Don’t hold back. George Addair says it best in 10 words:

    Everything you want is on the other side of fear.

  7. Have a Point of View
    Be curious, worldly, inspired, critical and considerate. At gravitytank we emphasize the value of “strong opinions, held loosely.” Step away from design often to augment and supplement your understanding of the designed world. Spend time with non-designers, attend conference not directly related to your field. Diversify the investments you make in your relationships with others. Fix your feeds. Get out of the echo chamber of social media and industry blogs. Design skills can be learned on the job, but perspective can’t be taught—that’s all on you.

Thanks again to everyone who stuck around until the end. Please keep in touch.

My Top Five ‘Top’ Lists

Two weeks into the new year, I’ve read through nearly thirty “Top #” lists. Hopefully my Top 5 will ignite and illuminate 2011 for you.

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Why I Stopped Blogging

When I started this blog, I’d just left Firebelly (a studio I’d dedicated 5 years of my life to) and I was completely uncertain about my future. My original thinking was: if I have a place to spend at least 15 minutes thinking/writing/sharing every day, I’ll have something constant (and fun) where I can share my point of view and other stuff I find along the way.

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Happy Birthday

Looking back, I think my 30th year on this planet was pretty well-lived:

  1. I ran my first marathon and raised over $2k for Girls in the Game.
  2. I took two holidays with Lori.
  3. I took a risk and left a great job to try something new.
  4. I walked across burning hot coals.
  5. I participated in my first Polar Bear Plunge.
  6. I joined the board at Beyondmedia Education.
  7. I started volunteering at Pedro Albizu Campos High School.
  8. I got serious about my diet + health.
  9. I started DJing more with friends.
  10. I started this blog.

Now it’s time to set some new goals for 31 and build on last years accomplishments. I just signed up for the Shamrock Shuffle and 2010 Chicago Marathon and I’m even more excited to start training because Lori’s committed to running both races too! I’m also developing a lecture series/mentorship collaborative with two of my good friends and industry colleagues. I really want to improve my Spanish and thanks to Dawn’s generous parting gift (RosettaStone Español) this could very well be the year I get fluent. But most importantly, I plan to spend more time making memories with the people I care about—learning, exploring, traveling, playing and just living life.

What’s Good: Making Moves

January 1, 2010 marked my departure from Firebelly, a studio I’d dedicated my life to for nearly 5 years. Transitioning from strategic director to consulting strategist has proven disruptive and bewildering but at the same time, it’s been really empowering. My closest confidants and cohorts knew for months and supported me in so many ways, but the unexpected congratulations and cajoling from my extended network has been really heartening. Old associates, colleagues and friends (people I haven’t talked to in years) have been in touch to check in, send me inspiration and prod me for details on my next move.

But I really didn’t want this post to be about me and my plans because in all these conversations there’s been a common thread: 2010 is going to be major for almost everyone I know. This post is about a few people in my life whose positive actions to change things up and push things forward have got me really excited.

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