Learning to focus less on What you design, and more in For Whom
The kickoff meeting was held on a Saturday morning at the client’s facilities in San Pablo, California. After some quick greetings and introductions, we started our primary activity: we were blindfolded and asked to perform simple tasks — chopping vegetables, walking up and down a set of stairs, navigating a room we had all seen just minutes prior. It was striking to realize how difficult it was to slice up a tomato without the usual visual cues.
The exercise was aimed at building empathy for the residents. This was in 2008. Back then, of course, “empathy” had not yet acquired the buzzword treatment it has today, but it was still on the agenda, forming a key part of any design process, as it always has.
We were there to rebrand the Living Skills Center, an organization that was helping visually impaired individuals take control of their surroundings by teaching them how to cook their own meals, how to board public buses, how to pay their own rent. Our team’s work was done for free — deliberately so. It was part of a team assembled by the Taproot Foundation, an organization that pairs non-profits with designers, marketers, writers, and other professionals to take on Pro Bono work that enables these organizations to function, to fund themselves, to thrive.
The project was brief, the approvals were swift. Of course, time blurs project timelines, especially in hindsight, but from what I recall, the effort was relatively painless and was all wrapped up and delivered in three or four months. A new name was developed, and I designed a new identity to support the effort. The chosen solution was simple and, while not visually adventurous, it was perfectly appropriate for the organization’s strategy at the time. The client was excited and grateful; their warmth left me beaming for quite a while afterward.
As it turned out, the identity did not last long. A few years later, the Hatlen Center merged with another entity that had a brand already established. So today, while the group still uses the name our team developed, the visual identity, the stationery, and the guidelines I delivered are all long gone, never to be seen again.
And yet, this was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, and has only become more meaningful as time has passed, despite its lack of visual remnants. Designers always seek the holy grail in projects; we want projects that are good for the world, good for the bank account, and good for the portfolio. This project, however, left no imprint on two of those areas, but still, it left me fulfilled. It felt good to help, to act on this ability to crystallize a vision for those not trained—or not able—to do so for themselves.
The years progressed, and my career moved along. Many ensuing experiences allowed for a broader perspective on how my interests were unfolding. It’s normal for most designers, at some point in their careers, to pause and ask: “Wait, who am I designing for, exactly?” But the itch for me ran deeper; it ran in the family.
My father is a doctor. My mother is a dentist. One of my sisters is now a nurse. In short, I come from a family of service, a family filled with professionals who do nothing but help others get better. My Sunday family lunches are often highlighted with stories about patients recovering, falling, not making it, rising against all odds, patients’ lives transformed by the right intervention, or torn down by a natural setback. A designer’s workday, urgent as it might seem in the hours right before a deadline, rarely involves life and death.
Graphic Design problem-solving tends to operate only the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We cannot directly help people find shelter, security, safety. It is not in our purview, or even our skillset. Our field aims to help our direct clients fulfill their creative potential, to fulfill their aspirations, to reach some financial goals. Every now and then, though, we do come across opportunities to help clients who can help people who have more basic human needs. We should seize these opportunities to take part in that cycle of good, even if it’s one or two steps removed.
Pro Bono work is not for everyone. Understandably, designers often have dire warnings or define strong guardrails about these endeavors. These engagements can often lead to disastrous results and massive amounts of wasted time. Things can get out of hand; the grind can leave both parties unsatisfied. (Truth be told, one of my worst experiences in the field also came in a Pro-Bono project with a completely different team.)
In the long haul, though, the good tends to outweigh the bad. This work has many benefits when done in short bursts and with cautious due diligence. Sometimes, these projects can even help spawn a legendary case study, as Paula Scher can attest. But even on a more pragmatic level, there are many lessons about client management and business development to be learned in these efforts, especially early in a career. For instance, when I started work on the Hatlen project, I had not done much direct project management myself. Learning about the Taproot framework was particularly insightful, as it included very detailed resources to keep projects under control. It was there that I saw first-hand that “Pro-Bono” does not mean “Amateur;” a sense of professionalism was paramount in these engagements.
But that’s not the entire picture. The aim of Pro Bono is not how you may benefit, but how you can set the goals of others ahead of your own, if only for a few hours of billable time. The intent is to wonder if someone else might benefit from all of your efforts. Aristotle once noted that vocations are found“where your talents and the world’s needs cross.” An effective logo or a robust website for a non-profit might help an organization look a little more trustworthy to a potential funder, or it might spread important information, or it might spark a movement around a critical message. These are the “world’s needs.” There is power in what design can do to amplify these stories, advocate these causes, alleviate these needs.
Many years later, in 2013, while serving as the Diversity Chair for AIGA SF, I started a relationship with La Cocina, a San Francisco-based incubator that focuses on helping women of color establish their own businesses, empowering them to advance personally and financially. This program recruits students from our BFA Program at San José State University to do Pro Bono branding for these entrepreneurs. This gives students a real-life case study, and it gives the business owners a kernel of a brand to build on. The initiative gets people in parallel development tracks — emerging students, emerging business owners — to collaborate and set the table for things to come.
In these projects, I don’t do any design work. Instead, I set up meetings, discuss work with students, warn entrepreneurs of scope creep, and help wrap up the brand guidelines when the work gets that far. In short, I do someof the most tedious parts of the trade and very few of the “fun” parts.
And yet, it is one of my favorite projects to work on. It’s a project where I can serve as a transactional fulcrum, a small part of a loop that aims to integrate design, communities, and education. It is work I enjoy doing, I realize now, partly because it primarily benefits other people’s ideas. As Designer Rejane del Bello states in her book Citizen First, Designer Second, “Design is a medium that works best in the service of something else or someone else. Our role is to champion someone else’s work or idea.”
Albert Einstein once said, “it is high time the ideal of success should be replaced with the ideal of service.” This is a powerful call to action, a nudge to reconsider how we assemble our careers. Maybe success isn’t only a shiny portfolio, an overflowing bank account. Maybe “success” means, in some part, being able to look at your body of work from time to time and see how others are benefitting from your time. Design alone can’t save the world. We know that. But, on occasion, it can help those who are helping others navigate their surroundings, empower one another; it can help others see — and be seen.