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Currently the Associate Director for Design for America (DFA) and a lecturer at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University, I am a San Francisco native and passionate about the intersection of design education and local/social impact. My studio, students' projects, and DFA have been discussed in publications and blogs such as Fast Company, Chicago Tribune, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Core77 and more. I have been fortunate enough to have spoken and given workshops at TEDx, the NE IDSA Conference, Better Word by Design Conferences, Fulbright Seminar, and given workshops at college campuses across the country. I earned my BFA in industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design where I received RISD’s Community Service Award and the Rachel Carson Award upon graduation. I am currently working on a masters in learning and organizational change at Northwestern University. At the start, I founded and taught the advanced studio, Design for Social Entrepreneurship at RISD, Design Futures at Pratt and worked with nonprofits such as Design that Matters and GreenBlue.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

That Door is Broken

This post is a bit more personal than usual. I don't normally write anything about relationships but this latest experience had an interesting connection to my broader outlook on life so figured I'd share. As some vague context, I was dating someone, it wasn't very long, two months, but he called me his girlfriend none the less. I was sensing some distance with him and was planning to bring this up next time I saw him, but before I got the chance to, he ended things. This was a surprise to me because I am the type of person that seeks to pin point the source of any conflict and work those magical problem solving skills to address and resolve it. I embrace many perspectives before placing a firm judgement on things.

The next day, I had a funny moment that perfectly captured this sentiment and paralleled my beliefs about relationships. It was 6:30pm on a Saturday night and I just finished locking up my bike. I was headed into a show taking place in a cool industrial, loft type space. Per my usual routine, I headed for the bathroom before the start. When I entered, I saw a very interesting door. It was at an angle! I thought to myself, "oh, what a cool door!" (See below for the photo)

I chuckled to myself at its uniqueness and figured, "of course a place like this would have an artsy and interesting door such as this." It had a gliding mechanism from above to open and close it. I thought the angle of the door brought a new perspective to the typical bathroom experience and took delight that someone would think of such a thing. So as I made my way in, I had to kind of awkwardly arch my back to get in and as I was getting ready to close the door another woman walks in, sees me struggling with the door and simply states, "oh, that door is broken."

With slight disappointment, I made my way out of the bathroom and found it amusing that I assumed it was an art piece. The lesson here I suppose is that sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between what has potential and is a different take on things versus what is simply broken. In this case, the door was broken. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Lessons from the Overlap

I recently had the privilege to attend a unique "unconference" entitled the Overlap. The Overlap brings together people from design and business to geek out. It is typically rather unstructured and led by the participants themselves. No hierarchy. Everyone is valued equally, led by a different set of volunteers each year, in different locations, with different themes. What I love most about the Overlap is that everyone shows up as "whole people." We don't know the agenda. We just assume it will be awesome and that if it isn't, it's our own fault as a participant. We don't exchange business cards. We talk about frustrations, concerns, what inspires us, what motivates us, and we share deep aspects of our personal lives, recognizing that this inherently impacts our professional lives. Amidst a group of strangers, we get to be our true selves and are loved for this. It's a rare time to find that kind of acceptance, to find one's tribe. This year, the theme was entitled, "Back to the Basics" and took place in the mountains of Colorado. Amongst other things, I walked up a mountain, peed in a double decker out-house, and learned how to build an emergency shelter. 

After an impromptu suggestion, a group of women and I decided to have a "Women's Circle" to discuss the challenges that felt specific to our gender. It was a soulful gathering with each of us sharing bits of our journey, main questions we had in front of us, while offering lessons from our own lives in case they were helpful to others. In true design-thinking fashion (of course) we took notes and synthesized our findings. We felt that the main outcomes were rather gender neutral and we decided to share with the larger group and I am sharing them now here: 


Don't Wait to be Heard: Your Time is Now. Don't Wait for Acknowledgement. 
There is no perfect moment. There is no affirmation firm enough to dare us to be ourselves. You don't need to wait for someone to ask you a question or to share your opinion. You have the right to respectfully express yourself when you want to. We discussed Sheryl Sandberg's example of telling an audience that she had time for one more question. After that one question was asked and answered, men kept raising their hands, and Sheryl continued to answer them. But the women kept their hands down. We don't need permission.

Lead with a Point of View: Don't Worry about not Knowing Everything. 
It is easy to feel like you must know all the answers in order to assert your point of view. But in reality, no one really has it figured out. We are all simply doing our best. In the group, we did discuss that men are generally more confident in their ideas and therefore people are more likely to believe them, even if they are wrong. As women, we shouldn't be scared to form an opinion and share it. When we say it with confidence, we might just be surprised by who will follow our lead.

Know who you Are: Embrace Multiple Stories… and Wardrobes. 
We are multifaceted beings. There are different parts of ourselves that need to be expressed at different times and it is important that we find ways to support these varied aspects of ourselves. Sometimes we are the high powered executive, sometimes we are the sexy gal at the bar, sometimes we are the tomboy. Pin point the "yous" that make you the most alive and find ways to support each of them. And it's okay to bring a change of clothes when it is time to switch it up.

Men are not a Homogeneous Group: Let's not Repeat "Their" Mistakes. 
This is a slightly tongue in cheek one in that we state men are not all alike, yet we refer to them as such. What we meant here is that we want to move forward and understand the complex nature of men. Not assume that they are all the enemy or that they don't understand or respect women. Many men are partners in the fight for gender equality and we recognize that men have a large amount of gender stereotypes that they must contend with as well. When we shared this list with the group, we had one father in the room brought to tears thanking us for being who we are so that his daughters can follow suite.

Claim your Space. Own Your Schtick: You are Enough. You are not Too Much. 
It can be hard to own our own strength. We might not want to overwhelm others or come off as too demanding. We aim to keep the peace and not be too challenging, but at the same time, we know what we are talking about so it can be hard to know the best way to speak up. This young poet Lily Myers depicts the situation well here in a more personal context. Many of us in the circle shared stories about a time we offered a suggestion, that was not listened to until a man in the room offered up the same suggestion as his own idea. We need to own our schtick and not be afraid to be heard.

Partnerships Not Hierarchies: Be Active in Your Network. Learn & Contribute. 
It is important that we build a network for ourselves of those more and less experienced than ourselves so that we can continuously learn from each other and pass these lessons down to new generations. One explicit concept we discussed was the idea of "flash teams" for independent consultants. That instead of competing for business, people can work together when needed and gain more business as a collective than as an individual. The lesson here is to always find ways to add value to your network and embrace the give and take. We'll all be better off for it.

*as a small disclaimer, because the word "gender" is being used, I'd like to state this piece intentionally focuses on men and women, but I want to recognize that other genders might deal with similar or unique circumstances. These topics are beyond the scope of my ability to write about. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Design Alone is Not Enough to Create Social Impact


I recently wrote a post for GOOD. Re-posting here! 

As the director of operations of Design for America, I get a lot of questions from students about how to find meaningful careers in design and social impact. They ask, “What companies should I look to?” or “How should I present my work?” The truth of the matter is there are still very limited opportunities in this space, and to pursue these careers you typically need to be relentlessly persistent or often carve out your own path. This is no easy task and you most likely cannot acquire all the skills needed from a college education alone.
During the recent LEAP Symposium, a small team and I made an attempt to map out the skills needed to navigate these waters. My team consisted of Anne BurdickMaggie HendrieMarina KimJonathan Erwin, and Alex Cabunoc. Below is a drawing that summarizes our ideas followed by my own expanded version of our 48-hour discussion.
How can designers find careers in social impact work? There is no single trajectory. It is a constellation of skills, relationships and opportunities that individuals navigate to create a meaningful life practice.
In addition to trained design skills like form-giving, rendering, visual communication, and creative problem solving, we found that designers aspiring to create social impact need these four core skills:
1. Research Deeply & Assess: As a fundamental component to the process, designers are increasingly being asked to develop ethnographic skills such as fieldwork, analysis, and evaluation in order to find key moments where design can actually make a difference.
2. Be a Bridge: Things like facilitation, negotiation, systems thinking, and communication are all skills needed to extend beyond your own thinking and assumptions. Being able to reach out to others, understand their perspectives, recognize your place within a larger context, and communicate this to others is an essential part to developing meaningful social impact.
3. Do: The act of doing cannot be overlooked. Creating social impact is not only about having good ideas, nice renderings, or popular videos. It’s about getting into the world and actually doing the grunt work, which is not often the sexiest part of the process, such as creating timelines, managing a team, writing up agreements, doing damage control when something goes awry, and fundraising. Designers must go beyond their art form and continue to do the legwork needed to make an impact, or work with those who can.
4. Understand Different Worlds: There are myriads of sectors that need to be navigated and understood while working to make a social impact. The worlds include:
  • Ethics: You are working with real people. They are not guinea pigs. People you will work with have families, lives, jobs, and relationships you will know little about. Humility is of utmost importance, so tread lightly and be mindful of the ripples of consequences that ensue from your presence.
  • Political: You need to understand both how certain national or international policies may affect your project, and the politics of any organization you may be working with. You must understand what motivates someone to act, how to gain buy-in, know who the decision-maker is and who to garner support from in order to move your project forward.
  • Corporate: You’ll often interact with corporations at some point in a project, whether it be partnering with them as a distribution channel, sourcing supplies, licensing your solution, or garnering sponsorship from them. Corporations can be an important variable to bringing your solution to life and, if you take that route, it will be important to understand how to best work with them.
  • Legal: Although the legal world seems like it was created to slow you down, it was actually created to protect you and those you work with. Regulations and laws for things such as filing a patent, getting IRB approval, or creating a legal entity or business are put into place for a reason and you’ll find that your projects can actually be enhanced when understanding these legal implications. It’s often a lot of paperwork, but it must simply be done.
  • Social: It goes without saying that you cannot make an impact in someone’s life if you don’t understand the social context in which you are working. Similar to the political world, communities are made of relationships, hierarchies, taboos, and tacit understandings. Communities are the social fabric surrounding your work and it’s important to know how to navigate.
  • Production: You can’t make an impact if you can’t make your solution. Whether it’s a product or a service, know what resources are out there and search tirelessly for what you need to bring your solution to life. Don't assume you need to create everything from scratch or make everything at once, but do understand the world of production to materialize your solution.
If this sounds overwhelming, you are right. It’s important to remember that you don’t acquire these skills overnight. As indicated in the beginning statement, this is a trajectory. Through a constellation of experiences over time, you can build your skill-set and sense of mastery, seek relationships to support you along the way, gain a deeper understanding of your community and the communities you work with, and perhaps most importantly develop your sense of self-awareness to find your place in the world. Be patient. We are in it for the long haul.
Many of these variables feel obvious, but as a first attempt to put these components into words I would cherish feedback, additions, corrections, and thoughts. Thank you to the awesome team I worked with last week who put all these together and the LEAP Symposium for bringing us together

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Poverty Shock and Suburbs

I've met countless people at this point in my life who are doing wonderful work to make the world a better place. When I ask them their story, on several occasions, I hear a similar story. That after they graduated college, they went to developing country X, saw poverty for the first time, and made a commitment to themselves and those in the community to do something to help the people of this impoverished land. This is very honorable work and I in no way wish to discount this, but the thought that repeatedly runs through my mind in reaction is, "how does someone go 22 years of their life without seeing poverty?"

The answer I continually land on is... the suburbs.


As far as I can tell, the suburbs continue to be homogenous communities where families can thrive. They can have 2 cars, good schools, enough land to run around in. All pretty ideal and I don't blame people for wanting this. However, I can't shake the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with this model. Not just from an environmental and economic perspective, but from a pure cultural perspective of creating an empathic society, where people carry a level of curiosity that questions the status quo.

Let me try and explain. (However, I have no doubt that these thoughts are not novel, rather, they are my own reflections as I try and make sense of life so please indulge me.) For nearly the last two years, I've lived in what I would consider, the closest I've come to living in the suburbs. I live in Lakeview, Chicago. It's incredibly beautiful. I have an affordable studio apartment that's filled with sunlight. I am walking distance to the lake and a short jog to the beach where I can lay out for hours on end during the summer. I've got cute shops and restaurants near by and an occasional thrift store too. There's just one problem: everyone looks like me. Everyone is a healthy yuppy with their suddo laid back professional apparel. Everyone is staying fit with their exercise by the lake and searching for a well-balanced life between working hard and enjoying life. Everyone, for the most part is also white and from the same socio-economic level.



It has recently dawned on me how much of a contrast this is to my upbringing. I grew up in a city, in San Francisco in fact. In a (upper)-middle class home that happened to also be right next to the Projects. One block up the hill you can see the Painted Ladies and meet the cast of Full House (which I did when I was 7). And one block down the hill you were among some pretty sketchy areas with public housing. This picture and statement sums it up pretty well where it states, "This place used to be kinda sketchy but it's on the up-landia."


I grew up taking public transportation from the age of 6, was mugged when I was 8 (although I got my money back- so don't be sad), walked by countless people living without homes everyday, and was a minority in school. I don't say this to give me any sort of street cred. I say this to contrast this life with that of the suburbs (and my life now) and what I think it does to one's outlook on life. I'll try and convey what I mean with a short flash of a story.

This weekend, I saw a young girl bike by along the bike-path. With her clearly hispanic background and embodied attitude, she reminded me of an old friend I used to play soccer with- who was a firecracker and a half. In this flashing moment, what I realized was that I used to have friends that didn't look like me. I used to have friends from different races and cultures. I used to have friends whose parents don't speak english. I used to have friends with accents. And I MISS THIS in Chicago. I've even bemoaned the fact that my sense of style and flair has significantly declined. I took it for granted that people in school were comprised of all colors and races. And what did this do? It gave me empathy. Because when I met someone new or traveled the world, I could see a glimmer of resemblance to a friendly face I knew back home. I could connect to a culture that was not my own because I had gone to a friend's house for dinner or celebrated a holiday I had never heard of. Living in a city allowed me to feel connected with the world around me and feel EMPATHY. When we are deprived of this, it's harder to connect. It's harder to understand. It's harder to listen. It's harder to see. This deprivation, I believe, is the epicenter of our downward spiraling society.

In sum- I don't believe in the suburbs. I don't believe in suburbs as a means of achieving happiness in one's life, and I don't believe in suburbs as a means to achieving a just and equitable society. We must surround ourselves with the diversity of this world so that we can see ourselves in others, care for our fellow citizen, and develop a sense of curiosity that will push society forward. 

I've been observing my feelings over the last few months with the recurring thought of, "I'm most uncomfortable by how comfortable I am." After many conversations with friends and strangers (with odd looks and perhaps rolled-eyes- "complaining about how good life is, boo-hoo."), I may have pin-pointed it to the fact of where I am living. My sense is that I need to get out of the city "suburbs." I've been putting this thought aside as I keep telling myself to simply enjoy it. That this is what everyone works for and that I'm so lucky to be where I am. I have an awesome apartment (which really is awesome) and a great safe neighborhood etc. But I've come to realize that I am not fully happy here. So, as I a result, I am now looking to move. And no, I'm not going to go live in the South Side of Chicago (I still need to commute north to Evanston for heaven's sake). But I am going to look for that diversity I crave. The density I crave. The grit I miss. Because it's this that gives me the experience of life. I need it to stay motivated. I need it to feel inspired. I need it to feel connected with the world around me. And I need it to feel alive and feel like myself.

Although it feels like eating my cake and having it too, hopefully I can find this. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

May I Never do the Same Thing Twice

May I approach each passing year with new fervor. 
May I listen to my soul and for what it aches. 
May I plant my roots and grow them deeply, while my branches and leaves develop. 

Only the things of death lay static. Our very atoms are in constant motion. Why should I then ever be in a situation of doing the same thing twice? At least may I do the same act differently or with a different state of mind. 

Our education does not end in a degree, but rather may each year be an opportunity to learn something new. And so I ask myself, what is it that I want to learn about myself, the world, and the work I devote myself to? Although the new year passed several months ago, and the coming of spring is behind us, the busy bodies of learning minds approach their home stretch and so I take a moment to ponder. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Emotionality of the Designed Experience

This winter was the third time I was teaching Introduction to Industrial Design Methods. When I left RISD and came to Northwestern, my obsession was "process." This is because in my undergraduate education, I don't necessarily feel like we had a clear picture of what our process was. We were doing it, but didn't necessarily have the meta-level view of what we were doing. When I came to NU and DFA, people had this articulated (plus in other locations like IDEO, Roger Martin's work, and other places.) When I read about how others were describing the design process it felt like coming home. It felt like a big "aha" of "yes, that's what I do!" but didn't know what to call it.

As a result, when I first taught Intro to ID, I thought surely, this is the most important factor for students to learn about, the "process." Any mention of aesthetics or form, I didn't really care about and thought was perhaps frivolous. However, after being at NU for a year now, I realize, these students are already being taught process. They do it all the time from year one, which is great, and I slowly realized that what these students needed was an understanding not of process or function, but a way to discuss and communicate through form. Since while even in school I did my best to not design products, this meant I had to search for my connection to Industrial Design. What was it about Industrial Design that I could get excited about?

Upon reflection, as I was on vacation in a very beautiful setting, I put my ID cap back on after some time and looked at the design of objects from the perspective of form. As I did this, I found it increasingly fascinating that people have different taste for what they like and there is no one right design for everyone. What I came to see more clearly was how the design of objects either do or do not reflect a person. People could either see themselves in an object or they don't. This became my hook, something I could be excited about, "how does form reflect our identity?"

So this became the starting point of my class. From finding emotional expression through a chair to reflecting the needs of a user through a brand, this was the thread that kept me going and kept me excited about teaching ID. And now as I continue in my everyday life, I see more than ever how the aesthetic and form affects my own emotion. Design helps me feel at home or reminds me of my isolation. Design keeps me connected to my past and helps me find my future. Just as we find the perfect song to reflect our mood, or person to share our time with, design reflects who we are as people and can give us a deep rooted sense of place. Whether it's remembrance of our past, reflections of our current, or aspirations for our future, we are all looking connection. I believe now more than ever that the form and aesthetic of our designed experiences helps us find this.