About Me

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Currently the Director of Operations 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.

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.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Getting Older

It's been a while since I've posted anything, but with my next birthday soon approaching, I was inspired to write a little bit. I've been reflecting a lot on the process of getting older. I had a tweet a few months ago that I thought captured it well, "you spend the first half of your twenties pretending to be an adult, and the second have realizing you are one."

This couldn't be more true for me. At 23, I wore fake glasses, suits, and on occasion experimented with darkening my wrinkles. Strange, I know! Why did I do this? Because I believed I wasn't old enough to be doing what I was doing. I believed that people wouldn't listen or trust I knew what I was doing. For a big part of it, I didn't, but also realized that others didn't know either. We were all kind of feeling our way through a very new space- design and social innovation. This is what it means to be innovative- to work on things where there are no experts yet. At 23, I would do everything to avoid talking about my age. When someone would discover it, I would cringe with embarrassment and fear. After a while though, as I was nearing 25, I started enjoying that moment of surprise when someone would exclaim, "what!? You're only 24?" I started taking pride in what I had accomplished by my age, but yet, still lacked the confidence in what I was doing and questioned whether or not I had enough experience. This fear prevented me from actually asking for help. I kept it to myself thinking I needed to know it all, or at least act like I did, otherwise I would look unqualified. It felt claustrophobic.

This past summer, I realized I was past this point now, when one student gave an attempted compliment by saying, "it's nice to know there's a legitimate adult working on this." There it was, I had become a "legitimate adult." And when I went home that night to my nice studio apartment, two blocks from the lake, I took a moment and saw how far I had come. After being a nomad and relying on family and friends just the year before, I could now say I have health insurance, I have salaried job with a stable institution, and I have a sofa and airmattress to welcome family and friends. Not to mention I have the job of my dreams. I took a deep breath and said to myself, "yea, I'm a legitimate adult. That's pretty cool." I don't feel as worried about having enough experience, I have adventures and stories to tell, and I have the freedom to do as I please. It's pretty great.

Working with college students is like finding the fountain of youth. I'm convinced that there are no communities of people more interesting than college students. They are always in the pursuit of knowledge and self-discovery--nothing could be more exciting. And as my age gap between them increases, I simply try to take inspiration from them to try and keep those same attitudes of excitement and newness in my own life. It's not always easy and I continuously remind myself of my old boss's advice from when I turned 22 of, "don't get too comfortable." As the comforts in my own life increase, I more deeply understand this advice as it becomes easier to lose this sense of mystery and wanderlust. So as try to not get too comfortable in my adulthood, my lesson to those younger is- don't waste your time doubting yourself. Know that others love your insight and admire your enthusiasm. To be innovative, you have to walk an unknown path, but hopefully for you, you'll be brave enough to ask for help along the way.


ps- For anyone older than me reading this, don't worry- I know 27 is still young! It's just not as young as say, 21 :)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dimensions of Design

I wrote a piece for Core77 about a framework for understanding design. Check out the article here!