This is about people and things that lead us to new lives, new meaning in the lives we have, and help us build things beyond what we ever imagined possible.
Ten or 11 years ago, I was smack in the middle of one of my tormented career crises (there have been many, just ask my husband). Jaimie Cloud was a neighbor who, over a bottle of wine, told me about her organization devoted to sustainability education which she called SEC (Sustainability Education Center). Appropriately horrified that anyone doing what she was doing would risk being confused with the other SEC, I volunteered to re-think her identity. The next morning was Saturday, and she dropped off a stack of reading (Peter Senge, David Orr, Donella Meadows, Paul Hawkins) so I could start getting up to speed. I remember saying “this is going to change my life, isn’t it?” And Jaimie said, “yup, usually does”. All those voices, and the real truths of nature did change me forever. Once you know a truth, you can never not know it again. It made me crazy trying to figure out how to apply the principles to my work in communication design at a deep level – because the awareness of principles so big and important made the work I’d been doing seem small and ephemeral. I wanted my work to matter at a planetary level, not just a client level.
But I was clueless as to how to connect the power I felt in sustainability and systems thinking to design in a systemic way. It was the most exciting problem I had ever considered – purposeful, intentional, connected to the world: A design opportunity bigger than I had ever contemplated.
Yet as we know, when one is successful in business, the success defines you no matter how hard you try to stay loose. Clients tend to hire you based on what you’ve done in the past, and that’s a very tough thing to change if your parents forgot to set you up with a trust fund. The crisis came at the end of a huge project – an identity design and launch of a new global television network for Discovery. I had been working intensely 7 days a week for almost a year. Whether or not I could ever develop a design career in sustainability or social innovation (not in anybody’s vocabulary back then) I knew my current trajectory was unsustainable.
We engaged David Baker of Recourses to evaluate our business and help us figure out what to do. His advice was unforgettable. He said, “I would take away your big fancy computer, say good bye to your employees, and have you become a writer and strategist”. At the time, he might as well have said he’d like me to walk off a cliff. The thought gave me vertigo.
I did what I suspect a lot of people do with advice that’s as radical as David’s was to me at the time. I did it in a half-assed way, thinking I could keep employees, keep doing the things that clients were asking me to do, and add strategy and writing on top of what I was already doing. It was my typical MO – just keep taking on more work and somehow it would sort itself out. Which it did, although I suspect David’s clean break would have been less painful.
In the process I learned many things; that sustainability is not a verb, whereas design is. That Corporate Social Responsibility is not nearly enough, that we need to innovate a new model for our modern society, and that design is the perfect way to do it.
I was struggling to engage with earning money in a new way, minding my own business, when I met Richard Wilde during a time we were both on the board of the Art Director’s Club. He asked me if I was interested in teaching. Nonsense, I said, I’m too busy. But Richard is infectious, and cunning. He invited me to the SVA senior portfolio review, to take a look at what the students were doing. It might not have been such a revelation to me if I hadn’t judged one of the AIGA competitions that same morning. It was immediately apparent that the students’ work was alive and exciting compared to what was being done professionally. I was hooked. Richard asked me to design a class that would excite me, and one I felt would further my own learning. So I did, and it did. So much so that Richard’s next invitation was to develop a masters program, which has now become the MFA in Design for Social Innovation program at SVA.
Since I got drunk with Jaimie, an extraordinary transformation has taken place (I should try to remember what wine that was). I find myself in the conversations, with people I admire, about the future of ideas, companies, industries, cities. I am engaged to design those conversations, as well as innovation strategies and communication itself. I have come to define design in a completely different way than I did before. I have not given up my fancy computer. There is work everywhere – from organizations and people that were way off the radar as potential clients and partners before. I have been lucky to learn from people who are pioneers in social innovation – Paul Polak, all the PopTech Fellows, CEOs foundations, entrepreneurs committing their lives to change, and seeing the power of design to help them. I have been deeply immersed in programs that are changing the potential of economies, health care, food systems, equity and conservation. The conversation I’d been having with myself for many years is finally something that people can hear.
I am grateful to the people who changed the course of my life, but I did it the hard and long way. Design for social innovation is here, and we need it more than ever – but we don’t have ten years to wait for the next leaders to learn what they need to know. The world is ready, in need, and ready to hire them. And that is the next big job for us at DSI.