Designers: Stop Making. Start Facilitating.

The majority of independent designers and design firms work on a project-to-project, or client-to-client, basis. A direct result of this work arrangement, more often than not, is that designers find themselves embodying the “outsider” persona in perpetuity.

Designers consistently find themselves within a position of power and influence in order to propose a solution to an organization or community, but then promptly move on to the next assignment once the scope of work is fulfilled. Further, new competition and the democratization of design that we’ve been seeing in the past 5 years or so… (think crowdsourcing, the in-house design renaissance, mergers and acquisitions, automation, and plug-and-play templates) have limited the ability for practitioners to maintain focus. 

Simply put… The business of design does not allow for luxurious timelines, and hyper-specialization any more. If designers want to survive, we have no choice but to jump from project to project in order to generate a profit, or even just break even on overhead.

For designers working with corporate clients, this doesn’t pose too many problems (in fact, I’ve been working project-to-project for years), but when working with communities…. this is problematic.

Unfortunately, for designers working in the social impact arena, this temporal nature of working relationships, coupled with the growing impossibility of focus, can actually lead to unintended consequences for the communities we serve. 

This is especially the case when attempting to work within a community that is not your own. 

As the design industry finally begins to advocate for inclusion and social impact at a wider scale, we are seeing many new designers emerge who are at risk of misunderstanding how a practitioner can possibly work effectively within a community when only given a short amount of time. 

At verynice, we’ve lead over 1,000 initiatives for a diverse array of communities and organizations across the globe, including 250+ workshops. In addition, our online resources and toolkits have been leveraged by practitioners in over 4,200+ cities. 

What we’ve learned is that, as a designer, one of the most impactful things you can do when working with a community is to actually resist the urge to design… to shift your perspective of what you do from “maker” to “facilitator”. Put another way, we need to move from “user-centered” to “user-made”….

At verynice, we’ve worked in some communities for 5 years, and others for 5 days. Needless to say, we’ve seen and heard it all - what inspires, what offends, what actually creates a lasting impact after the project is done, and what falls short. 

Here are 5 things to consider when working in communities:

  1. Always wait for an invite. Imposing your services on a community is pretty much a lose-lose situation. Instead of initiating something within a community, wait for an invitation from a community member or ally. In doing so, you can ensure that your services do not create further burden on a community due to time constraints or lack of resources.
  2. Ensure the team you assign to the project is representative of the community you’re working within. If you are working in a predominately Latino community, but your entire team is white, you’re doing something wrong. Create a safe and relatable place by practicing inclusion.
  3. Do not impose your own thoughts or ideas. Move from a “maker” mindset to that of a “facilitator”. Remember that, while you may have interesting ideas, if you are not part of the community you are working within, the ideas are void of context.
  4. Know your role, and know when to step out of the spotlight. As facilitators, we work hard to remind ourselves that we are not there to “save” a community, but instead to facilitate conversations. When discussing your social impact work, remember to take a reality check. Designers aren’t heros!
  5. Document well, and don’t disappear. Far too many workshops end when the allotted time is up. Bring a documentarian with you to capture as many of the participant’s ideas as possible, and work to create a leave-behind that captures their contributions. Also, don’t disappear - leave behind your contact information, and if possible, have regular followups with the participants.

Matthew Manos is an award-winning design strategist, social entrepreneur, and educator. He is the Founder and Managing Director of verynice. verynice’s clientele includes Google, UNICEF, NASA, and the American Heart Association.