Making a career in social impact design
Last week, Alex and I enjoyed the opportunity to speak to Dave Seliger’s students in The School of Visual Arts’ MFA program in Interaction Design here in New York about our experiences at a design firm working with social impact sector clients. In the wake of that class visit, we’ve consulted our colleagues here at TeamBB about the journeys that led them to join our team. Consider it a little inspiration as you’re mulling future plans. And feel free to reach out to any of us with any questions!
1. What did you think you were going to do when you graduated or planned your career?
Ellery Mann, Designer: I started working in the creative field while I was going to college and knew my degree in design would take my career even further. I met Bureau Blank while I was in my senior year and it was love at first sight.
Alessandro Contes, Art Director: I graduated in Advertising in a developing country; with that in mind my only expectation was to be able to actually work in the field I've dreamed of since my teen years. I was lucky enough to start as an intern production designer before graduating. Funny story? Missed my prom working overtime.
John Kester, President: My degree is in graphic design and I immediately started working in the field. I got incredibly lucky to work with the city government in Jacksonville, FL where I was given lots of room to grow and also get feedback from the community on the work I was doing.
Kat Panayotov, Business Development: Having graduated with an International Relations degree and specialization in social entrepreneurship and Latin American Studies, I was (and still am!) set on working in the international social impact space. My last year at university exposed me to the burgeoning focus on the intersection of design and social impact, which in turn drove my interest in exploring how that hybrid discipline took form outside of academia. Needless to say, joining Bureau Blank has been a step in tapping into that curiosity.
Alana Farkas, Front-end Developer: I graduated with a degree in Urban Studies and was 100% certain I was going to become an urban planner. Luckily I realized that wasn’t for me before I enrolled for my Master’s in Urban Planning.
2. What one piece of advice you have about what it’s like to work with GAIN (government, academic, infrastructure, and nonprofit) clients?
Kristen Demaline, Senior Content Strategist: Flexibility is critical - most folks in the civic sector need to make the most of sometimes limited resources. I’m used to thinking in terms of ROI (return on investment) from a public policy standpoint, so I advise with that in mind. The strategic process needs to help our mission-driven clients achieve buy-in for their final product. Many of our clients are leading movements; they’re not operating in a cultural vacuum.
Jeff Miranda, Project Manager: Do your best to understand where they're coming from and what their day-to-day is like.
Alex Kaufman, Designer: Get on board with their vision, and remember that it’s not a consumer space - the GAIN world is very different from the advertising world. Empathizing with the goals and mission of your client, coupled with the idea that the work is impact-driven (vs. conversion-driven) will help the final product appeal to the right audiences, and show a high level of self-awareness.
AF: Finding out what their pain points really are is satisfying and ultimately best. A client wanting ‘more web traffic’ is vague -- why do you want more web traffic? Is it to drive donations? Newsletter signups? Items purchased? GAIN clients are often mission-driven and it’s best to get to the heart of any problems very specifically to best allocate time and funds.
3. Is working at a design firm different from what you thought it would be like? Why/why not?
EM: I knew what to expect working at a design firm and it is exactly why I joined one. Bureau Blank has such a great atmosphere that inspires people to be creative, collaborate, and have a blast doing it!
JK: When I was in school, I imagined an office in New York with lots of white space and huge windows. So it’s exactly what I imagined! I’ve worked in several iterations of “design firms” after my time in-house for the city government. One was very focused on user experience and another very focused on technology solutions. These were really nothing like what I imagined a design firm to be as the focus was more on iteration and design thinking than the “big idea”. The only real “big idea” is to help your customer work through real business issues.
KP: I think John and I were envisioning the same kind of atmosphere, funnily enough. I think my imagination added a bit more sterility to the space and formality to the team dynamic. Bureau Blank is none of those things and even with my role being business development, I feel increasingly integrated into the design and feedback process of client work.
AF: This is the first design firm where I’ve been employed and previously, I had never imagined myself even working at a design firm but I am so delighted to work at Bureau Blank. This office values, as I’m sure other design firms do, collaboration, skill sharing, and an informality that makes the first two easy!
AK: Hmm....I guess no, it’s not different? When I imagined working at a design firm, I really just imagined being able to wear jeans and sneakers to work and spending my time with creative, intelligent people who were up for stimulating conversation about what’s going on in the world - design-related or not. In that sense, it’s exactly what I expected.
4. What’s a project you’re proud to have worked on at Bureau Blank? Why?
AC: In my short time here, working on Living Cities' 25th Anniversary event materials has been my proudest project contribution.
KD: ThriveNYC, New York’s mental health initiative, is going strong after its first year. I’m proud of how we were able to transform a policy report into an interactive digital experience and resource for all New Yorkers. It was very gratifying to help translate very policy-driven and even clinical types of content into accessible, appealing language and aesthetics.
AK: The Fair Chance Act campaign. I volunteered for a long time with incarcerated populations, and worked with returned citizens to help them find jobs. So, it meant a lot to me personally to be able to work on a project that was centered around a piece of legislation that helped the exact same population. It brought a lot of what was meaningful to me full-circle, and gave me an avenue to help the cause in the way that I was best equipped to.
JM: I feel proud to have worked on the print and digital awareness campaigns for the NYC Commission on Human Rights. We created ad campaigns for a few pieces of legislation aimed toward supporting the city's most vulnerable people. At those moments, you really get a chance to feel the collective impact of the work.
5. What advice do you have for someone who’s about to job hunt or start their design career?
EM: Stay curious, be inspired, continue learning, and never settle.
AC: Care. Care about bettering yourself everyday, care about learning the craft, care about learning people's concerns and behaviors. Even care about unlearning, just so you can learn to do whatever in a different way, and ultimately deliver great ideas and solutions.
JK: Embrace curiosity and empathy. Design is about simplifying complex challenges and understanding what the end user needs. When presented with an especially daunting assignment, get really curious about it, look at it from every angle then a few more. Likewise, don’t assume you know what’s best for users in a system - watch them, ask them, work with them.
AF: Aside from acquiring technical skills, pay attention to the design around you -- was the form you filled out in the doctor’s waiting room intuitive? Was there enough room to write everything? How about the last online application you filled out? Was it easy to navigate? Design is all around and the sooner you start noting what makes good and bad design, the better.
6. What’s the most surprising part of your job?
AC: I still find the lack of a routine surprising. Makes me smile to step into the unknown.
KD: Taking the opportunity to flex those DJ muscles.
JK: How quickly the team goes through paper towels.
KP: The culture of sharing that has fostered one of the best atmospheres for communication– especially in terms of truly listening to one another when discussing both work-related and personal thoughts and opinions.
AK: That a company itself can evolve and grow in really noticeable and awesome ways, the same way employees do.
7. Do you have any other miscellaneous advice?
JM: Be nice to your project managers :)
KP: Don’t feel the need to separate your working self from the qualities and characteristics that inform your genuine personality. The authenticity that comes through owning your values and point of view during meetings and engagements with others in a professional setting are a welcome dose of diversity that makes collaboration both successful and a continuous learning experience.
AK: Pick your battles. Especially as a female, moving through the professional world can be a major balancing act. Be super conscious about when it’s worth it to push and when it makes sense to concede or compromise - and when you decide it’s worth it to push, don’t be afraid to hold your ground!