Designing Better Ways To Give Back

Firebelly’s Dawn Hancock has found a way to inextricably link her design practice to helping her community, by incubating businesses and mentoring designers to create a chain of social consciousness.

Designing Better Ways To Give Back

Dawn Hancock is the founder of Firebelly, which works to create, as they say, “good design for good reason.” She’s also the founder of Reason to Give, an organization that allows people to give money to help the people of the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. When not designing i n the studio she is incubating entrepreneurs, educating young and hungry design students, and working collaboratively to ensure that Firebelly’s nonprofit arm reaches as many community members as possible. This leaves us asking, Is there anything that Hancock doesn’t do?


What value do you think designers bring to the social good space?

The benefits to having designers address social issues are twofold. First, designers think differently. They live in a never-ending cycle of process, problem solving, and production. They have a great balance of logic versus heart. Additionally, they pay great attention to detail. This allows designers to approach problems, and find viable solutions, in very different ways.

Secondly, designers are collaborative by nature. Yes, we can go into our design caves and shut out the world for awhile, but we also have to keep our minds on our clients, audiences, and collaborators. We design with the needs of clients, as well as the skills, interests, and timelines of our printers and other production partners in mind. So, for other people out in the world doing good, adding a designer to your team can help you do even more good, in a beautiful way.


What was the impetus behind starting Reason to Give?

In 2006, I was asked to speak at a sustainable design conference in Doha, Qatar. I was at once honored and baffled by the invitation. The list of speakers was filled with heroes of mine from all over the globe; presenting to and getting to know so many of them was a humbling experience.

I flew home, and fell into a puzzling depression. I had no idea why, but after a few months, I figured it out: Even though my business was helping great people do great things, there was always someone between us and the people ultimately being served.


I knew we could do more than design logos and websites, and Reason to Give was born before I knew what to do with it. I decided that it was my obligation to give back to the neighborhood in which my business was run and to the people who needed help in my own backyard. We started Reason to Give in 2007, and this past year alone we helped over 1,500 residents with basic needs ranging from school supplies and winter gear to workshops on resume building and computer training. We’re learning better ways to connect with our community every year by listening to what they need.

How does Firebelly University work? Can you give us an example of an established designer who has transitioned to social entrepreneurship through your efforts?

Firebelly University is a nine-month program in which individuals band together to run a business with our guidance and support. Monday through Thursday, Firebelly U fellows learn everything about running a small business that no one ever tells you and a few things that can only be learned when you’re actually doing it. Friday is reserved as an education day, filled with inspirational speakers and workshops run not only by business owners, but lawyers, accountants, and peer mentors.


At the same time, each fellow is developing and implementing his or her own business plan under the guidance of the dean and others, and at the end of the nine months, their new businesses are hatched.

A great story of a successful Firebelly U graduate to date is 2012 alum Jonathon Strube, owner of Heart Giants. His focus is on working with businesses and organizations dedicated exclusively to community support, advocacy, and growth. I can’t wait to have Jonathon back as a coach rather than as a student. That will be a very proud moment.

When did you realize your career as a designer would be focused on giving back?


I always knew I’d find a way to give back, because I never thought design and doing good in the world were mutually exclusive. In school, I took a slightly different approach to projects from most of my class, looking at things from a more human perspective. For example, for an infographic project related to the Gulf War, my fellow students made pieces featuring numbers of lives lost and bombs dropped; I focused on the lives of children affected by war, taking a more art-therapy approach.

After I graduated, I didn’t get opportunities to design things that felt very rewarding during my day job. In my off hours, I started donating my time and skills to people and organizations who were doing things I thought were important. That made me feel better. When my dad died unexpectedly, I realized life was too short to do work I wasn’t passionate about and the only person holding me back was me. So I took the leap and that was the beginning of the Firebelly universe

What is the name of one up-and-coming social-good designer we should be watching and why?


Mike Fretto. He’s established. He’s been published. He’s amazing. And he’s about to get his Masters of Design from the University of Washington with the single goal of changing the world. He already has and he’s only 30.

Mike founded Rosa Loves, a nonprofit that helps people meet their basic needs through the sale of T-shirts that tell their personal stories. I’m a huge fan of it and of Mike. No matter what Mike does after school, he’ll be affecting many lives in a positive way. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire

Who inspires you most with their generosity?


When you ask about generosity, I have to talk about Michelle Fire.

In 1998, I discovered a bar in Uptown called Big Chicks. It not only had an amazingly open and inviting feeling, welcoming everyone whether they were gay, straight, or purple, but it also housed a jaw-dropping collection of art. World-renowned artists such as Diane Arbus and Jed Fielding, as well as Chicago all-stars like Tony Fitzpatrick and Ed Paschke. Certainly this isn’t typical for a bar. I went to Big Chicks’ website and almost fainted: It was horrid.

I immediately emailed Big Chicks’s nameless and faceless (to me) owner and offered my services. Michelle Fire wrote back something that included both a refusal of a website rehaul and an invitation to her home to help her change a couple of text issues on her site. Michelle’s personal art collection outshone the one in her bar, and she was incredibly gracious about the work I did for her. Soon after, she sent me a message to drop by the bar and pick up a little something, which turned out to be a $100 Whole Foods gift certificate. I hadn’t expected anything, but this meant a lot. I finally got my chance to rehaul her entire site, not because she asked me to but because I wanted to. Believe it or not, it just launched this year, 14 years after my initial offer. Lesson #1 from Michelle: “Give a little; get a lot.”


Here are the other lessons I learned (and continue to learn) from her, in no particular order:

  • Treat your customers well.
  • Treat your employees like family.
  • Treat your community with respect.
  • Be generous.
  • Don’t make the bottom line the bottom line.
  • Don’t forget to have fun.
  • Stand up for what you believe in.

Michelle isn’t just generous: she’s tenaciously, unapologetically, fiercely loyal. And I hope to be her when I grow up.


About the author

CEO and founder of Catchafire.


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