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“Cause Design” Has Impacts Beyond Doing Good: Changing How You Think About Design

Working on issues outside their comfort zone can force designers to confront their own assumptions.

As professionals, we develop a set of skills that helps us be successful in our industries. We become the experts and we do it with excellence. Part of the problem, however, is that we tend to submerse ourselves in very familiar environments; variables become fairly predictable and outcomes relatively controllable. While we may be wildly successful by industry standards, our scope tends to be myopic. Processes become mechanical and static, we succumb to routine.

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About seven years ago, my design firm decided to take on a nonprofit client that was based out of Africa. One of the caveats of working with the client was that we had to travel to Africa to experience for ourselves the realities that the nonprofit was addressing. Our trip abroad and our subsequent work with the client catalyzed a shift in perspective, not only for me, but also for our entire company.


We quickly realized that our expertise was not necessarily suited for the new environment and the issue we were hoping to address. Upon returning home, we began to seek more opportunities to take on projects in arenas we were not very accustomed to, specifically in the nonprofit sector. Here are a few of the lessons that I have learned as a result of taking a step out of our familiar industry territory, into less familiar contexts with unforeseen obstacles.

1: We operate out of assumptions, for better or worse.

In some ways, assumptions are our best ally. We intuit a truth about something and act accordingly. In fact, you’ve probably been successful by acting on some pretty key, fundamental assumptions. What you quickly realize when you step outside of your industry comfort zone, however, is that many of your assumptions don’t hold true. Sometimes issues and solutions are obvious. Sometimes they’re incredibly complex. Sometimes there are solutions that are universally appropriate and sometimes they’re very particular to a specific context. Nothing can be presumed as inherently truth; we must be aware of how unaware we are or else our work will be irrelevant.

2: Listening is sometimes the most helpful solution.

Certainly, as experts, we have a platform to teach and influence; it’s pretty natural to always be the one talking. Our “expertise,” however, is not dogma. It’s just as susceptible to context as everything else we do. When we continue to have a lot to say, even if we’re not sure it’s true, we end up blowing hot air and our work reflects our arrogance. The most valuable (and impactful) insight is gained from those closest to the issue, those who have a frame of reference for the territory. Work in this capacity should make us better listeners, humbler innovators.

3: We should always be willing to reevaluate, to evolve.

Processes become processes because, at some point in time, they served a purpose in getting us from Point A to Point B. The issue arises when your processes become an axiomatic foundation of your company, unquestioningly followed–process for the sake of process. When you decide to work in a completely different arena (say, for example, a foreign country), you figure out pretty quickly that “tried and true” methods and solutions are pretty ineffective. You need to ask the hard (sometimes frustrating) questions: What is a necessary component of your work? What is a relic? What is hindering you from the end goal? Cleaning up the way your company does work has the potential to re-energize and inspire innovation. You may never realize how much you were holding yourself back until you get a chance to look in from the outside.

Ultimately, what I have come to find to be most true is that we must always be willing to seek opportunities to step out of our comfort zones and learn. It may be as simple as beginning to decipher where you could create an intersection between cause that you care about and yourself. It could be by creating space for employees to dream about ventures outside of their typical workload and encouraging them to pursue projects that reach beyond assumed “capabilities.” Or it could be by taking on a client that you had never expected to take on, a client that exists completely out of your sphere of influence.

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In the end, if the goal is just to be an expert or to make the most money, then we might do all right staying where we are. But if the hope is to continually better ourselves, our companies, and our industries, then consider this a call to action: accept opportunities to delve into the unfamiliar and you may be surprised by where it takes you.

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