Reinterpreting the Role of a Designer

Written by on March 12, 2012 in Entrepreneurship - 1 Comment

I was honored to have been invited to deliver a talk, “Reinterpreting the Role of a Designer”, at TEDxCMU this past weekend in Pittsburgh, PA. The conference was comprised of some truly inspiring speakers, all connected by the theme of “Reinterpretation.” The following is a rough transcript of the talk originally delivered at the TEDx event on March 04, 2012 at Carnegie Mellon University.

To begin to talk about the idea of “reinterpreting the role of a designer,” I will start with bringing two unfortunate stereotypes to the surface. The first unfortunate stereotype is the idea that designers only make “facades.” We aestheticize innovation. We don’t start business, we brand business. We don’t create products, we package ideas. We don’t build community, we design housing. This stereotype exists, in part, because of what society expects us to make, but is also a result of the old models that design education follow.

We are taught that graphics, architecture, products, and online experiences are designable mediums, but I would like to argue that the current landscape of design has proven the following: Designers can make facades, but we can also make a lot of other stuff. We can brand business, but we can also start business. We can package ideas, but we can also create products. We can design housing, but we can also build community.

The second unfortunate stereotype I want to highlight is the idea that systems are static. Multiple choice has one answer. Business makes money. Designers help sell things. But what if systems were not as static as we believe them to be? What if all systems were dynamic? What if all systems were a designable medium? This shift in mindset, I argue, can transform the practice of entrepreneurship into a medium of design. But with the introduction of any new medium or tool comes with it the introduction of new obligations.

The internet introduced new obligations of privacy, but also openness. The automobile introduced new obligations of safety and traffic control. Electric light introduced new obligations of energy efficiency. The introduction of entrepreneurship as a medium for design also requires new obligations. We have an obligation to do good. The old model of business designs for the short term. The old model of wealth is to introduce philanthropy after the riches. The new model of business, however, designs for the long term. It designs for wealth and philanthropy to come simultaneously.

But where can I, as a designer, start? Well, the most logical starting point would be the world I am a part of, the design industry, but thinking a bit bigger then that, a good starting point to begin approaching this obligation is service-oriented business at large.

Why would I want to reinterpret the design industry? In 2008, I made a lot of coffee took a ton of internship positions. I knew from the beginning of my college career that I wanted to start my own design firm, and thought the best way to learn how would be to throw myself into as many work environments as possible, so that is what I did. I acted like Sherlock Holmes within these positions, taking note of what works and what does not work so well within each of the various studios, but began to realize that not much was working. I realized that there was actually not a model that I would even want to replicate. It became clear to me at this point that the design industry was one that favored financial gain over giving. It was an industry that favored what sells over what is beautiful.

Frankly, I got a little sad. I thought to myself: “MAN, is this really what I want to devote my academic career, and professional life too?” The realization that the design industry may not be the one for me really bummed me out and threw me into a pit of confusion.

In search for a greater meaning within the design industry, I learned about the idea of “social design.” However, I quickly realized that the “social” in social design really was not so social… What do I mean by this? There are a handful of design firms that claim to have social missions, and that focus their work and energy towards designing for non-profit organizations, but charge for the work. I find charging a non-profit organization for the output of a business in the service-sector to be one of the largest moral dilemmas in business today. Why? A recent article in Harvard Business Review estimates that the annual marketing and design expenditure amongst non-profit organizations in the United States alone is a whopping 7.6 Billion dollars. Let’s put that into perspective. $7.6 Billion dollars can but up to 100,000 homes in the United States. $7.6 Billion dollars can provide over 1 Million college educations. For about a dollar a day, World Vision estimates that a child in an impoverished community can be granted access to fresh water, nutritious food, healthcare, and even an education. Imagine, then, what could be accomplished with the spare funding that would result from the eradication of marketing and design expenditures amongst non-profit organizations…

But designers are not evil, and design studios are not to blame. The design industry is trapped in this old model, a model that perceives volunteer service as an extracurricular activity instead of an integral component of design business. How can service-oriented business give without giving from those we dedicate our efforts toward helping? What if a design studio could thrive from giving services away for free? What would a very nice design studio look like? These questions are the seed of my company.

verynice started with an extremely naive mission statement: save the world. Upon further reflection on what it was that I actually wanted to accomplish with the studio, I came to the following conclusion: Change the design industry through disruptive innovation and authentic intention. Truth-be-told, the model was a bit naive, being 100% pro-bono. Of course if you do the very complicated math on that one, you can see that it would lead to a revenue of approximately $0.00. The company was not sustainable, and I realized I was basically setting myself up for failure. I knew that if I wanted to accomplish my goals with the studio, I had to have a model that could allow the studio to be my sole focus, to give it the attention it would deserve.

Sad, once again, I took a step back, evaluating the landscape of business. On the left you have the for-profit corporation. I knew I did not want to be that, because that is what the design industry, and service-oriented business at large, already was. If I wanted to change it, I couldn’t be it. On the other side of the spectrum you have the non-profit organization. This model was not quite attractive, either. verynice wants to help non-profit organizations. If we, too, were a non-profit organization, we would enter a vicious and eternal cycle of seeking help to help. I knew we needed to be able to give while remaining self-sustaining so as to not rely on anyone but ourselves to meet our goals… and that is when I found the magical space in the middle: social business, and social entrepreneurship.

A social entrepreneur is a designer of business whose intentions are not in capital gain, but instead in the advancement of the greater good of society. A social enterprise is one that thinks and operates as a non-profit organization would, but has interesting design in it’s planning so as to be able to sustain itself and actually create a profit as opposed to relying on government funding or funding from donors. This is the model that is home to a verynice design studio.

a verynice design studio is the world’s first internationally operating social graphic design enterprise. We are a full service design enterprise that dedicates over 50% of its efforts toward pro bono design. a verynice design studio has helped build over 250 brands in every sector and industry across the globe. We work with a diverse clientele that range from Fortune 500 companies to small local shops. Some of our clients have included The United Nations, MTV Networks, Human Rights Campaign, Facebook, Amnesty International, and Disney. As of 2011, a verynice design studio has also provided $250,000 worth of pro-bono design and consulting services in 6 continents to 130+ clients thanks to our team of 70+ international volunteers. Of course $250,000 is a long way from $7,600,000,000, but I’m an optimistic guy, and I like to think we’ve made some what of a dent…

In a recent interview, I was asked to express my thoughts on the future of fundraising. I believe that in the future, fundraising will cease to exist. Of course that is a distant future, but it is a reality. The role of fundraising in the present day is to aid organizations in approaching problems in order to bring justice and vision to the problems we experience in our society and culture through business (yes, non-profits are businesses). In the future we will see less and less non-profit organizations, and more and more social enterprises. I love non-profits and I work with them all of the time (and have for years), but it is an old model of business that should be reconsidered. Seeking donations, grant writing, etc., as business strategies, limits an organization’s ability to give by drawing their focus away from the actual cause at hand. Social entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is a new medium for approaching the same causes that any non-profit organization might approach. The difference between the two models: Social Entrepreneurship allows an entity to be self-sufficient and independent through the development of various for-profit components that are integrated with the organization’s outreach. This kind of model not only allows the company to do well by doing good, but it also allows for an efficient focus on the end goal, which is to solve a problem, as opposed to constantly seek help.

We are all given a short time, and I think the biggest mistake a lot of entrepreneurs make is that they design and optimize their vision to provide the largest financial return possible. Now, making money is not a bad thing, but what should be known and understood, is that in the end, our salaries, the cars we drive, the square footage of our homes… none of that matters. What matters is the legacy that our business and our vision can leave behind – a legacy that has the ability to shape, disrupt, or destroy, a familiar system. When you disrupt a familiar system, you change perspective – you change the way a community can define themselves to inspire future innovation. Just because things are the way they are does not mean they should remain that way. I want to invite you all to leave your mark on something, and don’t be afraid of ignoring what you are brought up thinking is natural.

Matthew Manos

Matthew Manos is a social entrepreneur and business-design theorist that is dedicated to disrupting the way the design industry operates. He is the founder of verynice, and provides strategic leadership for the studio. Matthew’s work and ideas have been published in 100+ print and online venues internationally including The Huffington Post, GOOD, Gestalten, HOW, and Wired Magazine. Matthew speaks regularly at events and institutions across the United States including TEDxCMU, Social Enterprise Alliance, UCLA, WKU, and Pepperdine University. He holds a BA in Design Media Arts from UCLA, and an MFA in Media Design from the Art Center College of Design.

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