This month has been a truly extraordinary one. I moved to San Francisco to join IDEO.org as a Systems Designer. I will be working with some of the most gifted designers who have inspired my career. And I have just arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo to start work on my first IDEO.org project.
Let me recount how I got here, what I have been up to recently, and what I will be doing in the year ahead.
Iterating on a career, 2 years at a time
A little over two years ago I decided to take a break from my own design practice and join Jet Cooper (now Shopify Toronto). At that time I was stationed at the Center for Social Innovation and worked with a selection of activists, and social innovators. I had two goals in mind for joining a larger team; to work in collaboration, and to work more closely with web technology and on complex projects. I certainly achieved those and much more thanks to the amazing co-workers who quickly became family.
Getting closer to the 2 year mark it was time to look at my toolbox of skills and the trajectory of my career and re-focus my energy. Looking at my favorite projects always serves me well as a compass for the years ahead. So with that in mind I reviewed my past work and picked what I was most proud of. Four themes emerged:
- Strategy and Visioning
- Mentorship (social incubators and tech startups)
- Community driven initiatives (CreativeMornings Toronto, HCD Connect meetups)
- Citizen engagement
See something missing in the list? Yep, there is nothing in this list specifically about visual communication and interaction design, my bread and butter respectively. I am a visual communicator no matter what, but I am most interested in my work when I'm using my design skills to address one of these areas (or hopefully all four).
It was clearly time to act.
After many conversations with Verne and Satish, my good friends and co-founders of Jet Cooper, we slowly came to the realizations that perhaps what's best for the company in the next couple of years is not aligned with my goals and vice versa. Those conversations, our comfort in being open and honest, and our genuine interest in each other as people first and co-workers second, are the things I cherish the most. It's sometimes ok to leave a job that gives you everything you thought would make you fully satisfied and look around.
I joined Jet Cooper as employee number 7 and had a blast collaborating with a tight knit team on building, breaking, and re-imagining our process. In two short years our team and clients grew in size, and our projects in complexity. In March of this year when I decided to move on we had moved offices twice with a talented team of 20 designers, developers and strategists.
Serendipitously the IDEO.org fellowship deadline was around the corner when all this was happening. Everything about the fellowship was such a perfect match for what I was looking for that I decided to use the application process to update my profile and portfolio and if I didn't get accepted just look for similar opportunities. I submitted my application, transitioned out of my full-time commitments with Jet Cooper, and started taking on independent projects to allow myself more time to explore.
If you call yourself an instrumentalist people will hand you a score sheet. If you call yourself a composer, you will get commissioned for original creations, and no one would mind if the mastero himself can play the solo parts too. (You have to be good at both, of course!) This was the clear analogy in my mind throughout my self-evaluation process. I wanted my profile to reflect my actual role in the projects of the past 4 years.
With that realization I made a personal commitment to only take on projects where I am fully responsible for strategy from the ground up and define the deliverables only as strategy documentation. Of course I am still the guy that drafts the documents in InDesign, obsesses over typography, and uses visuals and infographics to illustrate a point. But I made sure I am not getting paid for design deliverables alone.
I took on a 3 month project with Eventmobi, and a strategy and visioning project for a brand new startup. The Eventmobi project took me to Costa Rica with a super-fun and rapidly expanding team for a visioning retreat. I conducted a number of workshops for the whole team to converse and collaborate around the shared vision for the future of the company and products. Once back in Toronto I created series of strategy documents based these sessions and my research. I then created a recommended path of action and took select parts further by creating wireframes and product guidelines. You will see lots of great things coming from Eventmobi this year and I'm proud to have contributed to the work of this fantastic team.
My other project had an interesting twist. It started with me discouraging my client from pursuing the idea because it was entering a saturated product space and lacked enough unique qualities. But he persisted and through many conversation and workshops we morphed the original idea into something rather unique. It was client co-creation at its best. I created the full product strategy, a brand, and a high fidelity interactive mock up to equip my client for his first round of fund raising.
In the midst of this all this I heard from IDEO.org. I was in and it was time to move to the west coast!
Enter the System Designer, in a brand new sector
My exploration came to a fitting conclusion when I got my first project brief from IDEO.org with my title as System Designer. That was it! I couldn't feel more at home with my role.
This year I will be working on poverty related projects with a fantastic team. The non-profit and International Development worlds are brand new to me and I'm learning a ton everyday. You can count on me dropping three letter acronyms and speaking NGO lingo in no time.
In addition to working with Patrice Martin and Jocelyn Wyatt, our fierce leaders, our fellowship will have the opportunity to work directly with Tim Brown and Fred Dust. I will be listening intently at all times.
My first project is quiet an adventure. We are woking with the American Refugee Committee and a number of expert partners in health care, clean water, agriculture, and community building. Our objective is to understand how we might offer a combination of these services in Bukavu, Eastern DRC. The resulting business platform should be owned by the local community and designed to scale. It is a monumental challenge but we have some of the brightest minds around the table with unrivaled optimism. More importantly we are blessed to work with the people of DRC and learn from their gracious ways and hopeful spirit.
My friends had warned me about losing my heart to Africa in my first visit. Well, two days in and it has already happened. Everything is strangely familiar and the people I have met are absolutely generous. I can't wait for all the conversations we are about to have. At the same time I keep asking myself the obvious question: how is this not the richest place on earth? There are many answers to that of course. Trying to understand all the different answers is my job this year.
You can follow our team and this project here. We will be posting updates every few weeks.