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In 1999, Dawn Hancock launched Firebelly, a socially responsible design studio. Though the studio remains Hancock's focal point, Firebelly has expanded into a bustling little world. The Firebelly Foundation, established in 2006, includes several programs. Under the foundation’s umbrella, she established the Humboldt Park nonprofit Reason to Give and runs the ten-day Camp Firebelly for hungry young designers. Most recently, she started Firebelly University, an entrepreneurial incubator that emphasizes taking risks and doing good. Dawn holds a BFA in Visual Communication from Northern Illinois University and was named one of "The Eleven Most Generous Designers" by Fast Company.


Designing Communities

What does it mean to be a socially responsible designer? It means keeping the people, places and things around you in mind as you design anything from a brochure, car, home, city and program to a company. Of course, thinking about what the future may hold for that design is mighty important, too.

You seem to be launching a new project every few years, such as The Firebelly Foundation and now Firebelly University. What keeps you adding more items to your already overflowing to-do list? It honestly doesn’t feel that way, but I suppose when you step back from it all, we do seem to launch a new venture every few years. We start our programs to fill a void in something we are personally feeling or seeing in our communities. For example, we saw a need to help young designers gain more experience in a real-world setting, and at the same time, we read cover letter after cover letter from designers who were desperate to work on meaningful projects. That’s why we started the camp.

We aren’t looking to take on more projects, believe me, but when we see a need, we feel obligated to help. Sometimes it is a new program. Other times, it might be passing our ideas onto the right person who would be even more passionate about the issue.

In your design education programs, such as Firebelly University and Camp Firebelly, what are some of the exciting trends you see coming from the next generation of designers? Collaboration. It is so refreshing to see young people working together knowing they can accomplish more collectively than by themselves. This is a very new concept in traditional education and one that we believe so strongly in. And this extends beyond the creative team to working with the users and clients. It brings a sense of selflessness to the work, not striving to feel like the owner, but part of the family that created it.

What are some pieces of advice you give budding designers? My mentor and friend Rick Valicenti reversed the old adage: it’s not business; it’s personal. That mantra has stuck with me for years. It’s so important to realize that what we do is ultimately about people, and that the relationships we make today have the power to change our lives years from now.

How would you describe Chicago's design community, and how does it feed your work? Chicago’s design community is truly a team. We do not have the competitiveness of places like New York or Los Angeles. People in Chicago want to get to know each other; we like connecting in real life and go out of our way to support each other.

Almost six years ago, Ed Marszewski from Public Media Institute and I started the now-annual TYPEFORCE exhibition. Our intention was simple: showcase Chicago’s up-and-coming typographic all-stars. Chicago wasn’t getting the design love it deserved, and we saw many designers moving to places like New York to “make it.” So we started the show to give designers a platform. It’s grown over the years and even drawn people from across the globe—Thailand being our farthest to date. We love sharing Chicago’s great work and supporting the folks who are grinding away every day. They inspire us.

Where do you seek inspiration? Travel for sure. Learning about new cultures, trying foods I’ve never had, exploring places that can only truly be experienced by being there. And it doesn’t have to be far. Even venturing to a new neighborhood in Chicago can do the trick!

What was your riskiest professional decision? In the grand scheme of risky decisions I have made, you’d think the first one—leaving my job and starting my business—would have been the biggest. Because I was 25, I was too naive to realize what a big risk it was. But I felt the uncertainty when I started my nonprofit. While it’s not inherently risky to start a nonprofit, the program, Reason to Give, was in a traditionally Puerto Rican community that wasn’t known for opening up to white people like me—no matter how pure my heart was. Many in the community saw us as part of the problem, and rightly so. The neighborhood was being gentrified overnight, and the community had its guard up. Our approach to work with them, instead of for them, was what made it succeed. Today we partner with almost every nonprofit and school within the neighborhood. We learned through conversations, surveys and trust.

When you were the AIGA Chicago Community Outreach Chair in 2010, you started the Mentor Program. How does that program work? The program is run three times a year and includes up to 80 participants split into smaller groups based on their interests. The groups collectively decide how to spend their eight-week sessions: for example, taking studio tours to get an insider’s perspective, or sharing war stories over drinks. One memorable group shared their favorite recipes and cooked them together at someone’s home. At the end, they collaborated on a cookbook—I thought that was brilliant.

The program was sparked by my desire to get designers more engaged in their communities. Without the people surrounding me, I would not be where I am today. And the thing I find most valuable about the people I call mentors is that they are not all like me. Some are in completely different businesses, and others are younger than I am. It's not about experience or age; it's about being open to other people's ideas and asking for help when you need it.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in design? I love to cook. I would probably be living somewhere that had great, fresh produce year-round so I could be someone’s private chef. It may still be in the cards one day!