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How did you get started in design? It all started with the letterpress. I’m a farm girl from Indiana, and growing up, we were always making things on the farm, like maple syrup, furniture and farm equipment. I think best while moving and making things with my hands, so luckily, my university taught the fundamentals of design in the letterpress shop where we were surrounded by wood type, composing sticks, ink cans, metal and machines. It was very tactile. Had design school started by touching a keyboard and staring at a screen, I don’t think I would have stuck with it.

In college, I joined the in-house design team at a nearby corporation called Cook Medical, where I saved all of my paychecks until I could afford to make the move to New York City. Days after arriving in the city, the stars aligned, and I received an offer from the one and only job I applied for—a design position at Pentagram. It was at Pentagram that I got my hands on projects ranging from branding, editorial, web design and environmental design—it’s where I learned about excellence in craft and was able to spend the entire day practicing pure graphic design.

Though making beautiful things was wonderful, it was the late designer Sylvia Harris who taught me that making things better for people could be even more wonderful. So in 2009, I bounced over to Brooklyn and began working closely with Sylvia. She was my hero. She believed designers have super powers that should be used for the good of society, and that’s why we rebranded the office as Citizen Research & Design.

It was Sylvia who taught me all about human-centered design and how to apply it to designing for the masses. We designed for Medicare, New York University and the United States Postal Service. She would always say, “we are a tiny firm with huge clients.” Sylvia always encouraged me to get out and see the great big world that she had traveled because she knew it would make me a stronger designer.
What’s so unique about IDEO.org is that we are at the intersection of design and international development.

Have you had any significant travel experiences that influence your design work today? Tanzania made a big impression on me. During my time there, I taught at a rural primary school outside of Arusha. My class of about 25 kids was sharing six pencils. I couldn’t believe it. So when I asked for support to try and make improvements for the school kids, my friends, family and people whom I had never met offered support because they wanted to help in any way they could from afar—thanks, technology.

It was staggering to see how much impact a little bit of teacher training, some supplies and new classroom structures could have. Essentially, we were codesigning a more effective school experience with the staff. It was then that I realized we are all in this together, and that’s how we approach problems at IDEO.org, where I currently work. It’s all about collaboration. Writing that sounds cliché; but hey, I’ve seen it in action.

What is human-centered design? Sometimes I forget that I’ve moved into another field of design because human-centered design calls for a process that is fundamentally similar to a visual designer’s process. If you dissect what it takes to design something, it’s about understanding what is needed, coming up with ideas, trying them out and refining them as you go. Once you learn design as a process, it can be applied to everything, whether creating a book for an architecture firm or designing business ventures for women in Kenya.

Human-centered design starts with the people you’re designing for and leads you to new products, services and experiences that are tailored to their needs. It is all about collaboration, so we bring together multidisciplinary teams ranging from business designers and physicians to engineers and communication designers. From my experience, visual design—for advertising, let’s say—might rely more heavily on a designer’s technical, creative abilities. However, when you are part of a team designing for complex systems or for people in different environments, we need to account for our gaps in knowledge and understanding. We do this by combining our diverse backgrounds and perspectives with our extensive research process in order to build empathy for users.

Do your personal emotions factor into the human-centered design process? Heck yeah. There are a lot of emotions going on with the work I do. I spend a lot of time emotionally connecting with people, but I try to funnel any frustration or excitement or whatever I’m feeling towards building empathy and fueling productivity.

For example, I just spent the day with a family who lives next to a river that floods their home at least once a month. They are incredibly resilient and super positive people, and it’s just plain inspiring. So as I’m designing for the project, I don’t want to make something that would just be nice for them to have, but I want to try delivering excellent designs that will hopefully evoke some happiness and delight in addition to being something useful for them. They deserve it.

What is the mission of IDEO.org? What’s so unique about IDEO.org is that we are at the intersection of design and international development. It’s an uncharted intersection that is never boring, and this is why I am so attracted to designing in this space. Our mission is to design for challenges in poverty by bringing creativity, empathy and innovation to the social sector. Our goal is to improve the lives of people in vulnerable, underserved communities through design, and we’re doing it through the products, services and experiences we create.

We design reproductive health services for youth in East Africa, employment and community resilience systems in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, precision agricultural tools for farmers in Myanmar, and for a whole host of other poverty-related challenges. My team is the exploratory, research and development arm of the organization that explores new ways to work and pushes the edges of design and innovation in our field. We are experimenting with our process and the speed and structure of projects.

Our mission also includes spreading human-centered design through the problem solvers we fuel and inspiring the social sector to adopt human-centered design. This is so important to IDEO.org that we even offer free tools to learn more—the Design Kit and the Field Guide to Human-Centered Design.

We spend a significant amount of time teaching our partners and local team members how to think like designers. Since we rely on our teams on the ground to move designs forward, transferring the human-centered design process to those who are implementing a project is critical to its success. When we aren’t physically at the project’s location, we remain in close touch with the team—thanks again, technology. I wake up each morning to dozens of WhatsApp messages and photos from teams in Africa and Asia.

What is the research process like for a typical IDEO.org project? Thanks to our research process, I’ve made so many friends around the world. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with folks in their homes, sitting on their floors to sip tea and chat, and visiting markets to shop with them. They’ve taught me how to draw buckets of well water and clean dishes. They have given me cooking lessons and shown me how to wash laundry by hand using the “African bend”—my legs were sore for days. I play with the kids and hang out with the grandparents.

It’s during these moments that I get to see the stickers they place in their windows, how they hang their laundry to dry, actually feel the physical discomfort of certain tasks and observe how they interact with their neighbors. It’s how I get to learn about their daily routines and pick up on things that they might not otherwise tell me in a traditional interview setting. It really helps us get one step closer to seeing things from their points of view, so when we are designing, it is for the realities of their lives.

To keep things fun, we like to create interactive activities, and we often build quick prototypes to learn how people interact with initial concepts. My visual design background lends itself well to these research methods because I can quickly create visual assets to help communicate ideas. Conversations are so much richer when you have something tangible to react to. Visual language is particularly handy when you don’t speak the same language. When you show a picture of a chicken on a piece of paper, we can all get behind that.

What frameworks for thinking are you excited about right now? I just rediscovered the Danish Design Ladder, and I’m considering printing it on a T-shirt because it’s so great. The ladder was developed by the Danish Design Centre in 2003 to categorize the four stages of design maturity: no design, design as styling, design as process, and design as strategy and innovation.

My team works in many parts of the world with a range of organizations, so the ladder is a great way to evaluate the design maturity of the geographic areas we work in and the organizations we are working with. Knowing the current state of design helps us understand what is needed to climb that ladder. At IDEO.org, everything I’m designing—whether it’s a film, an interface, a brochure or a new business venture—I design with the ultimate goal of reaching the top rung: design as strategy and innovation.

What advice would you give to a designer who is interested in the nonprofit sector? Nonprofits need designers who are pioneers. The social sector is an exciting space to experiment with design. Finding an organization with a mission you care about and building a team you love working with is paramount.

While you’re at it, experience as much as you can. Design is largely about making associations and connections between things in your brain and your being as you create. So go explore and take it all in. Godspeed.
Jennifer Rose is a design lead at IDEO.org, a nonprofit design and innovation organization that focuses on spreading human-centered design throughout the social sector. Her work spans the spectrum between design, strategy, research and innovation. Previously, Rose worked in New York City as design director of the Public Policy Lab. She worked closely with designer Sylvia Harris at Citizen Research & Design and was a designer at the New York office of Pentagram. Rose has designed projects for clients such as the National Gallery of Art, Medicare and PayPal. She holds a BFA in graphic design from the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts at Indiana University.
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