How did you begin working in the social sector? I actually started in the social sector before I found my way to design. When I was a student at Sciences Po Paris, I took some classes in microfinance. It was around that time that I was becoming an adult and starting to make important financial decisions that had significant implications on my life and my family, and this made me appreciate even more the importance for everyone to have the right tools and products to be able to have healthy financial lives. My first graduate school internships were in the financial inclusion space, which got my foot in the door of the international development sector. It was only after I stumbled upon design, via a design innovation program at Paris Est d.school, that I combined these two worlds.
How does your education in international business and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean affairs inform the work you do today? My liberal arts education makes me a stronger designer, especially when I think about my curiosity, critical thinking and communication skills. More tangibly, there are three things that I’m thankful that my education nurtured:
- Writing, which I—and others, like John Maeda—believe to be extremely valuable in design. It enables me to be a more well-rounded design practitioner—one who can use the written word to articulate design research insights, develop content, document one’s process and be an effective storyteller.
- The ability to seek and synthesize different perspectives and information sources, which is critical to my work as a design researcher.
- A sense of civic and social responsibility, which I learned both in the classroom, through taking courses in political science and justice in development, and outside the classroom, by participating in student government and other volunteering opportunities. This is a big part of what draws me to the work that I do.
What are some of the projects that you worked on recently? The past couple of years have been busy, but good busy! I got to work on an engagement in Niger with YLabs and Population Services International to increase the support for reproductive health practices amongst influential community leaders. I supported an innovation lab in Jordan that identifies and solves challenges posed by long-term refugee displacement. I trained a cohort of Open Society Foundations youth fellows who are working to improve health rights at the intersection of the LGBTQIA and Roma communities. And I helped the International Rescue Committee Education team in Lebanon redesign its tools and processes used for classroom observation, social and emotional learning, and teacher professional development.
How has the experience of living in different parts of the world and traveling extensively influenced your work? Working as a designer in the social sector space, I’m utterly aware of the privilege that my background and position affords me. As George Aye said, designers in these situations are “seen as the ones with the newest knowledge, the ones with solutions, the innovators.” I work in situations and settings with inherent power asymmetry. And sure, I get to work on tough issues, but with communities and colleagues who, unlike me, do not have the option to leave.
So, I’ve come around to the view that my ability to travel as extensively as I do is one of my most privileged traits. It reminds me of writer Arundhati Roy when she questioned the post in postcolonialism, noting how so many kinds of entrenched and unrecognized forms of colonialism still exist, whether in the predominance of certain languages over others, or in the arbitrary boundaries that formed borders that still to this day forcibly keep people in or out. Traveling has made me realize at a grander scale how large socioeconomic inequities really are, from variations in cost of living, to the difference between being an immigrant or an expat, to how the place you were born or how a piece of identification assigned to you at birth can determine so much of what you can do and see in the world. The truth is, traveling does have the amazing power to enrich your mind and expand your horizons, but it can also slap you in the face with the dissonant privilege that it grants you.
What led you and Mollie Ruskin to begin the job board Design Gigs for Good? It’s a bit of a funny story. A few years ago, Mollie and I found ourselves between jobs, exploring our options. We were both looking for a job board that featured design opportunities for social impact, but we couldn’t find a centralized resource that combined both design-specific jobs and jobs in the social-impact space; it was either one or the other.
We realized that we were already investing time searching for opportunities for ourselves, so it made sense to just post what we found so others don’t have to repeat our work. What started as something we thought just a few of our friends and networks would use ended up becoming much bigger than we had anticipated. Sometimes, it feels like a lot of time and pressure to keep the job board updated alongside our day jobs and other professional responsibilities, but every once in a while, we’ll get an email from someone informing us they’ve just accepted an offer from a posting they found through Design Gigs for Good, and it makes it all worth it.
What do you consider your greatest ethical responsibility as a social designer and researcher? If you’re someone who conducts research with human subjects, you are probably familiar with some of the history of how ethics came about in research. The Belmont Report came out in the late ’70s after decades of questionable research practices. The three fundamental principles that the report lays out are: respect for persons; beneficence; and justice. I try to carry these principles with me in my work, whether as a designer or researcher and especially when conducting work in the social sector, which often involves working with vulnerable communities and sensitive topics. This manifests in a lot of different ways; for example, in respectful participant recruitment and informed consent; responsible participant data management; reflecting upon one’s power and privilege; and anticipating potential unintended consequences of a design and how it can be abused. It’s hard to pinpoint a single challenge as being the greatest, but I strongly believe that I am ultimately responsible for the work I put into the world. And if I am lucky enough to work in a space that fulfills my soul, it is my duty to consider ethical responsibilities as a privilege—rather than a hindrance—to my creative process.