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Your design firm, Co:Lab, does 100 percent community work. How might you advise other designers and firms to do such a thing, financially? I see design agencies like Tomorrow Partners, IDEO, Firebelly Design, New Kind, Rocketfuel Design—firms of all different sizes and disciplines making both a contribution and a living working for good. I’m grateful the community and the economy value these efforts.

If you’re a firm or sole practitioner interested in this type of work, I recommend following the same basic practices you’d use for any business:

• Be clear about your mission and what’s meaningful to you. It affects how you develop funds, advocate and perform boots-on-the-ground outreach. It also aligns you with like-minded organizations.

• Go where purpose-driven organizations congregate. If you want to be useful, you have to take the time to learn the business.

• Build your credibility quicker by focusing in your own backyard. By working close to home in the beginning, Co:Lab was able to develop a point of view and a set of best practices in a more systematic way than if we had set our sights remotely.

• Share what you know. Join the board of a non-design organization. Offer to provide presentations and workshops on design. Co:Lab did the above to help cause workers develop a deeper understanding of communication and design. From there, we found organizations that are ready for what we can bring.

• Use sound business practices. The budget margins are often thin in purpose work, and because of that, there is no room for compromise on the quality of the deliverables. In other words: close enough is never close enough.

• Deep down, if you don’t have the conviction that it will work out regardless of the obstacles you face, then it won’t work out.

What motivates you to design for good? I became interested in what business advisor A.M. Bhatt calls “from where one speaks.” In the process, I rediscovered my native origins from Haiti and the joint lessons in humility and gratitude from this beleaguered island. For example, when I would say that I wanted to make a better world—I started hearing my lack of humility.

Despite the popularity of the mantra to “be the change,” I am not the change. The change will exist outside of me. My work is to be of service to the change. We partner with folks on the frontline of change, the caseworkers and the community leaders. Over the years, a lot of folks have said we’re brave to transform our business the way we have, but I don’t see it that way. When your work is to craft battle hymns for foot soldiers—there’s no mistaking that the foot soldiers are the brave ones.

What steps in the design process can really push a community group to work more effectively?

• Challenge the data. The idea that data is absolute is false. It doesn’t answer why—the interpretation of data does. Use data as an aerial map that points you to why.

• One of our designers has a quote from Charles Eames on her computer: “Never delegate understanding.” Everyone working in the community needs firsthand accounts from the community itself. Don’t rush to design—design is a byproduct of understanding.

• Keep bringing the conversation back to the opportunities already baked into the community. Nothing fractures a community quite like sustained negativity. People want a reason to believe, and part of our work is to keep them connected to that belief.

• Together with the community group, develop a mechanism to recognize and sustain consensus. Because this work is personal, consensus is more than a tool for making decisions and moving forward—it expands possibilities by getting emotional distance on the issue at hand.

What has been your favorite design project to work on? It was the toughest thing I’ve ever worked on. A teenage mom battling cancer wanted to provide for her toddler daughter. Toni had been documenting her battle with cancer through honest, heroic images she took of her fight and its impact on her family. This was a piece of reverse engineering and not how we usually work. We had seen poetic images of cancer survivors photographed by Aaron Kotowski. When we inquired about this one feisty young woman in the photographs, he told us his sister’s story and her intention to document her experience battling cancer. The idea to create a book sprang from there. A foundation was being set up in her name and sale of this book would be a fundraiser for the foundation.

When she came to our office, my design director, Troy Monroe, and I were struck by her ferocity, her charisma and her joie de vivre. Troy and I set out to design the book that consumed our studio for a while. Through this design work, we got to witness her powerful journey of optimism in spite of perpetually diminishing options for survival. She died less than a year after we started working together. I was honored to be invited to her memorial service—to see her sweet little twirling daughter and to hug her big brother.

You can set out to create whatever change you have in mind, but change is always bigger than what you can imagine—you can’t control its rate or its trajectory, but if you are prepared and clear about your contribution, you can add to the momentum. Toni went through a process that made her stronger. Her process would have done so with or without our involvement. At the end of this story, she dies of cancer, and she also kicks cancer’s ass. That was a paradigm shift for me, one of the moments that inform what I do.
Rich Hollant is the principal and design director at Hartford, Connecticut-based Co:Lab, a strategy, brand development and communications firm working exclusively on purpose-driven initiatives. Its clients include the Human Rights Institute, Middletown Youth Services Bureau, United Way, the City of Hartford and youth development initiatives throughout Connecticut. Hollant has been featured in Business Weekly, honored as one of “20 People to Watch” by Graphic Design USA and selected as one of the “Eleven Most Generous Designers” by Fast Company. He is a recipient of the Connecticut Youth Service Leadership Award. Hollant is a past president of AIGA Connecticut and the current board president of Compass Youth Collaborative.
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