How did you get from writing for The Washington Post to working at IDEO? I got a job covering music for The Washington Post’s commuter paper, interviewing and writing stories about artists like Phantogram, Michael Kiwanuka and Big Boi. I had a breakthrough when I shadowed Keur Gui Crew, a Senegalese rap group that mobilized 350,000 protesters in their country—I was inspired by their ability to use music to build a movement. I also spoke to Australian musician Xavier Rudd, who told me about the Indigenous history of the yidaki—which was later appropriated to the word didgeridoo—and his desire to protect the natural resources in the Kimberley region of Australia. This inspired me to explore how art could be used to convene people and drive change. I later moved to Iceland to explore this topic as an MTV Networks and Fulbright fellow. There, I founded a music festival and artist residency and learned how to design experiences that facilitate this process.
On your site, you write that you design “meaningful, human experiences.” How did you find your passion for designing human experiences? To me, “meaning making” is some of the most important work of our time. For instance, research has shown that millennials in the United States are fleeing religious institutions for a variety of reasons. While I am not religious, I see how such institutions serve as hubs for diverse communities of people to come together, feel a sense of belonging and identify a shared higher purpose. So, where are young people filling these needs instead, especially in cities that are increasingly fragmented? This isolation isn’t something just young people experience. Elders are also feeling disconnected, and more broadly in our country, there are growing social divides—Democrats/Republicans, urban/rural, rich/poor. This is all pointing toward a central theme: we need to come together.
My work isn’t about building a consensus. It’s not charged by a political agenda. It’s more about how we can see our common ground and do the hard work of listening to those who have core beliefs that are different from our own. The spaces and efforts that do this work well require deep thinking about how they are designed.
What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work or style? I tell people that I embrace my “inner mushroom.” Mushrooms are magical, and they can take things that are decomposing and turn them into a source of fuel for themselves. As people, we can do this with our trauma, turning trauma into resilience. This resilience makes us more empathetic. It enables us to sense people better and grow as designers. So, when negativity or darkness enters my life, I welcome it, but I don’t cling to it. I see it for what it is, embrace that part of myself with self-compassion and find the lessons in it.
What’s a project you were proud to work on? I was part of the team that produced a weeklong community summit a few weeks ago for OpenIDEO community leaders from countries around the world, including Lebanon, Turkey, South Africa, Peru, Kenya, Guatemala, Australia and the United States. For some, it was their first time hopping on a plane or leaving their country. We came together in the mountains of northern California, where we thought about how to align and strengthen the impact we’re having in our communities. Everyone had a hand in facilitating workshops and sessions, where we built with our hands, felt deeply with our hearts and thought provocatively with our minds. People laughed and cried. By the end of the week, everyone felt less alone in the work they were doing, and people left saying, “We are enough.” In our goodbyes, one person described it as a “divine moment;” another said, “life is completely different now;” and another said she “walked away with a family.” They felt reenergized and centered on the work ahead, and were excited to bring more people into our collective efforts. The ripple effect of such experiences is where a lot of magic happens—as designers, it’s important that we focus on this crucial part too.
You recently gave a CreativeMornings talk on “how honesty inspires creativity.” What are some specific ways that designers can incorporate more honesty into the design process? Designers should think about how they can use their craft to investigate their own personal traumas and questions. Professionally, we all rely on the guidance of mentors who shepherd us through the design process and offer a unique lens that helps us deliver more meaningful solutions to the clients or communities we work with. The same is true in personal exploration. Find guides who can help you use the tool of design to explore your inner world and your personal, spiritual and psychological wellness. It’s also essential to find the spaces where honesty thrives for you. For instance, I’m more courageously honest in smaller groups while in movement, like in a car. That said, I’ve also been trying to be honest in spaces with more people, like on stage at CreativeMornings! Know that honesty isn’t always planned, and that it takes a lot of work and energy to make it through. Just like diversity and inclusion, it’s a lifelong, continuous process to design honest spaces. As experience designers, we can intentionally design for honesty. We should start to focus on this as a community because it will help us and those who experience our designs be happier and healthier.
What’s your dream project? I’m turning my Prius into a camper that will take me across the United States this year. I’m doing this to step into my next role as an ecosystem designer focused on strengthening the movement of “bridge builders” in the country. I’m inspired by the work of the Colossian Forum, which uses scripture to bring science and spirituality together. I see power in efforts like The Dinner Party, which communes people around meals and a conversation that aims to help them move through the grieving process. I look to the work of the National Rural Assembly, which is bringing leaders from diverse, rural communities across the country to spaces where they can connect with each other and key decision makers in cities. There are many more examples of bridge building; however, we often don’t see these narratives in the media and are instead exposed to stories of division. It’s important for us to shift this so we can absorb news that demonstrates our capacity to connect and unify—even across differences.
In partnership with the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, we’ll be crafting more than 40 written and video stories that will be syndicated to national and international publications. We’ll also work with a cohort of storytellers and practitioners who will help build this narrative in 2019 and beyond. Finally, we’ll distill the best practices for how to bridge across differences, whether that means at your next family gathering or as a practitioner in your community. I’m on the search for bridge builders in the United States who are interested in joining bridge.camp—be in touch!