NEA Webinar Now Online: Women in Social Impact Design

A few weeks ago I helped organize and participated in a webinar on Women in Social Impact Design with Katie Swenson, VP of Enterprise Community Partners. My co-panelists were rock stars–Dawn Hancock of Firebelly Design, Liz Ogbu of Studio O, Lakshmi Ramarajan of Harvard Business School.

The webinar is up for viewing, check it out here.

So many great issues to get into and so little time. The NEA is going to continue with this topic and broaden it out to look at women in the arts in the fall.

Interested in more on these issues? I work both on issues of social impact design through my research–more on that coming to the blog thanks to a research grant from the NEA—and Build Yourself+, my challenge-based empowerment workshop for women. Sign up for the workshop’s newsletter for more inspiration, strategies and tactics.


Event: NEA Women in Social Impact Design Webinar

Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to be on a panel on women in social impact design run by the NEA and hosted by Katie Swenson of Enterprise Community Partners.

It’s going to be a great conversation–the panelists include Dawn Hancock of Firebelly Design, Liz Ogbu, urbanist and social innovator, Lakshmi Ramarajan of Harvard Business School and myself. We’re going to look at the larger issue of mission as a key component in the lives and practices of female design practitioners, but also how the social impact design field can do a better job at demonstrating and pushing for equity–especially gender equity–in practice.

“What women want and what the profession and society needs should not be in conflict.”

-Katie Swenson

Katie wrote a great blog post previewing the conversation here and I wrote a piece on the view from architecture’s two equity-based movements here.

RSVP for the webinar here.

Trevor Holmes of Wistia Brings Pokemon and Personality to the Creative Somerville Series

Last week, Trevor Holmes, videographer for video hosting startup Wistia spoke at the Creative Somerville Series and let us in on his quirky sense of humor, his design aesthetic and his path to Wistia and instagram dog stardom.

Trevor started with this amazing video he put together as his introduction to Wistia, which gave us a sense of his story in the well-styled, off-beat and incredibly personable style that I’ve come to know him for.

I hope you were as as charmed as we all were.

That video is so well done that I could just leave it at that, but I’ll go on and share a little more of the Trevor Holmes magic.

Keep Learning

Trevor took us back to Pennsylvania where he started out, in community college where he first started tinkering with radio and TV production, and then on to Lehigh University where he zeroed in on design arts–specifically on web and graphic design. After graduating he freelanced for a time, working on whatever he could get his hands on, and working on his own projects including a line of snarky greeting cards, a collaboration with his now-wife.

Trevor moved on to a few positions after freelancing that placed him in different roles. “Being adaptable and flexible where the world takes you in every day life let me take my skills from college and turn them into a career that was sort of up and coming at the time,” he says. His first position was for a small web and graphics firm, the second was for a Foodler-like startup, and the third was for a marketing firm, Digital Feast in which he started to move into video. “What I love about video is that it’s the ultimate visual experience,” he says. Wistia first came onto his radar because Digital Feast started using their service for web video hosting with a clean interface.

Trevor was good enough to show us one of his early video projects, that he did while in school. The assignment was to create something to pair with music, and his piece is a wacky, endearing stop motion romp through rough sketches, with a friend’s band’s music as a soundtrack. When asked what he would say to a younger self in a critique he says, probably, “tone it down.”

But in these early pieces you can absolutely see a thread emerging–Trevor’s quirky, slightly bouncy and off-beat sense of humor which comes through in his work. His ‘cover letter’ to Wistia was a Pokémon-themed video  in which the Trevor ‘avatar’ visits the office (“Mr. Wistia” greets “Trevor” with wonderfully 1990’s pixelated cheer.) Yet underlying this sense of fun is also a continually moving process of exploration and learning. Trevor referenced the ‘taste gap’ that Ira Glass talks about–the gap between what you can produce and your taste when you’re first starting out. His advice is essentially the same as Glass’s: “Just keep creating. Go into it full steam.”

Keep it Simple

A theme that runs through Trevor’s approach to work is to keep it simple. When asked how to create great video without a large production budget he advised the crowd that with basic supplies, purchased from home depot for under $100, a white wall (and preferably some natural light) they could make beautiful video. But what about actors? His advice: “I’m not an actor and my coworkers are not actors but you’ll see us in every one of our videos.”

Part of Trevor’s job now is to enable Wistia’s customers to create their own great video, and video that engages customers. To that end, he creates resources, including one on how to create that $100 setup–what he calls the “Down and Dirty Lighting Kit.”

Trevor’s approach is to spend much more time on the front end–really understanding what the purpose and idea is before a camera is ever involved. Then, he says, we can “shoot it in a matter of hours, edit it in a day” and have a rough draft.

Keep Playing

We got to spend a little time at the end talking about Rigby, Trevor’s dog, also known as “Motivational Dog.” Trevor, (using his $100 lighting setup of course) posts photos of Rigby that are beautifully styled and often themed (Rigby recently celebrated Easter, for example by wearing bunny ears–among other things.) Trevor started this project because he wanted more quality time with his dog, and he thinks no matter how much you love your job “it’s important to have your work and your personal work.”

His parting advice to the crowd connected this sense of personal playfulness to his approach to continued learning: “I still am not an expert. I’m still a learner,” he says. “Do what makes you happy even if it’s taking pictures of your dog. Do what you love to do, even if that’s not at your current job.”

photo credit: Elyse Andrews of the Somerville Beat.

Hitting Fifty! Looking Back at Five Months of Blogging

When I began blogging in November I didn’t know what the process would have in store for me. I didn’t set out to start a website and build my ‘tribe’ and I didn’t even know how long I would be doing it for.

I only wanted a place to think ‘out loud’ and sort through everything I was learning.

But consistency has paid off and it’s played a strong but background role in helping me shape my interests and ideas into action.

Blogging has helped me give shape to ideas that were ambiguous and tighten nascent connections among my endeavors.

I wanted to take a moment of celebration for ‘hitting fifty’ by calling out five of the things that have shifted for me since I began blogging that I am really excited about.

#5: I Founded the Creative Somerville Series.


This speaker series, which I run with Elyse Andrews of the Somerville Beat features local creatives and entrepreneurs in an intimate Q&A format, that eschews the ‘fabulous life of…’ approach that a lot of lectures end up at. Although the series is young, we’ve been sold out for every event we’ve hosted, and it’s clear the series is resonating with people.

I’ve loved being inspired by our speakers, the founders of Aeronaut Brewing, Kate Balug of Department of Play, Erin Heath and Rose Mattos of Forêt Design Studio and Trevor Holmes of Wistia. I’m also meeting wonderful people (see item #1) and love working with Elyse and our slowly growing crew of volunteers. Want to join in? Check out our schedule here.

#4 The Build Yourself+ Workshop is Taking Off.

Build Yourself Workshop_Old Girls Club

I taught the Build Yourself+ Workshop, an empowerment workshop for women at the Boston Society of Architects for the first time this spring and it was absolutely fantastic. Evals that came back from the workshop are showing that the experience was life changing for many women.

I’ve always had plans for taking the workshop to the next level but a wonderful piece in Fast Company from a few weeks ago has expanded the workshop’s visibility and the workshop’s focus and challenge-based model is clearly striking a nerve. I’m looking at expanding the workshop to other cities and to other fields.

Want to join in the conversation? I’m moderating a panel at the BSA bringing together women in different fields this week, and next week I’ll be part of a National Endowment of the Arts webinar on women in social impact design.

#3 Issues of Impact Have Risen to the Top.

I’ve always intended to use my design skills in service of social impact, but blogging has helped me define a more sophisticated approach, language and set of strategies that I specifically use. Months ago, when I first started blogging I wrote this epic post (it was a manifesto of sorts) on how I thought landscape architecture could drive health outcomes.

That impact focus, driven in part by learning about lean startup concepts, has become a core part of everything I do, whether it’s the challenge-based model of the Build Yourself+ Workshop, or the strategy behind work I’ve been doing for clients. I’m currently taking an Acumen fund class on “Lean Impact Assessment” with my research partner Gilad Meron, and Katie Crepeau of the Impact Design Hub and am excited about how the class and our conversations. I’m excited to continue expanding my take on impact-focused work, and to investigate some instincts I have about how impact assessment can be more creatively driven.

#2 My Research on Social Impact Design Business Models was Funded by the NEA.

Social Impact Design Research Funding

Ok so it’s not really fair to include this one as a blogging-related outcome, since we laid the groundwork way back in the fall when our research group, Proactive Practices applied for the funding.

PrintBut this was my first self-initiated project in the realm I work in: The intersection of design, entrepreneurship and social impact. I can say that I have used this blog as a platform to explore that intersection and draw out key connections and insight and direction. The blog has also demystified writing for me, and made ma a more confident, easy and fast writer, which I know will come in handy as we move forward with this project.

#1 I Have a Crew I Love Here in the Boston Area.


Most importantly, blogging has been a behind-the-scenes organizing force for me to learn, meet new people and get deeper into the city I’ve lived in for almost five years. Blogging gave me a place for reflection, a way of pacing out life, a week at a time, and a way to ‘file away’ thoughts as I met people. I’ve met fantastic folks in the area, and through events like the Design for Equity conference this fall, the Creative Somerville Series and the Boston Society of Architects.

Do you ever get that feeling that you’re surrounded by great people who you respect and admire, and they’re really digging each other? I am starting to feel that way in the place that I live and that’s a huge blessing.

I’m not going to conclude this post with a “and here’s to another fifty!” I’m going to conclude with a feeling of gratitude that slow steady progress can spiral into so much more. Here’s to so much more.

photo credits: featured image adapted from flickr user Elaine. Creative Somerville Series photo by Ben Holmes of Aeronaut. Build Yourself+ Workshop photo adapted from Nina Chase.

Helping Social Impact Designers Faster! Our NEA Grant for Proactive Practices

Exciting news!  Proactive Practices, my research collaborative which investigates emerging business models of social impact design just got a research grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. The project was born for me a few years ago out of a very basic question. I’d seen celebrations of social impact design blowing up in the design press and media, but the attention was mostly focused on a fairly self-congratulatory what, (the projects and the designers behind them) instead of the how the works got done. I wanted to know which organizations were producing these projects, what business strategies and models they were using to do this kind of work and build sustainable, thriving businesses, and what the trade-offs were of the different models they had chosen. The project started for me as an independent study while I was in graduate school, and I linked up with Nick McClintock and Gilad Meron who were also asking these questions. Our research team has pushed the project forward, interview by interview, article by article, diagram and talk and presentation by presentation since, but now, thanks to the NEA and a matching grant from The University of Pennsylvania, we finally have a significant project budget to push this forward faster and get useful information to design practitioners who want to make social impact.

Here are 3 specific reasons why I’m excited about this grant:

We have a real budget:

Our team has poured countless hours into this project (I know I spent almost 100 hours on it in the last year.)  We’ve prioritized it. One of my research partners and I even made a pact one week to donate to the Republican party if we didn’t hit our project goal. But this is the kind of project that requires making enough headspace to really get into it and be able to both plan and to work. With a significant budget we can also hire people to do things that are either not our strongest suit, or the best use of our time. We can hire web developers or graphic designers and get our interviews transcribed, pay for web plugins and other resources that will help us get our information to our audience faster and more effectively.

We have a timeline:

I am an impatient, action-oriented person. I get antsy if I find myself spending too much time planning and not enough time doing. While I initiated this research project for my own purposes—After three years in graduate school, I wanted to know what practice options were out there for designers to make social impact—I never intended to sit on my findings. Our research team has shared our learnings through talks and articles, but not enough, and not fast enough for my taste. I am a recovering perfectionist, I have been hugely influenced by ideas from books like The Lean Startup that advise you to put your work out there in successive beta launches that are good not perfect. I’d rather get good work out there now that practitioners can use today, than wait to craft something perfect, but not all my research partners agree. Both positions have merit, and having the funds to get closer to perfect, and a timeline to get closer to good is great mediator between our values.

We have specific deliverables:

We’ve always had specific goals of output for this effort—A publication and a web presence. But now we’re on the hook to produce those outcomes and need to get them done within the next year. I often like to work backwards from my specific deliverable—I’ll lay out a publication even before I have the content to feed into it because it helps me use my time more efficiently and only spend time developing what I actually need to develop. It also means that from the get-go I’m thinking from the perspective of my end user, about how they will actually use what I’m developing for them, how it can solve their problems and fit into the context of their lives. Knowing exactly what we’ve committed to producing means we’ll jump into that process faster and with more specificity. We can go through the iterative cycles of making something that changes the way social impact designers practice faster. I can’t wait until the day I’m back on this blog announcing the launch of insight and information you can use. If you want to be notified of our launch, sign up for our list.

Working for the EARTH! Rose Mattos & Erin Heath of Forêt Design Studio

Rose Mattos and Erin Heath of Forêt Design Studio joined us at the Creative Somerville Series last month, to talk about their story and their floral and event styling studio. Rose and Erin, who met while working for Anthropologie, described their friendship as an almost “cosmic connection.” Erin who was working under Rose, thought her boss new boss was the coolest and invited her to a party she was hosting her first Friday at her new job. The mutual girl crush was started and led to the strong friendship and business that is now Forêt Design Studio.

Foret Design Studio Creative Somerville Series-01

Both women love flowers, as Erin says, she recently discovered that in high school she’d written to a friend, “I don’t want to work for the man, I want to work for the earth!” Rose and Erin sought out professional opportunities in florist shops, and were told that the work was too dirty and they wouldn’t like it, and were turned away again and again.

Erin found work on a flower farm, and they began collaborating together on flower arranging and installations outside of their day jobs. Their style focused on a looser type of flower arranging that wasn’t as formal as the more contemporary, tight style common in Boston. Forêt means forest in french, and one of the guiding aesthetic values of the studio is the founder’s love for natural elements like branches and acorns, and not just flowers.

Foret Design Studio Creative Somerville Series-03

Founding Forêt

The ladies don’t describe the process of starting Forêt as a jump.They seem to have just flowed into it as their freelance work load got higher. But they do cite a key moment, when they applied for space in Fringe Union, a coworking space in Union Square that’s home to small businesses and design studios. We were excited to put our “eggs in that basket,” Rose says.

Once the ladies moved into Fringe and developed a workload, they actually fell into roles They realized they didn’t want to go into work every day and ask “Who should do this task, we should do that?” Their motto is divide and conquer. “We weren’t interested in creating more work for ourselves,” they say.

If the two of them worked in complementary roles, they realized they could accomplish double the work and focus on what they each were good at, and were interested in. Erin took on bookkeeping, administrative tasks and client contact, and Rose has specialized into an artistic director role. They both are actively involved in design and events and visit farms together where they can talk at length about the particular tone of red they want in a flower for their upcoming job.

The Dirt
Erin and Rose are so positive and obviously work so well together that they’ve managed to turn even the bad times into good outcomes, reflecting that “they made us stronger.” From events that don’t always go as planned (they cite an event in their businesses’ early days in which they became a scapegoat) to a meeting with a financial planner who told them,”You need me but you can’t afford me” (they vowed to prove him wrong,) to missing friends’ weddings because they were planned after the Forêt schedule got booked, a flower-based business isn’t always instagram-perfect.

Knowing themselves seems to be at the core of their success. They try to work with clients who really understand their unique style and will refer clients who seem to want something very different to other designers who can meet their needs better. Compromise with clients and companies is part of the business, of course, but especially when working with big companies, they’ve learned over time to stand up for their needs.

Foret Design Studio Creative Somerville Series-02Just do it

Despite their precision about shades of red, Erin and Rose seem to have a fluid working process and approach to their creative work. When asked about the influence of their art backgrounds on Forêt, Rose advises, “If you understand the principles of design you can transform them into another medium.” Whether a painting or a floral installation, she’s working with issues of color, scale and variability. When asked for advice from people interested in following their path, Rose and Erin advocate just starting by getting flowers or other beautiful items and starting to play with them and arrange them in your home.

Creating Connections
One of the elements Rose and Erin love most about being based at Fringe Union and in Somerville is being part of the inspiring creative and small business community. Fringe Union members give each other advice, expand each others’ networks, and they collaborate. The audience at the Creative Somerville Series was filled with fellow Fringe Union members, and one of the last works Erin and Rose showed us was an amazing floral arrangement they made as part of a moody photographic collaboration with a fellow Fringe resident. In addition, the ladies develop long-time relationships with local growers and suppliers, and try to source as much material as they can locally.

The core relationship, of course, is that of best friends and now business partners, Rose and Erin. One story they told seemed to encapsulate it all: One day, before founding Forêt, they both spontaneously decided to buy the other flowers. They showed up at each others’ houses and found each other gone–they had missed each other on the way to each other’s houses.

Cosmic connection indeed.

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

RSVP here for tickets for our next event on 4/29 with Trevor Holmes of Wistia.