Using design principles in relationships

As a designer, I work in ideas. But I also must work with people. If I could distill everything that I’ve learned as a designer down to one thing it would be this: Ideas are excellent; people are essential.

People are not only vessels for ideas, they bring them into form. Designers sometimes think they are responsible for both discovering ideas and executing them, but at some point our ideas must live beyond us. They are shared with co-creators, with clients, with stakeholders, with audiences we may never meet.

Unfortunately, designers are often not trained or well practiced in this business of inviting others into our process and ultimately letting go of our work so it can serve them. Worse still, our clients may also have expectations and misunderstandings about how much of the work is ours and how much is theirs, and legal contracts alone don’t guarantee clarity.

The way I see it, marketing is becoming more about information and relationships (and less about fabrication and power). Designers are no longer pushing concepts to clients who push them to passive consumers. This means the job of the designer is changing, and we are not the only ones who may find this change unnerving.

The good news is that designers have much to contribute in the face of ambiguity. After all, we are accustomed to the blank page, to the one-hundredth draft. Designers offer clients much more than thoughtful, innovative concepts and well-crafted products. We can even offer more than a useful way of thinking. We can offer a way of collaborating.

By considering design principles, we can all make better sense of our relationships. Designers have the tools for sharing perspectives strategically. Here are some suggestions for how we can use the basic principles of design to better our relationships as a whole.

Proportion. Just like all parts of a design must be appropriately sized, so must we understand that as collaborators we are an equal part of a larger whole. We are not all-knowing and neither are our collaborators all-powerful. We can tell when the head of a figure looks too big for its body, so we must learn to discern when a certain conversation, conflict, or collaborator is less important than we might believe it to be, or more so. There will always be things we cannot change, such as how someone chooses to provide feedback, but we can always decide to change how we personally respond.

Balance. What is the weight we are carrying? Are we taking too much responsibility, or too little? Collaborations are all about reciprocity, so sometimes we need to show up and serve and sometimes we need to ask and receive. Know your constraints and communicate them; nothing is fast, good, and cheap.

Emphasis. Designers know how to grab a viewer’s attention (and ideally we also know how to focus our own). When we lose focus, we need a north star to re-direct our efforts. Periodically we must all ask ourselves: What is my highest value and priority? Do I care more about the type of work I'm doing or the type of collaborator I'm working with? Do I put my current collaborators first or reaching prospective, perhaps better ones?

Movement. Like everything, collaborations change. No mistake lasts forever, nor any success. Just as designers guide a viewer’s eye, it is equally important to reframe our perspective in positive directions. There are always many choices available when we are at a crossroads, and there are always more collaborators when we diverge from former ones.

Contrast. One day we are excited about a new project, the next we are dreading all the work we know we will have to put into it to have it be what we want it to be. If we pay attention to these highs and lows, we will be more understanding and helpful when our collaborator is going through their own peaks and valleys.

Pattern. Paying attention to our own feelings also allows us to notice habits we might consider changing. We will never be perfect, but we can develop a self-awareness that empowers us to be consistent enough to earn the trust of our collaborators.

Rhythm. Perhaps it sounds like too much work to be communicating with collaborators with such clarity. Just as designers slowly learn about composition and technique, we all make progress at a steady pace, one step at a time. If we're lucky, we learn to enjoy the dance.

Unity. It is because of people working together that ideas are possible. But no one need be a doormat, or a dominator. We can and should consider what’s best for the entire group or project, which at times may require us to let go of our self-doubt and speak up and at other times to let go of being "right" and listen.

Personally, I measure my success as a designer not merely in terms of the quality designs I create but also in terms of the quality relationships I foster. In my experience, they generally go hand-in-hand.

A good collaboration is both exciting and nerve-wracking. We will be pushed beyond the limits of our own perceived abilities and it will be for the benefit of us all.

This blog originally appeared on the blog of the Colorado Chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design.

10 ways that being car free for one year has improved my life

As we celebrate Earth Day this year, I am moved to share a story that is more personal than the ones I generally do because this month I am also celebrating one year of being car free.

As you might expect, not driving a car has changed my life. I want to share my story with you because of what you might not expect: it has also made me a better person. Let me count the ways . . .

  1. I know I am positively impacting the Earth and all the creatures that call Her home. I feel wonderful about the fact that I am contributing MUCH less to the very real problem of climate change caused by the greenhouse gases that result from our nation's addiction to automobiles - but my journey did not begin from a place of self-righteousness, it began with deep humility. My car broke down and I could not afford to repair it. I told myself that I would in time but as more and more months passed, I began to realize that the idea that I needed to was a lie. Some days I pitied myself, truth be told, but most of the time I sought to foster an attitude of curiosity and to be open to the unfolding adventure of discovering what might be generated from my unexpected situation.
  2. I am healthier. All the time I used to spend in my car, I now spend walking, biking, and taking deep breaths at bus stops. It is no coincidence that I'm in the best shape I've ever been. When my doctor asked me "How often do you exercise?" I said without pause "Every day." Since sitting is the new smoking, the benefits of this cannot be overstated.
  3. I am less stressed. No more traffic delays, disrespectful drivers, parking nightmares, engine problems, unexpected tickets. I have built in "transition time" between scheduled events, time I can use to come back to my mind and body in the present. It took several months for the deeply ingrained habit of hurrying to be washed away and as a result my peace of mind has never been stronger. 
  4. I am more resourceful, resilient, and confident. I'm not going to lie, the first few months were difficult. Bikes getting flat tires and getting stolen. Buses missed and passes lost. Long walks in rain, snow, and the heat of midday. Every apparent setback was an opportunity to learn just how many possibilities there are and how capable I am of selecting one that will work. When things don't go as planned, I no longer feel anxiety, regret, or anger. I know that everything works out in its own time and way.
  5. I value my time more and have better experiences. I no longer overbook myself because I can no longer expect to move from one place to another so quickly. Conscious of the time and energy it takes to travel, I spend my time more consciously, choosing only those experiences that I most wish to have. For example, I can choose to have groceries delivered to me, to bike them to my home, or to dig deep in my cupboards and eat what I normally don't. 
  6. I am more active in my neighborhood. I support businesses that I can walk or bike to, and I know more of my neighbors (and their dogs). I no longer limit my sense of "home" to my house; it has widened to include the many buildings, yards, and people that are near me as they have become so familiar to me.
  7. I am learning to ask for and receive help more. When I can't do something on my own, or when someone simply wants to help, I am open to gifts of time, effort, and friendship. As an often fiercely independent person, it isn't always easy for me to ask for help, but I am getting better at it.
  8. I am more empathetic. I look into the eyes of strangers that pass by. I have conversations with people from all walks of life as we commute from one place to another on a train or bus. I regularly bear witness to those who are disabled and using public transportation. More than ever, I know how weary so many are - and how blessed I am. 
  9. I am a better parent. For a long time, I believed that because I am a parent (a single one, to boot), a car was non-negotiable. Thankfully, my son is older than he once was, much more capable of biking long distances and traveling by bus on his own, but he also more frequently challenges me. One the most difficult aspects of this transformation has been not meeting his expectations. Many times he has been stuck right there with me, at the wrong bus stop, with a busted bike, or carrying a heavy load on our shoulders - and, of course, being fourteen, every time he has reminded me of how much he wished it to be otherwise. As I let go of my guilt about this, I began to see how he was changing too, becoming more resilient, responsible, aware, and open minded himself. Naturally, this has far out weighed any self-judgement I may have had initially. 
  10. I am more grateful. When I finally let go of my car once and for all, I thanked it for all it had done for me and gave it to its next owner with the blessing that it provide what they need as well. When the busses run on time, when I pass by sweet smelling flowers, when a stranger says a kind word, I appreciate the beauty of this world. I no longer think I am "lacking" a car. Instead, I think I've been given these incredible gifts that I may be more joyful, more free. 

By sharing my experience, I do not wish to cast shame or judgement on anyone who is still regularly driving a car. I simply invite you to learn from my own experience that what we think about something - in this case, about the necessity of cars - may not be entirely true. Trust me, I had countless arguments for spending a large portion of my budget on the convenience of a car. Becoming car free was not unlike shaking an addiction, like when I gave up eating high-sugar foods and would have moments of inexplicable rage. And it's a cultural fixation (tellingly, some of my most supportive friends have been my European ones), which means that it's all the more difficult to break through.

I hope my story demonstrates that when we test our courage and make bold changes of any kind, when we sincerely strive to be healthier, humbler, more conscientious, and confident, we are supported more than we can imagine. 

Best practices for communicating with Spanish speakers

Dear Hoop Dreams,

Our nonprofit wants to share information about our programs with Latino individuals. In addition to translating text into Spanish, how else do you suggest we tailor our materials for this audience?

Lost In Translation


Dear Lost in Translation,

Thank you for asking this question, which I believe will open doors to increased understanding for hopefully many readers.

I have one simple recommendation: Get help from those with experience.

To answer your question more directly, I reached out to some experts myself. When I reflected on the suggestions they shared, I identified four distinct approaches for engaging Spanish-speaking audiences, which I’ll organize into phases that demonstrate increasing commitment to such efforts.

Providing shared language

“Targeting the Hispanic and Latino community is like aiming at a moving target,” says Francisco Miraval, founder of the bilingual news and consulting agency Project Vision 21. Even the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are outdated, he says, as these communities are becoming increasingly multi-generational and multi-lingual. “It’s unusual to find a monolingual Spanish speaker,” he adds. If you don’t translate materials, they will find a way to do so themselves.”

Translation may not only be unnecessary, it may actually increase barriers between your organization and Latino audiences. “When you just provide translation, it is just a way of emphasizing differences,” he points out.

What’s the alternative? For starters, make it clear that there is no dominant language. Advocating for language justice is part of the mission of Community Language Cooperative, where Rose Snyder works as a translator and interpreter. She suggests also avoiding jargon as much as possible, which can be especially difficult to translate.

Supporting shared growth

“There’s a perception that Latinos don’t get involved because they are not interested or they are apathetic. But the way meetings are set up is from a perspective of privilege,” Rosa says. “We ask, ‘How do you remove barriers?’” Considering the time of day you host meetings or events, providing on-site childcare, and ensuring transportation access are a few things that can demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity.

As with all audiences, you also need to use channels that they use to communicate. Word of mouth is how most Latinos hear about things, says Mechelle Little, who volunteers as a translator with Colorado Lawyers Committee. She suggests going beyond just sharing your own services and helping point them in the right direction for other resources as well.

It’s even better if you can maintain relationships with other organizations offering services, especially if they do so in areas that you don’t serve, says Deborah Schaffer, Citizenship Program Coordinator at the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center. These partnerships can be mutually beneficial as referrals generally go both ways. Her organization partners with foreign language media, for example, who share informational PSAs without taxing their small marketing budget.

Not only is a strong network of organizations important when no “wrap around” services are available, but it can also help clarify and combat all of the misinformation that Lations are exposed to, says Deborah. Individuals may be nervous about working with the most qualified people, for example government officials, so intermediaries can provide a vital, reliable source of information.

Developing shared understanding

Deborah suggests attending events and engaging in conversations to learn from culturally competent people and organizations. Cultural competence, she says, is evident when someone is a good listener who uses thoughtful strategies to ensure that the audience understands.

“Before you even begin to translate information, you first need to transfer trust,” Francisco says. A good starting point is exploring whether your nonprofit’s programs are addressing the needs that Latino audiences think they have. “The problem is not miscommunication, it’s assuming that Latinos want to be connected with resources. Instead you need to connect with the roots of a person, to connect them with their own future,” proposes Francisco.

“‘How do we approach community in a way that respects their truth?’” is one question Rosa poses. “Set a precedent for valuing folks as experts in their community. They have solutions to problems in the community,” she says.

Non-Spanish speakers can also work to better understand their own cultural norms. For example, English speakers trust numbers and facts, but Latin Americans trust emotional connections, says Lhotse Quintanilla, who led intercultural communication workshops for English speaking volunteers in Bolivia with Conexiones entre Mundos. “In Latin America, we mix feelings and work a bit more. It is very important to consider how we feel about things.

“It’s totally worth it for management to research and invest their own time in understanding cultural differences,” adds James Archer, founder of ShareLingo, a social enterprise that brings English and Spanish speakers together to practice language and share culture. Another significant difference is that in Latino cultures direct eye contact is not a signal of respect but rather of defiance.

Creating shared experiences

“By creating a safe space for people to meet,” says James, “something magical happens. [English speakers] find out that not only are [Latinos] there to learn from [them], but to teach [them].” This increases the confidence of Latinos and it makes them more willing to share their stories, which is helpful when you are seeking to understand their needs and perspectives. For example, Share Lingo helps connect school teachers and administrators with Latino parents who play a major role in student and school achievement.

“Community is not about geography,” Francisco reminds us. “It’s about connections.”

“When you experience time [with other cultures], you realize there are millions of people living in different ways,” says Lhotse. “You can’t change how others live, but you can find a way to [work together].”

What these experts shared with me (and hopefully you, dear reader) is that the communication breakdown between English and Spanish speakers isn’t about language at all. It’s about the barriers that are created when our language, experiences, understanding, and growth are not shared.

Organizations that seek to bridge this gap need to go beyond sharing information and be open to receiving it as well. Those that do have an incredible opportunity to impact a growing number of people who share our community.

This blog was originally posted as part of an advice column on Young Nonprofit Professionals Network - Denver's blog. Please share your nonprofit marketing and communications questions and obstacles with me by emailing