A visit from EPIC

Originally posted on the Firebelly U Blog

We had a blast with Chris & Erin of Epic last week! First of all, Deborah made us the most delicious vegan green curry (that was so spicy we all had runny noses by the end of it!) and a sweet sticky rice dessert with grilled pineapple! YUM! Then, just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, Chris & Erin totally blew us away with their presentation on EPIC. They kicked things off with a profound question…


It doesn’t have to, but it does! EPIC wanted to change that by bringing talented designers and creatives together with non-profits at “rallies”. It gives burnt-out creatives an opportunity to work on a project they thoroughly care about, and it gives the non-profit design services that don’t suck. In fact, EPIC has given over $3 million in creative services to non-profits during their existence. Amazing.

We came away from the conversation with some great advice on working with non-profits. I think this is actually excellent advice for working with any client, but especially within the mission-based sector.

  1. Give a damn. Care about the organization you are working with. And don’t fake it, the people involved with the non-profit typically are involved because they are seriously passionate– they can tell if you aren’t being authentic!
  2. Do the research. Don’t make assumptions! Nobody likes to be stereotyped and generalized, so really dig in to the organization and find out who they are.
  3. Live it. The best way to learn what a non-profit does is to do what they do. Volunteer with them, serve with them, fundraise with them– whatever you have to do to better understand what motivates them and why they do what they do!

So with that, I heartily recommend anyone in the Chicago area who hasn’t gotten involved with EPIC before, do so now! Erin & Chris are 100% authentic and passionate about what they are doing– and the opportunity to work on a project you really care about is not worth passing up.

Chicago Urban Farming: Iron Street

This is urban farming at its most awesom-est. Jason Feldman of Iron Street Farm  gave the Firebelly U Fellows a tour of the revitalized manufacturing facility and a summary of how they are seeking to make a positive impact on their community.

The once abandoned industrial building now is home to a variety of fruits and vegetables, composting stacks, hoop houses, honey bees, fish and a few hundred, if not thousands, of soil-improving worms! There are so many positive things about this venture, it just about makes my head spin!

Allow me to point out a few:

  1. The urban location of the farm provides a convenient location for the city to drop off tree-clippings & landscaping waste. The city saves money on gas and lowers their carbon foot-print, while Iron Street gets much needed mulch for composting and growing. Win-win.
  2. Some local restaurants and community members send their food scraps there to keep it out of a landfill and add to the composting pile.
  3. As a part of the south-side Chicago community, Iron Street provides locally-grown, fresh produce and herbs to their community members. The farmer’s market helps keep it going!
  4. Iron Street is involved with several youth organizations, including After School Matters and Heifer Project International, providing educational and exciting outdoor activities for neighborhood students. How else will kids know where their food comes from when they grow up in a concrete jungle?

It all comes back to their mission to not only grow food, but grow people. It is obvious how much the people who work and volunteer there truly care about the health of their community. It is people like them that are truly changing our world for the better. It was a joy to walk around the farm, and I cannot wait to see how it expands over time. If you are ever presented with the opportunity to head out there, do yourself a favor and go.

Design Bubbles

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity of attending a few of the events surrounding Chicago Ideas Week. It was a tough choice, since many of the events took place during the same time as the AIGA Pivot conference, which I very much wanted to attend. In the end, I rather reluctantly stayed due to the cost of traveling to Pivot– and I think this ended up being a good thing.

It is so easy to get caught in the whirl-wind of the design community and forget that there are other innovators and thinkers out there, and even more, that those other people are the ones we should collaborate with! While most of the events I attended at Chicago Ideas Week did not directly correlate to my interest in starting a socially-responsible design studio, I found all of them tremendously inspiring and motivational.

Over the last week I heard from Mayor Bloomberg, Dave Gilboa of Warby Parker, David Bornstein, Jeff Nelson (Urban Students Empowered), Leila Janah (Samasource), Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Scott Harrison (Charity: Water), Emma Clippinger (Gardens for Health International), Thomas Friedman, Dr. David Agus, Fran Drescher (the Nanny! and Cancer Schmancer), Glen Tullman, Dr. Rick Hanson & Sanjay Gupta (CNN)… and more… phew!

I guess what I am trying to say, is it is important to get out of the bubble of your industry (whatever it is) and listen to the ideas and innovations coming out of other sectors– because some of this stuff is pretty damn inspiring.

Be Awesome

Last week I attended a lecture by the neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson on training your brain to “take in the good”. It was amazing. There is scientific reasoning behind all those motivational quotes and inspirational posters (okay, maybe not all of them). I think I will have to do a full write up on his talk and some of the take aways when I can wrap my mind around it a little better. It really got me thinking.

One of the things that stuck in my mind was the old adage that surrounding yourself with positive, inspirational people will make you a more positive, inspirational person. It’s not that I doubted it before, but I am really starting to feel the effects of this notion. I don’t feel as though I am different that I was before, but I feel empowered and inspired to be whatever I want– which is a pretty amazing feeling. I think it is a direct result of being around people every day that are taking risks and starting projects to make the world a better place.

A couple of weeks ago I met Victor of The Leap Year Project, who’s single goal is to hear about the risks others would take if they could, hear about the risks people have engaged in, encouraging others to participate in the movement. I think he is really on to this idea that surrounding yourself with inspiring folk will rub off on you in some way. We don’t live in a vacuum! The experiences of those around us obviously influence us, why not make sure it is in a positive way? Love it.

The cool thing about connecting with other social entrepreneurs is that everyone I meet has a palpable amount of passion fueling their projects. Not too long ago I had a conversation with Matthew Manos of a verynice design studio. His advice to me was to (and I paraphrase) not to get tangled up in the financial details and budget, but to stay passionate and just jump. Okay, he also had some more serious suggestions about setting goals and calculating costs, but over all, the main take away I pulled from it was to just get started. And everyone I’ve talked to, no matter where they are in their careers now, had the same message to share. If you don’t try, you can’t succeed.

“Ideas can’t be random… they must have INSIGHT & BE IMPLEMENTED.” Maris Grossman

The Firebelly U team had the wonderful opportunity to hang out with Maris from Gravity Tank last friday. She is a pretty incredible person & I thought she had some great advice on managing the balance between work & life… definitely something I struggle with!

She also addressed one of the big problems that has been identified with ideation. Remember those IBM commercials that came out a while back, poking fun at the creative industry? They actually had a good point. Idea-generating, or ideation, can’t happen in a vacuum. Furthermore, what good is a solution if it is not implemented? I think she said it pretty concisely above, and its a good point to hold on to.

PS. Have you checked out the Gravity Tank studio space before? Talk about an amazing place to work!

“Working characters aren’t designed to enhance value, but rather communication.”

Matt Alt & Hiroko Yoda on Kawaii “working characters” in Japan, from their book: Hello, Please. These characters may look cute and adorable, but their visual attributes serve a very real function– communicating important information to the young, visually impaired, illiterate and those with short attention spans.

hello, please

“Marketing and design are crucial assets to any businesses, but especially non-profits…”

…due to the necessity of engaging an audience in order to spread awareness around a cause, or build trust in order to raise donations or recruit volunteers. Now a very problematic aspect of working with a non-profit client on a pro-bono basis is a lack of sustainability — just launching a brand or website really is not enough, and can lack the consistency in brand awareness and marketing tactics that are necessary in sustaining a successful social enterprise or non-profit organization.”

-Matthew Manos, of A Very Nice Design Studio

This essentially sums up why I want to start my own studio & what I will be doing. Teach the importance of consistent branding & design (and how to get funding for it!) then provide the work. Simple as that.

Tilt Shift

Things at Firebelly University are in full force! The ‘school’ side of things has been amazing! We spent the day with Debbie Millman, enjoyed a lovely morning coffee with the inspiring Julie Ghatan of Dovetail Chicago, participated in a surprisingly interesting how-to-write-a-business-plan workshop, did some soul-searching and set some goals, made some friends on skype, made more friends on facebook and the list goes on.

But, the thing that really makes Firebelly U unique from other educational institutions is the studio component. So in addition to all our school work, the five of us have also established a new design studio. Without further ado, may I introduce: Tilt Shift! The placeholder is up at the moment, but the full-fledged site will be up shortly. We are looking to work with clients that are seeking to make a positive impact in the world in whatever way they can. Our schedule for the next nine-months is already filling up quickly, so if you are interested in working with us drop a line soon!

We define ourselves as “an interdisciplinary design studio inspired by a new way of thinking and doing.”  I think that description is pretty darn accurate, too. My partners at Tilt Shift are Johnathon Strube, Carley MostarAmy Guterman & Jince Kuruvilla. And not to be forgotten, Deborah Alden & Dawn Hancock are heading up the program, along with the rest of the Firebelly family. They are all pretty freaking amazing; I can’t wait to see what we create over the next few months!

Hey, Chitown

One week in for Firebelly Univerisity (FU). I can’t believe it.
It has been a whirlwind that is for sure. Three months ago, there was no such thing as FU & somehow in between then and now I applied, was accepted, quit my job, packed my apartment and hauled my bum out to Chicago. Still blows my mind.
In most schools, the first week is a lot of syllabus yapping and ice-breakers- at FU we hit the ground running. Within the first four days of class we (5 total strangers) developed a mission for the studio we will be running together, a process for how we will achieve it, a portfolio of our combined works, had two meetings with AMAZING potential clients, participated in an in-depth workshop with a lawyer for creatives, named our new studio, watched Dawn kick ass at Pecha Kucha, learned NOT to take any major highways into the city and much, much more. Notice, sleep was not on that list. I am not anticipating much of that over the next nine months, feel free to send me coffee as you please.
Describing what the FU program really is has proved to be a bit of a challenge for me and the other fellows– Johnathan, Amy, Jince & Carley. It is not an accredited university program, so no, as my grandpa asked, I will not get any letters at the end of my name. What I will get is one of the most amazing hands-on experience and mentorship opportunities of my life. FU is part incubator, part workshops and part kick-start your own entrepreneurial project.
It is a lot to take on, but we’re ready for the challenge. We have two new sites that will be launching soon, so get ready!

Firebelly U

I am excited to announce that at the end of August, I will be packing up my bags, moving (back to) Chicago and starting class at Firebelly University! It’s no secret that I have long admired the work Firebelly does on a regular basis. Everything from their strong & relevant professional work to their contribution to the community at large with programs like Camp Firebelly & Firebelly Foundation inspires me as a designer.

And now I get to be a part of the fun!

I am really looking forward to getting started at school, along with my four other class mates. The work we do at Firebelly University will all work towards promoting good in our communities, and ultimately the world (big picture, I know).

For those of you who are interested in my specific goals with the program, here is a basic run down. At the end of the 9-month program, I aim to start my own studio that functions as an advocate for “do-goodery”. 
In particular, I am extremely interested in working with medical and scientific research groups. The work these groups accomplish is truly amazing; yet sadly, many of them do not effectively communicate the successes of their research, especially in the eyes of the average person. It will be a serious challenge to take the complex information these types of organizations yield and make it pallatable and engaging to a larger audience, but it is a challenge I would like to take on.

As a person, it upsets me that many worth-while organizations do not succeed because they did not receive the same attention as their corporate brethren.

As a designer, I can do something about that.

Design has been impacting out world in way or another for centuries; I am making a commitment right now to use design to make a positive impact in the world to the best of my ability and knowledge. And beyond that, I can guarantee I will never stop learning new ways to carry out that commitment.

Step one, Firebelly University. See you in Chicago.

Oh & if you are interested in supporting me in my education, you can here. And you can get some pretty cool swag out of it too, pictures to be posted soon!