Why designing for free made me a richer person

Ask 10 people about innovative organizations and you can bet the majority will name high-tech companies like Amazon, Google, or Tesla as examples. These are sexy organizations in which the smartest people on the globe push the boundaries of the possible.

As a digital designer, I also look up to these types of companies. They’re doing the work that I aspired to do at the beginning of my career. It’s been 10 years since I graduated with a master’s degree in Communication & Multimedia Design. The first six years of my career, I worked for big brands at communication agencies in Belgium. After that, I worked as design director at a Silicon Valley startup that ran out of runway. Back in Belgium, I started my own software company that makes tools for communication teams at companies like AB Inbev, IKEA, KBC, Samsung, and Toyota.

This past year, however, I took a very different path. I left my thriving startup and went on a sabbatical, designing for free for a year at organizations with little money, usually being the only designer there.

This sabbatical gave me a different view of what it means to be a designer, and it sent me on a new purpose-driven path. Along the way I learned about the nonprofit sector and the practicalities of doing a one-year sabbatical. I made a lot of mistakes and course corrected along the way. I learned about designing social services. Picked up new processes and tools. It was a life-changing experience that I encourage every designer and entrepreneur to do.

This is the first part of a three-part article. This part is about why it’s valuable to do a service design sabbatical. The second is about working as a designer at nonprofits, and the third part is about structuring a year of volunteer design projects.

This is a personal story, but I’ve made it as practical as possible for those of you who are also pondering doing a sabbatical.

Four areas I focused on

The sabbatical kicked off well at the end of 2016 with this blog post outlining my plan for the year. I explained why I stopped working in commercial organizations after a decade, and why I was looking for more meaningful work.

Drawing of my initial plan for a one-year sabbatical

The message resonated. People were interested in having an entrepreneur with a design background to join their ranks for free. I quickly found four nonprofits that allowed me to join them for several months to conceive new services.

Click on the projects for detailed case studies.

While these were very different organizations, they all shared a focus on improving the lives of people, day in and day out. What a change from the commercial work that I did before.

Why did I do a year of pro bono design work?

People go on sabbaticals for different reasons, but the one constant is that they’re usually looking for something new. They’re looking to break out of a rut and start on a new path.

The renowned visual designer Stefan Sagmeister is a fan of sabbaticals. Every seven years he closes his studio for a complete year to pursue personal projects. In his TED talk Sagmeister explains that this one year off fuels his professional work for the seven years after.

How Sagmeister plans mini-retirements every seven years.

For me, the idea of the sabbatical came after leaving the software company I had built. I needed inspiration for my next step in life. I decided to find that inspiration by working for free for nonprofits.

This sabbatical year enriched my life in so many ways:

  • It broadened my view of the problems you can help solve as a designer.
  • I met wonderful new people with each project.
  • I deepened existing relationships with collaborators.
  • Because I had freedom to experiment, I learned new methods and skills.

Here’s why I believe these experiences can be enriching for any designer and entrepreneur.

Getting to know purpose-driven organizations

Working in nonprofits feels different from working in profit-driven organizations. The soft aspects of business are emphasized, aspects like culture, values, coaching, and teamwork. Nonprofits are often more soulful and purpose-driven places compared with organizations that focus on profit.

Author Frederic Laloux created a practical model to compare these different organizations via colors. Laloux labels many nonprofits as green organizations and typical profit-driven organizations as orange ones.

Orange organizations use the metaphor of a machine, where all the components need to be optimized to reach maximum output. Green organizations use the humane metaphor of a family.

Image source: Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, by Frederic Laloux

Laloux writes in depth about the rise of a new type of organization using the metaphor of a living organism. This summary is a good starting point.

As a person with a background in profit-driven orange organizations, it was a welcome change for me to arrive in warmer, more humane organizations. These were softer cultures with more focus on harmony, wellbeing, and making a positive impact.

Initially, however, this different approach also felt somewhat fuzzy and inefficient at times. I had to learn to calm down and take my time. I had to learn to value people over processes.

I saw very important work in the nonprofits that improved the lives of many people, yet I often felt that their way of working could be improved upon. There weren’t the same deadlines and goals that are omnipresent in orange organizations and which push teams to innovate quickly. Care homes rarely have quarterly sales targets. Schools don’t need to optimize their conversion funnel. Employment coaches don’t try to improve Net Promoter Scores.

Because there tend to be fewer hard goals that need to be met, employees have less incentive to improve the machine in which they work. Nonprofits work with so much passion IN their organization, that they don’t find the time to work ON their organization. In my limited experience working with nonprofits this seemed to be the major contributing factor for there being less innovation.

Having a designer with technical skills around for a limited timeframe helped these organizations adopt an innovation mindset. It makes it possible for teams to work on projects that they otherwise wouldn’t and to make big changes in a short amount of time.

Working on what matters

I read somewhere that 90% of designers work on solving the problems for the richest 10% of people. They work for banks, IT behemoths, communication agencies, or hot startups like the Airbnbs, Amazons, and Ubers of this world. That’s where I worked for a decade, too.

But there’s a broader spectrum of problems that we designers can help solve. Organizations in these design-poor sectors might not be as fancy as the hot startups, but their work truly matters.

For a designer it’s a gift to be able to use our specific skill set to empower these people to become better at helping people.

Such a sabbatical is a great reminder that, fundamentally, we design to improve the world.

Quote attributed to philosopher Ben Parker, uncle of Spiderman.

Working in the social services sector also highlighted to me the importance of human-centered design. To improve the world, we need to be in it with two feet. We need to truly understand for whom we’re designing and how our solutions impact lives.

This type of design isn’t about pushing pixels around to make something look beautiful. It’s about understanding people’s needs and aspirations and building solutions to help them improve their quality of life. And after all, this stuff — healthcare, education, employment, integration — matters to all of us.

Discovering new beginnings

Your current jobs or projects usually look a lot like previous jobs or projects. It’s normal. You always start from where you are right now. It can be difficult to break out from this linear path.

Visualization of my job path based on my Linkedin profile.

When I left the previous company that I created, I wanted to start something new. The majority of my ideas for a new company were very logical, because they started from my current worldview.

I came up with a communication workshop marketplace, a workshop material e-shop, a grant accelerator, welcome boxes for new employees, and a few more businesses. These ideas didn’t inspire me enough to continue with them though. You can see the seven business model canvasses. All yours.

Finding uninspired business ideas with little impact

To find real problems, I needed to go out into the real world. I needed to broaden my horizons.

I needed a break from my current path to look for new starting points. Ideally, working on solutions that the world really needs.

That’s the main benefit of a design sabbatical. Finding fresh starting points. The possibility of new and exciting paths to take in life.

Finding an ikigai

How do you find work that matters? Work that keeps you excited? Work that you feel good about?

The Japanese ikigai model explains my search well. Ikigai can be translated as “the reason for waking up in the morning.” It states that you’ll have a true life’s calling if you doing something that you’re good at, that you love doing, that you get paid for, and that the world needs.

I know what I love and what I’m good at. Making things with people. Coming up with new ideas and making them happen. And I always got paid well for it.

The thing is, the world doesn’t really need people to buy more products. For the sabbatical I wanted to find problems worth solving. Stuff that matters.

That might be one of the main lessons out of this sabbatical. Why waste time building things that people don’t need? There are so many people that can use our help.

My IKIGAI

For me, it became a moral obligation to make my work more meaningful.

Doing work people care about

When you design solutions for real-world problems, other people care more about your work. People are genuinely interested in the topics you’re trying to understand. They want to think along with you to find solutions.

When work is such an integral part of your life, it feels good when the people in your life can relate and are interested in what you’re doing. Finally, after all these years, my family cared about the problems on which I was devoting my energy.

One of my favorite moments was visiting Huis van Alijn with my grandmother. It’s the museum of everyday life. My grandmother is a tester of the dementia application that I’m building, and together we recorded stories about objects and rituals from everyday life when she was young.

Selfie time. Me on the left, grandma Josée on the right

Becoming a better designer

One of my goals, as posted in my intention statement, was to come out of the year not just with a renewed vision but also with a firmer grip on service design approaches. That worked, and along the way I picked up a few handy skills that made me a more rounded designer. For me, personally, this comprised video storytelling, visual communication, and teaching.

Video storytelling

I wanted to make clear videos of each project that would give ample context about the problem, so that I could ask my modest audience to provide input on the solutions.

I hired one of my best friends, Sil Willems from Make a Point, a video coach and director, to help me learn how to make videos myself. Sil coached me to get better at filming, interviewing, and planning the shots. Together we edited over ten videos.

Video production turned out to be a valuable extra skill, which helped me to communicate the design process and findings effectively. This approach helped get stakeholders on board and other people interested in the project. This transparency created a lot of goodwill. Being public with the work also pushed me to do a better job. People were watching along, so I couldn’t just half-ass it. I needed to perform.

See the project videos on my site.

Visual facilitating

A fun skill I improved was drawing to make sense of the new problems and solutions. The drawings helped me create overviews of all the components and to doublecheck my understanding with stakeholders.

Group workshop mapping the workflow of job coaches at Maks

That’s where drawing is most valuable. It’s an excellent way to communicate with team members and stakeholders. Visuals help structure conversations and make the design process much more accessible and participative.

Here’s the result of the workshop. A visual that the Maks team uses to show job seekers how they’ll be helped.

The particular drawing style shown here comes straight from the Bikablo visual dictionary. Highly recommended.

Teaching primary school pupils

A last skill was being able to stand in front of a class of primary school students and keep their attention. Not an easy feat.

During the school project, I had the chance to see many teachers work and to practice teaching myself. After a while I became a lot better at taking a group of kids along the process and enthusing them about the project. It was hard work but fun. And when you’ve learned to entertain a classroom full of 10 year olds, you can handle adults too.

Making friends

A big benefit of volunteering in different organizations is that you get to know a lot of people in a positive context. You’re offering to help solve problems that are important to them. This is powerful. Such constructive and positive collaborations help you form relationships quickly. It buys a ton of goodwill. Usually, people are very kind, grateful, and willing to collaborate.

In each of the four organizations I worked with I met a bunch of wonderful people. I had such a good time at most organizations that I went back to them afterwards to continue with the project for an extra month.

Farewell at PIN, bribing me with cake and presents to come back

A social sabbatical is contagious. Quite a few friends became involved in the sabbatical and we had the chance to get to know each other even better. This came naturally because most of the projects started via my existing networks. It’s enriching to work alongside familiar people in an unfamiliar context and to better understand their day-to-day life. Collaborations like this make you understand what’s important to them and it makes it important to you too.

The relationship with each and every one of these people has grown and deepened. Now these friends and I have shared goals. I’m invested in their future and the future of their projects.

It’s intense to spend a year volunteering but it was also incredibly rewarding.

This sabbatical started out by being about projects. It also turned out to be very much about people.

Seeing the world through the eyes of wonderful people working in nonprofits helped me understand that a lot of purpose-driven organizations need our help to improve the lives of vulnerable and underprivileged people. As a designer, you have a good mix of people skills and problem-solving skills that are necessary to create a better world. This sabbatical gave me a drive to solve real-world problems that happen in everyday life.

Did you get something out of this story? Are you considering pro bono design work? Reach out via Twitter.

This is the first part of a three-part article. In the following weeks we’ll look at how you can approach working as designer at nonprofits and how I structured the year of volunteer design projects.

This story is published in Noteworthy, where 10,000+ readers come every day to learn about the people & ideas shaping the products we love.

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