Disclaimer: I am writing this with just one week left in my first year of graduate school, which has been accompanied by my full-time job. My prized bullshit detector is no longer a detector, it’s practically a meme generator at this point. I am tired in ways I didn’t know were possible. I no longer wear makeup, despite buying $100 worth of Glossier products mid-semester after two classmates gave a particularly compelling presentation about their brand identity. I reserve the right to rethink and revise this content after I know what it’s like to sleep again.
I spent the last several months researching, designing and Kickstarter-fundraising an offering for the restorative justice community. It was an assignment for my Entrepreneurial Design class at SVA IxD. Like much of the work I’ve done so far in this program, it became much more than an assignment. I did the work, I met the deadlines, but it challenged me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. This is my attempt to make some sense of the experience through lessons learned and unlearned.
Lesson Learned (for the 123,687,975,639,574,838 time): I have not overcome my fear of failure.
I’ve lived with an infuriating cocktail of depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. It presents itself mostly as fear of failure and negative self-esteem. I’ve managed to earn a degree, hold down jobs, and at the very least, get out of bed every day and do what I need to do. I know there are many who can’t say the same. I don’t know what separates me from them.
To give you some perspective, it took me two years of therapy to apply to graduate school. Much of the work I did in therapy was, over and over again, feeling the fear but doing the thing I was afraid of failing at anyway. This helped take the edge off the fear and enabled me to accomplish things I couldn’t have before. By the time my first semester of graduate school began, I felt ready, mentally and emotionally, to take on the challenge of tackling a new career path while continuing to work full-time.
But this assignment in particular forced me to work in public, which meant that any mistake or bad decision would be seen by everyone. It forced me to promote my project even when I wasn’t happy or satisfied with it, to convince people it was worthy of their financial support, and that I could be trusted to do what I said I was going to do. I felt vulnerable and exposed, and deeply afraid of failing.
This fear was stubborn and relentless. The boundaries of my comfort zone made themselves known. I was able to chip away at the fear out of obligation and necessity. I needed to turn in assignments and I cared too much to not do anything at all. But it was maybe one of the hardest things I’ve done so far in this program, and possibly so far in my professional life. I have not overcome my fear of failure, but I’ve still made progress and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.
Lesson Unlearned: I don’t know what role design and technology can play in solving the problems I care about, and whether they even should.
My personal bio currently reads, “I am passionate about improving human experiences through better design, especially in communities neglected by the tech world.”
I care a lot about helping people impacted by social problems, and this has guided me through my career up to this point. I also care a lot about understanding the root causes of these problems before attempting to help solve them. When I applied to this program, interaction design appeared to me as a discipline that sought to do both of those things, leveraging design and technology as its primary channels.
I chose restorative justice for this project because I had been curious to find out if approaching it from a design perspective might help strengthen it somehow or make it more effective. What I discovered was that it is much more complex than I expected, as are the communities in which it is commonly practiced.
As George Aye pointed out recently in a talk about power structures and design, just because we can design for a problem, doesn’t mean we should. Maybe there is a reason why the tech industry has neglected or left behind certain communities like the small nonprofits trying to tackle tough social problems with few resources, and it’s not just for lack of trying.
In early stages of dating, it is possible to find yourself falling in love with the idea of a person, rather than the person themselves. I love the idea of using design to solve social problems, but it is just that, an idea. Each social problem is unique and complicated in its own way, and not all are suited for a design approach. As IxD alumna Tina Ye recently wrote, “Tech is only one of many approaches to tackling big problems, because it is just a visitor in the human world, not the other way around.”