Expanding Potential in Pro Bono and Practice: Latent Design

Our second interview is with Katherine Darnstadt, founder and principal of Latent Design. We first met during a Twitter chat–the first person I ‘met’ through Twitter–and learned that we had just missed meeting each other at Public Interest Design Week. Ever since then we’ve been keeping up on what we’re both up to, and have since moved our communications beyond Twitter to email and Skype.

Katherine_DarnstadtWith an infectious enthusiasm and passion for her work, Katherine spearheads Latent Design, a Chicago-based architecture firm and strategic design consultancy that is working at the intersection of design and community development to create social, economic and environmental impact beyond the building. Latent Design is a registered Benefit Corporation currently operating with one full-time employee and a network of project collaborators. Their primary clients are community and neighborhood organizations, along with traditional architecture and planning projects.

Let’s start with the beginning, when you founded Latent Design.

You began the practice after being laid off in 2010 as a stand-in until you found a permanent position within another firm. But then Latent developed into a full-time practice that came up with the public interest design movement. So let’s hear more about how your practice has changed from what you initially sought out to do.

When I started Latent Design, it was the Plan B. I had a choice to be an architect or an administrative assistant. Those are your options when you’re laid off and your industry is decimated; that was the reality of the field at that time.

So I chose to be an architect and pull Latent Design together. But I always thought that in 18 months time–after I had my kid and raised him a bit–I’d be ready to get back into the workforce and someone would hire me. I knew the unemployment and recession was going to be bad but I didn’t think Latent Design was going to be the permanent answer.

I was getting commissions and doing what I wanted to do.

I thought, “If I could be an architect, I could be any architect that I wanted to be; I could frame it anyway I want until I got hired by someone else and they told me what to do.”

Over time Plan B slowly shifted into Plan A. I had this shift last year in 2012 where I said, “Latent Design is an architecture firm and this is what I’m going to do.” I can make this my dream job and my dream career. I can practice and use design as the social impact tool in the way I want to use it.

Now within the firm we’re doing a little bit of backtracking at times to build up infrastructure because it was never planned, like billing structure, facilities, hardware, software. It was always in the back of my head that ‘I’m going to get a job, someone is going to hire me, I don’t need to do that.’ Now that commissions are getting larger, I realize I have to go back and do that. Sometimes we realize we’re at step 5, 6, and 7, and our first step was a little tenuous.

Was it your intention starting to do more community-based projects? How did you start to take on more of those?

I started working within community-based design and participatory design when I began volunteering with Architecture for Humanity, which happened almost at the same time as starting Latent Design. I looked at who is working in the field of architecture in Chicago and who is doing [community design,] which is when I found the AfH Chicago chapter.

I started volunteering with them and that volunteering led me to be more immersed in the organization. More people were more involved because we had a whole heck of a lot of time. So I would say, “Sure, I can consistently spend 15-20 hours a week on something.” And we did, and we built the chapter at that time. That involved developing the board and becoming the director for 3 years, and building and creating those keystone projects that we won awards for and have been known for. [We were] building community design in [Chicago.]

The volunteerism allowed me to refine the way I wanted to work.

I started to question the industry and [ask] why can we only do this in non-profit practice? Why can’t we do this in a for-profit practice? That was a conversation I was having locally and then at the national level the public rise of public interest design was happening at the same time. It all converged together. I was fortunate that I could take local examples, national examples, and international examples, and form them all into my firm.

You’ve done a wide range of projects, from pop-up shops to master planning to neighborhood branding. How have you found and established relationships with the variety of clients and partners that you’ve worked with?

My projects are word-of-mouth based through networks and connections. I feel that’s how most relationships and clients come about. [I’m] recommended through other clients and contractors, and through promoting my projects myself.

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Take Fresh Moves Mobile Market. The design of a bus has led to building commissions over the past two years–almost three years–of working with that organization. People see that design and want to work with the team that created it.

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It’s also [about] a network. When you’re going in and starting work with a neighborhood or community organization, sometimes you’re the only architect or designer that people know. So it was also an industry flaw where we weren’t doing proper outreach [with communities]. When you start talking to communities and coming at it from ‘let’s be part of a participatory, grassroots planning process together,’ that changes the whole conversation and relationship people have with design, especially community-based design.

Have you run into any difficulties in selling the value of your services?

Absolutely. I’m seeing that more and more. I’m no longer the Director of AfH Chicago and I’m not part of the board so as I was closing out projects and telling clients, they were saying, ‘Wait, I have to pay you for this work now?’ A lot of people still come to me and say, ‘We would love for this to be pro bono.’ This is something that can’t be done pro bono. This isn’t how it works. So I have to explain not only what social impact design means, what pro bono means and what could be an appropriate project or not, but also talk about the value of working with professionals.

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With Latent Design, we’ve looked at how we’ve framed our pro bono projects. We don’t do it isolated anymore where Latent Design goes and does work only as an architect. It’s not effective. We do it as part of a larger team and normally come at it as a branding and environment side. We’re doing much smaller spaces or space planning for organizations and we do it as part of a larger group of individuals. That’s where the value of our services and impact resonates and can scale up so much more.

What percent of projects do you do pro bono?

We take on one major project for one client every year that’s part of working with an organization called Grant for Good. The clients go through a rigorous application process to work with a collaborative team from the creative industries–videographers, photographers, nonprofit organizational strategists, graphic designers–to provide social media, marketing, printing, and website design. We develop and revamp an organization from the ground up.

I knew the founder of [Grant for Good] and we were having a conversation when I said “You’re doing everything else, but sometimes the space is actually what’s needed. If you ever have one, let me know and maybe I’ll be able to plug in.” She said, “Actually, our grantee needs just that.” So I plugged in for the first project in 2010 and then have done subsequent projects since then.

We have learned so much from each other in making a cohesive project. Think about it–if an organizations’ structure changes but they’re still in the same ineffective space, they can’t implement anything you just created for them.

Has this lead you to organize projects differently or bring in different collaborators for paying projects?

Because of that pro bono project structure, it allowed us to be more creative on how we looked at our for-profit project structure. We gave ourselves a lot of latitude with it and I think everyone else does as well. We use it as a petri dish for business because we’re in a safe space. We now look at our organizational structure and where can we find other design gaps that need to be filled in a project that might not traditionally just be architecture.

For example, we have a new construction project about 15,000 square feet where the organization approached us as the architect. As we started talking with them about programming and their structure, we said you need a whole entire brand too. So we plugged in and said we will give you one proposal for just the architectural services and then another proposal for building your organization, which they took both so we did a full branding and branding environments proposal.

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We also asked our sustainability team and consultants to help develop an academic curriculum for the organization around the space. They were all individually interested in those pieces but never had a client for it. I knew this because I’ve gotten to know them, built relationship with them, and know all these other pieces that they want to do. I told them ‘there’s this opportunity so should we create a proposal together like this.’ Everyone bought into it so we gave it to the client and they accepted it. Now we get to try it out in [for-profit] practice.

I saw on Latent Design’s website that you include links to funding sources with your projects. Do you take on responsibility in finding the funding for your services? Or is this something that clients will bring to you?

It depends. My network is so different than a not-for-profit’s network, and for some of our clients it works. I’m definitely willing to share those [sources] if needed. I look at a project and see if there’s a grant from Knight Foundation that fits or some other one.

I have fluency in both directions–from the nonprofit and community direction and the professional [angle.] I navigate both worlds very well and I’m surprised by how little we know about both worlds. I can take advantage of it now because there’s so much from the professional world that the nonprofit doesn’t know. If they know me, I’m happy to be the only one that they know. It’s a great business strategy for me.

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We also help promote the clients who are doing indiegogo campaigns, like building a cafe that we’re going to design. We have to promote it or else we won’t have a job. I can sit back and be passive about it or I can open up this other network and that might go somewhere else. You don’t know how a story will resonate with who so you at least put it out there.

How do you account for this time in seeking funding?

For the ones where I’m really dedicated to helping, I try not to or else that would totally blow my budget. If I’m part of the grant, we know how many hours upfront we’re going to put into it and they compensate us for that.

This also goes into making the value of our services easier. When you’re talking not only about a design process–one thing that’s always a difficult conversation–but also talking about the value of innovation, the value of an individual or company, and the networks that come with it, that is somehow monetized easier than design.

Have you had to say no to projects who didn’t have funding?

Not yet. We have a lot of very serious conversations. I try to have as honest of a conversation that I can upfront by telling them that this isn’t going to happen for zero. We have to figure out where the concessions are for every project.

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I have a client who I’ve been working with for three years. We were one of four architects they interviewed. They wanted a new community center for $10 million at 55,000 square feet, and open in 2012. And this was back in 2010. I thought about it and I said that sounds great but not even if someone wrote you a check tomorrow that would actually happen so we told them no in our interview. I went back and told one of my friends about this and they asked, “Why did you just walk away from a job? You killed your job.” I told them, “No, I was just being honest with them.” Because of that honesty, they selected us.

The timeline was shot but we get to design a $10 million, 30,000 square foot community center. We also told them you can’t have everything and the kitchen sink with it because you eventually have to pay to keep the lights on so some things need to be cut. That honest relationship built so many things.

It’s never no, it’s more how.

That’s the approach I take when people tell me no.

Next week we’ll be posting the second part of the interview where Katherine gets into the nitty gritty details of a project and has keen insights on how to do this yourself!

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Image sources: Latent Design

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