Why I am a Social Impact Designer

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After six months on maternity leave, I took some time to review my career and discover what I want to do next. To kickstart the next chapter, I wanted to share a longer version of my journey into social impact design and why this site was created. I hope you enjoy and feel inspired to share your story with me! Let’s get reading…

Leaving my small California hometown at the age of 18 was my first big solo adventure. I chose to study architecture at Tulane for three reasons:

  1. I was able to receive a masters degree in five years, as opposed to the typical 7-9 year route (yes, I like to be efficient with time ;]);
  2. the university attracted students from all over the US;
  3. and the city of New Orleans was unlike anywhere I had been before.

Deep down, though, it gave me an opportunity to explore the potential in myself in a place 2,000 miles from where I grew up surrounded by new people.

During the first four years at Tulane, I had grown tremendously as a person. I had been exposed to so many new things: food, people, thinking, culture, music, and the Big Easy lifestyle. It wasn’t always easy—I missed my family, friends, and the comforts of California that I grew to miss. But as I entered the summer of 2005 ready to work on my master’s thesis, I vividly remember the feeling of independence, confidence, and possibility. All I had left was one year of research, writing, designing, and presenting the project I selected—and then I’d be off into the world to become an architect.

But that plan fell apart August 27th, 2005.

The heat and humidity in New Orleans were at an all time high. My boyfriend and I were walking along Magazine Street to meet up with a friend at a bar. We walked off the boiling sidewalk into a cool, dark bar that smelled of stale cigarettes and booze. “Hey, y’all!” yelled our friend, waving from a table in the corner. As we walked over to him, we noticed a huge white cloud on the TV screen above his head—the hurricane that had been brewing in the Gulf of Mexico was now spanning from Louisiana to Florida and was headed straight for where we were standing.

After talking only about the pending hurricane over cold drinks, we drove back to my apartment and my roommate—a native New Orleanian—was packing her bag to evacuate. If someone who had grown up with hurricane warnings every year of her life was leaving, then I knew we needed to get out, too.

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At 4am the next morning, we set off for the long drive to my boyfriend’s new home in Dallas. We knew traffic would be a nightmare, and indeed by 6am, our friends reported the highway was at a standstill.

With only one bag containing my architecture thesis paperwork, a laptop, and three changes of clothes and underwear, we drove 8 hours to sit on his sofa, glued to CNN, and watch the hurricane unleash its wake on the Gulf Coast.

Evacuating wasn’t unusual for us after spending five years in the Big Easy. We were used to packing up essentials for a mini-break from our studies, only to return to a sunny, untouched city. Although locals always talked about the “big one” (just like Californians do of the big earthquake), we thought this would breeze by the city and I would be returning in a few days.

But this time it was different. And it became a life-changing experience that still brings tears streaming down my face.

My outlook on life changed.

When the waters flooded the streets, buildings, and parks of New Orleans on August 29th, it also washed away my life plan and I entered my first midlife crisis at the ripe age of 22. I had to enroll in a new university in a city that I really didn’t want to be in. I had to take classes on topics that didn’t interest me. I worked on my thesis in isolation, rather than with peers and professors whom I’d come to know and respect over four years. I was confused, negative, and frustrated. I cried a lot. I felt paralyzed and that my life was out of my control. Sometimes I would just get in my car and drive aimlessly, not knowing where to go but needing to go somewhere. I felt as if I turned into a robot: I went through the motions, took the classes, returned to New Orleans for 6 months to finish my thesis and graduate, and then moved as quickly and as far way as possible.

What struck me the most from that momentous event—and still sticks with me today—was the lack of humanity for the people in that city who didn’t have it as easy as I did. I was able to leave and get on with my life, even for how shattered I was. But I witnessed other people literally stuck inside their homes, unable to save themselves from rising water. People, who had taken unused buses and filled them up with others wanting to get out, were turned around by the military and forced to go back to an uninhabitable place. People physically contained in a convention center with blocked up sewage, no clean water or food. I was—and still am—utterly shocked and crippled by the shear lack of humanity for others in a time when that was clearly needed the most.

It’s taken me a long time to understand the full effect of this moment in my life and in history. After swiftly leaving New Orleans for New York City, I went on with my plan to become an architect. I worked with nice, intelligent people on modern projects, earned my IDP hours, and took in as much of the buzzy New York atmosphere as I could take.

But New York City was too much of a change from the slow, easy, comfortable New Orleans life. And my long-distance relationship with my boyfriend was wearing thin so we decided to try it out closer together in San Francisco, where I could also be near my family and childhood friends.

In the City by the Bay, I worked at another small firm to gain experience in the field and complete my training to become a licensed architect. I followed the plan, continued to clock in the hours, and did what I was supposed to do to become an architect.

Then I started pushing outside that traditional architecture box.

I began questioning my need to complete what I was told to do to become an “architect.” I enrolled in an evening course on “Architecture as Activism” through UC Berkeley with Matthew Miller of Project H. It opened my eyes to how to apply design to more critical situations, and there I met a group of people who shared similar values and dreams for how they wanted to contribute to society. I had discovered a way to put my skills to more meaningful use—and I had a tribe to do it with.

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I went on to dedicate weeknights and weekends to volunteer projects with Free Design Clinic, the Architecture for Humanity chapter in San Francisco, and Nomad Gardens. Working with fellow designers as passionate as I was and with clients who believed in their work was invigorating. But after years of volunteer work, I was burned out and couldn’t stay motivated to do it while working 40+ hours each week. So, while on honeymoon with my husband in autumn 2011, I decided to make the leap and pursue social impact design full-time.

Becoming a social impact designer took time and commitment.

Six months later, when I had saved up enough money, I left my job and joined a friend to build a social impact design firm. After a failed attempt at starting a financially sustainable design business, I felt lost. I had worked with so many inspiring, passionate people. We had all put in so much time and energy into the work. But I was still lacking direction on how to actually do it, and make a living at it. There was no plan for me to follow, like in traditional architecture practice. And everyone seemed as dumbfounded as to where to get this information.

I searched and searched for this information. I contemplated waiting for someone else more experienced than me to give it to me. I considered asking a friend to help me do it. (Two heads are better than one, right?) Then I turned 30 and something switched on inside of me. I decided I needed to do this for myself. I wanted to figure this out. I needed to put myself out there.

This is when Design Affects was born.

It became the place where I could discover and understand how other firms and people were practicing and sustaining themselves, and to share this with other people who were trying to do the same thing.

Since launching this site in April 2013, I’ve spent countless hours researching, reading, watching, writing, thinking, attending events, hosting workshops, and meeting with people on social impact design. I became the editor-in-chief of Impact Design Hub. I wrote more than I thought I ever would in my lifetime, and contributed articles to publications like AIA YAF Connection, GOOD, PUBLIC Journal, Career Shifters, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Most importantly, I’ve connected with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people committed to design for social good. After three years fully immersed in this world, I better understand the complexities, the challenges, and the questions, but I’m more hopeful and committed to this movement than when I began.

The inhumanity towards the people of New Orleans that I witnessed in 2005 will always be seared in my memory, but I now know that I’m not alone in wanting to change circumstances like this. Like many others I’ve met, I want to leave the world in a better place—a place where people respect and trust one another; where people feel dignified; where people can contribute; where people are heard; and where people have what they need to survive. This is the world I want to live in, and through my (small) contribution paired with others who believe the same, I’m confident we can get there.

Now that you know about me, I’d love to hear about you. Introduce yourself and your ideal outcome by commenting in the box below and click “post comment”. No pressure to write an essay; I just want to get to know you a bit!

Image source: Flickr user Kasia Trapszo, NOAA, Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA on Wikimedia Commons, Katie Crepeau

13 Responses to Why I am a Social Impact Designer

  1. Katie says:

    If you’re looking for a bit more inspiration, check out this post from 15 designers: http://www.designaffects.com/15-social-impact-designers-reveal-their-career-defining-moment/

  2. Christina says:

    A similar event was the impetus to my path for social impact. I was already working in the architecture industry in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast. I went with a friend to a chapter meeting for a national non-profit (now Open Architecture Collaborative). I became involved with surveying flooded areas and was so inspired by the people in the group and the potential to make an impact. I realized that social change and community design just made sense to me, it came naturally. I am now on the board for our local chapter, and so grateful my path has lead me to this organization. Though I still work full time in an Architecture firm and do plan to get licensed, my hope is to shift my career path towards social impact realm.

  3. Hanne says:

    The event that made me change my career path, was an internship in an architectural office after my master in architectural engineering in Sao Paulo; the inequality in architecture and public space, the stark contrast between neighborhoods and especially the high excluding walls around each compound, made me rethink my career and focus on activist architecture and planning. While I was working for the happy few, the rest was left out. To make this change, I started a MSc in Urban Ecological Planning at NTNU in Norway. In this international program, we worked together with architects and planners from around the world on global urban issues, and the role of planners and designers, not as technocrats bringing solutions from outside but as enablers in finding solutions together. After this master, I’m still working hard to establish myself in this field.

    Thank you Katie for starting this website, it is a source of information!

    • Katie says:

      So lovely to hear from you, Hanne! Thank you for sharing your experience in Sao Paulo. Look forward to keeping in touch with you and your amazing endeavors!

  4. Jo says:

    Following 3rd year of my undergraduate architecture degree, a conversation with my father (welder extraordinaire) led me to apply to work on a construction site… the aim being to understand the craftsmanship of construction and ultimately make me a better designer.

    I worked on a One Room Shelter project down the Mekong in Vietnam. That three months (laying brick, plastering, carrying raw materials in 70% humidity to construct a new home for a family at risk of losing theirs to monsoon rains) changed my perspective on what architecture could and should be.

  5. Akmal says:

    Hi Katie.
    Your blog is about the only real thing i can find to keep myself motivated . I can definitely relate to the passion but finding reliable sources and people in Malaysia is quite difficult. Anyway, do keep up these awesome posts!!

    • Katie says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Akmal. I haven’t come across any projects or people in Malaysia besides you but I’m confident they are out there! Happy to have you and look forward to hearing more about your work and interests.

  6. Kin says:

    For me it was after a quarter life crisis where I wondered what was the point of making more products that we don’t need. I ended up quitting my job and went over to India on a Young Professionals Program with Pollinate Energy, a social enterprise that provides solar lights to those living in the slum community.

    There we were gathering data for their annual report and I was able to meet and talk with the community members, watch the kids smile, play and study in the light and see the difference solar powered light made to families. The difference was night and day. There I found a path to driving change through social impact initiatives.

    I’m looking forward to the journey of becoming a social impact designer!

    • Katie says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, Kin! Sounds like an amazing opportunity you had to shine light on where you want to focus your time and energy. I look forward to keeping in touch!

  7. Wanjiru says:

    Thank you Katie for the wealth of knowledge on your blog. After working two years in the field, I feel unfulfilled and that I am not addressing glaring social issues in my society.I am eager to get registered and to go off the beaten path!

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for sharing your interest and commitment, Wanjiru! Would love to hear more about the social issues that interest you most.

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