Kate Hanisian is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Design Impact. She has previously worked as an instructor at the Center for Creative Leadership and the University of Cincinnati Honors College. This interview is one in a series of interviews from last year’s Service Design Week in Boston.
Eli Woolery: Kate Hanisian, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Design Impact, welcome to Conversations.
Kate Hanisian: Thanks for having me.
Eli: Could you tell us the origin story of Design Impact?
Kate: Design Impact, as an idea, started around my dinner table around 2008. I’m not actually trained to design formally. I have a master’s in education, so I did a lot of international development work, and then taught in inner city schools. I figured out that if my kids weren’t getting breakfast, it didn’t matter how well I taught Romeo and Juliet, and so got interested in the structures of society and how we create and destroy poverty.
At that time, I was working in an organization that did criminal justice reform around the state of Ohio providing medical care to folks in prison, and religious rights, and things like that. I was working on a project that was trying to figure out how we could stop the flow of people that were coming out of prison from becoming immediately homeless. There was five of us in a church basement, trying to figure that out, with no funding dollars, in the city of Cincinnati.
At the same time, my husband, who was a design professor, was working for a consultancy that was trying to figure out how to reduce three seconds off of laundry time. They had millions and millions of dollars behind that effort. They spent a year just listening to mostly women talk about their laundry experience, and how they felt about laundry, and their beliefs around laundry, and their emotions around laundry. So we would come home, over the dinner table, and process our days.
The story that we kept hitting across is not only about where we put our resources as a country, it was also a learning journey about, “Wow, look at these massively creative user center processes.” They had folks that do laundry coming in, and generating ideas. I was amazed at how much dignity was given to these women that do laundry, and how much dignity was given to consumers. The social sector is not set up that way. The social sector is set up with a very colonial mindset, which says, “We know what’s best for people experiencing poverty. Even if we’ve never experienced poverty, or homelessness, or drug addiction, or whatever, we know what’s best for those people, so we’ll design for them.”
That’s what I’d seen from working in schools and around the globe on poverty related issues. To me, it was just sort of like, “Whoa, we’re doing it wrong in this sector,” and so that is why we started Design Impact. Ramsey, who’s a co-founder of Design Impact, is the design backbone. I’m the social change piece. I want to answer the questions, “Yeah, it’s great that we’re making these products, but so what? How do we actually use this really transformative, amazing process of design, that’s human centered, to create real social change that really actually impacts the world, particularly for the people that are most marginalized?” That’s how we started.
Eli: What are some of the projects that you’re working on right now?
Kate: So many good ones. We are working with Feeding America right now, in six cities around the country. Specifically, we’re looking at how seniors are experiencing hunger and food insecurity, both in rural and urban settings.
We’re working in rural Kentucky. This is my favorite prototype right now. We’re looking at how parents who are incarcerated can still feel like parents. How do they get to prepare for those visits through the glass? A lot of that is about reducing systemic barriers at the prison, so part of that’s changing the way prisons are set up around visits. Also, how do you actually encourage parenting through incarceration and prepare parents for that coming home period around parenting?
We probably have about 20 projects going at any time. Right now, we’re working with 99 organizations, and trying to get all of those organizations to work from a sort of learning mindset. We end up doing a lot of mindset and behavior change work within organizations.
We’re working on inclusive development. As people are moving into the cities, and cities are becoming what they are, that’s really causing a lot of problems for folks that have been living in those cities, particularly people of color. How do we preserve the nature of those communities by using inclusive development practices? There’s a lot.
Eli: I was curious parenting in prison. I think that’s a really interesting problem. As a society, we obviously want our parents to be good stewards of their children and be connected with them. But when a parent ends up in jail, they’re walled off from their kid for a number of years, and then expected be able to come back and be a good parent. How do you go about prototyping for this and working towards solving that type of problem?
Kate: This project was looking early childhood education. How do we improve early childhood education outcomes? What we did is really listen to the voice of parents and what came up a lot was this incarceration issue. The way that we’re prototyping that is by working with moms who are currently incarcerated, or have been incarcerated, to co-design that effort.
We become facilitators. We are not the experts in what it’s like to be incarcerated. I’ve never been incarcerated, and I don’t know what it’s like to try and parent from prison, but there are people that do. It’s working with pairing best practice research around early childhood development with folks that have that experience. So we just facilitate the process but they are the co-designers. That’s why we know it’s rooted in good experience. One of the things we’ve learned, also, is that, instead of creating a curriculum that people can just follow, we could scale across the country. One of the best parts about parenting is creating it. The stupid songs you sing. It wakes you up.
Eli: Nicknames, that kind of thing.
Kate: Yeah, whatever the thing is. It wakes up your own creativity. We want these moments behind the glass to be created by that parent. I don’t wanna give that parent a worksheet that says, “Go over these five things in your meeting.” Yeah, maybe that’s gonna be best on best practice, but where’s that sense of ownership and creativity, and the place where the parent comes alive as well? How do we pair best practices with that sort of sense of ownership and co-creation? That’s what we’re interested in.
I feel like, if we’re really doing design well, we’re giving expertise away.
I feel like, if we’re really doing design well, we’re giving expertise away.
Eli: You’ve been an instructor at the University of Cincinnati and the Center for Creative Leadership. I’ve taught for a number of years too, and it definitely impacts the way that I work. How does your teaching experience impact your other work that you do?
Kate: I was a high school English teacher for four years, and honestly that teaching experience is probably the one that impacts me the most.
I think that people learn best by doing. I come back to that every day. Sometimes, with designers, I find this need for expertise. When I feel like, if we’re really doing design well, we’re giving expertise away, and I think the same is true with education.
When I think about the best classroom experiences I ever designed, I did very little talking. I didn’t wake them up to their own power and creativity. I just laid a foundation where that could come alive because it’s already there.
When I think about the design of classroom experiences, it’s the same thing. How do you get people to wake up to their own sense of being a creator? I love when people claim that, “I am a designer too, and I can actually see the world through that lens, and that means I can do something about it,” versus this sort of dictated expert bullshit that frankly rarely wakes up anyone’s real true being. That’s how I feel.
Eli: Absolutely. I think, based on the classes and workshops I’ve taught, the success ratio is highly dependent on the amount of talking versus the amount of doing in the class. One last question: Are there are books, or blogs, or podcasts that have helped you in your work?
Kate: It’s a good question. There are, but lived experience is really what changes me most.
Eli: How about mentors that have helped you?
Kate: I’ve been thinking about that lately. Did you ever see the movie Mulan?
Eli: I probably have, but it’s been a while.
Kate: I only saw it once, but there’s a scene where she looks up, and there’s all of her ancestors are around her, and these sculptures or whatever, and just recently I’ve been thinking about, “Who would be in my sculptures?” I used to think there would be a mentor, a person that was your guru, and there hasn’t been, but there’s been this really interesting string of people.
There was Linden, who taught me about meditation and about slowing down. Peter Block, who taught me a lot about flipping the question and getting to the raw shit real quick because everything else is a waste of time. There’s Amy, who’s taught me about emergent leadership, and leading with love, and what that looks like. There’s Quanita, who’s taught me about spirit, and how it shows up in life, and what it means to let go in order to live.
There’s Ramsey, who is my life partner, who has taught me about joy, and design, and hope. I feel like the best thing I can do is surround myself by people that I learn from. I learn best through the relationships with those people, and then by applying those lessons to my life. I read books, and I read articles, and I listen to podcasts, and they’re helpful. But data tells us people learn best by doing, and I think the harder thing is to apply those methodologies, those mindsets, to our relationships with people or with systems, and those are messy. But that’s where I do most of my learning.
Eli: Awesome. Thank you so much for being on Conversations.
Kate: Thank you. It was so nice to meet you. I feel like I could talk to you much longer.