October 18, 2017

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Designer and Hand Letterer Libbie Bischoff Educates People on Being More Eco-Friendly in order to Save The Fucking World



What are you working on—on the side?

My current side project is Save The Fucking World—an ongoing lettering project focused on global warming. It’s my way of sharing easy tips for people who are too overwhelmed by the thought of becoming more eco-friendly. I began with really simple advice and am gradually shifting to more complex life changes. It is easy to think that nothing the average person does will have an impact, but if even a few people use these tips, it will make a big difference. I have always been passionate about the environment and I am hoping my artwork can help with that.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

My secret is cliché—I make time! I make sure to set aside a couple nights a week to work on my side projects. Sometimes I need to trick myself into working by having the TV on in the background or listening to a podcast. This way, it feels less like work. Most of the time, I love what I’m working on, but there are definitely days when I want to lay down and do nothing. The best remedy is to give myself a little caffeine boost and get on with it. I know the longer I wait to do something, the more daunting it will seem.

Why have a side project?

The benefit of having a side project is that I get to be my own client. The projects I make for myself are the ones I love the most. It promotes the work that I want to do and attracts clients that want that type of work. It’s also a great fix for days or weeks when I don’t feel creatively fulfilled by my day job.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Libbie Bischoff.

• • •

Read more about the joy of side projects.


This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.


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October 10, 2017

Countering the Dominant Narrative of Turbulence at the 10th Cusp Conference


A perennial perk of each annual Cusp Conference is the jetstream of sound bites. At the tenth anniversary of this gathering last September, there were plenty. The words that followed me consistently after two days enriched with presentations were from Kevin Coval, a poet—specifically a “BreakBeat Poet” stemming from his love of Hip-Hop—and activist. In his presentation about having an appetite for poetic language—working it to teach inclusivity and argue for it, Coval proclaimed, “Counter the dominant narrative.”

This year’s conference was the first held in a new political set of circumstances, exacerbated by events upon our pale (perceived paler) blue dot. Environmental happenings. Societal happenings. Cusp 2017 had a ripped-from-the-headlines aura. With the auditorium typically dimmed, the stage—for the tenth time—was conspicuously lit by Presenters selected for their Cusp-charged qualities in going against the grain in their line of work. Exceeding the mainstay of legacy systems. Refusing to stick with anemic thinking. Reimagining different scenarios that assure, uplift. All attempts to counter the narrative of generational challenges, accruing in dominance. This year’s Cusp Presenters amplified the residual uncertainty of the times.

From the Cusp 2017 presentations, these counter narratives curdled in recognition for me. Counter narratives helmed by individuals, not intimidated by the dominant context of convention in their respective disciplines.

Earth: Preserve, Restore, Improve
and Hold Dear

All the hype about traveling to Mars (a one-way trip) and migrating a million-or-so people there to establish a human outpost does capture the imagination. At the same time, its subtext could read: On it’s current path, the Earth is in peril—best to start the interstellar process of mass transit while the planet remains survivable. Sensitivity to the state of the planet—the only one known to harbor human life (illustrated lucidly by Real Time talk show host Bill Maher in his Earth-Mars comparison chart)—was elaborated again throughout the 10th Cusp.



Aquatic Biologist Alex Rose dived (pun intended) into the critical importance of our oceans, declaring one fact taken for granted: “The ocean produces half of the oxygen we breathe.” Her passionate zeroing in on the Earth’s oceans points to the essential part it plays in a medley of cosmic systems that make the planet habitable to humans. An astounding reality. Rose’s presentation was void of apparent alarmism, a typical indictment from climate-change deniers/skeptics to the consensus of evidence that climate change is caused by human-consuming, carbon-intensive activities. Instead, she showed appreciation for oceans through captivating photographs displaying the incredible range of underwater biodiversity, which human beings, above ground, descend from and are a micro-subset of. When one views the ocean, there is a sensation of feeling small. A poetic fact presented by Rose: Oceans and humans have a direct bond—with the latter depending absolutely on the other. Though toggling unfortunately between being subject to neglect and upkeep, Earth’s history is the basis for that of humans.

Before Rose’s celebration of the majority of the Earth’s surface and the plea to help curb its deterioration, the field of engineering took the Cusp stage. Dr. Nina French presented her company’s work on an in-pipe hydropower mechanism to convert vast chunks of infrastructure, intertwined with gravity-fed water pipelines around the world, into generators of clean, renewable energy. Felipe Gómez del Campo presented a tweak he designed for jet engines that conserves great amounts of fuel. This is especially nifty when used by planes in thick procession on runways, congested with long wait-times. French and Campo both use their work to press the “Edit” button. Through collaboration with their teams, inventive adjustments prove again the phenomenon of small edits yielding large results, compounding in benefits, testifying to there always being room for improvement.

Based on the representative moves by Dr. Nina French and Felipe Gómez del Campo on realizing environment-friendly machines, the parity persists between the tireless human reclaiming of nature’s integrity to the tireless human desire to tinker with the artificial toward minimizing hazards and waste.



Where the positive forces of science and engineering were demonstrated readily by Alex Rose, Dr. Nina French and Felipe Gómez del Campo, musician David Rothenberg offered an unexpected source of engagement to further acknowledge and respect earthly life—wildlife. Documentary footage of him traveling the world as a wildlife whisperer, communing with whales, birds, even cicadas, matches the fictional depiction of communicating with extraterrestrials in movies, notably the recent film Arrival (directed by Denis Villeneuve of Blade Runner 2049). Here, the protagonist is a linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, portrayed by Amy Adams. She spoke this telling line: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together.”

Words: Express, Listen and Disentangle

As the building blocks of language, the poet T. S. Eliot described the precise behavior of words as “slippery.” This reputation does not deter Hip-Hop linguists Kevin Coval and Michael Ford from taking full advantage of words—versatile in color, geometry and tone. Using them to clarify conditions, elevate their dimensions—to live, see and interpret such times. Hip-Hop is their way to bring on situational awareness.



Michael Ford revealed Hip-Hop’s formative roots in modern architecture, where its utilization of materials—glass, steel, concrete—materialized an ambitious era of structures that Ford critiqued. Because while modern architecture reflected a spirited awakening of technological progress, it played a role in public-housing projects that proved destructive. The progressive character of glass, steel and concrete became recast as corroborative materials in oppression. Yet, the architectural circumstances nurtured new and functional forms of creativity, notably Hip-Hop. The culmination of Ford’s research into the intersection of architecture and Hip-Hop motivated the forthcoming Universal Hip Hop Museum—to Ford, “the first representation of Hip-Hop architecture in the world.”

Aligned to Ford, poet Kevin Coval dubs himself as a “hyperliterate word nerd.” In words, Coval finds, as he put it, “power and sanctuary.” Where Ford found Hip-Hop in post-war architectural ideologies and styles, Coval found Hip-Hop in his Jewish upbringing, particularly the traditional chants and songs. The appeal of words struck him early on. He affirmed, “I knew I wanted to be a writer.” Fast forward to 2001 when he founded The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival. This event has become a honorable vehicle for ethnically diverse, working-class adolescents and teens to outface their struggles—and express their American experiences through the moving medium of words.

Ford and Coval reminded the audience about the relevance of words: its therapy, its adaptation, its reach. Both are contributing formidably to the ancestral responsibility of using words to create safe spaces—safe regarding personal well-being, but not stifling in personal expression. Words, tied to good intentions, are kernels of human possibility. In a trivial world, words are clay to build a storied architecture of sanity.

Humanity: Uphold

Sanity’s chief by-product is stability, sharply in need as 2017 rolled out. The Cusp Conference emphasized again the tremendous courage and will of individuals who demote hell by raising humanity.



From her Cusp presentation, PeaceGeeks’ Founder Renee Black is collaborating with various grassroots groups to mobilize awareness and action in tackling conflict and disaster-stricken communities worldwide. Attention particularly given to responsive compassion in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Apparent in Black’s work is using the latest iterations in mobile technology, from social-media platforms to drones, to help the impoverished, the malnourished, the sick, the displaced.



Provoked by the 2013 Savar building collapse, the deadliest garment-factory accident in history with 1,134 killed, self-proclaimed Fashion Revolutionary Orsola de Castro shared her drive to prevent catastrophes in the global fashion industry. She does this by advocating and exposing more accountability in the person-to-person, point-to-point workflow resulting in clothes, from factory to purchase. This holistic reduction of opacity in the mass production of garments is the essence of de Castro’s question—the key motivation of her humane mission: “Who makes your clothes?”

This reminded me of The Consume®econnection Project started by Scott Ballum, a graphic designer and sustainable business advocate. In 2009, he self-initiated a year-long experiment to meet the people who produced everything he bought, from coffee to liquor to T-shirts, focusing on traceability, local purchasing and conscious consumption. Ballum took on practicing de Castro’s rally of “Who made my clothes” and applied it to other objects enriching his life. Activating a keen observation expressed by the pioneering designer-couple Ray and Charles Eames: “Eventually everything connects—people, ideas, objects.” Throughout this moment-to-moment trifecta, the quality meditated: Humanity.

Coping with the dominant narrative of uncertainty—and countering it

This was the first time since the Cusp Conference’s debut that it wasn’t opened by Mike Ivers, a humanitarian who recently led the Yuma Community Food Bank in Arizona. Ivers died last October at 69 from pancreatic cancer. In his vibrant and vocal style, Ivers provided an inspiring message to kickstart each Cusp. In 2014, he offered a goal: “Move from turbulence to triumph. Give yourself the opportunity to be inspired to do something about the turbulence in your life.”

Iver’s overarching prompt of turbulence-to-triumph is ambitious. Yet, those—who shared their world views on the Cusp stage—keep the impossibility of achieving such a dynamic at bay through their energies—steady and persistent, expended to execute the shared strategy of trying to change a piece of the world for the better. This is the true definition of miraculous.

After the conference, amidst thanking again the principals of Multiple, who organized the 10th Cusp (their event’s lean and motivational meme), and walking from the conference’s flagship venue of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where Frida Kahlo’s first U.S exhibition was held in 1978, while my head was buzzing and wafting with perspectives from twenty-three Presenters across two days, the intention to continue being less ignorant, less complacent, less selfish, was given several boosts.

• • •

Post-Cusp Conference To-Dos

  • From one’s armchair to elsewhere, be open to introspection about the nature of things—of ourselves.
  • People are cabinets of creativity—Dream and do.
  • Remove history’s malignant plaque of exclusivity by contributing to the collective grasp of diversity everywhere.
  • Utilize vulnerability—sketch, state an opinion, ask questions—to help build trust and hope.
• • •

Cusp co-owner Andy Eltzroth compared experiencing the conference to that of “having dessert and then you give me more.” I’ll indulge in another multicultural, multidisciplinary trifle.

• • •

Big thanks: to Multiple, Inc., and the volunteers who made Cusp Conference happen in 2017; to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, for hosting.

• • •

Explore my additional coverage of the Cusp Conference in my written series on Events centered on creativity.


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October 3, 2017

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: User Experience Designer Kat Vellos cultivates optimal conversations through Better Than Small Talk



What are you working on—on the side?

I have so many side projects! I actually keep a list in a notebook of ideas and projects I want to do, and I explore them one after the other. Some have stuck around for my entire life, and some I’ve been satisfied to move on from after a few months. For the past couple years though, one of my ongoing side projects has been Better Than Small Talk.

I created Better Than Small Talk as a way to foster community, reduce isolation and inspire more open, authentic connections between people.

Better Than Small Talk has taken shape in a couple of ways:
  1. Through a group activity designed to help people break through the wall of small talk and get into real conversations, I get groups of strangers together and give them plenty of conversational prompts to ease the pressure of thinking of something to say on the spot. I curate the guest list to avoid homogeneity and ensure that the crowd contains a mix of diversity in terms of age, gender, profession, ethnicity and introvert/extrovert tendencies, etc.
  2. Through one-on-one interviews I hold with strangers, the first round of interviews centered on the topic of Community: how they define it, how much community people feel like they have access to in their lives, how fulfilled they are with their experience of community, etc. 
The core of Better Than Small Talk is the community gathering. As a facilitator and user experience designer who is passionate about community building, I’m intrigued by how people form meaningful connections and bonds to each other. I’m also very interested in the topics of neighborhood, spatial proximity on the cultivation of community, and the barriers to connection that occur, even when spatial proximity would imply that making connections ought to be easy.

On a more personal level, I’m introverted but not shy. This means that I like talking to people, but it usually leaves me feeling drained afterwards—so in order to make extra socializing worth it, I need it to be really, really good. Small talk leaves me feeling both drained AND not meaningfully connected/engaged, so it’s a lose-lose.

I created Better Than Small Talk for a few reasons:
  • To see if it was possible to fast-track relational intimacy and the formation of friendships
  • To affirm the power of intentional facilitation as a method to create connection and community
  • To provide an opportunity for others to feel more connected, heard, understood, and closer to each other
I also have plans to add more types of experiences and activities for participants who want to be a part of Better Than Small Talk. As I said before, I keep long lists of projects and ideas I want to create—so stay tuned!

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

It depends on the timing and what’s going on in the rest of my life. When I’m working on creating one of our larger community events, it’s easy to spend an hour or two every night after work for weeks: pulling together the logistics, communicating with attendees and folks on the waitlist, getting supplies, booking spaces, etc. When doing one-on-one interviews, I can usually fit that into the weekend, like during Saturdays.

Why have a side project?

There are so many reasons to have side projects!

Even though I’m very happy to have a job that I find engaging, meaningful and fun, there’s something to be said for working on a creation of your own. Side projects allow you to play all the roles: founder, creative director, operations manager, PR/marketing, receptionist, and yes, janitor. I get a lot of fulfillment from being able to take an idea from initial inception to full expression, and to have ownership over it. Seeing my ideas come to life is so exciting. It makes me feel really alive.

I also love learning and am a very experiential learner. Side projects allow me to learn and explore an idea, practice, hobby or habit through actually doing it. I can figure things out as I go, building on my previous experiences and gaining new levels of mastery with each step. That’s a very energizing feeling.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Kat Vellos.

• • •

Read more about the joy of side projects.


This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.


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October 1, 2017

Street Artist JC Rivera Champions His Commitment to “Doing the Work”


At the start of his June 2017 talk at Chicago’s CreativeMornings gathering, Puerto Rican street artist JC Rivera revealed that he didn’t make a habit of speaking publicly. “I paint, and that’s what I do. Pretty sure this is going to be the only time I do this, ever.” This sentiment is shared by many creative types who would rather do the work than talk about it.

The Bear Champ is a recurring character in Rivera’s work, sparked by his childhood dream to become a boxer, but not pursued due to his Mom’s disapproval. Since then, the character evolved into a symbol of Rivera’s ambition to “roll with the punches” in his determination to make art and be a working artist. The only way in living the dream is by going through all of the experiences: good, bad and in between.

His reluctance to talk about his work reminded me of the veteran-and-vanguard sign painter Ches Perry—selected to be the speaker for the CreativeMornings/Chicago-chapter meetup in July 2014 (read my write-up). Perry’s adult son did most of the talking as he shared the stage with his sign-painter father. This was one of the rare times that a CreativeMornings/Chicago-chapter talk was presented in the format of an interview. After the interview, father Perry gave a demo of his sign-painting skills. I was delighted to snap step-by-step photos of this cunning performance involving ink, letterforms and truly steady hands. It was magnificent proof of a craftsperson making the work and letting it speak for itself.

The work itself: its mechanics, its manifestations, its mania. This is where creative folks like Perry feel at ease. It’s where Rivera is also in his element.

At the end of his talk, Rivera highlighted another discipline he practices—helping others succeed. One way he does this is by steering aspiring artists, the ones recognized as “really, really good,” to opportunities resulting in awareness for them and their work. As I write this, it is the birthday (9-17-1935) of author Ken Kesey, who wrote the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1962). He also encouraged the act of giving props to others, fellow writers in this case, on the same path toward closing the gap between self-doubt and success. His affirmation: “It is important to support everyone who tries to write because their victories are your victories.” Satisfying to know Rivera’s alignment to the advocacy of peers, whether established or emerging. All sharing the same communal decision to try realizing their take on creativity—and keep at it like a chisel.
“I just want to try to do the best I can and surround myself with good people who don’t invalidate me.”
—Cat Power, Singer-Songwriter
Coincidentally, last August, I stopped by printmaking and street art showcase Galerie F at the Chicago Design Market, the debut pop-up store rotation managed by the Chicago Design Museum. While chatting with Galerie F’s founder, Billy Craven, I spotted a poster, beaming with character.



“Framed it for pick-up by a customer today,” Craven said. I asked who was the artist. “J.C. Rivera” was the answer. Now I know. 😌

• • •

Big thanks: to AgencyEADark Matter Coffee, Event FarmGreen SheepLyft ChicagoUniversity of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts (who hosted), for being Partners of Chicago CreativeMornings #64; to new organizer Jen Marquez who accepted the chapter’s hosting responsibilities from Knoed Creative who spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7; to the team of volunteers for greatly helping to have CreativeMornings happen monthly in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008.

• • •

Read more CreativeMornings coverage.

• • •

2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.




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September 30, 2017

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Writer Keah Brown launched emboldening hashtag #DisabledAndCute on Twitter



What are you working on—on the side?


I have many side projects that turned into my main projects. There is the hashtag I created [February 2017] on Twitter, #DisabledAndCute, that has brought me amazing opportunities and has since then grown into a larger initiative. There’s also my creative work outside of journalism: I write essays, fiction and poetry. After these things take off or are well-received, they join the everyday work I do.



How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

My planner is my best friend. Without it, I’d get nothing done. I block my days out with time-specific tasks. In the morning, it’s articles and interviews for Cliché Magazine where I am an entertainment writer. In the afternoon, I write essays about blackness, disability and life at various identity intersections. On the weekends, I give my time to fiction and poetry.

Why have a side project?

Because they are fun and it’s important to express yourself in multiple ways through various forms. I think if you can manage to have a little something extra, it’ll make the daily work better—it’ll reinvigorate you.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Keah Brown with bottom photograph by Sarah Fathallah of Brown’s presentation “A Journey to #DisabledAndCute: On Representation, a Movement and What's Next” during the annual Affect Conference in 2017.

• • •

Read more about the joy of side projects.


This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.


Please consider supporting Design Feast
If you liked this lovingly-made interview, show your appreciation by helping to support my labor of love—Design Feast, which proudly includes this blog. Learn more.

September 26, 2017

Centering on Design that is Positive and Enriching to People: User Experience Researcher and Designer Stephanie Lawrence


Stephanie Lawrence is a Market Researcher turned User Experience Researcher and Designer. Is was through her article “Design Ethics in Practice” that I discovered her work. Here, she elaborates on the meaning and relevance of user experience design, especially in the development and building of Web-based tools.

How did you reinvent yourself from being a Market Researcher to a User Experience Designer? Was there an experience that compelled/nudged you to start engaging your path toward becoming a UX Designer?

I had a good friend and former manager first tell me about UX after she started working at a tech startup. At the time, I knew I wanted to try another career outside of market research—I was missing having any kind of visual creativity as a part of my work. It wasn’t until I heard about UX from her that I felt excited about moving in a new direction. And once I realized the UX community is full of nerds, I felt like I found my calling (haha).

From there, I tried to learn as much as I could: I went to tons of meetups, read everything I could about design, learned how to code, and worked on personal projects. It all became like a second job for me, but I also had people that encouraged me to continue and grow as a designer, and that made it easier to keep going. I eventually took a big leap and left my market research job to do a UX internship, and the rest is history.

Label-mania: What is your job-title preference—UX Designer, Interaction Designer, User Interface Designer, UX Architect, Information Architect, Usability Specialist, et al.?

UX Designer works for me, but it’s never been my “official” title. Right now, I’m “officially” a UX Researcher. I do both design and research, similar to my last job where I was “officially” an Interaction Designer.

Who/what are your regular influences
in your user-experience design work?

That’s hard to answer. I think that’s something I’m still trying to nail down in a deliberate way. Currently, I’m influenced by all of the awesome people I follow on Twitter: Amelie Lamont, Ethan Marcotte, Senongo Akpem, Catt Small, Mina Markham, Erica Joy, so many others. I’m inspired by designers that think about people and social impact, not just this idea of “users” and conversion rates.

I have a background in working with government and healthcare Websites, and that continues to influence and frame how I approach designing any site. I think about what people are learning and how they’re served by interacting with any design I’m working on.

The debate persists on what “user experience” is. What does it mean to you? What is “user experience design”? How do you communicate these concepts of user experience and user experience design to clients so that they understand?

To me, UX is about thinking about how someone will use what you design, and constructing a product/service in relation to where it exists in the larger context of that person’s life. UX design is the process of making something that actually fits into that context, and optimizing it accordingly. You can’t “design” a full experience, but you can understand an experience and design tools that fit within it. That means thinking about larger sociological and psychological factors that are a part of that context, thinking about accessibility, sustainability, impact.

That’s actually how I explain it to people, if I have time. Otherwise, my definition is “I make websites easier to use and not ugly, so people are more likely to use what you want to make.”

What are the principles you adhere to 
and practice as a UX Designer?

I always think about context and impact, like making sure an interaction isn’t going to frustrate someone or make them feel bad. Little things can have a big impact on people that are in an emotionally vulnerable place, so I try to think about what emotional states someone could be in during a given interaction, and try to account for the “worst case scenario” in some way.

I also feel that designers have an ethical responsibility to do right by their users, as a bare minimum. Broadly, it should do right by everyone, and not enable users to hurt other people. I still follow the research ethics guidelines I learned when I was working as a market researcher.

From your UX Design toolkit, what specific methods do you rely on toward effectively, as you put it, “Establishing Context”?

For specific projects, I listen to people and try to learn as much about what they’re doing and what they need as possible. I try to learn about them, and what goes wrong for them, what their stakes are. Research is key to this, especially user interviews. When I interview someone, I try to make them the star of the show—I want to learn about them and how I can help them, not just watch them use a site and see what breaks. And then I have to try and connect it all back to the larger context of how each interaction causes waves in their experience, and how that relates to a larger context of their life based on their identity. So: a lot of talking to people, a lot of sticky notes and a lot of reading.


Some of my personal library I keep at work, along with my co-workers’ books.

I also try to draw on the information and theory I learned back when I was in school for psychology, and keep up on current events; I try to connect a lot of that theoretical understanding of society and history to current implementations and impact of technology. For example, I think way too much about racism in AI and machine learning, design ethics and the consequences of bigotry in the tech industry. It’s hard to not connect that to when you get user feedback on a chatbot or search results during an interview. These larger social questions impact the user feedback you receive.

How would you describe “good design”?

As an absolute bare minimum: Design that enables people to complete tasks with minimal hassle. Design that doesn’t harm nor enable harm.

Ideally, “good design” inspires action beyond interaction with the design itself. Any design that encourages users to do more than they thought of before, in a positive and enriching way, is “good.”

What user experiences do you judge as really good,

and how do you feel this was achieved?

The ones I judge as good are always hard to pin down, since good experiences always feel the most natural, so it’s hard to catch them. One I encountered recently: A clothes subscription box I signed up for. I went to the site already worried, since anything to do with clothes and bodies is ripe for body-shaming or other assumptions that can turn the whole experience sour for me. But the one I used was surprisingly pleasant. It wasn’t until it was over that I realized that I didn’t feel uncomfortable, that I didn’t feel discouraged from using their service because of my size, proportions or income. I think any kind of experience that can do that, that doesn’t reproduce some of the expected pitfalls of typical experiences that reiterate exclusion of people that aren’t seen as “normal” or “ideal,” are really good ones.

At this year’s TypeCon, Creative Director Bobby C. Martin, who co-founded branding and design agency Original Champions of Design, posed to the audience: “Where are all of the black typeface designers?” To steer this question toward your discipline, where are all of the black user-experience designers?

I would turn this question back around and ask: “Why haven’t Black UX designers been made to feel welcome, to the point that they need to be sought out?” A lack of diversity is never just circumstance, it’s by design. The larger contextual factors that build up to the consequence of homogeneity in the design industry—from systemic racism to daily microaggressions—are what need to be examined.

What part of your work is particularly trying,
and how do you deal with it?

Time. With enough time, you can get the copy on a page just right, or work through conflicts with stakeholders. Lots of issues can be addressed with enough time, but there never is enough, and it only moves forward.

I personally take up the mantra of “done is better than perfect.” Time is the one factor you can’t control at all, so it helps me to relax and work with what time I have and prioritize, rather than spin my wheels looking for perfection in my designs and wishing I had a time machine to do things differently before. It helps to give me perspective when I’m working with stakeholders, so that it’s less about getting things done “just right” and more about thinking about what needs to get done at a given time.

What software/Web-based tools that you use and
highly recommend to work on ideas and make them grow,
to collaborate and get things done?

Helpful tools I’ve used lately:

Purple: the team I’m currently on has been using it to keep track of project, and it’s been really nice to see all of our notes and visual assets in one place. It really helps to grasp the larger picture of a project’s changes over time.

Notion and Freeter: I’ve been using Notion to keep notes and keep track of any tasks I complete in a week, and it’s become a staple for me. No other productivity or to-do app has worked for me, and I keep all of my important research and design notes in one place. It helps me keep track of my own weekly tasks outside of JIRA so I don’t get lost in a sea of tickets. I just started pairing it with Freeter to also keep all of my files and important links in one place, and it’s been amazing.

What is that one tool which helps make your work productive
and gratifying—as a result, making your life good?

My sketchbook. It’s silly, but looking back and seeing all of the work I’ve done helps to silence imposter syndrome. I’ve always kept sketchbooks even before I was in UX; that’s how I organize my ideas and thoughts, and it’s like my security blanket. When things get tough, I can look back at old ones and find new inspiration. I also get to accomplish my childhood dream of having a creative job where I get to draw. Notion is slowly becoming a digital extension of my notebook, but nothing beats the feeling of carrying around a notebook. I’m also a stationery nerd, so trying new notebooks always makes me happy.


My current notebook, a Rhodia with grid lines.

If you were tasked to make a code of conduct 
for the user-experience design profession, what would this be?

A modified version of the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm, Do not make tools that enable harm, Prevent harm when possible, View people as human beings instead of problems to be fixed, And respect people’s privacy.

If you were approached by someone who expressed, “I want 
to have a career in/involving user experience,” what’s
your response?

First, I’d ask them why. UX means so many different things, it’d be hard to give any advice without knowing what UX means to that person, and what about UX they personally like. From there, I’d encourage them to go for it!

How would you describe success?

Personal contentment. Not feeling like you’ve done everything you want, but feeling a sense of peace with where you are in life and what you’ve accomplished. In that sense, success is a matter of scale rather than a state you’re suddenly in.

For people who are making a transition from one professional 
role/discipline to another, how would you advise them?

Learn as much as you can about the everyday of the profession you’re interested in, think about what you personally want from following that path. Talk to lots of people, don’t be afraid to have and speak up about your ideas even if you’re the “new kid.” Leverage your current strengths, and think of how they relate to the profession you want—get really creative about it, and make connections between where you are and where you want to be.

Since you enjoy watching documentaries, which one is 
a must-see? Do you plan to view Ken Burns’ latest documentary 
series “The Vietnam War”?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Hearing someone talk about their passion, and that attention to detail for every piece of fish, it’s so energizing to see. But it also felt humbling to see what that road looks like, what you gain and what you give up when you dedicate yourself so totally to one thing. It’s a documentary that always sticks with me, personally.

Also, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, because (1) Space is cool, (2) it’s a great reminder how amazing it is that we are tiny creatures living on this watery rock in space, and (3) Neil DeGrasse Tyson is also really great in communicating all of that, and being excited and passionate about studying the universe.

I hadn’t heard about Ken Burns’ documentary, but I’ll check it out.

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All images courtesy of Stephanie Lawrence.

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September 22, 2017

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Designer and Educator Jamie Cavanaugh Activates Lifelong Learning for the Global Design Community at Design Higher



What are you working on—on the side?

In March 2017, I started my side project, Design Higher, a website focusing on lifelong learning for designers. For over ten years, as an Interaction Designer and an Associate Professor in the Graphic Design program at Santa Monica College, I’ve witnessed first-hand the need that both students and designers have for information, resources and advice on how to succeed—and thrive!—in design careers.

As the field of design continues to rapidly evolve, multiple challenges arise for both students and designers including: what do you need to know, where to go for the best design education, and most importantly, how to become a self-learner and start practicing lifelong learning.

My goal is to help designers succeed by providing smart learning resources and courses for UX/Interaction Design, including materials for design educators and those who’d like to start teaching design. I’m planning to offer courses on “How to Start a Career in UX/IxD” and “How to Start Teaching in a Design Program.” In the future, I’d like to offer mentoring and coaching to students and designers to provide an individualized, hands-on approach to lifelong learning, design education and career development.

In addition to being an advocate for lifelong learning, I’m a design education innovator and the faculty lead for the first Bachelor’s degree program in Interaction Design at a community college in the United States. I see an important opportunity for community colleges to educate the next generation of UX/IxD designers. Community colleges are uniquely positioned to support non-traditional students, first-generation students and career-changers, and can bring the needed diversity to the design industry. 

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

As a designer and educator, I’m used to working nights and weekends. ツ Before becoming a full-time educator, I designed and built websites, so launching a website for my side project is in my wheelhouse. I’ve created multiple courses for my interaction design students, so developing the resources for Design Higher follows a similar process. I’m passionate about lifelong learning and design education, so I make time to work on this project. I’ve also sought assistance with the site and hired Spruce Rd. to create my branding. More outside help will be necessary as I grow my business.

Why have a side project?

One of the unexpected benefits of a side project is facing the challenges of managing my mindset! Building a new business from scratch has brought up many of my insecurities and bad habits regarding confidence, time management and productivity. I’m learning how to be more results-oriented and more effective with my time. It’s been a great challenge to work within these constraints. I feel the entrepreneurial skills that I’m developing will serve me well as a designer.

I’ve been thinking about this project for a long time, so I’m happy to finally jump in and do it! I’m obsessed with organizing information and resources, and have long been advocating reduction in the duplication of effort for educators and designers. I believe having a side project adds value to my other work, and keeps me better organized and energized within both the teaching and design worlds. I also feel that I’m supporting the design community, designers, educators and the people who are really close to my heart—design students!

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Diptych courtesy of Jamie Cavanaugh.

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