March 17, 2015

Navigating Climate: Katherine Darnstadt at 38th CreativeMornings in Chicago

Although Katherine Darnstadt, an architect who founded Latent Design in pursuit of projects in community development, titled her talk “Let’s not talk about the weather,” she did address “Climate,” CreativeMornings’ global theme for February 2015. Weather and climate are different. The former deals only with short-term effects. The latter is about patterns over long periods of time. Darnstadt and her team invest their work into initiatives that are integral to improving the economic, cultural, and social climates of an area for the long-term.

Climate of fear

In a recent addition to my Designer’s Quest(ionnaire) series with civic designer Megan Deal, she shared this common challenge:
“Some of my biggest challenges are generally rooted in fear. Fear of failing, fear of ridicule, fear of getting it wrong.”
Darnstadt acknowledged that fear is part of her process, both when it pertains to a project and her role as a business founder. Eleanor Roosevelt advised, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” To seek and complete essential projects. To start and run a business. These are everyday-scary endeavors. Doing the work one desires to do is iterating a severity of fearlessness to manage effectively. Roosevelt’s recommendation taken to the max.

The CreativeMornings community, from hosts and volunteers to speakers and audiences, all know fear in their own way. Everyone is vying for their preferred horizon of potential, their preferred work environment, their preferred state of the world. Fear provokes these ambitions—Darnstadt’s is fueled, even facilitated, by it.

Climate of help

Darnstadt’s talk echoed the anthem of Neal Sales-Griffin at the 34th CreativeMornings/Chicago:
“My happiness is not derived from money—it’s from helping people.”
As part of her emphasis on“Design Priorities,” Darnstadt pointed to critical—interconnected—areas of civilization, such as education, policy, health, and transit. Any of these has the stature of a vital organ. Each qualifies as a “wicked problem.” Darnstadt’s charge is to help dethrone the perception of massive challenges as formidable at any level. In the vein of Chicago-based Greater Good Studio, who spoke at the 21st CreativeMornings/Chicago, she is already accepting of the fact that, as Greater Good Studio put it:
“Unmet needs are easy to find in the social sector.”
Her firm Latent Design is not a clearinghouse to broadly address all social issues. She and her team curate according to their taste and threshold of what coheres advantageously with their agenda and capabilities. This cohesion between business and work helps Darnstadt steer her firm toward high-fidelity(1) execution, because these socially engaged efforts—a scrappy blending of architecture, urban planning, civic strategy, public relations, and disciplines in between—demand an allegiance to a worldview, which, through Latent Design’s lens, is the proliferation of “meaningful places.”

A refreshing aspect of Darnstadt and her team is that addressing the grand scale and scope of “wicked problems” with sweeping solutions is not mandatory. There are numerous teams of people persisting on grand problem-solving in a grand manner, but Darnstadt offers a nimble approach by delivering projects within communities where critical improvement is needed. This scenario is inherent with a diversity of problems to be solved. The kinds of projects that this scenario affords may be finite in their application but are grand in their impact on improving people’s quality of life, whether found in a neighborhood building or a city block. This is dictated by the small composition of her team. Yet our world is nestled with worlds, close (like a backyard) and distant (like a island nation), desperate for enhancement. Darnstadt posed self-examination to creative people of whatever practice:
“Who are we really designing for?”
A paralyzing question. It is also a polarizing cue to think and act critically. The world of a food desert demands it. The world of a natural-disaster prone location demands it. The world of a mixed-use housing project demands it. The world of new construction demands it. The world of an impoverished town demands it. The world of a crime-ridden neighborhood demands it. Need—locally, regionally, internationally—is a universe. Darnstadt’s practice of scaleable empowerment helps advance the popular stance of anthropologist Margaret Mead:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Personal bubble popped once again.

Climate of change

Darnstadt’s presentation was thick with talk of “change.” A contemporary escalation of this concept is “transformation.” I’ve been historically weary of the tidings of change, pushed by the zealous locomotion of consulting and politicking displayed everywhere. My ears hardened a bit to Darnstadt’s repeated mention of “catalyst.”

But the community-related narratives that Latent Design fiercely participate in and help shape are part of a larger, daresay meta, narrative: evolution. The Darwinian view of change spans billions of years(2). Darnstadt’s work, such as facilitating a “one day build blitz” for Metropolitan Family Services to help convert “the worn-out school into a learning center” and the YMCA Meta Media lab, spans weeks, in the present tense. Latent Design’s attention and agility toward delivering a reality of change, whatever the scale and scope, coincides with a global ripple of positive efforts, no matter the scale and scope, to help make the world a better place—a meaningful one. Darnstadt stressed to not underestimate the power and influence of “collective memory,” paired with collective survival, where change is inevitable and when change remains an open invitation.

As a prelude to his talk at the 23rd CreativeMornings/Chicago, held during Chicago Ideas Week, Max Temkin, inventor of the game “Cards Against Humanity,” showed a clip of Steve Jobs’ insightful expression of change:
“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
Darnstadt and Latent Design move on to embrace the next initiative and wrestle with it, proudly in fear, failure, and impeccable freedom.

During my chat with Darnstadt afterwards, I shared that her talk had a vibrating effect of me, particularly due to what she addressed holistically in relation to architecture, education, and infrastructure. In her novel, “The Ice Queen,” Alice Hoffman wrote:
“…If the tiniest of actions reverberated throughout the universe in invisible and unexpected ways, changing the weather and the climate, than anything was possible.”
This fragment is part of a passage about a “thesis” about “magic.” Magic may be the contemporary synonym for “innovation.”

(1) Almost used “high impact” but experiencing fatigue with this phrase. Then there’s “creatives”—don’t get me started.

(2) Reminded of Chris Eichenseer’s talk about insignificance at 20th CreativeMornings/Chicago.

• • •

Soundtrack while writing:
“I Can’t See Clear” by Espers
“Lately” by Evenings
“Train Under Water” by Bright Eyes
“Nothing’s Changed” by Tricky
“Your Heartwarming Story Makes Me Sick” by Ken Mode
“Pathways” by Milezo
“Don’t Wanna Fight” by Alabama Shakes
“LGBT” by Lowell
“The Waves” by Villagers
“Turbo Dizel (Turbo Diesel)” by Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra
“Some People Will Tell You” by Sarah Jaffe
“Golden Twin” by Wild Ones
“Heaven Mountains” by Move
“Tessellate” by alt-J
“So Begins Our Alabee” by Of Montreal
“La Voz Tan Tierna” by Acid Pauli

• • •

Big thanks: to Braintree (Host), Vitamin TRazorfish, L&L Graphic Solutions, Green Sheep Water, for being Partners of Chicago CreativeMornings #38; to organizer Kim Knoll and operations manager Kyle Eertmoed of Knoed Creative, who spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7; to the team of volunteers for greatly helping to make CreativeMornings happen monthly in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

Read more about the people who make the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings possible.

• • •

My coverage: view more photos of 38th CreativeMornings in Chicago; read more write-ups about Chicago CreativeMornings.

• • •

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

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