July 5, 2016

The Net Effect: Firebelly Design’s Founder Dawn Hancock at 52nd monthly CreativeMornings in Chicago

At the 52nd gathering of the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings, Firebelly Design founder Dawn Hancock shared selected details of her journey from student to studio founder and owner. Her presentation was a tone poem about how her family roots and relationships primed her to make a business that is not only one of Chicago’s best-known creative crews, but one with a strong reputation for design activism.

Hancock’s story reinforces how personal relationships—both positive and negative—shape human lives. They influenced her identity as a designer and nudged her to lead her own likeminded group.

The defining relationships in Hancock’s life were both encouraging and dismissive. In her talk, Hancock shared a sharp instance of the latter. A designer and teacher dissed her at a vulnerable time during college, telling her, “You’ll never find a job.”

Children’s book author Dr. Seuss said, “You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.” In this particular case for Hancock, the former didn’t play out as it should.

Cold for someone to shut the door on someone else. When the someone is older closing the door on someone younger, it’s patently shitty.

A mentor’s advice can have profound effects. Recall the advice given by seasoned novelist Philip Roth, a literary giant, to new novelist Julian Tepper, who shared with Roth his first published novel. Roth told Tepper: “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

After finding out about this story, author Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote “Eat, Pray, Love” (2006), believed Roth to be unwelcoming—in a cranky way. Tepper defended Roth—in an idolizing way. To me, Gilbert’s take is right. Because however one interprets Roth’s advice, his words—however minced to collage another meaning, whatever the tone, speak to a joyless reception. The Gilbert Effect is preferable. She suggests, “Simply extend your hand and say, ‘Welcome.’”
“Chance encounters are what keep us going.”
—Haruki Murakami, Novelist
Fortunately, there was someone there to lend a helping hand. His name was Kent, a parent, who, at the time, was pursuing a new career in nursing and needed a place to live for this two kids to visit. They became roommates. He helped Hancock when she needed it the most. First, he believed in her. Second, he helped her get her first Mac. Without it, design school would have been more stressful. The Kent Effect, delivering generosity with the by-product of serendipity, was the positive tremor in Hancock’s timeline, personally, professionally and humanely.

Burden lightened. Liftoff achieved by an individual who turned the clichĂ© prompt “Be useful” into an actually useful to-do, beautifully applied to Hancock’s situation. The benefit—an unfolding effect: Hancock persists to advance her usefulness through her design studio and beyond it. She created the annual week-long exhibition Typeforce. She established the Grant for Good, which awards a rigorous care package of branding and design services to a local nonprofit for a full year. She founded nonprofit Reason to Give that provides an educational program to insightfully equip families, in the Humboldt Park community of Chicago, with long-term skills to realize a better life. And every summer, 10 selected designers from around the world participate in Camp Firebelly, an intensive 10-day apprenticeship.

One effect causes another. The choice presents itself in every moment: What effect do I want to be? If the effect is welcoming like Kent, it could be a breakthrough moment. A net effect of momentum.

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“If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility
to send the elevator back down.”
—Kevin Spacey, Actor

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Big thanks: to Braintree, Morningstar (Host), The Dupil GroupGreen Sheep WaterLyft, for being Partners of Chicago CreativeMornings #52; to organizers Kim Knoll and Kyle Eertmoed who both 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.

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My coverage: view photos of CreativeMornings/Chicago gatherings; read more write-ups about CreativeMornings.

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