April 3, 2018

Civic/Social Designer Megan Trischler Collaborates on Making and Sustaining Opportunities for Humans

I had the privilege of interviewing Megan Trischler for my other ongoing series Designer’s Quest(ionnaire). I’ve been kept impressed by her evolution as a passionate designer for the public good. Here, she walks the talk on galvanizing compassion and community through her sensibilities—nurtured through the practice of design.

You called out yourself as “a recovering graphic designer”? What happened? How did you get your groove back?

Ha! That’s just me being cynical. I’ve spent this first decade of my professional career exploring ways I can utilize my design sensibilities outside of the traditional corporate/commercial realm. While I consider myself a designer (and my training is in graphic design), I’ve never actually worked as a “graphic designer.” I’ve gone through phases of grappling with that title, largely because it seems designers get pigeonholed into a discipline based on our output: websites, buildings, toothbrushes, banner-ads, shoes, etc. I’ve always been more interested in design as a process to address civic/social problems, so I’ve never felt the “graphic designer” moniker quite fit. That being said, I do have a deep respect for the field and am still incredibly inspired by timeless examples of effective visual communication.

Incredible evolution from graphic designer to, among other descriptors, a civic/social designer—or in long form: good-design-is-goodwill designer. Assuming that graphic design was a springboard to your current ambitions and activities. How does the discipline of graphic design persist in your work?

My work is about shaping places and spaces. I think about that in macro/micro terms. Sometimes the work is about reimagining neighborhoods. Sometimes the work is about adjusting kerning. The space between letters is just as important to me as the space between buildings. The way type and image come together on a page is just as interesting to me as how everyday citizens align with influential partners to bring about real and lasting change in our communities. These are all great design challenges, and my graphic design education has given me a language that I use throughout every part of the community-focused work. Beyond that, being a graphic designer has helped me develop a mind for clarity and organization. My design work is stupidly simple. That’s just how my brain works. I’m always trying to make the complex clear. Hopefully, people like it, but that really doesn’t matter to me. I can’t change who I am.

Your co-building of philanthropic lab People’s Liberty reminds me of Reason to Give by Firebelly Design, OpenIDEO and SYPartners, among several in the transformation-enabling business. What experiences helped steer, even inspire, what you’re doing now?

Many. I cut my teeth for the first time in 2008/09 as a designer with Project M. We built a pie shop (called Pie Lab) that doubled as a community center in Hale County, Alabama, a very small, rural and generally overlooked part of the country. That experience introduced me to a new path of operating as a designer. I saw the tangible impact my work could have on very real people in a very specific place. I lived in Alabama for a little over a year, totally enmeshed with the community. After that experience, I couldn’t just go sit behind a computer and move pixels around. I joke that I became forever unemployable. While this experience in the rural south kickstarted my design/career journey, I really spent most of my 20’s questioning if I’d ever be able to make a living (and start paying back school loans) doing this community-focused work. I also decided that if I were to ever go as wholeheartedly into a project like Pie Lab again, it needed to be in a community that I identified with.

I grew up in Flint, Michigan in an inherently blue-collar, Midwestern family and I spent my formative years in Detroit, a city that has undergone tumultuous times beginning in the latter half of the last century. With that in mind, I returned to Detroit in 2011 to begin teaching and doing some design work alongside some incredible organizations working to bring vitality back to the urban core and surrounding neighborhoods. At the same time, I was becoming more familiar with philanthropy and how foundations invest in communities. My world opened up at that point. My thought process went something like: I don’t know how to make money doing community-oriented design work; wait…foundations exist to fund community-focused work; maybe I should start working with foundations?! Thus began my journey connecting with a number of philanthropic foundations throughout the Midwest and the South, each focused on shaping stronger cities and better lives for the people who call those cities home. That’s what ultimately led me to Cincinnati and this work stewarding People’s Liberty.

In these charged times, what can designers, whatever the discipline, do to contribute immediately to a better community/society/world?

Designers are uniquely positioned to help imagine, re-imagine and shape future scenarios. I’m always especially blown away by what design students are able to dream up. Something powerful happens when youthful naïveté mixes with refined technical skills and ample curiosity. The professional design work I’m most inspired by somehow maintains those childlike sensibilities. Beyond that, I think our world/cities/neighborhoods/offices would be better places—if we weren’t so quick to hide behind our job-roles and professional titles. Let’s be citizens before being designers. Better yet, let’s be humans first.

What is People’s Liberty? How did it originate and how did you join its team?

People’s Liberty is a philanthropic lab that invests directly in people. We don’t fund nonprofits. We don’t fund businesses. We fund humans. An outpost of the Cincinnati-based Haile Foundation, we offer citizens three distinct grant opportunities ranging from 6-month $10,000 project grants to full-year $100,000 fellowships. People’s Liberty is a five-year experiment exploring how philanthropy can change a community by uncovering and investing in great people. We launched at the end of 2014 and opened our building in the spring of 2015. Now three years into the process, we’ve awarded grants to 66 people, hired 28 early-career designers/storytellers, hosted nearly 20,000 people for 305 unique events and connected with 56 organizations to compare notes and share our model.

I have been part of the team from the very beginning, moving from Detroit to Cincinnati at the end of 2013 to do this work.

What is a day like in the work life at People’s Liberty? How would you describe the work culture at People’s Liberty? How is it important? Are there staple methods/activities to start/sustain your day as productively as possible?

Every day is different. We’re a small core team with a rotating roster of early-career folks cycling in every three-months. They keep things fresh and keep us (the lead team) on our toes. We have team rules that may better explain the office culture. We work regular 9–5 hours and really prioritize work/life balance. Every Friday, we take a field trip to explore a new part of the city or meet someone doing important work. There’s a lot of laughter, a lot of energy; a lot of team meals and activities. Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves, and sometimes we have conflict—when this happens, we work it out pretty quickly. At the end of the day, we’re a family trying to do the best work we can.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?

We over-communicate and talk about whatever’s causing concern immediately. 100%.

With all of the moving parts inherent in making a business, how do you deal with stress? What ways of taking care of yourself have proved helpful?

I’ve been exploring a number of practices to help me establish a healthier relationship with my work. I take a 30-minute solo walk everyday around lunchtime. If I don’t step away, I’m absolute rubbish by 2 P.M. I’ve also learned to stay out of my inbox in between more important tasks that require deep thinking. I’m learning to give myself permission to just have shit days every once in a while and to be honest about that with coworkers and the younger staff I oversee. There’s some freedom there. Outside of work, I jog, go on long walks/hikes in the woods, meditate, do yoga, pray, have coffee with people who can offer perspective, cook with my husband and make sourdough bread.

What are your principles in running your career and doing your best work? How would you describe success?

I’m reminded of a quote by the great priest/chef/writer Robert Farrar Capon who says: “Any principle applied with sheer consistency borders on madness.” I no longer really have principles or tenets that I follow. Everyday, I try my best to show up, be present and love the people around me. That might sound trite, but that’s how I measure the success of my days. Did I show up? Was I present? Did I try my best to live a life of love? If not, there’s always tomorrow.

What are your consistent design, business-related influences?

I listen to a handful of podcasts with some regularity: “On Being: Conversations with Tyler”“Here’s The Thing”“Monocle 24: The Entrepreneurs”“The Observatory” with Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand. I tend to gravitate toward more story-based or interview-based podcasts, largely because I’ve always retained more insight from hearing people’s stories as opposed to reading a set of instructions or “keys for success.” I read the New York Times Magazine on occasion, but I’m mostly reading memoirs—again, so much wisdom can be gleaned from the lives of ordinary people.

How does the city of Cincinnati contribute to your work and what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

In the 19th century, Cincinnati was a lauded innovation hub and a powerful force driving our nation’s progress. The City of Seven Hills was the first municipality to develop its own light rail system and construct the world’s first reinforced concrete skyscraper. John A. Roebling built the world’s longest suspension bridge across the Ohio River, a prototype that would later inform the Brooklyn Bridge. William Procter and James Gamble—both European immigrants—settled in the Queen City where they humbly grew their soap and candle making business into a multi-billion dollar corporation. Cincinnati has long been a place where ideas come to life.

The past ten years have brought about radical progress in Cincinnati, creating a culture that continues to open to new ideas. Notable public/private partnerships have kick-started development throughout our distinct neighborhoods. Lifelong residents and new recruits alike are beginning to see Cincinnati’s promise and unrealized potential. The momentum is palpable and, block by restored block, a culture of innovation, risk and hope is being renewed.

From my vantage point, Cincinnati is a city ripe with untapped opportunity, and we’re teeming with bright, creative minds eager to make their mark and looking for practical ways to make it happen—quicker and better. This is what Cincinnati has to boast. Our creative talent isn’t more skilled than any other city, but the ecosystem of support—the platforms that encourage individuals to dream big, be bold and fall lightly—seem to be growing a strong foothold. And that feels special.

What total effect do you strive to achieve through your work at People’s Liberty?

To create opportunities for humans to be in relationship
with one another.

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All images courtesy of Megan Trischler. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, photographed by Dave Schmidt of Cincygram.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of 100 Interviews
with people who love making things.

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