Why Designers Matter
Any discussion about community-based work that results in
positive social outcomes must begin with the acknowledgement
that designers play a vital role in the process. That’s because
people’s perception of their environment influences their behavior,
performance, social interactions, and quality of life, according
to Carmita Sanchez-Fong, professor and chairperson
of the Interior Design Department at the Fashion Institute of
Technology (FIT). “Well-informed interior designers who
have a deep knowledge and understanding of the physical and
psychological human factors intuitively know the value of good
design decisions and their impact on the human experiences,”
she says. “Thus, designers committed to improving the social
fabric of our communities are key to the success of these projects.”
John Peterson, curator of the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard
University Graduate School of Design and founder of Public
Architecture and its 1+ program, offers an anecdote to illustrate
the point: A colleague’s firm volunteered to renovate the offices
for a suicide prevention organization, providing space planning
services and leveraging industry connections to secure discounted
furniture for the worn space. Afterwards, the client called in tears
to express gratitude for their beautiful, new work environment.
“That’s a sweet little story, but let’s connect it to something that’s
really meaningful,” Peterson explains. “If you can make two
assumptions, which are not hard to make, there’s an outcome
to that story that’s really important.” The first assumption is that
suicide hotlines save lives. The second assumption—which is
supported by a growing body of research—is that a better work
environment enables people to do their jobs more effectively.
As a result, Peterson concludes that “it’s hard to argue that
interior designers are not somehow contributing to saving
people’s lives. Whether it’s directly connected to saving lives,
or making sure a poor family gets access to healthy food, or
any number of nonprofits out there, designers generally can
participate in their mission outcome,” he says.
Of course, the employees who carry out the daily work in
nonprofits, social services agencies, and community groups are
beneficiaries of well-designed environments as well. As such,
Jennifer Sobecki, CEO of Designs for Dignity, suggests it’s
important they have access to spaces where they can decompress
from the often weighty issues they face on a day-to-day basis,
be it child abuse, domestic violence, poverty, etc. “For staff
to have a place to escape to, whether that’s a break room or a
meditation room, or even if it’s a table and chairs that are outside
to look at trees and be with nature—that decompression area that
recharges those batteries for a social worker or case manager to
say, ‘Okay, now I can relax and then be ready for the next client
and be totally present with them’—is really important,” she notes.
The effectiveness of respite spaces in the workplace also is backed
by research. In fact, Gensler’s 2018 Experience Index noted that
“employees who take time to reflect or unplug during work are
more satisfied and higher performing, inline with a significant
body of existing research showing the importance of downtime
for creativity, productivity, and happiness.” And, designers play
a key role in creating spaces that enable these positive outcomes.
Benefits to Volunteers
Social service workers and nonprofit employees and their clients aren’t the only ones
who gain from pro bono design services and projects. Oftentimes, it’s the volunteers
themselves who benefit most from the work they do.
Sobecki says pro bono projects allow designers, who often get caught up in the business
side of the job with meetings, paperwork, and deadlines, to exercise their creativity
more freely. “A lot of times we’re asking the design team to be creative about how they
can utilize [the furniture and materials] that have been donated and redeploy them in
a design-driven way into these projects. So, I think there’s that creative outlet that we
provide,” she states.
In the process of working with other volunteers on pro bono projects, designers also can
cross-pollinate and network with peers who can benefit them in their careers. “Some
of the most meaningful connections my students and I have made are with like-minded
people whose lives have been changed by those we serve,” Sanchez-Fong says. She adds
that the skills and discipline that pro bono work demands also can help designers apply
the same commitment and discipline to their own practices.
Most importantly, however, participating in community-based work feeds many
designers’ desire to give back in a meaningful way that aligns with their personal causes.
For example, Designs for Dignity may offer services for children’s charities or homeless
shelters that enable designers to interact with clients and get involved in projects
that matter to them personally. “We give volunteers the opportunity to be in that
environment with that population, whether it might be a veterans home, or with the
elderly, or a youth drop-in center; and, when the design teams are interacting with
our clients, they’re getting to see the kids firsthand when they might be moving back
into their shelter, or [with] the opening of a youth center, or whatever it might be.
I think that’s a very rewarding experience,” says Sobecki.
A total of 165 pro bono
hours went into the design
of Youth & Opportunity
United (Y.O.U.), a Designs
for Dignity project in
(Image: Jill Buckner Photography)