Design for Good West Michigan

Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503

Kate Hunt

Kate Hunt believes designers should support their communities, and communities should support their designers. As director of Design for Good West Michigan, she has the opportunity to foster growth in both directions.  
Design for Good, a national project of AIGA, aims to enact social change by encouraging the use of “design thinking” by individuals and organizations.
To achieve this locally, Design for Good West Michigan has previously hosted two events called Weekend Blitz. These exciting, three-day design marathons pair volunteer problem-solvers with a nonprofit in need of solutions.
One such nonprofit, Well House, provides safe, affordable housing for the homeless. Their original website was outdated, didn’t offer any sense of legitimacy, and didn’t engage volunteers or donors. During the Weekend Blitz, designers started from scratch to create a brand new website unique to the personality and mission of Well House.
Tami Vandenberg, executive director of Well House, said, “Having this website has helped us meet milestones for our $325,000 Kellogg Grant. People specifically point to it and say, ‘I chose to volunteer here because I understood what the organization was about and what it would mean to volunteer for you.’”
The Weekend Blitz provides an immense benefit to designers as well, by giving them a chance to do meaningful work, to pad their portfolio, and to network with community leaders and fellow designers.
For example, industrial design students from Kendall College of Art and Design often get a chance to work side-by-side with designers such as Herman Miller’s Creative Director, Sofia Svensson-Huang, and their industrial design team.
“That’s an opportunity for Sofia to exercise mentorship and work on something impactful,” Hunt said, “and that interaction for the Kendall student is really unique. It’s not every day that you get to work on a project in the trenches with the creative director from Herman Miller.”
Despite all of the positive impact the Weekend Blitz has, Kate Hunt admits that it does conflict, on some level, with AIGA’s professional standards. AIGA is a vehicle for design advocacy, to strengthen individual designers as well as the profession as a whole, and they often take a stand on issues such as spec work, and “freelancing for free.”
“It’s a thing we’re still sort of wrestling with,” Hunt said. “We tell individuals to not give work away for free, but we also organize this event and give work away for free. In theory, we hope this is setting organizations up to understand the value of design. So we track all the hours, and try to quantify the work done.”
This widespread educational attitude has been changing society’s perception of designers, and of design itself.
“I use the word ‘design’ loosely,” Hunt said. “I think anyone who’s tackling problems in a strategic, broad-thinking way is a designer.”
Under this umbrella, creatives from a wide spectrum of disciplines can design for social good. But whether their medium is fashion, graphics, software, or community planning, their success depends largely on the same core principle. The most crucial component to design thinking, Hunt said, is empathy.  
“Design is more about problem solving than making things pretty, and that sometimes gets lost,” Hunt said. “I mean, sure—we can make it pretty. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to function, or meet the needs of the user or the audience.”
Historically, organizations often bring in designers towards the end of the problem solving process as a kind of tidying, beautifying force after the larger decisions have already been made. There is only so much a designer can do at that point to properly shape a product to fit the clients’ needs. However, the design community is starting to see a shift in attitude, partially thanks to efforts like Design for Good.
“Designers are beginning to step in much earlier in the process and are getting to ask different questions to get to the things you ‘don’t know you don’t know,’” Hunt said. “Designers typically have an ability to see the connections between otherwise disconnected pieces of a problem.”
The more trust organizations build with the concept of designers as problem-solvers, the more they may seek them out. And if the satisfaction of nonprofits like Well House is any indication, Design for Good is helping to craft this reputation.
Hunt and the other members of Design for Good are already plotting out the next Weekend Blitz, but they’re also looking to branch out.  This October, they had an open call for new participation, and ideas for different community projects.
“Our goal for 2014 locally is to get a sense of what the creative community in West Michigan is interested in doing. So far we’ve done the weekend event because that’s something we know we can do,” Hunt said. “But the rest is yet to be determined. Part of the process right now is reaching out to people who are already actively impacting their communities and finding out how design can amplify what's already being done.”
To get involved with Design for Good, sign up for updates here:

Katie Jones is a professional idealist, film enthusiast, and freelancer for UIX Grand Rapids.