Occupation: I'm the founder of verynice, a global design-strategy and foresight consultancy that gives half of its work away to nonprofits. And I'm also the founder and research director at Models of Impact, an online platform and consultancy that helps social entrepreneurs design business models.
Location: Los Angeles
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Current projects: One exciting project is for Architecture for Humanity, which was a major organization in the pro-bono space that, unfortunately, went bankrupt fairly recently. But what's exciting is that a lot of the chapter leaders and their volunteers went rogue and decided to launch a new organization, and we're helping them create a business plan to do that.
Another recent project is with Google. We partnered with them to help re-launch the One Billion Acts of Peace campaign in the form of a mobile app, and that project was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, which is pretty insane. I never though I could be a part of a project that did that. Our role has been helping them manage a pro-bono engagement, as well as doing brand strategy and a bit of work on product development—helping to develop concepts for different features and test those ideas with their users.
Mission: There are two parts. One is to create new kinds of approaches to business that allow organizations to make more impact either by saving financial resources or by operating more like a business would. The other is to trick designers into giving their work away for free.
Through verynice, we invented the "give half" model, which really sparked a new movement in pro bono, especially within the creative communities. Something that I spend loads of my time doing, and that I really would consider my mission, is helping designers and creatives realize that giving your work away doesn't necessarily mean that you're losing something, but it's actually a way to gain something totally new. I want to convince designers that pro bono can be a really exciting part of their practice, in developing their skills, or in karma, or in being a designer that can make an impact in the world.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? When I was 16, at a skate park in Sunnyvale, California. About a week prior, I had gotten a pirated copy of Photoshop, just to teach myself things here and there. At the skate park I saw a guy in a wheelchair who was skateboarding really well, which is obviously something you don't see every day. I was inspired to introduce myself, and I learned that he was the founder of a nonprofit called Wheelchair Skater, which taught children in wheelchairs how to participate in extreme sports and get around a skate park. I was super inspired and I basically asked if I could design some stickers for him, and that became my first pro-bono engagement and my entry point to the design industry.
Education: I got my Bachelor's from UCLA in Design Media Art, and then right afterward I went to Art Center to get my MFA in their Media Design Practices program. Both of the programs are really transdisciplinary, so they try to teach that design is not necessarily one thing. It can be a big array of things or even just a way of thinking strategically or a way of storytelling. Those are definitely concepts that have had a lot of impact on how I approach design in general.
First design job: In the beginning I was essentially trying to get as many internships as possible, and my first one was for an insurance company in the Bay Area. I wasn't necessarily passionate about insurance, but I thought it would be a great way to work under another designer who had a ton of experience. It was a very small company and he was the only designer there—and my first week, it turned out, was his last week. He had given his two weeks' notice right before I started. So all of a sudden I was thrown into this situation where I was the design intern, but I was also the lead designer for the company. So that was . . . interesting.
Who is your design hero? I think, if you asked me that in college, I would have said David Carson or Stefan Sagmeister. But as my interests have evolved more into this design-strategy space, my definition of design has become much broader. Now I would say my hero is this guy named Muhammad Yunus. He would never consider himself a designer, but he wrote a book called BuildingSocial Business, and he was one of the earliest people to introduce the idea that there can be this middle ground between being a business and being a nonprofit. To me, that's actually a space that he designed, or a medium that he created for a lot of us to play with.
Describe your workspace: It's a loft in downtown LA, in the Arts District. I don't have a set desk, which I thought meant that I was going to float around—but I ended up always sitting at our conference table, and as a result about half of it is covered in piles of illustrations and doodles that I'm working on. The other half is covered with my laptop and other computer equipment. There are dice sprinkled all over the place. And then, on the walls, there are Post-its everywhere, from whatever our most recent workshop was.
Other than the computer, what is your most important tool? I always have my notebook, colorful pens—and dice. The dice are a weird new obsession of mine. When I was in grad school, one of my biggest interests was this idea of conditional creativity, or creative projects that are essentially generated from a set of rules. Lately, I've been excited about the potential for using dice for that kind of work. We use them a lot in our workshops. And they come in all these different colors, so they're fun to look at, too.
What is the best part of your job? Hosting our workshops—because the thing I'm really passionate about, outside of business, is teaching. And running workshops is like this perfect marriage of my passions for teaching and for creating solutions for organizations and businesses.
What is the worst part of your job? I think that any business owner would probably say the worst part is all of the logistical stuff you have to do. We pretty recently moved out of a co-working type of environment and into our own private office, and what I found is, all of a sudden, somebody has to worry about if there's toilet paper or not, and somebody has to worry about setting up the Internet and buying furniture and all of these things. I think that's my least favorite part of the job.
What time do you get up and go to bed? I get up at 6:20 in the morning and normally go to bed at about 10:00 or 10:15 at night.
How do you procrastinate? Primarily by doing a project that I shouldn't be doing at that exact moment. It's this weird thing where, if there's a project that's due tomorrow and a project that's due the week after, I'll always work on the project that's due the week after. It's productive procrastination, I guess. I always tend to get more excited about the stuff that I'm not supposed to be doing.
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? If I'm ever really in a situation where I have a ton of projects due in one day, I'll use Google Calendar to block off time, to the minute, for each of those projects, and alternate them throughout the day. It basically makes it so that you're sprinting on a project and then coming back to it again later—so you don't feel overwhelmed by doing the whole thing at once.
What is the most important quality in a designer? Having other interests outside of design. I've found that people who either have unique backgrounds that are completely unrelated to design, or who have these parallel lives and interests, end up having really, really interesting processes. For example, let's say you used to be a scientist, and you made a career change and now you're a designer. The way that you design is going to be totally unique because it's going to be very research driven, and maybe inspired by science in terms of form or function. That kind of stuff I really love.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? That designers make pretty things. That's something that I try to advocate against quite a lot. Sometimes the solution you need might be something ugly, or something that you actually don't like—because you might not be the audience for it, or something pretty just might not be appropriate, given the circumstances. I think that a big misconception about design and the use of designers is that we just love making facades of things, as opposed to really thinking about how that thing actually works or what the thing even is. It's unfortunate that, a lot of the time, designers aren't invited to the table until the project's 90 percent done.
What is your most prized design possession? My books. If you look at my bank statement, aside from bills, it's basically food or books. It's dangerous. I just love the tactility of books and the memories that books provoke in you.
What is exciting you in design right now? Definitely this conversation about design for social impact—which is happening on a deeper level now. I think it's having a marriage with the whole designer-as-entrepreneur movement. So designers are getting excited about things like business models and impact models. They're getting excited about ideating different products and services that they could either launch themselves or within another company or organization. I think it's really extending the definition of design.
If you could redesign anything, what would you choose? Well, I've been fortunate to have the chance to design a lot of the things that I've always dreamt of designing, whether those are business models or brands or products or whatever. But if I'm going to be selfish for a moment, I'd definitely want to design a skate park. What I think is amazing about skateboarding is that it does actually change the way you see the world. It makes it so that things aren't curbs anymore—they're opportunities for creating a moment or an exchange of some sort. It's also a great community-building tool. So I would love to think back on all of the different skate parks I've been to, and redesign one to be the ultimate skate park. I'm not saying I would do a great job—I can't build things for the life of me—but I would love to give it a try.
Mason Currey is a former Core77 editor and the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Previously, he was the executive editor of Print and the managing editor of Metropolis. His freelance writing has appeared in the New York Times and Slate, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.