Was non-profit work something you always saw yourself doing? How did your previous experience shape your decision to move into this sector?
When I started my career, I had some idea of what type of work I didn’t want to do, but a think tank was not something I considered. I knew very little about public policy. When I accepted the position, I had a lot to learn about the sector I was joining. This wasn’t a cutting-edge, award-winning design firm – but that’s exactly the opportunity I saw. I had the chance to transform the identity of an organization with limited design expertise, to make it stand out from its competitors and to use design principles to effectively communicate big ideas. I wanted to take on that challenge.
In my previous position I had taken on a few projects for non-profits but my experience was limited. My decision to move into this sector came from a need to contribute meaningfully to an organization with little resources and real design problems.
What are the biggest challenges of working as a designer at a non-profit organization, specifically a Foundation? How have these challenges shaped the way that you approach projects?
The biggest challenges working as a designer in a non-profit organization are the lack of funding, resources and time. It is important to be strategic while having a realistic view of project scope, scale and final deliverables. We begin each project with clear plans , analyze the reasons for doing each project and its impact. Being a solo designer in the organization, I manage all aspects of the design with limited exploration time and work hard to make sure there are no design inefficiencies. It’s essential to make design thinking a key factor from the beginning of the project, work with the team as the project progresses and ensure the final design stage is streamlined, without multiple re-designs. This is challenging, but it drives me to be creative, nimble and ambitious to produce the highest quality work.
Effectively communicating the organization’s value proposition to supporters and funders is one of the unique challenges we face. We are constantly exploring innovative ways to connect with our audience. We strive to verbalize, visualize and quantify the intangible so that people can understand and relate to public policy.
How has this work changed the way you look at things day to day?
This work has changed how I consume information, how I see the country as a whole and how I perceive the role of design within an organization. Working alongside communications and research experts, I have learned to better analyze information and question facts and sources. Evidence-based research and commentary is more important than ever in a world where facts don’t always matter. This is where design plays a vital role. How we communicate directly affects the impact we have. As designers, it is important that we analyze the information and data that we are given and feel empowered to question it and offer solutions that clearly communicate the intent to the chosen audience.
Working for a think tank focused on policies that shape the West and all of Canada, I have learned to appreciate the country we live in, including what our different provinces have in common and what sets them apart.
What does a day in your life look like?
Like many people, I have been working from home since March, balancing the demands of a workday with caring for a school-age child and managing day-to-day life. My typical workday is made up of project planning and managing, project meetings, collaborating with the Communications Director and some design time.
I think it differs from working in another sector in two ways; the first being that projects are not client-based and can often take a number of years from start to finish. They can also happen at the speed of breaking news with a rapid turnaround, making it challenging to manage projects and timelines effectively while allocating enough design time. The other way it differs is that budgets/resources are always top of mind and sometimes non-existent, which means relying solely on internal expertise and continuously expanding your knowledge base.
Does working in a non-profit allow you to get involved with other aspects of the organization?
Working at a small organization means that I have had to take on many roles. Over the years, my role as designer has expanded to include aspects of project management and strategy, event planning, fundraising, training and managing team members and interns. Being exposed to all facets of the organization has given me a better understanding of how non-profits operate and the financial challenges they face.
If you could tell your design school self one thing what would it be?
I would tell my design school self to actively seek out mentors and make sure to learn as much as possible from the people you encounter throughout your career. Working with people with diverse backgrounds and professional experience can help you grow and gain valuable skills beyond your own training and education.
What has been your most humbling experience as a designer?
It is quite humbling to see our internal team react to the way design shapes their work and helps create impact. Seeing work go from the research stage to a final design often enables the researcher/writer to see their research in a new way and helps reinforce the understanding that good design means so much more than “making things look good.”
What is your biggest inspiration right now as a designer?
Physical spaces and light — I love beautiful spaces where natural light dominates. It is where I can think the most clearly, analyze and be creative. I also seek inspiration from a range of print publications and books, one being the award-winning University Affairs Magazine — a publication that my identical twin sister helps design. I am often inspired by the different illustrators and photographers they collaborate with as well as their use of type and layout.
Our last question is a fun one, do you have a go to book on your shelf for inspiration?
The one book that has been on my shelf since I finished my education is The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher. I find myself flipping through it when I feel stuck and need to change my frame of mind.
Sophie is the Head of Design for the Canada West Foundation, an independent, non-partisan public policy think tank that focuses on the policies that shape the West and by extension, Canada. Sophie has spent a large part of her career working in the non-profit sector, providing creative and design direction on branding initiatives and internal/external communications. Her work at the foundation communicates complicated ideas in engaging, accessible and meaningful ways to show why public policy matters — and how solutions can make a difference in the lives of all Canadians.