Designing for humans: John Buckley and the DesignFix initiative

Designation Team Dec 31, 2018 Designers, Thought Leaders, Business, Interviews

DesignFix is a social-needs initiative that brings student designers together with professionals to address some of the world’s biggest societal issues. It was started in 2017 and continued in 2018 by Frontend.com, a Dublin design studio, and it won widespread acclaim and numerous awards for its tackling of complex problems in thoughtful ways.

Designation alum John Buckley was one of the creators of DesignFix; he joined Frontend.com when he returned to Dublin after graduating as part of the Diamond cohort in early 2015. Today, he’s enrolled in a master’s program at Parsons School of Design in New York. We asked him to reflect on his DesignFix experience and discuss its impacts on his growth as a designer.

Describe DesignFix in your own words.

DesignFix was a social-needs initiative where Frontend.com brought student designers together with professionals to explore some of the world’s biggest societal issues through human-centered design. The students were brought to our Dublin studio to work in a hackathon-style environment with the Frontend.com team. The outcomes of that week-long bootcamp were then expanded upon by myself and my team. I coordinated that bootcamp, broadened the scope of the initiative, and helped shape students’ outcomes into workable, comprehensive design solutions.

Frontend.com was my first formal UX role out of Designation. I had been amazed by the generosity of the design communities in both Dublin and Chicago to give me their time as I explored employment opportunities. One of the greatest pieces of advice I received at Designation was to chase informational interviews and get to know senior figures in the local UX community—I was motivated to do something that could help UX students who were about to start their journeys themselves.

Where did the idea for DesignFix come from?

Part of my role in Frontend.com, aside from standard client work, was to act as a kind of futurist-in-residence within the team; I was challenged to think about bigger problems, to build strategic partnerships and, ultimately, to strengthen the brand position of the relatively small UX consultancy. Consultancies are typically limited in scope to their client projects, so while Frontend.com attracted incredibly interesting, complex problems, they were often in secretive sectors such as healthcare where they can’t discuss them.

DesignFix allowed us to go deep on societal issues that our team was truly passionate about, bring in bodies we typically wouldn’t get to engage with (such universities and students as well as international organizations like the United Nations’ migrant body IOM), and demonstrate the design process and the kind of results it can generate to a wider audience.

In its first year, we intended to co-create a solution for the European humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian war. While we were trying to understand the problem better, we reached out to IOM to ascertain their particular pain points. It was while speaking with them that they asked us to look into refugees’ healthcare circumstances and work with them to find a better way of providing treatment to a new use case: mobile migrants with smartphones.

My supervisors at Frontend.com were impressed with the initiative’s effect, IOM officials’ reaction to our proposals, and the attention DesignFix garnered. What started out as a student engagement project turned into a collaboration with a UN body and transformed into something that had a massively positive impact on the health outcomes of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. The story spread internationally and was awarded the Grand Prix at the 2017 User Experience Awards and People’s Choice Award at the 2017 IxDA Awards. It also resulted in me being named a Design for Europe featured designer, something I find particularly gratifying as a proud European.

What happened in the second year of DesignFix?

We explored anti-government populism through design and, while this collaboration was further out of our comfort zone, it was another roaring success. We actually embedded the program in the academic coursework of students in our partner universities/design colleges. We also assigned far more Frontend.com resources to the 2018 project, primarily because we didn’t have a world body to provide us with direction. So we needed to explore the issues for ourselves. We spoke to, and worked with, officials, designers, politicians, technologists, and practitioners all over the world.

The output was a white paper called Rules of Engagement: Design Principles for Civic Dialogue in a Post-Truth Era, which demonstrates that citizens and governments need direct channels to communicate with one another. It provides a series of design principles to consider when building a citizen-government communication system. To demonstrate how these principles could be applied, we designed a conceptual platform called Moot which uses AI to help facilitate communication between citizens and their representatives.

I’m particularly proud of this body of work. We’ve gotten the opportunity to share these thoughts with governments, academics, organizations and world bodies globally. I know that they’re influencing the work of international governments and social media networks. This output has also received widespread acclaim with numerous write-ups in Fast Company, Design Observer, and others, and honors such as the Best Concept award at the 2018 IxDA Interaction Awards. On Oct 23rd, I represented Frontend.com to collect the ‘Best User Experience’ award at Fast Company’s Innovation by Design awards ceremony in New York.

And most recently, Moot was announced as a winner of the 2019 German Design Award for communications design, integrated campaigns and advertising. Senators and ministries in Germany can nominate projects that have previously won awards for consideration in this competition, so there’s a high degree of prestige to it.

How has your individual work in these areas helped you to become a better global citizen?

Without a doubt, the more a person engages with marginalized communities, and understand the struggles in their daily lives, the more they’re naturally inclined to empathize with them. This is why research is such a powerful tool in the designer’s toolkit. These DesignFix projects opened my eyes to specific lifestyles and struggles that I didn’t understand before. I think that bedrock of empathy is typically present for most people who choose design as a career.

My mother is the most generous, selfless person I’ve ever known, and through her actions, she’s ingrained the idea of being good and doing right in myself and my brother. She’s helped me to be considerate of my role as a team player, community member, and global citizen in whatever I do. So I’d credit my upbringing, more than a particular project or life experience, to making me a “good” global citizen.

Without a doubt, the more a person engages with marginalized communities, and understand the struggles in their daily lives, the more they’re naturally inclined to empathize with them. This is why research is such a powerful tool in the designer’s toolkit.

What have been some of the lasting effects of your experiences with DesignFix?

I love UX, and designing systems that work and feel better to the user. However, I found myself asking how I could truly impact people’s lives. What would improve the lives of the marginalized? Beyond improving people’s work tools or business platforms, what other elements can I augment to make an impact and improve their worlds? The experience certainly has inspired me to think beyond the screen and focus on sustainable organizational or environmental change. It led me to leave my role at Frontend.com to take a place in the MS Strategic Design and Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. I’m eager to continue exploring the role of design and the designer in shaping, not just the outputs of companies, but organizations themselves—their frameworks, their values, and their priorities—in VUCA environments.

At Designation, our instructor introduced my cohort to design principles as a tool, and I’ve been passionate about them ever since—the aforementioned white paper is one proof of how important I see them when they’re introduced and shared effectively. Inclusive design principles can help inform managers of the considerations they should make throughout their decision-making process. Design needs to be a core ethical and steering resource for an entire organization.

I encourage all designers to take time at the start of any project to think broadly about the unnamed human and ecological stakeholders their work might affect, state how they’ll ensure their design will do no harm, and spread those principles beyond the design function.

Take the leap

Join an upcoming cohort and make the best change of your career.