UNICEF might seem like an odd place for a graduate design student to spend a term, but Art Center’s Media Design and Design Matters departments have had a number of students working there in recent years—and it has continued to be a really rewarding experience for both the students and the team.

This summer I spent three months working with Chris Fabian, Erica Kochi and the UNICEF Innnovation Team in New York. Having finished up a few weeks ago and returned to Los Angeles, I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on my experience. Here a few of the most significant things I learnt over the summer:

The Importance of Team

The team, although small, have an incredible way of working together, supporting one another and arguing things out. They aren’t afraid to point out flaws and weaknesses in each others’ ideas and work—without taking things personally. As a group of people, they have differing skills and temperaments, but have found a great dynamic in how and what they work on. It’s a cliché, but true here, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

When you experience working with a team like this, it leaves you with high expectations for the future! I know that as I move on in my career, being part of a strong open team will be something I will looking for. And something I want to build around me when given the opportunity.

Embracing Failure

It’s been interesting to see how the team encourage engaging with failure. Regularly, when describing their work, they highlight the 75% of failures that they make enroute to producing successful innovations. They have a weekly gathering—Fail Friday—in which each person shares about one success, one failure and one confusion from their week, and together discuss and learn from them. It makes for a great environment for individual and team growth, and is essential when trying to foster innovation and new ideas.

Before the summer, I hadn’t realised how negatively I saw failure, and therefore how inclined I was to move rapidly towards a ‘successful’ solution. As I was pushed, challenged and stretched through my work with the team, I’ve began to recognize the power of failure as a route to designing robust solutions. Failures can become markers that help to define the direction of a project; they become experiences to learn from, valuable insights that would not otherwise have been uncovered.

The Power of Design to Communicate Vision

One of the main projects I worked on this summer was in defining and communicating the team’s vision for scaling mHealth projects. Over the last number of years, UNICEF and their partners have seen how mobile technologies can be used to overcome a wide variety of bottlenecks in healthcare systems. UNICEF have already implemented a large number of such projects across a wide range of countries.

Working with Erica, I developed a simple visual language to communicate UNICEF’s vision for mHealth and some tools which would aid those implementing this strategy. During a number of meetings and presentations, it was compelling to see how these simple visual tools were identified with by various parties, even when they approached topics from very different backgrounds. My hope is that the framework we developed will help implementors to focus on the end-users, without getting distracted technical aspect, and provide a model for how mHealth solutions might work together in integrated systems.

Letting Go

At one point during the summer, Chris told me how he regularly encouraged the team to “let go of their babies”. When you’re working on a project that excites you and you have invested a lot in, it’s easy to become very attached to it— and then suffocate it! Holding onto a project, or ensuring it remains as you envision, can be the death of it; particularly in a large organisation where projects move between teams and divisions changing and developing as it goes.

With this is mind, it was exciting for me to see how the Continuum of Care Framework I developed with Erica, was adopted and developed by Frog Design and used to form the basis of an mHealth Workshop focussing on PMTCT. It was inspiring to see how it was used, modified and will go on to mature and change based on feedback from the workshop, taking on a life of its own.


All in all it was a incredible few months, one that I will remember fondly and lessons learnt which I hope will stick with me as a designer. I look forward to crossing paths with Chris, Erica and the rest of the team again in future!

This post was written by John Ryan, the 2012 DesignMatters fellow from Art Center College of Design with UNICEF’s Tech Innovation Unit in New York.

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