By Pilar Lagos

For us, the lucky ones who have the privilege of working with Mari Nakano, Visual Strategy Lead at UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, we can all agree that she is amazingly talented, energetic, and puts her heart into everything that she creates. With a casual post on her Facebook wall, Mari shared the news of her recent achievement: on 12 December 2015, she received the Young Innovator Alumni Award from her alma mater, Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design, where she earned an MFA in Media Design in 2009.

The Young Innovator Alumni Award is given to individuals that are shaping new career pathways in the design field and making meaningful contributions that challenge the norms. That’s a perfect characterization of Mari and her work.

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Left to right: Tanya Bhandari, Designer; Dana Zucker, Communications Lead, and Mari Nakano, Visual Strategy Lead at UNICEF Innovation. Photo: UNICEF/Lagos

I chatted with Mari today about how she landed her job at UNICEF, the challenges she faced in finding a space to be a designer for social change when no one was doing it, and her passion to teach and mentor design students.

When did you start working at UNICEF Innovation and how has the experience been so far?
Mari Nakano (MN):  After graduating in 2009 from ArtCenter in Pasadena, California, I felt like I was stepping into an uncertain territory as someone looking to design in a social impact space. Compared to now, 2015, the opportunities around designing for social impact were more sparse. I had to discover if there was enough demand out there for someone like me and if there was a job that would not only be sustainable but also meaningful.  I relied on my integrity to keep me focused on the goal to be a designer for good and, with some luck, made my way through thickets of financial burden, odd shallow jobs and the like. When I first joined the team, compared to what we are now, we were much more ragtag and scrappy. Now, as the team has continued to grow and evolve, we have learned to better anchor our roles and truly build off each other’s skillsets in ways that have allowed us to be more efficient and impactful. We’re still scrappy, but a bit more polished around the edges now.

In what capacity do you continue to support ArtCenter?
MN: I currently serve as  a mentor for Designmatters Fellows and will continue to be a mentor for as long as I am capable. I want to reciprocate the support given to me when I was a student and be able to share real-world experiences with designers who are serious about working in places like UNICEF.  In general, I feel like I have a strong relationship with the Designmatters program and believe in the work they’ve done throughout the years. To me, Designmatters has pushed through times when, in my opinion, designing for social impact wasn’t as popular or accepted. I really respect the program and commend it for being what it is today.

What was your first reaction when you heard that you were being awarded the Young Innovator Award?
MN: I was in Helsinki coordinating the Start-up to Scale-up: Global Innovation Summit for Children and Youth. Mariana Amatullo, founder of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design, was a guest speaker at the Summit. She approached  me during a break and told me I was selected for the award. I was shocked. It’s so sappy but I started crying because I was so happy and probably exhausted from the sleepless nights leading up to that announcement. It made me feel like someone actually gets the work that I do. It really touched me but also really let me know that I’ve got a responsibility to further define what it means to design in this time when we have more resources and know how to combat global and local problems.

What’s something that you are proud of professionally and personally?
MN: Professionally, I’m elated to be working with an amazing group of creatives and super nerds – not just nerds, but super nerds. It’s also a true true privilege to get to say that I work for UNICEF. I mean, how awesome is that! Personally, I am not good at being proud of myself. If anything, I am relieved. To get here was not easy – it’s not like I strolled out of ArtCenter’s doors and right into the doors of UNICEF. I struggled to figure out how to get here on a number of levels and as much as our unit is crazy and moving faster than I can describe, coming to work here is exhilarating and I can be someone who can say, “I love my job.”  

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