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Mari Nakano, Design Lead, Office of Innovation, New York Headquarters

Tell us a bit about your background.

I am a second generation Japanese-American, born and raised in San Francisco, California. I studied Asian American Studies and a little Political Science, spent a good chunk of my twenties as a community organizer in Los Angeles and then wound up becoming a designer and design strategist. My father was an artist, entrepreneur and professional chef who could fix and make just about anything. My mother is a businesswoman and dream maker, who ran our family businesses (two Japanese restaurants) and made sure I excelled in school and sports and anything else I wanted to do. My brother is a Physician’s Assistant who saves lives and handles emergencies and all kinds of hospital dramas in-between. I am a mom to a fascinating and hilarious child and I spend what little spare time I have gardening and weaving.

What do you do?

A lot of everything. I have done hiring, strategy, branding, communication design, visual translations of technical concepts, content development, user experience, exhibitions, events, organized talks, redone our office space layout and the list goes on. Our cool new design portfolio website unicefdesignerds.org, can give you some context to some of the things our design team has done.

If I were to summarize my job, my overarching roles are:
1. De-complicating and doing visual sense-making of the processes and projects in innovation,

2. Prioritizing and managing our design team – what we do, how we do it and when we do it,

3. Identifying new problems, both operational or project-related, and discovering new ways to solve those problems using design, and

4. Advocating for more designers to be implanted throughout the organization – this isn’t on my TOR (aka job description), but I feel like this is a responsibility.

What’s your working day like?

There’s basically a volcanic nerd explosion happening everyday in the office and I feel like an octopus on skates trying to catch some of the design sparks. I have to organize them and keep ideas and projects moving at different paces, all with different needs, start and end points. Hot hot hot. No day is ever the same. There is no beginning or end. My work day starts with my morning coffee ritual and then it’s basically a blur of meetings, design work and emails until about 6pm. It’s a bit masochistic, but I kind of love it.

How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?

I get to talk to really interesting people who are trying to help children around the world. They share with me their cool ideas about how to save children, and then I get to help them solve problems and make it easier to explain their ideas to other people.

What did you want to be when you were a child?

I basically wanted to be a mash-up of the character Penny from the 1980’s cartoon Inspector Gadget because she was such a cool nerd, Evie Garland from the American TV show Out of This World because she could freeze time, a winning contestant on the game show Family Feud because they could win money for their family and a veterinarian because I love animals.

How/when did you join UNICEF?

I joined UNICEF in 2013. Before that, I was a freelance designer, doing a lot of work for the United Nations Population Fund. I had just finished putting together a photo exhibition about child marriage at the UN Visitors Centre when a design colleague of mine put me in touch with UNICEF Innovation. They were looking for designers. I was looking for my next gig. Click. And now I’m on the innovation rocketship.

What are the most satisfying parts of your job?

Knowing that my work goes towards supporting really passionate and smart people scale projects and programmes to enable children and families around the world to have a stronger voice and a chance to receive faster and more quality access to things like education and healthcare.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

Trying not to feel like a little fish in the big ocean of UNICEF, where everything seems urgent. I constantly have to remind myself that I have something to say and that things will get done.

What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?

The time I didn’t sleep for about 3 days when I was helping organize the Global Innovation for Children and Youth Summit in Helsinki, Finland and the VP of Designmatters comes up to me at the summit to tell me I’ve been awarded the ArtCenter College of Design Young Innovators Alumni Award. I was so emotional and tired that I cried (I know, I’m so sappy). I had no idea I was nominated and it really meant a lot to know that someone out there was recognizing me for the work I do.

What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?

This perhaps isn’t the biggest, but I do think this really shaped my teenage years: There was the time I committed major popularity suicide by quitting the high school Varsity basketball team because I refused to put up with my head coach who was unfair and belittling. I ended up playing pick-up games after school at a community court, got picked up by a boys team and got a boyfriend out of it as a bonus. I also went on to play in two different community basketball leagues around the city and was picked-up two years in a row to play in a California state-wide all-star tournament. Not a bad turn of events I’d say.

What are your passions?

I’m a Pisces so I’m passionate about everything under the sun. One thing I am passionately obsessed about is cooking. Flavors and food presentation intrigue me not only because of how much thought chefs like my father put into dishes, but also because good food evokes memories and remind us of a time and place. For me, cooking is like this really interesting intersection between thoughtfulness, inventiveness and nostalgia.

What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?

  1. Form follows function follows form follows…(on loop).
  2. Be committed to your work, be purposeful and intentional with every application of your design, don’t get too comfortable, study all the time, read the news, know your weaknesses and strive to always improve yourself.
  3. Practice public speaking and presentation. You are an advocate of the designs you put out into the world.
  4. Nothing in life is certain except that nothing is certain in life.
  5. Always be humble.

Who do you look towards for inspiration?

Everyone is inspiring, but my constants are my dad and mom because they have shown me what it means to be resilient and daring and my two year-old daughter because she is so honest and frank.

I also have to give a big shout out to my UNICEF colleagues who constantly challenge me to do better. You are insane and amazing all at once and I love being part of the madness.

My colleagues don’t know that…

I really like observing the weather. I have like 4 weather apps on my phone.  

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