Connecting Minds, by Samira Jain
We spent weeks battling the merciless cold. Respite came in spurts, as our small team of designers huddled inside the cozy shelters of the locals. We were in Chamba district in the remote Himalayan foothills—strangers delving into people’s intimate financial and social lives. The villagers were suspicious, but would nonetheless welcome us with steaming cups of milky tea and politely answer our endless queries. But once we had gained their confidence, we would unashamedly follow them about in pursuit of insight into their daily lives.
Two years earlier, Microsave, a financial consulting firm in India, had launched “Project Metamon.” They were looking to reorganize financial services for the largely neglected segment of the country’s population—the poorest of the poor. It was an ambitious, multi-disciplinary effort involving the best economic and planning minds. But there was also a new and ingenious element; the firm had recruited designers to research people’s perceptions of money and credit, and distill the findings into simple metaphors that could then be used to design solutions intuitive to them.
I saw Metamon as embodying human-centered design and enthusiastically signed up. This project promised not only to free banking from the clutches of perplexing paperwork, but also to make it as ingenuous as a game of snakes and ladders! As researcher, designer and illustrator, I found myself promoting financial inclusion of the underserved.
Back from the field, my team and I synthesized the insights into easy-to-understand concepts. These were anchored by illustrative metaphors—managing money is like molding clay, riding a bicycle, farming in the hills or fishing in open waters—intended to serve as seeds for a variety of new financial products. We authored papers, created graphical presentations and invited experts from around the world to our seminars. Our innovative approach received many accolades and Metamon was declared a success—at least on paper.
Today, the sum of our efforts floats undetected in the vast cyber cosmos, forgotten between layers of academic gibberish. Like many other well-intentioned dreams to change the world, Metamon had clung to the hope that compelling ideas will surely, magically translate into action. The project had resonated with designers and academicians, but we had neglected to convince funding agencies, banks and intermediary service providers—the ultimate implementers of the concept. As designers, we had excelled, but for Metamon to achieve its dream, we had to do more.
In my handful of years as an innovation consultant, I have come to realize that designing for outcomes is not about design alone. It comes with the ability to communicate, to persistently excite and carry the host of stakeholders necessary to convert paper drawings into reality.
In April this year I faced a choice. I could stay with my design firm in India, accept a promotion and continue enjoying the perks of stable employment, with friends and family nearby. Or I could take a huge financial risk, pack essentials into a suitcase, and fly 7,500 miles into the unknown. I chose the latter—I wanted to change myself from being an earnest dreamer to a driver of design for its intended outcome.
Two months into my life at SVA and in New York City, the word “euphoric” accurately describes my state of mind. The energy of this city is surreal, tantalizing and infectious. Being here is like being in the midst of a global consortium. Where else could I have conversations with design icon Steven Heller, the Bangladeshi fruit vendor on 6th Avenue, and old Chinese men absorbed in the game of pai gow, all in the same day?
SVA has provided me a laboratory—a testing ground overseen by experts and equipped with the best tools. Each day I travel miles intellectually, viewing the world through the distinctive lens of my peers, who represent six different nationalities. I push my limits, put context to my thoughts, examine them with microscopic precision, and carefully detail, in both written and spoken words, what earlier were only musings.
Metamon revealed to me the importance of effective communication. At SVA, I am excited about sharpening my voice as a writer to a formidable edge, to be able to connect people and cultures, to excite, encourage and persuade. Corporations, non-profits and governments are invested in solving the numerous problems of the underserved. The intent is noble but the efforts are often too disjointed to create impactful, implementable solutions. All stakeholders must be convinced, but they often aren’t. When I can articulate ideas to resonate with each of them, I can propel design towards more meaningful outcomes. By doing so, I will ensure that future Metamons don’t vanish into oblivion.