The New Social Order

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Doing Good With Design

On the Firebelly website, founder and managing director Dawn Hancock describes herself as “a troublemaker, a bleeding heart, a designer by trade and a do-gooder by choice.” Another descriptor that would work well: powerhouse. Hancock launched her own design company in 1999, prioritizing socially responsible design from the start. In 2004, she began awarding a year’s worth of full-scale marketing, design, and business planning services to one select nonprofit. In 2006, she launched the Firebelly Foundation, which supports immersion experiences for young designers, an educational program for Humboldt Park residents, an incubator to help other designers become social entrepreneurs, and more. The question we forgot to ask: when does she have time to sleep?

In addition to your own design company, you run several non-profit initiatives. How does your work in design, entrepreneurship/management, and community improvement intersect? Any skills you’ve been able to transfer from one to another? Any surprises along the way? 

Actually, the reason I started the nonprofit was because it felt like a super natural next step after starting a design firm focused on socially minded projects. We’d been helping our clients achieve their missions but felt like we weren’t seeing the rewards of the impact. That’s where Reason to Give came in. It was a chance to help the neighbors around our office and create an eduction program based on their needs. It was a chance to make a difference in our own backyard.

Now, 10 years later, it’s evolved right along with our design studio and helped thousands of people around the city. And shortly after RTG came Camp Firebelly, which to some degree is a merger of the two and definitely built on lessons learned from both, as an education program for college students + recent grads to learn how to make a positive social impact with their design skills.

As far as surprises… my favorite part is just how fluid and organic everything is. I didn’t set out to blur the lines between them all, but I LOVE that it works. One year for Camp Firebelly we even had the students work directly with Reason to Give… that was definitely one of the highlights for me.

I read that you travel a lot. Any recent trips that have inspired your work? 

Absolutely! I got married last fall and my wife and I went to New Zealand for our honeymoon. We were fortunate enough to have time to see a lot of the country, from the glaciers and fjords to the rolling hills and cities. My biggest inspiration from it was how lush and green everything was. We agreed it felt like we were on the set of Jurassic Park (without the scary dinosaurs). I can definitely feel the urge to make everything around me feel just as green and full of life. Plants can really have a direct effect on your wellbeing.

How has the Chicago design community changed since you began working in it 23 years ago? 

My first few years out of school, I worked for both extremes… a mom-and-pop studio with a staff of four people including myself, and a large 500+ person tech consulting company. I don’t feel like either place was super connected to the design community in a way that encouraged me to get involved. And honestly, most of the studios were run by old white men—that’s who tended to lead the conversations, give the lectures, and govern the board of the local design organization AIGA Chicago. I felt more comfortable in the nonprofit world and that’s also where I found myself volunteering my time after hours, donating my skills to causes I was passionate about.

Thinking about it now, I suspect all of those factors are what made me really want to change things when I started my studio in 1999. I knew I couldn’t be the only person to feel like an outsider, missing the camaraderie of art school. I’ve gotten more involved by joining the board of AIGA, creating programs to connect people, curating and sponsoring events such as Typeforce, and really making our studio a welcoming place to emerging younger designers who are looking for advice and connection. Gotta be the change you want to see, right?

Firebelly designed a campaign for Berwyn, Illinois. Any specific reasons that city folk should make the trek? 

So many reasons… Berwyn is truly a gem! It’s a relatively small pocket that is technically a suburb but feels much more like an extension of Chicago. I think the people are what make it so special, but obviously, there are lots of great spots. Autre Monde is arguably one of the best restaurants anywhere around (yes, including the city), FitzGerald’s has been an institution for decades, showcasing a wide variety of music from around the country, and Reel Art is the spot to find rare movie and pop culture collectables. Oh and don’t miss the Mini Golf Pub CrawlBungalow Tour, or Route 66 Car Show. There’s always something going on or a nice place (sans crowds!) to eat, drink + meet some new friends.