Meet our Team
A Conversation with Nima Rahni, Senior Manager, Design
Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy
For more information on our blog, contact Adrienne Bell at [email protected]
October 14, 2020
On pivoting from a career in law to one in design
I’ve always been interested in social justice in some form or another, so when I was looking at colleges, I was seeking out international relations programs, with the eventual goal of becoming an international or human rights lawyer.
I ended up attending the University of California at Davis, and found that much of my international coursework focused on theory and top-down change. In many ways, it didn’t have that hands-on approach I was looking for, and generally felt detached from the work itself.
Since I’d also always been interested in design, I decide to take an introductory class, and that changed everything. At UC Davis, design and social justice are very closely linked – as the design program is heavily rooted in problem-solving and finding tangible, practical solutions to problems.
On working in the non-profit sector
I worked for a few non-profits before coming to Children Now, including the Center for Design and the Public Interest, which was one of my first experiences applying design to something that’s both socially functional and practical. In my role there, I worked as part of a small but mighty team that designed educational materials about opioid usage for patients that would facilitate trust. My role included providing input on the onboarding process, redesigning the paperwork to be compliant with medical systems, and creating an informational video for patients, while incorporating doctors’ expertise.
While the organizations I’ve worked for have been pretty different in their mission and audiences, the fundamental nature of my role as a designer has remained constant – finding a way to capture people’s attention with different degrees of functionality and directness, and making the most important information the most accessible.
On the role that design plays in capturing attention
The role of design, as I see it, is to focus on how we direct our attention to what matters.
Our attention is demanded in so many ways, and on a constant basis – on average, people look at a webpage for around 45 seconds before moving on. Trying to tell a story that will catch someone’s attention quickly and provide a clear understanding of your messaging in that short amount of time is a huge challenge of contemporary design. Designers tap into all these different strategies to draw out the most important pieces of a story in a visually compelling way.
And in non-profit spaces, design is unfortunately, so often overlooked. When funding and capacity are limited, design is just not the first place where people allocate valuable resources. But the truth is that design can make huge gains for an organization.
It’s as important how you depict the work you’re doing, as the work itself.
Design has the ability to affect how people experience and understand the work of an organization. In my role at Children Now, for example, one of the first big projects I took on was re-designing our website – there were so many important messages we were trying to convey, yet, because of the sheer amount of information on our site, those messages were getting lost. I realized that I could use my expertise to add substance to our online presence and make a tangible difference in how people understood Children Now and what we do.
On the importance of representation
Designers are the gatekeepers of representation, and we need to be mindful of that responsibility. Good representation, crafting associations between two things – a story and a visual for example – can make all the difference in how someone interprets a message. We need to be mindful of not only the conscious associations that we want people to make when they see stories and pictures, but also of the unconscious associations that could be attributed to something we’ve displayed visually. In these situations, context is critical. We need to present information in a way that is specific and also context-aware, and speaks to the truth of the information. To be better at thoughtful representation, a designer must always be in critical dialogue with themselves about their world view, their intentions, and how those things inform the work they create.
On the challenges of working with limited space
When you’re working with a medium that is so focused on attention, and you often have a limited amount of space in which to represent or say something – for example on a webpage, or in a graphic – you have to make trade-offs.
This can be really challenging, especially in the non-profit sector, where the work, and explaining why it matters, can have such a serious impact. Every piece of information is important, but if we want to capture people’s attention, then we have to distill the message, we just can’t say it all.
On some of the biggest misconceptions about life as a designer
[Laughs] That I’m not an interior decorator!
One of the biggest misconceptions I come across is that people assume design is purely visual, which is not at all true. There’s a lot of time that’s spent on ‘behind-the-scenes’ work, which includes planning and strategic thinking, and the way that manifests is visual. Really, design can be as much or more of a thinking-heavy process than a production process.
Because many people only see the end result of a design process, something that is visually appealing, for example, they tend to believe that as a designer, you’re being creative 100% of the time, and that design is purely correlated to taste or opinion. While those are certainly factors that impact design, there’s much more discipline that goes into the process that people realize. Design choices can and do have tangible impacts on legibility and accessibility, for example, when it comes to displaying and representing information.
Edward Tufte’s, Envisioning Information, is a great introduction for anyone interested in learning more about visual representation and how design guides our process of understanding something in an intentional way.
On alternative careers
I’ve always gravitated towards two careers (when I think about life as something other than a designer): a chef of sort or a botanist/gardener at a conservatory.
As someone that works mostly on digital pieces, and spends most of my time at a computer, a part of me really craves material and physical work. The kind of work that teaches you about limitations in a different way because you need to have an intuitive knowledge and respect for the earth and these ingredients and their treatment. I think that would really give me a different perspective and appreciation of the materials things that we have and can work with.
The digital age has taught, and allowed us, to continually iterate and create. But when you’re working with finite materials, there’s a limit to how much you can do, and how much you actually need. I think we can learn a lot about excess and consumption from these hands-on disciplines.
On slow living hobbies, and revisiting piano during shelter-in-place
I have a love of slow living hobbies – taking care of household plants, painting, cooking … my housemates joke that I’m like a Victorian ghost!
I also recently started taking piano lessons from a friend of mine, who’s getting her Ph.D. in piano performance. I learned as a child, from about 3rd through 7th grades, but now it’s really nice to have weekly lessons. They help anchor time, which seems to have lost all meaning since we’ve been sheltering-in-place, and I enjoy practicing something that’s less familiar to me in a disciplined way, while also tracking my progress.