Viktoria Harrison on using design to change the world

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Our Generate conference is taking place in New York for the first time next week on 20 June. We've assembled an outstanding speaker line up that includes Ethan Marcotte, Karen McGrane, Dave Shea, Jenn Lukas and Viktoria Harrison of charity: water. Viktoria started out at an ad agency and made the switch to the charity sector because she wanted more fulfilling work.

Rather than focusing on images of suffering and despair, she has worked to create a charity brand that uses great design to convey an attitude of hope and positivity, which has been hugely successful for the organisation. This journey will be the subject of her Generate talk.

As a prelude to her appearance on 20 June, Viktoria told us more about the formation of charity: water and gave us a summary of what she's been working on recently.

Tell us what you've been working on recently.

This is probably not the answer you’re looking for - I’ve been working on becoming a mom! When I speak at Generate, I’ll be 7.5 months pregnant! This will be my first (and only) talk before the baby comes, so I’m a little nervous.

OK, onto the real answer. I’ve been working on our brand and creative strategy so that my team knows exactly what they should be working on this year, and how their work ties to the business objectives of the organization. That’s my first and most important job: get stuff out of their way so they can do their most brilliant work every day. More broadly, I’ve always helped to shape the creative and brand vision for charity: water, but as the organization continues to grow, it’s become my second biggest priority.

I used to just focus on the brand and more specifically on design, but now I’m much more aware of how our entire culture reflects on our brand. Brand is everything from how your customer service team answers the phone, how clean your office is, how inspiring and passionate your sales people are, and what’s on your homepage, your Twitter and Instagram feeds.

In our transparent, digital world, an organization’s inner culture will sooner or later impact how the public perceives your brand. I’ve read too many stories about companies that scale and lose their soul in the process, so I see it as my job to make sure that doesn’t happen here. Recently I’ve been planning our first ever hackathon that will happen this summer, and I’ve been running these little innovation brainstorms with smaller groups of our staff to make sure that our workplace culture continues to thrive and grow.



So each of my days are filled with lots of meetings, generally having to do with some kind of strategy or annual planning, or a big campaign that’s coming up. And then the rest of my time is spent answering emails, and ensuring that my creative team has everything they need to do the best work possible. I find a lot of joy in seeing my team work together, collaborate and produce really beautiful work. They’re all better at their respective talents than I am, and so my job is to set them on the right course, give them the right assignments that align with the needs of our business, and their job is just to be brilliant.

What are you going to speak about at Generate New York?

I’m going to speak about my personal journey from agency life to a creative director of a non-profit and how scary that was. It’s really the story of going from a conventional, corporate career path, to a start-up with no money and no solid plan. Working for a start-up has forced more growth in my life than I could have ever imagined, and I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned. I’m also going to give a brief intro to the water crisis and how charity: water is using technology and design to disrupt the non-profit sector.

What led you to make the jump from an advertising agency to a charity?

I was sick of selling stuff to people that they didn't really need. It’s not that I had a problem with the clients I was working for, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I remember reading about volunteers living in African villages trying to cure TB or malaria, and thinking this is what I want to do.

It took a while for me to figure out how to fuse my love of design with my urge to work for a cause. When I met Scott (founder of c:w) and began working with him, everything fell into place. He believed, as did I, that design could change the world, and when it’s used to promote important causes, it can be really powerful. My favorite quote is by David Berman, who said “the same design that fuels mass overconsumption has the power to repair the world.”

How did you find the transition from selling products to designing for a humanitarian cause?

When I finally made the transition to charity: water, it felt unbelievably freeing. Every day, even though we were just three broke kids working around a kitchen table in Soho, I felt an amazing sense of meaning in my life, like we were starting something great. Looking back now, I know the reason it felt so exciting is because we were really setting some new rules about how charity and giving should work in our culture. Now that I see how those early ideas have shaped the success of charity: water and have been adopted by newer non-profits, I know that those early days were the most important in our history.

What are the core ideas behind your branding strategy for charity: water?

We believe that people are drawn to hope and positivity in the world. So our brand stands for those things instead of guilt and despair - which is the basis of many marketing strategies of other non-profits. Many charities take themselves too seriously and think that if they show some personality or flair, it will somehow diminish the importance of their work. But we’re all about having a lot of fun in the office and in the field. Our jobs can get really hard sometimes - a lot of travel and a lot of crazy stuff as you work in developing countries. If we focused on that, I think we’d all be gone and burned out by now.

The craziest thing we can do is nothing

The craziest thing we can do is nothing

So we choose to focus on the positive, to have fun with the brand and to project an attitude of positivity, hope and possibility into the world. I think that’s what attracts people to charity: water as well. People aren’t used to seeing a really fun and visually exciting charity brand.

We also brand absolutely everything - we’ll basically use any excuse to design something cool. We brand our big campaigns like Pipeline (our monthly giving program that ensures our water projects are sustainable), and Dispatch (a volunteer program we recently launched to monitor our water projects in the field) - and we brand the little things too, like our Drillers basketball team, our 2014 Annual Goals and our recently-started Waffle Wednesdays.

What do you think makes a good conference?

Interesting speakers, interested guests and good coffee.

Are there any speakers you're particularly looking forward to seeing at Generate?

I’m definitely looking forward to Ian Coyle and Cap Watkins speaking about two of my favorite topics - creative direction and product design.

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Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 16 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for numerous publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, ImagineFX, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq. For Creative Bloq, she mostly writes about web design, including the hottest new tools, as well as 3D artwork and VFX.