Hi Sarah! Can you tell us more about yourself?
Sure thing. I’m a freelance designer and design researcher, currently based in San Francisco. I grew up in Rabat, Morocco, went to university in France, and lived shortly in Malaysia, before moving to the United States. My work these days is mostly focused on international development and the social sector, which means I spend a good chunk of my time in places like Lebanon redesigning tools used for Syrian refugees’ education or in Niger designing a program to encourage birth spacing and family planning.
What brought you to the design industry? What kept you here?
Honestly, my route into design is more than a bit random. I studied liberal arts (with a focus on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean affairs) and then international business at Sciences Po in Paris, but was never really able to picture a fulfilling career path by pursuing the PhD or corporate route like most of my classmates. And while I had always been creative—taking years of drawing and painting lessons growing up, being the go-to person for creating flyers or posters at school events, and even creating album art covers for my friends (or random people online)—I never thought that this thing I enjoyed doing could become a job or career.
It wasn’t until the first year of my masters, when I had the chance to take a design innovation course at the Paris Est d.school that I learned about design thinking. That’s when I realized that you can use design not just to make things look aesthetically pleasing, or communicate information, but to explore and solve problems in general. And that’s when it clicked for me. I always thought that my curious, analytical side and my creative, passionate side couldn’t both thrive in the same profession. And there it was, a way to do that. And I’ve been attempting to make it my career ever since.
What was it like for you during your emerging design days?
When I first started, I worked for a design consultancy that sounded perfect on paper. The people were super smart, the work was focused on service design, and the opportunities were mostly in the social impact and international development space. But I quickly learned that not everything is what it appears to be. When you’re starting out, it’s hard to know what is acceptable workplace behavior and what isn’t, because you don’t have good points of comparison. It took a lot of effort from the people around me for me to realize how negatively that job affected my physical, emotional, and mental health.
After I left the consultancy, I ended up taking a different role that I knew was less aligned with my career ambitions, but allowed me to better care for myself, learn about my own worth, and understand what to look for in future workplaces or positions. However, I am also grateful for the folks I met in that first job. As they say “misery loves company,” and many of those colleagues from long ago remain close personal friends (three weddings attended and counting!) as well as valued collaborators who have helped guide me in my professional path.
Can you tell us more about your work on the international development and humanitarian front? Why is it important for design and social impact to overlap?
When you work in the social sector, you very quickly notice how little the people and communities who are at the receiving end of programs and services have to say in the design of those programs and services. Take the example of this Italian NGO who set out to “teach” (and pay) Zambians to grow tomatoes to eat only to realize that tomatoes would not make it past the hungry hippos in the valley.
It’s not that donor countries and NGOs are ill-intentioned (for the most part!), but the way they are set up operationally and functionally does not equip them with the tools and processes to listen to, involve, or engage the communities they wish to serve. And design, if applied correctly, if applied with humility, can help achieve that. A part of that is the integrity and the values of the process, making sure it’s done in a way that is ethical, that doesn’t reinforce (or worse, aggravate) structures of inequity and injustice, but another part of it is that the people who work in international development need to understand their power and their biases, and either work to examine and minimize those biases, or empower people who are closer to those problems and contexts do the work instead.
How would you explain the kind of design work that you do? Where does human centered design fit into your work and/or design at large?
Human-centered design is a set of mindsets, tools, and processes to enable developing solutions to problems by involving the human perspective every step of the way. It’s not new. In the 1960s, the Scandinavian “cooperative design” movement was born to help workers, unions, and workplaces tackle changing work environments with the introduction of new technologies. Another example is participatory action research, an approach to research in communities that emphasizes participation and action, which has been used since decades. While human-centered design has become more popular in the social sector in recent years, I feel that it is more of a framework of practice that draws from different disciplines like ethnography, design research, service design, user experience design, facilitation, or design strategy, rather than a discipline in and of itself. Depending on the project I’m working on, whether there’s a technology-enabled or digital experience involved, or whether it centers around the interaction of a provider and an end user, or whether it’s about designing something new versus evaluating and improving what already exists, I may call upon different methods from these various disciplines, even if it is all comes from me being labeled a “human-centered designer.”
Ultimately, the idea behind human-centered design is that you research and design “with” people not “for” them. As HCD has become something of a buzzword, it’s also started to receive feedback focused on its shortcomings, whether in calls to move to humanity-centered design, community-centered design, equity-centered design, liberatory design, or other critiques. On the whole, I think that this push to move beyond individuals to communities and to think about more equitable and sustainable approaches is healthy. And I’m excited to see more of these conversations happening among designers and HCD practitioners.
What are your tips for emerging designers in regards to becoming stronger human centered designers?
While I know I’m not a traditionally trained designer, an overwhelming majority of what I practice as a designer (in all its nuances), I learned by doing. This meant that I found great people to learn from along the way. So my suggestion is to find a mentor (or a group of mentors), but not in the overplayed/under-delivered way it’s become, but more akin to other certain creative fields (like tattooing) where there is an expectation that emerging artists will take on an apprenticeship role that is tangible, while still learning the tools of the craft.
The EMERGE initiative was created with diversity and inclusion at its core. Through this lens, we wanted to ask some questions related to D&I, starting with the following question… Our identities are not just multifaceted but intersectional. Can you tell us a bit more about the intersectionalities that make up your identity/how you identify yourself?
Oh my gosh, so many things come to mind. Some of it depends on where I am, geographically. And I think some of this has become even more clear due to my work, but also due to what’s going on in the world.
- I’m a woman.
- I’m Moroccan (and, more specifically, Arabized Amazigh). Morocco is the country where I grew up, the passport I hold, the place I love to hate. One change I started to notice is that I never use to think of myself much of an Arab. A part of it is because, ethnically, I’m more Amazigh, which is the name of the ethnic group indigenous to North Africa prior to the arabization of the region. I always thought of my Arab identity as the one that came with me speaking the language I had to learn in the Moroccan education system. But since I’ve spent more time working in places like Jordan and Lebanon, I’ve been able to connect with aspects of my Arab identity as part of a larger set of cultural and educational references that I realized I had in common with people from those countries.
- I’m Muslim. For the majority of my life, I’ve never thought much of my identity as a Muslim. But in the U.S., I’ve began identify with it mostly in its racial sense (especially in the last couple of years), as opposed to a strictly religious/moral system of values.
- I’m a foreigner, an immigrant. This has been an inextricable part of my entire adult life, I don’t know if not being an immigrant is something I’ll ever understand—even when I’m back in Morocco.
- I’m ethnically ambiguous. When I lived in France, I was clearly a visible (and easily recognizable) minority as a North African. After moving to the U.S, (given there’s a lot fewer North Africans here), I felt more unearned privilege, since most people can’t automatically match me to one ethnic/racial group (which meant it’s harder for people to assign me whatever stereotypes they have about said group).
- I’m a non-native English speaker. My work takes place in places where English is not people’s first language. As I started learning English and became more and more fluent over the years, I could feel the privilege it afforded me socially and professionally. I became more assimilated, I had easier access to certain job or educational opportunities. But I also remember what it felt like fighting an uphill battle to read a work report from cover to cover without having to rely on a dictionary, or understanding legal documents. This has also given me good perspective in my work, as I’ve learned the value of code-switching when speaking with communities or other stakeholders, or understanding how to make written documents less idiomatic or difficult to read.
- I’m a designer. This was a hard one. I didn’t think of myself as a designer, because I didn’t go to a typical design program, and for years in my career, design wasn’t the thing my employers paid me to do but the thing I always tried to bring into my work. For a while, I’d think of all these other people whose title said “designer” and who worked in design teams or agencies, they’re the real designers. I’m a pretend one, an imposter. It wasn’t until I worked at a tech company with a group of fellow (and supportive) traditionally trained designers that I realized it was all in my head.
Building off of those answers, can you tell us more about how you have navigated living in the US with all of your intersectionalities? — How have you navigated the design industry with all of your intersectionalities?
I’m fortunate to work in a space that values diversity, to the point where I can benefit from some of those identities. I work in places where my language skills are valued and in an industry (both design and social sector) where the majority of people I work with are women (although not always at the leadership level).
Aside from my professional environment, living in the U.S. with these identities has just also made me more attuned to the way people like me, even if US-born, are treated in the US. I have the advantage that I’m not “visibly” Muslim, that I don’t speak with a pronounced accent, that I can be white-passing (especially when I straighten my hair!), but it doesn’t mean that I don’t read stories of discrimination with any less fear or dismay. The fact that I’m not a U.S. citizen also means that I cannot affect change through voting, so I have to figure out ways to make my voice heard differently (donating, volunteering, protesting, etc.).
How else has your identity as an immigrant intertwined with your career as a designer?
This is an interesting question, because my experience is probably a bit different than the typical story. I became an immigrant after leaving home at 18 and going abroad for school, and my relationship with my family back in Morocco has always been one of perceived success, no matter the challenges I was going through, because I was the one who made it. I was the one who finished high school, who got sufficiently good grades to study outside of Morocco, the one who was well on her way to having a good job. So my choice of career was never so much in question as my ability to make enough of a living to send money home. I remember the pride I felt seeing my grandmother’s face when I gave her the first paycheck I ever received from my first paid summer internship, but I also remember the crushing despair I felt from missing her funeral because I was so far away and couldn’t afford to fly back. That’s the reality of my immigrant experience.
During our research phase for EMERGE 2.0 (and using data from the AIGA Design Census), we found that there is a notable number of designers here in the States who have international backgrounds. Some were international students who decided to stay after school. Others were professionals who earned design degrees abroad before coming to the States. Can you share your perspective and past experiences with us in regards to this topic? What’s important for designers who don’t have this background to understand? What’s important for emerging designers who have this background to understand?
Honestly, the biggest hurdle in my professional life has been my nationality. All of my professional decisions have been first and foremost made and informed by immigration considerations. This means navigating a smaller number of employers in the design industry who can sponsor your work authorization, hesitating to leave a toxic work environment without having a safety net to be able to stay in the country, optimizing for visa status over every other factor people think about when making decisions about their jobs (passion for the position, salary, benefits, etc.). All of these complications are compounded with the new administration. There have been many delays in certain processes, which just means you live in constant uncertainty and inability to make plans long in advance. I’m now eligible to receive a permanent green card, for which I applied nearly 17 months ago. Currently the backlog for people in my category can go up to 24 months, and it just keeps growing.
I think a lot of Americans don’t realize this, but even to visit other countries for work or for a conference can require herculean-level preparation, planning, and endurance. Between the visits to embassies and consulates, with varying amounts of time and notice, having to justify your entire existence, sharing everything about your financial life, spending money between travel insurance, applications fees, let alone the opportunity cost, etc. Recently, I had to decline an opportunity to be a paid guest lecturer at a design school in Europe because I didn’t have enough time to apply for a visa, and that’s the type of situations that a lot of “unlucky” passport holders go through all the time.
Can you tell us more about your work as an admin for the Designer’s Guild for Women of Color? How did the group get started?
It’s no secret that the statistics on the number of women in leadership roles in the design industry are not good, and despite the fact that more women graduate from higher education in creative industries than men, women still earn 20% less than men. These inequalities are even more pronounced for women of color. The idea behind this group is to have a space for WOC designers to share our personal experiences, lift up our design work, support one another, and work together to improve our collective experience, whether through combatting on-the-job discrimination, fighting for equal opportunity (including getting wages and access to financing in line with that of non-WOC peers), and improving our visibility (including through getting more WOC into job promotions, design leadership positions, speaking panels, advisory roles, and boards of directors).
I remember when founder Marissa Louie first floated the idea of creating a WOC-specific sub-group under the larger Designers Guild umbrella, it started off because we couldn’t think of any other group out there that catered specifically to designers and to this intersection of identities. I remember being floored with some of the reactions from people who considered the idea to be discriminatory or fueling further divide and anger. I couldn’t believe people were actually AllLivesMatter-ing the initiative of creating an affinity group for WOC designers! At that point in time, I was absolutely convinced that the group needed to exist. So far, members of the group have posted about conferences, events, and scholarships, talked about salary, rates, bonuses and benefits, advertised thought leadership and speaking opportunities, and discussed ways to combat racism, microaggressions, and other issues at work. It’s a small community, but we hope it’s been helpful. I know it has for me.
Sarah Fathallah is a freelance designer and design researcher, with a passion for applying community- and human-centered design to local and global development. She has worked with organizations such as the World Bank, the International Rescue Committee, Open Society Foundations, Population Services International, and Democracy Works on topics ranging from financial inclusion and consumer protection, to healthcare, education, and civil and human rights. Sarah co-founded Design Gigs for Good, a job board for opportunities at the intersection of design and social impact. She is a graduate of Sciences Po Paris where she studied International Business and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Affairs. She also studied design innovation at the Paris Est d.school and User Experience design at General Assembly.