Inhouse Luminaries … Kelsey Gee, High Impact Innovation Programme
In the ‘Inhouse Luminaries‘ series we profile some of the best and brightest designers in Aotearoa’s in-house design studios.
This week we spoke with the Lead Designer at High Impact Innovation Programme, Kelsey Gee who shares how she literally fell into design after an injury in high school and is now using her skills as a designer within government to aid in solving complex social issues.
Kia ora Kelsey, can you tell us a bit about your creative background and the path that brought you to where you are now in your creative career?
Kia ora Jess & Design Assembly whānau! Thanks so much for inviting me to this space and opening up a platform for conversation. I’m so grateful to be able to share a bit about my story and the High Impact Innovation Programme (HIIP) with you.
I’ve always been quite creative but I think I literally fell into design.
During highschool I was planning to become a professional ballerina. I was set to finish my schooling early and move to Melbourne to attend full time ballet training. Unfortunately, a couple of months before my audition season I landed a jump incorrectly, fell, and injured my leg. I knew immediately that that was the end of the line on that career path for me.
I was honestly just lucky that I had another year left at school. I didn’t have a clear plan B, but I knew it had to be something creative. So I spent my Year 13 trying new subjects, enjoying my time and healing my heart.
Prior to my injury I had been following in my family’s footsteps of tinkering around with a camera. My photography teacher was so supportive of my injury and really encouraged me to pick up her design class too – I fell in love with design.
I loved how design could empower people, influence mindsets and emotions, create cultures and subcultures. I loved how it could shift the very fibres of society, creating change in the most subtle of ways. I still love this about design today.
University open days came around. I made the trip to Wellington with my family and planned to visit Massey, Vic and Yoobee. I stepped on campus at Massey and immediately had this weird feeling that I was right where I was meant to be. The College of Creative Arts at Massey has always felt like home.
Fast forward four years and I’m kicking off my honours project. I had spent the summer before this working as a Junior Graphic Designer at Scouts NZ. This experience inspired me to dive into researching youth development and empowerment. I’ve always been passionate about helping to empower our rangatahi, but I was curious to understand why young people needed access to programmes of opportunity in the first place: where were we as society failing children so early, that inequality was manifesting before they could have a say in where their adult lives ended up?
Thanks to the support and encouragement of my supervisors, my honours project honed in on how design could empower children of prisoners. It sat at the niche cross-roads between experience design, empowerment theory and early childhood psychology; positioning itself around the event of visiting a parent in prison. My aim was to design something that could intervene at the earliest possible point of public service.
This project ended up on the desk of the then Director of the High Impact Innovation Programme who reached out to me, asked if I wanted to test my honours project and offered me a role in the multidisciplinary team. I was completely surprised by it all but humbled to have the opportunity all the same. I’ve been here at HIIP since February, 2019. The programme was about a year old at that stage with no formal design team, so I’ve been able to really cultivate and build our practice over the past few years. We’ve been implementing my honours work (The Kea Project) in prisons across the motu, as well as leading out on projects that aim to reduce harm and provide equal, safe and healing public services for many people across many points in a journey through New Zealand’s justice system.
Walk us through your day-to-day. What do you enjoy most about your role as a Lead Designer at the High Impact Innovation Programme?
As cliche as it is to say – each and every day is different. While HIIP sits within the Department of Corrections we’re a justice sector resource, so we work with and for NZ Police, Ministry of Justice, and Corrections. Often this also spans out to any government or non-government organisation, and iwi too.
HIIP has such a diverse portfolio of work that I don’t think I could ever get bored here! We’re across large justice sector transformation pieces that aim to drive efficiencies and improve the system; as well as our own smaller proof of concept innovations that help to immediately reduce harm, and sometimes even tactical responses that can stand something up in a matter of days.
My role, alongside the design team, helps the programme to utilise design strategy, thinking and methodology to drive meaningful and effective change in mahi across the Justice Sector. We have a heavy focus on ensuring that organisational operations focus on creating and delivering services & experiences that uplift peoples’ mana; as well as getting decision makers to understand the implications of that service, experience or moment in time on our ‘end-users’ wider lives. We’re challengers, deep listeners and kaitiaki of the voices of the people who must be heard.
There are three things that hold this role and team close to my heart.
The first is seeing change happen – I think it’s an absolute privilege to be able to see and hear first hand how our mahi has impacted a person’s life. Not only that but continuing to work together with people and communities for the long haul, to create generational shifts, is something so rare and rewarding.
The second is supporting and coaching my team! I love seeing them grow, shine their light and champion design in their own ways. It’s the best thing seeing my team members’ designs out in the wild. Their success and growth is my success and growth. I feel so privileged to work with them every day.
The third is getting to work with people who are all so deeply motivated and passionate about creating change and doing things differently, in this space especially. Change is happening, things are moving, it’s reassuring and it’s awe-inspiring. I feel so grateful that this team exists.
What shape does the High Impact Innovation Programme creative team take?
We’re a small but tightly knit team! Our skills hold a focus around Social Innovation Design, Experience/Service Design and Systems Design. I’m lucky enough to have a small offshoot Graphics and Motion Graphics department too!
We’re often across multiple projects at once, collaborating with other HIIP team members or agency & community partners within a multidisciplinary team. I like to deploy my team based on where their interests and passions lie, as well as where the appropriate skills are.
Do you ever suffer brand fatigue working with the same visual language and/or messaging? If not, how do you keep things interesting and diverse?
I think most designers suffer from brand fatigue after a while! There’s only so long you can use a certain colour until the hex code has been tattooed on your brain…
I really love that my team has a growth mindset – we’re constantly pushing ourselves to keep things fresh and explore adding in new trends in ways that are meaningful but look tasteful and professional. I think there’s always a way you can add a little bit of a shine to the most basic of pieces.
Our team also has a mid-week ‘enrichment / extension’ session. This is an open space for learning, growing or getting our creative juices going. I encourage each team member to bring a talk, podcast, diagram, reading or piece of graphic design to the session for discussion, exploration or recreation!
Can you share with us a little about what the design process looks like when you’re working within a large government organisation?
To be honest I don’t think our design processes are much different from anywhere else. In some ways because we work across the sector perhaps we’re more like a little consulting unit than an in-house or agency team?
If there’s one thing I’ve found quite different from other spaces and places it’s been the mindset and the intention shift behind the process – all of our work is intertwined, we know the work we’re doing now will feed into the next piece of work in some way shape or form, and we know it’s all working towards a bigger reformation of the Justice Sector.
We have to be here for the long haul and we have to be striving for generational change – we want to be too.
I also spoke recently at UXNZ about the need to actively and intentionally put care into our work – I think this is a really important message for all designers no matter where you are. In design school you’re taught ‘go out and talk to people, collect their lived experience etc.’ but actually that’s time, income, energy and not to mention really precious taonga out of their lives.
They’re giving so much to you, by default you now have a duty to protect their gift, honour it and let it empower you (anger you even!), to go and shake as many trees as you can and make as much change as you can. Take care of the people that are giving you their voices and take care of that voice you’ve been given. Otherwise what are you really doing with their voice?
What tools are you using in your role for digital asset management, project planning, and productivity?
Right now we’re loving Miro and Mural! They’ve been awesome for COVID stitch ups and working remotely etc.
Naturally, the Adobe Creative Suite and Trello are also our great friends. Thankfully HIIP also has a team of project managers which means I really get to focus on driving design strategy, innovating and creating better services and experiences.
Any tips for staying on the pulse with design trends and key design shifts?
In all honesty, aside from our weekly enrichment / extension sessions – I’d have to say Instagram/Social Media.
We’ve got a bit of a group chat going where we just send cool things we find: new graphic design trends, tutorials or other studios/people doing cool things in the social innovation space (+ design memes if we need a laugh!).
I think it’s so easy to follow accounts that are outside of your normal echo chamber so you can find those niche trends/shifts; and when you’re mindlessly scrolling anyway we can quickly pop it in the chat and create some discussion around it later.
For designers aspiring to follow a similar path as yours, can you share any advice – including some of the best highlights and biggest challenges designers might come across while working in an inhouse position?
Here’s my top 3, from lessons I’ve learned along the way:
- Your imposter syndrome simply means you’re human. Try flipping your mindset from “am I doing this right?” / “ugh, they’re so much better than I am” to “what can I learn from this way of working” / “Dang, this person is great! I wonder what cool thing they could teach me?” – no doubt you’ll start to see yourself grow!
- No amount of overtime or excessive stress is worth it. If you cannot give 100% of yourself back to you (I’m talking about looking after yourself!), you cannot give 100% of yourself to the communities you’re wanting to create change for. And if that company doesn’t value your wellbeing, do you really want to be working for them?
- Find your ‘why’. Understanding yourself and why you want to be a designer, in any kind of space, is going to be immensely invaluable in shaping your career. Your ‘why’ will bring your biggest highs, but it will also ground you in the face of your hardest challenges.