CO:LAB is a design firm that works exclusively with nonprofits, communities, and enterprises committed to social profit. It’s founder and leader, Rich Hollant, helps these organizations tackle big questions that lead to greater awareness, purposeful motivation, and deeper loyalty. The firm’s works with (see it above) a project to help inspire and integrate the youth of Middletown, Connecticut, and the Human Rights Institute to show that human rights are a universal issue. Committed to developing youth engagement in his community, Hollant also cofounded the platform Giv2, a place where teen volunteers can give back, too.
How important is community collaboration to your process?
Our goal is to empower communities to lift themselves up to their potential—and no one has ever been truly empowered by having someone else do the talking for them. I do believe it’s important to create mirrors for the community so the members can see themselves and develop consensus on where they are. However, it’s equally important to create windows. When a community can see and empathize with where it is, while simultaneously visualizing its opportunities, real change can be catalyzed.
Unearthing that spark is exciting work. Through my journeys, I’ve found people to be naturally attracted to positive ideas—pretty much everyone wants a reason to believe in potentials. The real work comes in moving from inspiring hearts and minds to sustaining the belief that will actualize potential. No design firm or combination of design firm and town agency can do this alone. Community collaboration is the key to achievable outcomes. With strategic, communitywide partners and coalitions, the mission can access all of the centers of influence in a town. The mission then moves with a breadth and depth that could not happen otherwise. The more the return-on-engagement is modeled, clarified, and owned by the different strata of a community, the greater the critical mass for movement and the greater the likelihood of mission success.
In your work in Middletown, Connecticut, you use a system called the 40 Developmental Assets. What are those and how did they affect your work?
The 40 Developmental Assets are building blocks and measurable data for addressing the relationship of youths to their community. Through a system of periodic surveys conducted by The Search Institute, teens in the community give feedback on the presence or deficit of these building blocks. For example, analysis of the high school students in Middletown showed a need for improvements on the following five assets:
- Asset 01: Family life provides high levels of love and support.
- Asset 07: Young person perceives that adults in the community value youth.
- Asset 14: Parent(s) and other adults model positive, responsible behavior.
- Asset 17: Young person spends three or more hours per week in lessons or practice in music, theater, or other arts.
- Asset 35: Young person can resist negative peer pressure and dangerous situations.
Here’s where design comes in. In our experience, we observe two key contributors to cognitive dissonance—first: being confronted by volumes of data and jargon in the absence of clear interpretation (system overload); second: requests for urgent action through statements that tell you what not to do (negative messaging) instead of what to do.
We worked to increase enthusiasm for the assets message by using design to help make common sense common practice in Middletown. We worked with the town to develop ideas that were externally engineered. We put out simple, pragmatic, actionable statements that were connected to progressively deepening data. These messages used familiar visual reference-points such as local change agents and a diverse group of kids in the community—these weren’t stock platitudes floated in from out of state; they were born from and specific to Middletown.
Everything about the messages was personal. Instead of using the inarguable rationale of science and numbers to make the case, we gave the town kids a platform to voice their individual needs from all adults in the community. We have yet to put out a message in Middletown that says "Say no to drugs and alcohol" or "Stop the violence" or "Dropping out of school will ruin your future." Instead, we offered some simple suggestions— "say 'hi’ to the next kid you see"; "go to the high school play—it’s a great show"; "if you give a kid a chance, you’ll have a customer for life." We then gave the adults ample space to figure out and visibly share how they personally will contribute to supporting the town youth and building a stronger Middletown. When it comes to community work, I think design is at its best when it’s more humble—when it distributes fishing poles instead of fully garnished meals. In Middletown, we used design to facilitate, to set the stage, to offer folks a context to talk to each other, to make the ideal outcome feel achievable, to give the community an opportunity to set the bar for itself, and to ensure everyone feels safe and empowered through the process.
When did you realize your career as a designer would be focused on giving
"Giving back" has always been a bit of a pickle for me. There’s something about it that implies a conscious selflessness and altruism. I’ve never related to very much in life that way. For me, "giving back" means making deep, even lifestyle commitments to the things you believe in because the things you believe in are what enrich your life. I see life, work, and belief as a kind of virtuous cycle—and in that regard, I’ve been working towards giving back more effectively from the beginning of my career.
About five years ago, after reaching a high water mark of 50% of our company time spent giving back, I realized we weren’t being effective enough. It became clear that the things we care about and believe in—kids, community, duty, harmony, and a world rich with wonder—merited our full attention. Since then, we have been on an immersive journey, discovering and inventing models for sustaining relationships and committing more and more to the ideals that we find important. Today, 100% of the work we do is about giving back. I’m using the word "work" rather loosely here. It’s more of a way of living our lives that has ultimately informed how we apply design principles in honor of the human experience.
Now that we are at 100%, I’m working on developing ways that we can be more
effective. I’m looking at scaling capacity, at institutionalizing our approach along a spectrum from "real trust" to "real change" to "real help." I’m also exploring the most effective way of structuring our business so we can leverage our knowledge base and proof points to initiate programs that we see would benefit a community.
None of this was the plan from the beginning. But, what’s true then is true now—I’ve always been dissatisfied with emphasizing graphics over design. Design is where the opportunity for good exists. It’s where diversity becomes inspiration, where the limitless is harnessed, and where we can be fed with the unimaginable abundance of ideas greater than ourselves. I was onboard with that on day one.
What is the name of one up-and-coming social-good designer we should be
watching and why?
Take a good look at Matthew Muñoz at New Kind. They blend brand, culture, design, and patience to catalyze communities. Along with being insightful and talented, Matt is one of the most genuinely kind and open people you’ll ever meet. He’s also disarmingly charismatic, which is a rarely mentioned but powerful attribute for designers involved in community work.
Who inspires you most with their generosity?
I try not to spend too much time examining what I give, how much I give, or why, because in doing so, I can get distracted from the giving itself. This would be a crying shame because it’s so deeply satisfying, grounding, and humbling to be of service to someone. This is how I was raised, in a culture where everyone I know approaches life this way. I wrote about it in an article for Felt & Wire a while back. Let me elaborate more here—I was born in Haiti in 1963, less than a month after Hurricane Flora destroyed much of the coast leaving many thousands dead, over 50,000 homeless, and the coffee harvest and fragile Haitian economy devastated. That year marked the rule of Papa Doc Duvalier as President for Life along with the intimidating Tonton Macoutes militia, culminating in the demoralizing influences of election rigging and an unchecked cult of personality strategy. The island experienced mass genocide, increased violent tensions with neighboring Dominican Republic, and a deplorable poverty to wealth ratio of 97 to 3.
These were dark and oppressive times. And yet, all I could recall were smiling
faces, a formal graciousness, a communal sense of child-rearing responsibilities, and a willingness to share and give—to support with every resource available, however meager. When we immigrated to the states, that tradition of graciousness and giving continued. If the phone rang in the middle of the night from someone needing something—anything—my parents wouldn’t hesitate to go. The same principle held true for my relatives and friends of the family. Initially, I imagined it was a form of duty—that there was an unspoken ethical mandate to give. In retrospect, I understand this approach to life as a way out of being beaten by poverty and oppression. It’s as if an entire culture declared, "If I have little, but it’s of value to someone, than I have a lot".
No matter how much or little I may have in my life, my worldview is guided by this principle. It directs everything I do. We are indeed all—and always—fortunate.