Chioma Ume

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Chioma Ume

Design Researcher • Design for Food Studio, IDEO

twitter: @ChiomaUme1

Design Researcher

The energetic child

When I was young, we moved a lot. I was born in Louisiana while my parents were in grad school, but soon after we moved to Canada, where my mother is from and where my dad (who’s from Nigeria) got his first job after school. If pressed, I’d say that my hometown is Niagara Falls, Canada – where people really do live!

As a child I was curious, full of energy and never stopped talking. I have three younger brothers who I spent most of my time bossing around and a strong independent streak. I seldom took no for an answer and almost always had a book in tow. You could say that not a lot has changed.

How did you first get interested in design? I took the long route to design.

I’m a lawyer by training and spent many years doing work in the public interest, both in Canada and overseas. I wouldn’t have called it design, but looking back on it, I had thought about design for many years before ‘officially coming to it’. That’s because one of my central interests has always been people - I spent my legal career making systems, services and laws that were meant for people, work for people. In 2013, I saw an interview with David Kelly on 60 minutes. He described design thinking and how at IDEO multidisciplinary teams came up with creative solutions to tough problems. I was immediately struck by how many opportunities there were to design better and more effective experiences for people in the legal system. When I moved to San Francisco later that year, I quickly connected with people interested in legal design and the rest is history.

Tell me about the work you've done?

I got my first design role at IDEO.org, where I combined my experience in international development with my interest in design. My role was designing a human centered grant model as part of their Amplify program. Our focus was to give global organizations working on some of the world’s biggest challenges access to a new set of tools to approach their work. Each challenge we ran focused on different global issues - from early childhood development, to education for refugees to small holder farmers. Successful applicants received grants and co-designed solutions with our team, giving me the chance to work with organizations around the world.

What are you working on right now, either for work or yourself?

Right now I work as a design researcher in our Design for Food Studio. As someone who thinks of, buys and consumes food constantly, it’s a dream to be able to combine my passion for the culinary world with my love of people. Outside of work, I’m in the middle of teaching a Pop-out Class through Stanford’s d.school. Together with some colleagues and friends, we’re teaching a two day class on Designing for Inclusion. I see design as being a really powerful tool, and I think there isn’t enough engagement with question: who is designing for whom? Particularly in Silicon Valley, where there isn’t much diversity in the design community, I think it’s important that we actively try to understand the needs and perspectives of a broader segment of the population. Seeing how many young designers are interested in engaging with this question – on the weekend – is really heartening. We need to keep having more conversations like these, and I’m excited to be part of making that happen.

What are your proudest accomplishments of your career?

I’ve had a lot of different careers within my ‘career’ – corporate lawyer, public defender, project manager, designer… and so it’s difficult to pin down a specific thing that I’m proudest of. However, all of the moments that come to mind have a few things in common. I am most proud of when I have been able to empower others with the information and resources they’ve needed to improve their situation, or the lives of others. I often replay this quote in my head: “...to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” That’s the standard I try and hold myself to – using my privilege and position to make the world a little bit better, one breath at a time.

What have your experiences been as a person of color in the design industry?

My time in design has been a really enriching part of my career. I’d say the unique thing about being a person of colour in design is that I haven’t encountered many of us. I think that’s a shame for many reasons, not only because empirically more diverse teams do better work – but because design is a really challenging and creative career that I wish more young people had the opportunity to pursue. I’ve been involved with our diversity and inclusion efforts at IDEO for the last year and a half and over that time I’ve been inspired by the commitment and passion my colleagues have had to carve out space for our stories and for difficult discussions within our community.

What are your biggest motivators?

It might sound repetitive by now, but my biggest motivation is to help others have better lives - whether that’s through healthier food systems, access to information or elegant solutions that meet their needs. Underlying that is the relentless curiosity I have about the world and the ways that people inhabit it – that’s responsible for pretty much everything I do!

How do your friends and family feel about the work you've done?

I know that my family is proud of the work that I’ve done and of the winding road I’ve taken through my career. My father always challenged me to think for myself and to ‘be good and do good’, and I think he’d say that I’ve done both well. Because I’m not formally trained as a designer, many of my friends aren’t designers. So I get to be the cool creative one who is always making something. Essentially they think I’m far more glamorous than I am, but they’re right that I’m having a lot of fun.

What do you love most about working in design?

I love the relentless optimism inherent in design. Designers believe that a solution is always possible. They’re not afraid to get started with something messy, because learning is the path to great solutions. I consider myself very lucky to work in a space where trying new things and making mistakes are professional requirements.

What would you like to see changed about the design field?

Design is often future-facing and I fear that this generation of designers doesn’t reflect what the future of this country is set to look like. I’d like design to turn a human-centred lens upon itself, and to open its doors to a wider set of creative potential. The other thing I’d love to see is more collaboration across fields. IDEO has done a great job of connecting design to a wide range of disciplines. I believe that design thinking has a set of tools that many professions could benefit from. Similarly, I think that designers would be enriched by enhanced connections with other fields.

How can design be more accommodating to underrepresented populations of people?

Low hanging fruit would be to expand the pool of schools that are traditionally recruited from. That said, I think that the real work is in exposing underrepresented groups to design in grade school and high school – and providing the opportunity for experiences that empower young people to believe careers in design are appealing and possible. Having not grown up in the US, I’m not sure how frequently scholarships are awarded for design programs, but I see that as another way to make a design education more accessible.

Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?

Do you think you'll stay in design? The best part of my career so far has been my inability to project 5-10 years in the future. Ten years ago when I finished law school I’d never have believed I’d be working in design. Do I think I’ll stay? Maybe. I love creative problem solving and I don’t imagine leaving that behind. Will what I do be called ‘design’? I’m not sure. I think that’s the beauty of having design skills - they are applicable to such a wide range of problems and potential roles.

What advice would you give to folks from a similar background who are in design or hoping to get into it?

Don’t be afraid to reach out and connect to others who have gone before you. As someone who has asked for many, many informational interviews, I can assure you that most people are generous with their time and genuinely interested in helping. Most importantly, believe in yourself. You have a right to be a designer – or anything else that you’d like to be.