Lindsay McComb


Embracing design for social impact

Design thinking is for everyone, including nonprofits

Despite its roots in the for-profit sector, design thinking is a perfect tool for nonprofits to use to solve challenges in their organizations and communities. The need for design thinking in the nonprofit world is poised to grow as organizations start to think about how to more effectively make a difference, embracing change and innovation.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking draws upon imagination, intuition, logic and reasoning to explore and test the possibilities of what could be. It’s not so much art as it is a “way of thinking” that enables creative thought — (even and especially) in the work place.

As a framework, design thinking starts with people and the desire to create a better future, while acknowledging that it’s an ongoing process of testing and improvement. With real human needs at its core, design thinking allows organizations to design services, programs or products around the actual needs of stakeholders, or “users” by understanding their needs, wants, and limitations.

Empower everyone to be a designer

Design can improve an organization’s strategic decision-making, as well as increase the effectiveness of individual programs and services. And while not everyone can create beautiful websites or shiny products, everyone can ask questions, identify problems and create solutions.

As Tim Brown of IDEO says, “Design is everywhere, inevitably everyone is a designer.” Strong critical thinking and creative problem skills are key as workplace needs continue to evolve. By fostering the idea of everyone is a designer and that change is integral to design, nonprofits will be better positioned to keep pace with the changing nature of social impact.

Improve programming by involving stakeholders

Non-profits are used to asking community members or beneficiaries to give feedback on what they do and how well they’re doing it. But surveys and word-of-mouth aren’t always enough. Especially when critical issues could have been solved by getting feedback earlier or more often. Organizations can easily fall into the trap of routine — providing services but not truly meeting the needs of those they serve.

A design thinking approach to service not only gives stakeholders more value, but it also gives them a sense of participation. Better feedback helps organizations understand how the people they’re serving respond to everything from website sign-up forms, to client intake meetings to donor fundraising appeals. Getting the experience right can be the difference between providing services and empowering people.

Measure success with better data

Just like companies and government agencies, data holds the potential for incredible learning and knowledge for non-profits. Measuring data is a key component of design thinking, and more non-profits are seeing the value of data analysis through deep engagement with stakeholders. While most nonprofits gather metrics on how their programs and services are performing, how the data is analyzed can be improved. Better understanding the people who support and benefit from their work, means better impact. Armed with data analysis rooted in stakeholder feedback, non-profits can stay efficient and effective, even with limited resources.

Lindsay McCombComment
Mindfulness and cups of coffee

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity

It’s really hard to focus when there are a million distractions in my life. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way because I’ve seen articles and tweets and posts about it. Too many to name. My attention feels like it’s constantly up for grabs — that no matter how good my intention is when I sit down to write or to read or even grab lunch with a friend, I will no doubt get distracted.

I don’t have any sort of diagnosable problem; I’m just overwhelmed.

There’s no better indicator of my distraction than my cup of coffee. The cup that inevitably gets reheated 2–3 times in the microwave before I have time to fully enjoy it. I like my coffee hot. There’s something so sublime about holding a warm mug in my cold hands, letting the steam tickle my nose. It’s not just the coffee, you see, it’s the experience. Lukewarm coffee is palatable, sure, but why suffer through it when sublimation is only 30 seconds away? Reheating though, is hardly the issue here. The real problem, as I see it, is that I simply don’t take the time I need to properly enjoy my coffee before it gets cold.

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity

Coffee has become my sidekick, when it could easily be the main event. I could easily dedicate five full minutes to drinking my coffee to the last drop. I could sip it and enjoy its warmth. I could sit quietly or stare wistfully out the window. Instead, I get distracted by my phone — reading the news or catching up on Twitter, oh and then I realize that I forgot to read that case study I last night, or I just need to send a quick email and the next thing I know I’ve lost the thread of what I was doing initially and my coffee is half-finished and completely cold.

I reheat it and begin the cycle again.

But what’s more concerning is that my inattentiveness goes beyond the humble cup of coffee, and often creeps into the realm of interpersonal connections. Namely, people.

We’re all guilty of it sometimes — some of us more than others. The dreaded smartphone, the one piece of technology that has actually somehow made my life both better and worse at the same time. Better, in that every piece of information, all the songs ever recorded, anything I could ever want to buy — are just a few clicks away at all times. Worse, in that this is an overwhelming amount of possibilities. There’s always something to read or listen to or buy or play.

I used to think I was really good at multitasking, and now I think that all this time I was kidding myself. I may be really good at cooking eggs and washing the dishes at the same time, but I am terrible at having my phone out and giving someone I’m talking to enough attention. It’s no good. It’s not only just rude (come on, we all know it is), but it also means that I’m not fully integrated into the conversation. I’m missing out on the nuance of body language and tone of voice, the real connection that comes from good eye contact, and from understanding and feeling understood. If I’m distracted by technology, I allow myself to be less human. I allow myself to dehumanize the conversation, and to degrade, however slightly, the relationship I have with the other person.

French philosopher Simone Weil once said that, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Clearly this was a problem even before technology made us more distracted, as Weil died in 1943. Humans, it seems, are highly prone to not paying attention. We always seem to find something to divert our attention away from being here now.

I’m not getting rid of my smartphone, though. But I am going to continue to practice mindfulness and being present in the moment. When I find my mind wandering to anything but where I am and who I’m with, I will try to be better at catching myself. I will practice being more generous through my attentiveness and actually enjoy my hot coffee.

Lindsay McCombComment
Designed for good business

Human-centered design and business models

The terms “business model” and “strategy” are thrown around a lot in business — they’ve become jargonistic to the point where they’ve lost meaning. Without clarity, a business model doesn’t communicate value, and without provisions for change, businesses cannot thrive in the longterm. A good business model then, is essential to any organization. The investors, entrepreneurs, and executives involved all too often forget that in order to develop a dynamic and profitable business model, it needs to be designed around people.

In Why Business Models Matter, Joan Magretta presents an alternative way to looking at business models, which humans at the heart of it. Who the customer is, what the customer values, and how a business can deliver value to the customer at an appropriate cost are all just as important as how a business makes money.“A good business model,” Magetta writes, “begins with an insight into human motivations and ends in a rich stream of profits.”

How to Design a Winning Business Model by Ramon Casadeus-Masanell and Joan E Ricart discusses how too many companies test business models in isolation, without industry iteration. Business models should be dynamic — not only should they align with a company’s goals, but they should be self-reinforcing and robust. Ideally, a business model should be designed in a way that generates “virtuous” cycles allowing the company to compete more effectively.

According to Casadeus-Masanell and Ricart, “Any enterprise can make choices that allow it to build assets or resources — be they project management skills, production experience, reputation, asset utilization, trust, or bargaining power,” and the consequences of these choices enable further choices, and so on — virtuous cycles.

Both of these articles demonstrate how important it is to take a creative approach to business, and that people should always be at the core. The idea that a business model should honor the humans at the heart of it, and the concept that companies should continuously iterate in cycles — both nicely illustrate human-centered design principles in action.

Lindsay McCombComment
If you can see it, you can be it

“If you can see it you can be it” 
At first I thought that meant you had to find
Your role model
Someone who would show you how
Someone who would be the person you always wanted to see
So I looked everywhere
To find the woman I could be

I looked for the woman who wasn’t afraid to show off her brain
I looked for the woman who was creative and styled with great poise
I looked for the woman who pursued her goals and forged ahead with her own path
I looked for the woman who wanted to be independent, who would keep her own name when she married, and for the woman who would wait to have children until she was ready
I looked for the woman who always wanted to be better — who wanted to keep learning, always pushing herself to be more than she was before

All these years,
Looking for the women who would show me how to be the best me
Who’d show me how I could be
I found many who were some
But never quite the whole
Until I finally realized that all this time
That the pieces were in me


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Lindsay McCombComment
Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly

It’s your masterpiece after all

I write a lot of dreck. Then I go back through it and edit. I cut, paste, rewrite, rework, retool. When I edit, I can turn lead into gold. I transmute until my writing has become transcendent. I go through iteration after iteration until I can arrive at a stopping point. A good writer is never finished. No matter how many times a draft has been edited, it could always be edited some more.

It doesn’t matter if it's paper and pen or a blinking cursor on the screen — I will edit the hell out of it. My eye for grammatical mistakes is pretty sharp, my bullshit detector is keen, and my intuition for clarity and consistency is fucking top notch.

Sure, I miss some typos. I’m only human. But when it comes down to it, I am confident in my ability as an editor. Or, at least I was until I came across a quote on Pinterest. The quote, by Nathan W. Morris, who is apparently some kind of motivational speaker says, “Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all.” And it touched me like no random quote from the Internet has ever touched me before.

I’ve been writing since before I was literate (I used to keep a “diary” when I was three or four in which I would scribble down the things I did that day — actual scribbles that represented words). Writing has been so much a part of my life, yet how could I have failed to extend the metaphor into the narrative of my life? How did I not see that I could live my life as a work in progress and edit it into something better?

I’m not talking about erasing the past or engaging in self-serving doublethink: I’m talking about reframing the narrative, cutting out the bad characters and changing the course of my story.

My story — your story — none of it is written in stone. I have the power to go back through the pages of my life and highlight the things that actually mattered. The themes of sadness, and of holding back may still be an important part of my story, but they have transformed from obstacles into triumphs. The struggles of a painfully shy girl were not failures, but a tale of surviving in the only way she knew how. The conflict and the heartbreak of that young woman were the fire that forged her into something better, stronger. With the benefit of hindsight, I see now how characters that once seemed critical were actually only bit players, comedic relief, and sitcom villains.

I can edit out what doesn’t serve my story anymore, what doesn’t make sense, what doesn’t drive my character development. My life is a story. It’s my story. And I’ve never felt bad about cutting out bad writing for the sake of clarity, consistency and storytelling. Why did I spend so long hanging onto the unnecessary details that detract from what really matters in my story?

Maybe it’s time to get a little more ruthless.

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No matter what happens, they can’t take my education away from me
  Illustration by   MUTI

Illustration by MUTI

Every so often I have a moment of clarity in which I remember that I will be in debt for the rest of my life. It eventually passes. It always does. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night, sometimes it’s when I’m taking an extra long shower, sometimes it’s when I stumble upon yet another depressing article about how we’re all saddled with a terrible amount of student loan debt. 

We are the hollow ones. The indebted ones.

I particularly hate articles where writers bemoan the fact they went to college or suggest that if you can’t afford it then you shouldn’t go to college at all. Hell no. The idea that anyone should be punished for trying to learn something makes me unbelievably sad and incredibly enraged. Hell, the idea that anyone has to go thousands and thousands of dollars into debt to get a piece of paper that proves that they learned something — it makes my blood boil. But what else could we have done? It was a damned if you damned if you don’t situation.

Maybe college isn’t for everyone, but I think that anyone who wants to, should be able to try. Yet, so many students end up regretting having gone to college — maybe they didn’t graduate, maybe a state school would have been cheaper, maybe their degree isn’t what they really wanted, or maybe it was what they love but doesn’t pay the bills — whatever it may be all of those outcomes still leave them stuck with the bill.

I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by the crushing weight of student loans.

I’ll always remember that my father told me that no matter what happens, they can’t take my education away from me. It’s true. They can’t repossess what I’ve learned. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

I’m one of the lucky ones in that I have all Federal loans — loans that can be consolidated and deferred, and repaid based on my income. David, who went to a private liberal arts college in Southern Illinois had to get private loans to cover his education — like so many middle class families who made too much for financial aid, but not enough to pay for anything outright. We shell out several hundred dollars a month to three separate private loan companies, who refused to consolidate any more than that, who sell the loans to a new provider every couple of months, who change the due dates randomly, who call often to harass us or his parents. I hate them.

I’ll never forget how weird it was to get letters from David’s student loan companies while living in Seoul. Those bastards will literally track you down to the ends of the earth.

And would it have been worth it, after all?

I never actually made much of a dent in my student loans from undergrad, anyway. And now I’m basically tripling what I’ll owe. And then some. But for me it’s worth it. It’s worth it because I’m learning something valuable to me. I know I’ll be able to get a better jobs and continue making the minimum payments until I die. I honestly expect that I’ll have to work until I die, so I may as well enjoy what I’m doing, right?

It’s best not to think about how we could have bought a house for what we owe in loans. Or a really sweet car. It doesn’t really do any good to dwell on it too often or too intently. It is what it is. And while I’d love to dream of loan forgiveness, refinancing that actually helps, or a future where American students don’t have to go up to their eyeballs in debt to learn something — I’m not terribly optimistic. I’d hate for my future children to go through what we went though. I’m hoping by then we’ll have figure our shit out in the U.S. Otherwise, they’ll be going to school in Germany.

No matter what happens, I know these two things to be true: 1) No one can take away my education, and 2) I can’t take anything with me when I die, including student loan debt.

Lindsay McCombComment
Fashion fades, style is eternal
 Illustration by  Joseph Alessio

Illustration by Joseph Alessio

Know who you are, and adorn yourself accordingly

Los Angeles: A city where everyone is fashionable but few are stylish. I recently spent a weekend in Los Angeles, and as a keen observer, especially when it comes to style, I was struck by one really interesting discovery: Los Angelenos are very fashionable, as a whole. Yet, I didn’t get the sense that many people there were “stylish.”

I’ll explain this differentiation further.

As we hit up some of LA’s hippest neighborhoods, making sure to stop off in many a cool coffee shop and/or brunch spots, I saw so many people in neo-hipster normcore pieces, but I didn’t think many of them were pulling the look off. Normcore, for the uninitiated, is a fashion movement that embraces many suburban fashion elements of the 1990s and early 2000s — high-waisted mom jeans, white sneakers, and basically anything anyone wore onSeinfeld.

But down in LA, I saw many people who seemed to be all wearing the latest “it” items, piled in them — they had the “right” idea, but they weren’t doing it right. Instead of working it, the clothes just weren’t working.

I thought normcore was mostly a joke trend that I had read about like two years ago, though I have to admit that I’d seen a fashionista or two around San Francisco trying to pull it off. If done well, there are some very interesting ways to make a statement with socks and loafers.

Whenever I see a new trend, I like to take it apart and tease out the elements that I like, and the things that would work for me. Even high-waisted jeans. There are elements of normcore that I like, actually: brown loafers and vintage cableknit sweaters, trouser cut pants and simple sweatshirts. I believe that if you look hard enough, if you pick and choose carefully enough, you can always do fashion in a stylish way.

“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly. “ -Epictetus

The thing is, fashion and style are not the same. You can be fashionable, but not stylish. You can be stylish without being trendy. You can be stylish, while also being on-trend. Fashion may fade, but style is forever.

Fashion is always changing, and it’s become more disposable, more of a regurgitation machine than ever. Fast fashion chains churn out copies from runways and street-style blogs, and everyone seems to be on a constant lookout for that next big fashion hit as the trends cycle through, in a race to the bottom.

Mom jeans today in LA, and next year it’ll be more wide leg jeans and trousers, more kimono coats and round sunglasses. That’s just how it goes. Fashion lasts a season, maybe two if you’re lucky, while style is timeless. Fashion doesn’t necessarily work with your body shape or your current wardrobe — style works for you, because it plays to your strengths.

Style is about developing a sense of who you are and showing it outwardly in what you wear. The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus said over 2000 years ago, “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” Seriously. Dude understood that you can harness the power of clothes to show the world who you are. Just as you change and evolve over time, so should your style. It’s about looking your best, and being your best.

And yes, you can be your best, rocking normcore pieces (except for cargo pants — no one should ever wear cargo pants). But not every trendy piece all at once with no thought or purpose.

I think the biggest problem I saw in Los Angeles was a lack of depth — especially in style. While this obviously isn’t true of everyone in the entire metropolitan area, there is a reason why LA has a reputation for being superficial — it’s common enough. I think that so many people are trying to be somebody, trying to make it big, trying to do something, that they have forgotten how to be themselves.

Remember: Anyone with a credit card can be fashionable, but it takes real heart to be stylish.

Lindsay McCombComment
Moderation in all things
 Illustration by  Matt Stevens

Illustration by Matt Stevens

Cleaning, with just a slight bend toward austerity

I went through my closet yesterday, to sort out clothes that I don’t wear anymore. It felt fantastic.

Growing up, my mother would periodically have my brothers and I go through our things — we’d pick the toys we didn’t play with anymore, the books that were too easy for us and the clothes that no longer fit, and we’d give them away to the Goodwill. I remember doing this several times a year, especially around the holidays when we got an influx of new things.

I’m thankful that my mother inculcated in us a sense of giving, and that we were fortunate enough to have enough in which we had stuff to spare.

Now that I’m older, these habits of keeping down the clutter have deepened, especially since I’ve moved about five times and lived in three different countries. That, and I’ve seen some shit.

The freest I’ve ever felt was when I had everything I owned in two suitcases. Moving, especially to a foreign country, forces you to decide what you *really* want to have with you, by your side. There’s something about not worrying about all that stuff, about only bringing the best of the the best with you that’s liberating. Besides, you can always get more stuff. Leave the stuff behind that you don’t absolutely need or love.

George Carlin famously said that, “A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” I hate it, but I think he’s right. We live in a culture that’s all about chasing the next big thing. Whether it’s keeping up with the Joneses, fear of missing out, or striving to be an early adaptor — it’s all about getting more stuff.

Now that we’ve been in one place for almost three years, I have noticed that we’ve started developing a nice little collection of stuff in our apartment. It’s still pretty minimal, but we definitely have more things than when we moved in. I do try to stay as close as I can to the one in, one out rule, but there are always exceptions here and there. It starts to add up.

I make sure to regularly cull out my closet, keep the fridge tidy, and ask myself honestly if we’re ever actually going to play Rockband for Wii ever again or if we really need four tea pots.

Is it actually bringing me any joy by having it? Is there someone who could get more joy out of this than me?

I remember reading an article in The New York times about an organizer named Marie Kondo, who wrote, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, whose main premise was that you should discard everything that does not “spark joy.” This is basically what I’ve been practicing all my life, just a little more refined.

More than that, she practices a high-level sense of respect for objects, enjoining us to treat them kindly, to put them away neatly, respectfully, and to thank them for their service when you’re “retiring” them or giving them away. I see no harm in this, though I don’t necessarily practice the same level of reverence. When it comes to cleaning, I’m pretty ruthless. Heck, I even keep my junk drawer neat.

Let go

Most of the people that I’ve known who struggle to get rid of things seem to share one commonality: these folks are not necessarily attached to the objects per se, but more so to an idea. Usually, it’s the idea that these items can be used for something — that they need to keep it just in case, or for a specific project, or more often than not it was intended to be used as a gift for someone. These people get buried under the possibilities, and are afraid to let go of the “what ifs.”

I‘ve seen it with my own eyes: boxes stacked to six feet high with narrow “goat trails” in between, antique chairs rotting under tarps, garbage bags filled with plastic hangars. Saving it all for a “what if” that never comes, for someone who doesn’t want it or need it, for no reason any more.

Subconsciously, I believe that they look for the human connections they’re missing, by focusing on their things.

Are we all just trying to fill the voids in our souls with stuff?

So I ask myself from time to time, especially after I’ve let myself watch an episode too many of Hoarders — in the end, does all this stuff matter? Who, not what, matters most?

If I lost everything in a fire, or had to flee the country, or had to give it all away, would I be OK? Can I part with this or that and still live a long prosperous life? Is it still worth it to buy more, cheaper things, or is it time to start getting fewer, better things? Does any of it matter in the end, when we can’t take anything with us anyway?

As I stared at my closet, a mix of old and new, well-made and cheap fast-fashion pieces, I knew it could be worse. I know I’m not like that. And I never will be.

There’s a difference between being practical and being unrealistic. There’s a difference between being thrifty and stockpiling. There’s also a difference between cleaning house and asceticism.

Just as people can get obsessive about keeping things, so too, can people get obsessive about getting rid of things. The goal then, is to practice moderation in all things, with just a slight bend toward austerity.

Lindsay McCombComment
My God — life!
  Illustration by   Meg Robichaud

Illustration by Meg Robichaud

A tale of Seoul and Cat’s Cradle

“My God — life! Who can understand even one minute of it? ‘Don’t try,’ he said; ‘Just pretend you understand.’ ‘That’s — that’s very good advice.’ I went limp.”

“And now,” David announced, “It’s time to put your phone down.”

I walked across the bedroom over to the small table by the door, where it would be beyond reach and beyond temptation.

I looked at David, expectantly. He pulled out his eReader. “And now,” he repeated for emphasis, “let us read from the book of Cat’s Cradle and the tales of Frank Hoenecker and San Lorenzo.”

“And ‘Papa’ Monzana,” I added.

“And ‘Papa’ Monzana,” he repeated, solemnly.

“And…” dramatic pause. “And the scientific marvel that is the Ice 9.”

I had had the idea a few months ago that David and I should read a book together. I couldn’t remember what had inspired me to do it. An article I read, maybe?

Together, we had decided on Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and every couple of nights or so, when we remembered or weren’t too tired, we read a couple of chapters together. I had initially intended for us to take turns reading, but after the first few times, we stopped trading off, and David read every time. I liked his reading cadence and loved the voices he affected for the characters. Especially Angela. That bitch.

I rolled onto my side to get comfortable.

“My God — life!” David read.

Who can understand even one minute of it? ‘Don’t try,’ he said; ‘Just pretend you understand.’ ‘That’s — that’s very good advice.’ I went limp.”

My mind began to wander, ever-so-slightly. I was thinking about my life, particularly two years earlier, before we left Seoul. I remembered cold winter nights, sitting on the ondol floors, working on blog posts, weekends in coffee shops with David, editing his manuscript.

We had moved to Seoul to seek opportunity. We were newlyweds and looking for adventure and a way to pay the bills. Teaching English in Korea had sort of fallen into our laps.

We taught all day, from 9:20 am to 5:30 pm, with an hour break at some point in the day.

I loved my preschool classes. The elementary tutoring sessions I could sort of do without. But I loved my little munchkins, trying as they were. And if I scrunch my eyes closed tight enough, I can almost recall the voices of the four and five-year-olds intoning “Mick Tea-cher!”

I miss their sticky hugs and whiny complaints and surprisingly sophisticated questions. I miss morning circle time with Penguin Class, as they chanted together, “How are you today?!” And when the little sneaks would respond with some variation of, “I am happy today because I love Mick teacher,” my heart would melt. Every time. Even though I knew they were just trying to suck up to me…

I miss it all the same.

I don’t miss the upside down weeks of jetlag or that time David and I both got pneumonia. Worse still was that UTI that required injections everyday after work for two weeks. In the butt. Oh, and that damn Siberian wind in the winter.

I miss kimbap and bulgogi. Even kimchi. I miss the cafes around every corner and the shopping in Sinsa. And Dongdaemun. And Gangnam. I miss the subway, and the hustle and bustle of their neighborhood. The fruit trucks with their blaring announcements.

My reverie about Korean stationery was interrupted by David.

“Hey,” he said. “How about we stop here for now?”

“Yeah. Okay.”

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