“How’d you get THAT job?” is a question I hear a lot. In many ways, HKS is a traditional large firm – we are 1,400 people strong with 23 offices around the world and projects that span every geography and market sector imaginable. However, what sets HKS apart from many large firms is our approach to public interest design (PID), defined as design grounded in the belief that every person deserves to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community.
Five years ago, I founded Citizen HKS, based on the 1% Solution (now The 1+ Program), in which we committed to donating one percent of our billable hours to pro bono projects. Though we had signed on to the program years prior, we were not doing an especially good job of managing that time, being thoughtful about how we selected and approached projects, and we were not celebrating the stories of how design work positively impacted the lives of people. In the five years since, we have completed a maternity ward in rural Uganda, an urban food studio in Washington DC, and a sensory wellbeing hub for students on the autism spectrum in Chicago, just to name a few. In addition, we have a robust pipeline of projects currently in design that span the globe from Afghanistan to Detroit to our backyard in Dallas. Internally, Citizen HKS has morphed from “just another initiative” to a foundational pillar of who we are and a source of pride among our leadership and staff.
However, this didn’t just magically happen overnight. There have certainly been – and continue to be – missteps and lessons learned along the way. Early on, we struggled to find projects of the scale and impact we were looking for. At the same time, it was difficult to turn down projects that, while worthwhile on some level, were not a great fit. Staffing selected projects proved challenging in unexpected ways. It was difficult to compete for resources against projects that had “real” clients and were bringing money into the firm. At the same time, it was also hard to engage everyone who expressed a passion for PID when the percentage of actual design work was very small.
Though still a work in progress, Citizen HKS has more than lived up to the expectations set for it. Working with a small steering committee of other passionate PID advocates across the firm, I understood early on that we needed to create a program with demonstrable value if we expected it to be sustainable long term. Even the most altruistic, well-intentioned company will not continue to provide a service if they see no benefit in return. In our case, the benefit was unlikely to be monetary, so we set our sights on other ways we could create value. Externally, we looked for projects that would enable our non-profit partners and us to tell compelling stories about how architecture positively affected the trajectory of a community. I’m proud to say that Citizen HKS projects tend to outperform others in terms of media placements and website hits, coming in second only to our NFL stadiums. Internally, we’ve seen employees cite Citizen HKS as one of the “pros” of HKS on Glassdoor, and our hiring manager says that Citizen HKS is the number one thing he gets asked about when recent graduates interview. So, while it is true that Citizen HKS doesn’t generate revenue, the often elusive intangibles – brand enhancement, public relations, employee engagement, and recruitment potential – have assuredly affected our bottom line.
I think it’s important to both acknowledge the challenges as well as embrace the opportunities that traditional for-profit firms can provide in the realm of public interest design. Though I admire them greatly, I realize that we will never be a MASS Design. That doesn’t mean that HKS – and every other firm like it – can’t do well by doing good. This is becoming increasingly important as our profession addresses the social and environmental impacts of our work. As we grapple with the most pressing issues of the 21st century, it is clear that a business-as-usual approach will eventually render us obsolete. We can no longer serve the top 10% of the global population that can afford access to our services and continue to stay relevant. And therein lies the opportunity. We must demonstrate how design thinking can contribute to solving some of the world’s most systemic challenges, such as access to healthcare, equity in education, and affordable housing. And in the process, we can make ourselves, our firms and the design profession itself, agents for change.
Ellen Mitchell Kozack, AIA, is the Director of Sustainability & Citizen at HKS