The Ideaction Blog

Designathon for Early Childhood Education

Posted by Kelly O'Brien on June 12, 2013

A victory for collaborative innovation.

Ideaction Corps recently effected something really cool and meaningful and I want to tell you all about it. Not just to scream victory! but also to chart what went right, so we (or you) can do it again.

A little context:  In April 2013, the Obama administration proposed a historic $90+ billion early childhood education initiative. Ideaction's client, The First Five Years Fund (FFYF), and other leading advocacy groups organized a rally support for this historic investment and urge Congress to take action on the President’s proposal. The campaign was also planning events across the nation on June 5 – Early Education Day of Action. Ideaction’s challenge was to help the campaign raise awareness and rally action, quickly and on a limited budget, utilizing digital media. And we had that June 5 day (at the time just 2 weeks away) on our minds.

We reached out to designers and social media mavens to ask them for their advice.  We knew share graphics are an effective way to create social engagement, images have higher interaction rates. But we needed ideas about the best way to get quality graphics in such a short time frame. We talked with EPIC and with Design Cloud and others. How could we create the tools we needed quickly and within a manageable budget?  A tag team of conversations led us back to Corps member Sara Aye with Greater Good Studio who took the challenge outside of the box. How about a one-day Designathon? she said. Whaaaat? Neither of us had a specific model to refer to, but hackathons had become quite the rage so why couldn’t we do it for graphic design? The concept evolved until the plan for an 8-hour invite-only sprint event for graphic designers with speakers, respected judges and prize money made sense. We planned to do it on June 5, Early Education Day of Action, for an additional dose of urgency and momentum. To our knowledge this type of event for this purpose was the first of it’s kind.

Lesson #1: Get smarter, ask around for ideas. Collective wisdom and innovation does not always mean getting everyone together to brainstorm. As Steven Johnson said, “This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.”

To be honest, I was not sure the client was going to go for this idea. In fact, I sat on it for a day in a little fear. When I finally hit send and the response was good, exclamation point, I realized quickly I was silly to wait.

Lesson #2:  Go for it. The reason most ideas don’t happen is because people don’t hit “send.”  Ideas without action are worthless.

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

Albert Einstein

The team at Greater Good Studio took the Designathon idea and ran with it. Designers themselves with a young daughter, they were clearly personally invested and excited by the project. They brought in rock stars like former Obama for America Director of User Experience Jason Kunesh, five highly-respected creatives to serve as judges, four creative director advisors and 25 design competitors – representing freelancers and agencies such as Leo Burnett, Razorfish, Gravity Tank, Avenue among others. The judges, the advisors, and the participants – all volunteered their time. Even the event space was donated by Avenue. There was incredible energy around this event. People were excited to be a part of it and offered ideas and help we did not even ask for. At the end of the day--in less than 8 hours-- we produced 14 quality share graphics that are currently being used to ask Americans to sign a petition to support investments in early childhood education. The winning design was created by a team at Avenue (check it out and share it!). We also created a few new friendships among designers, and a fun opportunity for participants to learn from and connect with with seasoned creative directors.

Lesson #3:  Align talent with a purpose. Your chances of making something happen exponentially rise if you not only engage people who have the expertise to help but also have personal passion for the vision (listen for the excitement in their voice!). Give them the freedom to execute for you, and they will innovate the hell out of something. Invite them to find a solution to a problem they want to solve, and they will pull out all the stops.

I also want to highlight that while we had landed on a solution to developing digital messaging tools, we stayed focused on the ultimate purpose—get Congress to invest in early education.  To get closer to this we needed our audience, once engaged, to take action. It was after all Early Education Day of Action. So on a parallel track we worked with (another great B-Corp) to set up an online petition drive. This gave us specific action people could convert to and something we could measure, a needed step between engagement and impact. As of this writing, more than 22,000 people have signed the petition since June 5, generating 86,000+ letters to their Representative, Senators and the President.

Lesson #4:  Keep your eye on the ball. Include action you can measure, action that gets you closer to your ultimate goal.

Our ultimate goal for this project of course is policy change- we want Congress to increase investments in early childhood education, and that is yet to be seen. In concert with a very sophisticated grassroots campaign, the  infographics are now being used on social media to educate and engage the public around the urgent need for quality early childhood education.  The petition is still growing.  I think we are making a difference. When I can prove it, victory will be in ALL CAPS.

In the meantime, this meaningful project is more evidence innovation and impact can spring from people applying their talents and working together toward a shared vision. Which is good, because that’s why we founded Ideaction.

Please visit for more details and to sign the petition. More information about the desigathon and its' talented participants can be found here.


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