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Concrete brand talk in an ephemeral world

9 Questions with EPIC founder Erin Huizenga

Erin Huizenga talks at an EPIC celebration; photo by Chris Ocken

At Hexanine we’ve always been interested in practically using our design and branding skills to give back. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different ways of doing “pro bono” work to worthy organizations. Some have been individual relationships based on need, others were group efforts intent on doing more for cash-strapped non-profit organizations (NPOs). But I’ve never had a more focused, fulfilling experience than my time as part of an EPIC creative team earlier this year.

EPIC is a non-profit organization founded by Chicago design veteran Erin Huizenga, and she has rallied a team of great people around her to provide the framework for great work created for worthy NPOs. In my “creative rally” group I was teamed with a handful of other creative professionals to work with the great organization, Literacy Chicago. Not only did the experience yield great thinking and excellent work for Literacy Chicago, but the process was incredibly rewarding, stimulating, and gratifying. EPIC is the rare idea-turned-reality that shows how huge an impact design can have. Erin is also a good friend of mine, and she kindly agreed to an interview to tell us more about EPIC.

Tim Lapetino: You founded the non-profit organization EPIC. Could you describe its mission and vision to us?

Erin Huizenga: Our mission is to engage creatives in social change. We are doing this by putting together teams of creatives, who don’t normally work together, to do great things for nonprofit organizations. In the future as we get larger, we hope to begin to grow to a national level, to offer workshops to non-profit organizations and board of directors training to creative professionals!

Literacy Chicago team; photo by Greg Hinchman

TL: For EPIC creative “rallies”, teams are hand-picked from qualified volunteers, to provide balanced teams who will best be able to meet the NPO client’s needs. My particular team included two designers, two copywriters, a project manager, photographer and a creative director. The size and breadth of that kind of team seems like a luxury for most NPOs, and even many typical client projects! Why did you settle on this way of working, and how is it different from a lone designer volunteering with an NPO?

EH: It’s different in so many ways: teams get an opportunity to work with a team of folks they have never met or worked with, thus learning the concepting, designing, production habits/styles of many different avenues of experience. These people also get to work with top, award-winning creative director leaders, and the creative directors get a chance to mentor/coach/learn from people who don’t work for them–freeing them to have fun with the relationships and the work. Friendships and new networks develop while the NPOs get an amazing amount of thought capital and RANGE of talent from the team, rather than from just one individual. Also, commitment is inevitable since the team is signed up and accountable to one another.

Creative team for Casa of Cook County; photo by Chris Ocken

TL: How did the format (the creative director’s firm serves as host office and meeting place) and process of the EPIC creative “rallies” develop? Did you have a previous model to follow?

EH: The idea of meeting together at an office is inspired by how we work as creatives in the corporate, or real, world. I see EPIC as a new model of design office, having many collaborators who work at night for clients they are sincerely passionate about. We “rally” together because we are all that committed and passionate about seeing change. We aren’t paid and no one has to be there because it’s a “job”. Everyone commits to it because it’s part of who they are. And through that, EPIC becomes a movement–an expression, an ownership, an outward remark on who we are as a body of creative professionals who believe that we can make a difference with our amazing talents.

TL: You are a veteran in the Chicago design scene and are connected to many of the great designers in this city. Can you tell us about your design background, and how did those experiences shape your vision for EPIC?

EH: I have been fortunate to work for some of the best design and marketing agencies in the great city of Chicago. SamataMason, VSA, gravitytank, jones, IDEO, and others. There is nothing better than a great solution for a great client at the perfect time. As I’ve worked with hundreds of creative professionals over the years, I noticed that so many people wanted a venue or some mechanism for giving back with their extreme talents. They wanted something more meaningful than simply taking over some NPO freelance work or volunteering over a weekend here and there. This is how EPIC was born, from an insight that we could make giving back more meaningful and inspirational…and have fun doing it.

TL: What led you to the creation of EPIC? How did it come about?

EH: The inspirations began with dozens and dozens of journal entries. I was writing down ideas about others around me who inspired me at the time–things that were already happening that I respect and admire. And my husband and I started to brainstorm about what a business model could look like for EPIC–how could it function most realized? Then I started to draft a written plan that would make sense to people who read it (not just my crazy journal!) and began to recruit board members who believed in my idea, and who were passionate, committed people as well.

TL: What has the response been from those nonprofit clients involved?

EH: Every nonprofit has been intensely thankful for what EPIC has been able to offer them. Creatives who come together can accomplish SO much in such a short time period. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from NPOs that say it best:

“I want to thank you for the brilliant work you’ve carried out with EPIC over the past several months on behalf of Literacy Chicago. As the effort wraps and our new materials soon become a reality, the depth of your accomplishment is all the more impressive and humbling. How can we ever thank you for assembling the team and doing such a wonderful work for us? I hope you can understand the magnitude of your efforts, and how much good an organization like EPIC does.” -Barry Benson, Executive Director, Literacy Chicago

“The Organic School Project staff gasped in AWE when we initially opened the home page. AWE, you guys. Everybody loves it, and we are so happy to finally be entering the 21st century with a website that works for us instead of against us!” -Sen Haines, Organic School Project

Also, we’ve just begun our EPIC Fellow program. Our 2010 winner is a recent MBA grad who will be helping us to build case studies and a case study template by researching and interviewing our NPO clients to gain insight into measuring just how much of an impact EPIC rallies have had/will have on NPO organizations. This will help us to grow fans of EPIC and donors/partners to EPIC because they will quickly see how EPIC makes an impact.

Team at Organic School Project rally; photo by Greg Hinchman

TL: As I mentioned earlier, my team and I had an excellent experience working together for the first time. It is different working with people you don’t know, while still being tied together by the bond of all volunteering. It was refreshing and stimulating for us. Tell us about the reactions of other creative professionals who’ve participated in creative rallies. Who has been a part of the rallies and organization?

EH: We’ve had great response from so many involved people, and some of their quotes are here at the EPIC site. Volunteers have come from Thirst, VSA Partners, Grip Design, Threadless, a5 Inc., Simple Truth, gravitytank and many, many others.

TL: It seems like this generation of designers has a hunger to be involved outside of the typical design workday. Besides taking part in EPIC rallies, what is your advice to designers who want to make a difference with their talents?

EH: Be brave enough to tackle a problem before it’s identified as a problem by someone else.

TL: How can people get involved with EPIC?

EH: Creative pros can apply on our site and NPOs can do so as well. They can also join us next Thursday for our end-of-the-year fundraising party on Thursday, November 12, at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. We will have a silent auction with amazing art and prizes, an exhibition of the year’s work, a People’s Choice Award voting, and great food and cocktails. Tickets are available and are discounted in advance. We’d love to see many of you there!

Nov 6 2009

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4 Responses to “9 Questions with EPIC founder Erin Huizenga”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steve Tanner, Hexanine. Hexanine said: 9 questions with Erin Huizenga, founder of Chicago org EPIC: [...]

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by hexanine: 9 questions with Erin Huizenga, founder of Chicago org EPIC:

  3. [...] ways, using our time and expertise to help others. We’ve mentioned before the great work that Erin Huizenga’s EPIC organization is doing, and our part in it. We talked with Chicago Tribune “Minding Your [...]

  4. [...] celebration of great creative teams working with worthy non-profit clients. At Hexanine we’re big believers in the mission of EPIC and its founder, Erin Huizenga. Join us tonight at Catalyst Ranch [...]

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