Interview with Designer: Marc O’Brien

• 7 minutes READ

I took the liberty of interviewing an amazing designer, Marc O’Brien who calls himself a social designer and creative facilitator. He prides himself on leading workshops which address challenges through unique exercises which result in unexpected solutions that achieve a common goal. Talk about cool, huh.

– What is it that you do?

– I use my design background to rapidly prototype and visualize those ideas to help move concepts forward. I also work in teams to produce and design experiences and projects that focus on creating positive change in the world.

Marc O’Brien

– On your website you call yourself a ‘social designer’. I love the sound of that title but what does it mean?

– A social designer works on projects that focus on creating a positive impact on the world by using design as a medium to achieve this.

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But I’ll be honest, I love and hate the title, “social designer.” I use that title for describing the work that I do so others can grasp what type of design I focus on. I cannot wait until we get to a point where “social design” simply becomes rolled into “design.” Should we treat social design separate from design in general?

– What does “Proceed and be bold” mean to you?

– Life can be scary. (Holy shit, it can be scary.) But we need to face some of the uncertainty. We need to move through the uncertainty in order for us to better ourselves.

For example, when we have that gut feeling that we’re “on to something” or when we have a crush on a girl and want to share our feelings with her, we need to move towards it even though we don’t know what to expect, what the outcome will be. But if we don’t, then what? We’ll always wonder, we’ll always say to ourselves, “If I only…”

Regret is not a good feeling. Proceed with your gut feeling, proceed with those feelings about that girl… regardless the outcome, you’ll be a better person by doing this. And when you’re acting on this, be bold as hell. Own it.

Marc O’Brien

– As designers we fill many different roles, wear many different hats; what are some that you enjoy the most?

– I love the facilitating hat. That seems to fit me pretty well. I also love being in a room with people and wearing the problem-solving hat. Although I’m not doing it as much lately, I love the design hat. Design will always be in my blood even if I’m focusing on more facilitating.

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I also like to wear this hat, my SEPT ’09–SEPT ’10 road map hat.

Marc O’Brien

– You have worked for a lot of different companies, which type environment do you prefer the best?

– I’ve been mostly freelancing since 2008, but I really enjoy being part of a small team, working towards a shared vision. That small team can be part of an established company, a startup, or a band of misfits working on a collective project. As long as the chemistry is in the room, the goal is set, and all ideas (good or stupid) are welcome, I’m a happy camper.

Marc O’Brien

– Is there any particular project you enjoyed working on the most?

– A lot of people have seen The Alabamboo Make & Ride project. I spearheaded that a few years ago. It was a personal goal that I turned into a bigger, more involved project with lots of other collaborators and moving parts. It really set the stage for me seeing how one can turn a personal idea into something more with the help of the internet, social media, design, and people that believe in you along the way.

– In one of your blog posts you said you view life in chapters, would you mind explaining what you mean?

– Most books are written in chapters with certain key events taking place within those chapters. I view life the same way. I may not know when a chapter starts, but I know when it ends which is usually when something life-changing happens or when I’ve relocated to a new city/town, or when someone in my life is no longer part of it. Then I stop and think about what I learned in that “chapter”—from start to finish. I then apply those lessons to the next chapter.

Marc O’Brien

– What are some awesome projects you are currently working on?

– I’m currently building up the confidence to build out Confidence.

Confidence is building the guts within hell-bent individuals by igniting the fire in their bellies to take their first step to work on meaningful projects—big and small. We do this through workshops, experiences, and collaboration.

I’m also working on something called Social Good Guides. These are a series of 20+ small business guides created to support startup and early stage social entrepreneurs and nonprofit founders, as well as anyone interested in producing projects with social impact. The goal of the guides is to centralize general knowledge and equip changemakers with information about the essential business skills a founder needs to be familiar with in order to achieve success during the startup phase of their venture building. I’m leading with strategy and creative direction on the guides. The SGG website also coming soon!

– You are one of the only designers who features his friends on his website, what made you do that?

– I’ve been extremely fortunate to have met amazing people along my crazy path since graduating VCU. I’m honored to not only call these people collaborators, but also friends. These people have inspired me so much that I feel more people need to know about them. Just sharing the love ;)

– What do you find to be the most rewarding about holding a workshop?

– The number of eyeballs that light up, the laughter in the room, the hi-fives being thrown around when people within groups come up with their “naked guy” idea after being exposed to some of my exercises.

Most importantly, the emails I get from workshop participants days or even weeks later, sharing with me that they’ve taken some of the principles and practices they’ve learned from the workshop and have applied it to their daily lives or creative process.

Marc O’Brien

– Do you attend many conferences? Do you have any favorites?

– I attend about 2-3 per year. My favorite? Without a doubt it’s “A Better World by Design.” Full disclosure though, I’ve been actively involved with that particular conference since 2009, but who cares, that conference is legit and is awesome. I mean, it’s a three-day conference put on by college students… college students know how to throw a party. I’m so inspired and re-energized when I leave Providence.

– Do you stay connected with many designer or industry friends?

– Most of my friends, especially in San Francisco, are designers or people in the design/innovation space. Although, after a few minutes of catching up with how work is going, we tend to not talk about design. That’s boring. We tend to go on camping trips, reimagine the world, or ask “What if…?” questions over a few rounds of beer. I’d like to think that my friends have great imaginations.

– How do you keep inspired; how do you stay motivated?

– By unplugging. By getting off this 15″ anchor called a laptop, and breaking a sweat by jogging, cycling, or hiking. I’ve been (officially) unplugging for about a year and document all of my #UnplugYou moments on

– Why do you enjoy being a designer?

– When I was in design school, a professor of mine showed us a comic depicting the prophet Muhammad in a negative way. This really hit me as a fresh/new design student. People died because of that comic. The photograph we publish or the poster we design can have a huge impact on the world. That’s a powerful responsibility we have to uphold.

I also enjoy design because we make ideas come to life. We make ideas visible for others to see and understand. These are ideas that can create positive change in the world… and there is a lot of change that needs to happen based on the current state of everything on this planet. If every designer used his or her talents to create a better life for their community, we’d be better off in so many ways.

– Who are your current role models?

– My parents are pretty rad. My dad taught me the importance of thinking for myself. My mom taught me how being a good friend to others can bring so much fulfillment to your own life.

My mentors that have taken me under their wing, allowing me to learn from them as much as I can about the design, entrepreneurship, and innovation space.

Those punk rock bands, past and present, that inspire kids to question authority, believe in a cause, and to “do it yourself.”

Young people. The “millennials” that are not accepting the status-quo and doing something about it.


Twitter: @think5577

Paula Borowska

Paula Borowska is an innovative and insightful Senior UX Designer at CVS Health, known for her relentless pursuit of designing the best user experiences. As an expert in design systems, user testing, accessibility, and cross-team collaboration, Paula is dedicated to enhancing digital experiences for all users. Paula possesses the rare combination of technical skill, creative thinking, and strong communication abilities. Her dedication to user-centered design and her advocacy for inclusive digital experiences make her an invaluable asset to any organization.

Posts by Paula Borowska
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