Mary Cook of UsCreates: “Starting a business right out of Uni is a great idea. You’ve got nothing to lose”

Mary Rose Cook is one of the founders and managing directors of UsCreates, a creative consultancy with a focus on social change. Ten years ago, Mary and her then-classmate Zoe Stanton started UsCreates after graduating from the BA Design course at Goldsmiths. Read our interview to find out what Mary has to say on strategic design for social change and running one’s own business:

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Q: How did you end up studying at Goldsmiths in the first place and what were your expectations when you got here?

A: I looked at a few different universities and decided on Goldsmiths partly because my family was in London, but also because of the reputation of arts and design from Goldsmiths. I don’t know if I had any great expectations, but I thought the whole experience was eye-opening. I think I arrived with a limited understanding of design, which in my mind was a lot more about art direction and aesthetics, and I left with a new way of thinking about generating ideas and problem solving, which now I know as design thinking.

Q: What was it like for you on the course? Did you enjoy the experience?

A: Yes, I really enjoyed my time at Goldsmiths… it was a four-year programme then. I remember the first year being the real eye-opener as to the conceptual nature of the design course, and I really struggled in that first year to get up to speed with the way of thinking and the way of learning being promoted. It was very different to the school environment I’d been in. In my second year, I started to get it, and then towards the end I really found my pace and really understood and took on board the Goldsmiths way of teaching and presenting design. By the end of it, I loved it, and my final year was brilliant- I loved being able to focus on just one project for a whole year, and properly research, trial things out and explore, see them through to the end.

Q: In a way, the purpose of the course is to help students figure out by themselves what kind of designer they want to be. How did you figure out what kind of designer you wanted to be?

A: I think that was one of the tricky parts about the course. It’s so broad, you dabble in lots of different areas, I learned a little bit about graphic design, a little bit about web design, a bit about furniture design, a bit about product design, a lot about the conceptual thinking behind generating new ideas, and by the end of it I was more confused about the type of designer I wanted to be. I left a sort of jack-of-all-trades and master of none. The big thing that Goldsmiths taught us was how to think differently about subjects; but that was tricky to then go out into the working world and promote these skills, because there were few jobs that specifically wanted this in isolation. Most jobs want to see what level of skill you have in Photoshop, or with CAD, or with different web packages.

Q: How did you start out your career after you finished your studies?

A: In my final year, I focused on a project about helping people to simplify and connect with cooking – regardless of their experience, age or literacy levels.  At the time it was very topical, because there was a lot of press going on about the state of our young children and what they’re eating in school, and the fact that children were not being taught any skills around how to eat more healthily and how to cook for themselves. Also, my friend Zoe Stanton’s final year project was about eating and drinking etiquette, and looking at the social norms around eating and drinking.  Together we looked at what we were doing, and we really enjoyed the social side of the design work we were producing; we wanted to explore that further. We were aware that there was a course being run by NESTA, who would take creative graduates who had business ideas that were either technologically, or socially focused. Together, we put together a business plan on how design could address social challenges, we put it forward to NESTA and we received funding from them to set up Uscreates.

Q: Tell us a bit about Uscreates- what is it that you do?

A: We are a communication and service design company that works specifically to create social impact. That means that the type of work we do tends to be with the public and charitable sector, just because of the social nature of it, but we also do work with a few private businesses that are looking to improve their corporate social responsibility. I suppose the best way to describe what we do is to actually give you an example of a project.

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A really interesting project that we’re working on at the moment is with a cancer clinic. We’ve been asked to review patient flow around the clinic, and what their experience is like when they’re receiving their cancer treatment. The aims of the work is to improve the patient experience, as well as staff engagement, and finally make the service more efficient. It’s that service efficiency side which is really important, because if the service isn’t efficient it’s wasting money, and ultimately patients won’t get the treatment they need in the long term. So we’ve spent about 3 weeks shadowing patients and staff around the clinic, we observed what they did, where they went, how they felt about certain treatments, about their environment, about their interaction with members of staff, and we logged all that information and created customer journey maps. Through that work, we could see that there were 3 key areas within the cancer clinic that needed improvement. One was about patient recognition from staff: how could staff better understand and recognise the needs of patients? There was a second area which was about how pharmacy could become more efficient at creating and administrating drugs to the patient, because there were big time delays that were causing patients to spend more time there than they needed to. The third area was around the scheduling of patients into their treatments, as there seemed to be a lot of wasted time between patients who need treatment, and the beds that they use are often empty for long periods of time, which means that the clinic isn’t as effective as it could be. We are working in a collaborative way with clinical staff, administration and the senior management board, to redesign these parts of the service.

Q: What does the word “design” mean to you in this context, then?

A: For me, it’s a problem-solving approach, which results in the development of well-communicated and produced outcomes.

Q: What would you say to students who want to end up working in the same field? How should they start out, what should they do first?

A: I would say, use your time at Goldsmiths to really start gearing up and understand how your design skills may be of use in this industry.  Over the years, we’ve had many design interns and graduates working with us, and the ones who fit in really well and continued to work with us are those who have the right attitude, but also know how their skills can add value to what we do. I think it’s having a good understanding of where your individual design skills lay, and if it is in being strategic and solving problems, seeing problems in new lights and being able to improve services and communications- then try and get an internship to get into this field of work.

Q: What would you say is the position of this particular sector you’re working in, within the larger industry? Is its status on the rise? How do you see the evolution of social change through design?

A: Design for social change is being more widely recognised; within that, I think that there are specialisms that are becoming even more recognised than the social change element in itself. Service design is a very well recognised specialism of design now, but it being applied to the area of social change is still fairly new, although becoming more well-regarded. We find that when we talk to clients, they understand far more about what we do as service designers and communication designers than five years ago, when, if we mentioned the word “design”, they thought we would just be doing their website. So yes, it’s definitely a growing industry, I’m excited to see what will come out of it in the next few years.

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Q: How would you describe in a nutshell your day-to-day work?

A: A lot of my day to day work is actually managing projects and managing the business, so I don’t get to do as much design work as the people delivering the project. That is, I think, the nature of growing a business; but there are times that I would like to be doing more of the design work itself.  Zoe and myself make sure that we still deliver on projects as well as oversee the development of the business and the management of the projects. Saying that. growing a business is still one big design challenge; we’re still designing where we want to take the business and what we want to achieve from it, and we still apply the same skills that we learned at Goldsmiths, from setting a brief, imagining the possibilities and designing how we are going to get there.

Q: Would you recommend to young designers that they start their own business? Does it require great bravery or a great leap of faith?

A: No, I think starting a business right out of university is a great idea. You’ve got nothing to lose, you’re probably the poorest you’ve ever been, so if you’re starting a business and it doesn’t work out, you haven’t lost anything. Also, certainly for myself, there was a naivety about what it would take to set up a business that I think is useful to draw on, because it gives you energy, you don’t have much fear, you just go out and give it a go. I think it’s more difficult, once you’ve been working for a few years, to leave a job that pays you regularly, to then set up a business that you’re not sure whether it’s going to work or not. I think that’s the really brave part.

Q: Where do the skills required for being a designer intersect with the skills required for being an entrepreneur?

A: I think the problem solving and idea generation skills that you learn as a designer are really closely linked to being an entrepreneur; you have to look for opportunities, you have to assess situations, you have to see what’s not working and what could work, you have to have a vision to where it could go and come up with ideas –  I think all that is very similar to design.

Interview by Nadia Barbu. Photos courtesy of Mary Rose Cook