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June 17, 2014

A short (family) story

by allisonmwong

Allison Wong

To explain some of the things I’ve been reflecting on the past week (the first week of my fellowship!) I want to tell you a little bit about my brother.  While this post is unrelated to the actual work I’ve been doing (more on that soon to come), I think this background helps set the context for why I’m so excited about this work.

For RISD students, I think many of us share similar childhood experiences.  We were understood to be the “artsy” ones in the family: the person responsible for setting up the decorations at holidays, for populating the walls with early masterpieces done with fingers and paint – and later with more sophisticated versions executed in acrylic and charcoal.  As a girl who (grudgingly) settled for having a pet fish in lieu of a warm-blooded pet, my art for about a decade heavily featured dogs or variations on that theme (dog and pumpkin; dog and car; dog with fireworks, dog in a stream).

My older brother, Nate, has always been brilliant – though less creatively inclined.  According to legend, Nate spent a large portion of his first trip to Disneyland reading a book.  The year I was a dog for Halloween, my brother was a billionaire.  Throughout high school, my brother was on the debate team, making it to state and national championships several times.  I have always felt challenged by words.


Nate and Allison at age 6 and 4.  

When my brother graduated from USC two years ago with a degree in International Relations, many people envisioned him going off to law school.  For a while, he worked in a law firm assisting the attorneys with intellectual property research while studying for the LSAT. However, somewhere things changed and that path no longer made as much sense.

Nate recently got a job at Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest health care providers in the US, putting his research skills to work in the Creative Solutions division.  This has sent him in a direction that has unexpectedly crossed into the realm of many things I have been interested in.  Now he sends me articles about design innovations in healthcare, most recently about the high tech hospitals of the future.

How did I end up here, and my brother in the Creative Solutions team at Kaiser?  When I came to RISD in 2010, I never imagined that just a few years later I would be undertaking an internship embedded in a law center.  And in my first week, it’s been difficult – and exciting – to figure out exactly what my place is here, within the Center for Justice.

People have asked me – so what does it mean that you’re a designer at a law center?  Are you designing their logo?  Well, no.  One of the amazing opportunities of this fellowship is that it’s challenging me to think about and communicate what the value of design thinking is to a field like public interest law.  I think the simplest way to think about it is that designers are great at observing and understanding how people interact with the systems, products, and services around them.  Designers see the human pain points and envision ways to make things work better for people.  This skill can be applied to many different fields – including the legal system.  The challenge now is for me – along with the awesome people mentoring me and whom I’m working with – to figure out how exactly I can apply this to a specific research agenda that will help support and build on the mission of the new RI Center for Justice.

The irony of me and my brother’s crossed paths has challenged me to reconsider the mental divisions I’ve drawn between different modes of work. Artist. Intellectual. Creative. Researcher. Thinker. Practitioner. Designer.  Titles can help identify but they’re often irrelevant in the context of interdisciplinary work – none of these qualities exists in a vacuum.  My design education has helped me understand design more as a method of approaching problems and investigating the world than as a particular set of outcomes.  And I’m excited to discover what that really means this summer in the context of legal work.


My first week = absorbing LOTS of info about public interest law and the local landscape!

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