Working and Playing at the UNICEF Innovation Unit

By Bhavika Aggarwal, 2015 Fall Design Fellow

Bhavika Aggarwal and Minji Gim
Bhavika Aggarwal and Minji Gim at the United Nations during General Assembly week. Photo: Mari Nakano

Last fall, the UNICEF Innovation Unit accorded me a wonderfully exciting opportunity to volunteer with the Visual Strategy team as a Design Fellow. As part of the fellowship, I came in twice a week to the 6th floor open office at the New York headquarters. The space itself is a continuous work-in-progress. Mari and Tanya are relentless in their efforts to make it a more enjoyable, comfortable and inspiring environment for the team.

That they spend so much of their time – decidedly precious time, at that – designing a better experience for their colleagues, is a great example of how the team doesn’t just work together, they have fun together.

Participating in the lively, often crazy, and always affectionate work culture that the Innovation Unit embraces, pushed me to contribute my best, and created many opportunities for meaningful conversations with people who have incredible life experiences.

These people, who remain so passionate towards their work and the goals of UNICEF, are at the heart of what makes the Innovation Unit so successful and exciting. I most enjoyed the weekly meetings on Thursday, where the team all huddle together for updates and discussion. There are often guests, and people joining in on tele-conference or via a telepresence robot. Here I could observe the team dynamics and learn, almost from osmosis, about how much effort goes into actually making things happen. This insight into the team’s thought process and strategic approach was particularly rewarding.

Internet of Good Things logo
Iterations of the Internet of Good Things logo

Mari and the Innovation Unit made it super easy to balance the fellowship with my full-time responsibilities as a final year student at the MFA Designer as Author and Entrepreneur programme at the School of Visual Arts, and offered valuable feedback on my graduate thesis project.

mTrac logo
Redesigning the mTrac logo

I worked on a wide range of projects, and supported on several long-term tasks. It was great to see how the work that Mari, Tanya, Minji and I did as the Visual Strategy team made relevant contributions to the operations of a large intergovernmental humanitarian organization. I attended some fascinating talks and brown bags, played around with a telepresence robot, made fun GIFs and cut out a lot of blue triangles, experienced virtual reality, visited the United Nations headquarters during the General Assembly, participated in a Secret Santa, tried a few of the seriously delicious lunch places nearby, and overall just had an incredible time being around super smart, super nice people.

Prototype of a guest card.
Prototype of cards to give out to guests.

The Innovation Unit introduced me to a dynamic, iterative and intensely collaborative design process, and I was able to engage in the great environment that emerges from prioritizing solutions over problems. The fellowship was truly valuable and fulfilling, and has made me a better designer and a more conscientious person. Much love and thanks to the team for making this the wonderful experience that it was. I’ll miss lunch hour 🙂

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