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3 ways Special Olympics helps me be a better designer

A personal essay from a Storytelling Studio designer

Cover: Special Olympics Logo surrounded by design wireframes

My older sister was born with Down Syndrome, so I have coached and volunteered with Frederick, Maryland’s Special Olympics program my whole life. Until recently I had never thought about what volunteering teaches me, and how it affects my life, because it has just been second nature for our family. Volunteering with the Special Olympics helps me think differently and has led me to be a more caring person. The more I think about how to care for others, the more I realize that same thought process is what makes me a good designer.

Compassion → Understanding → Connecting with an audience

Volunteering is good for the soul. It makes you feel amazing knowing you brought happiness or helped another person in some way. When you look around and see people who are smiling and laughing, you can’t help but feel a connection with them. The next thing you know you’re invested — in that moment, that day, and in my case, the last 15 years of my life. With all of these feels, you can’t help but find new ways to care about people and be a more compassionate human being.

I strongly believe that understanding how to empathize and show compassion for people translates into your work (any work really, not just design). Research is without a doubt the best way to discover that connection for me. The more I learn about a topic, the more I find myself caring about it. From there, I understand what will be most important to the audience and how to design around those themes. When I find myself frustrated with a project, in most cases it’s a matter of needing to understand what I am designing for. If I can’t make that connection, neither can my audience.

The best pieces I read are ones that utilize their visuals, photos, and words in an emotionally engaging way, whether it’s an intriguing photo, a perfect hue of blue, or that oh-so-subtle visual metaphor. These key components to a piece are what hold my attention, help me understand, and most importantly, make me care. That’s when a little key-shaped internet-ghost hand reaches in and unlocks my heart. As a designer, I would never be able to create any of those elements without first understanding what I am designing for. If a designer understands and really cares about the topic first, connecting with their audience will come naturally. Use your brain to design with your heart.

Predictability versus the surprise

You make a lot of friends in Special Olympics. You get to know some of the athletes so well that you know what they like, what they don’t like, what motivates them to be better athletes, and what makes them mad. This isn’t unique to Special Olympics. This is basically true with any living being you make a personal relationship with. You can eventually predict what they are going to do in certain situations. Parents, I am sure, can relate to this with their kids. My wife and I do it all the time. And then, just when you think you know everything about that person…they surprise you.

a surprise jack in the box

I believe this element of surprise to be especially true in Special Olympics. There is a stigma that has been created around people with disabilities and it affects our perception of them. You might naturally underestimate them — many people do. More often than not, people are just uncomfortable or even afraid of people with disabilities. When you volunteer and get to know them, you realize they are just as capable as any of us. And for those who underestimated people with disabilities it can be surprising just how capable they really are. They say things that are truly, truly hilarious. They show triumph, love and support, and it moves you.

Design can be equally surprising in how it elicits emotions. Users will always go into our packages and stories underestimating them, or at the very least on neutral ground, and it is our job to surprise them. Use the predictability of a web page and flip it on its head. This can be channelled through interactivity, pacing, and the relationship between the words and visuals that we use. We need to think more about how we can surprise our audiences.

Non-conventional means of communication

More often than not, our discomfort with persons with disabilities comes from our inability to establish clear communication. Online, if you feel you aren't making a connection with a piece, you can just close the tab and move on. You don’t change your approach by trying to understand it, you just move on to the next thing the Internet has to offer. When you fail to connect with someone or something it becomes impossible to understand who or what they really are and what they have to offer.

a smart device with hearing, seeing, talking, icons on it

Working with Special Olympics has taught me to be more flexible in how I communicate with the athletes. There are people with hearing, visual, and attention impairments that you have to adapt to. You can’t close the tab here. I might know that Person A needs to make eye contact to communicate, but Person B doesn’t relate to that at all so I have to include strong visual examples with him or her. And maybe Person C is deaf, so I have to at least know the alphabet in Sign Language, which means finding different ways to communicate whether it’s through eye contact, strong visuals, hand gestures, etc. What works for Person A doesn’t necessarily work for Person B, and what works for Person B definitely doesn’t work for Person C. That’s only three letters in JUST the English alphabet! There are a billion ways we communicate with each other and we should utilize that to our advantage.

In face-to-face situations and when volunteering, you adapt to communicate. When you are creating content for the Internet, you don’t physically see the needs required in order to establish communication. And it is very easy to forget about users who require different means of communication. Why? Because they don’t make up a majority of the population or our audience numbers. When you are in the real world, you can’t just ignore people because you don’t feel like being flexible. The same should go for online spaces.

Vox Media has developed a set of accessibility guidelines, and a solid bravo should go to anyone who continues to find new ways to making content more accessible. We’ve written blog posts about the process and made presentations available as well. When designing, these considerations of how we communicate to our audience should always be part of our process and not treated like an afterthought.

Take a second and reflect on the big puzzle pieces of your life and maybe you can find some answers about why you are the way you are: why you think a certain way or why are you in the job you are in. You might be surprised at the parallels in your life.

Bonus lessons I’ve learned:

  • Everyone just wants to be treated with the respect and attitude that every human being deserves.
  • When we discover how to change ourselves in order to communicate rather than change someone else, our understanding becomes much clearer.

Reach out to me ( if you are interested in volunteering with the Special Olympics or want to know more about my experience with Special Olympics Frederick.

Illustrations by Tyson Whiting