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DSI Alum Tanya Bhandari Helps Scale Innovation Around the World at UNICEF

Currently, Tanya is a Design Lead at YLabs in San Francisco, California. To read about her more recent work, visit her website.

Those who come to DSI imagine the world as a different and hopefully better place. Tanya Bhandari (Class of ’14) is putting that ambition to work in her role as a communication designer at UNICEF’s Innovation Unit in NYC.

At UNICEF, Tanya works on projects ranging from systems mapping to brand management and design strategy, physical and digital interaction design to publication design. Much of Tanya’s work revolves around the prototyping, deployment and scaling up of various innovation products in multiple countries: you can read more about them here.

On top of that, Tanya stays connected to DSI as a teaching assistant with Asi Burak’s Games for Impact class, and we recently grabbed a few minutes to catch up with what she’s been doing.

“In the two years that I have spent at the Innovation Unit, I have got the chance to work with our innovation labs on the ground and many country offices, designing across cultures and languages. I have created tools that have helped streamline the process of deployment for these countries, which has helped greatly specially in times of emergency like the Ebola crisis in late 2014 or the Nepal earthquake in April 2015. I have also travelled to our innovation lab and country office in Kampala, Uganda to research and develop a plan for U-Report Uganda – our flagship youth engagement tool.”

As part of the small design team that services a global innovation network, Tanya works with data scientists, engineers, academic partners and product managers. She says, “All the different parts of DSI, from game design to data visualization, have been useful at some point or other in this job”.

Part of Tanya’s role is to coordinate with UNICEF’s country offices when a new tool is deployed, from managing branding to ensuring that the assets used are fit for the cultural context. It can be daunting and there’s no room for error, even with the quick turnaround times. She works closely with the team leads to ensure that everything that is being deployed has been fact checked and signed off.

Working for a global agency like UNICEF, rapid response to emergencies is a vital aspect of the Innovation Unit’s role. In 2014, Tanya assisted the team in deploying a social messaging tool using basic mobile phones as Ebola was starting to spread in Liberia – enabling health workers and others to report symptoms, track the spread of disease, and send and receive vital information instantly. The unit is now responding as the Zika virus spreads through Brazil. Things move fast: “There’s not a lot of room for beautiful design but there’s a lot of need for quick prototypes and functional design.”

So how did her experience at DSI prepare Tanya for such a crucial role?

Coming from a graphic design background, Tanya found adapting to working in teams where not everyone is a designer was a new challenge. Having to get up to speed on the issues quickly when working with a team to create something useful was great preparation for her UNICEF role. She credits her DSI experience with giving her the ability to work with team members to explain complex ideas through mapping, sketches and presentations.

Tanya came straight to grad school from an undergrad in Graphic Design at the MIT Institute of Design, Pune, India. Asked how she chose DSI, she says: “I didn’t know what to go to for grad school for… I looked at a lot of options in things I was already interested in – graphic design, photography, illustration. But nothing was calling out to me and nothing made sense.“ Browsing SVA’s graduate programs, she came across DSI’s original PDF brochure. Social innovation design was a new phrase to her, but the ideas expressed somehow seemed to matched what she’d been thinking about, and with projects that she’d done in the past and had really enjoyed “Without knowing this could be a field, I found that it was a field.” Tanya went though the usual back and forth of such a big life decision, and soon became one of the intrepid 20 students in DSI’s first graduating Class of ‘14.

“I met a bunch of really cool people and that was my most valuable takeaway – these 20 people in the program who were all so different, from all over the world, became my New York family, without whom this program wouldn’t have been what it was.”

Photos: (1) Tanya Bhandari with Interaction (design + communication) team at UNICEF Innovation. (2) SVA Graduation, 2014. (3) From Tanya’s thesis project, Votever.
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