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DSI / Social Design
About DSI

Karina Davila (‘17) is Using Social Innovation for Economic Equity at Visa and Beyond

For the past year and a half, ‘17 Alum Karina Davila has been honing her skills in research and user experience design with Visa’s Innovation Centers in San Francisco. As their Senior UX Designer of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, her work varies from client to client, but the ultimate goal is advancing widespread financial inclusion in the formal global economy. She and her team are constantly seeking and testing new ways to include everyone—from banks and merchants to those in populations of lower socioeconomic standing—in widespread economic exchange.

Since first starting with Visa at their Miami Innovation Hub, Karina has worked with various communities across the Latin American region, such as lower socioeconomic populations in Argentina and the Dominican Republic, and students in Peru. Since joining Visa’s San Francisco team, Karina has primarily worked in the U.S. and Canada, and is now going to begin further development of inclusive design and accessibility methods in the moment of payment. Regardless of location, the work with clients typically takes on a similar format. First, a client will approach them with a problem, Visa will help craft a formal problem statement to ensure the right issue is being addressed, and Karina’s team then conducts design research that often involves going out into the field and speaking directly with clients and their communities.

Though she never imagined that she would end up employed at Visa–saying she once assumed it was just a card-processing company that didn’t particularly interest her–she quickly realized the company’s hidden depths. Since beginning her job there, she has discovered that “Visa is one of the biggest social impact companies in the world. Everyone has at least one card in their wallet with the Visa logo on it. We affect the way a lot of people experience the world, and we have a chance to expand those experiences responsibly and make a truly good impact.”

Karina wasn’t always involved in the field of social innovation. She began her professional career in Miami as a graphic designer specializing in print, and loaned her talents to various marketing firms and businesses for a few years before arriving at DSI. It didn’t take her long to realize that she wanted her work to have a larger purpose and needed to find ways to improve people’s lives through design.

Before even applying to DSI, Karina and her husband moved to New York City because she knew she wanted to get an MFA in design. Though the results of her many Google searches for “designer with a purpose” and “how to help people through design” yielded a handful of design programs in NYC that caught her attention, DSI ultimately stood out because of its specific focus on social impact.

“That was my North Star—I wanted to help people through design. So I went to DSI.”

And she has been. Alongside the important work she does with Visa, Karina has taken on multiple side projects, such as volunteering with elefint, a small design firm in Oakland that assists local nonprofits. Her main goal on this project was to help community youth organization Freedom Forward build a service experience map and establish consistent branding for their LaunchPads app, which aims to end chronic homelessness within the extended foster care community by pairing youth in the system with people willing to house them for discounted rent.

Karina has also been revisiting and expanding upon her original plans to design for people dealing with trauma. Personal experience with trauma was one of the driving forces behind her need to help people through design—specifically others dealing with similar feelings. She began this pursuit recently by collaborating with a survivors group to find ways to responsibly design workplaces that are inclusive to people healing from sexual trauma, and how to formulate action plans that help communities deal with the repercussions of these harrowing experiences.

Though this is the kind of practice Karina initially wanted to pursue, she has taken her time branching into it. She found that DSI taught her the importance of balancing personal experience with design research, stating that:

“One of the first things you learn as a designer doing any kind of human-centered design is that you’re supposed to separate yourself from whatever it is that you’re researching or designing. Because you’re not designing for yourself—you have to listen to the communities that you’re designing for… The experience gives you credibility, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know what’s best for other people that went through it. Your experience is different from everyone else’s.”

In addition to learning how essential it is to distance the self from the craft, Karina identified the importance of vulnerability and leadership in design as two major takeaways from her time here at DSI. She fondly remembers Karen Proctor’s Leadership class, where she realized the true mark of a good leader is simply showing up for others while maintaining an authenticity that makes people want to listen. DSI taught her how to be true to herself and still respond to the room as needed.

When asked what advice she may have for current students and potential applicants, Karina had these wise words to say:

“My advice to them would be don’t panic, stay curious, and trust the process. If you think you’re the only person in the room who knows exactly what you’re doing, you’re doing something wrong. You should be in a state of discovery —of awe, of curiosity of not knowing where you’re going. If you’re in the unknown, you’re in a really good space; that means you’re opening yourself up to learn, to one-up your skills, and to become better.”

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