The People and Stories Behind Design For A Difference

Experience the movement that is transforming spaces and people across the U.S. and Canada. Inspiring and informative, this blog is dedicated to all of those who make a difference with design in our every day lives.

Little Did We Know

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel..

Maya Angelou
August 2014, Detroit

The walls were covered in old, dingy brown paneling, the kind I remembered from visiting a trailer park when I was a kid. Tiny streams of dusty light filtered through the orange frosted vertical windows behind our client, casting a warm glow over the gathering. In it, a musty odor hung heavy around us, one that was reminiscent of living in poverty, infused with the smell of elementary school hot lunches- neither of which I had ever experienced.  

Reaching for my pen, I wondered if we could possibly pull-off a camera-worthy design AND impact the use of this decrepit space. Will one room make this 1960’s courthouse any better for the 40 souls who are transported from group homes every day? How will we raise enough money to add more than the new floor promised to us from our sponsor? Who will rally, or even step foot in this place to help paint walls, install furniture or assist with the design process I am about to embark? 

Matt Pfieffer, owner of Northern Flooring & Interiors, was getting acquainted with Sharon as I ran through my list of fears. Personable as always, he made it effortless for her to explain the desperate state of operations and exhausting tasks of her daily routine. She was soft spoken and kind in her replies, and the friendly exchange soothed my anticipation. There was a natural pause in the conversation as they noticed that I was all set to take notes. “Are you ready to get started, kiddo?” Matt asked, with full-faith in my interview skills. I smiled, imagined our modest 12×14 room, and shelved the “what ifs.” Yellow legal pad open, I began:

“Sharon, as you know, we would like to focus our makeover efforts on the visitor room because it’s the only space that has natural light. Our goal is to transform it into a multi-purpose room that will enable you to serve more people throughout the day.” She nodded with a twinkle in her eye as I continued. “Tell me, if you didn’t have to worry about cost, what does your dream for this room look like?” I always start with something like this, ‘give me the dream, and we’ll see what we can do…’   

We kept eye contact as she clasped her hands on the table and leaned forward, as if preparing to share a secret. She said nothing for a couple of seconds. I was expecting a list, an unattainable list that I would strategically scale back to stay within the budget. Then I noticed tears rolling down her cheeks. Giant tears that exuded more emotion than I’d ever received from someone I hardly knew. Matt and I relaxed our business posture and tentatively leaned in to greet her response.  

“Honey, we are so honored that you even WANT to help us in any way, we will love anything you do to this room,” she began. “We’ve never had anyone walk-in off the street and offer to make our situation better.”  

She didn’t have a list. I was humbled. And embarrassed. Embarrassed by my “all about business” attitude. Embarrassed by allowing myself to worry about the task at hand.  And embarrassed that I thought for a second she might act like a client and actually share her list of needs and wants as if we were going to be making trips to the design center and discussing the difference between silk and wool. 

This charity makeover idea was not another network design show. It was unscripted and it was real. It may have been created for the International Design Guild by a Hollywood celebrity designer, but, in this moment, I clearly understood the “why.” I reached for her hands with tears in my eyes. Matt removed his glasses and joined us with full respect for what was happening. The rest was a blur. I don’t remember what my exact response was, but the three of us took rest in the moment, allowing ourselves to bond in a way that changed my view of giving back forever.

What happened over the next 6 weeks was nothing short of miraculous. We rallied our friends, families, and business partners. We raised more than enough money. We transformed that little room into a little slice of heaven that WAS worthy of professional photography. We experienced more moments with Sharon and her team at Lahser Pre-Vocational Center along with their families, all of who expressed their gratitude every time we walked through the door. It was a DFAD success story, complete with a makeover reveal day and party to celebrate. 

But the real success wasn’t so much the actual makeover. Don’t get me wrong, that room did make a difference. It made such a big difference that over the next year, the landlord invested over $60,000 to update the rest of the building, complete with windows. So yes, the actual makeovers have an immeasurable impact on the end users.  But my big designer moment, my reveal, was discerning how Sharon felt that day. What she really heard in the interview was, “We see you, we thank you, and what you do every day makes a difference.” Our makeover was going to leave her with a sense of dignity and respect, which is priceless in my eyes as a designer.

This “movement” I had joined was bringing people together through design. Hundreds of people in the design industry impacting thousands of people in their local communities. And that, is something worth sharing through this blog.  

Imagine hearing more about unsung heroes like Sharon, who give freely and unselfishly to people in need or living in poverty every single day. What would it be like to get the inside scoop from our teams as they journey through makeover process? I am here to be their voice and to share their stories, so that the beauty of Design for a Difference can be embraced by all…