While they haven’t always had the vocabulary to describe it, the problem-solving approach of design thinking has informed Grace Francis’ worldview from as early as they can remember. Growing up on a council estate in Portsmouth, Francis (who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns) told their teachers at school that they wanted to be a writer. “They said, ‘You might as well be an astronaut, that’s the chance you have of doing it’. I had astounding grades but I grew up in a poor space, and there was no opportunity to go anywhere,” they tell CR.
By the time they finished school, Francis had the option to go to college but took a year off to do a series of work placements in London, and quickly found themselves thriving in the midst of the capital’s creative scene. “I deferred and deferred and deferred, and suddenly had a career,” they say. During this period, they also founded their own design studio aimed at the not-for-profit sector. “The Big Issue Foundation was our first client and my challenge was to make [its founder] John Bird cry. Making people cry, through empathy and love, as opposed to terrible experiences – it’s still my guiding light,” they add.
Francis’ burgeoning creative career came to an abrupt standstill when they were diagnosed with cancer in their 20s, but the experience proved to have an even bigger impact on their outlook in the longer term. “The cancer actually informed how I use design, because I was navigating the healthcare system and I realised I was using empathy and interrogation to get myself to a surgeon. When I got there he said, ‘How did you get to me? I’m the best surgeon in the country and you don’t have the right paperwork’, and I explained that I used all the things I used in design thinking. He said, ‘Well this design thinking thing saved your life’,” says Francis.