TORONTO THE GOOD WITH JEREMY VANDERMEIJ (DesignTO)
Certified B Corporations @GladstoneHotel and @RampAgencyTO launch an inspiring bi-weekly blog series #TorontoTheGood. The series sparks thoughtful conversations through interviews with influencers, social entrepreneurs, and innovators who are shining a light on the city’s toughest issues and championing change to make Toronto, and the world a better place.
Jeremy Vandermeij is the co-founder and executive director of non-profit, DesignTO. DesignTO is where art and design meet. The festival is the largest cultural celebration of design with over 100 exhibitions and events forming Toronto’s design week.
How was life for you growing up?
To be honest, I had a hard time growing up. I was bullied as a kid for being a queer person. I believe that if you don’t learn from your trauma it can trap you. Being bullied helped me develop a belief in self-reflection as a tool for personal insight. I would never wish my past experience away because it made me a better person. It helped me develop the values system that makes me who I am today.
Did you always live in Toronto? How has the city changed since you’ve been here?
I grew up in Scarborough. Over time, I noticed Toronto evolve to become more affluent. The emergence of a tech community has brought a new and wealthy population of young people to the city. Rising rent has started to push out culture. Affordable housing is being wiped out.
What neighbourhood do you live in now?
I live in Parkdale. I moved here 13 years ago when it was a very different place. It was and still is a place where artists and newcomers set their roots, but now these people are having difficulty finding affordable rent. Newcomer communities are getting pushed out and artist communities are migrating because they can’t afford to live here. In the past, people left the city because it was viewed as unsafe. Our generation is leaving for places like Hamilton because they can’t afford it.
What excites you most about Toronto?
Toronto is one of the most creative cities in the world because it’s a pressure cooker. There’s so much activity happening in such a small amount of space and so many different kinds of people. We have this wealth of diversity in ethnicity, race, culture, vocation, sexual orientation, and gender. This creates beautiful opportunities for creative synthesis and for the whole city to thrive. The world’s recent pushes for equality have had a great effect on us, even though there is still more work to do.
What do you think needs to change?
Creatives and their communities need to reap the benefits of the culture they create. Queer people, people of colour, and women have not been compensated for shaping most of today’s popular culture. That needs to change. We’re just starting to celebrate and recognize the work done by diverse and marginalized artists. Artists, creatives, and designers produce everything that’s culturally significant in society. Large corporations often appropriate and profit from their ideas. People in positions of power or privilege often reap the benefits of creativity instead of those who do the work.
Did you always think you’d be doing what you’re doing now?
When I was young I never thought I would stop making art or designing. As I got older, my desire to shape objects, spaces and art switched to a desire to shape systems, like communities and businesses. Business design is designing a system with both tangible and intangible parts. In our capitalist society, business has a great impact on us because we deal with it every day. It’s a system under which we are beholden to whether we want to be or not. I’m interested in modifying the system of business so that it benefits society, beyond financial profit. To do that, I’ve had to face my aversions to capitalism. I had to move from talking about how flawed the system is, to trying to do something to change it.
What does good design mean to you?
Good design is more than just making something pretty, it’s a way of being. It starts with framing problems, critical thinking, and empathy for the end-user. It’s all about finding solutions to the world’s smallest and biggest problems. When I went to design school, I recognized how much space affects our wellbeing. When you design something, you imagine all the possible futures where it could be made and used. You do research and experiment through the creation process and at the end, you’re publicly held accountable for your work. In school, we went through a critique process where people who we’ve never met evaluated our work. One of the things that makes a good designer is the process of critique and accountability. At the festival, good design takes on another dimension. Experimentation and creation are a means to express personal values, political beliefs, and to criticize society.
Tell me about your career path.
I studied at Ryerson School of Interior Design and most of my projects focused on social and environmental improvement. When I began my career, I became disappointed because I was designing for the privileged because it didn’t align with my values of helping my community.
I needed a change so I started a social enterprise called Public Displays of Affection with a group of friends. We wanted to create a 100% community engaged design process. We hosted workshops in underserved communities where we taught people how to make furniture out of 90% reclaimed materials. The pieces were then used to furnish the low-income and co-operative housing where our workshop participants lived. We brought together designers at different stages of their careers to produce materials in the same fashion. Some were famous, some were students, but all of them believed in community-engaged design. It was a lot of fun and it was my first foray into being a social entrepreneur.
Around the same time, I was hired as the creative and marketing director of the Gladstone Hotel where I got to work on many exciting social and artistic projects. The Gladstone produces a wealth of culture. I was part of so much while I worked there. It was like boot camp for becoming a good designer and it also helped me build a really big network.
Is there anyone that truly inspires and influences you?
Christina Zeidler, the owner of The Gladstone and her sister Margie Zeidler, president and creator of 401 Richmond continue to inspire me. Christina saw something in me when she gave me my first opportunity to curate a show at the hotel. It was an opportunity to manifest my values at work and it showed me I could live an authentic life and thrive. I share a lot in common with Christina. We’re these wild, creative, queer people who want to make a difference in the community. We see something that needs to be done, and we do it.
How did you come up with the idea for DesignTO?
We wanted to create something with a legacy beyond ourselves. Something that would be of service to designers and artists in Toronto without letting money compromise it. We created the festival as a means of celebrating independent designers who are doing experimental work, work that aligns with their personal values, or values around design. The work is rarely commercially-focused. For the first few years, the festival was a large side-project but we quickly realized we had to turn it into a sustainable business so it could survive beyond the life of its leadership and volunteers. That’s how DesignTO was born and we’ve been growing ever since. We started with six exhibitions and this past year we were up to well over 100.
What led you to find your purpose and pursue it?
I really wanted to feel happy. I see so many people doing work that they don’t care about, work that doesn’t align with their values and beliefs. It is a great privilege to live in Canada where expressing your values in your work is a possibility. The dream, for me, isn’t to have a wealth of things or money, it’s living my values and doing purposeful work. It’s having a wealth of love in my friendships, family, and community. It’s one of the reasons I’m an advocate for a basic living income. The economic and social benefits of what creative people do are so substantial and a basic living income would help subsidize that.
Tell me about your role:
A big part of my role is strategic. I’m always thinking about how our mission and values are manifested in how we work and what we output. I’m also responsible for securing funding for the organization, reporting to the board, and helping to manage the organization. Deborah Wang, our artistic director is the keeper of our programming and she shares responsibility for many facets of the business with me. We’re both set up as equals in the legal business structure of DesignTO. In most organizations, the business leader is usually superior to the artistic director. We are equals as a reflection of valuing art and design as much as we do business. We are also equals, because we are equals.
What did you learn when you started developing your brand?
I didn’t always get great grades in school, but I really excelled when I became an entrepreneur. In the professional world, I learned by making and by doing. My failed projects and businesses gave me the greatest opportunities for learning. Creating a business or organization is a very humbling experience because you have to be in constant service to your community.
What are some of your biggest successes?
The biggest success, for me, is creating opportunities for people to express their personal values and political beliefs through the festival. I was so proud when a curatorial group, Aisle 4, created ‘On the Table’ for the festival. They were a series of beer coasters created by local artists concerning sexual consent. They put them in local bars to raise awareness around alcohol consumption and gender-based violence. Even though the festival was only a small part of their success, I felt so proud that they felt safe, celebrated, and supported enough to raise awareness about such an important issue.
What advice would you give to brands that are considering giving back to their community?
You can be a good company, make money, and do good work. You don’t need to always cause harm and compromise your values for financial gain. I consult with startups and I often encourage them to do work they’re proud of, that aligns with their values. Instead of harming the world, then creating Band-Aid solutions afterward through philanthropy or corporate social responsibility, do good work from the beginning. That’s why I’m in the charitable sector. It requires you to be of service and to be accountable to the community.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue their purpose?
Don’t do it alone. You’ll be less effective and you’ll run the risk of burning out. We’re not here to do things on our own. We’re here to connect with people, be in friendships, and find love. Find people whose values align with yours, and build something with them as equals. At the end of the day, it’s what makes it all worth it.
Our strength is our people because they reflect their needs and the needs of their communities back to us. Never do it alone if you don’t have to and don’t be afraid to relinquish privilege. It can be hard to give up privilege because it can mean losing comfort and status. But it’s essential to creating an equitable society where everyone is valued and benefits from what they create.
Thanks for continuing to inspire us, Jeremy! Keep up the GOOD work.