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Upstarts: Molding the Next Generation of Designers

Written by in HOW Design Live, Inspire, Social Good

Maurice Woods and Inneract Project
Bring Design Instruction to Bay Area Underserved Youth

It’s not unusual for designers to find their career paths by accident, often as a detour on the road to a fine arts education. But imagine if you could go back to middle school and take free, professionally supported design classes and channel your passion for art into an intentional college and career plan. That’s what Inneract Project is doing for underserved youth in the San Francisco Bay area.

HOW Design Live Speaker Maurice Woods


Maurice Woods will be speaking at HOW Design Live in Atlanta, May 19-23. Neenah is a proud hometown sponsor of the event, and we’ll be showcasing interesting HOW speakers throughout the coming weeks. If you’re attending HOW Design Live, drop by our large booth at the exhibit hall for paper samples and other surprises.


Founded by Yahoo! designer Maurice Woods in 2004, Inneract Project empowers students who might otherwise never learn about viable creative career options through design education. The program includes:

  • Youth Design Academy: an eight-week class that provides middle school students with hands-on design exercises
  • Video Game Academy: a four-class session during which students learn to use game development software, create their own games, play/test and iterate, then release their games on major video game marketplaces
  • Learning Labs: workshops, lectures, and studio tours for middle and high school students
  • Designed: an ongoing video series documenting designers, celebrities, and everyday peoples’ stories about design.

Inneract Project is supported through partnerships with design professionals, schools, community groups, companies, and stakeholders in design and technology. The ultimate goal is to increase diversity in design and technology, where minorities are woefully underrepresented. Intrigued by this innovative model for making design more accessible to kids, we reached out to Woods to find out about his inspiration and vision for Inneract Project.


Why were you compelled to start Inneract Project?

I started Inneract Project because I wanted young people from underserved communities to not only know about design, but to have the option to pursue it as a career. I was exposed to design through a career trajectory to the NBA. Basketball led me to a scholarship to the University of Washington. After two unsuccessful basketball seasons at UW, I felt the pressure to focus on not making it to the NBA. I did not know what to pick as a major, but because I was a creative kid, I tried a graphic design class, not knowing what it was (my mom looked through the college catalog of majors and suggested it). That is how I got into the profession. I want to make sure young people get access to design at an early age, so that they can plan a career in design, if they choose to.

How big is your program?

Currently, we are only in the Bay Area, but we are working on a plan to expand either our program or our model to other cities. We are currently testing it in another city now. In the Bay Area, we generally work, hands-on, with about 200-250 people a year, with student training making up about 60-75 percent. Our reach, however, is generally about +25,000 through online media and design-focused events.


How fast is Inneract Project growing?

Our program is growing to the point where we are looking for serious funding. We have demand from both the design community and parents — to the point where we don’t always have the resources to cover all the requests.

Can you share a story or anecdote that you feel highlights the importance and impact of Inneract Project for underserved youth?

To highlight the importance of design, I look at young African American boys and sports. They see athletes as role models because the athletes look like them, they are successful, on TV, make good money, have respect, and play a sport that is “accessible” — the playing field is equal for everyone. In most levels of schooling, sports are an integrated source of exercise or a part of a class. In terms of equipment or “tools,” basketballs, baseballs, and footballs are relatively easy to get. Parents support kids because they see sports as a benefit to their kids, both for exercise and an attainable pathway to success. However, if you look at the numbers, the percentage of kids who actually make it to pro sports is around two percent. On the other hand, design is also all around us. Therefore, kids have many opportunities to enter design-related fields, yet they barely are aware of its existence.

Effective Exposure

Inneract Project uses the sports model. We provide the “coaches” (design teachers/TAs), “equipment” (free classes, art supplies, food, computer hardware and software, college campuses, etc.), “role models” (design practitioners) and exposure to success stories (videos with successful designers of color working on products kids know about). — Maurice Woods

The importance of design in underserved minority communities is much bigger than Inneract Project. The 2010 Census data reports that Black and Latino youth are the fastest growing populations in the US. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the creative fields are projected to be one of the most promising new opportunities for employees over the next seven years. However, in 2013-2014, only 6 percent of African American and 10 percent of Hispanic graduates received Art/Design bachelor’s degrees from US degree-granting institutions. This is a problem. With our nation focusing more on innovation, as our minority population grows, and with the demand for diversity in design, we need to find ways to provide access to underserved youth and communities, so that they can prepare themselves for the future workforce.

Woods2_PicMonkey Collage

But, context and early access is key. Some research shows that the level of academic achievement by eighth grade has a greater impact on college and career readiness than high school achievement. Inneract Project is laser focused on creating a pipeline to meet this need. We are open to working with others who are willing to help spread our mission to communities across the nation and beyond.

How might a program like Inneract Project have changed your own education or career trajectory?

As a young person, I was heavily involved in sports. Sports and music was the legal means for attaining success. All my friends were involved in some sport or music venture. However, I really loved to draw — it was really the only time I sat still, for hours. Although I loved to draw and was very interested in the way products worked (watches, in particular), I never thought of anything deriving from visual arts that might lead to a meaningful career. I thought of it as a nice hobby. If I had Inneract Project, and I was able to go on a college campus to take a free class about design, this would have maybe not stopped me from totally being involved with sports, but it would have given me a plan as I entered college, and a head start. A head start is really important. It gives you hope, an outlook on life.

What is your vision for the program in the next few years — and down the road?

In the next few years, my vision is to try to build a national alliance of designers who want to give back to their community, help bring more designers of color into design, and provide underserved youth with viable career pathways to design. I expect us to have our programming in other cities and build online and mobile products that help further support our mission.

How do you find time to run an organization such as this outside of your day job at Yahoo!? What keeps your fire lit for the hard work and time you surely put into both?

People ask me this all the time and I can still never really give a good answer to this. I work hard, but I have a GREAT team that works really hard too, and I am VERY passionate about ensuring that underserved kids get opportunities to succeed. This keeps my fire lit. When you care about something deeply, you figure out a way to make it happen.

Design Journalist Sarah Whitman

We are pleased to bring the intelligence and insight of Sarah Whitman to the pages of Against the Grain. She is a freelance writer and editor specializing in design, creativity and career advice. Prior to launching her own business in 2013, Sarah served as an editor for HOW magazine for 16 years, and briefly held the editor title for Print. You can find her portfolio online and connect with her via LinkedIn@SarahMWhitman.