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June 25, 2019 Shelly Helgeson

Walls with impact: How a Silicon Valley tech-exec-turned-artist approaches his murals with design-thinking

Sam Barnett, the creator of Resolve, believes in the power of sharing inspiring stories of profound good through unique gatherings and art. Although he has a background in tech as the founder of Struq, acquired by Quantcast, his newest endeavor is painting murals of people in San Francisco who are having a positive impact on the world. He chose to highlight D-Rev CEO, Krista Donaldson in a mural of her own, along with three other murals potraying Sanduk Ruit (cure blindness), Shannon May (Bridge International Academies), Chris and David Mikkelsen (REFUNITE) as their subjects. Recently, D-Rev’er Shelly Helgeson, sat down with Sam to learn about the inspiration behind his mural project and how design thinking helped him problem solve along the way.

How did your mural project start? As a former tech executive, it isn’t exactly the obvious next step. It started with my mum. When I moved to San Francisco she said, “Why don’t we do something creative every month together? It’ll be a way for us to stay in touch and learn new skills and try new things.” From there we began this adventure. We started by learning William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” in January and by May we were drawing what we each saw out of our window. Then at the end of 2017 she said, “In 2018, lets paint portraits of people.” So then we began painting portraits. I had never painted much at all up to that point in my life.

And how did you decide who to paint? I have two young girls. I want to be able to tell them great and inspiring stories of people doing good in the world. They are growing up in San Francisco where the technology sector is largely over glorified, and there is not as much of a focus on people doing good in the world. I wanted my kids to aspire to those who are doing good in the world. So that’s how we started finding great people to paint– people who had done remarkable things.

How did you go from painting with your mom and for your daughters to painting a mural? A big part of what my mum and I were doing was trying to learn new skills and trying to do things that made us really uncomfortable. I wondered, “How do we actually push this even further so we’re more uncomfortable?” and I said to my mum that we should probably try and paint publicly. After that I approached Willow (Resolve collaborator) and said “Look I have this idea to paint murals of people doing good in the world. I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never used spray paint, never painted a mural and have only just started to paint. Do you want to help figure this out?” Willow said yes, and then off we went to paint murals of these people my mum and I had discovered who were doing good in the world.

I’ve noticed you mentioning several times how important it is to be uncomfortable. Can you speak any more to why you think it’s so important to be uncomfortable?

A big thing for me is learning new skills, embracing new challenges and growing in new ways. I think it is important to move yourself way outside your comfort zone so that you can push yourself and discover new things about yourself, new passions and new areas of interest. This means I have done, and continue to do, some embarrassing and toe cringy things – which I am sure my daughters will love me for…

I know you have a background in product design. Did you find any crossover between design thinking and how you went about the mural project?

Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving – you are trying to solve for your customers in new and unique ways.

One of the things I found with the mural project was it was really tough getting wall space. We went and knocked on doors all across the Mission and SOMA for two straight days and pitched people the idea, “We are painting murals for free of people doing good in the world.” Nobody cared and nobody gave us their wall space.

After another painful day pounding the streets a garage owner said to us, “ Right now, if my wall keeps getting tagged and I don’t paint over it I get charged by the city $300 per graffiti tag.” We said we’d paint the wall, solve his tagging problem as graffiti artists won’t usually tag a mural. He was delighted as we have solved his problem, saved him money and beautified his wall – all for free!

So then we just went around to the walls that had graffiti tags on them and said, “If you paint a mural, other artists respect the mural and they don’t tag the walls again. So not only will we cover up the graffiti, but it won’t cost you any money, you won’t be fined, it won’t continue to get tagged, and you’ll have a beautiful wall about people doing good in the world.”

My mistake was trying to go to people with a predefined solution. We should have just spent more time with people in the proper way design thinking works, which is “How to create empathy for the customer, how do you understand what their biggest challenges are, and what is the minimum viable way to solve that?” I think we missed that, but then very quickly we realized, “Ah, we missed a step here.” And then got when we got oversubscribed for wall space, and we could start painting.

Design thinking resonates with me so strongly because the process of asking people for their time and their feedback on your product or service or your design is a very humbling experience.

You can view Sam’s mural of Krista on the South West corner of 14th Street and Shotwell in San Francisco’s Mission District.

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