THE BLOG
11/10/2014 02:26 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Design for Every Day: Lessons on a Factory Floor

It's 3:45 am. I place a bag filled with books, files and my laptop over the handle of my suitcase. I do the delicate dance of the traveler, pushing and pulling the wheeled box so that nothing drops as the door of my hotel room slams behind me. I get on the elevator, the doors close as exhaustion wafts over me.

Once down in the lobby, I put my game face on to greet my client, Andy, a bear of a man with an easy laugh and engaging intelligence. Andy is one of the few people I have met who works in a corporation and really loves his job. His enthusiasm buoys me at this ungodly hour. We put our bags in the car and head to the Seattle airport to meet the rest of our crew for our 5:30 am flight. The photographer and assistant left even earlier to deal with the 500lbs of photo equipment we were about to check.

Most people think the world of commercial photography is glamorous--multitudes of assistants, catered meals, fantastic wardrobes and beautiful models. Perhaps if you work for Vogue it is, but if you are working as many of us do, in the service of corporate marketing, it's a very different scenario filled with long days, ordinary locations and remarkable people. I've been all over the United States, art directing photo shoots for my client, a company that creates retirement plans. My client specializes in providing financial services for the non-profit sector, so the people that I meet, their clients, are often trying to solve some of society's most intransigent problems. None of the settings we see ever start out as photo worthy--John, the photographer and I have worked together for years and our challenge and our strength is to make an unexceptional place look extraordinary.

Today, we are leaving Seattle for Wichita, a trip that will take eight hours with a connection in Denver. After the flights we gather all the equipment and drive to Envision--a company that provides employment and resources for the blind and visually impaired--we are visiting their manufacturing facility. Our goal today is to scout and plan our shoot for tomorrow.

As I walk through the factory with our host, Shamain, our conversation is marked by the sound of machinery with metal hitting against metal -- only the presence of guide dogs and dark glasses on some of the workers belie the company mission. Most of us rarely think about what it might be like to live without sight -- I certainly don't. Did you know there is a 70 pecent unemployment rate among people with visual impairments?

I begin to think about all of the small details of daily life--how do you get to work? I only saw highways around here. When I ask this question, Shamain, smiles and says to me, "That is an issue. Our CEO is going to be on local television this evening to discuss the sales tax referendum -- you probably saw the billboards when you were driving over." She goes on to tell me there is an effort to increase the local sales tax by one percent to fund public transportation. It comes up for a vote on Election Day. "Our employees are dependent upon public transportation, and we see this as an important issue." Obviously, if you have a visual impairment, you can't drive. She starts to explain to me the challenges of a life without sight. Grocery shopping, a doctor's visit, simple errands--you can't dash out for a carton of milk. Every activity must be carefully planned.

The next morning, while we are working on the shoot, one of our subjects tells us about his little girl and the costume that she planned for Halloween. After he leaves the room, someone says, "I never expected him to have a family. I'm horrified that I am so narrow-minded." Our crew's conversation shifted from lighting and composition to the people we were meeting. We talked about how self-absorbed our society is. We take so much for granted. It's such a common practice to view those with problems as people who must have 'done something' to bring it on themselves--as if they are responsible for their handicaps. We dismiss the randomness of fate as a factor in life. And yet, when we meet individuals who face unimaginable challenges with dignity, they become real and we see their humanity.

We finished our work, packed our equipment and prepared to return to our lives in New York --each of us feeling admiration and a bit of awe for the people we met. I followed the election results this week--not Washington but Wichita. The sales tax increase was defeated 62 percent to 37 percent. Indifference can be so cruel.