How can graphic designers help people who have a rare
genetic disorder? I had no clue how to approach this question four years ago
when I started to work on a project with NF Mid-Atlantic, an inspiring organization
that supports people who have neurofibromatosis (NF). NF is a progressive
disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve endings throughout the body.
Anyone can be born with it, regardless of gender or race, and it affects 1 in
every 3,000 people.
I worked on this project as a teaching assistant to Bernard
Canniffe, a professor at Maryland
Institute College of Art (MICA), where graphic design students often get paired
up with underserved and underfunded communities. He trusted me to guide the students
through this project (one of many that took place in his class that semester)
and challenged us to conduct our research about NF outside the classroom, by
talking with members of the NF community.
“Success is taking students outside the institutional bubble
and into the community,” he later told me.
Canniffe, who now teaches at Minneapolis College of Art and
Design, proposes that design schools educate their students to be less of a
“service provider, and to explore and celebrate the idea of designer as social
listener and responder.”
We started the project at MICA by recording interviews with
people who have NF, as well as with their families and caretakers, and learned
that NF manifests itself in a wide variety of ways, from learning disabilities
to disfiguring tumors that can lead to disabling pain, blindness, bone
abnormalities, deafness and cancer. People suffering from NF also often feel
socially isolated because of the disorder’s physical marks. NF Mid-Atlantic
needed help raising awareness and promoting the organization, and we hoped
that our efforts would make the public more accepting of NF patients while
empowering the NF community.
During the semester, pairs of students worked on various
initiatives meant to raise awareness, help people cope with the disease and
strengthen the organization. These included an interactive website, beanbag
toys that teach kids about tumors, a 16-page tabloid newspaper and a new logo.
However, we made some critical mistakes along the way: The focus of our project
was too broad, we promised an unreasonable amount of design, we did a poor job
of keeping to our schedule and we had inadequate communication with NF
Mid-Atlantic throughout the project. I should have recognized these mistakes
during the project, but it was only after NF Mid-Atlantic rejected our
proposals that I started to think more critically about my process and what I
could have done to improve the outcome. I also wondered what other critical
mistakes I might make on future projects.
I began to research how other designers navigate the
challenges and nuances of these social-impact projects, which often require a
great deal of community engagement, organizational savvy and cultural
sensitivity. The case studies that I found online and in design publications
did not include much of that information. I talked with dozens of designers and
educators and hunted for strategies that could help me to frame the challenges
of future projects and could serve as a checklist to keep a project on track.
My search for these insights turned into my graduate thesis that eventually
turned into my book, Designing for Social Change.
Designing for Social
Change features 20 projects from graphic designers, educators and
practitioners who work closely with communities to address complex problems.
The projects range in scale and complexity to show a variety
of approaches. Ten strategies highlight some of the reasons why the projects
were effective and what could have been done differently. The strategies grew
out of my experiences working with NF Mid-Atlantic, conversations with
contributors and from insights found in the work of activists, business
consultants, educators and social workers who have a long history of community
organizing and engagement. Here are summaries of four of those approaches:
Several projects in the book showed designs that were built
from locally sourced materials, such as Keys for the City. This initiative took place in my
hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and relied on the citizens and
organizations who donated 21 unused pianos to raise money for music education. In
addition to saving money, using local resources also helps locals become
invested in the final product or outcome of the initiative, and instills a
sense of duty in designers to use those resources responsibly.
One of my favorite projects in the book shows designers who
empower their partners with tools and methods they can use on their own: Pecans! is an ongoing design- and
skills-training workshop that takes place at PieLab
in Greensboro, Alabama. High school students learn how to make pecan brittle
and pecan butter, design and market their products, and apply basic accounting
skills. The program has involved high schoolers from its inception and uses a
simple, plentiful product.
Predatory lending (“imposing unfair and abusive loan terms
on borrowers” –FDIC) is a contentious issue, and professor Laura Chessin’s
class at Virginia Commonwealth University debated how to approach the topic. “The
Importance of Dialogue” chapter chronicles how her students grappled with this controversial
topic in their discussions. The students exhibited posters about the topic at city
hall in Richmond, Virginia, for legislators to see, but Chessin points to those
classroom discussions as the real value of the project. They provided an
opportunity for the students to meaningfully understand this topic that has
many shades of gray and led to posters that cleverly highlight the nuances of
We often think about projects in terms of the final form or
result that design takes, but the knowledge we gain about a topic over time can
inform more insightful approaches and more meaningful collaborations. For
example, Rise-and-Shine, a San
Francisco–based studio, partnered with Friends
for Youth, a national organization that offers mentoring for at-risk teens
in 2004. They continue to help the nonprofit organization by updating documents
that they made nearly eight years ago and by offering their periodic advice.
I had no plans to continue working with NF Mid-Atlantic
after our project had concluded. However, I realized the importance of
sustained commitment to a cause or organization in the course of writing Designing for Social Change. So I partnered with The Children’s Tumor
Foundation (CTF), the first and largest organization dedicated to improving the
health and well-being of people affected by NF. The non-profit organization
raises money for medical research, but our collaboration has focused on raising
awareness among the general public. We created a three-pronged campaign called
“What is NF?”, which was funded
by a Sappi Ideas that Matter grant and includes street advertisements in
New York City, educational booklets and an interactive
During our project at MICA four years ago, NF Mid-Atlantic
advised us to avoid using graphic photographs of people who have the disorder
that might treat those people as objects of pity. The topic of how to portray NF
patients became contested among the students, and we ended up erring on the
side of caution. In my project with CTF, I followed the advice that we received
during the NF Mid-Atlantic project and used a minimal, typography-driven
approach for the street advertisements and website. Instead of showing people
who have the disease, I eluded to the nerve-pinching pain of the disorder by
piercing cut-out letters with flat head pins. However, at the request of CTF,
and considering what I had learned about the value of confronting controversy, I
did incorporate imagery of people who have the disorder into the “What is NF?” booklet
in order to give a face to the disorder.
This campaign is just the start of my
collaboration with CTF, and the strategies that I discovered in my research
have helped me throughout my work with them. I believe many of us utilize these
and similar strategies.
What strategies are
essential to your process?
Andrew Shea is a graphic designer, writer, and educator living in New York City. He has taught graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art, Fordham University, and Parsons The New School for
Design. You will find his writing at Designer's Review of Books, Core77, and Design Observer. His new book,
Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-Based Graphic Design was published by Princeton Architectural Press in March 2012.
Looking for additional ways to design for good? This list of organizations and programs is a great place to start. There are many more opportunities out there—so if you know of a resource we should add here let us know!
Design for Good
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Section: Why Design -
social responsibility, Design for Good, students
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brochure—Rachel Martin Design, Sean Busher Photography and Sustain
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Section: Why Design -
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Section: Why Design -
Competition, web design, technology, Justified
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