Exploring social design: making the invisible visible

This article was originally published by IDSL.

On a fall evening in Baltimore I attended Black in Design @MICA, a three-person panel discussion presented by students of Maryland Institute of College of Art’s (MICA) Master of Art’s in Social Design (MASD) program. After attending Harvard’s Black in Design conference this past October—and in the wake of protests against police brutality following the death of Freddie Gray—MASD students wanted to examine their experiences as students of color at predominantly white spaces.

For Black in Design @MICA, I really liked the opportunity for an open dialogue about the intersections of blackness, design, creativity, and social impact. It allowed for an eclectic mix of voices and opinions. While some understood design with a socio-political context (that—positively or negatively—it tells the truth) others seemed to see designers as either traditional artists or as other black professionals. I wish we had more black designers come forward and tell their stories. This lack of seeing the overlap compelled me to put in my thoughts. I mentioned that as designer, you can stand in your own truth as a black person, and continue to privilege your creativity. I will always be black. But it take years to develop skills necessary to thrive in this business: working in teams with different disciplines and goals; accepting criticism about your work without making it personal; determining what truly makes your creative ideas useful; refining production techniques, and so on. I will always be black. But it take years to develop skills.

Diamond James, MASD student, co-presenter, and good friend of IDSL took some time from her studies and answered a few questions about the presentation:

IDSL: After seven years of working at Washington Post’s creative department, you decided to pursue a masters of arts in social design at MICA. What was the turning point for you?

James: I’m not sure that there was a definitive turning point as the catalyst for my decision to leave. Working at the Post can be challenging at times—living a life on deadline with late nights—but I don’t regret any of it. I loved my colleagues and the ability to communicate visually with other brilliant storytellers. It was a rewarding, solid first job after finishing undergrad, and I learned a lot through the invaluable experience. However, I knew that I wanted to move beyond creating for print and have greater impact. I was a sociology minor in undergrad, and as a black person moving through life, there are things in the world I couldn’t ignore—social issues that I really didn’t think as an art director I could affect. I was already a mentor at church, which helped, but I had been searching for how I best help people. Design matters. Communications design is powerful, but I wanted to address some things on a person-to-person/relational level. I heard about social design and it was completely familiar and novel to me at the same time, but there was this “eureka!” moment. I wanted to explore design from an interdisciplinary standpoint to impact social change.

Although there wasn’t a turning point when I decided to walk, there were definitely some catalytic national events that fortified my decision. Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, and Ferguson. The seemingly ubiquitous police shootings and assaults on black bodies were extremely hard to take while working as a journalist. There were other journalists on the ground covering these tragedies, writing the stories, the frustration and the heartbreaks. I was inside doing my job, and not processing in a business that is based on facts and not feelings. It is my perspective that there is not much room for personal opinions in journalism (there are reported essays, columnists, and opinion writers, of course). I felt stuck not being able to say Wilson is a murderer because it was not my place in that space to say because journalists should be unbiased. Journalists should say “charged with murder,” “alleged,” or other qualifying words that present the facts devoid of judgement.

However, I was always going to be a black person reading and editing and filtering the news through my head before it reached the journalist portion of my identity. This really bothered me as these kind of events kept (and keep on) happening. I am not insinuating that I couldn’t share my feelings in hushed conversations with other black or “woke” white colleagues, but it was definitely hard. I also came to the realization that our best day of news coverage is usually the worst day in someone’s life. We can move from Pulitzer to Pulitzer award but many sources aren’t able to move on. It’s not a jab at the Post. It’s the nature of the business. I felt I was desensitized. The first time I cried about Michael Brown and so many others before and after him was months after I knew I had been accepted and was going to resign.

IDSL: In the wake of ongoing racial injustice as revealed in police brutality, campus racism, and even micro-aggressive behavior in the workplace, why do you think design matters?

James: This answer might be nebulous and abstract. Before I started this graduate program, I was only able to answer that superficially from an aesthetics perspective. I would have probably answered in a series of sentences about typography and hierarchy and lines and weights etc. Great visual design is still important and should be highly regarded for the best user experience, navigation, storytelling etc, but I think I can give a more robust and insightful answer now that I am thinking about design outside of single disciplinary silos. The practice should really be thought of as interdisciplinary.

I still believe print, web, or UX design matters, but primarily more as a tool to inform about injustice or inequity. Yes, I am championing data visualizations, but not as an intervention to social problems; they matter in conveying accurately the problems that require better design. Now that I’ve transitioned, I’m much more focused on design of cities, spaces, systems, curriculum, and processes that can make the lived experiences of marginalized communities better. Empathetic, human-centered design matters to mitigate deep, insidious social challenges such as poverty, spatial and racial discrimination, mass incarceration, and a stratified public education system.

IDSL: You mentioned this phenomenon of young, typically white students enrolling at MICA, and experiencing a sort of culture shock when realizing the campus is located in the heart of an urban environment like Baltimore. Why do you think this phenomenon occurs, and do you think young designers can break out of this habit?

James: I don’t think habit is the right word. It’s more of a pattern that is not specific to MICA. The way I understand it is that many students—white and ethnic minorities—often look at a school’s academic or curricular offerings when choosing an institution. It is a no-brainer to choose the best school to give you amazing connections and credentials. However, I have observed people being overwhelmed with the pitfalls of the city when working in Baltimore. Let’s be real here. Baltimore is a very different place, with some extreme dynamics that many, who are privileged to go to an art school or any private institution, have never experienced before. For the last seven years I have lived less than 40 miles away from Baltimore and I am still taken aback as I drive through the city at the economic disparity, the vacant ghost of a city that used to exist in some neighborhoods. As a black women who has lived in several cities, I am not immune to being alarmed.

To me, the real problem is not even the outright culture shock. The problem is after the shock, not moving forward and not interacting with the community, but retreating to exclusive institutional spaces as designers. At the “Black in Design: What’s Next?” event, I asked, is it “OK to ignore Baltimore?” It is not OK, but it’s easy to work isolated from city residents inside pristine university fortresses and narrow, gentrified spaces set against the backdrop of wide, concentrated poverty. It is imperative that social designers, makers, and innovators connect with the people for which they are designing in order to have lasting and effective interventions. Without rapport and relationships, design becomes a paternalistic prescription. What is “best” in a studio or laboratory may not even translate well without cultural literacy of the populations in need of better design for better lives.

After the initial shock, accept privilege, don’t feel pitiful “white guilt,” go beyond the bubble towards authentic community engagement. Explore and endeavor to form relationships to understand that the people who feel different or “other” are there. They are not invisible, but human with, possibly, a different set of lived experiences than students. This is obviously easier said than done for some and it is not an immediate antidote, but changing the pattern starts with mindfulness.

About the Author: <p>Sela Lewis, graphic designer at The Education Trust, designs a wide range of print and Web projects including (but not limited to) research reports, briefs, brochures, charts, infographics, interactive reports, microsites, and logos. Sela has worked in such varied settings as commercial real estate, law firms, and political campaigns. Her involvement in education activism in high school and summers during college working with children at her neighborhood Boys &amp; Girls Club have shaped Sela’s knowledge about the issues The Education Trust supports. A graduate of Howard University, she holds a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design. For Sela, graphic design is about effectively communicating ideas visually so that good ideas become great — a bit like fine cooking, which calls for quality ingredients, coupled with intuition about flavors, colors, and textures.</p> <p><strong>Superpower</strong><br> Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, especially when getting into/out of Georgetown.</p> <p><strong>What drew you to education?</strong><br> Education is this fascinating space that challenges even our best minds to be better or think differently. That is the real superpower. That is a power that should be nourished in everyone, regardless of background.</p>