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  • Designing for Social Change: Stumbles to Strategies

    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.

    In Search of Strategies

    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:

    Utilize local resources

    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.

    Give communities ownership

    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.

    Confront controversy

    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 the issue.

    Sustain engagement

    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.

    Fast-forward to the present

    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 website.

    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?

    About the Author: 

    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.

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