AIGA Workshop on Social Change: New York, 2012

In August 2012, AIGA and PepsiCo Nutrition Ventures convened at the School for Visual Arts in New York City for two-day summit to explore the role of design in social change as it applies to the interrelated issues of nutrition, so-called “lifestyle diseases” such as hypertension and obesity, and community health systems. Participants included designers, community advocates, physicians and health specialists, who focused on using creative methods to identify and address environmental and community factors that affect nutrition and promote chronic diseases.

During the intensive two-day event, participants collaborated to address the following questions, which were presented in an issue statement co-crafted by the summit leaders: Why are programs and interventions not resonating enough with at-risk demographic populations? What are the triggers that lead to healthy behavior changes? How can support programs, knowledge and information be better translated into empowering and motivating messaging that mobilizes positive changes?

The set-up

frog design’s vice president of creative, Robert Fabricant, introduced the summit program, framing it as a series of interconnected activities:

  • Short, information-dense talks from health and nutrition specialists
  • A persona-based design process—grounded in frog’s methods and tools—intended to identify opportunities for positive change
  • A half-day field experience in the markets, parks, groceries and bodegas of various New York City neighborhoods
  • In conclusion, a complete integration of the group’s studio and fieldwork, resulting in the identification of potential approaches for focused intervention

Framing the discussion

Doug Powell, co-founder of Schwartz Powell Design and national president of AIGA, spoke next, situating the summit as a direct response to the changing needs of AIGA members. More than ever, he noted, members are seeking “cause-driven, change-driven” work. Ric Grefé, AIGA’s executive director, expanded on the idea, calling attention to the inbuilt limitations of design activities centered on a two-day event. “We want to craft an approach to the problem,” Grefé said, emphasizing creative exploration and the need to search for starting points along a path toward sustainable, systems-based change.

The first day also included talks from Dondeena Bradley, vice president Global R&D Nutrition and Nutrition Ventures at PepsiCo; J. Robin Moon, senior health policy advisor for the City of New York’s Office of the Mayor; and Wendy Suzuki, professor of neural science and psychology at NYU’s Center for Neural Science.

Bradley began by acknowledging her company’s place in the global food industry—PepsiCo is the second-largest food company in the world, and operates in all but two countries—but her talk focused primarily on practical nutritional realities. She encouraged summit participants to think not in terms of individual food choices but in terms of systems: food availability systems, health systems and especially the “system of the home.” (Women, she noted, are usually the “chief health officer” of the home, and also the chief procurer of food.) Nutritional change efforts are most likely to succeed, Bradley explained, when they directly relate to “crisis” events that create new interest in the relationship between food and health—events like the arrival of a new baby, the diagnosis of a chronic disease such as diabetes or the sudden illness or death of a family member.

To introduce the public policy dimension of community nutrition, J. Robin Moon, senior health policy advisor from the City of New York’s Office of the Mayor, offered a presentation packed with data on youth and adult obesity trends and the progress to date of the Mayor’s Obesity Task Force. The information she presented proved to be a vital element to the summit, as it gave participants a clear picture of city programs and initiatives, both those that had already been implemented and those that were in the works. It provided inspiration and potential jumping-off points for creative problem-solving, while also helping participants avoid spending their time replicating ideas.

To prepare summit participants for the work that lay ahead, Dr. Wendy Suzuki spoke about her transformative experience studying the connections between aerobic exercise and cognitive performance before leading the group in an enthusiastic session of Intensati, a practice that combines vigorous aerobic exercise with mindfulness training and affirmations.

Studio session one

Under the guidance of Frog designers, summit participants worked through a series of small-group exercises that channeled the nutritional and health issues that were raised during the morning session into more constrained forms. Using persona templates prepared by the Frog team, each group developed a detailed design persona for a member of a fictional New York City family dealing with a range of health problems, giving consideration to the following questions:

  •  How do multiple jobs and long commutes affect my persona’s ability to buy food and cook at home?
  • What food options are available to my family’s adults and children throughout their day?
  • How might reduced mobility or underlying health problems affect my persona’s ability to get enough exercise or to spend time and energy on food acquisition?
  • What strategies for coping with stress, like smoking and excessive drinking, affect my family’s health and nutrition?
  • How does the emotional health of my persona affect his motivation and ability to make healthy nutritional choices?
  • Which kinds of community or religious participation might support my persona’s desire to improve health and nutrition?

After a group read-out and discussion about the different personas they had created, each group began developing a Health Journey Map and an accompanying set of “needs and opportunities” that further explored their fictional family’s catalysts for positive change as well as their major obstacles to improved health.

Using imaginative design stories grounded in the realities faced by their personas, groups explored how significant life events such as the birth of a baby, discussion about family nutrition sparked by kids worried about sick parents, participation in community gardens and acute medical crises led to a desire for specific nutritional and health changes.

Shaped by Frog’s methods and tools, each group’s story gradually evolved from awareness of a needed health or nutritional change needed to engagement and, more crucially, follow-through. The groups worked though several environmental spheres of influence—including messaging, social environment and physical environment—to consider a wide range of influences and opportunities for intervention, and to push beyond the idea of a single “campaign” as a catalyst. Instead, they focused on supporting the catalysts for change that arose within their fictional families’ lives.

After presenting and discussing the Health Journey Maps they’d created, participants came together to prepare for the second day of the summit, namely the exploration of New York City’s neighborhoods and food landscapes—an activity that was intended to act as both a reality check for their preliminary work and an inspiration for the final studio work to be completed before the close of the summit.

Into the field

Early the next morning, summit participants formed new groups and scattered throughout various New York City neighborhoods. Some spent their time touring a tofu factory in Chinatown, while others visited neighborhood shops, markets and bodegas. Some explored the pedestrian zones created by the city’s Summer Streets program; others browsed a farmer’s market with an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program. One group even visited an urban farm—built on the empty lot of a stalled building development—that provides vegetables to an adjacent restaurant. After taking photographs and collecting field notes, the groups arrived back at SVA ready to begin their final studio session.

Studio session two

Working with a combination of design materials developed during the first day of the summit and new knowledge and insights acquired during the morning field trips, summit participants worked through a final set of exercises designed to offer entry points into and potential pilot programs within urban health and nutrition systems. Reconsidering the personas and Health Journey Maps from the first session, participants once again broke into small groups to brainstorm specific interventions that addressed a single phase in the Health Journey in one particular environment (messaging, social or physical),incorporating elements from their field encounter with the city’s food systems and the related community’s health needs.

Seed projects: Proposals for engagement

For their final presentations, the groups proposed a diverse array of seed projects—potential campaigns or community actions designed to address the health and nutrition questions central to the summit, such as:

  • Modular, milk-crate community “gardens” that gardeners can bring home at the end of the summer
  • Newspaper features that guide families to inexpensive, child-friendly weekend activities that include healthy eating choices
  • Mobile farmer’s markets on trucks that penetrate communities that have inadequate access to fresh food
  • Food origin stories that demystify fresh produce and connect food production with health results
  • Take-home packages—with cutting boards, bags for preserving perishables and simple recipes—that radically simplify the storage and use of fresh foods

Insights and questions

After each group presented their seed project, Dondeena Bradley offered a series of questions to help participants reframe and refine their ideas, laying the groundwork for successful implementation in the future:

  • What kind of educational initiatives might work best in cities without greenmarkets?
  • How might we develop sustainable ways of bringing fresh food to families whose household budgets make it difficult to justify buying food that spoils quickly?
  • What kinds of programs might help individuals, families and communities understand and focus on healthy energy and sustenance, rather than simplistic calorie counts?

Looking ahead

After a round of applause for the organizers and speakers, clusters of participants remained in the space, discussing where they might direct their energy and ideas after the summit’s formal activities concluded, and brainstorming about how future summits might be structured more effectively.

More information

 Download a PDF of the summit program booklet to learn more about the issue statement and see a full list of participants.

Listen to an interview conducted at the NYC Design Summit with participant Erica Heinz, founder and creative consultant at Energy7.