When was the last time you sat around a table with a group of 70-year-olds and had a chat with them about their life stories? And, when was the last time you learned about the cultural significance of food through the process of making a loaf of bread?
Over the last decade we have witnessed the rise of a “social design” movement; that is, a movement which centers on “enabling individuals, institutions and communities to build better lives and futures” (IDEO, Human Centered Design Toolkit, 2014). At the same time we have seen the primary motivation of the communication designer move beyond predominantly commercial objectives to those that focus on public sector bodies, non-profit and commercial service providers. This shift is aligned with a renewed sense of advocacy among the design community but also has emerged in response to a context of austerity politics and government policies focusing on, for example, healthcare and international development (Armstrong et al., Social Design Futures: HEI Research and the AHRC, 2014, p. 15). Recognizing that any move toward how design can help effect change requires innovative approaches and relevant tools and methods. For social design, these foundations firmly reside in an approach that builds upon the concept of shared participation. Specifically, this has meant drawing upon an established pedagogical practice termed “collaborative learning.”
But what is collaborative learning? Elizabeth F. Barkley K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major define this term in their book, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, as “learning activities expressly designed for and carried out through pairs of small interactive groups” (2005, p. 4). Collaborative learning has its epistemological home in the theory of social constructivism, which positions learners as jointly involved in the construction of meaning. This type of peer-group learning proposes that knowledge is “socially constructed” through the process of students and teachers actively working together. Developing consensus, reaching an agreement, enriches learning. The process of collaborative learning encourages autonomous learners and by doing so, enables an articulation of well-considered judgments.
Social designers are drawing upon similar models of collaboration; clients and users are now seen as partners working toward social change. Whereas designers were at one time mediators of messages for an audience, now they are partners with their clients and their users/audiences in the creation of those messages. As for the “social” in social design, over the last decade the designer’s relationship with the audience has become increasingly participatory in nature. In other words, the designer is no longer restricted to the role of mediator but rather joins as an active participant in the facilitation of shared decision-making processes. Thus, there are methodological implications. As the designer is embedded within the collaboration, this raises questions around maintaining objectivity but also about what role critical reflection might play within this process. At the same time, the application of collaborative learning provides a catalyst for additional insights into how empathy can be better understood through participatory design experiences.
To take one example from my own teaching experience: the role bread making played in bringing together local residents of a South London housing estate—the Aylesbury—during the process of regeneration, with MA Design Writing Criticism students at London College of Communication (Triggs et al., Telling Your Story: People and the Aylesbury Estate, 2011). Funded by the UK government’s Department for Business Innovation & Skills, the Aylesbury Estate Kaleidoscope Project (2009) was a collaboration between InSpire, Creation Trust, Media Citizens, and the Research Unit for Information Environments, London College of Communication, with the intent to increase the number of adult learners who could access learning through local facilities and progress further along the route to employment.
Each participant brought to the table (literally) the ingredients for bread recipes that had been part of their own cultural traditions. Taking a basic white bread recipe, the aim was for students to engage actively in the making of bread, sharing ingredients while also sharing stories of lived and cross-cultural experiences; in particular, stories drawing on the social histories of the residents and students alike. The kitchen at the Estate’s community center provided a neutral space for this activity and was where the bread was baked and distributed to the participants to take home with them. Such dynamic, social conversations resulted in a greater understanding of the residents’ position in the history of the Estate, but also served as an empathetic trigger for what students had gleaned from the community as a sense of place and transformation.
Design is a social act, and it is through the process of designing that societal relationships are enacted. However, it is also worth noting that while this model proposes an equal set of relations among its participants, ethical questions remain as to what the designer’s “accountability” is more broadly within this. Ann Light and Yoko Akama (2014) explore the subtleties of this collaborative dynamic in their essay “Structuring Future Social Relations: The Politics of Care in Participatory Practice.”They look at a series of case studies around the theme of “care” and explore the “participatory structuring of social relations” (p. 3). They conclude that there is a role for participatory practitioners as “custodians of care” to create “spaces for others to reflect, make mistakes, learn and debate” and, where “collaborative future-making can be expected to have impact, possibly at many levels” (p. 9).
There is much talk of the citizen in other spheres of creativity, such as citizen journalists, citizen filmmakers, citizen cartoonists, etc. Design has a long tradition of this kind of work but only now is it being recognized as something that can inform our way of thinking about the core principles of the discipline. Design is forever in a state of flux in terms of its definition. But there is no doubt that this recent shift from designing for users to designing with users presents a model that is breaking down boundaries and establishing a new form of citizen designer.
Teal Triggs is Professor of Graphic Design and Associate Dean, School of Communication, Royal College of Art, London. Her writings on design education, history, and feminism have appeared in books and journals internationally. She is author of Fanzines (Thames & Hudson, 2010) and, more recently, co-editor with Adrian Shaughnessy and Anna Gerber of GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years and Beyond (RCA, 2014). She is the co-editor with Leslie Atzmon of The Graphic Design Reader (Bloomsbury, 2016) and is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Communication Design (Taylor and Francis).
My passion for design started with my family’s set of Encyclopaedia Britannica . These beautiful objects were the treasure in my young universe. I loved engaging with these as containers of knowledge, wisdom, and aesthetic inspiration—in these voluminous pages, I saw great artists at work. I mimicked what I saw, although this sometimes got me into trouble. When I was 5 years old, I saw photographs of Picasso’s Guernica . I was so inspired that I drew my own version on the side wall of our family’s garage. I don’t recall what my rendition looked like, but I do remember being in serious trouble for defacing a pristine white wall.
I read Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World as an impressionable student. The first two lines of his preface made an enduring impression: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design ... possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design [persuades] people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care.”This statement has haunted me throughout my career—I asked myself if I am one of these “phonies”? My answer has always been the same: “I need to do more to break this cycle.” Yes, it is my belief that social and ethical responsibilities should be at the center of what designers do.
A plethora of great thinkers have shaped some “first world dimensions” of my thinking. It is, however, South Africa that has taught me most about “why” and “how” it is critical for designers to take ownership of societal responsibilities. The country is often described as one of the most diverse and complex societies in the world.
I grew up as a beneficiary of “privilege” under apartheid, experienced the most radical sociopolitical transformations in recent history, and saw how design played a role in shaping various iterations of “imagined new societies” where social and ethical responsibilities were essential as a tool of social engineering. The legacy of extreme socioeconomic disparities, the ways in which design manifests symbolically and materially, to harbor the ideological needs of institutions to manipulate class, gender, and race, ultimately to serve the needs of agency, all became issues that the empathetic and engaged designer could not ignore.
3. You were one of a group of designers from South Africa who conceived the idea to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life by collecting 95 posters from around the world, honoring Madiba’s lifelong contribution to humanity. Can you talk about your involvement with the Mandela Poster Project and explain why it is important for you to stay involved and to do this type of work?
In May 2013, a group of like-minded thinkers came up with an idea to collect 95 posters in 60 days via social media to celebrate Madiba’s 95th birthday, under the title “Mandela Poster Project.” It was a humble concept: we aimed to build a collection of posters contributed by designers from around the world that represent the value system that Madiba brought to the world.
Days after we published the brief the project went viral and reached a vast community. The team was known as the Mandela Poster Project Collective (MPPC), and they committed their time and expertise to make the exceptional happen. In 60 days the MPPC tapped into its networks to collect more than 700 submissions from more than 70 countries.
The “magic” of this project lies in the makeup of the MPPC team. We are a group of people from radically diverse backgrounds, but, more importantly, we have a common goal and a shared value system. We therefore approached the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust (NMCHT) to offer our project as a fundraising initiative to help establish Africa’s fourth dedicated pediatric hospital in Johannesburg—Madiba’s final legacy wish. The global design community supported this alliance and contributed way beyond the original project’s expectations.
The MPPC curated the more than 700 submissions, and 95 posters from 37 countries were selected based on their narrative relevance to form part of the Mandela Poster Project 95 Collection, representing 95 years of Madiba’s life. The collection first went on public display on UN Mandela Day in 2013 and received a great deal of media attention from around the world. By December 2014, the 95 Collection will have been exhibited at more than 25 venues.
Why is it important for me to do this type of work? Firstly, as a designer, I hope to see that communal efforts result in positive societal impact and that it contributes to positive changes in the quality of life for as many people as possible. Secondly, I am committed to collaborate with designers who are dedicated to positive social change.
I posed this question to my students and they responded: “Teach us what we do not know instead of teaching us what we know better than our teachers.” My additional advice is to is to read as much as possible and to travel broadly.
Jacques Lange is partner and creative director at Bluprint Design in Pretoria, South Africa, a design educator at the University of Pretoria, and advisor to various corporate institutions and NGOs. He has published widely on topics related to design practice, profession management, research, design promotion, policy advocacy, and contemporary design from lesser known regions. He is a former president of the International Council of Communication Design (Icograda).
The development of Protect Baltimore and the HIV Testing Action Kit was made possible by generous funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Category C Demonstration Project (PS12-1201).
MICA team: Mike Weikert, Director, and Ryan Clifford, Associate Director, MICA Centerfor Design Practice & MA in Social Design: Daniel Calderwood, Undergraduate Graphic Design: Anne Marie Jasinowski, Post Baccalaureate Graphic Design: Jackie Littman, MFA Graphic Design: Karen Shea, Undergraduate Graphic Design: Heejin Suh, MA in Social Design.
Project partners: Jacky M . Jennings, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor of Pediatrics & Epidemiology, Associate Director, General Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, Director, Center for Child & Community Health Research (CCHR), Department of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Co-Director, NIAID Sexually Transmitted Infection (T32) Pre-doctoral Training— Grant, Joint Appointment, Bloomberg School of Public Health; Amelia Greiner Safi, PhD MS, Research Faculty, Department of Pediatrics, Co-Director, Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Data Management (BEAD) Core Center for Child and Community Health Research; Christina Schumacher, PhD, Research Associate, Department of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
DESCRIPTION Baltimore City has one of the most severe HIV epidemics in the United States. In Baltimore, HIV/AIDS is concentrated in poor neighborhoods, among high-risk groups, and especially among African Americans, who represent approximately 89 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases. High-risk groups include men who have sex with men (MSM), injection drug users (IDU), and high-risk heterosexuals.
While the Baltimore City Health Department has implemented extensive outreach testing services via mobile vans and through needle exchange programs, the extent of the HIV burden and changing epidemiology underscore the need for targeted HIV testing strategies.
Protect Baltimore is an educational toolkit for healthcare professionals to promote and practice HIV testing in high transmission areas of Baltimore City. This project is a collaboration between the Johns Hopkins Center for Child and Community Health Research (CCHR) and a multidisciplinary team of students from the Center for Design Practice (a studio practice within the Center for Social Design beginning September 2014) at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).
Since 2008, the Center for Design Practice at MICA has engaged interdisciplinary groups of students and outside partners in projects that address entrenched social problems. MICA believes in a human-centered approach to problem solving, using collaborative, project-based learning that focuses on translating ideas into tangible outcomes. The ultimate goal is to change behaviors and to make a positive impact on society.
This project had three main phases: Research and Immersion, Ideation, and Pitch. Each of these project phases culminated in a formal presentation to our partners in order to share outcomes and conclusions. At the end of the semester, the CCHR received two complete HIV Testing Action Kit design concepts, and they were able to pick the final project direction through a comprehensive focus group process.
RESEARCH During the intensive research and immersion phase, the MICA students were given contextual and visual research assignments to better understand the culture and context surrounding HIV testing and prevention in Baltimore City. During the first 4–5 weeks of the project, much of their time was spent outside the classroom, developing and conducting interviews with primary care providers, visiting local HIV testing clinics and mobile testing centers, surveying HIV testing attitudes and compliance with a questionnaire they designed, and consulting with project partners from CCHR and the Baltimore City Health Department.
Contextual research To better understand the context for the issues around HIV prevention in Baltimore City, the student team was given access to current research, academic papers, and public health studies regarding HIV infection, transmission, and prevention. They were expected to synthesize and distill the information, and apply their findings directly to their problem solving and ideation. To achieve this, they read hundreds of pages of dense medical literature.
Infographics and data visualization To help the students understand and share what they had discovered, each team member proposed, researched, and designed an infographic or data visualization that was based upon information learned from individual research. These visualizations helped the students synthesize, distill, and clearly communicate complex epidemiological data sets and concepts, as well as open lines of communication with our partners at the CCHR. Infographics addressed HIV/AIDS statistics in Baltimore, HIV infection by zip code, Baltimore City demographics, HIV testing methods, community viral load, audience personas, and public health detailing methodology. Once completed, the infographics were given to the partners to explain and effectively position complex health and epidemiological concepts to a wide audience beyond healthcare professionals, including project stakeholders, the affected community, and potential funders.
Due to the complex, technical, and acronym-heavy nature of the language surrounding HIV testing and prevention, a glossary of pertinent terminology was also developed and integrated into the supporting research materials.
Visual research The team also undertook detailed visual research, which included identifying existing local, national, and international HIV prevention campaigns, and acquiring and visually auditing existing HIV testing kits in use in other cities.
When analyzing existing prevention materials and campaigns, the students developed categories that described the voice and strategic approach of the campaigns that they were auditing. These categories included: celebrity endorsement, clinical/statistical, de-stigmatizing, fear-based, humorous, inspirational, and shocking.
CHALLENGES A priority focus of this project was identifying and lowering the barriers to HIV testing, both on the provider and the patient side. One challenge was gaining access to—and building trust with—primary care providers who were providing HIV testing and linkage to care in high transmission areas. These providers were the primary audience for the HIV Testing Action Kit.
Additionally, research showed that some private medical providers are uncomfortable discussing sexual health and recommending HIV testing for patients who do not have obvious risk factors for HIV infection. For example, patients over 65 who are sexually active are at high risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and syphilis.
To be successful, the HIV Testing Action Kit must make it easy and desirable for the physician to offer testing, counseling, and linkage to care, and also help to de-stigmatize HIV testing for the patient. During the research and interview process, the MICA team developed a questionnaire for primary care providers to better understand the providers’ current HIV testing knowledge, and to assess whether they offered testing. This data was critical to the development of the testing kit because it helped root the final design within pragmatic, real-world contexts.
Based on their research, site visits, interviews with healthcare providers, and primary care physicians, as well as background information provided by the partners at CCHR and the Baltimore City Health Department, the team developed a list of specific challenges to successful implementation of the HIV Testing Action Kit, which included the fact that HIV testing in Maryland is not compulsory.
STRATEGY When the team entered the ideation, design, and pitch phases, it was clear that the HIV Testing Action Kit required thoughtful and relevant branding that was Baltimore-centric, and that it must serve as a persuasive call to action for private health medical providers to prioritize HIV testing and linkage to care.
Instead of pitching one design concept at the end of the semester, the MICA team developed and proposed two distinct branding approaches and naming strategies for the HIV Action Kit, “Protect Baltimore” and “Reality Check.” Both concepts spoke in a distinct voice that encouraged the user to take direct and immediate action, and both proposals provided the necessary tools and resources to make testing and counseling easy and desirable for providers and patients.
Approach 1: Protect Baltimore The Protect Baltimore mark is authoritative, yet friendly. It speaks clearly and in an engaging way that encourages the viewer to protect their city, their communities, and themselves.
Approach 2: Reality Check The Reality Check mark uses a check symbol in place of the word check, and utilizes wordplay to create an identity that resonates. It calls patients and providers to action in a direct, no-nonsense way.
EFFECTIVENESS After the semester ended, the project was funded for implementation and both design concepts were taken through a comprehensive focus group process to identify which campaign should be produced and implemented in Baltimore City. As a result of the focus groups, “Protect Baltimore” was selected for implementation. CCHR contracted with one of the student designers from the MICA team to design the final Protect Baltimore HIV Testing Action Kit and materials.
The kits are professional and sleek —they are also some of the most updated sources of information providers have. They communicate an appropriate degree of seriousness and sophistication —which is important for an outreach campaign geared to the medical community ... We have been repeatedly complimented on the look and content of our materials. We have had requests for copies from around the country . —Amelia Greiner Safi, PhD MS, The Center for Child and Community Health Research
This project has become a model for a successful partnership between MICA and CCHR and is the start of long-term, ongoing collaboration. Primarily due to this high level of engagement and direct collaboration with CCHR, the project was able to address this complex communications challenge, resulting in a campaign that has been enthusiastically received by primary care providers and their patients.
Baltimore City HIV/AIDS Epidemiological Profile, Fourth Quarter 2011, Data reported through December 31, 2011, Center for HIV Surveillance, Epidemiology and Evaluation Prevention and Health Promotion Administration, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“Public Health Detailing of Primary Care Providers: New York City’s Experience, 2003–2010,” Michelle G. Dresser, MPH, Leslie Short, MPH, Laura Wedemeyer, BA, Victoria Lowerson Bredow, MPH, Rachel Sacks, MPH, Kelly Larson, MPH, Joslyn Levy, MPH, BSN, Lynn D. Silver, MD, MPH.
Instructors: Christopher Hethrington, Professor of Communication Design, and Susan Stewart, Dean of the Faculty of Culture and Community, Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Chief Electoral Officer: Keith Archer, PhD, ElectionsBC, Communications Manager: Don Main, ElectionsBC. Director of Client Services: Allan Black, Elevator Strategy. Nineteen students.
DESCRIPTION In the lead-up to provincial elections in British Columbia, ElectionsBC, an organization that administers the Election Act and the provincial electoral process in British Columbia, recognized an opportunity to engage young adults in the process of improving youth participation in the electoral process. As with many electoral organizations, they had been challenged in the past by increasingly lower voter turnout, particularly from the demographic of 19- to 25-year-old youth. With provincial elections slated for the following spring, ElectionsBC needed to find a way to increase voter registration and actual voting participation by the target demographic. To do this, they reached out to Emily Carr University of Art & Design with funding and the desire to engage young creatives, but were completely open to what we might propose, providing a great deal of autonomy and support in both the conceptual development of the project and its ongoing operations. At an initial meeting it was determined that a special topics course would be created with the final outcome to take the form of a diverse media campaign that addressed the problem space. Broadly speaking, as most students themselves were representative of the target demographic, the campaign would largely take the form of youth speaking to youth, in a youth voice.
Though housed within the Faculty of Design, the course was promoted as open to all students at Emily Carr regardless of their area of study. This resulted in a diversity of student disciplines within the classroom including those from visual arts, critical and cultural studies, communication design, and industrial design. The multidisciplinary nature of the cohort created a real opportunity to explore collaboration in a context that was, for the most part, unlike any the participants had experienced in the past.
“Democracy” was in the title of the course and at the very core of the project itself, and so an opportunity presented itself to invest the methods and process of designing with those same notions of autonomy and responsibility. In some respects, the same choices faced when deciding to participate in voting were embedded in the core of how the class functioned—students had to decide how they would contribute and to what degree.
RESEARCH Students worked to their strengths to provide extensive secondary research in areas such as behavior change, key communication touch points, and social media ecology. They also did extensive precedent research into environmental and installation design, identity and branding, and existing campaign exemplars, both specific to the problem of young voter turnout and those successful in engaging youth generally.
A Critical + Cultural Practices major provided analysis of statistical research and survey interpretations that explored demographics, behavioral motivations and barriers, and communication channels. This research was specific to British Columbia and, as a result, was exceptionally relevant to the project and informed much of the conceptual ideation that followed. A student from the Interaction + Social Media program thoroughly assessed the impact and relationship of various social media touch points and how they might support or, alternatively, work to the detriment of the campaign. This was particularly important in developing a social media framework that would also insulate ElectionsBC from criticism in an environment where the kinds of explicit expression associated with the youth voice could run counter to the comparatively conservative and neutral voice of the client.
This up-front secondary research was supported by the precedent research that was generated by industrial and communication designers over the course of the conceptual development and ideation stages and through the final stages of development in a more reflective and iterative way consistent with their design process.
CHALLENGES One of the focal points in the teaching method of this class proved to challenge the success of the project throughout the course of the semester. Embedding notions of autonomy and responsibility was particularly difficult given the relatively large numbers in the class, and self-organization across the disciplines compounded the problem. Diverse disciplines and personal responsibility effectively supported the research and ideation stages, but breakdowns occurred in the transition to the formal production development stage. Students began to see the project as a communication design problem rather than as a larger service design opportunity with a variety of touch points. In facilitating this project, I struggled to find the balance between encouraging autonomy and instructing or directing, and I found it quite challenging to bring forward the unique disciplinary strengths of some individuals who felt they needed to perform outside their field of practice in order to be of value.
STRATEGY From the outset, the strategy for implementing this project involved four objectives. The first was to create a working studio environment that would encourage students from diverse backgrounds, who often worked alone and independently, to instead work collaboratively and confidently toward problem solving, ideation, and implementation. As the client came to us with the specific intention of engaging youth in the communication problem, the second objective was to give students the authority and autonomy to organize and decide on strategic direction. This autonomy informed another objective, which was to ensure that their perceptions and intuitions, informed by research, took primacy over that of the instructor or even the client. This was a necessary strategy if we were going to truly embrace the notion of youth speaking to youth, in a youth voice. Finally, the diversity of the cohort offered the strategic opportunity to create a service design approach that offered multiple touch points from print and web to environment and performance.
EFFECTIVENESS The project was very successful in determining a communications vernacular that would engage and persuade the target audience to act by effectively addressing areas that were otherwise a challenge for affecting behavior change. Students presented the final campaign proposal to the Chief Electoral Officer of ElectionsBC, the Communications Officer, and a representative of the ministry’s advertising agency. The results of the research and ideation that led to the broader conceptualization of a targeted youth campaign were very well received by the client, and aspects of the project were implemented in the final media campaign that was launched the following spring.
The strategy of leveraging the multidisciplinary classroom, though successful in terms of research and ideation, proved less effective at the development stage. The project became progressively constrained to print and online touch points, and the opportunity to create a diverse and fully resolved campaign was largely missed.
In the lead-up to the elections in the spring of 2013, Emily Carr received a significant amount of local and national media attention. Many students were interviewed for print publications and television broadcasts, providing them with an opportunity to reach a wide audience and discuss their beliefs about democratic processes, and how design can contribute in this challenging problem space.
ASSESSMENT There were many positive outcomes from this partnered project with ElectionsBC, not least of which was the extensive media coverage that benefited all stakeholders. The opportunity to teach and learn in a multidisciplinary environment allowed the exploration of a kind of collaborative practice that is often encouraged in design teaching but seldom realized to such a degree. The challenges experienced, rather than being a deterrent, actually encourage greater engagement in these types of design methods and give insight into improving approaches in a reflective and iterative teaching practice that mirrors design processes themselves.
Continued community and government partnerships will support and inform new ways of working collaboratively across new and diverse disciplines, and evolve and improve our design practice as well as our methods of teaching. Finally, and particularly in emerging areas such as service design, these partnerships offer the opportunity to show how design can make a difference when addressing complex and challenging social service problems. As Martin Temple of the UK Design Council says, it will allow us “to show how design offers practical solutions which deliver real results on the ground” (
As this was the inaugural year of the project, the MFA students began without a set budget. They reached out to community partners for donations, including art supplies, printing costs, paper, catering, volunteering, and exhibition supplies. The project would not have been possible without generous support from Artist & Craftsman Supply, Di Bruno Brothers, Fireball Printing, photographer Sam Fritch, Masthead Print Studio, Tyler Printmaking, and Tyler Graphic and Interactive Design.
Instructor: Professor Kelly Holohan. MFA students: Zan Barnett, Nikki Eastman, Joshua Schott, Stephanie Werning. St. James School seventh-grade class: Zahkiyyah Crawford, Marquis Fabii, Diamond Gibbs, Ainyae Holmes, Tyrena Husbands, Ezekiel McLeod, Jonathan Newlin. Jamaal Oliver, Cordell Patterson, Sydnee Reddy, Kanyana Reese, Lashay Smith, John Taylor, Kwymaje Thompson, Jalieka Woodard. St. James School administration: David Kasievich, Head of School; Laura Hoffman-Dimery, Principal; Deena Ball, Art Teacher.
DESCRIPTION As part of their graduate thesis course at Tyler School of Art, first-year MFA students were prompted to choose a group project that would center around a collaboration with the St. James School, a middle school in the Allegheny West neighborhood of Philadelphia. After meeting with the St. James administration and learning about their mission, culture, and immediate needs, the MFA students were inspired by the importance placed on the arts in the St. James curriculum, and chose to create a project that could showcase the school’s passion for art education.
The MFA Design class conceptualized a collaborative silkscreen poster project to take place over the spring semester 2014. They worked with the seventh-grade class at St. James School to create a large-scale poster exhibition in which the young students learned about design, the creative process, and exhibiting work. The graduate students worked closely with small groups of St. James students, acting as design mentors and creating posters with positive themes inspired by the St. James student pledge.
The pledge, which all St. James students learn to recite, highlights the core values of the school community. The MFA class wanted to incorporate these principles into the project, and asked students to pick their favorite themes from the pledge. The final themes were knowledge, envisioning the future, and positive change. The entire St. James pledge can be read here:
Each graduate design mentor worked closely with groups of three to four students to conceptualize and design a silkscreen poster. Over the course of the semester, the MFA students were able to develop close relationships with the St. James students through repeated visits between the two schools. These visits involved creating their ideas, experimenting with design, taking field trips with the students, screen printing their posters, and celebrating with them at the climatic exhibition.
The exhibition took place at Tyler School of Art in a highly visible gallery space open to the public. The MFA students curated and installed the show, which included diptychs of the St. James student posters and the MFA student posters hung side by side. Additionally, the exhibition included project photos, videos, posters displaying the St. James pledge, and process artwork made by the students. Sale runs of each poster were available for purchase along with promotional souvenirs. St. James students also helped to run a printing station, so exhibition guests could print their own postcard to commemorate the show.
RESEARCH Prior to meeting with St. James, the MFA class was assigned to read Andrew Shea’s book Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-Based Graphic Design to prepare for the challenges of a community partnership. They visited St. James School several times to listen and learn about the school mission, culture, and needs. This dialogue was critical in defining a project that would serve the needs of both communities.
Once the basis of the project was formed, the MFA class began to research the history and process of silkscreen printing. They imparted this information to the St. James students through slide presentations of silkscreen artwork and an instructional video on the silkscreen process that the MFA class scripted, filmed, and edited. This video was shown to prepare the students for printing their own posters.
CHALLENGES The challenges included funding, time management, scheduling between the two schools, and St. James student attendance outside of events at their school. Since the MFA students defined their own project working alongside St. James, they had to address funding as the project progressed. Reaching out to community partners for assistance largely solved this challenge, although the design department supported us by covering the costs of the exhibition. Another challenge was time management, both with the project schedule and coordinating with St. James for all the necessary meetings with students. Solving this challenge required flexibility in scheduling on the part of both schools, in addition to open communication. The most difficult challenge was encouraging attendance of the St. James students at the exhibition; the St. James administration noted that student attendance at extracurricular activities was usually difficult to achieve. Though only some of the students were able to attend the exhibition, the ones who did spoke highly about the event to their peers. Students in attendance were excited to be an integral part of the exhibition.
Phase 1: Planning The MFA class visited St. James and engaged in a dialogue about the needs of the school. Then, they conceptualized the silkscreen poster project and developed a presentation to pitch to the St. James administration. After feedback from St. James, the MFA class adjusted the details of the project to meet the following goals:
Phase 2: Creative Process The MFA class visited St. James six times over the course of the semester. Visits included observing their art class, engaging in a silkscreen demo, creating mind maps based on the St. James pledge themes, designing posters, and screen printing their final posters. Additionally, the St. James students were able to explore the graphic and interactive design spaces on a field trip at Tyler School of Art. The seventh graders were given the opportunity to participate in a critique of their graduate mentors’ posters. The search for funding started in this phase after the project became more solidified. Finally, the St. James and Tyler communities came together for the poster exhibition in phase 3.
Phase 3: Exhibition In preparation for the exhibition, the MFA students created the branding and identity for the collaborative project, “Dreams on Screens,” and developed promotional materials. The MFA class and St. James administration shared the exhibition promotion with various media outlets. Then, the MFA class curated and installed the exhibit at Tyler School of Art.
EFFECTIVENESS We determined the effectiveness of our project in light of our original goals, and felt we were successful in getting the St. James students excited about design. We raised awareness for St. James School through publicity for the project, and the exhibit was well attended by the St. James community as well as the Tyler School of Art and Temple University communities. While it is difficult to measure the scope of the project in terms of potential donors, the artistic culture of St. James received much attention from the art community of Philadelphia.
ASSESSMENT Overall, the project met most of the goals that we set, but also had unexpected benefits. While the project didn’t have a huge direct financial impact on St. James School, the strong relationship that was built between the two school communities will pave the road for successful future collaborations. Some things we will do to improve on future MFA class projects with St. James include the following: establishing a single contact with St. James to streamline communication between our schools; meeting with the St. James administration earlier and more often to allot more time for exploration in the planning phase; and securing funding for the project ahead of time. We hope that the exposure generated by this inaugural project will help gain financial support for future collaborations with St. James.
The Creative Co-operative, an agency for social and cultural creative practices, chose as its focus the Seine-Denis les Plaines area of Paris, which is made up of heavy industrial and multicultural areas and has large numbers of immigrant workers. Their project proposed, “How could social and cultural cohesion be encouraged through creative (re-) designs within the physical spaces or the digital/physical fabric of urban life?”
Stage 1: Creative Co-operative spent 6 months identifying the brief, issues, and challenges, evaluating current practices with members of Saint Denis Council and the Bureau International des Expositions.
Stage 2: Student team received the brief and background information about the area in advance. This allowed time for the Teams to engage in further contextual research and build case studies of design practices.
Creative Co-operative, overall project directors: Andrew Bullen and Janine Huizenga. Local expert advisor: Bernard Orantin—Aubervilliers (2012, 2013). Project Manager: Dr. Ouafae Benslimane, Research, Innovation General Council of Seine-Saint-Denis, Department of Planning and Development. Chelsea student team: Prudence Djajadi and Haobo Chen, MA course in Graphic Communication Design;and Hiroshi Ito and Angelina Papaioannou, MA course in Interior Spatial Design.
DESCRIPTION The Creative Co-operative proposed to critically explore models of World Expos to understand how visions of the future can create catalysts for sustainable urban regeneration and legacies for local communities. This was to encourage the making of engaging design proposals and prototypes that also served as a prompt to develop core values within public thinking.
Brief and aims of the design solution To design an exhibition installation, application, or pavilion with a dual role. The response must have a vision of digital technology and design used in the creation of a better urban life for the future; and present a practical and sustainable solution to the challenges of the Seine-Saint-Denis area, to remain as a legacy for the people of the area.
Achieving a sense of connectedness between the different communities of the Paris region, which would enrich a sense of belonging and diversity within the culture, was one of the two main priorities of the brief. The second of those priorities was to drive economic prosperity in ways that were sympathetic to cultural cohesion and at the same time inventive with the continuing uses of technologies and infrastructures.
ESDC was scheduled as a live research project within the Futur en Seine Festival, which annually showcases for the benefit of the public and industries the latest innovations in design, research, and entrepreneurship using digital technology. This festival has international standing, having up to 80,000 visitors, and is run by Cap Digital who are a non-profit organization clustering together SMEs, research labs, university departments, and corporations across France as experts for digital content and technological innovation. The Creative Co-operative were therefore keen to engage and test a systemic design approach to ESDC. For the student this meant experiencing first hand how to develop design practices that are directly embedded within locally organized actions, policies, and opportunities for the client.
RESEARCH For the Chelsea team, the research began several weeks before arriving in Paris. This included research about the region of Paris; identifying a variety of theoretical and practical methodologies that could be suitable for adaptive design and design interactions; debating the validity of design strategies that could complement ethnographic research. In Paris, primary research was made meaningful through the program of walking tours, lectures, and project critiques from different experts from the region of Saint Denis/Aubervilliers.
Observational studies also led on to two distinctive methodologies in preparation of the ideas stage of the project: (1) mental/emotional map, which involved remapping the sites visited, identifying the perceptions of working/living life and general emotional responses to the geography and architecture; and (2) value ladder, which required each team to identify values as designers, and then align this to the values of the brief requirements.
CHALLENGES The primary challenge for the Chelsea group was to introduce an idea of social cohesion for the community that could also grow within the plans for a developing city. The balance between “belonging” and “sharing” had to be met in order to create a sustainable design solution. A good opportunity arose at the site of the canal, as this location would encounter the solitude of the daily commuters and inhabitants, but could also become programmed within busy city-wide events when required.
STRATEGY Choosing a site Through historical research it was noted that Canal de l’Ourcq was once a lifeline of Paris, allowing for the transportation of goods and water sanitation. Also, many urban and rural communities worldwide continue to build cultural events around water to celebrate community identity in more symbolic ways. These two factors made concrete the decision of using the canal as the space for the design idea.
Identifying forms Inspiration from nature led the group to aquatic plants, quickly isolating the water lily as a form that could be exploited for its spectacular visual qualities but also its lesser known structural properties. With its lattice of hardened ribs and an upturned edge the largest of water lilies can support the weight of a human.
Concept The idea of a floating platform on the canal in the guise of the water lily was proposed: units could be joined together to create a modular structure as medium-sized platforms or floated individually to help create a strong visual identity for the disused canal.
Problem solving As the canal is not currently in use but is highlighted as an area/facility for urban development, the student group felt they were contributing to the current strategies for city redevelopment and consequently felt their creative ideas would be supported. The modular nature of the design concept encouraged playful uses of the canal which would originate directly from the local community, and was also flexible enough to be physically maneuvered if and when water transport recommenced.
Function follows form Guided by human curiosity about balancing on water by standing on the water lilies, the group decided to make their forms platforms for people to physically use. If you could walk onto them then what else could you do?
Form follows function To facilitate a close relationship with the local neighborhood and to test their responses to the platforms, a variety of existing social media platforms were added to create a network of communications. Therefore, the Internet supported the platforms both locally and remotely. Remotely, users could ask questions, seek information about events, and suggest their own uses for the platforms. Locally, mobile technologies could interact with content and media effects, which could be embedded in the platforms.
The modular coupling of the platforms allowed multiple needs to be met simultaneously and a sense of solitude to be preserved for individuals or families. The platforms were designed to have different features depending on whether it is day or night, mimicking the variety of water lilies that change behaviors according to the environment. When less active, the water lilies with their curious forms would also help enhance the visual look of the neighborhood and its identity.
It is clear that the students listened carefully to the local experts and focused their decisions upon how to use the existing fabric of the environment and neighborhood. The students as designers managed their social responsibilities quite well, which was evident in the way they afforded local residents practical ways to become stakeholders in the design. Being more “savvy” by demonstrating exactly how economic revenue might be generated by the design solution, and asserting this as part of the answer to a systemic design approach, would show the project’s overall design ingenuity to maximum effect.
Faculty project co-leaders: Associate Professors Keith M. Owens and Michael R. Gibson. Student investigators: Nicole Hauch, MFA, Innovation Studies, Design Research; Sierra Mendez, MA, Innovation Studies, Design Research; and Sam Williamson, MA, Innovation Studies, Design Research. Advisors, partners: Corgan Associates, Inc., The West End Association, Inc.
DESCRIPTION The University of North Texas (UNT) College of Visual Arts and Design (CVAD) Design Research Center (DRC) worked in partnership with Downtown Dallas, Inc. to formulate and operate this participatory design research project. Downtown Dallas, Inc. is an organization focused on sustaining the vitality of the city’s central core. This project was undertaken to accomplish three primary goals:
To first understand and then take action to address the unique civic revitalization needs of a designated historic district in Dallas, “The Historic West End.” Located immediately west of Dallas’s downtown business district, this area was struggling to recapture the positive allure of its past achievements while attempting to build a more sustainable future.
To attempt to answer a simple but significant educational research question: Could graduate students—both designers and non-designers—without backgrounds in urban planning collaboratively come to understand challenges inherent in a real civic problem, and then invent viable solutions to them? As proponents of interdisciplinary, evidence-based design practice, my colleague Michael Gibson and I believed this question to be salient in light of the growing instances of designers working with diverse partners being challenged by complex projects occurring far outside of market-driven practice.
RESEARCH Research for the project preceded a multi-stage process composed of nine interdependent phases. The research focused on contextual, historical, and ethnographic discovery. The early investigations fueled later data collection that in turn informed analyses, conceptual framing, persona/scenario construction, and solution ideation. Students conducted a rigorous literature review of scholarly and popular information related to urban revitalization, community building, and socioeconomic and civic engagement.
Primary research, principally informed by ethnographic methodologies, employed emic approaches: survey instruments, individual and small group interviews, and “on-street” field interviews of convenience; as well as etic approaches: direct investigator observations correlated to time, district geography, and key stakeholders. Moreover, the students catalogued the district’s physical makeup: businesses, buildings, parking, and wayfinding infrastructure. They also catalogued external perceptions of the district as expressed in 20+ years of articles appearing in the Dallas Morning News and postings found online. This multi-method approach yielded rich, sociocultural understandings of the district as a historic, civic, and communal entity, along with the evolving challenges it was facing.
Student investigators discovered that the district was laden with challenges that typically confront struggling neighborhoods: uneven use and living mix, high vacancy rates, and the costs associated with offering amenities tailored to diverse user groups (visitors, residents, workers, and college students). These combined with stakeholders invested in the district possessing no unified vision (or ways to invent one) regarding the district’s possible future(s). This fragmented self-awareness retarded efforts to thoughtfully account for physical and human resources, confused public perception about the district, and dissipated any efforts to create an authentic and inclusive rallying point around which the district’s stakeholders could unite.
CHALLENGES The project encountered research, educational, and implementation challenges. Research challenges included the difficulty of engaging with a significant number of research subjects representing key stakeholder groups. This hurdle was exacerbated by a fragmented decision-making and communication structure within the district. Student investigators also struggled with the complexities inherent to real-world (i.e., uncontrolled) investigations. Key educational challenges were twofold: the recurring difficulty in harmonizing educational outcomes with those associated with live field research and, despite careful documentation, a certain loss of institutional knowledge from one student research team to another over the two-year project span.
Moreover, the implementation of pilot projects to test research validity and solution utility was hampered by a lack of financial support by the district. When faced with these challenges, students thoughtfully recalibrated their approaches, adapted to less-than-ideal circumstances, and sought new ways to accomplish established goals. Fielding similar educational challenges on other DRC research initiatives, my colleague Michael and I continue to seek ways to seamlessly mesh the dynamics of applied field research with the expressed learning outcomes espoused by Communication Design’s MFA/MA graduate program in Design Research.
STRATEGY The strategy guiding the West End project was twofold. As a research and educational endeavor, a multi-staged framework composed of nine distinct yet interdependent phases guided it. Inductive reasoning and ethnographic methods principally guided early discovery phases. Later framing, scenario-building, and ideation phases were guided by abductive, heuristic thinking. All phases were iterative: each step was progressively shaped by insights gained from the prior work and, in turn, informed future actions. This framework functioned as both a means to guide rational inquiry and innovation, and as educational scaffolding for students with little experience undertaking complex field research.
As a solution-finding and innovation exercise, the project allowed the students to consider new ways to address civic challenges without relying on traditional urban planning scenarios predicated solely on brute physicality—for example, infrastructure, economic footprint, and transportation. This prompt, supported by data gathered during the initial inquiry, guided an innovative strategy predicated on perceiving the West End as an experience rather than a place. The district was an ongoing, evolving “event” shaped by interactions between the totality of its built environment and the unique dispositions of the district’s diverse user groups.
The fragmented self-image exhibited by district stakeholders also led the students to create three distinct, aspirational narratives that shaped their experiential approach and its corresponding solutions. Thus, the final solutions offered were not only tailored to address the district’s current civic needs, but also sparked new thinking about the district’s possible futures.
EFFECTIVENESS AND ASSESSMENT In large part, the West End project yielded outcomes that met its stated goals. First, the district was presented with an extensive workbook that contained hundreds of ideas for pilot projects all logically derived from, and categorized by, the three aspirational narratives. These ideas could be implemented as presented or, as was suggested in the workbook, function as catalysts for the district stakeholders’ own thinking and aspirations. Second, the West End Workbook also contained sections that extensively documented the research and innovation processes employed by student investigators. These sections explicated a meta-level, contextually transferable working model that other Dallas districts could easily adapt to their own, unique civic challenges. Third, the project gave strong credence to the idea that when designers and non-designers work collaboratively and are unfettered by strict disciplinary boundaries, refreshing new insights and innovative outcomes can result.
Educationally, Michael and I believe strongly in immersing graduate students in real-world, applied research problems. By augmenting controlled classroom experiences with the trials associated with indeterminate “wicked” problems, students are challenged to adapt theory into practice in real time and in response to real concerns—in this case, understanding and assisting a district comprised of diverse stakeholders confronting the difficult task of reinventing their collective future while honoring a distinctive past.
Ultimately, we concluded that all students involved in the project gained invaluable knowledge about evidence-based design practice, the challenges inherent to human field research (e.g., diverse factors, constituencies, temporalities, and agendas), the benefits of interdisciplinarity and collaboration, and the rigorous nature of demanding design research. The students also gained a more active, empathetic understanding of diverse stakeholders and their unique needs. This humanistic insight, often marginalized by other disciplines as they attempt to retain research objectivity, is nonetheless a vital component in evidence-based design practice.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION A copy of the West End Workbook can be found at:
In the first phase of the project, 22 third- and fourth-year students from the Design and Engineering programs participated: Carla Andreu, Amelia Aponte, Luís Arenós, Adriana Bertolín, Míriam Calleja, Aleix Carricondo, Ester Córcoles, Laia Corominas, Víctor García, Gemma Guerrero, Ramon Mañas, Xavier Mateo, Marc Miquel, Núria Mora, Alexandre Pibernat, Carolina Poch, Helena Puig, Joaquim Rodríguez, Marta Seara, Alma Topalovich, Júlia Torres, and Aida Trujillo.
In the second phase of the project, two junior designers, both ELISAVA alumni from the Design program joined in: Laia Corominas, Carolina Poch and ELISAVA alumni: Javier Jabalera and Miguel Olivera. Advisor for both phases: Ivan Bravo.
DESCRIPTION The goal of this project was to transform the School’s interior through vinyl pieces that would modify space perception and interaction with users. The intervention consisted of large-scale illustrations structured along the four floors of the building. Each floor pictures students’ experience during their four academic years. Four years portrayed in four floors: emblematic academic exercises, anecdotes, inquisitiveness, fears, tension, order, disorder, dreams, efforts, and a lot of coffee, an element that, surprisingly enough, is present in every floor.
The first floor/year depicts the beginning of a journey where we discover there is much to do. The second floor/year is a labyrinth-forest where we feel lost before the multiple options to choose from. The third floor/year is the time to specialize and travel abroad to study. The fourth floor/year is the moment to focus on the final degree project and launch our professional future. Lastly, each mural is a page from a diary where students can see themselves projected in the future, reflected in the present, and remembered in the past. To enhance the relationship between floors, we have included details that conceptually and physically connect the floors bottom-up, guiding the reading in a way that mirrors the concept of growth and evolution to be expected from a university career.
The students have reflected on what each course has meant to them, and, some months after the Creative Marathon, the work carried out by the students was displayed in the School’s corridors thanks to the manufacturing and installation of a vinyl made by MACtac, a company which specializes in the manufacturing and sale of self-adhesive substrate intended for graphic and industrial decoration.
RESEARCH The students carried out two types of research: first, field research through photographic safari, ethnographic use interviews, and architectural and spatial observation; second, visual research on graphics applied in spaces and illustration styles, visual cataloging of iconic elements of the “ELISAVA collective imagination,” and color research.
CHALLENGES The main challenge was to propose a creative collaboration to students from the Design and Engineering programs, in order to create a single illustration. Since 1997, ELISAVA has offered a blend of different yet complementary programs and professional training, including specializations in graphic design, industrial design, interior design, and design engineering programs. They all benefit from sharing faculty, classrooms, and students.
Proposing a joint project in the field of illustration seemed an interesting challenge to develop the creativity and imagination of our students, regardless of their field of study, by encouraging divergent thinking. For the ELISAVA community, the most important contribution was that students took over the space and decided to freely tell “their own story.” The initial briefing was very open. From the school side, we just wanted to give free expression to their creativity, and we had asked them to “tell a story” on these four walls, maintaining the autonomy of each illustration/floor and, at the same time, the continuity between floors. It could have been the story of a growing tree or animals climbing the walls. The second challenge was the timing of the first phase—4 days—and the size of the surface to be covered— 18 square meters per floor approximately for a total of 80 square meters.
What was most important was to find an advisor who had worked on graphic projects applied to large-scale space before, and who could lead the ideas of 22 students with the skill of an orchestra conductor. Ivan Bravo, a young professional illustrator and a former student of the school, proved to be an ideal choice.
Another important decision during the second phase of the project development (January–February, 2013) was to reduce the number of students who would carry out the final artwork, both as a matter of time management and to ensure an ensemble “style.” All drawings had to be generated in detail, and it was better to reduce the number of hands in order to ensure uniformity. The decision to incorporate in the team two former students, junior designers, was based on their greater experience and availability outside the academic schedule, which allowed for intense workdays at the school itself, and sometimes even at Ivan Bravo’s office.
On the first day of the workshop, after the initial briefing session with Ivan Bravo and myself, students were shown a number of graphical references applied as illustrations to a space, and were asked to find others that could interest them. Students then began working in a collective brainstorming session to decide “what story to tell.” The four walls quickly suggested the 4 years of coursework for both degrees, Design and Engineering.
On the second day of the workshop, Ivan Bravo divided the 22 students into four groups, and he assigned an academic course and a floor to each one to study the uniqueness of each wall. Through observation of the context from the spatial-architectural point of view and user interviews, students “distilled” a number of important ideas to illustrate the floor and the course year that they had been assigned. The walls’ spatial details (sockets and windows) were integrated as elements of the illustration.
During the third day of the workshop, the groups worked on the details of each mural and on integrating information into a single illustration. All groups worked in parallel in a classroom so that they were able to share ideas and ensure consistent and uniform results. Every 3 hours the groups met and commented on all the drawings. To enhance the spatial relationship between the floors and the transition from one academic year to the next, details that connect the walls were included, creating a steady narrative journey from the beginning (entrance to the building) to the fourth floor (top floor), where a large skylight lights up the entire space. This glass skylight ceiling primed the students to think about an analogy between heaven and finalization of studies with subsequent access to the professional world. This phase ended on the fourth day with the public presentation of general sketches of the four walls in pencil on A3 sheets.
In January 2013, the second phase of formalization and development of the initial sketches started, working intensively in the evenings for 2 weeks, and later spacing out the meetings with the advisor, Ivan Bravo, until late February 2013. Two junior designers drafted the details of each mural by hand using light tables, tracing paper, and pencil. Once the school management had approved the general layout, all drawings were digitalized and the color was applied. One of the students studied color specifically, and the overall palette was developed according to the school’s space and the semantic value of the images.
In March 2013, the files were sent for production to the company sponsoring the action, MACtac. The students assisted in the printing and production of the vinyl rolls and their subsequent placement in the space. The project was inaugurated with a lecture in which the entire process was explained.
EFFECTIVENESS Overall, we are very satisfied with the results, and the effort on the part of the advisor and students were rewarded as the project became a tangible reality. From the economic point of view, the budget was not appropriate for the time spent in coordinating and directing the project, but the students met the production budget, and this was a good learning experience for their future careers.
ASSESSMENT For the students, being able to see “their work of collective authorship” every day gives them great satisfaction. For first-year students, it is a “dream” to think of being able to do a similar project in the future.
As project coordinator, I could never have imagined such results. The project has greatly exceeded everyone’s expectations, even the school management, who at first authorized use of the walls for only 6 months. A year later, it is still in place, and has become an iconic image of the school.
The cost of printing and binding the book was $1 7,925 for 1,000 copies, and this was supported with funding provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control principal investigator, G. Adamkiewicz.
Instructor: Professor Lisa Rosowsky. Group of 10 graphic design undergraduate students: Anum Awan.Tania Castro, Emily Cody, Ethan Hoover, Matthew Kaiser, Erika Leahey, Becky Margraf, Zach McCarthy, Alec Sibilia, and Mike Tavilla.
Advisors: Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz, Harvard School of Public Health; John Kane, Boston Housing Authority; Willie Mae Bennett-Fripp and Edna Rivera-Carrasco, Committee for Boston Public Housing; Sheyla Carew, Gerardo Ruiz-King, and Vivian Lee, translators from Boston Housing Authority Language Access Team. Additional assistance from Tom Stokes and Kristin Taylor, Beacon Communities, LLC; Deirdre Wyman and Carmen Villalobos, WinnResidential; Joseph Bamberg, Kathy Carton, and Gail Livingston, Boston Housing Authority.
DESCRIPTION The pedagogical aim of the Print Production course is twofold: to teach aspiring graphic designers what they need to know about getting their work commercially printed and produced, and to design and produce a collaborative print project for a community non-profit client. Most of our projects over the years have focused on public health/ healthcare and education.
Our labor is provided at no cost, but the client is responsible for paying printing and production costs directly to the vendor(s). Because we work for free, we make an agreement with each client that what we produce collaboratively will not be sold. To provide my students with the best possible education about printing, we do not ask for vendor donations, but instead pay full market rates, allowing us to receive the same quality and range of services as any other design client. The cost of producing projects for this course have ranged from $10,000 at the low end up to $31,000 at the highest end.
Massachusetts College of Art and Design is located in the same neighborhood as Boston’s famous Longwood Medical area, including Harvard’s School of Public Health (HSPH). In 2011, I approached HSPH to ask if there were opportunities for collaboration, and Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz, a senior researcher in the Department of Environmental Health, expressed interest. He had been working with the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) on helping longtime public housing residents to transition into new “green” housing developments, and wanted our help to create an educational and instructional print piece for tenants who may never before have had access to thermostats, low-flow toilets, or dishwashers. We were supplied with a draft of the copy, which we were encouraged to edit and make “as visual as possible,” with the aim of making this informational book accessible to residents with many literacy levels.
Based on their research, students designed a 48-page full-color wire-o bound book that opened from both sides: one way with text in English, and the other way with text in Spanish. A page of colorful vinyl decals was bound into the center for light switches and appliances, to remind residents to turn off lights, lower the thermostat, etc. The book had pockets on the inside of each cover, in which were cards in English and Spanish about how to use their appliances, as well as explaining the concept of the monthly utility bill (a novelty to residents who had never received one in prior public housing). Every resident received a book when moving into a new unit, and representatives from the building management company held follow-up meetings to go over the information (with interpreters) and answer questions.
RESEARCH This course always involves significant research both before and during each project. In this case, we began with a “facts and figures” talk about the history of public housing in Boston (the site of the nation’s first public housing system) given by staff of the Boston Housing Authority; we also heard from the head of the Committee for Boston Public Housing, a grassroots tenant advocacy organization, who explained the challenges which longtime public housing residents face when occupying renovated “green” units. The following week, we were given tours of unimproved public housing and compared living conditions with renovated units elsewhere in the city; we took photos and video, and interviewed tenants. Students read and annotated documents supplied by both the BHA and the Harvard School of Public Health to learn about the range of health and safety hazards in the city’s unimproved public housing developments, such as the effects of cigarette smoke, pesticides, and pests themselves.
CHALLENGES We faced several challenges during this project. One was editing the supplied draft to simplify the language for readers with limited literacy or limited English proficiency. Having worked on multiple healthcare projects during the history of this course, I have found that medical and research professionals can be blind to the presence of jargon, and benefit from having laypeople identify and “translate” it into commonspeak. Often, this requires a crash course on the topic at hand so that we have enough understanding to make the correct translation!
Another challenge was the bilingual nature of the book; while we had two students in the class who spoke some Spanish, neither was qualified to take on the task of translation. We were therefore extremely fortunate that the BHA supplied us with three translators, whom we brought on-site for the final 2 weeks of the class to assist us. This turned out to be essential when last-minute edits were being made and we needed to copy-fit in two languages.
STRATEGY Producing a project of this scope is incredibly challenging within a 1 2-week timeframe; we are up against the hard deadline of the end of the semester, when the students disperse for the winter holiday. My strategy is to get as much as I can in place before the start of the semester, so that we can take off running from the very first class meeting. Typically, I line up that year’s client and project 6–8 months in advance. This gives the client time to gather funding, if necessary, and to complete a draft of whatever copy we will be working with. It also gives me time to identify and connect with any experts we will need to visit the class and teach us about our subject.
One rule I have found to be extremely helpful is to strictly limit the number of people with whom we interact on the client side to one or at most two. In addition, the client understands that he or she must be dedicated to this project during the entire semester, and will be “on call” to respond quickly to questions that come up in order to deliver the product on time.
On our side of the process, I will typically divide up the class into smaller subgroups, each devoted to a particular task which suits their style and ability—editorial, design prototyping, image research, etc. We quickly identify which students are good illustrators, as we almost always need technical and/or informational illustrations. Subgroups are responsible for coordinating their efforts outside of class time, and each group has weekly deadlines. These subgroups eventually merge as the project develops, but this process is organic and varies from project to project. We also maintain a class wiki, and use it (along with Google Docs) to share files and information with one another during the week.
Roughly two-thirds of the way through the semester, we will present a rough version to the client and get feedback, which is absorbed and implemented as necessary. At that point, it is a sprint to the finish, with our point person generally joining us on site for the final class meeting for any last-minute edits.
The press check is scheduled during the break, and any students who are around can attend and get the chance to sign off on press sheets. Each student receives a copy of the printed piece for his or her portfolio, and I receive 5–10 copies for the course archive. Finally, several months after the project is completed, I request written documentation from the client about how the piece is being received and used.
EFFECTIVENESS I learn something new with every project we work on for this course. With the Welcome Home project, an unusually large client-side team made it especially important to be sure that all parties were communicating with one another. Both the BHA team and our point person at HSPH were highly organized and ready to respond quickly with whatever information or access we needed.
ASSESSMENT Students who worked on this project learned “on the job” about the print production process from start to finish, and gained experience working with a client, a budget, and a tight schedule. And, in a program curriculum that emphasizes individual design work, a group project is always valuable.
For the BHA, and Dr. Adamkiewicz at HSPH, the Welcome Home book has been an unqualified success—tenants at the two newly green public housing developments have been enjoying the books since 2011, and, as an example of tenant environmental education, the book and our collaboration have been referenced at both national (HUD) and local levels.
The studio course was titled “Detroit Connections: Design Collaboration.” The resulting projects were: The Brightmoor Farmway: A Collection of Stories & Recipes from Neighbors Building Brightmoor and Lamphere House.
The Detroit Connections engagement classes sought and received outside foundation funding to support our work. $4,500 of this money went toward the Design Collaboration course: $3,000 was used for print production costs for the publication, and $1,500 was used for materials and fabrication lab time for the Lamphere House project.
Instructors: Hannah Smotrich and Charlie Michaels Group of 12 art and design students: Maureen Bacon, Alessia Cappa, Colleen Dennison, Patrick Holloway, Alicia Kovalcheck, Megan Lacroix, Ali Prentice, Hannah Ryou, Caramia Sitompul, Alexis Stepanek, Ryan Thurmer, and NadiaTodoroff.
DESCRIPTION An opportunity for collaboration and reciprocal learning, this course allowed our students to use their creative skills to engage substantively with a community of people working to improve their struggling northwest Detroit neighborhood. The process of developing appropriate project briefs was embedded in the research we undertook as the semester began. We spent time walking in the neighborhood, having conversations with neighbors and other stakeholders, and realistically assessing what we could accomplish with our skill sets, resources, and timeframe.
Our client and key collaborators were members of Neighbors Building Brightmoor (NBB), a group “dedicated to mobilizing, equipping, and helping each other to create a beautiful, healthy and sustainable community for ourselves and our children.” Beginning in 2006 with the Brightmoor Youth Garden, an initiative to engage teens, NBB has evolved into an extensive community revitalization effort that spans 14 city blocks.
The NBB target area now includes over 34,000 square feet of parks, community and market gardens connected by a “farmway” walking path, and art and music enrichment programs for children. Despite the many achievements of the group, effort is constantly required to fight blight (and the public safety issues that accompany it) and transform abandoned properties into green areas or opportunities for artwork.
Designing a community cookbook was one of the project ideas that surfaced early. In fall 2011, a University of Michigan colleague who teaches writing had assigned her seminar students to interview members of NBB, write short essays, and solicit favorite recipes. It was clear that our Art and Design students could take this project to the next phase. Given our class size and semester-long timeframe, we worked to identify an additional priority: dealing with a burnt-out house that was situated in the geographical center of the target area, on the corner of Chalfonte Avenue and Lamphere Street. Thus, our two projects evolved: The Brightmoor Farmway, a publication, and Lamphere House, a community center of sorts, created with surface graphics.
RESEARCH Our research consisted primarily of extensive conversations, interviews, and interactions with as many of the neighbors in Brightmoor as we could reach. Our class met in Detroit every Friday, and we would usually spend at least a portion of our day in the neighborhood.
NBB holds monthly potluck dinner meetings that also allowed us opportunities to pose questions, present options, and gather input from a large gathering of community stakeholders at once. Students took turns attending these meetings and reported back to the class as a whole. These evenings were opportunities for us to get feedback on our many questions, but, more importantly, they provided students with an incredible vantage point, a view into the concerns and realities of living in a neighborhood with both potential and challenges. Our presentations were just one item on a long agenda, and students could see the relevance of our projects in the context of the whole.
The guiding philosophy of NBB is that a project can only happen if the direct stakeholders take the initiative to begin it and commit to being its ongoing caretakers. If someone dreams up a project—a garden in the vacant lot next to their house, a mural on the burnt-out building shell they can see from their kitchen—and commits to maintaining it, then the full resources of the neighborhood (and its supporters) will be harnessed to help make that dream happen. In the context of the house project, which was intended to become a community-wide landmark, we needed to balance our work between the NBB as a whole and the focused group of adjacent property owners. Students spent a good deal of time assessing the physical aspects of the site and current structure, and learning about the constraints of producing exterior artwork in an uncertain environment (for example, using valuable materials like metal will attract unwanted attention).
CHALLENGES AND STRATEGY For the publication, it became clear that the existing content was not sufficient—nor was it really appropriate for a cookbook. The original intent was to produce a book that would be sold as a fundraiser by the teens that worked at the Brightmoor Youth Garden. We needed to reshape the concept for the book and generate additional content, both written and visual. The narrative shifted—from a cookbook that showcased recipes for fresh produce to a book that celebrated the Brightmoor Farmway community. Students produced beautiful watercolor illustrations of vegetables and fruits, and added content to broaden the story. Some students took photographic portraits of neighbors and conducted additional interviews. Others sifted through photo archives to find imagery that showcased NBB’s work. Ultimately, The Brightmoor Farmway: A Collection of Stories & Recipes from Neighbors Building Brightmoor became a wonderful document of the community.
In the case of Lamphere House, the design challenge was to eliminate (or substantially defuse) the negative presence of the current house and create a “center” for the neighborhood. NBB had been boarding up empty houses and covering the boards with artwork for several years and, as a result, there were many beautiful paintings throughout the neighborhood. As designers, we asked ourselves how we could develop Lamphere House into something not only beautiful, but functional. We defined the brief as the creation of a community center. After some initial ambitious brainstorming, and given health and safety concerns and the scale of the project in relation to our available time, we restricted ourselves to working only with the facade of the building. Students analyzed the site: Who passed by? From what direction? In what way (by car, foot, bike)? At what speed?
We considered the role of a community space: How can a central space bring a community together? What functions can it host, and what tools could it provide? After students conducted many observations and developed several iterations with adjacent neighbors, the community at the NBB potluck approved a four-sided plan, phase one of which would be addressing the two most exposed facades. The east side of Lamphere House, the view seen on entering the neighborhood, was designed to have a map of the Farmway, welcoming visitors and orienting them to the presence of the many gardens and the trail that connected them; the north side of Lamphere House; the facade best situated for neighbors, was used as a communication board. Throughout the farmway, we had noticed small blackboards that were used for community announcements. Students dedicated the entire north facade to chalkboard, which created a single centralized site for communication. The remaining two facades had more limited visual access and were slated for murals (that were implemented the following summer).
We decided to sheath the building fully to help it stand apart from the artwork on surrounding houses: 4 × 8 foot sheets that we prepped at school (priming and transferring map lines via projection) were brought on site for installation and painting. To add dimension to the design, large-scale lettering and vegetables were hand drawn, then digitized and laser cut out of construction foam and applied to the walls.
EFFECTIVENESS The house has become a real centerpiece of the neighborhood and a place of pride for neighbors. We have gotten incredibly positive feedback. Riet Schumack (a key community organizer in the neighborhood) told us, “Everybody in the neighborhood loves the house. They call it the house. And the map .. it draws the community together ... It’s not only artful, it’s also a communication—and a unification—piece.” Bill Hickey, who lives across the street, said that he sees high school students coming to take their senior pictures in front of the house. Students, most of whom had not created work at that scale, were energized by the impact of the house’s presence in the landscape and felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
Once the publication’s intent was better aligned with its content, it was also successful. Neighbors celebrated the book at their annual summer picnic and it seemed to create a sense of validation for the community’s work thus far and added momentum to their efforts going forward. Students learned about engaging substantively in the process of editorial shaping, developing appropriate imagery, and more general aspects of publication design. Although the books sold out quickly and presumably raised some money for the group, the high production cost was problematic. Our funding covered costs for the first edition, but the neighborhood cannot sustain the project. We suspect that the value of the book was ultimately more significant emotionally than financially.
ASSESSMENT The Brightmoor community was very positively impacted by both projects, and our students (and we faculty) learned a tremendous amount about how a well-organized community group works. In addition to creative work, students were reading about and discussing Detroit in general, and our ongoing connection with the neighborhood was critical to contextualizing this content.
Our major challenge as teachers was the relationship of our workload to our available time! Class met only once a week in order to accommodate travel to Detroit. We did not have sufficient time to focus explicitly on methodologies for creative collaboration. As one student aptly reflected, “we would have benefited from middle management” (i.e., clear student leadership roles). And we did not have enough scheduled class time that overlapped with our community partners.
Even with these limitations, our students learned a great deal about what they can contribute. Throughout the semester, they were surprisingly timid about producing “real” work for others. While we appreciated their care and concern, we were pleased to see that their experiences over the course of the projects fostered significantly more confidence.