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Designing for Social Change: Author Q&A

February 22, 2013 / By Lara McCormick

A colleague of mine recently referenced the book Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-Based Graphic Design by Andrew Shea and I couldn’t believe I didn’t own a copy! I currently teach a studio course in which our design clients are non-profits in the community. I gained so much from reading the book. It definitely fills a void in the information I’ve collected on the topic of Designing for Good. Here’s the interview (thank you Andrew!):


How did this book come about?
I’m the kind of person who can’t let a project go unfinished. So, when a community-based project I led in grad school (MICA) was rejected by our partner, I wondered what I could have done differently, which led me to start researching and writing about designing for social change. I wrote about that particular project in an AIGA article soon after the book came out, “From Stumbles to Strategies“. When I started to do my research (in 2008-2010), I couldn’t find any information about how community-based work differs from regular client work. My research became my MFA thesis, and I wanted it to be valuable to a broad range of people. So I talked it over with Ellen Lupton, my grad school advisor, and saw the opportunity to turn my research into a book that showcases the work of other designers, whose experiences and insights would interest others. I pitched the book idea to Princeton Architectural Press, and heard back from them before I graduated. It was only then that I really started to recruit designers, write the case studies, and finalize the design details. My intentions for the book shifted as the project continued. Lots of people advised me to focus the book on how to measure social design projects, but I was less interested in how to measure the impact of these projects and more focused on how to improve the design process since, I believe, good outcomes result from good processes.

In hindsight, what do you see as some of the differences between community-based projects and client work?
Well, community-based design is less straightforward than client work. The parameters of client work are usually well-defined and the designer(s) get paid well for their work (hopefully). Community-based work can be much less predictable because the projects often have complex human stories that cause the designer(s) to become more emotionally-invested. The projects tend to be more exploratory and the outcome/expectations more open-ended. Also, the designer(s) is often paid less because these projects tend to be for nonprofit organizations or self-initiated. And everyone’s time is stretched, which can make them especially difficult to carry out in the classroom, which is where so many of these projects take place.

What did you realize while putting together this book that you may not have realized when the project started?
Great question. In short, I realized how much I didn’t know. I also realized the importance of that having that vantage point. I think my perspective as a designer who was new to designing for social change was an asset to researching and writing the book. Starting from that perspective forced me to look beyond my own experiences for insights and to think about how non-designers have engaged communities and have worked to solve complex social problems. Beyond learning from the amazing designers who contributed to the book, one of my biggest realizations was that a lot of non-designers have been thinking about how best to collaborate with communities for a long time, and some of them have been sharing their insights, too. It convinced me that partnering with collaborators from other disciplines can help designers become more socially relevant.

Of the twenty case studies, do you have a favorite?
I had to find most of the case studies on my own, which became a sort of treasure hunt. As a result, when I started learning about each project, that project became my favorite. Aside from the more generic criteria that I looked for (the kind of community/client, the form that the design took, the location where each was based, from design students/professionals, etc), the stories that each contributor told me about working on their project convinced me to select it. There’s something special about each one, and I catch myself referencing nearly all of them in my classes and when I talk about the book. Here are some that come to mind:

I love talking about “Keys for the City” because it took place in my home town of Lancaster, PA, which is known for its Amish and Mennonite communities, not design. The project’s goal was to raise awareness and scholarship money for music education. The designs took multiple forms, the most surprising being 20+ pianos that sat on city sidewalks for a whole summer. People interacted with the designs and cared more about the cause because they experienced music first hand.

“No Hooks Before Books” was project carried out by two of my grad school colleagues and promoted UMAR, a boxing gym in West Baltimore that doubles as a tutoring program. The designers worked closely with the gym owner, the boxing trainers, tutors, and the kids who came into the gym every day. I was able to visit the gym and see the designers in action. Their close collaboration with UMAR became a model for me throughout my process of writing the book because I got to see how closely they collaborated with the gym.

I like talking about “Made in Midtown,” because the multi-disciplinary team, headed by Design Trust for Public Space, was able to stop NYC’s plan to re-zone midtown Manhattan by telling stories about the garment district that showed it as an essential part of NYC.

Ramzy Masri’s project, “A Book By It’s Cover: Reading Stereotypes,” was an innovative educational program that shows how design can be used to prevent stereotypes from forming at a young age. What’s especially refreshing about this project are the simple shapes that represent the characters in Masri’s children’s book, which serve as clear metaphors for the difference that exist between people (race, gender, ethnicity, etc).

The last one that I’ll mention is “PECANS!” This was a project where two designers taught local high school kids in Greensboro, Alabama, how to use pecans, a free and abundant resource in Greensboro, to start a business selling pecan butter and brittle. All of the lessons that go into starting a food business became part of this project: learning how to cook, testing the product, designing the packaging, making a website, learning accounting principles and software, and how to keep it all going after the designers had left. This project shows how design can truly empower people.

As an educator, I love how you break it down into Design Challenge, Engagement Strategy, Design Strategy, Outcomes, and Lessons Learned. I’m finding the ‘lessons learned’ part seem to be the most revealing. Were people afraid to admit they’d made mistakes?
Yeah, it was difficult to find designers who were open to talking about the mistakes they made. While I continued to ask this question from all of my contributors, I realized that it was more useful to ask what each contributor learned from their project—about their collaboration, about community engagement, about their design’s impact, or any insights that might help other designers. One of the reasons for this might be because we don’t place value on projects or designs that don’t “succeed,” whether success means that the design causes people to donate more time, purchase more, stay on a web page longer, or change their behavior in some way. I can’t think of one design competition (there must be 50+) that values mistakes, failures, or insights gained from the design experience. Even if a competition like this would pop up, I think designers would opt to enter one of the many other competitions that show off their form-making skills rather than risks their good reputation and jeopardize their potential to find good clients or partnerships. I think designers are starting to see the value of these kinds of insights, especially as we assume the role of strategists, incorporate rapid prototyping into our process, and accept that mistakes need to be made in order to reach valuable design solutions.

What was your approach to designing the book?
My goal for the book is bringing transparency to the process of designing for social change. Designers will always learn more by getting their hands dirty and actually collaborating with partners, engaging communities, and doing the design work, but I wanted this book to help designers (especially young designers) peek into the process as much as possible to help them prevent making mistakes. That’s why I listed all of the strategies on the front cover. Even if someone is looking at the book cover through a store window or online somewhere, those strategies will always be available for free. I organized the interior layout in a similar manner because I wanted to give readers multiple entry points into each project. This is especially important because each case study is 1,000 words, which is asking a lot of readers who might be used to flipping through design books and stopping when they see designs that are visually appealing. Each case study starts with a project summary, I called-out good quotes, facts, or statistics, and I also summarized each project into chunks of valuable insights: Design Challenge, Engagement Strategy, Design Strategy, Outcomes, and Lessons Learned.

What do you hope people will get from your book?

I hope people get from it everything I learned by researching and writing it. I am inspired by the amazing designers in the book, the multi-faceted case studies that ranged in size and scope, took place in different parts of the country, had diverse demographics, and were carried out by designers at various stages in their careers. When I set up to research and write this, I wasn’t trying to make it as inclusive as possible, but I soon realized that I was taking a snapshot of the social design world and I hope readers connect to one or more of the stories. I hope they think more about their own process and that they find ways to improve how they work, that they prioritize their relationships with partners, collaborators, and clients. Lastly, I hope that they share their insights with the larger design community.

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Andrew Shea is a multidisciplinary graphic designer who works with organizations and individuals on a range of projects. His book, “Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-Based Graphic Design” was recently published by Princeton Architectural Press and he teaches at Parsons The New School for Design.
Visit Andrew at http://andrewshea.com  Twitter : @andrewshea

Interview by Lara McCormick, AIGA Design Committee member, Chair of Graphic Design, New Hampshire Institute of Art. @laramacaroon laramc.com

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