Urban blight has a grip on large sections of East Baltimore. Some see the high crime, drug use, and boarded-up buildings as signs that its neighborhoods will never recover. But graphic designers at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) remain optimistic. Each semester, students set out to spur lasting social change by teaming up with communities throughout Baltimore. Over the past several years two of MICA's undergraduate graphic design classes have been dedicated to the mission of achieving social change through design and a new Master of Arts in Social Design starts this Fall.
The Design Coalition was created by Bernard Canniffe in 2001 and is now taught by Ryan Clifford. Students in this class focus on "learning the principles of social and community-based design." The Center for Design Practice (CDP) is a more advanced multidisciplinary studio that was founded by Mike Weikert. Weikert's students team up with local organizations and tackle social problems for a whole semester. Although I recently wrote about one of their projects on Core77--an energy-saving initiative--I have spent more time learning about their partnership with Johns Hopkins University to rejuvenate The CareS Mobile Safety Center, a vehicle that tours throughout Baltimore and teaches families about home safety.
Mike Weikert leads students through a brainstorming session.
This project will be featured in a book that I am writing, along with 19 other projects from graphic designers and educators who worked with community advocates to understand and combat complex social problems. The book will include analysis from each contributor about their process and their combined insights will form a set of strategies that young designers might use to engage communities.
The CareS Mobile Safety Center is a colorfully-painted, 40-foot vehicle that has a retrofitted interior that makes it look like a normal home. Visitors can learn how to prevent burns, poisoning, falls, strangulation, and other unintended injuries in the home. It meets an important need in Baltimore City, where childhood death due to fire reached four times the national average from 2002 to 2005.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy created this interactive "house on wheels" in 2004, which attracted 18,000 visitors through 2009, most of whom reported learning something new during their tour. Yet the CareS vehicle needed to communicate more effectively to Baltimore's growing Hispanic communities, so they asked the Center for Design Practice to modify the existing design of the CareS vehicle in a way that reaches both English and Spanish speaking audiences.
The CDP has been part of a variety of initiatives since its inception in 2007: promoting arts education and better nutrition, raising awareness about lead poisoning and food deserts in Baltimore City, among others. Working on the CareS vehicle was a natural fit for the program.
Weikert interviewed and chose five graphic design students to partner with the CareS team. Their research started in a Latino neighborhood where they saw how home safety is advertised to bilingual audiences. They also took a 45-minute tour of the CareS vehicle, during which the students took note of some of the risky behavior exhibited in the vehicle--a pan handle extending in front of the kitchen stove, toys littering the staircase, an upright toilet seat in the bathroom, and they even experienced a room filling up with smoke to simulate a fire. Stephanie Parsons, who leads these tours, explained each hazard and how to prevent injuries.
Stephanie Parsons gives the CDP team through the CareS Mobile Safey Center.
Bright graphics help visitors remember what they learned, but the students designed some prototypes that might improve and broaden the messages. They took their designs to focus groups filled with both English and Spanish-speaking parents who shared their own home-safety practices. Parents emphasized the need for interactive education and the use of pictures and diagrams in educational materials. Some also reported that they would be hesitant to visit CareS since they could not tell what type of services were being offered from the graphics on the vehicle.
The students acted on this feedback. Together with their CareS partner, they decided to create new materials and products that are more direct, participatory, physical (to reduce the need for written language), and universal (so that it communicates to everyone regardless of literacy or language spoken).
Their designs included a poster in both Spanish and English that invites hesitant onlookers to enter the vehicle. The inside of the vehicle did not change, but the students designed a set of universal graphics (a green check mark and a red "x" mark) to increase participation and improve the way Parsons gives the tour. Visitors now guess which exhibits are safety hazards and which are safety precautions. Correct guesses result in Parsons attaching the green sign to the exhibit. Parsons puts a red sign on the exhibit when visitors guess incorrectly and explains the hazard. Not only does this system communicate more effectively to bilingual visitors, but it also creates a more engaging tour. "One of the major things we learned from the design students is the power of simplicity," Parsons admitted. "As health educators, I think we have an urge to give all the information that we have available but, as we learned through focus groups and from the students, less is more."
The students incorporated the icon system on a take-home handout that depicts a four-story home with both safety hazards and precautions. Another series of handouts follows the format of a triptych to show possible hazards (toys on a staircase), how someone might be injured by the hazard (tripping down the stairs), and how to prevent the hazard (storing the toys in a safe place).
While the designs seem destined to reach a larger audience, Weikert admits that "it would be useful to be involved in the assessment of the tools we created...to see if our process and solutions yield tangible results." The CareS team waits for more funds to produce these designs but "once those funds arrive, the designs will be produced and evaluated," Parsons promises.
Funding proves to be a major issue for most designers who want to work with underserved communities. Another section of my book features sustainable, grassroots fundraising solutions that designers might use to pay for the time and production of these projects.
Weikert seems happy with these outcomes. "The biggest challenge is time," he said, "but we did a really thorough job for the scope of the 16-week project." Weikert will get more time to work on projects like this as he takes on the role of Director of the new Master of Arts in Social Design this Fall. The program continues MICA's tradition of "pioneering the integration of art and design with civic engagement." The program underscores "the designer's role and responsibility in society, specifically the belief that social change can happen through design."
Students will spend the first part of each project getting to know their audience and understand their problems and objectives. "We don't have pre-conceived ideas of what the problems are or what the solutions should be," Weikert explained. "We engage first and work WITH not for the community to understand what is important to them, and what issues need addressed. We also advocate a collaborative approach," he said, evidenced by the program's impressive rotation of Faculty Advisors, including John Bielenberg (Director of Project M) and Emily Pilloton (Director of Project H Design).
"MICA PLACE" in East Baltimore.
"We're not attempting to simply send designers out in the world to tackle these social issues," Weikert continues. "We are attempting to understand the issues we face and become part of the solution. To investigate ways designers can sit at the table with community members, advocates, law makers, or public health professionals and work together to address them. How can designers and the design process be incorporated into the mix?"
According to the program website, "tangible outcomes could include advancement in public policy, changes in lifestyle habits, or mass awareness of important issues. Students emerge from the program with the investigative, problem-solving, and project management skills needed to affect social challenges." Throughout the process, students develop their own voices as socially-responsible designers and prepare to assume leadership roles in the profession.
One of the most striking benefits of this new program will prove to be its location in the heart of East Baltimore. The recently renovated 24,000 square foot building once held the chancellery and former school of the St. Wenceslaus Church. It now includes two floors of apartments that will be available for students in the program, as well as students from MICA's Community Arts masters program and Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health. The building will also include design studios, classrooms, and flexible spaces that will allow for year-round community engagement and design-related programming. "The idea of becoming part of the community where you will be working is a pretty significant point of difference for the program," Weikert says. "Imagine living, working, and engaging with a community 24/7."
East Baltimore community members gather at MICA PLACE during the building dedication.
Andrew Shea is a multidisciplinary graphic designer and writer living in New York City. His projects have involved designing identities, motion graphics, web sites, exhibition graphics, publications, as well as copywriting and art directing. Shea looks for projects that challenge his thinking and form-making skills, but is especially interested in collaborating with non-profits and civic organizations that need help to address complex social problems in ways that might spur lasting social change.
 Baltimore City Health Department (2008). Childhood Injury Deaths in Baltimore City, 2002-2006.
 McGroarty, Kira, McDonald, Eileen, Parsons, Stephanie, Gielen, Andrea (11/06/2009) The CARES Safety Center: A Mobile Injury Prevention Center for Urban Families, SOPHE 60th Annual Meeting
 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Public Health News Center, 06/29/2009, http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/articles/2009/gielen_injury_ads.html