Developing Citizen Designers by Elizabeth Resnick

Author, educator and curator Elizabeth Resnick discusses her latest book, and how she hopes the book will enable students, educators and designers in the early stages of their careers to learn and practise design in a socially responsible manner.

I have been a design educator in one form or another for almost 40 years. And, from the beginning, I have incorporated the notion of socially responsible design – a design practice whose primary motivation is to promote positive social change –  into many different types of classroom assignments, something I documented in my two previous publications: Graphic Design: A Problem-Solving Approach to Visual Communication (1984) and Design as Communication: Conceptual Graphic Design Basics (2003). Although the concept behind my newest publication, Developing Citizen Designers, was conceived in 2006, it took many years to find the right publisher.

Developing Citizen Designers is divided into three parts: Design Thinking, Design Methodology and Making a Difference. Part 1: Design Thinking addresses three areas within socially conscious design practice: socially responsible design, design activism, and design authorship.

Part 2: Design Methodology addresses ways of interacting: collaborative learning, participatory design and service design. Part 3: Making a Difference explores contemporary social design pedagogy through thoughtfully written essays. Each of the sections within the three parts includes a framing essay by a leading design educator, a five-question illustrated interview with a professional design practitioner, and, in the case of Part 1 and 2, assignment case studies to articulate and demonstrate a wide range of possibilities to put social design principles into effective learning and practice.

The Family Van Before

One of the 42 case studies included in the book is titled “The Family Van,” a mobile health clinic and program initiative of Harvard Medical School, Boston.  The Family Van travels daily to one of five under-served Boston neighborhoods, providing local people with free preventive health services, health education and medical referrals.

Family Van director Jennifer Bennet contacted Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Center for Art and Community Partnerships, whose mission is to match my university’s creative community with neighborhood organizations to create mutually beneficial and sustainable partnerships. The challenge presented was to redesign the exterior ‘wrap’ for The Family Van, as its blue and white exterior it was considered both ‘scary’ and ‘off-putting’ to the very communities it served.

I asked my 3rd year graphic design class, 14 undergraduate students, to take on this challenge. On the first day of class, Jennifer Bennet, with several members of her staff, gave informative presentations on the mission of mobile health clinics in general and the local neighborhood served by The Family Van. It is important to note that Jennifer Bennet was present for each of the four consecutive class meetings as an active participant in the students’ design process.

In week 4, the students presented their final results and all 14 van wrap design proposals were brought back to The Family Van staff office to be shared with community stakeholders. Five of the 14 van wrap designs were shortlisted, and shown to community residents for them to feedback and vote on. The ultimate goal was to have the community residents, in particular teenagers, select the new van wrap design.

Milly Houstova’s design

When the results were tallied, Milly Houstova’s design, which incorporated vivid colors and imaginative imagery, was selected as the best representation of The Family Van’s mission to “increase access to health and improve healthy behaviors by providing culturally and linguistically appropriate health services” to the communities in which it serves.

The Family Van After

Providing students with opportunities to experience making a meaningful and positive contribution to society through communication design empowers them to play an active role in improving the way they will live, interact and communicate with each other.

It is my sincerest hope that the educational, informative and inspiring essays and case studies that form the core of my book “Developing Citizen Designers” will serve as inspiration to future generations of designers.

Developing Citizen Designers is out now. You can order an inspection copy for your class here