Aug 19, 2008

Finding Your Rwanda

Designing and debating our role in social responsibility.

I accepted AIGA XCD’s offer to open a blog on social engagement with the idea of provoking discussion on how we Designers can reach into into our “Tool Box” and make a difference in our world today. Many designers–Shiego Fukuda, Grapus, Herb Lubalin and Tibor Kalman, to name but a few–have committed their talent to sensitizing their audience to the problems that plague humanity, provoking thought and inspiring action.

My path has been somewhat different, perhaps a reflection of the evolution of social activism as we’ve come to know it and what I believe is an example of our increasing ability to design our own roles in social engagement.

I hope this blog will inspire you to share your stories about how you are taking action. I’d like to create new connections between us of opportunities for those who are searching, and cheer on those who open the door and walk through. Most importantly, I’d like to to learn from those who share their work.

An article edited by Steven Heller, on the AIGA website will give you more detail about the Rwanda Project, so no need to rehash. My work on this project, while integral to my life, did not come to me in my professional role as a designer but as an invitation from a newfound friendship with Lily Yeh, a social activist based in Philadelphia. It all sprang out of a simple question I asked her: “How can I help?”

I posed this question to Lily after she delivered a powerful and inspiring lecture on her 18 years developing the Village of Arts and Humanties in Philadelphia. When she sat down next to me I knew I had to DO something. I felt so good from her talk and inspired to take action. So I asked her the question. Her response: “Are you serious?”

“Be careful what you ask for,” they say. Three years later, I am now Board Chair of the Village of Arts, in addition to working in Rwanda every six months at a very different Village. Imagine my surprise at the numerous occasions I am invited to speak about my projects, since it is I who now hears the question: “How can I help?”

Why do people want to hear my story about the survivors village in Rwanda? Why do they want to help? What are they searching for ? What was I searching for?

When I have the opportunity to bring people to a Rwandan Village through a lecture, I can feel us all connecting in some way. I’ve come to realize that the project is not only in Rwanda, but thrives in that special place that I go when I visit Rwanda in the telling, as I share with others.

I went to that special place in Cuba at the Icograda International Conference, September 2007. Again, why would an audience of hundreds of graphic designers from around the world want to go with me? Strictly speaking, it is not a graphic design project, and, quite frankly, I was surprised at the invitation to speak.

The response I received was overwhelming and found myself crying on stage, not embarrassed, but proud of myself and the audience.

And then it hit me: we all feel good when we see someone helping others.

Icograda boardmember David Berman took the podium and challenged everyone to ask themselves how they would be taking action as designers and as people when they return to their respective countries.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, there was a steady stream of people from Israel, Iraq, South Africa, Peru, Singapore… introducing themselves and bringing up ideas about applying their skills in their community. Again, that nagging question: “How can I help?”

What a privilege to have these conversations. What a privilege to be an inspiration others…

For me, the opportunity was a huge gift from Lily Yeh. She presented a door that I chose to walk through and on the other side I have found new joy, friendships, understanding and responsibilities. The room also contained some magnificent people in Rwanda that I have been able to help by bringing the Tool Box I carry with me in life. In return, they have helped me become the happiest that I have ever been, with no end in sight.

My interests have led me to wonderful people applying themselves in many ways as designers, improving the lives of others, and in turn, improving their own. There are big stories and little ones, no matter. It is in the “action” where we make change. I’ve come to believe that while we have the privilege of acting individually, collectively we thrive.

alan, maybe a close up of you with some community members?

So please share your work, your stories and let’s open a few doors.

———— Alan Jacobson is a Designer based in Philadelphia. Throughout his career, Alan has pushed to raise standards and pioneer fresh approaches to environmental design. He lectures at conferences and universities worldwide on issues of touchpointing, wayfinding, and environmental design that improves the human experience and is “people centric”. His writing includes “Wayfinding in Healthcare Environments,” Wayfinding; Designing and Implementing Graphic Navigational Systems (Rotovision, 2006).
Alan is the President of Ex;it, a research and Design firm with a client list that includes leading Fortune 500 companies in Healthcare and the Fine Arts. His recent venture is BAJ, a partnership focusing on identity and publication design, and is credited with art direction of a new Philadelphia magazine “Two One Five”.
Alan’s awards include the SEGD International Design Honor Award for the Main Line Health /Lankenau Hospital Wayfinding Program and his community-building work in Rwanda. He also chaired the SEGD 2004 National Design Conference, The Power of the Individual, and is currently chairperson for the SEGD 2010 strategic planning initiative. Additionally, Alan was a featured speaker at the 2007 ICOGRADA bi-annual congress in Cuba, where spoke about improving the Human Condition through Sustainable Design.
Following his commitment to finding ways to integrate career and community work, Alan is currently Board President of the internationally recognized Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia and Board Chair of Camp Golden Slipper for Deserving Children. As a partner with Barefoot Artists, he designed community art programs and health initiatives in a genocide survivors village in central Rwanda. Recently, an “Ideas that Matter” grant from Sappi, Inc went to the Ex;it Foundation to implement an identity program for the Rwanda Sunflower Oil cooperative, a collaboration with Drexel University.


  • This spelled out to me clearly why I’ve always been drawn to cross-cultural design. To help educate others about the world around them. Show a different side of the world to those that believe it all been shown to them. Inspiring article. Thank you for sharing.

  • The inherent desire to make a difference—to contribute to real change in America and the world—is more than a campaign promise. Work like the Rwanda Project and the Village of the Arts and Humanities make that plain. But the question I’m asking is how we—as educators, as design professionals, as individuals committed to various ends—can cultivate the commitment and concern among others (especially young people) that will create sustainability for this work. It’s not just a question of money (though contributions count), but more so the values associated with service—values that become identified with particular projects in ways that makes those projects compelling commitments for others. I don’t want to be cynical, but initiatives like Alex’s Lemonade or Race for the Cure have been successful as a result of calculated branding by project organizers. Among my students (I Chair a college English Department) I see how participation in these programs become badges of honor worn as proudly as the latest Nike sneaker or Prada shoe. They want to identify themselves in this way—as dues paying members of the chic society to which they aspire, the community of others whose stamp (the tote bag or ribbon) is worn with fashionable pride. Mind you, I don’t see this commitment as trite—don’t see the young people who want to be “cool” as being superficial or transparent. In fact, it’s just the opposite. These are projects whose mission is communicated in ways that build personal identity and a likelihood for continued participation. That, in any event, is the impression I have talking to the many young people I know.

    So I’m not sure where this is going; isn’t that, after all, what blogs are about? But I’d like to hear what others have to say about the critical issues I touch on here: education, sustainability, identity (including marketing and branding), and values. Alan, thanks creating this forum. I’m looking forward to being a part of it and what it can return.

  • I especially enjoyed reading about the Community Building Work and liked the reference to helping people remember their past,imagine the future, and connect with their immediate environment. It sounds as though the Rwanda Project helped many people find new meaning in their lives (the joys as well as the sorrows). That’s awesome!

  • Thanks for getting this started. Its an important topic. I have two perspectives, one professional and one personal. I worked for Sony for ten years and had many cross-cultural interactions while I was there. Although I traveled to Tokyo quite regularly, emails and phone calls made up the bulk of day-to-day interactions. What I found is that you just don’t know what the important issues are until you’ve been working across the cultural border for a while. At Sony, it was taken for granted that we would work with Tokyo and they would work with us and so the healthy, frequent interactions led to good collaborations and improved understanding. Not that we didn’t have problems but I have a number of deep friendships now because of the time we spent working together. In my current job, I manage a small team in Bangalore, India in addition to my team in California. When I joined the company, I started a weekly design review call between the two teams. At first it was almost completely useless… we had problems understanding each other through our accents and spotty connections and a reluctance of each side to take the opinions of the other. But a year later its a very different story. My local team has adjusted to the accents and we now tell jokes, laugh at each other, and give and get meaningful feedback across the cultural borders. One of my designers in Bangalore recently told me that he felt our international team was more rewarding and functional than it was within the local design team in India. Like at Sony, it takes time and feels counter-productive at first but can grow to become the most rewarding part of the job.

    My other story is not really a “cross-cultural” story in the true sense of the word. My wife and I volunteer at a camp for kids who are dealing with cancer. One of the first things you do as a camp counselor is choose a camp name. Mine is, Compass. The kids then know you only as Compass and as the days go by you begin to have a different identity in name and action. Another organization we work with has a bill of rights for volunteers, one of which is, “you have the right to do something different than what you do professionally.” This was very important to me when I read it. I’ve been a designer for 20 years so it defines a big part of me. But its not all of me and being Compass at camp, a couple times a year gives me the freedom to explore other sides of who I am and what I have to offer. I’ll let you know when I figure who or what that is.

  • Seth:

    I was struck by your question about consistent, sustainable social engagement. You put your finger on something very important: lately, (young) people respond best to a social issue when it is “branded”.

    This is something I’ve been mulling over for quite some time now. I am coming to the conclusion that “social engagement” is like all other “social engagement”:) People need to identify with a project at a visceral level, and the project needs to adapt to their lifestyle. In other words, the irony is that in social engagement, “what’s in it for me” is an underlying factor.

    Provoking guilt and sympathy for with tragic photos of people in far-flung lands doesn’t seem to promote project sustainability…

    I think “social brand strategists” have figured it out: there’s nothing more motivating than scoring points with your peers when you sport that (RED)product. It’s pretty efficient too, no need to pontificate about your social consciousness. The challenge now becomes managing the image and preserving brand loyalty, something old hands like Procter&Gamble, Apple & Nike address daily…

    As for values, they’re pretty much all over the map, given our multicultural environment, and therefore hard to define. Accordingly, I am not surprised that many look to an icon or tastemaker to sanction which social engagement brand is worthy of note.

    Maybe it’s about exposure, debate and sharing, which is what this blog is about. May the conversation continue…

  • Alan, your work in Rwanda influenced me to book my trip to Africa. A long awaited travel goal of mine. Thank you.

    Last November, I had the opportunity to work in a Samburu village. Our expedition was to document medicinal plants in the region and also test water for the local Samburu people. I was clear on our destination (end goal), however, to my surprise the greatest part of my trip was the journey itself. We captured local hidden knowledge for the University of Kenya, which in turn will help Kenyan scientists manage the complexities of rural life in the Samburu region. The balance of managing the ecosystem there is intricate. It was a fascinating project.

    I have to remind myself that it is an ongoing thing to give back and get involved. My frustration is finding an organization that connects with my passion, core values, and viewpoints. There are so many projects out there and it is difficult to choose which one to support.

  • Zh: And I’m not surprised either. A recent social justice education initiative I’m associated with has branded itself “Justice Matters” in an attempt (worthy I think) to distinguish itself from similar initiatives with which it will compete. In education anyhow, the idea that one will compete (institutionally) for moral credibility is a long-standing (if not wholly admirable) tradition. It’s a matter of creating appeal where none exists. I’m remembering Billy Crystal on Saturday Night Live. “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” And similarly, for many it’s as important to be recognized for good work as it is to accomplish the work itself. So far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a zero sum proposition so long as someone–an individual or community in need–benefits in the end.

  • So Seth: picking up the thread, aren’t you concerned that the Humanitarian “Brand Managers” will be forced to spend time managing their brand, and that the core issues may be lost in translation? Or will “managing the image” be simply be another responsibility of the fund-raisers/public relations team?

    Hm. perhaps we best serve our chosen causes with the show of support, word of mouth and let “qualified” people manage the process/project?

  • Has anyone read Bruce Sterling’s “Tomorrow Now, Envisioning the next 50 Years?” I’ll be getting round to it. Here’s one of the key points: “The future of activism belongs to a sophisticated, urbane global network that can make money—the Disney World version of Al Qaeda.” Yikes!

  • I see it as a case of the latter zh–that managing the brand is an essential responsibility for activists today. And it’s not just a matter of fundraising. Brand management (as you nicely frame it) is as much about the communication of vital information (about the root causes of human need) as it is about drawing support. I believe the two are more closely related than most of us have understood. The connection between resource delivery and spreading the gospel (about this charity or that) is nothing new–but imagining new ways to exploit the relationship is. In this sense, “managing the brand” is one of the most effective forms of social and political action available today. Maya rightly invokes Bruce Sterling on this point.

  • Right on, Seth. Thanks so much for the comments & insight.

    all together now…”it’s a small world, after all…”

  • I have focused my graduate thesis on these ideas and would suggest that an ethical and social understanding be included in this process of education and in the acts of designing. Paul Polak’s words have become my mantra: “[The designer needs to have] good conversations, with [her] eyes open, with at least twenty-five poor people before [she starts] designing.” How do you have a two-way dialogue? And how often does the “ten percent” dominate these conversations?

    I investigated how a designer could adapt his or her approach when working with the underserved to encourage both dialogue and collaboration in the design process when a shared language or assumed technologies were not givens. It considered both presence and absence of the designer during the process, and was framed around Ezio Manzini’s notions of governance, in which people are given access to, “spaces where they can share ideas, communicate, help each other and collaboratively build a new body of common knowledge.”

    One of the outcomes of this research was the design of a field bag that acted as a writing surface so that individuals in a rural village could engage in creative activities during the rituals of daily life. In January 2009, a one-week pilot project found ten women in Rwanda using the field bag prototype to participate through photography and drawing to investigate their ideas about improving their community. The various activities were created to help a designer discover the felt needs, assets, beliefs and desires of an individual or group before offering a design solution.

    Frascara’s comments have helped me consider the role of design no matter where it surfaces:

    “Every design intervention creates a disturbance in the environment
    in which it occurs. I propose that we, as information designers,
    should look at existing knowledge in the sciences of observation,
    but should develop fast, and further the existing knowledge of
    effective intervention. This is not to be exclusively task-oriented,
    exclusively centered on the design brief, but also critical of the
    cultural impact that every public action inevitably has. This takes
    us to the need to explore in other occasions the generally known
    terrain of the interaction between cognitive performance and

    I think this is an important and interesting topic to discuss and would hope that as designers, we consider the complete effects of our work on other cultures.

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