Feb 25, 2009

Finding Your Rwanda: Meaning in Our Work

Designing for Others who are “Different”.

We must ask new questions when challenged to design for people we don’t understand and often we don’t know the questions to ask.

Jody Graff, Graphic Design Program Director, and I are teaching an independent study class at the Drexel University Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. As part of a Sappi Grant awarded to Drexel University and the ex;it foundation, the students are challenged to design identity and marketing materials to support the success of the Sunflower Oil Cooperative in the Ruggerero Genocide Survivors Village in Western Rwanda.

The goal is to help build a sustainable business model through the design of an identity program and marketing tools for the sunflower oil product and cooperative. This initiative will help communicate information about the quality of their sunflower oil.

When we asked the students at our first gathering “Why are you here?” the responses were inspiring.
I witnessed a deep motivation they each had about their decision to become designers. They each want to make a difference as designers and improve the lives of people with hardship. When the opportunity presented itself they showed up.

As the work began it became apparent that the students struggled to understand the realities of the Rwandan culture and the specific needs of the genocide survivors in the oil cooperative.

The first few weeks were about the questions, not the solutions.

What are brand touchpoints that would help the cooperative present and sell the sunflower oil?

How do we design things that can be reproduced locally near or in the village?

What elements can serve multiple purposes?

What is the design language that will relate to the community?

How do we keep the cost to a minimum?

How do we communicate with the village and get feedback so they have ownership of the design?

What may be offensive or misunderstood?

What message is important to the cooperative?

What are the constraints they will have in implementing the program?

My time in the village was instrumental, but even after three years of working together there is much I still do not understand.

After some communication with Jean Bosco Rukirande of the local Red Cross near the village, and with Louis Gakumba, a student from Rwanda and previous translator for me, we were arrived at some solutions. Three design concepts with a brief explanation translated in Kinyarwanda were prepared. The concepts were taken to the village cooperative and meetings were organized by the cooperative who discussed the concepts and provided feedback.

initial sketches: option 1, represents hope that is created by a shared vision

additional sketches: option 3, sunflowers as a symbol of growth & vitality

While the list of elements in the program uncovered by the students was long, the starting point was a logo that represents the solidarity of the cooperative and the beauty of the sunflower. This phase of the project will include a poster that could be distributed to the surrounding community to be used as art in their homes as a rare treasure and business cards for the cooperative members. A banner will be created to cover tables where the oil will be sold on the road or in markets along with fabric design and graphics that can be translated into signage. Tee shirts are being considered depending on available funds.

We anticipate and hope the impact of the identity program will be a sense of pride and accomplishment for the members of the cooperative and an image that projects the quality of the sunflower oil. After the members of the cooperative receive some wages for their work there is a percentage of profits distributed through the survivors village for basic hygiene supplies.

sketches: option 2, energy created from the strength of the community

The design is in final development and we anticipate delivering materials in about two months.

This note from Nicole Doenges, one of the Drexel design students, illustrates that the impact of this project is felt equally at home.

“Through this project I became more aware of myself and what others are going through in the rest of the world. Because of the knowledge gained from the experience, I am less selfish in small ways. I strive to be more mindful of the footprint I will leave in our world. When I originally read the email asking to participate in developing a logo for Rwanda, I was very excited but at the same time very unsure of what I would be undertaking. I knew very little about Rwanda, and less about the genocide – I assumed everyone suffered from hunger and poverty. Our goal as a group was to develop a logo for this cooperative. This felt like an easy task, as we are trained with a certain way of thinking and process as graphic designers. After viewing Alan’s slideshow of his experience, I became more inspired to give these people an identity they would be proud of.

We began to work together, and we stumbled upon many questions. Things we never thought would be issues became mountains. Because of this, my mind has shifted in the way it looks at things. I share this knowledge in small ways with others; whether it happens in a conversation describing the project or challenging the way someone else thinks about something. I want to make as many drops in the bucket as I can – contribute to our global society and make someone happy.”

The above posting is the third in the Finding Your Rwanda Series by Alan Jacobson. To view the previous postings click here or search our blog by category: social issues/responsibility.

Alan Jacobson 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.

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. 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.

Sappi, the global producer of coated fine paper for the communications industry, is the sponsor of Sappi Ideas That Matter. Sappi calls on Graphic Designers worldwide to put their creativity to work for social and environmental good, supporting charities of their choice. The programme is open to individual designers, design firms, agencies, in-house design departments at companies, design teachers and students.


  • Kara: here is my quick 2cents to your comment posted here: http://blog.xcd.aiga.org/?p=21#comments

    Your assertion that ethical and social understanding be included our curriculum and design process makes perfect sense. I hope many will come to appreciate this notion as we progress into communication design for people & communities versus simply products & services.

    I also hope that as practitioners of an applied commercial discipline we also consider these “underserved” communities as “clients with value”…after all, isn’t this how we wound up designing for the 10%?

  • Thanks for sharing, Alan. These updates about your activities lift me , , , and get me thinking how to engage (and lift) my kids. – Best, Ben.

  • I think we tend to search too much. . . . The secret is in the eyes.

    We may be different, but we are really all the same.

  • It’s wonderful to see the Rwanda project moving forward in this way. As someone who has followed ex;it’s progress from the start, the real delight is noting the extent to which the creation of identity and marketing materials has been handled. Involving young people in the process–that is, creating opportunities for engagement on this side of the Atlantic–speaks directly to the global reach a design initiative like this can possess. It’s a tremendous model for others.

  • Great comments, Zelda. I concur and hope to contribute to this in some form!

  • […] There is more detail on the project in a previous blog entry. […]

Leave a comment