Design, relief, community, creativity


AIGA/NY is leading a great initiative called Design/Relief. They’ve gotten a grant to send three design teams into Red Hook, the Rockaways, and Lower Manhattan, to help the communities imagine a more vibrant future by making the connections more visible, legible and navigable.

They call this “creative placemaking”, which is a little flowery but whatever: I’m really excited to see community service become part of AIGA’s mission.

Each team is 5-6 people, including:

  • a designer
  • a storyteller
  • a community outreach strategist
  • many partners, including filmmakers, sponsors, agencies, and advisors

They’re mostly following user-centered design processes: gathering ideas from the community, formalizing them, and testing the community’s reaction. One member estimated they’ve logged 70+ hours talking to the community (with an emphasis on listening).

Some city-wide planning is in place at NYC’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency

The challenges they listed:

  • the immediate crisis takes precedence over the slow crisis (people want to talk about other problems now, not disaster resilience)
  • politics of meetings: inviting one person/group often means another won’t show up
  • communities factionalize, often have no interest in working with disparate neighbors
  • conflicts between the old and new settlers, residents vs “down for the day” visitors
  • developers are swooping in to capitalize on relief/recovery situations
  • volunteers love to play the hero, and create projects for themselves, to look good. It’s “ego ware” or “set dressing”, nothing that the community actually wants.

Tips for designers working in these fields:

  • involve local designers, if they exist
  • remember you’re working WITH the community, not FOR them
  • process matters: how you do things, not just what you do
  • mantra: “It’s not about me.”

The three groups all focused on increasing the internal strength of the community; it wasn’t a local priority to attract a lot of “outsiders.” But one designer had a nice thought: “The stronger sense of self you have, the more attractive you are to the outside.”

Measurements of success:

  • more volunteers
  • local response and participation
  • timing: how quickly messages get out

The concept presentations were complementary, involving physical, print, online, and oral communications:

  1. Team Lower Manhattan created an art space to host community events, launching it with a “ritual” piece for locals to share thank you notes
  2. Team Rockaways is working with a local newspaper (The Wave) to gather oral histories, and planning environmental implementations of the community’s quotes and thoughts (some of which would be visible from planes overhead to/from JFK)
  3. Team Red Hook plans an information network for sharing resources: physical bulletin boards, an online hub, and word-of-mouth communication, working with the Digital Stewards at the Red Hook Initiative

I’ve been working on, with a small team of volunteers, for many months now, and it’s so helpful to hear all this user research and the resulting insights. I’m really excited to see these ideas develop, and hope we can maybe integrate with them!

I hope AIGA keeps urging designers to look at weighty problems and less privileged communities, and taking the lead in setting up structures for service and learning. Politics and social service are not as fun as other topics, but they ground you in reality and connect you to amazing stories of strength and creativity!

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