From an interview with Bennett Brzycki, Marketing Intern at the UF College of Fine Arts as a follow up on the Humans and Neighbors series for Muse Magazine.
What pushed you to pursue this project?
I had been conducting design research in Mexico since 2003 and teaching at UF since 1997. Graphic designers need to understand culture as well as the power and potential of communication design. The Design 4 Development initiative, whereby we worked on real projects identified by rural people in their own communities—for economic and social development—is an incredibly rich way to learn about design in the real world. I saw the collaboration between designers and community organizations as one embedded with opportunities for learning how to design in context (rather than in the vacuum of a classroom or studio), work directly with people on their own terms, and explore ways to learn about and respond to real-world needs.
I also saw, through earlier work in Mexico, how indigenous and marginalized rural producers had great products but were limited by access to credit and other resources we take for granted, including design.
So, on one hand D4D began as a way to internationalize our curriculum at UF and expose students to diverse cultures as well as economies. On the other, it was a way to bring design to the “other 90%,” to use Paul Polak’s term—to bring design to marginalized people who wouldn’t normally have access to professional design so that they could play a role in communicating the value of their products and services and have a competitive advantage in the market.
How do students and the university benefit from this project?
One of the most immediate considerations is that to practice graphic design requires an understanding of culture, and this includes global culture. Of course for a long time we have understood there is value in internationalizing our curriculum at UF. What D4D does is take this even further by creating a structure for students and faculty to work with marginalized people in the field and be active participants in the emerging practice of social design. We become project partners and learn by doing. I can’t stress enough the value of the experiential fieldwork because each day we work in the field interviewing, observing, and designing, has educational value that is impossible to replicate in the classroom.
I will note that when we began D4D, it was commonplace for professional designers to work primarily in their studios, usually at the end stages of a project. Professionally, we were always missing out on shaping a project from the beginning and this includes learning directly from producers and consumers. We were designing, and learning how to design, in a vacuum, which is still the paradigm very much for design education and the industry. My intention was to provide a structure to work with people in their own backyards, and to bring designers in at the beginning, working directly with clients as partners to shape the project itself and design better through collaboration. One of my early goals was to show the students firsthand the potential of design beyond the immediate commercial and corporate applications we see every day. Working in rural mostly indigenous communities in Mexico—to expose our students to diverse cultures as well as economies—provided a genuinely different international perspective. Our methodology also changed with this new way of working, which is important and timely in a field that has heretofore focused largely on practical methods but now seeks scholarly and interdisciplinary foundations.
D4D is a unique program in graphic design education. Students gain research and fieldwork experience and are able to strategically learn how to create a range of appropriate solutions to communication design problems. I would say that the students who participated, some over several years, and myself, that we understand how to design with and for marginalized people, which is a new trajectory. We have what I would call 360º skills – the ability to look at a problem, its context, and understand who to responsibly approach research and collaboration, all the while working towards one or more sustainable solutions — essentially to work on a problem from start to finish with that cycle starting over again, including even reorienting the problem itself if needed.
I have worked to share our experiences with others working in the design community and our project partners in the communities themselves. Numerous conference papers, presentations, and published articles help to disseminate the concepts behind D4D and I am working on a book project now where I share examples of the D4D methodology in action based on the extensive fieldwork—and material outcomes—of more than ten projects that my students and I have carried out in partnership with people of indigenous communities in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.
There are many exciting activities in research, scholarship, and social engagement happening across the University of Florida. D4D is one of the examples that combines all three and provides a paradigm for how we can leverage graphic design and visual communication for development and the public good. I believe we are also demonstrating how
Our work also benefits rural producers in developing countries who are, in ordinary circumstances, limited by access to professional design that is necessary to sell their quality products.
What is your advice for people who want to do projects like yours?
The most important part of us being able to do this kind of work is selecting the right people to work with – the students, disciplinary experts, and project partners. When you bring the right people together, who are flexible and who are making a good faith effort to work for the common good, then you’ve established a team that will be able to work together well, collaborate, and overcome obstacles — because there will be obstacles.
Philosophically it is important that we are not imposing our ideas on people in communities. Rather it is the small business or cooperative that has initiated the contact and had this project in mind. Even if the project changes, initiation by the partner indicates interest and a higher likelihood of sustainability.
Finally, it is important to appreciate that we don’t know as much as we think we know—even in our own disciplines—and much of this is made up as we go along. Collaboration in the field fosters the development of new knowledge and ideas.