One day last spring, Serin Inan and Yina Ma, two design students at Parsons The New School of Design, stepped up to the classroom podium, nervously giggling. And for good reason: They were about to detail to executives from a global humanitarian aid organization, the Red Cross, its problems—ranging from logistics to branding—and how design could make it better. (All in their second language of English, no less.)
The presentation was part of the school’s new class, "Design for the Red Cross" and was a first look for the group’s regional top brass to see what problems and solutions a designer’s eye could come up with.
Humanitarian design classes at design schools have been steadily growing over the last few years, fueled as much by current trends as student demand. Parsons has been among the early adopters, partnering students and non-profits to work in collaborative labs on such projects such as last year’s interactive game on climate change preparedness in Senegal. Other schools such as RISD to Art Center to Pratt have also jumped aboard. MIT’s Design Lab has been addressing social and cultural issues for several years. Though the standard gripe about such programs is that they give free work to big organizations, the exchange is arguably even: Design students get a chance to work on real problems and non-profits with woefully inadequate research and development funding get invaluable design help.
Students Inan and Ma turned their attention the Red Cross’s web page on children and emergency preparedness. Not actually created for children to use, the student team noticed an opportunity and devised a plan to replace the site’s scant graphics and text-heavy look. They refreshed it by adding a cuddly bear character with an illustrated story about preparedness, turning the site directed at children but written for grown-ups into a portal kids could directly access. The execs were shocked; children make up a large percentage of their core recipients but no one had created a web presence for them.
Inan and Ma's cuddly characters; above, game by Julynn Benedetti, George Bixby and Kristopher Louie that teaches about the challenges involved in disaster relief.
"I was literally blown away," says Pablo Suarez, associate director of the Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre. "Both with the capacity of the designers to get it and our own lack to meet the public need."
The "Design for the Red Cross" class grew out of conversations between its instructors, architect Mathan Ratinam, United Nations relief worker Nigel Snoad, and Suarez. They knew the Red Cross was struggling. With a tens of millions of volunteers and thousands of staff globally, its message was still unclear and problematic across its international, national and local chapters.
"Our brand is one of the most recognized in the world but it needs some refreshing and we know it," Amy Mintz said, officer of Strategic Disaster Services at the American Red Cross. And despite high-profile disasters like the earthquake in Haiti this year, there’s a false perception that money is just rolling in. In fact, Mintz said the reality is the ARC is bankrupt, its budget exhausted by the ongoing everyday emergency relief that doesn’t get media coverage or the public’s attention.
So, Snoad and Ratinam devised a class to function more like a studio course. Students volunteered at the local Red Cross emergency response unit in New York City. They went out on calls, observed everything from how the van is packed to the way workers were viewed by the public and the people they helped. Then they would gather in class to discuss their findings.
Fund-raising t-shirts by Chris Choi and Tanya Kumar
"Sixty to 70 percent of the time has been really about articulating the problem. Once you have an elegant problem, the solution is that much more self-evident," says instructor Ratinam.
Besides Inan and Ma’s work, there was also a logo redesign using motion graphics, a fundraising and awareness campaign using rebranded t-shirts, disaster preparedness educational materials that address a gender gap in some developing nations, and camp planning for people displaced by war.
The Red Cross team critiqued and gave feedback on what worked, what wouldn’t. Scott Graham, a northeast regional director for the American Red Cross, says the students have really hit on some serious operational issues.
"We’re stuck [in old ways of thinking]," Scott says. "But with new partners, we can move the needle. I want to change our image as one of disaster preparedness to resiliency."
It’s not clear how many of the proposals will actually be doable, either because of current organizational priorities and branding constraints. But some of the students’ ideas, such as the proposal revamping a children’s page, immediately resonated. And other ideas may be more applicable at a future date, Ratinam says.