Before: Angela Douyon-Previlon, Central Square, Cambridge, MA.

After: Angela Douyon-Previlon, Central Square, Cambridge, MA.

Before: Colleen, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA.

After: Colleen, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA.

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Co.Design

Can Good Graphic Design Help The Homeless?

A new project replaces the handwritten signs of homeless people with eye-catching recreations, but maybe the graphic design isn’t the point.

The least visible franchises can be given a new voice through the power of good branding and great graphic design. Will it do the same for the voiceless, the invisible, the institutionally disenfranchised? Can well-executed design change the lives of the homeless?

A new project in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, is trying to find out. A collaboration between artist Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope, the Signs for the Homeless project exchanges handwritten panhandling signs for colorfully illustrated, eye-catching recreations that aim to give the homeless a power that most of us take for granted: The power to be noticed.

"Homelessness is the white noise of the community," Hope tells Co.Design. "We live in a world that is so saturated by design and branding that these homemade begging signs just get drowned out." But the tattered signs that the people on our streets wave a thousand times a day to catch our attention aren’t just for begging. As Hope is quick to point out, many homeless signs don’t ask for money or food at all. Instead, they are works of self-expression: Statements by a human being about the world they live in.

"I see signs all the time where the homeless make a political or religious statement," says Hope. "Many are not using their signs to make money at all. They’re using them as a voice, to reach out."

It’s a voice that largely goes unheard. Culturally, most of us don’t want to think of the message scrawled in Sharpie on a mottled piece of cardboard as the voice of another person. In fact, homelessness seems like such an intractable social problem that even compassionate people simply put their blinders on when they walk down the street. To even glance at a homeless person’s sign could be taken as a sign of engagement, and the prospect of engaging with a person you don’t know how to help is heartbreaking. So we treat them like ghosts.

What Kenji and Hope want to do with their Signs for the Homeless is rip those blinders off, with graphic design too good to be denied. "We want people to see these signs, and be curious about the person holding it," says Hope. "We want them to go up and say, 'Nice sign, where’d you get it?'"

An advocate for the welfare of the homeless who spends his days helping people who live on the streets, Hope says anyone can approach him for a new sign. When someone approaches Hope, they’ll then work with Kenji to come up with a design that suits them. "They tell us what they want," says Hope. "What they want the sign to say, what colors they like, even maybe what kind of lettering they want." Once a sign is complete, Hope then interviews the recipient, photographs them, and gives them a small donation of around $20.

The interviews are an integral part of the project, and the social aspect that was missing from the picture despite Kenji’s first solo efforts. Hope’s contribution to the project is a stark glimpse into the realities of homelessness, and the many reasons people are driven to the streets.

"Literally anyone can become homeless," explains Hope. As a demographic, the homeless are not just a group made up of the stereotypical street people we expect—the abused, the mentally ill, the druggies, and the drunks—but people who are homeless because of accident or design. Being made homeless by job loss, medical bills or both is a common story, but there are also people who just choose to be homeless, such as Jimmy Sunshine, who panhandles in Somerville, Massachusetts. Jimmy became homeless after realizing that he was working himself to death at a low paying job only to spend his off hours starving to afford a cheap apartment. Instead of starving to pay rent, Jimmy reasoned, why not ditch the apartment and "eat like a king outside?"

Do the new signs actually make a difference in the lives of the homeless? On an individual level, as with many aspects of the homeless problem, the answer isn’t clear-cut. Hope says that the new signs can lead to more panhandling money, but it can also make the owner a target. "The truth is being homeless is one of the most vulnerable positions anyone can be in," says Hope. "These people live lives that are constantly in flux. Some people lose their signs, or have to leave them behind. Others might have their signs stolen off them."

And some homeless might be just too used to being ignored and marginalized to deal with the attention brought by carrying around one of Kenji’s vivid signs. While I interviewed Hope at a local coffee shop in Cambridge’s Central Square, a local homeless woman named Angela happened by. Asked about the sign Hope and Kenji made for her, Angela was evasive about what had happened to it. Eventually, Angela shyly admitted that although she had been given a sign, she had never even used it.

So if the homeless lose their signs, or never use them, or get robbed for them, then what’s the point? Alone, putting more attractively designed signs in the hands of panhandlers is just a placebo to the homeless problem. As Hope sees it, the panacea to the social disease of homelessness is conversation: Not just the larger conversation about how to help the homeless reintegrate with society, but the individual conversations that might be sparked when a well-designed panhandling sign catches someone’s eye and he decides to go up and talk to the person holding it.

"Good design helps you see the world in a different way," says Hope. Design is a powerful force that can help overpower people’s preconceptions and attract us to the very things we were once repelled by. Good design can’t in itself help the lives of the homeless, but it can help give the homeless back their voice and humanity. If it can do that, design doesn’t need to solve the homeless problem. We can do it ourselves.

Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope are interested in expanding the Signs for the Homeless program to other states, and working to form a nonprofit. If you are interested in helping, please reach out to christopherchope@gmail.com.

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86 Comments

  • Aleksandr Ivanchenko

    How to believe in people? If not alms? Alms FALSE? Falsehood? PR? www.help.cc.ua

  • Kelvin Chow

    Signs doesn't really help their situation, ok it help catches the peoples attention but their situation hasn't change. It does not give them a job, a home or a family.

  • Helen Kimeria

    Graphic design should work to promote and give meaning to the message, insight into the "cause" and accelerate the desired action -- These new very stylized designs mask all this. The original signs are not pretty, but neither is homelessness. The original signs, which were made with their own hands, tell their personal story and shine a light on the "ugly truth" of homeless: "I am desperate and destitute. I found a scrap of cardboard, maybe borrowed a pen, to make my sign that cries for help."

  • While i've always like this idea, I think that this may be a bad idea for the homeless, in that it takes away from the severity of their situation. Like any branding initiative, understanding an audience is key. To make the homeless' situation seem more cheery in nature, or to "designy" might discredit why they are there in the first place (i.e. if they take the time to make the design of their sign so good, why not a job). I know that example may be assumptions for one to think, but I know many have thought this way, and have even felt like they (passerby) have felt hoaxed into giving someone money who may not need it. Sometimes the content outweighs the design, and overly designing something can discredit.

  • The one thing this raises is that there is an assumption that the homeless person has a skill for design. Though it make raise a conversation with a passer by, it could also raise the question why they would be homeless if they could provide such a service in a job. This seems like the idea of giving homeless folks Square adapters and smart phones to take credit cards instead of change.

    Homelessness arises through negative compounding circumstances to the individual, solve the problem at the root cause, add gauze.

  • Jer Miller

    A majority of the comments on this post are excellent examples of human ignorance, judgement, and critical mentalities. Yes it is easy to categorize a portion of them to alcohol and drug use/addiction--but hey, you don't have any problems in your life right?

    Unless you have been in a situation similar to these people, you have NO place to condemn them. Their situation should not be used as an excuse, but we have no understanding of what these people have gone through or are currently going through.

    Nobody knows your own situation like you do. So next time you're feeling depressed, anxious, lonely, sad, stressed, etc. Be thankful that you've got a roof over your head. Humanity is falling short. Don't place yourself on a pedestal. 

  • Cameron Purdie

    I wish I could like this twice or more. The level of ignorance and malicious hate coming from the comments section is utterly disgusting. None of the people shitting on this project have mentioned ANYTHIHNG they've done to help the homeless, or even made any kind of suggestions as to what could be done that would be better than this. As far as they've shown, they're just hating on people who are helping in their own way while themselves doing absolutely nothing to help.

  • Cody

    Yeah, I guess it'll help them get their crack, or alcohol fix.. which is generally why they're in that predicament in the first place. . . ENABLING!! :(

  • Cameron Purdie

    I can tell that you clearly know homeless people personally. Oh wait, that's the opposite of your relationship with the homeless. You avoid them on the streets and then talk shit about them on the Internet when you have literally no way of supporting what you just said, you entitled brat.

  • Josh Jacobs

    As a teenager, I find it crazy how people are furious that there are a group of designers that are willing to take time out of their day to attempt to assist homeless people directly and indirectly. Although this method might not be the best upfront approach, you need to give them SOME credit for wanting to use their talents. Forget about technical stuff like kerning- it's the general idea of being unique, and hypothetically it would make the homeless a bit more approachable. Anyone that's mad about how unique signs won't do anything positive from any perspective, then go out yourself and help somebody directly, get involved.  :-) 

  • Elizabeth Miller

    Maybe next time you can hang ornaments on them and ask them to dance. Take a picture of your hand dangling a dollar bill in front of them. You can say it's part of a "urban beautification" project in your next attempt to smooth over how disgusting, tasteless, self-aggregating and shameless you are, scumbag. 

  • Cameron Purdie

    Wow, what's your problem? Somebody is helping homeless people get more attention by making free signs for them? Take a pill.

  • KimberlyCross

    Hmmm…Despite my initial reaction of derisive dismissal, I have to say that the idea of rebranding homelessness isn't actually a bad one. Perhaps we just haven't found the right vehicle. I was immediately reminded of Chicago artist Barbara DeGenevieve's Panhandler Project, which humanizes homeless men through erotic imagery. Her photos are jarring in the same way these are: Decontextualizing the subjects forces you to see them differently.

    It seems to me that this particular project functions better as an art installation than it does as social work. I am particularly struck by the different expressions of the subjects in the "after" pictures – the happiness they feel after the kindness shown them is remarkable. I agree with GJBO1 that the subjects look more human in the "after" pictures; but to me, it's because their faces seem hopeful.

    Good intentions aside, the sense I get from homeless people holding snappy signs is that they're trying to commodify their plight. It seems service oriented; chipper; and therefore at odds with the messaging. I am reminded of a line in Tom Stoppard's play "Indian Ink," where one character says something along the lines of, "The beggars provide a service. You have to ask yourself: 'Do I need a beggar today?'"

    Ultimately, I agree that the message – not the design – is actually what needs fixing. The story about the sign that read "Spring is coming, but I won't see it," is really wonderful.

  • jacquiwrites

    This is one of the most asinine things I've ever seen in my entire life. And, having grown up in New Jersey, that's saying something.