About the Project
'Collaborative Social Design' combines three community projects, each exploring a different facet of Baltimore City's food issue. Through these three partnerships with existing organizations, I explored how graphic design can influence the social problem of food access, distribution, education, and nutrition.
Designing with Community Feedback
Baltimarket is a virtual supermarket program of the Baltimore City Health Department. It allows residents of food desert neighborhoods—areas that lack sufficient access to healthy foods—to order groceries online at a nearby library or school. A local supermarket delivers the groceries to the ordering site the next day.
Working with MICA's Center for Design Practice, I have collaborated with Baltimarket since its inception to develop the program's name, identity, and advertisements. Each redesign incorporates feedback from the community.
The National Endowment for the Arts recently awarded a grant to MICA's Center for Design Practice. The grant enabled fellow designer Aura Seltzer and me to continue our work with Baltimore's food access. We explored how to encourage demand for healthy food, both within the Baltimarket infrastructure and more broadly, within supermarkets in general.
Demand for Healthy Food
Empowering Youth through Photography
Photovoice is a research method that uses photography to create change around a social issue. Students take photographs, discuss and write about their experiences, and show the results to policy makers and community leaders.
I collaborated with the Baltimore City Health Department and the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center to teach a Photovoice class to sixth-graders. The students all live in a food desert—an area that lacks access to healthy foods—in East Baltimore. The youth documented their experience with food, and its lack, in their everyday life. We reviewed the students' photos in small groups to discuss both the art and the subject matter. The photographs and narratives were exhibited at City Hall and the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Influencing Consumer Behavior
People living in food deserts often have access to fast food restaurants and corner stores but little else. Efforts to increase access to healthy food are futile if residents do not demand it. I designed this project to see if graphic design could increase purchases of healthier alternatives at a fast food restaurant.
I collaborated with a local Burger King to encourage customers to choose lower-calorie options at the restaurant. I surveyed community members to learn about their buying patterns and health perceptions. The campaign ran for a pilot period to gauge customer response. Afterwards, I compared sales data, both before and during my campaign. Results were encouraging—sales for almost all advertised food increased.
March 25–April 4, 2011, Meyerhoff Gallery, MICA
A Journal of Process and Production
Collaboration as a Design Strategy
During their second year in graduate school, most graphic design M.F.A. students work independently on a self-initiated thesis project with no outlined parameters, no art director, and no business partners. My experience was different. I embraced parameters and partners. I worked interdependently. I collaborated with community groups.
After a year of graduate study, I outlined the goals for my thesis project. I was undecided on its subject matter but confident that the project should be specific to Baltimore. I have always firmly supported community engagement, and my time in graduate school was no exception. I also craved a project with a purpose that realized a larger goal—an existence that did not end with my exhibition deinstallation. I wanted to create designs that informed and educated people, rather than an elaborate exhibit that showcased my skills to my peers.
I had recently participated in a project through MICA's Center for Design Practice and the Baltimore City Health Department called the Virtual Supermarket. The program, now named Baltimarket, allows residents who live in food deserts—urban areas that lack sufficient access to healthy foods—to order groceries online at a local public library or school. The supermarket delivers the groceries to the ordering site the following day for no delivery charge to the customers.
Still inspired by my recent research and design for Baltimarket, I thought about exploring alternative solutions to access in food-desert neighborhoods. That summer, I researched urban food environments. I continued my work with Baltimarket as a freelance designer. I won a scholarship to attend a conference about urban food issues. I read every public-health study, news article, and online blog I could find about food access. In the fall, I enlisted Laura Fox, the Program Coordinator of Baltimarket, as my thesis advisor. She could provide a perspective on public health that I would not be able to match at MICA. Ms. Fox connected me with several professionals in the field.
First I met with Sara Bleich, an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University whose publication, The Publics' Understanding of Daily Caloric Recommendations & Their Perceptions of Calorie Posting in Chain Restaurants heightened my interest in food Calories. The report examined whether or not Calorie postings in fast-food restaurants changed purchasing behavior. I was especially interested in topic's timeliness. In March 2010, President Obama signed a federal law that requires all chain restaurants to post Calorie information on menus. My thesis project gained even more direction after meeting with Anne Palmer, director of Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future. Ms. Palmer encouraged me to address food demand rather than focus exclusively on access. She explained that healthy food access is futile if the community does not demand it.
After meeting with public-health professionals, I felt motivated and ready to narrow my project scope. I focused my energy on fast food for a few reasons. The chain restaurants had ample information like nutrition facts and a series of national advertising campaigns. Plus, fast-food businesses are rampant in Baltimore's food deserts. I scrutinized McDonald's menu, nutrition, and advertisements. I designed several concepts in response: a Calorie-education napkin campaign, redesigned food packaging, even an iPhone app of nutritionally color-coded menu options. But when I thought about how to execute these ideas, I was discouraged. I wanted my project to have measurable impact and until this impediment, I assumed the project would be independently solvable. I quickly realized my concepts were too idealistic or expensive to create on my own and exist in Baltimore. I needed partners with analogous goals but unique strengths and resources. I needed collaborators.
Once I decided to collaborate, I found plenty of opportunities to do so. I had continued freelancing for Baltimarket and meeting regularly with Ms. Fox. I realized Baltimarket's design process of seeking community feedback could not only inform my thesis project—it could be a part of it. Another contact from the Baltimore City Health Department, Ryan Petteway, invited me to co-teach a research project called Photovoice. The class taught photography basics to sixth-graders, all of whom lived itn food-desert neighborhoods, at the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center in East Baltimore. The students were issued cameras to document their experience with food, and its lack, in their everyday life. The Photovoice project's goals aligned nearly perfectly with my own, so I accepted the position.
Initially, I was concerned about maintaining design autonomy in these collaborations. As a thesis student, I still wanted to explore my own style and voice. While I wanted to work with partners on a community project, I could not adhere to the traditional client-designer relationship. I wanted to explore new ideas and unexpected solutions. Baltimarket had always provided me with design flexibility, so the thesis integration came easily. Furthermore, MICA's Center for Design Practice won a grant for fellow designer Aura Seltzer and me to address how Baltimarket can encourage healthful eating. I began to connect my previous Baltimarket strategy, designing with community feedback, to novel experimentation and techniques. Photovoice also freely transitioned into a thesis component. The collaboration benefitted both of our agendas. The opportunity provided additional material for my food environment research and I created lessons that enhanced the Photovoice curriculum.
The thesis would consist of three community projects, each addressing a different facet of Baltimore City's food environment.
Collaborative Social Design took shape. The thesis would consist of three community projects, each addressing a different facet of Baltimore City's food environment. Through these three collaborations, I would explore how graphic design can increase healthy food access and nutrition education. But there was still a portion of the social issue that I had not yet addressed—creating demand for healthy food. I further pursued the McDonald's menu and nutrition exploration but doubted that I could implement the concepts in a real restaurant. I needed a partner to transform the ideas into reality.
At Ms. Fox's suggestion, I met with Ralph Loglisci, Director of the Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project. Mr. Loglisci expressed enthusiasm. He encouraged me to contact a nearby Burger King whose owner had dabbled with public-health projects in the past. I outlined an experiment that analyzed whether or not graphic design could increase the purchasing of healthier alternatives at a fast-food restaurant. I would survey community members to learn about buying patterns and health perceptions. This feedback would inform designs for window-cling posters and advertisements that encouraged lower-calorie options. The campaign would run for a test period to gauge customer response. Afterwards, I would compare sales data both before and during my campaign and publish the results. I contacted the owner of the Burger King, Mr. Bob Diaz, to explain the project. To my surprise, he consented.
Mr. Diaz' participation was crucial, but that was not the last obstacle. Each partner expressed an individual agenda. Mr. Diaz' primary goal was to increase sales at Burger King. This particular restaurant—near the Hopkins School of Public Health—had struggled to stay in business. He intended to appeal to new customers at Johns Hopkins and even requested permission to advertise at the university. Mr. Loglisci of Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future anticipated the prospect of Burger King participating in the Healthy Monday campaign. I relied on Burger King as a vehicle for my advertisements and Hopkins as a credible partner and funder for the production cost. Because the project was interdependent, many details superseded my control. It was tricky to navigate the choppy waters of Burger King's corporate regulations, Hopkins' institutional processes, and my own strict timeline. To prevent failure, I drafted alternative strategies in case of a potential shift in partnership. I adjusted my timeline as necessary but held others accountable with continual emails and phone calls.
But even my best effort as a project leader was not able to anticipate every change in plans. Mr. Loglisci admitted that Johns Hopkins needed to drop out of the project. Without the support of his staff, Mr. Loglisci was not able to follow through with his promises. While Mr. Loglisci graciously continued to personally advise the project, without the Johns Hopkins' title and public health accreditation, I worried the project would flop. Furthermore, the break meant no $1500 grant. The production money for the window clings and exhibition material was instantly withdrawn.
Thankfully, everything worked out. I adjusted the project scope and exhibition design to accommodate my personal budget. I scaled down the window cling sizes and cut my own vinyl captions instead of ordering professional transfer type. Mr. Loglisci introduced me to a nutritionist who helped further refine the advertising message. Luckily, Mr. Diaz was not fazed by the change in plans. The project commenced. In the end, sales of the items in my advertisements did actually rise by varying amounts. I even overheard passersby talking about the window clings when I visited Burger King. When the project thrived, I felt especially proud considering the potential pitfall. I initiated the collaboration, outlined a plan, and juggled multiple agendas. Even with the change in partnership, the Calorie campaign produced pleasantly surprising results.
I love that your work is real. Many people say they're going to do something but don't follow through with their plans.
At my thesis exhibition critique, guest designer Dmitri Siegel said, "I love that your work is real. Many people say they're going to do something but don't follow through with their plans." The success of Collaborative Social Design was a direct result of the decision to work with community partners. In this case, every participant benefited from the collaboration.
But collaborations carry risk, too; interdependence requires flexibility. A collaborative designer cannot often simply work harder to solve a problem. Instead, she must use the surprises to her advantage. Unanticipated project twists can lead to a new perspective or a more rewarding conclusion. At times, my community collaboration was frustrating, complicated, discouraging, exhausting, and unpredictable, but ultimately, it was still worthwhile. Without partnerships, I would not have included Baltimarket in my thesis project and the virtual supermarket would not have encouraged healthful eating. Without Laura Fox as my thesis advisor, I never would have met Ralph Loglisci or approached Burger King. Bob Diaz would not have increased his sales, and a few people in East Baltimore would not have eaten a balanced meal. Collaborations can benefit every party involved, creating outcomes that are otherwise impossible.