I recently had the privilege of being invited to speak and participate in the 2012 Design Ethos Conference/Do-ference at Savannah College of Art and Design.
The creator of the conference, Scott Boylston, is a longtime friend in the relatively small socially conscious design community and I was delighted that he chose to be included in a roster of many other like-minded folks I had know for ages, but most of which I never met in person.
Even more exciting was that for this second ever Design Ethos Conference Scott was initiating a new element: the Do-ference. OK it’s a silly name, but it got the point across: rather than just the typical days of keynote speakers and panels with a lot of schmoozing and backslapping Scott had the crazy idea to actually do something with the talent he was amassing.
The visiting designers, myself included, would not only give talks to the attendees of the conference, but be broken into six groups to work with local students and community members on real projects over the course of the 3 days we were there.
Scott had previously been working with his students and members of the Waters Avenue district on how to both improve the neighborhood and SCAD’s relationship to it. This working class area had seen better days, but was trying to move beyond its image as being dangerous and rundown, without sacrificing its unique culture.
On our first day in Savannah all of the Do-ference participants were introduced to a range of community members who gave us an overview of the situation and the very real concerns of the neighborhood that they not be mistreated by the school or let down as they have been in the past.
We were then brought to the Waters Avenue area and broken into our respective groups to get tours related to the topics we would be tackling: Community, Business, Youth, Culture, and Renewal.
My group (which included my friend Mark Randall of Worldstudio and The New School’s chair of design thinking & sustainability Cameron Tonkinwise, along with a gaggle of enthusiastic undergrad design students* from a variety of programs and graduate student Tiffany Lindborn who would stay focused on the project after the conference was over) was assigned Youth, and more specifically Harambee House’s community garden at the former Saint Pius X church.
Behind the boarded up church building (which we were told was filled with so much lead paint and asbestos that it would cost as much to replace as repair and was in limbo at the moment) was an unmarked plot of land that currently had rows of cabbage growing in it.
Our tour guides were Dr. Mildred McClain the director of Harambee House and Gator Rivers, a former Harlem Globetrotter who had returned to his hometown and was now using his skills to introduce young people to the farming and specifically to work on the garden and spread the message of health and nutrition.
After a wonderful walking tour of the neighborhood, which featured an impromptu visit to the living room of local celebrity & Gullah chef Sallie Robinson, we sat down with our guides to get a thorough understanding of the issues that the garden was facing and how a group of designers & students could really help in the two days we had left.
What became immediately clear was that there was a great deal of passion and knowledge, but the organizations goals were diverse and along with a definite need for funding there was also just a basic need to get people in the wider community to even know of the garden’s existence.
Day two of the conference was spent working with our community members to diagram the situation and help them organize their needs into some practical plans so that we could most effectively use our remaining time to develop some functional tools.
It was decided that we should break the issues (and the group) into three areas of focus: Funding, Communications, and Systems. Each group then subdivided their areas into a list of practical ideas and suggestions from which we would choose the most practical to actually make happen on our final day.
Day three was spent creating a document that could be handed over to the Harambee House staff to implement as they saw fit. This document, gathered into a set of three-ring binders, contained printouts of all of our work along with a disc of all of our digital resources. It included diagrams for the functioning of the organization; along with several pages of practical suggestions for funding sources; a long list of potential design elements that would help them achieve their communications goals (with the help of several hours of pro-bono design being offered by two firms to all of the organizations being supported by the Do-ference); and a guide for practical problem solving using a innovative storyboard methodology.
Since it felt wrong to provide only theoretical tools we decided to give them a few practical tools as well. The students created a design for a welcome sign for the garden officially branding it “Harambee Farms at Saint Pius X” labeling it “Home of the Harambee Globecroppers,” a name that was finalized by Gator for his student basketball players in the midst of our discussions.
The students also created a sample yard sign so that people in the neighborhood could show their allegiance to the farm with the clever “I Dig Harambee Farms” slogan on it, referencing the admonition “Dig In” that they had put on the welcome sign.
Both signs were then quickly manufactured by the students on a sign printer at the school, while they were digitally inserted into pictures of the farm and neighborhood to show the impact it would make.
And since the students were on a roll they decided to also make: a set of laser cut paint stencils to allow the Harambee Farms logo to be instantly put anywhere and everywhere that was needed; and a set of stickers to allow for simple branding for packaging of Harambee Farms produce.
Since the culmination of the Do-ference required that we finish with a 15 minute presentation by each of the groups, the last hour of our 3 days was spent preparing a slide deck. In addition a vegetable crate was quickly procured from a local farmer’s market and decorated with the brand new stencil to show it in use and give a container to the three ring binders and other materials that were created, which we planned to hand over to the Harambee House staff when we finished our presentation.
With minutes to spare everything was completed and we rushed to the SCAD theater where the students in the group took the lead and presented the process and our results ending with an quick performance of some truly impressive ball handling skills by the Gator Rivers himself.
It was an exhausting, amazing, empowering, overwhelming, moving experience that had all of the participants cheering for each other, as we discovered what our fellow Do-ers had been up to for the last few days.
And happily with Scott’s direction and a group of highly dedicated grad students, who are truly committed to the community, the work that was produced as part of the conference will not just dissipate now that the visiting designers have gone home and the students have returned to their regular classes.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this project continues and hope to get back to Savannah to spend more time with my new friends down there again before too long, perhaps even at next year’s Do-ference.
Find out more about more about the post-conference progress on the Design Ethos blog.
Also be sure and read Mark Randall’s post about the event HERE.
*The wonderful undergrads: Marco Amaya, Rebeca de la Torre, Annie Masincupp, Carla Paola Torres, Michael Kress, Danielle Raynal, Medini Cardenas, Carlos Estrada, Jill Graves