Maryland Institute College of Art


GD MFA in Mobile


Virginia Sasser, Andrew Shea, and Mark Alcasabas were invited to present their paper, “Designing for Social Change in the Baltimore Community,” in May 2009, at the National UCDA Design Education Summit. This annual conference is in its fifth year, and it provides a platform for dialog among design educators around the country. This year’s theme was “Designing for the Common Good” and it was hosted at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama.

This paper discusses our work with two non-profit groups, NF-Mid-Atlantic and UMAR Boxing. We worked closely with these organizations in connection with the Design Coalition, a course at MICA that focuses on using design to bring about positive social change. Our projects centered on using graphic design thinking to solve complex problems in underserved communities and organizations within Baltimore.

Both the paper and the 45-minute presentation explain the research and results of these projects after introducing the Design Coalition and some of the design principles that guided our work.


I left early on Thursday morning for Mobile, Alabama and arrived at Spring Hill College just before the start of the conference. Virginia and Mark were scheduled to arrive on Friday night, leaving them just enough time for us to get dinner and rehearse our talk. While the theme of the conference was “Design for Common Good, only about a quarter of the 45 presentations during the next 3 days were similar to our talk. I wanted to see as many of these as possible but had to choose from a wide variety of talks ranging from how to incorporate Second Life into curriculum to teaching students how to be sustainable graphic designers. It was hard to choose from but during the three-day period I attended:

Click here for the full schedule of presentations.

When I checked my messages on Friday night I found out that Mark and Virginia were stuck in Memphis due to a thunderstorm that had delayed their flight from Baltimore, forcing them to miss their connecting flight. The earliest flight to Mobile would land after our talk. So I spent Friday night familiarizing myself with their part of our presentation, the first two-thirds of the talk.

When I arrived at the conference the next day, I realized that about half of the attendees from Thursday and Friday had gone home. Still our presentation was well attended and I talked about the Design Coalition (the class from which these projects originated), UMAR boxing (Mark and Virginia’s project) and NF-Mid-Atlantic (my presentation). The 17 slides that follow summarize our presentation, which is nearly 100 slides.


Our title slide introduces the tired cliches that our design projects are trying to change. The west Baltimore neighborhood where UMAR is located is often treated like guinea pig, stuck in a cage with no way to get out. Similarly, NF community are often seen as lab rats since there is no cure for the disease.


The presentation started by talking about how the Design Coalition came into being, as a way to translate some of the important research that is happening in Baltimore. This usually involves working with nonprofits and community groups who need new ways to talk about old problems.


We developed a list of priniciples to that guided each of our projects. Some of these came from Bernard Canniffe while others were learned during the projects. These include: Immerse yourself into the community and let their input drive your designs, Be cautious not to exploit the client for your personal benefit: the work is for them, not for you, Break the rules: design solutions that surprise the status quo, Design so that your audience emotionally connects with the message.


The UMAR Presentation contained four chapters: The Gym, The Challenge, The Process, and The Product. The Gym describes the unique qualities of the program, supplemented by pictures of the gym and kids. The Challenge section outlined the problems we faced while working for an inner-city organization. The Process describes what we did to confront those challenges, including gaining trust and providing consistent results. From the Process section we were able to formulate some design principles, which we included in the overall summary of our presentation. The Product shows pictures of the zine spreads, and the flier we redesigned for UMAR.


How did we get involved with UMAR? As graduate graphic students at MICA, we joined Professor Bernard Canniffe’s Design Coalition class so that we could implement social design projects in Baltimore. Without knowing anything about the organization, Bernard suggested UMAR to us as a potential client after finding one of their fliers. We were excited about a challenging design opportunity, but the second we stepped in the door, the experience became more than just a school project. Since we only had a semester to complete our project, we decided to stick to the design requests that directly related to generating more publicity and funds for the program: a re-design of the barely legible UMAR flyer to be passed out to kids in the community, a compilation of the local news stories about UMAR onto one DVD, and an economically sensible printed piece about the unique qualities of the program that could be passed out at local and national boxing events and sent as press collateral to potential sponsors. We got to work immediately, and could not stop collecting material. We redesigned their flyers and press DVDs within the first few weeks of starting so that everyone knew we meant results. Two months later we had taken hundreds of photographs for the printed piece and had collected amazing stories to match. The hard part was sifting through the material to extract the most compelling pieces to highlight in the publication.


“Boxing is one sport that will humble the toughest kid you come across,” says Marvin McDowell, founder and president of UMAR Boxing. Located above the Cash USA and Pawn Shop on West North Avenue in Baltimore, Maryland, UMAR is not your typical boxing gym. Geared towards inner-city youths, UMAR focuses on improving minds, bodies, and attitudes with its motto “No Hooks Before Books.” It is one of the only gyms in the country where kids must participate in mandatory school tutoring in order to receive athletic training. Not only does UMAR produce successful amateur boxers, but it also compels children and young adults to stay in school and keep away from drugs and violence by providing them a safe environment and supportive community. The encouragement among the youths themselves is refreshing in a city where kids are “brought up to be rough.”


Tabloid Cover


We learned a lot from our weekly visits. Mr. McDowell told us stories about how boxing saved him, about how many of UMAR’s kids have had troubled lives. He mentioned how the other trainers have either served time or been former addicts, and that their symbiotic relationship with the kids helps keep them clean. We made friends with many UMAR affiliates, one of whom was a guardian of three boxers whose parents had lost their lives to drugs. After hearing many similar stories, Mark and I decided to focus on the uplifting sense of community at UMAR, not the heartbreaking struggles of individual participants. Our biggest challenge was conveying a need for monetary support without exploiting anyone, which is a hard task for any social designer. We learned to be wary of doing that type of in-and-out pro-bono work that takes advantage of people’s heartbreaking backgrounds for personal fulfillment. We did not want to turn this wonderful organization into a spectacle; design should not make guinea pigs out of anyone. The final newsprint zine we produced does not bemoan the tough lives of inner-city kids in Baltimore, but rather brings to light the positive impact of UMAR in their lives as a community.


The last few pages of the tabloid ask for financial support and itemizes what the donation will go towards


Andrew talked about the NF project and his involvement working as an advisor to six undergraduates who teamed up with NF-Mid-Atlantic. NF is a genetic disorder of the nervous system that causes tumors to form on the nerves inside and outside the body. Working on this project involved thinking about how to design for people who have a disfiguring condition without focusing on that physical characteristics of that condition. The group put their effort into raising awareness about the disease that would open channels of communication within and outside of the NF community.

The first few slides of the NF presentation introduces the disease by listing some of the most striking facts

The first few slides of the NF presentation introduces the disease by listing some of the most striking facts

Andrew then talked about NF-Mid-Atlantic: its history, its goals, the people who are part of it and how the Design Coalition came in contact with it

Andrew then talked about NF-Mid-Atlantic: its history, its goals, the people who are part of it and how the Design Coalition came in contact with it


The students spent many hours interviewing people on video who have NF, their parents or caretakers as well as clinicians who treat NF. The students traveled to homes, conferences and Johns Hopkins Medical Center to do these interviews.


One of the first things that the students did was to put all of the interviews on the web for anyone to see. The students also designed an interactive website that allows them to talk about their experiences with NF.

The students also designed a tabloid that raises awareness about NF and will also be used to raise funds for NF-Mid-Atlantic

The students also designed a tabloid that raises awareness about NF and will also be used to raise funds for NF-Mid-Atlantic


MICA student Leah Horowitz tackled the topic of tumors head on by making what she called “bean bag tumors,” palm-sized bean bag toys with messages that familiarize people with NF. Leah’s work raised some important questions: did the beanbags make light of peoples pain or did they provoke the kind of dialog about NF that is long overdue? Leah asked these questions to people that she interviewed and the NF community gave their resounding support to the project.


At the end of the presentation, people from the audience were very impressed by the fact that these projects are rooted very complex social problems and their questions revolved around the logistics of the projects: how much time each took, how many students were involved and how was each project funded, for example. The question and answer session lasted until our 45-minute time allotment was up.

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