Matching Good Designers With the Greater Good

The volunteers at desigNYC help nonprofits by connecting them with designers.

Courtesy of desigNYC

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch!
- Fiddler on the Roof

Three years ago, a dozen New York designers, architects, and journalists were summoned to a morning meeting at ESI Design's spacious boardroom overlooking the rooftops on lower Fifth Ave. There was no fiddler on these roofs, but there were matchmakers in attendance, brainstorming on how best to match-up New York's best designers with worthy urban improvement projects that needed good design to propel them forward.

"Our goal was to get great design integrated into nonprofit organizations, helping them to succeed and helping designers be able to use their skills in socially productive projects," says Edwin Schlossberg, principal of ESI, who along with Wendy Goodman, New York magazine's design editor, conceived of the meeting. The resulting group of volunteers, calling themselves desigNYC, have made dozens of matches between nonprofits and designers, resulting in everything from logos and identity systems to re-conceived street malls and educational outdoor displays for children.

Yesterday, desigNYC opened its annual exhibition, Recharging Communities, designed by Landor Associates, showcasing 15 current projects at GD Cucine at 227 West 17th Street through Oct. 15. Also launched is a series of public programs using some of this year's participants, including informal lectures, panels, and guided tours are open to the public, as well as training workshops offered to nonprofit directors interested in better understanding the creative process behind a marketing campaign, a logo, or a website. The workshops will be led by past desigNYC participants, and are scheduled to coincide with desigNYC's upcoming deadline for new project proposals on Oct. 31.

Each fall, nonprofits are invited to apply to desigNYC with a specific project in mind. Not all get selected. "Most of them have never engaged with a designer or architect, or a creative process, period," says Laetitia Wolff, desigNYC's executive director. "But they're familiar with in-kind service grants, and are just starting to sense design's power as a strategic tool to amplify their organization's mission or promote a particular program within it." DesigNYC "curates" the projects based on rigorous criteria focused on viability, reasonable schedules, and storytelling opportunity, and then matches each group with the most appropriate design candidate, in terms of skills, expertise, style, personality, capability, and shared interests.

"The teams themselves have been using the term 'happy marriage' all along," Wolff says. "I know that in a way it's a forced marriage, since we do not offer the designers who apply to desigNYC the possibility to pick and chose their client, but we haven't had any sad story to report, or major misunderstanding, or signs of impatience." When a project falls out it rarely is because of the designer; most likely it's because the nonprofit does not have the ability to implement or finalize the design provided.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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