Matching Good Designers With the Greater Good

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

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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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Funding is, of course, always critical to the pro bono relationship. Clients are expected to secure funding for their project, either ahead of time or along the way, and as Wolff says, "pro bono means for the public good, not gratis. Although we are not a foundation, we are doing every bit we can to support our organizations, and get them to the next stage of funding. Indirectly, we're teaching them how to use communication design as a tool to fundraise more efficiently and convincingly."

DesigNYC adviser or project manager regularly check in on the projects and also oversee related initiatives, like this year's in-kind donation network that has local manufacturers giving furniture, carpets, paint, wallpaper, lighting to projects in their areas. This year Wolff also added a storyteller—writer/photographer/filmmaker—to the program to document critical stages and help articulate the results of the collaboration. Case studies will soon populate desigNYC's new website and other platforms, "ideally increasing our reach to new readers, new participants, new funders," she says.

The 2012 projects are ambitious but scoped so as to be completed within a year. They include an interior renovation for SNAP Fort Greene community center, adding green infrastructure and a parklet for the Gowanus Canal, a viral campaign attempting to reach and engage human trafficked victims, and a kinetic sculpture teaching public school kids where water comes from and where it goes. Each team, made up of a designer and a nonprofit leader, present à la Pecha Kucha, 6.4 minutes each.

Aside from the actual projects, Wolff observes that nonprofits are trying to do more with less these days: "Urban design projects are stepping out of the more institutional models of collaboration, where the city is backing out of certain responsibilities now placed on local community organizations, which, in turn, are empowered to act and represent bottom up aspirations towards a better neighborhood/community. The overall movement of spontaneous architecture, theme of the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, one could say is an American grassroots invention. Individual designers/architects are offering their knowledge and vision to shape their own communities, bringing the bar higher in terms of community group plans, actions and developments."

Entering its fourth year, desigNYC hopes for more designers to meet the growing nonprofit demand. And outside funding is also very welcome. But there has also, Wolff says, been immediate payback for the desigNYC volunteers: "the satisfaction of serving people who have no idea what design is about and who can be completely and positively transformed through it."

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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