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In early fall 2005, hurricanes in the Gulf Coast of the U.S. roared in leaving a trail of destruction, still unrepaired, that also brought in their wake a verification that yes, indeed, there actually is a design community. 
May/June 2006
Designers in Action
by Terry Lee Stone
There are times when we all wonder whether or not the term design community is an oxymoron. Sure, when we gather at a conference we get that uplifting high of being around a few thousand of our peers, and we would definitely say that there is such a thing. Once we’re back to our normal lives, time and distance tend to erase that feeling. Perhaps we catch a hint of it again when we visit one of the design blogs and see designers interacting on the topic of the day. However, in early fall 2005, hurricanes in the Gulf Coast of the U.S. roared in leaving a trail of destruction, still unrepaired, that also brought in their wake a verification that yes, indeed, there actually is a design community.

Every year from June to October along the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific Basins of the U.S., it’s hurricane season. Katrina was the 11th storm of the 2005 season, and was classified as a Category 4. Still, because the Gulf Coast is a geologically low-lying area, the damage was extreme, leveling much of coastal Mississippi and leaving New Orleans under 25 feet of water after it hit the area on August 29. Following that, Hurricane Rita slammed the coastal areas again. Mother Nature’s fury caused tragic loss of life, and crushing economic damage that is estimated between $40 and $120 billion, and years, if ever, to restore.

Once it was apparent that New Orleans was in huge trouble, AIGA, the nation’s oldest and largest design organization, which has 250 members there, sprang into action to help designers devastated by the storm. AIGA executive director Ric Grefé was ready to leverage the power of AIGA, in spite of the fact that the entire organization’s resources were focused on its biannual design conference to be held shortly in Boston. It wasn’t exactly an opportune time to take on a huge national emergency relief effort, but AIGA did it.

Grefé developed the rally cry of “No designer left behind,” agreed to form a Disaster Task Force, and understood that this task force would need to have the flexibility, authority, and the autonomy to provide help where it was needed in the manner in which it was best delivered. This was approved even before the extent of the need or the delivery system for the aid was fully understood. Simply put, it was a leap of faith. “AIGA’s response to Katrina was a natural for anyone in the face of a disaster. Yet our firm commitment to leaving no designer behind was based on an important recognition: For many designers AIGA is the one community of which they feel part and which they joined,” explains Grefé.

The AIGA’s ad to announce its Hurricane Relief efforts was designed by Sean Adams of AdamsMorioka, Inc., with copywriting by Alissa Walker.
AIGA quickly announced its intentions to members and posted a form on its website that allowed both requests for help and offers of help to be captured. From the start, the organization focused its efforts on facilitating people helping people. In just days, hundreds of oΩers poured into AIGA volunteering office space, equipment, living quarters, and opportunities to work.

“Our members and chapters were quick to join and support our efforts,” says AIGA president Bill Grant. “One of the things we wanted to do was respond quickly, so our initial e-mails and programs were compiled rapidly. While we could have communicated our goals more effectively, we felt sure that the design community would understand that action was more important than a beautifully crafted message.”

There were some initial negative responses to AIGA’s efforts, primarily along the lines of “this is too small a focus” or “I don’t feel motivated to help designers recover their businesses when people may be dying.” For the Disaster Task Force, the mission was clear: Let’s help our own first.

Grant continues, “Once we explained that we [AIGA] were not experts at disaster relief, and that we were offering assistance to all designers, not just AIGA members, the negative comments were virtually eliminated. One of our primary goals was to support designers in the impacted region so they would be able to support their communities in any way possible.” It was o≈cial—within a week, the design “troops” were rallied.

Meanwhile, New York City interactive agency Chopping Block was busy at work on its own disaster aid. Creative director Matthew Richmond and designer Marshall Jones, who is from New Orleans and acted as catalyst, together with Thiago Demello Bueno, Chandler McWilliams, and the Chopping Block staff, created a website called Displaced Designer. Their actions were motivated by their own 9/11 experiences in which they realized the value of having an oasis of normalcy— their offce to go to work in and not think about the disaster and uncertainties around them. Richmond knew that speed and confidence were the keys to effective emergency response. “We had an empty desk in our office, we thought someone from New Orleans might want it, and so we decided to put up a notice on our site and make a blog to let other people help each other. AIGA had already put up its page, but we ended up beating everyone to the punch with a functioning site,” relates Richmond.

AIGA president emeritus William Drenttel, who is one of the founders of Design Observer, noticed what was happening online at AIGA and the new Displaced Designer site. Uniquely understanding the dual worlds of design blogging and AIGA, it was Drenttel who worked to combine the efforts of both. At Drenttel’s urging, Chopping Block adapted the Displaced Designer website to the collaboration, integrating the preliminary database work that AIGA volunteers had done.

Drenttel put it this way: “AIGA had the network of people and Displaced Designer had the early online infrastructure—it was logical, orderly, and working. ‘Why reinvent the wheel?’ was my attitude.” For his effective leadership in this, Drenttel was appointed AIGA’s Disaster Relief Task Force Chair. He immediately began preparing content for sessions on disaster-related information to be presented at AIGA’s National Design Conference in Boston, as well as helping to coordinate relief support from AIGA’s many sponsors who wished to help affected designers via the organization.

As much as Drenttel knew the power of the internet to communicate and provide opportunities for relief, he also recognized the need to actually reach out and talk directly to the hurricane victims themselves. Drenttel’s firm, Winterhouse, and his wife/partner Jessica Helfand began working the phones to help the New Orleans (NOLA) designers directly, giving a very human voice to AIGA’s relief efforts.

Information also went out through the AIGA chapter presidents, spearheaded by AIGA Nashville co-president Kenneth White. Chapters began “adopting” the displaced designers who had moved to their cities. What has become known as the “Creole Diaspora”—the displacing of an estimated 1.5 million Gulf Coast residents all over the U.S.—affected designers too, and presented its own unique challenges. The Red Cross reported that most evacuees relocated to Texas, other unaffected parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. How ever, designers also soon moved to major cities all across the country with many choosing Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, or New York as their new home. Many of the displaced designers have ended up relocating several times. “You need to remember that when you’re sleeping on a friend’s or relative’s couch, after a while you wear out your welcome,” admits AIGA NOLA president Lori Ann Reed. Post-traumatic shock affected many of Reed’s colleagues, and communication was sketchy. Many of the NOLA designers were not heard from for weeks after the storm hit; those that did check in didn’t necessarily know what their future held.

Soon there was a meeting of the NOLA chapter’s leadership, far from home, at the AIGA Conference where they found themselves sharing war stories and advice on such things as interfacing with FEMA, working with insurance companies, and cleaning up moldy debris. It was at the conference that Reed and fellow NOLA designer Nancy Sharon Collins came up with a bold idea— pitching John Bielenberg on using the Project M Mbulance, which made an inaugural appearance in Boston, as a relief vehicle on a 4,500-mile tour of 10 East Coast AIGA chapter from Maine to New Orleans.

Snapshot from the Project M Mbulance Tour that traveled from Maine to New Orleans.
Conceived as a mobile design studio, the Mbulance is a converted 1995 Chevy ambulance. When asked to turn the Mbulance into a relief vehicle, the Project M team was more than willing to help collect donations of everything from laptops to X-Acto blades and deliver these necessary items to Gulf Coast designers. Project M alumni Kodiak Starr, who drove the Mbulance on the tour, says, “The most thoughtful thing donated was the time and energy of the AIGA volunteers from each city. We left a lot up to them. All reacted quickly and did a great job of organizing in each city, not to mention the energy and enthusiasm they did it with. It was a joy to stop in each city.”

Once in New Orleans, the Mbulance team collaborated with AIGA NOLA’s Reed and Collins at citywide events to distribute the goods, not just to AIGA members, but to any displaced or affected designer in need. Starr recalls, “Everyone was very thankful, and I think that having design community members respond in such a quick, personal, successful manner meant a lot. These people had a lot going on, and work was not necessarily the priority, but the supplies and equipment helped hold them over so that they could concentrate on all their other issues.”

Not all the designers who took action left their studios to help out. Two different creative teams decided to organize fellow designers to make and submit posters that could then be sold online to raise money for the Red Cross. Personally, I’ve often found this practice of “let’s make a poster about the disaster,” as in the spate of work that followed 9/11 and here again post-hurricane—however well-intentioned the motivation—to be slightly ghoulish. There’s a fine line between expressions of compassion and exploitation of the cause for designer self-promotion. However, both 25 Above Water (organized and curated by Indianapolis designer Samuel E. Vazquez), and The Hurricane Poster Project (organized and curated by Leif Steiner, creative director at Boulder-based Moxie Sozo Design and Advertising) were born of passionate concern for the hurricane victims and a complete willingness to help people by using design to raise money. “I would like others in the creative community to get involved in more proactive efforts. There are so many needs in the world today that can benefit from our talents,” relates Vazquez.

The Hurricane poster Project—artists whose work is shown here: Don Clark, Laurie Demartino

Steiner says, “Time and distance have a habit of dulling memories and muting emotions. We’ve received some angry posters. We’ve also received some very angry responses to those posters. Fifty years from now, when Katrina, Rita, Bush, and Brown have been relegated to the history books, these posters will continue to be a small, but accurate, voice from August 2005.” However, he does admit, “Curating a show like this is a dangerous proposition.” As of this writing, no funds had yet been raised for the Red Cross, but both shows have succeeded in creating an archive of work that has touched, moved, offended, and/or affected many viewers by drawing attention to a tragic situation.

There are many other stories of designers motivated by the awful events of the Gulf Coast hurricanes, from small personal efforts like CalArts grad student Katie Hanburger organizing a “Graphic Design Bake Sale” and collecting money from students and faculty to help fellow MFA candidate and New Orleans resident Tasheka Arceneaux and her family get their lives together, to broader, more public ones like the documentary movie, Real Gone, by Greg Samata, creative director of SamataMason, to expose the ineffectiveness of the local, state, and U.S. governments in handling the storms. It seems that when the shit hits the fan, designers really will rise to help others.

The venerable New Times cited as a “Small Helper” providing real relief. “It hasn’t been our intention to get congratulations. We just wanted to help designers get back on their feet,” says Richmond. And they still want to help. Chopping Block, Drenttel, and AIGA are at work to use the Displaced Designer website as a template that can be provided to other membership-based nonprofits to assist them in helping themselves when disaster strikes. Reed, Collins, and White are working together and through the AIGA chapters to develop and disseminate an AIGA disaster guide that will provide real-world advice on exactly what to do in the event of a catastrophe.

Designers’ responses to the Gulf Coast hurricanes demonstrate that everyone can make a difference. Sometimes maddeningly complex problems like disasters cause people to feel overwhelmed and powerless, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By taking matters into your own hands, going with your gut instincts, using your talents, and banding together with other like-minded individuals, especially within the context of existing organizational structures like the Red Cross or AIGA, you can change the world. As Grefé puts it, “The relationship among designers within AIGA is one of its unique strengths, and this was a time when the full profession had a chance to rally behind those in need.”

Disaster recovery and rebuilding take time. If you would like to assist the designers affected by 2005’s Gulf Coast hurricanes there is still a need, and your help would be welcome. Please contact any of the relief efforts mentioned in this article, or contact Reed for more information.

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