Maybe it’s the zeitgeist, but there seems to be a lot swirling around the worlds of Design and Societal Ills, mainly the homeless community. Maybe it’s just where my interests intersect, but I’m down for this ride.
A month and a half ago I came across this Adweek article focusing on an art director who took to hand lettering signs for the homeless in the hopes that it will make more of an impact. I wanted to let it sit, and not be so reactionary about someone trying their best to make an impact. Truth be told, no matter how long it’s been since I’ve seen the article, I unfortunately only sense that the only impact he intended to affect was more pushed towards his own CV than these individuals’ lives, but who am I to say.
It’s not new I believe the current buzzword “design thinking”, and the larger role design can play. Design can and does have a huge influence on our society and how we, those who make up that society, can have a role in how much better that society can be. I feel this way as a human being. Add to the mix that I’m a relentlessly passionate designer, hell bent on using design as a messaging and problem-solving model, and you’ve got one strong case for Design Can Save The World-itis.
Okay okay, maybe not ALL design, but the designers who rock it. And yes I’m serious.
While I do respect this art director’s attempt, I recoil at their execution. And with that admission, I also admit that I cannot help myself: the hand lettering isn’t even nice looking let alone effective in removing the stigma homeless people face every. day. of. their. lives.
Looking at the tumblr, what struck me is that yes, he is using lettering to help gain attention– whether that works is not my point. The thing that pulls me back from judging too harshly is how he is with them. He’s interacting with them. Hearing their stories and not just blowing them off as lies or manipulations. They’re being treated like human beings. Can you imagine? What a thought.
After sitting for 4 seconds on this reality, my mind raced through a whole host of possibilities that designers could do (or people could do, really, but creative thinking as it gives way to problem solving is 100% my angle on this). I did a little digging into research. What else were people doing to help?
The research developed into something way more interesting than just hand lettered signs: There’s an abundance of incredible individuals trying every day to make this issue a “once was” issue. There’s the Colorado Coffee shop that rehabilitates homeless youth by providing them with a job, counseling, budgeting/life skills mentorship, and the support network to thrive on their own. A Canadian charity called Raise The Roof that created a heartbreaking viral video aiming to help bring peoples’ empathy meter up from ground zero, and a former beauty queen sharing her story on how she was homeless. It’s not a monolithic issue, but in my mind we’re not a monolithic species. Humans are humans, and we ought to treat each other as such no matter what each of us are going through.
Full disclosure: I myself was homeless for a few months in college. I am grateful that it occurred in sunny Sarasota, but it was not something I carried with me pridefully. See hipsters, I was living in genuine poverty before romanticized poverty became cool. Whenever things get stressful monetarily, I still have blips of fear and anxiety that it will go back to how it was, but thankfully I can say it hasn’t. Perhaps this experience makes me extra sensitive to those still afflicted with living on the streets, but I’d like to think it’s because I’m an aware, sensitive, human being who lived in Los Angeles and New York City, and experienced most of the heartbreaking sadness one can witness (this sentence may sound exaggerated, but let’s not go there).
I got my first job because I was 16, and could work, so I should. I donated much of my money to charities that helped impoverished children and animals. When I was 18, working two jobs, and enjoying all of the fun that dance clubs can offer (so much fun), I would spend an hour with a homeless individual, every time I was downtown. I’d treat them to their dinner of choice, gave them enough money for a bed at the Salvation Army, but mostly I talked with them. It’s my belief that it’s the isolation and lack of community that enables this lack of empathy. I do my part to combat that every day.
Design has the opportunity to change the ways we interact, what and the ways in which we understand, and how we communicate. Why then, can design not have the opportunity to work within our established system? Breaking things open, exploring them, rearranging them, and showing us our own biases in the hopes of reworking them. It does, it can, and we should let it.
I wanted to offer some suggestions that other people passionate about making a change could noodle around with. It’s why I consider myself “solution oriented”. Yes there are endless problems in our world, but we are also a part of this world (cue the Little Mermaid!!), which provides two choices: continue to be a part of the problem, or be a part of the solution. Trite? Kinda. But necessary and important? Yep.
My initial thought to this was a pop-up interview setup, gathering individuals interested in changing their living situation (I realize not everyone is, or even aware of it, and therein lies its own sad level of truth). Grooming, cleaning, appropriate outfits, interview coaching, could you not organize these in the goal of helping out your fellow man? Hell, you can even typeset their resumes! Have them interview with companies interested in creating a similar program to CO Coffee Co. Give them the opportunity, I’m sure appreciation and eager participation would follow.
Facilitate relationships with companies who have similar corporate ethos, or at least willing to participate– if only for publicity. If McDonalds can take their marketing departments and launch a completely unnecessary fashion show around Big Macs (so fashionable, you guys), we can get multiple companies to take stock in this goal. Regardless of whether it’s genuine (ideally, it’d be genuine), but hell, even a fake attempt at helping society while drenched in mind-numbing corporate-speaky jargon and slapping a bunch of logos on it will still help society in some way. I mean, they still have a 3% Conference, and that’s supposedly helping.
What about getting larger more philanthropic corporations to join in on the fun? Sponsor some living space, like Los Angeles did downtown for it’s Skid Row residents. The same companies could also provide shuttling to the newly employed newly-homed individuals’ part-time jobs, as well as provide them with life counseling, and treat them like healthy human beings that can be productive for society—because they can be.
Too much involvement? Set aside some time to design a campaign set up to showcase the lack of empathy and humanity shared with people living on the streets. Similar to the viral video, but in a way that forces people to see their biases. If Saachi and Saachi can print HIV+ blood in with ink to challenge peoples’ stigma with AIDS 30 years later, we can have wealthy/well off people think about themselves as homeless due to unforeseeable disaster and circumstance.
Write/design series of posters either of mean tweets about the homeless people, or quotes from famous/notable people who have been homeless at some time to break the stigma of otherness. Juxtapose with true to life imagery of current homeless people for the shake up of ideas that any turn in life can change everything in an instant.
Volunteer. Spend time in a soup kitchen, or photograph homeless individuals looking like “normal people”. Donate your time to teach a worthwhile skill: sewing, crocheting, fishing, woodworking, doesn’t really matter, but teaching a human being a trade in which they can support themselves will always be better than a snarky 140 character snippet on whether homeless people get into heaven (if there is one, they absolutely would)
If donating money is more your style, here are plenty of places to make that happen: