By Ellen Rossetti
Whether it's through food labels designed to help Haitian farmers sell local goods or through books designed to help blind and sighted people read together, faculty members at UNT are leading efforts to make communication design more effective, efficient and socially responsible.
Through their research, teaching and plans to build upon the university's strong communication design program, they are helping change the lives of people in communities around the world.
"We're thinking strategically about design as a process that solves real problems," says Keith Owens, an assistant professor of communication design whose own research is helping to improve the lives of farmers in Haiti.
UNT's program — recognized by professional associations and others nationwide as among the elite programs producing communication designers — is expanding its efforts to provide even more learning and research opportunities for students.
Led by College of Visual Arts and Design Dean Robert Milnes, the faculty members are creating plans for a proposed design research center in downtown Dallas. The collaborative center would help forge relationships with businesses, allowing graduate students to work on design problems with large corporations. Ultimately, the center will provide students with more opportunities to give back to the community and work with high-need areas or with impoverished areas of the country.
"You need a place to hole up and get serious work done," says Michael Gibson, associate professor of communication design. "The design research center will be a place for UNT faculty and graduate students to plan, execute, test and re-test."
The efforts of the program's faculty members are making an impact across the globe. In June 2008, the communication design faculty organized an international visual literacy conference that attracted world-class speakers such as alumna Heather Amuny-Dey, a creative director for Nike Global Brand Design.
The faculty members' own research is touching lives inside the classroom and around the world. Owens traveled to Haiti in the summers of 2007 and 2008 to volunteer for Partners of the Americas. In Haiti, he helped design advertising labels for local farmers who make jellies, peanut butter, liqueurs and bitter chocolate.
"Everyone makes a decision based on the label in Haiti," Owens says. "Imported produce has a slicker label, but in actuality, local products are just as good if not better. But the local labels often look amateurish or homemade."
To create more consumer confidence in the local products, Owens worked with local growers to create more aesthetically pleasing labels that can be printed at an affordable cost. In test markets, sales immediately increased for the Haitian products.
Within a year or so, the products with the new labels are expected to be on local shelves and possibly in other Caribbean markets and Canada, he says. The labels are designed in such a way that Haitians can update and print them on their own.
"The real problem isn't making a label pretty," Owens says. "The real problem is how to design ways to empower groups of people to become more self-sufficient — that's the ultimate goal."
"We plan to facilitate projects that will instigate positive social, cultural and economic change."
- Michael Gibson
Gibson recently received about $200,000 from the university to buy equipment for a render farm — a powerful group of seven computers working together to help UNT students and faculty members create visual design projects that can help the community.
"We plan to facilitate projects that will instigate positive social, cultural and economic change, particularly in North Texas but eventually throughout the state," Gibson says.
For example, the render farm might be used in a project to improve the self-checkout experience at a grocery store. Avatars — or virtual people — could be created to examine how a 9-year-old boy buying a candy bar or a 70-year-old woman doing weekly grocery shopping would react to the proposed new design of the self-checkout system.
From 2000 to 2004, Gibson — along with Celia Williamson, now deputy provost and dean of undergraduate studies, and Don Louis, project director in the Department of Rehabilitation, Social Work and Addictions — secured grant support to create a CD, Unfiltered 2.0. It is used to teach middle school students about the dangers of smoking.
Discussions are under way to create a Spanish-language version for students and others in Mexico, he says, and the render farm could be used in the development of that project. In addition, Gibson is working on a book, Brilliant Failures and Unmerited Successes: Design as Mediary in the Post-Industrial World.
"I'm interested in why design fails, particularly design that was economically successful but that has had a catastrophic effect socially or environmentally," Gibson says, citing mass-marketed diet programs aimed at women as an example.
Jack Sprague, professor of communication design, has been researching the creative methodologies of communication design and advertising for more than 30 years as a teacher — with about 20 of those years at UNT.
"People look at the surface of design and advertising and say, 'Isn't that interesting or pretty?' or 'Isn't that cool packaging?' But they don't understand the underlying process of how the conceptual idea, the message and visual solution of the campaign was created — what went on behind the scenes and why this approach was successful," Sprague says.
Sprague brings the research and conceptual skills he has learned from monitoring the industry back to the "front line" — the classroom, he says — as he teaches students the processes and methods used in the visual language of communication.
"My job is to take the next generation of young people who have interest in communication design and give them a wide array of tools, methods and theories so they understand what they are doing," Sprague says. "It's a myth that creativity is a blank piece of paper waiting for an idea to fall out of your head. If a person has intellect and intelligence, these processes and methods can be taught."
Using design methods and technology to support different learning styles is a key interest of Michele Wong Kung Fong, assistant professor of communication design. Touch-screen technology, for instance, is used in the materials she is creating for a program in which students can take apart the components of the human heart and put them back together on the computer screen. They hear a buzz if they put the aorta in the wrong spot.
Her design research focuses on middle school students, but the research could potentially extend to students with disabilities and the elderly population, she says.
Eric Ligon, associate professor of communication design, was inspired by his son, Ethan, who is blind, to design books that can be more easily read by blind and sighted readers together. To produce the children's books, he co-founded the nonprofit organization BrailleInk.
His design features the Braille words at the bottom of the page and the printed words and illustrations at the top, so the Braille reader's hands never cover the printed words. He hopes that sighted parents, grandparents, siblings or friends can learn Braille as they read with children who are blind.
"We've had a lot of positive responses from people saying, 'My kid loves this book and wants to read it every single night before we go to bed,'" Ligon says. "That part has been really rewarding."
The project illustrates the heart of what communication designers are trying to do — change lives by getting to the roots of design problems. The challenge isn't making Braille books for kids, but creating books that educate people in their lives so they, too, learn Braille, Ligon says.
"Designers have to listen intuitively to figure out what is the real problem and the real solution."
In UNT's proposed design research center, researchers plan to focus on corporate, government and philanthropic efforts — solving problems for Dallas businesses, earning government grants to pursue research and helping nonprofit organizations come up with effective solutions. A rigorous review process will determine just which projects the center should pursue.
Once the projects are identified, different interdisciplinary teams of experts will come together to explore solutions. For example, if the researchers are charged with identifying ways to design anti-smoking material that will appeal to teenagers, a cultural anthropologist may be on the team to help determine how to appeal to that age group.
The core group of researchers for UNT's proposed center now consists of faculty members from communication design, business and anthropology.
"Ultimately, the kinds of research methods we use will be derived from the types of problems we are trying to solve," Keith Owens says. "We will put teams together and say, 'Here is how we will attack it, and here are the skills we will need.' It will be applied research with the goal of solving a particular real-world problem."
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