Designer as Ghostwriter

Conference notes from Social Studies: Educating Designers in a Connected World.

Conference co-organizer, Ellen Lupton

A few weeks ago, I heard a presentation by Dan D’Oca, principal and co-founder of Brooklyn-based Interboro Partners and a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Dan, an urban planner by training, posits a compelling concept of how his firm functions within a community. He calls it the “planner as ghostwriter” and the idea was outlined in an essay in the book Verb Crises: “The ghostwriter, who strictly speaking is someone who helps famous people author autobiographies, is an apt analogy for the advocacy model we’re beginning to define…What we’re suggesting here is…a new kind of advocacy that emphasizes the importance of identifying, and documenting progressive practices that already exist, but that are underappreciated and have little legitimacy.”

I kept thinking about Dan’s concept this weekend as I attended Social Studies: Educating Designers in a Connected World, a graphic design conference sponsored by AIGA and hosted at MICA.

Organized by Ellen Lupton and the graphic design department at MICA, Social Studies brought design educators and students in from around the country to talk about the social value of design. “Graphic designers work with clients, institutions, users, and communities to make things happen in the world. Yet education often focuses on the individual voice,” the Web site explains. “How are we preparing students for a lifetime of working with and for other people? How are our students connecting to the world?”

There were concurrent working sessions on typography, community service, activism, sustainability, and more throughout the 3-day event.

Resources were scattered throughout the conference, including this free library.

Conference goers mingle in the lobby of MICA’s Brown Center during a coffee break.

Many of the workshops this weekend were dedicated to advocacy and action. One session brought together a panel of professors who outlined the ways that they connect their students to non-profit efforts. Academic classes were structured so that organizations with limited resources could use student talent to help build their brand. Leslie Jensen-Inman, Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, described how her students developed an entire media and branding campaign for a Tennessee non-profit dedicated to planting trees. “When they came to us, their logo was comic sans,” she said (this drew a lot of laughs from the room). “They wanted to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars using comic sans.”

The students in her class learned to work as a team, using software programs like Basecamp, and they learned to address the real-world needs of an actual client. The result was a cohesive package of deliverables, including a new name and logo for the organization:

The result? The non-profit did, in fact, raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. They earned national media attention, and when Volkswagen announced plans to open a plant in Chattanooga, they said that the Take Root efforts were a big reason behind selecting the town. They took something that already existed in town, that—to quote Interboro—was “underappreciated and had little legitimacy” and they transformed it through design.

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