SIGD Students Explore Social Justice Through Design

Ben's Original by GDES student Grace Gordon

Throughout Academic Year 2020-’21, the College of Architecture, Design and Construction is sponsoring classes that focus on themes of social justice. Assistant Professors Joyce Thomas of industrial design and David Smith of graphic design have developed this innovative curriculum for three different courses.

During the fall 2020 semester, Smith applied the study of social justice and racism to his Introduction to Graphic Design class. He asked students to identify products with packaging that featured racially and ethnically stereotyped images and to then redesign the packaging without racial overtones. Working in teams, his students created videos to reflect on their product solutions. Student Mary Beth Slater redesigned packaging for a Land O’Lakes dairy product by focusing on where it’s made. “Even though it wasn’t intended to be offensive, I think changing the packaging would be a step in the right direction. I focused on the land rather than the figure on the box,” she stated. Student Laura Silvernail redesigned packaging for an Aunt Jemima pancake mix. “I grew up with Aunt Jemima so I never really thought anything of it until I started this project,” she said. Silvernail did a complete rebranding of the product, eliminating the figure on the front and putting a positive spin on Southern charm. “I think my packaging makes it more welcoming rather than recirculating an idea that is outdated and racist,” she said.

Thomas taught two separate classes that focused on themes of social justice. In her third year industrial design studio, students considered issues including ageism, community relations with law enforcement, renaming of campus buildings and bias toward people with disabilities, as well as access to healthy food for historically marginalized communities. They researched the history of the civil rights movement and created mural boards that showcased what they had learned. They also considered the cultural bias that may have been present in their own upbringings, writing poems with a visual component to reflect on the impacts of race and culture in their lives. Finally they created project solutions to issues related to race and age. 

In Thomas’s Design Thinking class, undergraduate and graduate students from various majors—including psychology, architecture, environmental design and engineering—were asked to form teams to pitch product ideas related to social justice. After first creating a design brief they developed their ideas into finalized concept solutions. One group promoted greater access to recycling in communities that traditionally have not had easy access and included the idea of incentivizing recycling, with rewards coming from corporate sponsors that would offer retail discounts and travel perks. Another group developed the idea of an affordable security system that connects users and neighbors in low income communities where children are often home alone. A third group developed an all-encompassing food project that included open air markets, traveling food suppliers, incentives for farming produce and converting houses into soup kitchens. “We decided to focus on hunger and food insecurity,” said student Ian Lee. “We want to consider a potential product or service that addresses ways of reducing food waste from farms, grocery stores and restaurants and benefits those who need it.”

Thomas and Smith are eager to share what they learned in developing their social justice curricula last fall. They are co-authors of a paper titled “Studio-Based Learning Strategies Inspire Thoughtful and Purposeful Designers” that they will present at the 2021 Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics Conference. They are also teaching two sections of the Design Thinking course this semester. These courses, which focus on design from a user’s point of view, are available to students from all disciplines across the University. Thomas’s course will focus on the design of physical products and Smith’s course will focus on digital design solutions.

Related people:
Joyce Thomas, David Smith