This week’s Designing for Good interview is with Zahra Ebrahim, a creativity architect, community activist, professor at OCAD U – and the Founder and Principal of archiTEXT inc, a Toronto design consultancy and think tank.
DF: As a designer who has also worked with non-profit organizations and community groups, how has design impacted the initiatives you have been involved with?
ZE: There are a few dimensions. In my work, I get to use design (architecture) as a tool to introduce kids to what the idea of being a creative is. It opens them up to the idea. For example, my studio is currently facilitating a project where kids are building a building right now and they’re seeing community come together through the design process, bringing architecture to inner suburbs, exploring models of economic development, and enabling them access to a traditionally inaccessible discipline. If you give the responsibility of design to people that would not necessarily have access to it, you are making the seemingly impossible possible. Design is a tool to enable people, and is also a mobilizer.
DF: What are your thoughts on how your organization or project (or one you know of) would function with poor, default, unthoughtful design and branding?
ZE: The problem is people are willing to accept mediocre design. Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with ReThink Breast Cancer. When I was asked to get involved initially, I was impressed by their attention to design. By valuing good design, they invest in an authentic representation of their organization. A designer clearly did their due diligence, because a visual was created, that I (an outsider to the organization) can connect with. So when I interface with them visually, it helps establish a stronger relationship.
DF: Do you feel that non-profits, social enterprises and grassroots initiatives can survive and compete for attention with the visual branding of large companies?
ZE: Yeah. There are some really great examples. In a perfect world, a Graphic Designer doesn’t give better work to the corporation. What comes out is a representation of the process of engaging with the organization. A designer creating for “Not Far From the Tree” vs. “Ford” should have the same quality. There’s no competition. Design is supposed to be consistent.
DF: In your opinion, should all designers have some sustainability or social conscious in their practice and philosophy?
ZE: It’s like acting – if you have it, you have it. For some of us it runs in our blood stream, so to mandate it would be counter-intuitive. For those that need to develop a socially conscious thread to their work, it is about finding an authentic connection to something that deeply affects them. What’s also changing is that people are more scrutinizing. There’s more choice. A client may not be looking for a socially conscious twist, but to have it makes you more attractive to work with. Now, that’s what gets the edge. A colleague of mine always says: “Volunteering is to the 90s what going to the country club was to the 70s…”
DF: Do you think that a physical storefront (or space or studio) dedicated to offering design services for “good” would be a useful idea?
ZE: Organizations need good visual identities. What a storefront does is provides access to it. How do these organizations find out about this plea? How do they find you, how do they interface with you? Go into communities that don’t have any access to design. It’s all about how they find you. It’s about access. Bridging the design community with those in need of good design.