ART WITH HEART
I finish my lunch and make my way back to work. I haven't been away from my desk long, so I slow my pace and take in the beauty of the city. As often happens, however, contemplation of the projects that await me wrestle control of my concentration and my gait quickens; the city will have to be enjoyed by the tourists today. As I walk, I pass a man seated on the concrete whose feet are bruised and bare, his peppered beard crusted with debris. His quiet and solitary conversation is intensely disjointed. He does not speak to me, yet his words jar my concentration just the same. He is a person, not unlike myself, really. I am left with a singular thought: he was once a child - full of promise and potential
What went wrong?
Just before I reach the office, a discarded candy wrapper blows past my path and comes to rest at the base of a lovely historic brick building. The wrapper is actually well designed and I find myself thinking about the process that went into its creation: the sketches and meetings behind it, the details of its printing, how its design impacted sales. After years of education and employment this is what I've come to - I'm thinking Design while everyone else is thinking Litter.
The juxtaposition of the disheveled man, the well-designed piece of garbage and the permanence of brick and concrete unite in a puzzle that establishes a new rhythm in my thoughts. As I work through the afternoon, I find it increasingly difficult to concentrate on solving the project at hand and I find myself trying to decipher the world outside. I relate more to the wrapper than to the man.
Why is that?
When I first moved to Seattle from a small town in Arizona, my zeal for design burned brighter than ever had before. It was a city full of promise and opportunity. I quickly became involved with the Seattle chapter of the AIGA and soon found myself on my desired path. Like many careers that are fueled by passion, design soon became more to me than just a job: it was a lifestyle that affected what I bought, what I wore, how I viewed my surroundings.
It is easy to remain aloof in the pristinely packaged world of design. It is a world of detail where everything is put into place: every comma, every em-dash, every swirl and flourish. We assess things and hold them in high regard based on their beauty and functionality. We congratulate ourselves for a job well done, for helping the client gain broader market, for yet another portfolio piece. Sometimes it feels great. Egos and pockets are fed and satisfied. But other times, the experience feels like an overindulgence of candy: sweet at first but ultimately lacking in nourishment. In the midst of my successes the illusion of my career as The Big Prize had quickly diminished. Professional accomplishments gave way to the uneasy feeling that somewhere along the way I had made a misstep and was following the wrong path. I began to wonder, can designers offer a legacy more significant than packaging, annual reports and corporate identities? This was the question that drove me to seek a secondary direction within design.
I had long found inspiration in graphic designers, like Greg and Pat Samata and Tony Gable, whose business ethics embraced a strong commitment to charitable work and I sought to do the same. My personal convictions and faith had instilled a belief that we are called to action, to give to others, to share the abundance of blessings we have been given. My fortunes as a designer had quickly risen and now I had the opportunity to fuse my passion for design with my need to serve.
My first pro bono opportunity came to me through a contact at work. A non-profit organization for children needed a poster, program and tickets for an upcoming event and was looking for a designer. I went into the project with naive eagerness; revitalized by the chance to work from my heart. It was exciting - each meeting, my sketches and comps were met by the client with enthusiastic approval. The day I was to release files to the printer, I received a call that brought my shining moment of service to a halt. The client called and said that the committee had determined that the design was completely wrong and that they were taking the job away and would be paying another designer to do it.
I was angry and insulted. Working through my frustration, I spoke with seasoned designers who had their own experiences to share. Some had developed ambivalence to the concept of charitable design work; feeling the problems far outweighed the rewards. I found this opinion troubling and my interest in addressing this issue grew. During this time, I joined the AIGA board of directors. Jesse Doquilo, then president of the chapter, asked why I wanted to get involved. My response was "to use design to give back to the community". This prompted him to offer me the challenge of assuming the role of Community Outreach chairman. When I asked what he thought the position entailed, he responded, "I don't know. Go find out."
Help Hope Heal
The advice I received following my sour pro bono experience made me realize that this was not a solitary problem and that, in my new board position, I could help outline solutions to improve the experience for others. This led to the development of a "Design Chat" entitled "Pro Bono: The Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them." The evening proved successful and opened my eyes to a community of designers who felt a similar desire to use their skills to "give back". We shared the same question:
What can we do?
Art with Heart evolved from volunteers gathered as a result of the Design Chat. These were designers who also wished to make a visible and durable impact by helping others. They expressed the desire to get involved but either didn't know how or were uncomfortable and intimidated to step alone. Going forward together, surrounded by industry peers, it became a joyful and consequential endeavor. Art with Heart became a network that could direct those individuals and their energy into specific, meaningful projects. We began our work focusing on Seattle's youth, especially those in the disenfranchised or transitional community; bringing creativity and inspiration to children who had no home, or who were on the precarious edge between survival and personal, lifetime failure. At the core, Art with Heart represents the belief that giving back is a visible act of gratitude for the abundance in our own lives and that a strong, positive self-image is the best pathway for a successful life.
Art with Heart first entered into community service five years ago with "Soul Food", a program where designers gather once a month to cook a meal and serve it to youth at the Orion Center, a local drop-in center for homeless teens. The kids are runaways: some are addicted to drugs; some are survival prostitutes. Many have been on the street for years. Their lives remain in a perpetual state of flux. The key to "Soul Food" has always been a simple one: to offer an element of consistency that the kids can count on in their otherwise changing world. Every month, the menu is new but the commitment from "Soul Food's" passionate volunteers remains the same and the teens respond enthusiastically.
After Art with Heart's initial inception, Laura Zeck joined me as co-chair and brought her background in art education to further expanded our outreach in a program to teach Self-Portraits as a means of helping to heal damaged confidence. Our workshops encourage personal exploration and excavation, allowing the children to dig out from their protective shells and rekindle artistic spontaneity. We focus on each individual's inner beauty as we explore different techniques and artistic mediums. The satisfaction and excitement the designers experience as contributors to the workshops is infectious. Our volunteer base grew rapidly and with it, so did our programming.
We now host a bi-annual holiday party where unique toys, conceived and handcrafted by graphic designers and illustrators, are auctioned off. The funds raised go towards artist trusts for local children's charities we support, such as First Place, an elementary school for homeless children and the Boys and Girls Club, an after-school program for inner-city youth, allowing the non-profits to purchase art supplies as needed.
We have developed book projects. Our first endeavor, the Intergenerational Book Project, brings together senior citizens, inner city youth and graphic designers to write and illustrate stories. The 6-week experience creates lasting bonds between disparate branches of the community.
Our current project, entitled "Oodles of Doodles for your Noodle" is directed at children who are affected by serious or chronic illness. The substantial book provides over 100 pages of games, puzzles and other activities that encourage these special children to express themselves through imagination and creativity, providing art therapy in a non-threatening form. A core volunteer team of 8 professionals labored for two years to research, write, design, and garner sponsorship and awareness. 97 designers and illustrators from around the world were invited to participate and each donated their tremendous talents to illustrate a page. Several different paper companies contributed stock and six different printers donated their time and skill to give the book life. This remarkable collaborative effort has blossomed into a gift that will reach 8,000 children in hospitals around the United States and in Canada this year.
I started out alone on a journey to find an outlet where I could use my skills to nourish my soul. Along the way, I have been joined by found countless like-minded individuals, who, for their own reasons, contribute their talents and time to the betterment of our community and a future generation. This is what Art with Heart is and it feels good.
We have been given so much, materially and otherwise. To use our abilities merely to insulate our lives with accolades and possessions seems like vanity - beautiful garbage that blows at the wind's discretion. We were made for greater things I hope. The experience of Art with Heart is that great change comes from simple gestures. That the design of things is ephemeral and an historical acknowledgement of our talents is not guaranteed. That our best work is the work that we do for the sake of others. That it is in the lives and hearts of the people we serve that we craft our legacy.
"I was taught that the world had a lot of problems; that I could struggle and change them; that intellectual and material gifts brought the privilege and responsibility of sharing with others less fortunate; and that service is the rent each of us pays for living--the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time or after you have reached your personal goals."
- Marian Wright Edelman
About the Author
Steffanie Lorig is the founder and director of Art with Heart, a community outreach of the Seattle Chapter of American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), where she has served as a member of the board of directors since 1995. She has worked in the design industry for over 13 years and is a designer, writer, lecturer and juror with numerous awards. She currently works at Hornall Anderson Design Works, an internationally-known and award-winning design firm. Previously, she was the Creative Director at a software company and taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona. She is co-author and organizer of the new book, "Oodles of Doodles for Your Noodle", an activity book for chronically ill children.