A Greater Purpose: Art and Design as Social Responsibility
This article originally appeared in the winter 2017 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue here.
Artists and designers have long used their work to foster social and cultural change. At KCAD, continuing that legacy means understanding the communicative power of art and design and accepting the responsibility that power entails. For many students and alumni, the creative process involves more than making; it’s about making the world a better place.
Cayci Woday (‘16, BFA Graphic Design) spent her summer traveling the United States documenting homelessness through a series of podcasts and photographs for a project she co-curated called Art for Senses. “I really do believe that as a designer I’m a problem solver,” she says. “That’s the core of design for me — seeing these problems and finding a solution.”
Graphic Design student Cayci Wooday conducts an interview for her Art for the Senses project (credit: Melody Ozdyck).
For Woday, homelessness represented a monumental cultural problem that she could help bring awareness to. First though, she had to figure out how. “When we got into it we realized we weren’t really good at approaching people or knowing the right things to say or knowing how to be a comfort to people who opened up to us,” she says. “But we learned as we went along to not be so focused on the outcome, but instead to really be involved in and aware of the process and see the beauty in the little things.”
The value of experiential learning translates into how global, seemingly unmanageable problems can be solved, Woday says. “You just have to do something and start somewhere.”
Elizabeth Weidenaar (‘00, BFA Graphic Design) spent eight years as the creative director of several advertising agencies before realizing that her heart lay in the nonprofit sector, where she could use her creative skills to drive social change. Most recently, Weidenaar was tapped to helm the communications and marketing initiatives of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank in Tennessee, where she’s utilized design to convey the reality of hunger.
Alumna Elizabeth Weidenaar at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank (image courtesy of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank).
“Design is the vehicle to bring forward the powerful voice of what organizations are doing and what people are doing,” says Weidenaar. “Telling those stories digitally and visually is critical for an organization to succeed in making change.”
As a practicing artist and grant coordinator for the nonprofit International Arts and Artists, Casey Magrys (‘10, MFA) often interfaces with other artists and designers working to enact social change. She’s currently helping prepare Converging Cultures 1945 to Present, an exhibition focused on the flight of Asian cultures to Latin America. She also recently participated in an exhibition by SparkPlug, an artist collective in Washington, D.C., focused on power and social change.
Alumna Casey Magrys in her studio (credit: Casey Magrys).
“The objective here is to really raise awareness by understanding how culture can heighten our understanding of the people around us,” says Magrys. “If you’re questioning the way you interact with the community or people around you, you’re more likely to have an open and flexible mind.”
Benjamin Van Dyke (‘99, BFA Graphic Design) also believes that art and design are deeply woven into the social fabric of communities. As vice president of the nonprofit educational organization DesignInquiry, he helps connect people from a variety of fields to create work communicating a single topic, which often focuses on social change. “Designers can help facilitate the dissemination of knowledge,” Van Dyke says. “We are conduits between idea and audience.”
Alumnus Benjamin Van Dyke in Amman, Jordan (credit: Hamza Najjar)
Recently, the organization launched an exhibit in Detroit that featured a discussion of how the iconic city’s fall into despair changed the cultural landscape for artists. Van Dyke believes designers’ ability to help translate and communicate important cultural issues fits into the responsibility of society as a whole to enact change.
“We’re all part of the evolution of our culture and we’re responsible for contributing toward a greater good,” he says.