Design class collaborates with Centre for Human Rights on social issues

York Professor Jan Hadlaw teaches a design course with a twist – it has a social conscience. The course – Design for Public Awareness – encourages students to think critically, to research and assess social issues, then use what they’ve learned in their practice after graduation.

She gives the example of what goes into designing the graphics for a delivery truck. “Perhaps the first instinct is to design something colourful and eye-catching,” says Hadlaw. “But it’s important to consider if the graphics you design could distract other drivers and possibly cause an accident. Design students need to learn how to think very fully about what they’ve been asked to design and how they choose to do it.”

So when the opportunity came along for the students to collaborate with York’s Centre for Human Rights, it seemed like a perfect fit. It was decided that the students would research social issues and design posters that the Centre for Human Rights could then use in upcoming campaigns.

Above: A gallery showing some of the students from the Design for Public Awareness course and their work

“The opportunity to work collaboratively and engage with community members gives students a whole new perspective on the work they do,” says Hadlaw. Last year, her class teamed up with the York University-TD Community Engagement Centre (CEC) and worked with groups in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood on a series of design projects. It was at the display of the work created by the community members and design students at the CEC’s annual general meeting that Noël Badiou, director of the Centre for Human Rights, first became familiar with the work Hadlaw did with her class.

“So often design is in the service of corporations and consumerism,” says Hadlaw, based in the Department of Design in the Faculty of Fine Arts. “This class focuses on social communication instead of corporate communication. Our audience is not the consumer, it’s the citizen. It requires a bit of a shift in thinking.” Hadlaw asks her students to recognize the difference between “how audiences are spoken to as consumers, and how they are spoken to as citizens,” noting “how we choose to represent things matters.”

 Last term's Design for Public Awareness class
Above: Last term’s Design for Public Awareness class. Far left, Professor Jan Hadlaw. Far right, Nythalah Baker, senior adviser of education and communications at the Centre for Human Rights

The year’s class of 39 students was divided into 12 groups of three with each group choosing an issue related to the UN International Days of Observance. The students tackled issues of racism, abuse, discrimination and sexual harassment. Badiou and Nythalah Baker, senior adviser of education and communications at the Centre for Human Rights, were thrilled with the partnership opportunity. Baker spoke to the class about some of the issues the centre deals with, and both Baker and Badiou sat in on the students’ presentations.

“A really creative exercise came out of it,” says Baker. “From the centre’s perspective, we see the benefits of posters being catchy, engaging and interesting. It was a great mixing of everyone’s interest and skill set.” She also points out that the development of the posters was a great way to engage not only the students working on them, but other students and faculty at the University.

Badiou echoed that this collaboration was a good example of student engagement as set out in the Taskforce Report on Student Life Learning & Community. “Students benefit by learning more about human rights related issues and seeing their work used by the University,” he said. “The centre benefits by having new and interesting materials to enhance awareness surrounding important human rights related issues. It was a terrific partnership and one that the centre would eagerly repeat.”

Hadlaw says for her, one of the best things about the course is that it often fosters social awareness that lasts well beyond graduation. “Many of the students become quite conscious about bringing this way of thinking into their work after they graduate and they often stay in touch to let me know of community projects they have taken on in their professional practices.”

“The important learning goals for the course are for the students to learn to think critically and consider the social impact of their design work, to think as designers and citizens.”

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer