Design as social activism takes a variety of forms, ranging from a poster decrying the death penalty to an awareness campaign for a children’s after-school program. At the Baltimore-based Piece Studio, design activism is about engaging with community groups and local organizations to give them a voice and aid them in achieving – and even recognizing – their goals. In this context, the designer’s work can be a kind of community organizing. As the firm’s co-founder Bernard J. Canniffe says, “At Piece Studio, we probably spend more time in the community and less in the studio.”

Piece Studio evolved out of a class taught by Canniffe, the co-chair of the graphic design department at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (U.S.). Canniffe created the course as a means of helping with a Johns Hopkins University initiative to address the disconnect between Hopkins and the East Baltimore community where the school is located. Through the course, Canniffe met Oliver Munday, a student, and along with Mike Weikert, also a co-chair and professor in the MICA graphic design department, the three came to realization: There was potential to build a studio devoted to design that empowers – and nurtures – communities, advocacy groups, and individuals.

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This poster, co-designed with the world famous Globe Posters, is promoting the unsung heroes of east Baltimore. The poster was plastered throughout east Baltimore with contact info on how to reach each of the heroes.
Image courtesy Piece Studio

Piece Studio formally launched in August last year and has demonstrated its founders’ philosophy in action for a variety of organizations and events in Baltimore. For Martha’s Place, a women’s drug rehabilitation center that also fosters community development, the designers created an elegant publication that allowed the organization to convey its message, work, and mission statement — a piece that helped to generate pride, visibility, and funding for the group. The poster project “Unsung Heroes,” which the studio created on its own initiative, paid homage to Baltimore leaders who otherwise get little recognition. A new venture named If you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist, a website currently in a beta version, is a forum where communities can spotlight problems in their areas and provide easily accessible advocacy resources to other webizens.

The design that Piece Studio creates has a tangible impact but is not necessarily brash as a visual statement. The aesthetic, as the Piece partners explain, emerges from close collaboration with the studio’s clients and is less important than the outreach work the studio does. “We realized that our main point of difference at Piece wasn’t about the designer, and it wasn’t about insisting that ‘this is the process,’” says Weikert. “It was about putting a multidisciplinary team of people around a table that were all relevant to that specific issue.”

Why did you choose the name “Piece” for the studio?

Oliver Munday: In its simplest, distilled form, designers can be a “piece” of the solution. It’s all about us being collaborators and working with people and being a piece of the collaborative process, and in turn being a piece of the solution. It’s about designers realizing their potential: We have the ability to think about things conceptually and to see problems and see solutions and apply those principles to real-world problems. So the Piece Studio and the “Piece Theory” [visible on the studio’s website] came out of that.

How do you find the right aesthetic for the projects you’re working on?

Bernard Canniffe: The design solution or the design visual language is secondary – it’s informed by the community. There’s this great sense of release that comes with that approach: It’s not important what it looks like as much as how it changes behavior, or how it can give a voice to a community. Who really cares what it looks like, as long as the community engages with it and feels a sense of ownership – that’s what’s important.

There’s obviously a risk in that, especially in academic institutions that reward coffee-table books or coffee-table research and designs. Am I doing design? In a way, I suppose I am, but it’s more about social work, I think, meets design.

What are the possibilities and limitations of graphic design in getting people to think and act differently?

Mike Weikert: To a degree, we’re idealistic, and we’re also realistic. Almost on any issue – homelessness, global warming – with all of these issues, it’s not like there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. And I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a scenario where you’re going to change everybody’s mind and everybody’s perception and perspective. With global warming, you have people who have dedicated their lives to this issue, and are convinced that we’re all going to die, and there are other people who still today contend that it’s not real. And so are you really going to be able to change everybody’s mind? Our main goal is to use the power of design as a communicative tool to raise awareness, to hopefully put information in a context where it will reach an audience and resonate and make people think, “Wow, I didn’t realize that.”

Bernard: We’re always honest about what we can actually achieve. And I suppose we always make promises that we can keep. I learned that mistake very early on – that you can promise the world to these [organizations] because their needs are so great, and then if you let them down, you’re another cog, you’re another [Johns] Hopkins person who walked away.

Now, whatever they’re asking, the honest answer is, “Well, not really – we can’t do that: We don’t have politicians with us, we can’t implement change from a policy point of view. But we can do this: We can give you a voice and shout and scream and hopefully that will bring other people into the equation.”

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Promotional piece designed and written for Martha's Place, a women's drug rehab center in west Baltimore.
Image courtesy Piece Studio

Can you describe the specific impact that one of your projects has had?

Bernard: The “Place for Change” piece that we did for Martha’s Place has been really inspirational for that organization and helped them to provide funding or to connect to funders. It’s the first time they’ve ever had something that tells their story that they can give, and people will understand straightaway what Martha’s Place is about and trying to do.

The design pieces that we’ve produced for them not only make them more aware of the importance of design (that’s one thing) and the need for design (that’s another thing), but how design can leverage money for them.

Mike: One of the most tangible byproducts of some of these projects – especially Martha’s Place – is pride. I think when we’re able to take things that a community already owns – “equity” that they already have, tangible things that they have – when we’re able to package it and present it back to them, it reinvigorates them and reminds them, “Wow, this is our heritage, this our past.” They start exuding this pride, when they show the book, and know that that book represents them, and they’re proud of it. They weren’t able to visualize that kind of tangible outcome.

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An exhibition and symposium celebrating the artwork of the Black Panther Party held at the Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art
Image courtesy Piece Studio

If you were to offer advice to designers who wanted to get into this area of social justice and activism, what would you recommend?

Oliver: We’ve only been doing this as a group for about a year, and we’ve already been able to do a lot, and I think the potential is there to do a lot more. I suggest you connect with people, you find people, you do research, and find out what issues people are working on, and get in touch with them. Go on websites like DESIGN 21: Social Design Network where you can participate in projects and submit your ideas and get inspiration from that kind of stuff, and stay connected to what’s going on.

You can be someone like John Bielenberg, who does big projects and has massive influence. Or you can be someone who a couple hours a week does odds and ends for a non-profit to help them out. I think getting involved is the most important thing – the scale will change, and more stuff will come. It’s a matter of giving back.

Mike: You’ve obviously got to have a passion, and you obviously have to have a desire to enter into this world. And for the most part, even all of us, it’s not Piece Studio is our 100 percent, 7-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day focus. We have our design jobs: Bernard and I have our responsibility to the institution [MICA], Oliver is running a design business. We’re doing this because we want to.

A lot of times, especially with young designers, they’ll go out and the goal is to get a job, and then they find a job, and then within a year, they’re disgruntled. They feel like they’re sitting in the same space every day, and the clients aren’t giving them any flexibility and they’re not actually doing work that is fulfilling. If they can get involved with this work as an extracurricular activity, besides their 9 to 5, they’ll get a taste of it, and then – who knows? – they may decide that this is what they want to do.

Oliver: I think almost every designer comes to that crossroads where they’re like, “Does what I do make a difference? Does it even matter, is it even relevant? I think that does disgruntle a lot of people and gets people down about it. That’s why we do what we do – because we know the power of design and the potential of design. So we’re trying to do things that can inspire.

Is there a quality that characterizes the Piece Studio designer?

Bernard: I think that the Piece Studio designer is more of a negotiator and secondly a designer. You’re working with community groups and bringing community groups together with researchers or third parties that can bring money and other shared interests to try to make these [initiatives] happen.

Piece Studio

Homepage and top image: Promotional piece designed and written for Martha's Place, a women's drug rehab center in west Baltimore.

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The objective of the web-based If You Don't See It project is to raise awareness surrounding the social problems facing our cities.
Image courtesy Piece Studio

Posted September 19, 2008