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Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, designers have long made a point of sweating the small stuff. More than anyone, they understand the enormous impact of subtle design choices, whether it’s a storefront’s paint color, the layout of a public park or a logo.

Armed with this knowledge, designers with a desire to make a positive difference at the local level have been bringing their skills to those who may need it most. A movement that captures this ethos—called Design for Good by AIGA—has taken root in the industry, but some design firms have been using this idea as a guiding principle, if not their raison d’être, for years. Here are three organizations that are using their detail-oriented superpowers for good.

Callouts (left) and a conceptual rendering (right) of a home that LA-Más designed for Los Angeles County’s accessory dwelling unit pilot program. LA-Más, design/architect; Genesis LA, strategic planner; Nous Engineering, engineer; Habitat for Humanity Los Angeles, consultant; Councilmember Gil Cedillo/Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Innovation Team, development partners; Grace Lee/Trent Wolbe, clients.

Los Angeles nonprofit LA-Más (Spanish for “the most”) consolidates architecture, urban planning and policy knowledge through the combined forces of co–executive directors Elizabeth Timme and Helen Leung. Both Timme and Leung are Los Angeles natives, and Leung grew up in the Frogtown neighborhood (also called Elysian Valley) where LA-Más’s seven-person office is located.

Founded in 2012 by Timme and landscape architect Mia Lehrer (who now serves on the board of directors), LA-Más “helps lower-income and underserved communities shape their future through policy and architecture.” In six years, LA-Más has done much more than interior and exterior design. It has helped small business owners develop marketing plans and access government resources. It has reimagined public spaces with installations and gotten involved in community planning. And it has helped drive the alternative-housing conversation in Los Angeles.

This last issue is a big one. An estimated 50,000 unpermitted accessory dwelling units (ADUs), or “backyard homes,” exist in the city, signaling a housing crisis brought on, in part, by a housing shortage and skyrocketing rents. As part of an ADU pilot program, LA-Más helped design a 1,000-square-foot, two-story, two-bedroom home with a garage—for a total construction cost of under $200,000.

“We’re really crossing our fingers,” says Leung of the project. “There’s so much potential and excitement around it.”

LA-Más began as an outgrowth of Timme’s frustrations with the skewed priorities that constrained the design of a children’s hospital she had worked on in Los Angeles, and the very different materials-related challenges she had faced while designing health care buildings in Rwanda and Liberia as a graduate student. Timme envisioned marrying available resources with more user-friendly design and empowering underserved communities to have a say in how their neighborhoods are growing and changing.

Shortly after Timme returned to Los Angeles and cofounded LA-Más, Leung came on board to provide the firm with more public policy and urban planning expertise, as well as community engagement skills. The two have led LA-Más to redesign everything from a commercial strip in the Watts neighborhood to grocery stores committed to offering fresh produce and healthy food options to dead ends near LA-Más’s office, which now feature colorful murals.

“We’ve gotten really good about being efficient with our team,” says Leung. “And we welcome opportunities to work in other cities. But there are plenty of things for us to do in Los Angeles.”

Firebelly created an identity (left) that’s as fearless as the young girls who learn to design, code and build at Girls Garage, launched by nonprofit Project H Design. To showcase the talent of the third Typeforce exhibition, Firebelly designed a catalog (right) whose blind-embossed cover and strategically placed die cuts beckon the reader to peer inside. 

Dawn Hancock was in her midtwenties when her father, who’d long suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, passed away. (Her mother had died of lung cancer nearly fifteen years earlier.)

Even before her father’s death, Hancock had been taking on pro bono projects for nonprofits in her off-hours, seeking the kind professional fulfillment she didn’t get from working at a large Chicago-based software development company. But in this watershed moment, Hancock finally took the leap. In 1999, she launched her own business, naming her company Firebelly Design after an Adbusters-style cultural and political zine she had dreamed of launching in college.

Her first client, a former coworker’s friend who constructed handmade guitars, needed help with a website. Friends, referrals and word-of-mouth marketing helped Firebelly grow into the eighteen-person boutique firm it is today.

Hancock maintains a family-like atmosphere at her company while keeping its “do good” mission in focus; once, she even took her entire staff on a surprise volunteer trip to Thailand. Each year, Firebelly collaborates with the Public Media Institute and the Co-Prosperity Sphere to present a weeklong exhibition called Typeforce, which spotlights emerging typographic artists and designers.

“I’d seen designers in my studio, usually younger people, who felt like you have to move to New York or Los Angeles to make it and really become part of ‘the scene,’” says Hancock. “People here are doing some really cool work, but we’re in the Midwest, where you don’t talk about yourself a lot. So I thought: Let’s celebrate up-and-coming artists and give them a platform. Let’s celebrate younger people while the older guard gets the awards and has their day. ... it’s starting to put Chicago on the map more.”

In 2007, Firebelly also started the 501(c)(3) organization Reason to Give to provide school supplies, children’s clothing, computers and other items to families living in the company’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

“We were seeing gentrification happen, and we felt like we may be part of the problem. Instead, we wanted to be part of the solution,” says Hancock. “We wanted to help our neighbors, so we started talking to community centers and churches to get a sense of what’s going on and how we could help.”

Yet another local need is education, which has become the sole focus of Reason to Give in recent years. Firebelly’s conference room becomes a community classroom on a number of nights each year; while childcare is provided in a nearby room, experts volunteer their time to talk about resume writing, computer skills, parenting, healthy eating, personal finance, immigration and more.

Finally, Firebelly’s most enduring program, Grant for Good, has been running since 2004. The grant provides a nonprofit organization with one year of comprehensive branding and design services.

“Good design can give people from an organization a different level of confidence, so they’re actually excited to show their business card or their website,” said Hancock. “Investing an entire year involves hundreds and hundreds of hours, but I love that. You see the change in [grant recipients’] faces when we unveil our ideas to them. It’s like they suddenly realize, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly who we are.’”

Homeboy Industries’ new offices (left) in a former printing facility includes a ramp, which is used as a raceway by those who are in wheelchairs due to gang-related events. Detroit Collaborative Design Center/Sander Architects, design; Homeboy Industries/Jobs for a Future, clients. St. Joseph Rebuild Center’s campus (right) includes six trailers connected by an outdoor gathering space. Building Detail/Detroit Collaborative Design Center/studioWTA, design; Neil Alexander/Sharon Risdorf, photographers; Catholic Charities Hispanic Apostolate/Harry Tompson Center/Lantern Light, Presentation Sisters/St. Joseph Church, clients.

Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), a nonprofit urban design and architecture firm housed at the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM), is staffed by seven full-time professionals and a few student interns who get hands-on experience collaborating with communities. “The idea I brought to the center was: How do you model it after a teaching hospital?” says executive director Dan Pitera.

DCDC began in the mid-1990s when former UDM School of Architecture dean Stephen Vogel enlisted a faculty member, Father Terrence Curry, to establish the Neighborhood Design Studio (NDS). Over time, NDS grew into DCDC. When Pitera took the reins in 2000, he expanded the range of services to include strategic planning, landscape design, urban design and experimental installations, turning DCDC into the full-service center it is today.

The vast majority of projects happen in DCDC’s own backyard—corridors, neighborhoods and parks in Detroit, where good design helps in “preparing for investment to occur,” says Pitera—but occasionally, DCDC goes further afield. It designed Homeboy Industries’ offices and training center in Los Angeles, where young adults can find an alternative to gang life through jobs, life skills and employment opportunities. And in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it collaborated with four faith-based organizations in New Orleans to help design the St. Joseph Rebuild Center, which aims to collectively support and care for the city’s homeless population.

“We argue that design is actually a social justice issue and that thoughtful design is actually an essential human need,” says Pitera. “No one would argue that if you put a child in an elementary school that’s well designed—versus an elementary school that’s poorly designed—that child will develop differently. No one argues with that. So then why wouldn’t that be the case with our homeless shelters, our substance abuse centers, our housing, our community centers, our public centers and so on?”

DCDC doesn’t “pitch” ideas or projects, but rather responds to and works with communities that are seeking change. One way that DCDC learned a great deal about the region’s wants and needs was by helping with a civic engagement strategy of the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, which reached an estimated 90,000 local residents.

Still, the small details that designers obsess about sometimes make the biggest difference. DCDC once worked with a substance abuse clinic and installed a wall that traumatized kids could write on.

“We finish this wall, and I get a phone call. The director’s in tears. She’s trying to tell me a story about a young man, maybe fourteen or fifteen. They had been working with this kid for seven years. He had never smiled—ever,” says Pitera. “His first time interacting with this wall, and when they were talking with this kid, he started to smile.” ca

Jenn McKee is a Michigan-based freelance writer and editor. Previously a staff arts and entertainment reporter for the Ann Arbor News, she now writes for publications such as the Detroit Free Press and Michigan Alumnus magazine and works as an assistant editor for the literary magazine Great Lakes Review.


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