“As far as I know, I’m the only impact studio that’s also a letterpress studio. When it comes to social communication we have a lot to say about how to make the design industry work well. We are just now at a place where the conversation is open. Until recently, our entire industry has been about serving a business’ bottom line. An entire industry has had to get a soul in the last 10-15 years…And it’s really only been in the last ten that it has been feverishly pursued. Designers were becoming rapidly aware that we caused a lot of the problems we were up against. We were the ones who had access to the information to make ‘a thing’ the way we were making it. We were just always looking for the most effective method using the cheapest production, or material, or whatever it was that served the company because they were our client.
Recently, this idea of disruption has been adopted within the design community. It was having designers recognize, ‘this isn’t how we practice our craft; this isn’t how we are going to do what we are going to do because we are the makers of the world.’ Collectively, that’s a lot of people working in any kind of design field whether it’s sound, industrial, architectural, product, or communication design. There are so many spaces to work in and all of them have some sort of influence or impact on a very large number of people; it’s just inevitable. So if we don’t get a conscious collectively about how we are impacting people or how to think about our work in a way that is empathetic towards people, then we are not being good. We may be great designers but we aren’t being good people and we have to be that first and foremost.
We have to bring humanity into our work because designers are trained for objective thought. We are trained for active listening in conversation, trained for observation over habits and behaviors, trained for a lot of a user’s experiences. This has all been advancing rapidly in the last decade and so what is happening is humanizing of the industry. We had to start asking ourselves questions like, ‘Why are women paid 20% less? Why are women in fewer leadership roles when there are more of them graduating than men? Why is the LGBTQ representation low? Why is the black designer representation low? Where are we failing as an industry and what do we need to do to break up the paradigms that have existed?’
With AIGA, we are trying to look at how you have more diverse leaders at boards meetings to go into business settings and be a mediator. We are training more and more empathy facilitation than ever before, that way, when you’re in a business meeting talking to a company, you have the strength and wherewithal to say, ‘have you considered how this is going to impact the community?’ We are seeing businesses that are actually developing a social conscious. We can humanize the businesses for their consumers and then consumers become more loyal patrons because businesses are actually connecting and caring. So now, what we are starting to see is how business models are changing the way they engage their customers; to create community around things that matter.
In my personal life, I noticed people having a hard time effectively communicating. Sarcasm and banter have taken over. And it hardens us to vulnerability and it hardens us to sensitivity in other people. It hardens us to people’s pain. This is something that in terms of social impact, we really need to change because a lot of people are hurting.
All of this started turning into a social strategy for Lenspeace. Helping people facilitate who they are through my work whether it’s a better conversation with yourself, a conversation with a friend, or a conversation with a stranger. Right now, I’m working on a book that’s interactive and explores different emotions with pockets for goal setting or keepsakes that make someone truly themselves. It is going to be more complicated in terms of design because there are all kinds of things going on inside someone’s mind and I want it to be a fun space so as you’re flipping through it, you can find notes and affirmations that are letterpressed into pages. Working on a project like that requires a really big strategy. I have to think about different emotions and how they represent color and images and formats and goals. How I want to combine the goals with the narrative book or sketch book and think about how people would use them. When I finish the design I want to have the instructions readily available for anyone. So, I’m talking with So Worth Loving about workshopping them in their space. I can have all the components ready but each person can choose which kind of emotional landscape they want to explore. They can choose how they want to design their cover so their book is their book. When they’ve pulled it all together they’ve paid for the workshop but they leave with their own unique piece.
What I’m trying to work on more as I’ve designed the path for impact, is informed things that I can do differently so I can engage my practice and how to build community through my work. Instead of solely focusing on products to retail and sell, while I’ll absolutely do that, the point of this particular design is to make enough and help people engage in art therapy. I’m working on partnering with my friend Ellen Meadows, who is in the music therapy space. She was talking to me about how we can be working together so that while we have therapeutic music, we can also be doing visual art therapy working with at-risk youth; or really anybody just trying to process themselves. And in that process, create a creative space where they can get to know who they are a little bit better.
Having my niece stay with me is what caused this pivot. I wanted to find a way to take this craft and invite anyone to use it. To open up the medium to people who want it and need it to learn about themselves. How can I find a way to turn it into an art therapy space and partner with nonprofits to utilize the methodologies I know within printmaking and design thinking and strategy building? How can I combine those spaces in a way that helps people develop a stronger sense of self and a stronger sense of creative conscious and have them walk away with a product that makes them feel empowered?
Printing was always made for the masses and the whole point of the medium is to make communication accessible. Being able to take art to other people is what I really want to do. To take basic problem solving and say, ‘what problem do you have and how can we solve that?’ So now I’m also working with Maynard Jackson High School to create an alternate path curriculum because they have a graphic design program but it doesn’t teach them professional development. They’ve partnered with us to do studio tours and design thinking and poster competitions and aspects of communications art which will allow access to their professional development. If they stick with the program, they know what a job in design would be like and have enough training to work in the field straight out of high school. Once we can roll this out, I have a huge network with AIGA’s 72 chapters and we can tell everyone how we secured a partnership with the school, what we offered, and how we were able to do what we did.
So Atlanta has become a testing city for me and all the impact we are doing here. Ideally, I’d love to see cities come to designers and ask for help. People within the civic process can say, ‘Hey, we should get designers in the room to help solve problems that face the community.’ That way, we can start investing in the community and look at what they’ve accomplished or hear their great idea and be a facilitator to make it happen.”
This article is from our interview with Lennie Gray Mowris, the incredible talent and mind behind Lenspeace and the Affinity Program Director of AIGA Atlanta, the American Institute of Graphic Arts. To see and support her work, head here.