Mount St. Joseph University

Design Students Create a Brand with Refugees in Mind

Dateline: student newspaper

By: Josh Zeller

When facts and figures concerning refugees are reported, all seems bleak and hopeless. These people are labelled as victims, which they are—but it is often left at that. Few people talk about what comes after for these people who are displaced by strife.

The issue of refugee resettlement has lately been on the minds of Mount St. Joseph University professor of design Kurt Grannan and his Branding Identity Design class. They have learned about all aspects of this important issue in order to create branding for products which can help refugees to embrace resettlement as not a confusing displacement, but an exciting new beginning.

“Every year I reach out to a not-for-profit in the community, Cincinnati, or beyond,” Grannan says. “A couple of years ago we worked with an organization up in Chicago for metastatic breast cancer, and last year we worked with Green Umbrella, an environmental group here in Cincinnati. This year I reached out to Catholic Charities in hopes of working with immigrants.”

This led Grannan and his students to the Reading Road branch of Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio, where they learned about the extensive work the organization does with immigrants in the area, who come from countries such as Somalia, Burundi, Iraq, and Sudan. Their tour included a Q&A with a man who was driven from Somalia, which Grannan felt was essential to his students’ understanding of the population they were serving, for the way in which it wiped away any assumptions they may have had about refugees.

“You hear these stories about refugees and then you go out and meet them and talk to them, and it changes your life, changes your views on people,” Grannan says.   

After ascertaining clientele background and culture, as well as the nature of the assistance supplied by Catholic Charities, the class began to create target profiles. “We identify a target profile based on different demographics including age, ethnicity, income, and then we start to translate that into some design choices, and then we create these theme boards, which are the true core to moving forward with the visual part of it,” according to Grannan. The theme boards are all about cohesion, so that every product to which the branding is applied is visually related to an overarching design concept.  

Once each of the students in the class developed a theme, they then had to present it to the entire board of Catholic Charities, which included two brand strategists from Procter & Gamble. The designs concerned the bath, bed, and kitchen products given to resettled refugees, and included the creation of icons detailing how to use these household items with which a refugee may not be familiar. Furthermore, language for bumper stickers and t-shirts was created with the idea of raising awareness of the plight of refugees. One t-shirt reads “Hope beyond borders,” a motto which stems from the project’s desire to remain positive in the face of tragedy.

Erica Helcher, a student in the class, says, “Presenting in front of the board of Catholic Charities was nerve-wracking. Once we had made all the finishing touches on our work it was now on display for judgment. We had no idea what was going through the minds of all of these important people, some being designers themselves and others just having an important seat on the board.”

From there, the board chose the theme that they liked best, and the students have been crafting designs from it ever since, which Grannan says is “very much a reality of how work is conducted in agencies and studios in our profession.” For this reason, Helcher feels that the class has been a valuable part of the graphic design major, which strives to instill in its students the ability to make informed decisions when creating for clients.

“Understanding who I am designing for and what audience it is going to appeal to are huge factors in graphic design. These are things I am going to have to use in the real world and I think that is so important to understand now,” says Helcher.

As the course wraps up for the semester, the final look of the class’ design is coming together, which features bold colors and varying textures throughout, in order to align with that essential principle of unity. According to Grannan, this has required an emphasis on “full development structure more than the final product.”

Helcher says that her experiences creating for Catholic Charities have “made a huge impact” on the direction she wants her design career to take. She has come to realize that among non-profits, there is a great need for talented designers.

“I think it is incredibly important to have modern, appealing designs that reflect the company because it will grab the attention of people of all ages—young people especially—because a lot of non-profits tend to have a very straight forward approach when it comes to design,” says Helcher. This means that there are plentiful chances for young, up-and-coming designers to make their name through updating or improving existing design work at such companies, so that the indispensable good work they do is better known to all.

Photo: One of Helcher’s designs for Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio.