visual arts

Design students team with food-policy council to fight hunger

Design proposal by Derek Springsteen

Forget waiting until graduation to plunge into the “real world”; if you look hard enough, you notice that the “real world” is everywhere.

More than half of New Brunswick households report struggling with regular access to fresh, healthy food (2009 Healthier New Brunswick Community Survey)—proof that the “real world” comes with plenty of challenges.  

Seventeen Mason Gross School students in Jacqueline Thaw’s Design II course confronted those challenges during the fall semester by volunteering to establish a brand identity for the newly formed New Brunswick Community Food Alliance. In December 2011, three students presented design concepts in a meeting with Community Food Alliance members, and soon after the Alliance opted for junior Visual Arts major Ali Worthington’s design.

The Alliance is a local food-policy council with representation from a wide cross-section of the community: Rutgers University, Johnson & Johnson, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, the New Brunswick Board of Education, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as various grassroots groups.

“This is where design can be helpful, for a new organization,” says Thaw, who initiated the Mason Gross-Alliance collaboration via the university’s Civic Engagement and Service Education Partnerships program, or CESEP. “I do think design might help them figure out and promote who they are.”

The Alliance’s goal, according to member Lisanne Finston, also executive director of the New Brunswick-based Elijah’s Promise, a multi-service agency that features a soup kitchen, catering business and culinary school: “Create a healthy food environment” by, among other things, expanding farm stands and community gardening, enhancing healthy, affordable offerings in corner markets, eliminating junk food from the emergency food supply and establishing incubator kitchens to house small food businesses.  

Ali Worthington’s winning design.

The student designers’ charge: formulate a distinctive visual brand that will define Alliance brochures, stationery, packaging, business cards and the burgeoning organization’s homepage, among other items.

What can art do to stave off hunger? According to Finston, who has served as the Alliance liaison on the design project, plenty: “Internally it helps us to focus in on and visually represent how we see ourselves in a way that will resonate with people and will draw them into becoming involved in the organization,” she says. “In a sound-bite society, it’s important that you can clearly and succinctly communicate what you’re about. If not, you’re sunk.”

Worthington says she learned about how to “form a design around the client’s needs. As a Mason Gross student, I am asked to complete projects for which I can usually provide my own subject matter and style,” she says. “The way in which I created this style had to stem from the client’s needs, not my own. This process helped me gain new perspective in my application of design while maintaining my own style.” 

Sophomore Visual Arts major Derek Springsteen says he was eager to expose his designs to professional scrutiny.

“This is not an exercise; it’s the real world,” says Springsteen, who met with Finston and other students to determine the Alliance’s design needs. Ultimately, he says, his sketches of fruit slices are meant to communicate “the idea of a centrally focused community, with everyone coming together. Everything points to the center. I felt that [design] connected to Lisanne’s idea that they were trying to make [the partnership] work for everyone.”

Thaw says students benefit from interacting with clients and learning to assess their needs.

“The value is for them to present work to people who care about it in a totally different way from professors and classmates with one set of interests,” she says. “That’s an experience I really want them to have so they see the possibilities of people’s reactions, preferences and opinions.”

Finston says she hopes to continue the Alliance’s collaboration with the Mason Gross School.

“The arts are excellent skill sets and important resources in communities,” she says. The Alliance has “the challenge of having a clear image and brand. To [consider] a new organization without this is unthinkable.”

Learn more about Professor Jacqueline Thaw's new Rutgers Design Camp for artists 14 to 18, taking place July 9-20 here on campus!

Posted spring 2012