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It’s hard to believe that Kelsey and I got started on this election track the winter of 2012, after we noticed that there was a lack of student voter resources on campus and overall election awareness. We created RISD Votes to help aid students in casting their ballot for the 2012 General Election, while advocating for the intersection of design and government. We were lucky to have Marcia Lausen come speak at RISD about her work in election design, she co-founded AIGA’s Design for Democracy and came out with a book about her experience, “Design for Democracy: Ballot + Election Design.” She and her cohorts at Design for Democracy have been pivotal mentors to us and we hope to continue down the path they paved for future designers.

This past weekend I re-visited her book, accompanied by a cup of Joe of course. Having spent some time away from her book (and after our research experience this summer), I found myself connecting to different things in her methodologies and research.

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One of the things I connected most to was the forward by Richard Grefe, Executive Director of AIGA:

A government creates trust almost exclusively through communication—using words and images to convey meanings. Most of the communication between a government and its citizens consists of asking for and providing information. These interactions can be positive and engaging experiences, or they can be difficult, frustrating, disengaging ones. The difference is often a matter of communication design.

Followed by Marcia Lausen’s preface:

Graphic design professionals rarely cross paths with election officials. Many election officials are unaware of the existence of our profession, let alone the value of our expertise. Designers often prefer to work in a world where clients come to us, understanding what we do and bringing well-organized projects with reasonable budgets and reasonable schedules—qualities that are not always present in the production of elections.

The complex workings of election administration are burdened with inherited  often antiquated processes and systems of production that make change difficult, if not unwelcome. Budgets are small and time pressures severe. Most ballot design, if it can be called that, happens where election officials, lawyers, typesetters, and printers interact in mad rush to “get it done on time.”

A big shout out to Marcia and everyone else who has started to change how elections are understood and run. Kelsey and I are trying to do our little part in hopes that incrementally, change will occur.

Kelsey’s computer is a wounded solider this week, so she is going to do her research on one of the computers at the RISD library. She is not a happy camper.

Until next time,



Catch-up Post: Don’t Pity the African Boy Without Pants

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I grew up joining in on clothing drive efforts at school, advertising to students to bring in their old clothes to donate to poor kids on the other side of the world. I also grew up seeing lots of NGO campaign photos of African babies without much or any clothes on. And so I automatically equated little or no clothes to poverty. However, this long-held notion of mine was challenged when I talked to the manager of the Kireka Rehabilitation Center near the Banda Slums of Kampala. Miriam Akot, pictured below, was an energetic interviewee and had lots to say about poverty porn.


Miriam Akot, Manager of Kireka Rehabilitation Center and a positively sassy lady who believes Africa needs opportunities for industry development and ownership as well as individual skill development to maintain those industries without permanent foreign help.

Our interview turned into a conversation and soon we were talking very honestly and openly – so much so that we began talking about male genitalia. She made me stop the audio recorder and began talking about how there is a very good reason why some boys we see in the slums or elsewhere don’t wear pants. It’s not because they’re poor and can’t afford them. No. It’s because the lack of pants, or any kind of restrictive article of clothing for that matter, allows for the proper development of the kid’s “male parts.”



I was mind-blown. Not only because we were having a much too lengthy conversation about penises and what not, but also because of the fact that I had realized what a seemingly small piece of local knowledge could do to change a long-held misconception around. This is not to desensitize anybody about poverty and down play the fact that there are definitely children who cannot afford proper clothes or any at all. But what this conversation taught me was two things – 1) that understanding the local context was important and 2) a photograph can’t always capture that local context.

When we see photos of poverty, we need to know that they’re photos of poverty because somebody behind the camera framed it that way. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. Even if it’s a seemingly candid photo, the decision to wait and take a photo at a certain point of the person’s state is in itself a conscious artistic decision to achieve a certain result. I’m not saying that photographers are evil and manipulative, but only that there is a depth and diversity of narratives that can go missing if we rely on just one person’s original news caption.




Protest Against the Sexual Victimization of Incarcerated Youth

Today I attended a silent protest meant to give a voice to incarcerated youth who are sexually victimized in Illinois youth prisons.

The U.S. Justice Department found that based on their survey of 461 Illinois juvenile prisoners in 2012, more than 15% reported being sexually victimized (most often by staff members). Illinois youth prisoners are sexually assaulted and abused at a rate 35 percent higher than the national average which was under 10%. The children were assaulted in showers, recreation areas, their cells, classrooms and even in kitchens. Some young people said that they had been given alcohol and drugs by staff before their assaults.

Here is the flyer I made for the event:

Protest Flyer

And some photos from the protest with signs I made:





a short story …

I heard a story the other day.

The lovely family hosting me are called the Pandeys. Incidentally, they are a family of artists. Anyway, the Pandey’s have a male Dachshund dog called Arnie. Across a small park from the Pandey’s house lives a family with a female Dachshund. This family wanted Arnie to mate with their Dachshund, so they went to the Pandey’s home armed with gifts (a dowry of sorts) to introduce the idea and ask for permission for their two dogs to mate. The Pandey’s agreed and Arnie moved to the neighbour’s home for a couple of days to consumate the agreement. When he returned to the Pandey’s he slept for two days.

There is something so customary about the gesture of gifts and the agreement that was made between the Pandey’s and their neighbour. Traditionally marriages in India are arranged. ‘Love’ marriages are more frequent these days, but still the majority of people enter into marriages arranged by their families.  Customarily, when a woman enters a marriage here, she enters it with a dowry that is offered to the family of her husband. And so it really interested me (and I found a beauty in the internalization of it) that this same gesture that is deeply embedded in tradition, had been extended in this case to the mating of household pets.

I think traditions and their related customs are some of the things that shape a sense of identity and belonging and they ground us in this big world. However, the fact that love marriages are becoming more frequent is a testament to the notion that traditions, customs, cultures, social norms are not static but evolve over time, slowly. Where these small evolutions can be observed, I think, is in the minutiae of every day interactions and attitudes. However, conversely, it is in these same minutiae that we can observe the perpetuation of assumptions that lead to problematic actions and attitudes about so many things.

So Nupur and I have decided to focus our attention on illustrating how the most quotidian of actions in the day to day perpetuate a problematic system of assumptions about sexuality and gender.




India Project – Progress and Updates


Nupur Mathur

New Delhi July 30th 2013

In the last post I had put down three possible directions we could possibly go in. Since then we’ve zeroed in what we will be doing here, if you scroll down you can read our project note. In all honesty the process of working out what we need to do has been a challenging one and we find ourselves wishing for 8 more weeks rather than the four we have left. That being said the next four weeks promise to be action packed.

Tattoo parlors like this are recent phenomenas

Tattoo parlors like this are recent phenomenas

Tattoo parlor in Pallika Bazaar

Observing emerging cultures


Bathsheba Okwenje & Nupur Mathur

In collaboration with Pattie Gonsalves, IDEA | Supported by the RISD Maharam STEAM fellowship

Project Description:

The purpose of our project is to stimulate and sustain dialogue on issues relating to gender disparities that lead to problematic ideas about sexuality.

The project will draw from and represent real life accounts of instances in which men and women have been confronted with gender-specific assumptions in behavior and attitude in the context of sexuality. These experiences will include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Ideas, expectations and behaviours related to masculinity.
  • Ideas, expectations and behaviours related to femininity.
  • Attitudes and assumptions surrounding the idea of service as an action of femininity.
  • Attitudes and actions that contribute to the suppression of female sexual desires and the resulting behaviours.
  • Assumptions, behaviours that are established as a result of a separation of the sexes and how this impacts the quality of relationships.
  • Attitudes and judgements based on the way women / men represent themselves through clothing and / or adornment.
  • Assumptions and actions that allow the public face of Delhi to be largely male.

Our aim is to illustrate how our individual actions and attitudes, especially those that live in the everyday, contribute to and perpetuate a problematic system of assumptions in the context of sexuality.


Through a series of interviews, we will collect experiences from a diverse group of men and women within the urban middle / upper class in Delhi. The demographic will include young unmarried men and women, young married men and women, middle-aged married men and women, and senior citizens.


Personal intimate experiences in the form of anonymous, audio narratives will be layered with video footage that illustrates the day-to-day activities or actions in Delhi that contribute to assumptions around gender and sexuality.

Each video will be approximately 30 seconds to 1 min long.

For example:

Video: Inside a general store/chemist shop an over should shot shows a woman buying a packet of sanitary napkins that is put inside a black plastic bag and handed over to her. Other customers buy other products that are given in regular transparent plastic bags.

Audio: A man speaks about when he first heard of menstruation. He recounts a childhood memory from his school days when all the boys were asked to leave the class while the girls were being explained something in private.


Endevours into Personal Data

Ryan Murphy: World Economic Forum – Rethinking Personal Data Project

Enjoying the New York art scene - MOMA PS1

Enjoying the New York art scene – MOMA PS1

Hello again from the Big Apple! The weather is finally starting to settle down (temperature wise) as the things continue to move along quickly at the Forum.

At this stage I am seven weeks into the fellowship with about four left to go. I have managed to adjust well to the Forum environment, though I come from a remarkably different background. It is always exciting to explain what I am doing (to the extent that I know) to those around me, and overall people are fascinated that a designer is working within an organization dominated by business/policy backgrounds.

Since it has been a decent amount of time since my last blog post (many apologies), I will start by summarizing the work I have been up to these past few weeks. My job can essentially be broken down into three parts: day to day process/visualization work, long-term design project(s), and Microsoft UI/UX collaboration. I will address these three elements below.

Everyday life at the Forum is more or less ruled by conference calls, ranging anywhere from consultants and partners to Steering Board members and project working groups. Since the Forum is fundamentally a convening agency, the calls are vitally important to keeping partner organizations and leaders in the loop with our current work. Communicating our core message across quickly can sometimes be a struggle, given the global language of monotonous PowerPoint decks. So a core element of my work thus far has been breaking down our project (Rethinking Personal Data) into it’s simplest elements, and framing how these points can most effectively be shared and debated.

At this stage of the Forum’s Personal Data project, the key objective is to bring together the business, legal, and policy experts (of big data privacy, governance, rights, etc.) with real world practitioners who are using big data and personal data to solve social and commercial challenges. Bringing together these two different groups (both fundamental to the success of the project) and leveraging their insights in a clear and focused way is not easy, but has been a great opportunity for integrating my design background.

Bringing together the industry experts and real world practitioners

Bringing together the industry experts and real world practitioners

The second portion of my work (long-term design project(s)) stems naturally from this connection of industry experts with real world practitioners. I am developing an animated video and accompanying interactive website that will launch the Forum’s various events and workshops centered around big data / personal data. It is one thing to engage various communities over a few months of work and research, and another to make the most of 70 minutes with these communities gathered at a Forum event. The short, four minute video that I am putting together will give a quick overview of the complex and changing landscape of personal data and provide a focused avenue for discussion on long-term strategies for responsibly managing and benefiting from this data. So along with the day-to-day conference calls and process work, I have been working on this longer-term project which will be showcased at both AMNC (Annual Meeting of New Champions) and Davos (the annual World Economic Forum convening) this upcoming year.

In addition, I have been engaging in ongoing research with Microsoft around internet privacy concerns. Ipsos conducted a global quantitative study (through Microsoft’s Technology Policy Group) which looks at personal data management attitudes and behaviors in eight different countries. Microsoft is analyzing this data in order to gain insight into the cultural differences of personal data (how it is perceived, valued, shared, etc.). My role in their research, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, is to look at how these insights can be addressed in user experience design. 

Can we tailor an interface and experience to a user depending on their attitudes towards personal data?

How do we communicate the idea that individuals are both producers and consumers of this data?

For example, if I am letting my wireless provider collect and analyze my geolocation information, I expect value or benefits in return, such as improved network efficiency for my mobile device. Through the funding of the Maharam Fellowship, I have the opportunity to fly out to Seattle to work directly with Microsoft on this research/design, which I will be doing at the end of this upcoming week.

Lastly, I have been undertaking some side jobs on some of the Forum’s other projects. I am working in the same area as the Cyber Resiliency group (which, like Personal Data, is in the ICT division), and so have been developing some similar process graphics/visualizations as well as logo/branding for their initiatives. I am trying to remain as focused on the personal data project as possible, but it is evident that the other groups are getting jealous of the work I have been doing! Just about everyone wants a RISD creative thinker working on their team now.

I think that just about wraps it up for now. I will post some more updates from my upcoming trip out West in the next week or two!

Cheers from New York,


P.S. Here are some more photos from life in the city!

Panorama of Bryant Park

Panorama of Bryant Park

New York Philharmonic in Central Park!

New York Philharmonic in Central Park!

Little Italy!

Little Italy!

Drawing on napkins in some of New York's finest coffee shops

Drawing on napkins in some of New York’s finest coffee shops


A Children’s Book About Incarceration

For the past month, I have been learning about the Prison Industrial Complex and all the different aspects of society, all the different people who are affected by it. I have listened to former prisoners share their stories of torture and isolation, and shed tears with them while they recounted what it took for them to maintain sanity. I have listened to the frustrations of my peers and have felt the overwhelming sense of impossibility at fixing something so deeply broken. I’ve heard the passionate voices of Chicago’s youth speak and sing out against the violence happening in our country. I’ve listened as stories were shared, and have pushed myself to share my own perspective too.

So many people that I’ve spoken to about prison and what it does to our society are already so well versed in the subject that I can feel myself withdrawing as a speaker, choosing to instead be a listener. This has been an interesting experience for me, as I’ve always been the type to speak my mind and contribute freely to classroom and group discussions. At these meetings, I have struggled to define for myself my position in the space. I’ve felt unsure about the things I wanted to say, about not wanting to offend anyone because of my lack of knowledge or understanding. I quickly realized, though, that any real learning cannot blossom in fear. I have willed myself to understand that it is okay to be wrong. Fear of asking or fear of offending might even be what is keeping us from understanding each other. Fear creates boundaries, fear creates hate. In this space I may not speak as much as other people, but I have come to feel that my value in this space lies in my ability to listen, record, and translate.

I have also tried to pay close attention to the facilitators of these workshops, the language and strategies that they use to teach. Starting as soon as I can confirm dates, I will be leading workshops for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. It has been difficult setting up times for meetings with the different organizations I am trying to work with throughout Chicago, but things are finally coming together. In these workshops, I will be providing the women with journals. I will lead an art exercise where we will decorate the journals with collaged memories of childhood or their children, and then lead a letter writing exercise. I will invite these parents to share their hopes, fears, and dreams for the children they left behind.

What did you want them to know while you were gone?

How did you feel when you had to leave them?

What are your hopes for their future?

What do you dream for them?

These are some of the questions that I hope the women of these workshops can help me answer. I will then collect letters from those willing to share and use their words as inspiration for the children’s book I will be writing about the impact of incarceration on families. I have a long road ahead of me, but I am so excited about the possibilities for this book.

Until next time,



Hanging Out at the State House

This morning Kelsey and I headed over to the RI State House to watch the Board of Elections film a poll worker training session. They are using this video as a starting point for improvement. The video will indefinitely be changed in the next few months, but it is a good way for them to take a step back and observe how they have been tackling this training. Once the video is edited they will be able to watch and note what things are missing and what could be explained better. We got our coffee fix and watched the politics of shooting a poll worker training unfold…”move the flag to the left a little more”…”there’s too much glare on the wood paneling behind him”…”we don’t have any example ballots to show?”…”we have to start over, I’m using the wrong Power Point.” There was no talk about how to tailor the training to the needs of the poll workers or how to make the video as engaging as possible. After nearly 3 hours of taping and still one more session (of three total) to tape, Kelsey and I had to leave. But we are very interested to see how the final video is edited and compiled. I think it will be uploaded to the RI Board of Election’s website shortly after.

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Questions I want to ask the officials at the Board of Elections:

-What is the goal of the poll worker training?

-What is your role in the training process?

-How do you want the attendee to feel after he/she has completed the training? And what skills/expertise should they leave with?

I don’t think they have ever asked themselves these questions, and I find that frequently returning back to the original intent of a project can help ground its future trajectory, because sometimes we all lose sight of what we initially set out to accomplish.

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ELIZA SQUIBB : Shipibo Textiles: Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft.

July 18. After a breakfast of fried plantains, scrambled eggs and star fruit juice from the garden, I went with Adelina to a meeting in the cultural center in Pucallpa. There was a small exposition of paintings by Pucallpa natives, but the main event was a three hour lecture about exportation, complete with multiple powerpoint presentations to motivate inhabitants of the Ucayali region to start businesses. The audience of both men and women, including some Shipiba women in traditional dress were introduced to the “Plan Estratégica Nacional del Exportacion” PENX for short. The “X” was a good call on the part of the administration, or else the acronym would have signified something much less appropriate. There were some giggles when the audience noticed this letter choice, but the presenter bravely soldiered on.


While the talk about global market economies might have been important to give everyone a broader vision, the audience was very engaged and many people loudly requested sessiones de capacitacion, or actual business training sessions, pointing out that if this education wasn’t provided, they couldn’t afford to hire specialists. It seemed that people were more interested in learning the nitty gritty of how to run their own businesses rather than hearing about how hard it is to learn Chinese. Everyone went home with some nicely designed brochures, pretty posters about the Ucayali region’s exportation potential, a soda, and a chicken empanada.

In the case of Adelina, she has had some help with key aspects that helped her become the business woman that she is today, including a german volunteer who set up her website in multiple languages. But how do other artisans and business owners get this help? The most positive sign is how loudly people called for what they felt they needed most, hopefully the cultural center will take the hint and deliver more useful information with the chicken empanada next time.

Adelina’s cooperative: Ronin Kate:


Once Upon a Ugandan Design Firm

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When you think of design, you probably don’t think of Uganda. So it was quite an experience for me when the first interview I did in the first week of settling in Kampala was with a design firm.

Meet Addmaya. Established four years ago, it is now one of the top design firms in Uganda, raking in the big corporate clients with just a 5-person team. Walking from the matatu stage to their office, I was definitely surprised. I was expecting the office to be located in a more downtown area where all the tall, shiny buildings were. But what I walked up to was what looked like a residential gate in a quiet area just outside of town.

 Screen shot 2013-07-16 at 11.14.39 AM

Once I was inside, I was greeted by the founder and Creative Director, Peter Mukiibi, and Art and Design Director, Arthur Nakkaka. They served me orange juice and muffins and were all around very friendly. It was very Ugandan of them. Here are some excerpts and paraphrased responses from our 2+ hour conversation.

How They Got Started
Peter and Arthur were working at Watoto, a large church organization, doing their video graphics and visuals. There, they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted and could really explore themselves creatively. As they developed their skills doing what they enjoyed, they realized the next step was to expand their talents and services to outside of the church. So they started Addmaya, with just a few shillings to register their company and a Mac they borrowed from their friend. With that one Mac, they served clients one by one until they gained traction and could afford more tools and manpower.

Why Design?
When asked how they got into design in the first place, Peter’s response was quite memorable. He had excelled in art during university and was always intrigued by how international news networks like CNN presented their news. He dreamt of one day doing the graphics for a big news network. At one point he tried being a musician. But his true calling came when he ended up at a local news station doing menial paperwork. The station had just one Mac computer, donated by an American preacher, and only one employee was authorized to use it. One day, that employee was absent from work. So Peter begged his boss if he could try using it. The boss was adamant at first but gave into the kicking and screaming and let Peter have his way for just that day. If he broke it, his parents would have to replace it. Peter agreed. After just a few hours of playing around with the Mac, he fell in love.

Leah: What were some of your biggest challenges?

Peter: One of the things we’ve been struggling with is that the agencies sometimes have a perception that Ugandans can’t do something, so they bring in South Africans, who don’t understand the culture of the people, and their work doesn’t have the heart beat of Uganda…

In regards to international development, if any programs come in, I think the best thing would be to work with the locals. Given the opportunity, they can step up to the plate…

I think the west doesn’t perceive us as up to the standards of the west…but I mean we’re not perfect, especially with professionalism. We have yet to get there. Don’t know if you’ve heard of African time – when you want to meet at 10am you say let’s meet at 9am because they’ll always be late. We’re trying to change that.

It’s not easy because sometimes people will say ‘you’re trying to be like them!’ “Them” meaning westerners. We are trying to bring out our culture and do things our way but we are also trying to adapt good things from the west such as time keeping, answering emails, etc.

We’re not trying to mimic what’s being done in the west but we’re trying to bring the spirit, the energy, the tradition, the colors that Uganda is known for into our work.

Leah: What’s your design inspiration?

Arthur: We look at the stuff you look at too (Behance, Dribble, Designspiration) but there’s lots of inspiration around us as a country – the communities, the music, the sounds. We are a colorful country and gain inspiration from our surroundings.

Leah: What were some of the most ridiculous client responses you guys got for design feedback?

Arthur: [chuckles]

1. Could you make the logo more metallic?
2. Could you make it more award-y? (For an award website)

Leah: What do you see as the future of design in Uganda?

Arthur: I hope that we can penetrate the live action and CG visual effects space.
Peter: If artists can begin to imagine solutions, imagine stories, and have a platform to express it, there are no limits to that. Considering Uganda is made up of young people who are embracing new technologies – every young person wants a smart phone and get into social media – they’re realizing you don’t have to do things just for money. You can do what you love.

To be honest, we never thought Addmaya could be where it is now. It’s like we are playing. We’re just playing. In the back of our minds, we’re telling ourselves, let’s do this for some time then jump into other bigger things, like work for the government. But then you realize that the only way to influence people is to do your own work – then they’ll see it and like it.

Best friends.

Best friends.

After the recording stopped, we ended up talking about what their big goal was. They wanted to of course transform and bring to surface the design scene in Uganda but they also wanted to establish some kind of design academy. With the closest thing to a design education being a few art classes in university, there really is no formal school for the kinds of skills that the Addmaya guys have honed by themselves in Uganda.

This got me thinking in terms of how to implement a more user-centered approach in international development. What better way to help people solve their own problems than to provide access to a design education? Besides the technical skills you learn as a designer, the act of simply creating something by yourself, from your own imagination is an act of autonomy – which is something that charity handouts undermine.

Here is a short video message from Addmaya to us:

Check them out at