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The Real World Graphic Design Studio

The Real World Graphic Design Studio

Alissa Walker / GOOD

March 31, 2010

Main Street in Greensboro, Alabama, feels abandoned. Not just empty—it’s as though half the shopkeepers up and left at the end of a business day, and never came back. On this mid-June afternoon, it’s not hard to see why. Even the locals agree it’s way too hot, and the governor has issued a drought warning, making it a particularly unusual time for the small town of 2,700 to have big-city visitors.

Convened here nonetheless is an unlikely group—eight students and recent graduates from across the country with a month to accomplish something meaningful; something that they hope will make a difference for the people of Greensboro and the surrounding Hale County. By day 18 of their stay, however, that “something” is yet to be determined. In a county where 34 percent of children live below the poverty line, a quarter of the residents don’t have access to clean drinking water, and the biggest employer is a catfish-processing plant that is rumored to be closing, the team has lots of issues to choose from. The scope of problems here is immense, but a consensus over which to address is nowhere in sight. Further complicating the task is the fact that these students are not budding teachers or architects—they are graphic designers.

Operating out of the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization headquarters—which doubles as an internet café and is one of Main Street’s few bustling storefronts—the students are part of an annual summer program, created six years ago by a designer named John Bielenberg. Tall and tan, with white hair, Bielenberg runs Project M for young designers, charging them to bridge the gap between design for design’s sake and its ability to change lives. “Graphic designers can get too intoxicated by the craft of design—the magic of the artifact or the smoothness of typography or the beauty of the photography,” says Bielenberg. “They’re not so interested in how it lives in the world or how it changes someone’s feelings or how it makes something happen.” Project M’s goal is to inspire designers by proving that their work can have a positive and significant impact on the world. Or, in this case, on Hale County.

Project M was modeled after the Rural Studio, a program founded in Hale County in 1993 by the architect Samuel Mockbee so that architecture students from nearby Auburn University could design and build innovative houses in poor rural areas. After hearing Mockbee speak in 2000, Bielenberg got the idea to create something like it for designers. “Design uses communication to solve problems,” he says, “so I wanted to be able to apply what I knew how to do toward solving a problem I cared about.” Later that year, he moved his family to Maine to start Project M, which runs out of a converted farmhouse in Belfast. (The “M” refers to its origin, location, and intent: Mockbee, Maine, and messages.) He now commutes from Belfast to C2, a San Francisco design firm, for work.

Each year, Project M tackles a new cause: books for a rainforest preserve in Costa Rica, a green space in East Baltimore, gathering and distributing design supplies for displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors. This year, Bielenberg brought the project back to the home of the Rural Studio, giving the group a one-month full immersion in Hale County.

On that morning of day 18, the Project M design-ers are thinking about creating a manifesto on the concept of designing for a greater good. Ben Barry, Tim Belonax, Laura Prelle, and Dana Steffe had trekked to Birmingham earlier this morning to buy silk-screening materials, while Ellen Sitkin, Wendy Smith, Sagarika Sundaram, and Nate Turner pored over printouts of various other groups’ statements. But by the time the group reunites around a picnic table for a family-style spaghetti dinner and some NASCAR-branded Budweisers, the manifesto idea is losing steam. Barry, a recent graduate of the University of North Texas who raised more than $2,000 in donations to fund his trip to Greensboro by selling limited-edition posters, is more blunt than the others. “I didn’t come here to write a stupid manifesto,” he yells. “I came here to help people!”

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