How good design advances mission
In 2019-2020, Pratt Center collaborated with designer Yeju Choi to crystallize, organize and visualize the unique set of values and attitudes at the core of Pratt Center's identity. Since then the partnership has evolved and resulted in several other collaborations. In November 2020, Pratt Center’s Ben Dodd and Nepal Asatthawasi spoke with Yeju about the importance of trust building in the design process, and how an effective organizational identity serves as a tool for inward reflection as much as outward presentation. An edited version of the conversation is below.
Ben: Tell us a little about your path to becoming a designer, and the type of work you do.
Yeju: I’ve worked in many different areas of graphic design—my first graphic design job was in 2000 while I was in college, so I’ve been doing this for 20 years! ... but let me try to think about the decisions I’ve made that led me to this place where I would meet you. I was always interested in the public sector, but graphic design education seemed to usually center around either commercial design, or experimental and critical. Rarely do you find a way to get into the public/civic sector or a space to talk about the social purpose of graphic design. So when Claire Weisz of WXY came to my final review in grad school in 2009 and asked if I wanted to work together afterwards, I was drawn to it especially because of their engagement in the public sector, and the team of architects and planners I’d be working with and learning from. That's how I started learning and working in this world. Although that’s one part of my practice — I also work on design projects in arts and culture, working closely with artists, museums, and galleries. And I make community-based and socially engaged public art projects with my good friend Chat Travieso, as Yeju & Chat.
THE ENGAGEMENT PROCESS
Ben: Could you walk us through the Pratt Center identity project and the process that was involved.
Yeju: I was already a bit familiar with the world you're in and the work you do, and having Chat in the engagement process—to have another set of eyes and ears who shares my thinking and approach—was also helpful. We studied all the materials that you provided and everything else we could find. After the research, we came up with questions that guided a series of interviews with your team at Pratt Center. It's really telling that you guys were so open to that, and each team member took time to reflect and give us honest answers. The next interviews were with the management team at Pratt Center, and then we talked with five of your community partners. (Thanks to our friends at The Point CDC, New York Immigration Coalition, Chhaya CDC, FUREE, and ANHD). From everything that we learned, we put together a presentation/document on the findings and analysis, which we then discussed with you and got your feedback on. Oh, another important part of the engagement was observation! Sitting in your meetings, seeing the staff in action, as well as simply spending time at your office was a crucial part of truly learning about and being inspired by Pratt Center. I know it is a lot of work to organize these things… Your openness, trust, and generosity in inviting us in was absolutely important and deeply appreciated.
All of this was happening over maybe 5–6 months, and I hadn't started design sketches at all because I thought it was important that I first take everything in, let things sit and marinate before committing to any design ideas, so I could really internalize the findings.
After that, the design phase started. Fast forward, we presented a few directions, one of which I favored and you selected. One might think agreeing on that design is the end of the process, but that was really only the beginning.
Identity is such a funny thing. The logo is only one small part of it. It's a vessel that carries a set of qualities, and the point of going through the whole research, analysis and engagement process was to crystallize the qualities that you already have. It was the work of identifying those qualities and then organizing or prioritizing them, and then coming up with a visual identity that could carry and express all of that.
But more important is how it’s used. Handing over the identity package at that point would have resulted in something totally different. Do you remember, I didn't make the guidelines then. I wanted us to test it out together, designing real-world applications—reports and other materials that were not just examples, but actual things you needed. Allowing the extra months to test things out, learn what this thing is and how it behaves, learn what kind of issues or questions you come across using it and tackling those issues together was important. And it’s still evolving and expanding, but now I’m proud to say it’s truly driven by you and the team.
ON BUILDING TRUST
Ben: The process for us was a big piece of why we ended up wanting to work with you. The other designers we considered either struggled to articulate a process or had a very formulaic process and didn't seem willing to be flexible. Your emphasis on relationship-building and taking the time to get to know us stood out. I’m wondering if you can speak more about that and why that’s important to you.
Yeju: Trust is really important. With Pratt Center, it was easy, because you guys already work this process-oriented way so it saved me from having to convince you why all of the process was necessary. Your familiarity with process and engagement allowed you to trust my process, and build in the extra time, and organize different conversations outside of Pratt Center with your community partners. It was really impressive how they were willing to make time to talk with me about you. That’s already a testament to your collaborative and mutually supportive relationship with your community partners.
Also, honestly, I don't even know how else you do it. Graphic design is about giving form to content that somebody else made (usually). Empathy and care—really getting to know the organization and even become part of it in this case—are so important, because how can you give form to something you don't understand? For this project specifically, I wanted to channel how I approach my public art projects, where it’s a given that you spend this much time in the engagement process. That’s not always the case in graphic design, where people do talk about “process” or “engagement” but usually in superficial or even tokenistic ways. Design could really learn from other fields in how to engage with the client, collaborators, stakeholders... which basically is, the community.
What also helped is that I could easily identify with you, even your challenges. For example, the way you work in the background trying to support and elevate others while also having to show what you do in a clear way. It has become a more interesting project to tackle, because I have the same problems.
IDENTITY AS BOTH INWARD AND OUTWARD
Yeju: I’d like to hear from you about the process of trying to use the identity. Like whether that was easy or challenging. How different it was from what you expected?
Ben: Like you said, if we were just handed a package at the end of the design phase, it would have been a very different situation. But that hand-holding phase—where we were trying things out and sending them to you for feedback—was really important because that’s when all the unanticipated questions emerge. You were always really generous in answering questions, giving suggestions and explaining your thinking on whatever materials we were developing. I really appreciated that and have continued to appreciate that.
Nepal: What continues to be challenging is there's not a lot of awareness on our team of what design is and how it's used and how it can help further mission. There’s still this layer of mystification between what we have and what we can do and be. So I wonder how we build that proficiency? And what’s the aim beyond just knowing how to use our identity? How can we help our team travel through the world being smarter about this?
Yeju: You bring up a really important point. The identity is not only how to present yourself outwardly or how to appear a certain way. An identity is your own unique attitudes, values, and approach—and part of owning this is regularly thinking about these things, asking questions in everything you do, in the designs you produce, but also in your writing and communications.
Secretly, this whole process was not only for me to learn about you, but helping you reflect on who you are and what you do, so we all get a clearer picture of your identity and more and better means to articulate it. It's not only about how you use this identity, but also how the identity guides everything you do. It’s both outward and inward, so it's okay if some people don’t know how to use it as long as it’s clear why it's there and how it came about.
Yeju: I just explained my not-so-secret mission of having this identity ask you questions constantly. Do you actually feel that is working?
Ben: In my own work in the communications realm, I'm increasingly mindful of these larger questions emanating from the identity. Having them speak to and permeate the larger organization is another story. I think we still have some room for growth in presenting information clearly and using plain language. We have to work hard and be very intentional about dialing back the jargon. That's not a new challenge, but it’s good to see the emphasis on clarity and straightforward communication reflected in the identity, which will guide our team going forward.
HOW HISTORY SHAPES IDENTITY
Yeju: This gets at why I was so interested in the history of Pratt Center and Street magazine. Your history is one of the most unique things about Pratt Center. In the beginning you were the only organization doing this kind of work, so nobody was expecting you to do things in a certain way. You just thought some things were important, so you brought them up and talked about them in a very straightforward, plain way. Of course, Street magazine was visually inspiring, but it also represents Pratt Center’s more radical, and unafraid, more in-your-face past. Like, “This is what we want to talk about” and “here it is”. Seeing how Pratt Center was before all of the policy jargon was really interesting and helped me see the possibility of stripping down all the unnecessary layers that cloud clear communications about things that are really important and close to people's lives. Also, the way that Street speaks to a person about real Issues—rather than just a policy or planning space—is also important to bring back.
Nepal: Policy issues were discussed, but there were also domestic how-tos like how changing your everyday habits or consumer preferences can work towards these larger goals. That was Street’s genius. And you still see this carried through today in publications like Mother Jones.
Yeju: Yes! At least providing that entry point is really important to achieve accessibility. It doesn't mean that everything has to be dumbed down. The look of it could be a start and that’s where this identity project will really help, as well as thinking more about the verbal language, and organizing the information in a more clear and accessible way.
IDENTITY & WEB DESIGN
Ben: We were really glad to have you working with us on our new website as well, both guiding the development and design of the site, but also helping us organize the content. In a conversation I had last week with our developers, GrayBits, Rahul mentioned how important your notes in the identity guide were in shaping how the site works.
Yeju Choi: Yes, before GrayBits started designing the site, I had conversations with them about the identity and shared the Guide with them, and I appreciate how Rahul really took it in. As I’ve said, identity is such a multifaceted thing that should inform your thinking in any kind of decision making, including economy, efficiency and even environmental sustainability. For example, the guide talks about how the logo itself is porous and only one color, which requires less ink. Material-wise, it also urges making do with what you already have rather than producing extra things. But these are not just random environmentally-friendly features. This is actually who you are and what you actively work on. Sustainability, equity, and democracy—all of that is the identity you already had before we gave it form and name. It was important to me that the identity embodies all of that in how it behaves and how it lives. So I was very happy that Rahul found a way to translate these qualities and approaches into the features in the digital realm. It’s not only the sustainability aspect of the identity that we considered and incorporated in the design of the website. It’s everywhere. For example, you know how we asked that the tool allow us to use all these different colors and different typefaces? That was not simply to have options, but because being flexible, adaptable, and having multiple voices IS the identity.
The process of working on the website actually is very similar to what we just discussed about the identity itself. People think that identity or website design would be done like “here's the design” and that's it. It never works that way. Putting together the structure or the looks is only one small part of it. Designing a website is creating a framework, but the real challenge is thinking about the content and how you want to tell the story. Those two things have to be cohesive. Our working together, not only in how things look, but also as thought partners in shaping the content was really important, and actually, necessary. What a web designer/developer does is create tools you can use, and it’s in the way you utilize these tools that your identity really comes alive.