July 2, 2013

Dominican Republic design project: ‘An inspiring experience’

By Cliff Foster

Community leaders, MSU Denver designers and children of La Piedra celebrate the completion of a mural that emphasizes the importance of community.

Community leaders, MSU Denver designers and children of La Piedra celebrate the completion of a mural that emphasizes the importance of community.

It’s not only what 13 MSU Denver students created that stands out, it’s also where they did it.

The students and Assistant Professor of Art/Communication Design Kelly Monico traveled to the Dominican Republic to carry out a design and educational project in La Piedra, an impoverished village of 2,000 or so residents about 40 miles from Santo Domingo, the capital.

For three weeks ending June 11, the MSU Denver students and Monico worked with Center Cultural Guanin, a youth development nonprofit, on a visual campaign that emphasized education as a high priority. Titled Comunidad La Piedra, the project provided the students with academic credit and a lesson in life.

“For me, the overall objective was to create a positive impact in the community,” Monico says. “It was also important to me that my students return to Denver and have a deeper understanding of their own community's needs."

The students designed a community mural and message board, road signs and an educational tool kit—a laminated poster series to help the children learn English. The kit included numbers and phrases in English and Spanish, a phonetic alphabet and a color-coordinated typing aid that community members could use to practice keyboard skills.

“Collaborating with such a diverse group of people was truly an inspiring experience,” says student Hillary Van Assche in a video documenting the project. “We have established a foundation and hope other teams will visit and help this amazing community explore their potential.”

The campaign reflected the ideals of the public interest design movement. Communication Design Program Coordinator Lisa M. Abendroth is a leader in the movement, and the University in April hosted a Public Interest Design Institute where top practitioners demonstrated how to implement design projects for marginalized communities.

One of the movement’s principles is community engagement in the design process. So, the MSU Denver group lived for three days in La Piedra, holding focus groups and meetings with community leaders and conducting other research to determine the village’s needs and wants.

Monico says the group didn’t define what they would do before arriving. “It was important that it was a co-production, that we did research and they told us what they wanted to work on.”

Next, teacher and students used the resources of the Altos de Chavon School of Design, which is affiliated with the Parsons The New School for Design, to come up with design options and strategies. The group commuted to La Piedra from Santo Domingo and worked side-by-side with village children on the projects.

The effort closed at a Santo Domingo art gallery with a photo and video exhibit about Comunidad La Piedra. About 40 or so residents, including many children, attended. “For them to get to see why we were there and what we were doing—and to see themselves as a part of it—was incredible,” Monico says.

Looking back on the project, “I wasn’t anticipating the kind of connections between the community and my students that would cultivate from that experience,” she says.  “They called us family.”

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