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Climates of Inequality: Design Interventions

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Age Levels Post-Secondary, Adults

Humanities Action Lab (HAL), currently hosted by Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N), is a coalition of universities, issue organizations, and public spaces, that collaborate to produce community-curated public humanities projects on urgent social issues. HAL’s current project, Climates of Inequality, explores climate and environmental justice in 23 localities around the world. RU-N's Graphic Design | Senior Seminar I partners with the Newark iteration, focusing on the (current) Newark Water Crisis.

Student are asked to respond to the escalating public health crisis— elevated levels of lead in Newark’s water. How can we, as designers, assist in this conversation? Teams design participatory experiences to engage Newark residents and RU-N students in order to create awareness about the crisis. Projects may include collecting and visualizing data, an action (prompted by elements of a campaign), a toolkit, among other design tactics. These projects are prototyped in support of the Climates of Inequalities exhibition at Express Newark, opening October 3, 2019.

This learning labs collection focuses on the design process and research components, that introduce the public rhetoric surrounding the 2019 Newark Water Crisis. Design students, investigate the social, historic and political contexts surrounding the crisis, study various sources of news media coverage and focus their research and engagement approaches based on conversations with Newark residents affected by the lead contamination, the RU-N student body, as well as community individuals and organizations working to manage the crises, raise awareness and proposing solutions.

In addition to media coverage and community insights, student investigate creative methods for public engagement, participatory and experience design examples, public art intervention to reference materials/media, communication strategies, language, a visual expression/solutions. 

The design process focuses on the human-centered design (HCD) model, but is rooted in self-reflection, to sensibly define the designer’s role in this conversation before proposing design interventions. The process also considers the "launch" of the project part of the "testing" phase, and involves reflection, before refining and re-packaging their design approaches.

Additional resources in this collection offer design project examples, ethnographic research approaches/definitions (ways to engage the audience), HCD & Design-Thinking resources, and more. 


FORMULATE: Frame the challenge. Research and Ideate.
+ Understand the challenge based on the project brief, scope, timeline and initial information provided. Ideate and research further to explore directions/angles of the challenge. 
+ Involve self reflection. What is the designer’s role in this conversation. From where you stand (your background, affiliations, skills) what can you do/make? How can you help? 
+ (RE)Frame the challenge.  

EMPATHIZE & DEFINE: Understand the User/Audience
+ Observe the Audience/Stakeholders/Community. 
+ Collect stories. 
+ Examine the larger picture: human needs, barriers & constraints. Define and shape your approach to the challenge.

BRAINSTORM: Diverge and Converge
The design thinking process is ultimately a divergent and convergent thinking process. Through the exercises of evaluation, comparison, and consolidation, a limited number of solutions are selected for prototyping and testing. The final solution sometimes merges the merits of several alternatives.” —Jasper Liu
+ Based on intellectual & experiential understanding of the challenge (Divergence), map the problem and define approach for your intervention (convergence). What is the right solution? 
+ Ideate forms of engagement. Create valuable, compelling and educational experiences for others. How is the medium relevant and accessible, to best communicate-with, educate and/or empower the audience? 

PROTOTYPE: Bring Ideas to Life
There are no perfect solutions, only trade-offs. Iterations are indispensable.”  —Jasper Liu
+ Generate an abundance of rough and rapid visuals to test, transform, and polish. 
+ Gauge final design directions based on feedback.
+ Produce well executed/functional prototypes for soft launch.

TEST/LAUNCH: Learn and Refine – Share with User
+ Produce all required artwork (prepped for print and/or digital formats). 
+ Test design & document interactions.
+ Gather findings and articulate effectiveness or non-fulfillment.

+ Revise project, perfect, re-produce for travel.  
+ Measure Impact


Chantal Fischzang
Assistant Professor
Department of Arts, Culture & Media
Rutgers University-Newark

Design Consortium
Visual Means


Rebecca Pauline Jampol
Visiting Professor
Department of Arts, Culture & Media
Rutgers University-Newark

Co-Founder & Co-Director
Project for Empty Space


Intelligent Coalitions: Design & Social Impact

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Conservation for Multisensory Engagement

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Lifesaving by Design

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum


Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

The Design Process

Cooper Hewitt Education Department

Process Lab: Citizen Design

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Humane Borders—Process Lab

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum


Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Where's Daryl? Toolkit

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Next Stop

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Access+Ability: Design for the Mind (with Audio Description)

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Game Changers: Liz Ogbu on Social Innovation

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

By the People, By Other Means

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Designing Resilience to Climate Change

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Newark Water Crisis - Focus Group Session

Rutgers University-Newark, Graphic Design Program