Design Solutions for Urban Problems

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ONE DC system/Alicia Coleman.

“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, it is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
–Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

What makes for a dynamic city? How can cities draw and make the best use of their creative capital? Marshall McLuhan wrote about how globalization would change culture. He envisioned a loss of identity (homogenization) would cause all of us to seek our identities. How can a city retain and project an image that is both truthful to its heritage and relevant in an increasingly global marketplace? What is identity when it comes to the complex living, changing dynamic system such as the city?

I teach a systems and information design class at the Portfolio Center where we attempt to answer these questions and create powerful identity systems that have the potential to help solve the problems contemporary cities face. After learning about how cities function and the challenges and potential of cities in the 21st century, students launch into exhaustive research on cities of their choosing. They are looking for the biggest challenges and opportunities facing that city. What has been done to solve these problems? Are there existing groups that are working on the challenge? Through their research, each student identifies a city and proposes a strategy and a graphic system that will help solve an urban problem.

There is a misconception that graphic design is about making things “look pretty.” This is not true. In my class, Systems/Info:City, extensive research occurs before students make a mark or choose a color palette. Without this intention to solve a problem and communicate a solution, designers are just icing a cake or providing a decorative surface. This is neither satisfying or acceptable. Through this project, I want my students to envision a place at the table where big problems are solved.

Cities are not just containers for smart people; they are the enabling infrastructure where connections take place, networks are built and innovative combinations are consummated.”
–Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited

Here are three outstanding projects that have come out of the Systems/Info:City class over the last six months. Each project uses design to solve a problem, surmount a challenge, and involve the community. The cities and challenges are varied: from the pressures of gentrification in Washington D.C. to bringing tech start-ups to poverty-plagued Newark, NJ, to encouraging a community effort to combat obesity in Huntington, WV. The problems and design strategies are presented below in the student’s own words.


ONE-DC Logo-01



With this project, it was very important that I created an inspiring and inclusive system. The narratives around the topic of displacement are difficult, polarizing, and unfortunately often fruitless. In my visual solution I wanted to re-assert the basic dignity of the people being overlooked, appeal to people from all income levels, and contribute to the fabric of a city all at the same time.”
–Alicia Coleman, ONE DC



ONE DC system/Alicia Coleman


Newark Venture Partnersnvp main logo-01

Newark has struggled with poverty, corruption, and crime for decades and has resulted in lack of interest for a business locations. Newark Venture Partners is a venture fund that supports 50 start ups each year with funding, mentorship, and business space in Newark. Because start ups are being formed by young professionals and students, I targeted this demographic which would be highly responsive because they lack these resources. In result young entrepreneurs will move to Newark, start businesses, and grow roots in the city shedding much needed light on Newark.
–Taylor DiPaolo, Newark Venture Partners

Newark Venture Partners Poster-01


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Newark Venture Partners system/Taylor DiPaolo


Let’s Go Huntington

Let’s Go Huntington system/Sophia Vazquez
Huntington, WV has had the highest record for obesity for several years, despite having access to farmer’s markets and food education initiatives. What seems to be the missing link is a lack of a unified effort to encourage health and happiness, not just numbers and statistics. I wanted to remedy this by creating a system that covered three areas: community, food, and fitness. I believe that tying these areas together through a cohesive web and mobile system (with strategic physical placement in markets and the community) will help bring the community together in a group program to feel better in mind, body and spirit. Encouraging positive behaviors instead of focusing on negatives will establish a new outlook on life and naturally impact waistlines for the better. Let’s go, Huntington!
–Sophia Vazquez, Let’s Go Huntington


Let’s Go Huntington system/Sophia Vazquez

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