Designing for Complex Issues

Some projects are very difficult to work on, not because of design issues, but due to the nature of their subject matter. I’m working on one of those right now and I want to share what I’m learning.

My client is an agency and their client is a foundation whose mission is to protect children from sexual abuse. They work to recruit adults to attend a nationally acclaimed training designed that educates them on how to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.

The project is to design a set of social media templates for 12 counties in Oregon and Washington.

This subject matter was a first for me and I knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be easy. That’s why, before we got started, I wrote in a letter to my client: “I understand that addressing child sexual abuse, particularly in our current time, is complex and sensitive. Being able to create a set of visuals that feel appropriate, while not diminishing the severity of the issue, will be important.”

What would I do? What would I learn? In initial conversations with the agency, we got real and acknowledged the challenge ahead of us. We all went through the foundation’s training to learn and familiarize ourselves with the content, during which we shared our concern that it would be uncomfortable.

Much to my surprise, it wasn’t uncomfortable at all. It was empowering. And it reminded me of legendary designer, Debbie Millman’s comments about the work she did for NO MORE, an organization dedicated to ending domestic violence and sexual assault by increasing awareness, inspiring action and fueling culture change. Millman says “Too often, domestic violence and sexual assault remain hidden in the shadows, riddled with shame and stigma for the victims. We hope to help eradicate that with our efforts.”

Be direct in language and imagery
As I went through the training myself, I learned to be an advocate and that’s when I began to see the seeds of what the design needed to be: creating positive opportunity with clarity and directness.

When I started working on design concepts, I went back to the initial call to action we’d established in our (design brief?): get adults to take the training so they can learn how to be an advocate.

One concept I presented used the phrase, “child abuse.” Based on the feedback, it was clear that the client didn’t want to dance around the language. The client said “No. We want to be clear. Say, “child sexual abuse.” This is what we’re talking about.” The affirmed way she spoke taught me that being direct and clear in communication was especially important for this sensitive project.

Make the work educational
What I’m learning is that the role of the designer is to create work that educates and doesn’t shame anyone. For example, in the current campaign, we are not using any images of children who are hurt, or who look afraid. Instead, we are using images of adults who are working with children in a positive setting. We’re making the adults the focus. We are targeting adults who can be advocates for children.

The takeaways
I’m grateful for this opportunity to bring this message to the public, and make this issue more visible. Here are the two big takeaways I’ve learned working on this project:

Challenge assumptions. I learned to directly challenge the assumptions and stigmas surrounding the topic of child sexual abuse. Instead of designing something that looked victim-blaming, or shameful, I worked with my client to create a look that conveyed empowerment, empathy, and encouragement. I had to find a positive, approachable tone, without undermining the weight of the issue.

Be direct. Be clear. Be straightforward. I had to go through the process of feeling uncomfortable and scared to address this issue before feeling empowered. This project taught me that by being clear in language and design, empowerment shines through.

Are you an agency, designer, or writer who has worked on a complex issue? What was the process you went through? What important takeaways did you unearth? I would be interested in hearing about your experience. Let’s find a time to chat.