When Archana Shekara and Nancy Fewkes were trying to find The Refuge Food Forest, they kept driving around in circles. Eventually, they realized they had driven past it. It was January, so trying to find bended raspberry canes covered in snow wasn’t easy, but there also weren’t any signs pointing them in the right direction.
As the pair walked around the food forest, they knew if they had trouble finding it, others would too. And that was the beginning of the research for Design Streak Studio’s pro bono project partnering with the Town of Normal to create a branding and environmental design campaign for the 5-year-old forest. Over two semesters Illinois State graphic design students worked on a campaign to increase awareness of the food forest at One Normal Plaza, a community space where visitors can pick organic produce for free and are encouraged to volunteer to weed and harvest.
Design Streak is a research-based social innovation lab in the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts that provides a capstone experience for senior design students. Shekara, an associate professor of graphic design and creative director of Design Streak, started leading the studio in 2016 and worked with Fewkes, assistant to the director in the Wonsook Kim School of Art, on the food forest project.
Design Streak takes on seven to 10 paid projects a semester, charging $300 to $3,000 for its services. Proceeds fund field trips to design studios. In 2021, Design Streak will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Shekara’s goal is for it to become the top design studio in Bloomington-Normal.
“We have that talent, why not?” she asked.
When Shekara took over Design Streak, she began selecting a nonprofit to work with each semester and now collaborates with the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning as the representative from the school.
“My research is in cultural identity, social design, and community engagement, so when I inherited Design Streak, I thought, ‘How can I bring that value to learning? How can we make it a part of Streak and do it seriously?’”
Shekara wants students to see how using their skills can help a nonprofit grow. However, she dislikes the term “giving back.” “Giving back means you took something and you’re obligated to give it back. It should be, ‘I want to give because I’m a part of the community,’ and one should give without any expectations, returns, or favors. I wanted to pass that sense of responsibility on to my students.”
Design Streak student Hannah Piemonte ’20 is grateful for the civic engagement experience that helped her feel a sense of purpose.
“The design world can be so materialistic,” she said. “Sometimes you find yourself designing something just to market something, just to sell something, to make it look cool. But when we focus on a pro bono project, it makes us realize that we can do so much more. Seeing the impact we can make using our gifts is really powerful. It’s something I want to take into my professional career.”
Town of Normal planner Mercy Davison partners with Reid Young, extension program coordinator for the University of Illinois Extension, on the food forest. The two met with students throughout the process of creating an identity, logos, a brochure, and informational signs.
“Students bring so much energy and passion, and it energizes us to work with them,” Davison said. “They leave town, but their work is going to live on here. We are super excited to work with them, and we love the product.”
Design Streak student Kristina Furler ’20 knew very little about the food forest. “I had no clue what it was,” she said. “I tried to Google it. When I heard we were going to do this, I thought it was an awesome opportunity to work with classmates and share this organization with the whole community.”
Telling the Labyrinth story
Past Design Streak projects benefitted Autism McLean, Habitat for Humanity Restore, the National Center for Urban Education, and the Illinois Art Station. Over the past year, Design Streak took on another project, working with Labyrinth Made Goods, a YWCA McLean County program that provides professional development and employment to women who were incarcerated. The women wanted to earn income by making and selling hand-poured soy candles, but all they had to start with were olive green and white glass jars.
Students met with the women, and listened to their stories. They visited local stores that sold candles, which led to a studio wall covered in flip chart ideas.
“Why would I buy a $30 candle?” Shekara asked them. “You need to share your story about Labyrinth, how it’s helping women in our community start a new life. But how do we share that through a candle?”
Students created designs for four seasonal candles, with words and names based on experiences, such as “transformation” and “rest.” A fifth candle, named by the client, is called “serenity.” Original art was used on labels and packaging. Inside the box there’s a photo and quote from a woman who’s part of Labyrinth Made Goods.
Students formally present their work to clients. Design Streak student Micah Vetter ’20 said that experience moved her forward.
“I don’t feel like I get nervous anymore with clients,” she said. “It’s given all of us confidence. To watch the clients smile when they’re looking at the things you made, it makes the process feel a lot more human.”
What also helped was doing primary research at the food forest and Labyrinth, Vetter said.
“I feel like I know my community a lot more. I’m from Bloomington and I feel like I learned about my community through the pro bono projects, which is really awesome. And I’m excited to do that no matter where I live.”
Food forest project grows
Design Streak collaborated with others in the Wonsook Kim School of Art on The Refuge Food Forest project. Last fall Fewkes and Shekara invited Laura Primozic, a ceramicist and an instructional technician in the school, to join them.
Along with Bill Davidson, former program coordinator for the University of Illinois Extension, they presented “Creating Visual Art in a Community Food Forest to Address Hunger/Sustainability” during Illinois State’s Social Work Day 2019. In a panel presentation, the group invited community participation and received “immense support” for the project, Shekara said.
Primozic started a volunteer workshop on Fridays where art students could work on designing bowls for harvesting, cooking, and eating berries collected from the food forest.
She was surprised to see all of her students there.
“There was no credit, no grade, no requirement,” she said. “They were just interested in being involved in this community-oriented project.”
Students visited the forest several times, collecting berries as part of their research.
“The idea was we’d see what it was like to gather the food, and we’d design a bowl that would come full circle,” Primozic said. “It would be used for gathering. It would be used for cooking. It would be used to eat out of.”
She reached out to the Family and Consumer Sciences Department to see if her students could use the Foods Lab to make miniature berry pies in the bowls, another phase of testing.
“That was a fun exercise,” Primozic said. “We don’t usually take our ceramics students to cook. They loved it.”
Back in the art studio, they came up with a bowl design. The plan was to make bowls for a community food sharing event at the food forest this fall. Although it would be difficult to make the bowls in time due to coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, Shekara is hopeful there will be a gathering following physical-distancing guidelines.
Despite the pandemic, the Design Streak project continued into last spring. In March, the Town of Normal selected a design for the food forest, and is using the new logo on its website and social media. A brochure has been approved and signage is in the works.
“Design Streak has it down to a science,” Davison said. “They run it like a business. You’re going to get a product out of it, they’re going to learn something, and everybody leaves feeling good.”
Piemonte left with more than a good feeling. “It’s kind of amazing how design can make you realize the humanity in people,” she said. “In the beginning I was so nervous to talk in front of clients because they were these big scary people, but now it’s like they’re just people and we can connect in a human way.”