Art Center College of Design | Pasadena, California | Leading By Design

Wendy MacNaughton

Fine Art / Design '99

Designing for Others, Making Change

As Wendy MacNaughton sees it, designers can use their skills for two things: to encourage people to want things they don't need, or to improve people's lives.

“I have yet to meet a designer who has done the latter and then returned back to the former,” MacNaughton says. “Once you realize that doing something you love can improve another person's life, you're hooked.”

MacNaughton is certainly hooked. Her work for Underground Advertisinga communications strategy, advertising and design agency in San Franciscois dedicated to helping nonprofit organizations, foundations and public programs promote social and environmental issues.

“Basically, we help nonprofits tell their stories to the people who need to hear them,” MacNaughton says.

MacNaughton came to Art Center in 1996 to study fine art. In her later terms, she began taking advertising courses and after graduation landed a job as a copywriter for advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners. While there, she was offered a life-changing opportunity to create a national educational campaign for Rwanda's first democratic elections. She jumped at the chance.

After four and a half months in Rwanda working on social communications campaigns for the elections and the genocide trials, MacNaughton says she found it impossible to continue creating ads to sell beer or chicken. When she returned to the U.S., MacNaughton left advertising to pursue more humanitarian endeavors.

“My experience helped me realize how necessary it was to complement the foundation in critical thinking and design I learned at Art Center with a more user-centered approach,” MacNaughton explains.

“I wanted to learn how to work with people, instead of for or on them.” MacNaughton enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University, studying international social work. Art, advertising and social work, which might seem to be an unlikely mix, made sense to her.

“When you design for others, you are no longer the expert,” MacNaughton says. “If your goal is to design something for someone else, you have to work with them, not for them. This means giving up your ego, assumptions and biases. The few designers who do this have broken new ground and made terrific contributions, not only in design, but in the world.”

MacNaughton continues to work in Africa with NGOs on communication projects, most recently working in Congo and Kenya for the Designmatters project Mobile Health Clinics for Remote Communities in Kenya, which developed an innovative design project aimed at greatly improving health outcomes in remote Kenyan communities. MacNaughton served as creative director for the Information, Education and Communication (IEC) health materials for the project's campaigns in Congo and Rwanda.

The visually based IEC materials, created to overcome barriers of non-literacy, multiple language and ethnicities, offered relevant messages closely relating to and reflecting the culture of the local population. The final materials developed were compiled into a book, Images Speak.

“Going into [the project], my biggest hope was that the products created would help people in the Samburu and Laikipia live longer and healthier lives,” she says. This year she will return to Africa, going to Uganda to work on another humanitarian project. “The work I've done in Africa is the most exciting, inspiring work of my career,” she says.

Looking into the future, MacNaughton says that she would like to work with young designers and get them excited about the positive contributions they can make with their skills and education.

“Designers make meaning, and that's a lot of responsibility,” says MacNaughton. “What meaning you want to make is up to you.”

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