Designing Change: Sappi's "Ideas That Matter"

Sappi's grants program helps realize print design projects that advance the social good

(3BL Media/Justmeans) -- Better design, better world. It’s a simple concept, with infinite variety. 

Consider "Citizen Forester," a workshop and collateral designed by Gwen O’Brien of design studio Plenty that supports the work of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks toward increasing community engagement around parks and public spaces in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Or "Draw It Out Classroom Kit & Grief Outreach," a therapeutic art lesson for young students to express their feelings after tragedy designed by Seattle-based designers Steffanie Lorig and Jana Nishi Yuen for Art with Heart.

Or Crowdfund Health, a crowdfunding platform designed by Tina Chang Walderman and Anne Jaconette for Nyaya Health that raises funds to improve health care in Nepal. Or "EducationSuperHighway," a white paper designed by Naomi Usher of Studio Usher advocating an upgrade to the Internet infrastructure in America's elementary and high schools to close the "K-12 digital divide."

These are just a few of the excellent proposals of the total eleven recently selected to receive grants from the 2013 Ideas That Matter program, a well-known and respected grant program meant to aid designers in creating and implementing print projects that advance a wide variety of charitable causes.

[To view all of this year's grant recipients, click here.]


The concept of "design for social good" seems to be having its day in the sun of late. In October 2011, AIGA launched their "Design for Good" pro bono initiative, meant to enable "designers, firms, chapters and groups to demonstrate the value of design to our local communities, elected officials and business leaders."

As AIGA executive director Richard Grefé said during the launch, "There is a promising future in solving our citizens' problems between the roles of capital markets and the public sector."

In the fall of 2012, the School of Visual Arts launched the Design for Social Innovation MFA program, which views social innovation as "the application of new strategies and models to solving the challenges the world faces and to strengthening society."


But while "design for social good" may seem to be a trending topic across the worlds of design, social innovation, sustainability and corporate social responsibility, Sappi Fine Paper North America has been helping designers realize concepts that advance the social good for over a decade. Since 1999, the company's Ideas that Matter program has supported the work that designers do for nonprofit organizations with over $12 million in grants given to designers around the world.

This year's winning proposals were selected by an independent judging panel of design professionals known for their advocacy of design for social good: Los Angeles-based design writer Alissa Walker; Bill Drenttel, president of the Hamden, Connecticut-based Winterhouse Institute, which focuses on non-profit, self-initiated projects that support sociopolitical initiatives and design education; Chicago-based Erin Huizenga, founder of EPIC, which joins top creative professionals with nonprofits; Jennifer Kinon, founding partner of the New York-based design and branding agency Original Champions of Design (OCD); and Michael Lejeune, creative director of Metro Design Studio in Los Angeles.


"The exciting thing about this year's Ideas That Matter grant proposals was their diversity," said Drenttel, "from community engagement programs to design education programs; as well as international health communication to diabetes health management for young women; or important projects focused on civic engagement to urban development."

While each project targets a specific social issue in a specific community, together they make one basic premise clear: Better design, better world. And with that possibility comes responsibility. As Nyaya Health, the beneficiary of the Sappi grant to Crowdfund Health, succinctly notes on their website, "Good design isn’t a luxury—it's a powerful and real priority."

"Designers are visionaries, idealists and purists; we tend to see a better world that most people don't," said Blake Howard of Matchstic, a branding agency based in Atlanta. "I think we have a responsibility to work on passion projects that move the needle toward that better world."


Huizenga noted that the most memorable work in the Ideas That Matter program has a "distinct approach that it was truly going to progress that nonprofit’s work. She added, "It wasn't storytelling around what is—it was telling of what could be."

"Each year, all of us at Sappi are inspired by the quality of the submissions, as well as the creative and compelling design solutions to a wide range of real social needs," said Patti Groh, head of marketing and communications for Sappi North America. She notes that the program "continues to be important platform for social change, giving designers the powerful opportunity to use their skills and expertise to support the greater good."


And while we can agree that there are some incredible ideas out there that matter when it comes to the social good, it's critical that those ideas become a reality.

"There is an element of design that doesn't get much attention, which is that in addition to seeing systems and developing new connections and ideas, designers know how to get stuff done," Cheryl Heller, the founding chair of SVA's Design for Social Innovation MFA program, told me in 2011.

"We know how to start a seemingly too-big-to-tackle project, how to manage it and protect an idea through it, get through the middle, and finish it," she said. "And then we know how to iterate and improve it once it's done. We aren't just about ideas. We are also about manifesting things."

Thanks to grant programs like Sappi's Ideas That Matter, designers are getting a chance to do just that.


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