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Paying it Forward
Guest Editorial by Arvi Raquel-Santos

I graduated from Syracuse University in 1996 full of excitement to enter the design field. I had the crazy idea that I was going to change the world of design and if I was lucky, become an influential designer at the end of my career. I was 21

I have been lucky. I’ve had the opportunity to work on a wide array of projects for companies of all sizes, I’ve met some very talented people, I’ve been nationally recognized by design shows and publications, and I’ve been able to make a career doing what I love to do. I’ve worked for six different studios and lived in three cities, most recently San Francisco. In one sense, everything has gone as I’d planned.

But by the time I reached my 30th birthday, I’d lost the excitement and enthusiasm I felt at 21. I’d reached a point in my career where I could no longer see myself designing corporate logos, brochures and websites for the rest of my life. Okay, I thought, now what?

The answer grew out of a project I was already involved in.

Six years ago I started working with Sappi Fine Papers to promote Ideas that Matter, a unique competition that recognizes that designers’ creative ideas can have an impact far beyond the design world and that design can be a powerful force for social good. Initially, I saw the project as an opportunity to advance my career. As it turned out, it gave me so much more. Working on Ideas that Matter transformed my sense of who I was as a designer and what I wanted from our profession.

Then about a year ago, as I was doing some research for Ideas that Matter, I found something called Project M, an intensive summer program designed to inspire young designers, writers, photographers and filmmakers to prove that their work can have a positive and significant impact on the world. I decided to contact John Bielenberg, founder and Director of Project M. After a few emails and some procrastinating on my part, John said “Be prepared to having an incredible adventure changing the world together… just a little.” That was it. That was all l needed to hear. Project M promised to be not only an opportunity to do something meaningful but a chance to get away from the so-called “real world” and think about where I was in my career and life. It was time to figure out why I chose this business.

So at 33, I decided to take a month off and join Project M in Greensboro, Alabama. I knew that Greensboro would be different from everything I knew, and it certainly was. I grew up in New York City and have always lived in a big city. Greensboro has a population of about 2,700 people. That’s about the population of a few apartment buildings in New York City.

Did I also mention that Project M was in the month of June? … in Alabama?! Needless to say, it was hot and uncomfortable, but exciting. I loved being in a small town where within a couple of days I knew everyone, everyone waved hello and the dollar store became the most important store in town.

Project M Lab

Project M Lab

The Project M Lab.

Our month-long adventure culminated in the creation of the Project M Lab in Alabama, a permanent home for Project M. It is a place where designers can get away from the real world, live somewhere far from the familiar, and work on projects that could make a difference. It’s a place that can teach designers that their work can have an impact that affects communities and people’s lives. We decided to not design an artifact, but to establish an institution where people can visit to tackle the tough issues of our day, like poverty and hunger.

Now that I’ve returned to San Francisco, I’m determined that talented young individuals should continue to have the chance to attend Project M. But it’s not easy; each Project M participant must pay $2,000 which helps to fund the project, related expenses and housing.

Now I don’t know about you, but as a young designer, I’d have found $2,000 hard to come by — especially when I was fresh out of school and looking for a job. So I decided that instead of raising money for myself to attend Project M, I would “pay it forward” and help someone else by establishing “Design that Cares”, a socially-based design collaborative aimed at helping people connect with others to inspire and create change. Along with a former colleague, Justin Gonyea, we designed a poster with the Project M ethos of “Think Wrong”. We are selling the posters at designthatcares.com. Proceeds from the sale of the posters will go directly to helping someone else attend Project M.

Think Wrong Poster

I am truly lucky to have been a part of Project M and to be reminded of why I love being a designer. As Project M becomes more of a distant memory, I often think of the advice that John Waters said to me: “Never loose that fire that’s in you… always keep that passion and energy.”

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Sep.10.2008 BY Speak Up
Andrew J Klein’s comment is:

The most inspiring guy I ever talked to was an Illustrator that said "I wake up every morning excited about the fact that this is my job"
He was in his 70s, and had been an illustrator for his entire life - not many jobs can keep you fired up after 50 years.

On Sep.10.2008 at 11:36 AM
gong Szeto’s comment is:


On Sep.10.2008 at 11:53 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

This is a great piece, that offers much in the way of inspiration and dedication. And, it gives one more reason to visit Alabama in addition to football, good food, architecture (Auburn) and nice people.

On Sep.10.2008 at 12:16 PM
cmyk_girl’s comment is:

Thanks for the inspiration. At 31, I, too, am looking for a way to keep the fires burning that lit up when I was in college that now threaten to smolder. I'd like to find similar ventures (to Project M) and collaborations that have the same idea in mind that are accessible.
(lose? sp.)

On Sep.10.2008 at 02:04 PM
B.McGuigan’s comment is:

I remember when John Bielenberg came to SF to speak at AAU about his past project M projects and future ones. I found it interesting how many many students wanted to participate but the instructors could not find a way to "help" them get there. Money aside, I think that the real solution to "keeping the fires burning" is to get designers so interested early on that they would constantly seek out these type of projects throughout their career... maybe a resources page??

On Sep.11.2008 at 01:28 AM
Josh’s comment is:

It's a very great idea. The title of this post, doesn't seem to be the sentiment of the industry in itself, which is quite sad in of itself.

I'd be interested in seeing additional initiatives setup to help others attend costly events *cough* AIGA, HOW etc.. *cough*

The interesting conundrum of design charity is that there is no lack of people creating artwork for events such as Katrina, CA fires, donating their time and effort at that. They don't receive a cent, but what is amazing considering those generous donations is that you never see it applied in this manner.

Can some other designers give some examples of pitching in like this?

Oddly enough i've thought about this many times, but I've never seen this happen. Donations to private schools are perhaps a possible example, but how many people are doing that?

I'd give back to my alma mater, but they haven't asked.

On Sep.11.2008 at 11:52 PM
Emily’s comment is:

Amazing and truly inspiring.

On Sep.12.2008 at 12:23 AM
Keith’s comment is:

"I'd give back to my alma mater, but they haven't asked."

What kind of crazy school did you graduate from that they haven't asked you for more money? MICA hit us with a letter before we even graduated (one to send to the folks too!)

On Sep.14.2008 at 02:22 AM
Josh’s comment is:


Well I went to a state school, who have different options for funding than most private schools. I would also only like to give to the art department if I could, but I doubt I'd be able to.

On Sep.14.2008 at 12:32 PM
Scott’s comment is:

Why do we have to be asked to contribute to anything?

On Sep.14.2008 at 03:55 PM
rickyaustin’s comment is:

I have to do this.

On Sep.16.2008 at 05:31 PM
Kaitie’s comment is:

It was great to read a little of your life story. Thank you for sharing!

I am now 21 and getting ready to head out into the real world of design. I am very excited but like yourself, I worry that some day that excitement will disappear.

I am currently taking a course about responsible design and it has really made an impact on me. I feel that I could honestly wake up every day and live by John Water's advice, "Never loose that fire that's in you… always keep that passion and energy." if I was designing for a cause I felt compassionate about.

Do I really want to work at an ad agency selling sugar to kids and cigarettes to teens? Do I want to sell sex to my children or reinforce the 'barbie doll' stereo type high schoolers feel they need to be? I don't think so.

Your entry offered me inspiration. I am at a point in my life where I will need to decide which aspect of design I want to head towards. Reading about the impact your work has had on the community has helped me a lot.

On Sep.25.2008 at 10:35 PM
Nick Perun’s comment is:

I'm in college working on my degree for Graphic Design, and sometimes i really feel like i want to change the world as corny as it may sound.

Its nice that there are programs like this to help take graphic designers back to thier roots, sometimes i feel like we forget that Graphic design is an art, not a business asset

It must be really nice to just get away from everything like that and be in the country where you can really concentrate on your work.

Its really cool that the design community has programs like this, but it's too bad it's so expensive though. Still, this is very cool to hear.

On Sep.30.2008 at 08:22 PM