How can my work make an impact? If you’re a designer, you probably ask yourself that very question, wanting to create unforgettable design experiences, moving people to act, creating change. In-house designers at The Southern Poverty Law Center do those things on a daily basis, designing award-winning work, making the complex understandable, and educating the masses. Their designs are so significant that not only do they impact their audiences, but they also impact the in-house designers who create the work.
Photo from left to right: Alex Trott, designer; Sunny Paulk, designer; Hillary Andrews, designer; Cierra Brinson, designer; Shannon Anderson, designer; Russell Estes, design director; Angela Greer, design assistant; Scott Phillips, senior designer; Kristina Turner, senior designer; Michelle Leland, senior designer; photo courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center
Located in Montgomery, Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a nonprofit organization with an in-house team that designs materials for litigation, legislative advocacy, and public education, all of which are tools for change according to former SPLC staffer Valerie Downes. She joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2000, working there until June 2018. “My experience was so rich and layered,” she said. The content they work with and the designs they create make it rich and layered. “The SPLC is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.” That mission, clearly stated on their website is monumental in scope, so it’s hard to imagine a small team taking on that work. But in 2000, Downes was brought on as just the third designer, originally working on direct mail for development and fundraising endeavors. Since the SPLC is driven entirely by donations, that work carried a lot of weight, and continues to do so.
The Civil Rights Memorial, as showcased on the SPLC website, the Memorial is located on the south side of their office building, putting history all around them, “in a very physical sense,” according to former SPLC designer Valerie Downes.
But the team has grown over the years, led by Russell Estes, SPLC’s design director. Estes joined in 1996 on the 1-year anniversary of the Murrah Federal Building attack. Estes has many roles, all of which he takes on with enthusiasm. “In my role as design director, I’m involved with hosting events for our supporters. When you meet the person who’s been giving $20 a month for 40 years, you can’t help but be moved by their dedication. It drives home the power of the work and our responsibility to the communities we work in. And when you’re able to contribute to projects that make a real difference in people’s lives, you realize the value of where you work. It makes you want to deepen your understanding of the issues so your work can be even more effective.” Estes will celebrate twenty-three years with SPLC in April 2019.
Cover, Immigrant Family Preparedness, A Guide for Georgia Families
During her own tenure, Downes moved up the ranks, promoted to senior designer in 2005 and then deputy design director in 2017. Although she left the organization in 2018 to bicycle the TransAmerica Trail—from Astoria, OR to Yorktown, VA—Downes still works as a freelance designer and art director. She is no longer designing for the SPLC, but focuses on personal projects and select freelance assignments. Reflecting on the work she created with the SPLC, and the recognition her and her colleagues have received, Downes said, “Awards are nice and getting recognized by your peers is an honor, but the mission is the most important part.”
Typography and image come together to create an important call to action, exemplified in the campaign to get college students to vote in 2018. Their social media channels such as Instagram reinforce the importance of these and other issues.
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And what a mission it is. SPLC designers tell human stories, according to Downes, “those of detained immigrants separated from their families, of incarcerated individuals without access to health care, of victims of bigotry and hate along with those rallying against it, of educators in classrooms across the nation.” Downes sees a majority of the design used for educational purposes, as well as law enforcement, law makers, the general public, and donors, whom she says make all of the work possible. It’s a privilege to call yourself a designer at the SPLC because the work makes an impact. And there’s so much work to do that designers get the chance to frequently spread their wings.
One of the benefits of working in-house at SPLC—and really, working in-house anywhere—is having the opportunity to cross-train. Want to work on video? Design a website? Tackle social media? Do claymation? It’s all possible, and in fact, Downes did some claymation while at SPLC, crediting Estes for that opportunity and all of the others she experienced. “Any given day or week I could be working on a combination of trial demonstratives, special publications, an issue of the magazine, postcards, posters, presentations, image shares, filming interviews, editing video, or shooting portraits. This goes for any and all members of the design team. And the entire staff leans on one another, relies on one another. Although individuals manage their own projects, we are in constant dialogue with one another. As the Design Director, Russell has always encouraged us to expand our skill set… to anchor all of our design work with solid typography and then jump off from there.”
When asked about inspiration, Estes cited Edward Tufte, and took time to explain how type plays an instrumental role in their work. “Good typography is our secret weapon, but the imagery and graphic elements are what bring our message home. Images are so important to our storytelling. Clean type and design makes it all accessible. Or course, it all starts with good, compelling content. We’re also fortunate to have relationships with award-winning illustrators and photographers who help visualize our message.”
Publications that educate readers about tolerance, teaching challenging subjects, and confronting hate (photographed by Jason Tselentis).
Clarity and content matter a lot to Estes, but even before they begin the actual design, they identify the story they’re trying to tell. “When we present information, we strive to present it with clarity because good design can be the catalyst that compels the public to understand and care about an issue.” So how do those issues get assigned? Do SPLC designers get to choose where they work, on what content? Teamwork plays a big role, as Estes explained, “Everyone on the design team is paired with an internal department or practice group whose work they support and whose subject matter they specialize in. But we also cross over and collaborate on projects such as Teaching Tolerance magazine and the Intelligence Report. We’re always trying to figure out cool new ways to tell stories. The claymation video was one example of how we were able to illustrate a complex topic like intersectionality; we also used animation for a video on confirmation bias. These choices are organic and usually borne out of necessity. With such abstract topics, we don’t have any footage or images to work with, so we have to decide how to best tell each story.”
Sometimes, the best way to tell a story is with clay. Or maybe it’s print design. Video and social media also factor in from time to time. When faced with the decision to work in-house, designers might see it as a place where you’ll always work with the same content, the same client. How might Estes convince somebody to come work in-house at SPLC, especially when they might have reservations about being “trapped” in-house? “From my experience, being in-house has been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. Some of the advantage is a function of working at SPLC due to the variety of communications channels and topics we engage. We work with educators, attorneys, investigators and journalists—all in-house. We’ve also moved from the print world into digital, video, podcasts, etc., and we’re always experimenting with new platforms and media. We’ve historically been a small staff, so it’s been necessary at times to flex and re-invent ourselves to work on these different kinds of projects and find the best visual solutions to storytelling challenges. That—and the nature of the work itself—has kept us fresh, and that’s needed now more than ever.”
The team designs materials for a range of media, including but not limited to print, web, and video, helping to push educational assets, such as Teaching Hard History, through a number of channels.
When Downes first came on board, one of the first projects that she worked on outside of fundraising and development was for Teaching Tolerance, a project providing free classroom materials to educators across the country. ”A film kit called Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks was in development in 2001 and I was tasked with photographing participants from the Montgomery Bus Boycott along with their family members from subsequent generations. It was incredibly powerful to hear the stories, to witness the stories shared with grandchildren. I don’t even think the images made it into the final film, but it was a great privilege to share such an intimate space for a day or two with these brave individuals—I knew in that moment that SPLC was the place I wanted to be for years to come.” In 2005, Downes worked on another Teaching Tolerance film kit about human rights activist and Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein. She called it an awesome opportunity. “I flew out to her home and spent the day photographing her personal family documents (items that miraculously survived the Holocaust) and hearing her stories. She is such a generous, wise and loving person—I’ll never forget the experience.”
Although she’s no longer a full-time member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the time Downes spent with the organization made a lasting impact, one she fondly remembers, and will always keep close to her heart. “When you’ve spent the last 18 years designing while engaged in conversations about race, economic justice, and gender equality, you walk away from the experience with a desire to utilize design to continue the conversation—and being better for it.”
Designs by the Southern Poverty Law Center, created by the dedication of many hardworking people.
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