Visible, Legible, Navigable: Graphic Design Meets Disaster Relief

Red Hook HUB installed at the Red Hook Branch Library

What happens when graphic designers engage in creative placemaking, the intentional use of arts to shape the physical, social, and economic future of communities? Traditionally, when it comes to place, urban designers, planners, architects, and policymakers have taken the lead. In the fall of 2013, the New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) launched the organization’s first civic initiative for graphic designers interested in shaping their city. Design/Relief intends to use graphic design to support three waterfront neighborhoods still recovering from Superstorm Sandy — Red Hook, Brooklyn; Rockaway, Queens; and South Street Seaport, Manhattan — in imagining new futures for their communities.

“Visible, Legible, and Navigable” is the motto we’ve used as a measure of success since the project’s inception. Like other designers, graphic designers bring unique value to projects: an ability to visualize complex information, a rigorous participatory process, and easily deployable solutions. Because they are, by nature of their trade, communication driven, graphic designers are able to help residents better articulate what defines their communities and to build relationships between people and places. Our supporter, ArtPlace, reminded us to consider community change as enhancement rather than radical transformation, and AIGA’s Creative Placemaking talk series again emphasized that successfully improving places requires a commitment to social justice, inclusion, and opportunity building.


“Dear Rockaway,” posters in Arverne

The three Design/Relief projects launched in the designated communities share a common approach: they address public spaces in which community information and communication are shared.

The Seaport team created an interactive storytelling tool entitled Catch—&—Release, which aims to make visible the hidden and sometimes forgotten history and culture of South Street Seaport, an iconic fixture of Manhattan’s riverfront. The first phase of Catch—&—Release built an interactive installation visualizing the social bonds in the Seaport post-Sandy. The second phase, through a collection of personal anecdotes and reflections, aims to distill and share the collective memory of the community through audio tours.

The Red Hook team designed a 21st century bulletin board. The HUB is a strategically located public information system that collects and displays information based on community needs. Mediated by a coalition of designated partners (including the Red Hook Initiative, whose WiFi mesh network was an inspiration for this work), the HUB provides different kinds of information in digital and/or analog formats and is designed to provide community information to Red Hook residents during crisis and non-crisis times.

The Rockaway team conceived a dynamic community narrative. “Dear Rockaway,” is a campaign to foster the spirit of goodwill and connectivity that emerged across the historically divided peninsula in the wake of Sandy. The collection of 100+ recorded interviews with residents from the area provided content for the creation of guerrilla-style stencils and wheat-pasted posters, as well as newspaper inserts. The project aims to reacquaint neighbors with each other and with places of local significance, especially while the boardwalk — the only public space linking the diverse neighborhoods of the peninsula — remains under repair. The team hoped to amplify the evolving collective narrative of Rockaway as a place while broadening the discussion of its future and to amplify the broadcasting of Rockaway’s pressing needs.

Read on for descriptions from each of the design teams and click through the photos to see more of their work.


Click the image to launch a slideshow of additional imagery | Interior of the Catch—&—Release kiosk

Thank you notes in the Catch—&—Release kiosk

The Catch—&—Release team solicited residents’ thoughts on the hidden gems of the Seaport.

A Seaport resident leads an audio tour.

South Street Seaport: Highlighting Overlooked Treasures
–Tyler Silvestro
, Seaport team storyteller, and Laetitia Wolff

“The Seaport is a multi-faceted place: its boundaries and defining qualities seem to shift depending on who you talk with and when. It is a story, constantly being written by an ever-evolving set of authors.” –Francesca Birks, ARUP, community engagement strategist

Our team was motivated by the mysticism and romantic lore that surrounds this foundational location in New York history. When we started to peel back the layers of the Seaport, we realized that preservation through a series of interviews was the thrust of our work to make the Seaport a more visible place.

The first installment of Catch–&–Release (December 2013 to March 2014) was a kiosk located beneath the elevated FDR Drive at the nexus of the former Fulton Fish Market and the thoroughfare for tourists visiting the Seaport’s historic piers. Our graphic installation aimed to illustrate a sense of unity and resilience in the Seaport community. Local residents, small shop owners, and tourists were invited to partake in a simple ritual: thank-you cards, locally printed at the Seaport Museum’s Bowne Printers, were filled with thoughtful messages, then hung from pulleys to create a visual metaphor of the human connections that extend beyond the current polarization around the redevelopment of Pier 17.


Catch—&—Release kiosk

Catch—&—Release kiosk

Seeking a more direct engagement with the Seaport community, our team organized a design charrette (March 2014) to gather longtime activists, residents, business owners, and young designers to map what they considered to be local treasures, and to write their personal stories of the Seaport. While making an inventory of present assets, this collective exercise yielded cathartic moments for a community that tends to keep information and stories close to the chest.

To conclude, Catch–&–Release collected vignettes, tales, and memories from a selected group of individuals whose collective voice represents the cultural landscape of the South Street Seaport. These interviews took life in the form of a guided night tour led by some of the Seaport’s most colorful characters and are now available as downloadable podcasts (October 2014).

For more information, visit the Catch–&–Release website.


Click the image to launch a slideshow of additional imagery | HUB online mock-up

Red Hook HUB rendering

Red Hook HUB rendering

The HUB online tool under development at a hackathon

The HUB online tool under development at a hackathon

Red Hook: Sharing Community Information
David Al-Ibrahim, Red Hook team storyteller

“While we acknowledge the vital role workers and visitors play in Red Hook, we agreed early on, in consultation with our partners, that the HUB would primarily serve Red Hook residents.” –James Andrews, community engagement strategist

After uniting to face Sandy, Red Hook has played host to a growing number of initiatives that require ongoing involvement from residents and local organizations. As newcomers tasked with identifying and designing a post-Sandy placemaking solution, we began a phased design process that centered on listening to those community discussions and engaging local partners to help develop and ultimately drive the project.

Over 90 hours collectively spent engaging stakeholders highlighted a need for more consistent, trusted, and publicly accessible information. Focusing on the 80% of residents who live in public housing, we held a series of workshops at community centers to better define Red Hook’s informational needs, considering content, locations, management, and displays. Partnering with a team of Red Hook’s most dedicated programs and organizations, we created the Red Hook HUB.


Operations flow diagram of the Red Hook HUB

Operations flow diagram of the Red Hook HUB

The HUB is a public communications system that helps inform, connect, and engage Red Hook. People can share and access community information in a range of formats at the HUB’s physical locations and online platforms. Content includes emergency information, local news, upcoming events, and community initiatives. Pressing information and leading news will be posted in an official flyer called the HUB Weekly.

Managing the website, collecting posts, publishing weekly news bulletins, and maintaining bulletin boards requires an immense deal of coordination and commitment. At its core, the HUB is a network of people and local organizations working together to share important information.

For more information, visit the Red Hook HUB website.


Click the image to launch a slideshow of additional imagery | A member of the Rockaway Youth Task Force adds his own “Dear Rockaway,” message among stenciled messages.

“Dear Rockaway,” posters

“Dear Rockaway,” stencil

“Dear Rockaway,”: Building Social Connectivity
–Carolyn Louth
, Rockaway team storyteller

“We heard a lot of people in Rockaway say “Pay attention to us — we are part of the city.” –Danielle Aubert, Placement, co-designer

Designers for social change, how might you approach a local revitalization project, purposefully undefined, with no particular client, a lengthy travel time, an interdisciplinary team of strangers, and an eleven-mile peninsula of partnership possibilities? Once a course of action is determined, expect a fair amount of surprises along the way to an unknown outcome. Welcome to TeamRock, as I like to call our Design/Relief group.

We — six design professionals brought together by a savvy program director and a desire to do meaningful work in the public realm — had a dynamic that was energetic and complementary. Each member brought an inquisitive, observational outlook and wanted to be more immediately impactful, more involved in cities. However, some were more rooted in conventional applications of design and others were more ambitious in project scope. For example, though we unamimously agreed our project would aim to strengthen the community through oral history and art, disagreement flared when choosing a direction and level of permanence. Would we produce an exhibition space to rekindle a museum or a guerrilla-style street art campaign to teach tactical urbanism techniques?

In the end, the participatory nature of our design process prevailed, and I like to think the 100+ interviews recorded, the poster series colorfully adorning the streets, and the quotes stenciled onto sidewalks were only the beginning. To me, “Dear Rockaway,” is a catalyst for conversations and collaborations toward more vibrant life across the peninsula.

For more information, visit the “Dear Rockaway,” website.


“Dear Rockaway,” newspaper inserts

All images courtesy of AIGA/NY.

The Red Hook HUB team is composed of Alicia Cheng (MGMT., designer), Anke Stohlmann (Lil’ Robin, designer), James Andrews (community engagement strategist), and David Al-Ibrahim (storyteller).

The Catch—&—Release team is composed of Yeju Choi (project lead designer), Francesca Birks and Josh Treuhaft (Arup, community outreach strategists), The Public Society (part 1 storytellers), and Tyler Silvestro (part 2 storyteller).

The “Dear Rockaway,” team is composed of Natasha Chandani and Danielle Aubert (Placement, designers), Zach and Greg Mihalko (Partners&Partner, designers), Daniel Latorre (The Wise City, community outreach strategist), and Carolyn Louth (art director/strategist, storyteller).

The Design/Relief management team is composed of Willy Wong, Glen Cummings, Rachel Abrams, and Manuel Miranda of the AIGA/NY Executive Project Board and Laetitia Wolff, Design/Relief Program Director.

Laetitia Wolff is a design curator, strategist, and author, self-described as a cultural engineer, interested in design and its relationship to the city. She creates projects that generate new discourses and experiences around design’s potential as a tool for change and investigation. She joined the NY chapter of AIGA to direct the Design/Relief program and now leads the organization’s civic initiatives.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Robin Ooi April 22, 2015

Love the work from “Dear Rockaway” team so much!

Especially how you guys seek a more direct engagement with the Seaport community by gathering longtime activists, residents, business owners, and young designers to map what they considered to be local treasures…

Keep up the great work guys!

Terence Lim September 22, 2016

Love that “Dear Rockaway” posters. More importantly your great work inspired me for social change.

Keep up the great work!