Michael Etter (GRPK ’03) is the lead brand art director at Ziba design in Portland, Oregon. As a student at Art Center, he began a non-profit called re:active, which he continues to grow and build, finding time to mentor the young voices that he feels are vital to our collective social health. In the process, Michael hopes to encourage some of these young people to become designers and feels strongly that many issues—both global and local—can be solved with a good design approach.. His hope is to empower more advocates for change from within the communities re:active serves while having some fun in the process.
When I left behind my brief career as a teacher to become a designer, it wasn’t to get away from young people. As it turns out, it was to get closer to them. I had grown dissatisfied with the increasingly managerial role expected of me as a public school teacher, and longed to make more meaningful connections with youth but had to set that aside to pursue my own creative calling. Thus, I returned to school to study design at Art Center College of Design. One year, I found myself working simultaneously on the College’s magazine, Fishwrap, and in my spare time with young kids in the correctional facilities (specifically, with a group called the Street Poets), and from this the idea was borne to bring these two efforts together. In 2004, during my ninth term semester at Art Center, re:active taking shape, and was given time to get up to speed in the world.
re:active is a unique, communication design-based, non-profit that gives space to and celebrates teenage emotional expression. Inspired by 90’s ‘zine culture, the annual program brings together 13 to 19 year-olds to create a theme-based magazine (titled “re:”) about issues affecting youth. More recently, re:active has branched out beyond the magazine to other communication design related projects such as billboards and community narrative projects. Each year, to further re:active, I team up with diverse partners who possess complementary skills to my own design background, such as the youth writing program, 826 Valencia or Wieden + Kennedy’s youth outreach program, Caldera Arts. re: active, like Designmatters, is also part of Design Ignites Change, a nationwide network of educational projects and mentoring programs working towards social change.
In my opinion, the highlight each year with re:active is when the work goes from being a mock-up on the wall, to a perfect-bound, brightly printed finished piece that the youth participants can hold in their hands. It’s what I do it for. These kids come in with all sorts of defenses up, not unlike early art school classes, and they start with some level of cockiness or fear, bouncing between grandiosity and the belief that they could never do something as ambitious as this—sometimes in the same sentence. So I ask them to talk about it more, and we end up taking those moments as starting points for discussion about visual literacy and communication, in general, and get them ultimately to think more critically about the messages that are targeted at them every day.
When they see the finished work, you can see they’re really changed by the experience. It’s something that can help them get into a school and, importantly, the end result may be the first time that someone really cared enough about what they had to say to spend time to make it beautiful.