The most remarkable thing about Designmatters studios—and I’ve led a few, over many years—is that every challenge from our partners is intractable, enormous, truly impossible. Inspiring women in underserved neighborhoods to get cervical cancer screenings, when they don’t have the time, the money, or the interest. De-glamorizing guns to a generation of teenagers who grew up steeped in violent videogames and movies. Motivating reluctant LAUSD parents to vaccinate their kids against HPV. On the first day of every single studio, I’ve secretly thought, “This problem is just too big: there’s no way.”
But the students never disappoint. They approach each challenge with perfect optimism, coupled with a sober sense of purpose: it’s a big problem, sure, but it’s our job now to figure out how to fix it.
It was that way with the Safe Motherhood studio, sponsored by the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund). The students were presented with the challenge of getting finance and health ministers from the developing world, where women typically suffer from low status, to treat maternal mortality as a public-health emergency. Undaunted, the students decided early on that the usual sentimental appeals would mean nothing to this audience, and after several rounds of brainstorming settled instead on assertive, clear-talking graphic materials and videos that amplified a startling statistic—that every minute of every day, a woman in the developing world dies from complications relating to pregnancy or childbirth. Almost ten years later, these materials are still in use, and have been part of the one of the great success stories in public health—the precipitous decline in rates of maternal mortality in the developing world. This intractable, enormous, truly impossible problem was cut down to size, thanks to the unrelenting optimism (and smart thinking and hard work) of Designmatters students.
As principal of a strategic planning consulting firm, Elena Salij advises advertising agencies and marketers.
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