Igniting Local Change: LGBTQ+ Advocacy for Health Justice

About the Project



In the Fall of 2023, with the partnership of Cedars-Sinai Research Center for Health Equality, and a grant from the California Department of Public Health, this Designmatters studio challenged ArtCenter students to create a campaign that would encourage LGBTQ+ communities in LA’s South Bay to become advocates for health justice, with a focus on tobacco use. Working with researchers, policymakers and LGBTQ+ community leaders, students developed relevant communication strategies, crafted practical and provocative policymaking guides that reached across various digital platforms and analogue experiences.


“You have all been amazing and so gracious to welcome me into your space this whole semester. Thank you for all for sharing your thought processes. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to watch the process you all went through. Thank you for the care and the consideration, all your questions and curiosity.”

Dr. Shannon Kozlovich, PhD
Tobacco Prevention Project Director
Research Center for Health Equity

Research and Project Development



At the kickoff, members of the Cedars team provided students with an overall snapshot of the issues involved with LGBTQ+ communities and tobacco use; big tobacco companies have historically targeted gay audiences who often view smoking as an expression of their sexuality and an outlet for everyday stresses. Cedars shared statistics and explained their data collecting procedures. They discussed second hand smoke that are experienced often by renters in multiunit housing.

To ensure smooth communications for the students during the studio, the Cedars team defined terms they use regarding policy (equality, equity, justice) and described their data collecting on sexual orientation and gender identity along with the spectrum of gender expression. The conversation shifted to the importance of local policy makers who can help others navigate the lure of tobacco and take a more proactive stand for their health. Trained advocates who can organize and build sustainable resources for their community can be extremely influential. 

The Cedars-Sinai team shared tobacco use statistics with the students – 85 percent of lung cancers are preventable – along with how big tobacco targets queer communities through aggressive advertising. “They are masters of marketing,” the Cedars team explained, and how Big Tobacco positioned itself as supportive of LGBTQIA+ back when other companies shied away from being inclusive.


“Design is usually sometimes thought about in a consumer market context, and less often do we consider how it can be used for advocacy and activism. But this is something that Designmatters stands for, and it’s what we did in this class.”

Joshua Halstead, instructor


Historically, LGBTQ+ communities use these products at a higher rate and suffer from a higher health risks. Often, nicotine is used to combat stress and loneliness experienced, especially when younger. Other stats were sobering. A Black adult LGBTQ+ person has twice the rate of cancer from tobacco use than White. LatinX populations are twice as susceptible and transgendered individuals also have a higher rate of health risks. Presenting tobacco use as an LGBTQ+ issue, the Cedars team then described how policy and laws affect the systems we live in and impacts what happens in our schools, policing, places we shop, and places we meet others in our community. Students were asked: “What other policy arenas affect what you do and your health and well-being?” which led to a thoughtful conversation. 

The challenge was set: working closely with the Cedars experts and members of the LGBTQ+ communities, four student teams would research and strategize a campaign to create policy changes, shifts that can happen from the inside locally, and communication strategies that would be practical and provocative guides for policymaking. Students reviewed the Quit Alliance Presentation, a tobacco cessation campaign for the LGBTQIA+ communities which was created from a previous Designmatters partnership studio with Cedars. Teams also examined other successful tobacco cessation campaigns, analyzing what worked and why. The Cedars experts were generous with sharing their research, knowledge and time, and during the initial development phase, answered team questions and pointed students to specific resources. Students, especially those who are part of the LGBTQ communities, were encouraged to draw on their own personal lived experiences during this research phase.


“I find this to be the most amazingly engaging experience that I’ve ever had. It’s been an absolute joy to watch how all of you approach the topics from so many different ways and angles from your own experiences. I have never had such introspective and innovative designs presented to me. This work is more than I ever thought or could have hoped for to come out of here.”

Shannon Kozlovich,PhD
Tobacco Prevention Project Director
Research Center for Health Equity


A few weeks after the kickoff, teams shared the results of the Research Review where they described an initial focus, presented stats/resources and singled out potential campaign impacts. They offered three possible concepts they felt were realistic, personal and contemporary. “How Might We?” questions were also discussed. Each team honed into a specific audience which reflected the diversity and depth of the LGBTQ+ community. Feedback from Cedars helped teams clarify their next steps (“How can we reach this audience?” “How can we present escape as something different than smoking?”) in addition to suggesting online research resources and other help. At the end, students had a firmer idea on how to transition to the next level of their project.  Cedars commended the students on their research and how they connected intersectionality into viable concepts. Throughout the studio, students were reminded to focus on presenting concepts that would best serve their targeted audience. Crafting personas helped the students’ visualize how their design project would benefit and strengthen their slice of the LGBTQ communities. 

In addition to Cedars team members, other speakers helped illuminate and inspire. Students heard a presentation from Kae Hodge (Equality California Institute) and Ryan Oda (the California LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network) which offered insights into policy making, coalition building and issues/complications.  Aaron Fox, former head of policy for the LGBT Center and current policy advisor for County Supervisor Lindsay Horath, gave an overview of the policy process at local and state levels. A presentation by the LA County Department of Health Tobacco Control and Prevention Program shared its model approach to tobacco policy campaigns in the San Gabriel Valley. Likewise, Alisha Lopez of Pasadena-based Day One shared the components of an effective public adoption policy, and policy campaign strategies along with implementing and enforcing those policies. After each presentation, students engaged in a debrief session to discuss what they learned and how that information could be used in their foundational research and/or campaign concepts.


“Having so many students and so many different brains and perspectives on one topic was really unique. Each project was so well thought out, and each team brought their own personal experiences into their design thinking. I’m constantly inspired by every ArtCenter collaboration that we’ve had.” 

Alex Caro
Community Health Associate/Supporting LGBTQTI+ Community at
Cedars Research Center for Health Equity


Interviewing community members happened late in the studio, but teams managed to prepare, conduct and fold in the information received into their conceptual campaigns. Before conducting the Zoom interviews, students were coached on crafting effective open-ended questions, being sensitive to their interviewees’ needs and interviewing skills. Mocks ups of posters, stickers, logos and digital platforms were shown to community members/interviewees for feedback. As they worked toward the final, teams determined what they would consider as a successful campaign as well as possible next campaign steps. They also practiced presentation skills for sharing what they had researched, uncovered and created in a few short weeks.

Project Outcomes

Team Smoke Screen
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Issac Tseng, Kat Shirinyan, Gerile Yang

Targeting college-aged students in Long Beach who often live in multiunit housing, this campaign uses a sassy cat character, Ember, as the voice against tobacco use. Designed with a bright color palette that hints of a retro aesthetic, Ember also raises awareness about the unfair portrayal in the media of queer community members smoking, aka “fourth hand smoke.”

Social media friendly, light-hearted and presented with humor, Ember the miffed spokescat is featured prominently on poster designs that announce “Screen out tobacco.” QR codes opens up to a website that is designed for phone use and contains health partners, resources for the queer community and calls to action to sign petitions and join advocacy groups.

A short animation depicts Ember encountering second hand smoke, covering her large ears to block out the smell. The cat retreats to the bedroom with her human watching a show that features queer characters smoking. The cat is irked and withdraws from its human’s affection – and is shown with a clothespin on its nose. The human realizes how media is manipulating this easy acceptance of tobacco use. Stickers of Ember in various poses can be handed out at LGBTQ events.

Team Smokeout
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Selim Choi, Carolyn Huo, Zihan Yuan

A graphic zine can depict the true nature of tobacco use for LGBTQ youth who are seeking ways to escape daily pressures and navigating their oncoming adulthood. Under the 24: Link Initiative, this program directs the readers ages 12-18 to re-consider tobacco use; statistics show that youth who avoid using tobacco by age 24, probably will never take up the habit.

The warm logo colors are reminiscent of loud abstract psychedelic art; the zine will draw on powerful themes of anger, hopelessness and isolation. The goal is to provoke conservations about personal situations as they relate to the illustrated storytelling. One story could be an updated version of The Little Match Girl, who is struggling in a freezing snowy world. She uses her last match for a cigarette. The zine will include interactive aspects such as a tear-off poster – which can feature nearby resources for youth readers.

The Link 24 campaign will start via social media followed by copies of the physical zine available at LGBTQ community centers and youth/teen locations.

Vivid Voices
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Karlo Diego, Jacqueline Huo, Giusti Yang

Focusing on LGBTQ individuals within the Asian Pacific Islander (API) communities who often experience racism along with identity bias, this campaign connects users to their cultural background and their sexuality through storytelling. Visitors to the website “Love in Every Shade of API – and See Yourself in History” are invited to share their personal narrative of being API within the LGBTQ communities. Templates will help writers craft their story and add illustrations. Stories can be turned into storybooks or postcards.

To further this sense of belonging and inclusivity, visitors can share their story to a gallery and read others’ stories. Another section of the website features historical and famous LGBTQ individuals from the API community. Policy matters can also be shared to users, making them aware of big issues that affect them and how they can respond by writing letters and other advocacy activities. The logo and visual colors are soft rainbow colors with an abstract V that is “climbing upward.” Posters with famous API and inspiring quotes can be displayed on college campuses and other appropriate community locations.

Team Freedom to Breath
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Yida Jason Jiang, Skylar Lee, Christy Mary Lim, Finley Sun

There are few clinics that support gender affirming care for the transgender community (TGNC) in the South Bay, this safe and accessible online platform “Peep” offers resources, peer support and promotes smoking cessation among other advocacy issues.

The “Peep” campaign places eye-catching stickers at physical locations/neighborhoods; people tap the NFC tags to open the online platform on their phones to join a conversation, leave an inspiring note or learn the safety for TGNC members in that particular area. Sticker designs are playful iterations presented in pastel pink and blue of the TGNC flag colors. Sign language hands in ASL depict “transgendered” and “queer.” Plain stickers encourage users to create/leave their own messages. NFC tags eliminate the QR codes so there is more privacy with no personal information being transmitted.

Policy advocacy will be woven into the website encouraging users to, using templates, send letters to elected officials and sign petitions. A kit, containing stickers and pamphlets that describe the program, along with business cards listing emergency resources and discount coupons at local TGNC-friendly restaurants, can be distributed to appropriate businesses and organizations. Designed with soft friendly colors, posters describe the program which also connects users to health resources and local policy makers. A diamond logo reflects gender as binary.

The campaign can also be accessed via a website and social media. Playful stickers can also be used on Instagram. A mapping feature allows users to pinpoint a location that is TGNC safe, a tobacco smoking hub or other topics.