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Maharam Fellows Extend the Reach of Design

Maharam Fellows Extend the Reach of Design

Ryan Murphy 15 ID couldn’t have picked a more fitting time to dive into the world of big data.

Ryan Murphy 15 ID couldn’t have picked a more fitting time to dive into the world of big data. Just a week after the Maharam Fellow started a summer internship at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in New York City, National Security Agency (NSA) employee Edward Snowden released volumes of data about the covert PRISM program. At the time, Murphy had just begun work on a complex project aimed at determining the rules and regulations surrounding the release of personal data.

“There’s more power in data than people realize,” Murphy says. “The government, corporations and philanthropic agencies all want your information for various purposes. At the WEF, I’ll be developing an ethical framework that will ensure that individuals’ rights are protected.”

The Industrial Design major is pursing his socially conscious work as part of an internship funded by the Maharam STEAM Fellowship in Applied Art and Design. This is the second summer the New York-based textiles company has provided stipends for RISD students to bring critical, creative thinking to projects with government agencies or nonprofits dedicated to improving public policy and tackling social issues. In addition to Murphy, nine other RISD students have been awarded internships – for instance, to address the causes of crime in urban cultures, conduct scientific research in a marine biological lab and study the intersections of textile arts and cultural identity in the Amazonian rainforest.

“No matter the field, design has a tremendous amount of potential to change the way information is absorbed and disseminated,” notes Murphy. “I’m so excited to delve into this project from the perspective of an artist.”

Maharam Fellows Kelsey Lim 14 GD and Keela Potter 14 GD are working with Rhode Island’s Board of Elections to pinpoint areas where design can be used to improve how elections are run throughout the state. Their summer internship is a continuation of RISD Votes, an initiative they launched in 2012 to encourage, educate and assist RISD students with exercising their civic duty while also promoting political involvement within the community.

In looking at RI’s election policies and procedures, “many of the methodologies haven’t been changed for decades,” notes Lim, adding: “We bring fresh eyes to the process.” And there’s plenty of room for improvement, the two graphic designers note. During a recent visit to a special election held in Coventry, RI, they were handed three small trash bags haphazardly stuffed with an assortment of multicolored papers. But much to their surprise, the jumbled materials weren’t bound for the recycling center; they were actually the official documents necessary for moderators to run state elections.

Disorganization can create more than just a headache for those attempting to exercise their civic duty. It can result in real consequences: unbearably long lines for the disabled at the polling stations, ballot miscounts and even electoral fraud. Governments at the state and national level routinely pay millions of dollars to rectify egregious voting errors.

The graphic designers are also looking at the signage intended to direct voters to the polls. Due to legislative and budgetary constraints, the majority of posters are printed in black and white using all capital letters. “The ability to vote is one of the most basic American rights,” explains Potter. “And yet the voting process is so convoluted and hard to navigate for both the election organizers and for those who cast a ballot.”

Lim and Potter are excited to share the results of their intensive research this summer. “We feel very passionately about lending our design expertise to better these systems that are essential to a free democracy,” notes Lim. “Improving one seemingly small part of the election process could have such a huge impact.”

–Abigail Crocker