The full version of this article on the United Nations design team appears in the October issue of Print, the International Design issue. In this issue, we celebrate designers from around the globe as they give voice to the mute, chronicle key historic movements and show how design impacts peoples’ lives. Get Print on your favorite device or, of course, in print.
By Grace Dobush
When the United Nations was founded in 1945, World War II had left the planet shell-shocked. Its forerunner, the League of Nations, had failed to prevent a second global conflict from happening, so representatives from 50 nations met in San Francisco to create a charter for a more peaceful future.
Almost 70 years later, the U.N. has 193 member countries, and its iconic logo and cornflower blue (PMS 279) are recognized everywhere. The azimuthal north polar projection of the world flocked by olive branches, designed in-house, has represented the organization since 1946. Creating messages that resonate with a global audience is no easy task, but a group of dynamic designers within the U.N. takes on the challenge.
The Graphic Design Unit of the United Nations might be the best in-house gig in the world. This team of 10, led by Ziad Al-Kadri, is creating work for a global audience with a level of exposure that few creatives ever attain.
The world looks to the U.N. for proposed solutions to complex problems nearly everywhere, from ending conflict and alleviating poverty to combating climate change and defending human rights. The issues on the U.N.’s agenda are manifold, and so are the resulting projects in its GDU’s portfolio. Whether creating the branding for a major international U.N. campaign in six languages or designing a simple brochure for one of its offices, the creative team aims to bring the organization’s message to life.
CULTIVATING A GLOBAL TEAM
The GDU works out of an inconspicuous building in Manhattan. Mazes of security checkpoints for visitors streaming into the main U.N. Headquarters are just a few blocks away from the entrances to the U.N. outbuildings.
The GDU has carved out a creative space for itself on the ninth floor (well, as much as it can among the regulation cubicles with U.N.–blue walls). A magnetic chalkboard wall that the group painted itself is labeled in tic-tac-toe fashion with the names of the seven designers, along with space for the projects they’re currently working on. The creative cubicle adornments are much like you’d see in any design firm, but they’re unusual for those typically seen in the U.N. “People from other areas will come into the office and say, ‘This feels homey,’” says designer Armin Kadic. Designer Marko Srdanovic adds that the GDU shows that “the U.N. isn’t just dark suits and serious meetings.”
Some of the GDU team members have long histories with the organization: Designer Matias Delfino volunteered for the U.N. in Argentina as a student, and designer Claire Anholt worked for UNICEF in India before coming to New York. Growing up in the Balkans, Kadic was hired at age 16 to work as an interpreter for peace- keeping missions, meeting with mayors and ministers.
When collectively asked why they work for the U.N., the designers’ collegiality is evident. Mackenzie Crone, who previously designed for agencies, says, “It’s so much better to work for something you believe in”—as opposed to creating amazing campaigns for a product that you don’t feel connected to.
A humanitarian outlook is a predictably common motivation among the team mem- bers. “Every one of us probably feels like we have a mission to accomplish: to help change the world—with design,” Al-Kadri says. “Design can really evoke emotion and get people to react. The mission drives us.”
The challenges for the GDU are plenty: Their work has to be translated to many languages, so the messages must be clear and concise. In addition to projects being translated to all of the U.N.’s six official lan- guages—English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese—the work might also be adapted for any of the member states’ 4,000 native languages. (One tour guide at Headquarters remarked that the worst thing you can tell an interpreter is a joke.)
Often the GDU creates templates or materials for the 63 U.N. Information Centres around the world to build upon or deploy, and can’t anticipate how the final products will eventually look. “People will take the original designs and give them another life in their own language,” Al- Kadri says. For example, in India, individuals from the UNIC incorporated balloons that matched the color of speech bubbles in a logo campaign, which the GDU saw pictures of and loved.
There’s also the issue of people: Much attention is given to ethnic diversity and gender parity, to make sure no one group is over- or under-represented. Most images come from U.N. photographers in the field as well as from other U.N. entities such as UNICEF. (Images of child soldiers must be untraceable, so former soldiers cannot be retaliated against today.) The GDU also shies away from stock photography, lest the same image be used by someone else for an unrelated (or less noble) project. That led Delfino to create the image for his International Year of Forests campaign from leaves pilfered from a colleague’s plants, and photographed at his home. “I was surprised by the amount of creativity and freedom we have inside those restrictions and sensitivities,” Anholt says. “I expected more blockages. The team has figured out how to work creatively within those restrictions.”
When promoting an idea (especially ones of the utmost gravity), the wording has to be meticulously crafted: The U.N. campaigns can only help raise awareness, spread a message or call for action. As such, the main focus of the branding work that the GDU does focuses on raising awareness.
That, of course, is hard to measure. Aside from asking member states or nongovernmental organizations for feedback on campaigns or ideas, it’s impossible to know how effective a given visual was. And while the number of shares and likes on social media can help gauge how a campaign is received, there’s no way to tell whether the person liked the design or the message itself. But “if people have seen it, you have made a connection,” says Martin Samaan, senior designer.
UNDERSTANDING THE BUREAUCRATIC BACKGROUND
As any design group can attest to, the past decade has brought much change, and the rise of digital communication and social media has substantially influenced how the GDU works. On top of that, an initiative to cut down paper use within the U.N., combined with the flooding of the in-house printing office in the Headquarters’ third basement during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, led to some restructuring.
On the U.N. org chart, the GDU sits figuratively just a few levels down from secretary-general Ban Ki-moon: Al-Kadri’s team is under outreach division director Maher Nasser (who, as a boy, attended a U.N. school for Palestinian refugees in Ramallah, writing in notebooks emblazoned with the iconic logo). Nasser reports to the under-secretary-general for Communications and Public Information, who reports to the secretary-general. The Secretariat is one of the main bodies of the U.N., along with the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council and the International Court of Justice. The Secretariat oversees special commissions, peacekeeping operations and the U.N. departments and offices that keep the organization running.
Al-Kadri describes his boss, Helga Leifsdottir, chief of knowledge solutions and design, as the GDU’s ambassador to upper management. Leifsdottir reports on what’s happening in GDU to maintain its visibility and defend its budget and head count, making sure the importance of having good design and retaining design talent is understood. “Upper management is happy when things work,” she says. Leifsdottir adds that management doesn’t always know what goes into keeping the creative edge alive to make “things work.”
The General Assembly actually sliced the Graphic Arts Unit out of its budget in 1948. But between 1949 and 1955, the unit was reinstated for good. According to records: “The demise of the Graphics Unit, however, has left a distinct gap in the complete work program DPI was developing. For this reason, the Information Experts recommended that it be revived.” Since, the GDU has been an integral part of the U.N.
GROWING A UNITED CULTURE
One thing that’s immediately apparent is the service culture of the GDU—all of the designers refer to working with “clients,” people who could come from any other departments of the U.N. In a way, the GDU is the common connector, as its designers (who operate on a flat hierarchy) work directly with their clients, as Al-Kadri prefers.
When a new project comes along, sometimes more than one designer will work on proposals, and the group will present the best three or four options to the client. Leifsdottir says developing trust and respect is “probably the most important asset you can have.” Like in any design firm, some clients require more hand- holding than others, and some need to feel more like a partner than a client. The GDU’s clients are often international experts on topics of global concern—but they aren’t experts in design, and so they respect the unit.
Designed projects go to the Copy Preparation and Proofreading Section for adaptation in some of the U.N.’s official languages, and are then proofed. GDU works closely with the Web Services Section to make sure that branded projects are then well adapted to the thousand-plus U.N. websites. A web brand standard is being developed by the Web Services Section to help these updates occur more seamlessly.
DESIGNING FOR A BETTER FUTURE
The designers research the subject matter they’re working on heavily, and have to consider how their concepts will be received in other parts of the globe. “Something that might [mean] something in our part of the world could have a very different meaning [elsewhere],” says Nasser. Al-Kadri adds, “We try to use a lot of [symbolic design] unless a campaign is very local in its focus, and then we get influenced by the culture itself.”
In marketing, Nasser notes, you can do research on how to make something sell, and select colors related to a product. But at the U.N., the organization is selling knowledge, and the subject matter is often very serious. Respecting the dignity of the institution, Nasser says, is of utmost importance. The GDU’s work must be optimistic and create an environment where people see the opportunity for change.
The U.N. is looking at its 70th anniversary (Oct. 24, 2015) as an opportunity to stir change, particularly with its eight Millennium Development Goals, ranging from eradicating extreme poverty and hunger to ensuring environmental stability. To support this milestone, the GDU completed the organization’s birthday branding. It depicts the number “70” with an uncompleted “0” to show that the U.N. is always in the process of working and making change within the world, as the slogan, “Strong U.N. Better World,” indicates.
To celebrate the organization’s achievements, Al-Kadri helped curate “UNearth,” a retrospective exhibit of the U.N. Department of Public Information’s work. It debuted in New York City and will be touring Europe in late 2014 and 2015. Along with photographs, film and video from 68 years of history, “UNearth” also features GDU work and art from legendary contributors including Keith Haring, Victor Vasarely, Joan Miro, Hans Erni, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Oswaldo Guayasamin. Revealing a closet with a stash of framed art in the GDU office, Al-Kadri explains that he’s trying to complete the GDU’s collection of its historical work (including some vintage posters he’s had to purchase on the internet for hundreds of dollars).
BUILDING A CAREER OF SPREADING GOODWILL
The strict hiring and promotion structure of the U.N. means that the GDU sometimes loses its designers to the private sector. But GDU vacancies occur infrequently and tenures are long. Quotas dictate geographic representation at the professional level, and foreign nationals who work at U.N. Headquarters get a G4 visa that allows them to easily travel to and from the U.S.
The U.N. gives its employees 10 days for education or training each year. Some people in the GDU take advantage of free on-site language classes; some choose to go to events like HOW Design Live or an AIGA conference. “Inspirations come from very different forces,” Leifsdottir says. “A team member could go to a museum for an afternoon. Inspiration comes from music, from smells, from talks, from what you see, from sleep, at times.”
Though the designers work fairly regular hours, you can’t predict when inspiration will strike. Apparently, Al-Kadri has a habit of sharing his ideas whenever they arise. Srdanovic recalled receiving an email from him at 2 a.m.; he then replied at 3 a.m. Crone once got a text from him at midnight on a Saturday; Samaan laughs and says he’s learned not to reply. “Your mind never stops when you’re trying to find a solution to make a difference,” Delfino says. “No matter what you’re doing, some part of your brain is trying to find a solution.”
When they hire for the GDU, Leifsdottir and Al-Kadri seek out designers who are curious, hungry for change and who also are able to find joy in their work despite the serious subject matter they’ll likely encounter. “After some meetings, you leave and you think the world [has no hope]. Refugees, people needing food—the subject areas can be very challenging and perhaps sad,” Leifsdottir says. “But at the same time, you need to come into work with [energy and respect for having the ability to design for the important matters at hand].”
“People kind of belong here. In other offices, people were kind of transitional, they were on their way to somewhere else,” Kadic says. “There wasn’t as much pride as you can see here.” Samaan adds that it’s only when they step away and look at their work that they feel like an in-house agency. “It sounds so grand,” he says.
“But the truth is it kind of is.” ▪
Grace Dobush is a freelance journalist in Cincinnati, where she writes about culture, design and history. Her work has appeared in Wired, HOW, Cincinnati Magazine and other publications. She also makes zines and organizes an indie craft show, and always loves a good slab serif typeface.
To learn more about the U.N. Graphic Design Unit, check them out at www.behance.net/unitednations.
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