Michael Kelly, an industrial design graduate student, and Liah Perez, a fourth-year graphic design student, participated in EUREKA!, an intensive 48-hour School of Design blitz focused on helping children make healthy choices at Ryan’s Recreation Center in Rochester. Kelly and Perez met with recreation staff and kids, worked in teams to come up with a plan and created videos to present their solutions. Kelly, a Morristown, N.J., native, is also a musician and a graduate assistant. Perez, a Dominican Republic native, has been involved with RIT Singers, RIT Encore and Latin Rhythm Dance Club.
Question: What brought you to RIT?
Michael Kelly: When I was a research fellow at Herman Miller, I worked with a former fellow, Dan Rucker, who graduated from the master’s industrial design program at RIT. I also had the lucky opportunity to work with Josh Owen, design program chair. As a result, I visited and realized RIT was the place for me. I feel welcomed here and have a personal connection to the design program.
Liah Perez: The Dominican Republic has a scholarship affiliation with RIT, so that’s the main reason why I’m here. I came during winter quarter and jumped right in.
Q: What is the EUREKA! program?
Kelly: It’s a program designed to connect us with the community and help us use the design skills we’ve learned and are working on to make a difference. Our task was to figure out how to help kids at the recreation center to make healthy choices.
Q: How did you work through the problem?
Kelly: When we arrived at the recreation center, the most interesting thing we found was how wrong our assumptions were. We thought that healthy choices meant eating right and exercising. In this context, however, we found healthy choices are the ones that keep 12-year-old kids from having to go to their friends’ funerals. After that, we completely switched up our research focus.
Perez: My team brainstormed ideas but after we met the staff and played with kids at the recreation center our ideas changed dramatically.
Q: What was your team’s solution?
Kelly: Our solution, Rec Fam, aims to institutionalize the connection that kids have to each recreation center and encourage kids to carry home symbols of the morals they learn there. We want to unite the recreation center though collaboration and competition and create a pin reward system for the things they do. When kids achieve something outstanding, their mentors and peers will also be able to celebrate that achievement using prominent displays in the rec centers.
Perez: We presented a solution of having students from different colleges around Rochester starting with RIT go on different field trips with kids from the recreation center. Students would go out in groups with the kids so they can experience new things and get outside more. We want to start an organization on campus to coordinate the outings.
Q: How are you continuing to develop your team’s solution after the program?
Kelly: We have support from RIT faculty and are in the process of drafting a proposal now. The plan is to re-engage with the recreation center and learn more to develop a real solution that we can test and implement.
Perez: My team is meeting with leadership staff on campus in the near future to discuss our ideas.
Q: What is the biggest thing you learned from this program?
Kelly: How utterly necessary social design work is. It’s tough—as designers we’re often asked to make things look good. Our skills and our methods are worth more than that. To do good by design is a very powerful thing.
Perez: I participated last year in Project M, the first design blitz that came to campus. Since then, I fell in love with the idea of social design so I really want to go to graduate school and study social design. Both of the design programs impacted me and I’m inspired by design that makes a difference.
Q: What advice would you give to students who are just starting out in social design?
Kelly: Ask the honest questions you’re afraid to ask. Be real with the people you’re trying to help.
Perez: Jump in and immerse yourself in whoever your audience is and engage with the community.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
Kelly: I came to RIT because I believe it’s the best place for me to find the answer to that question. I don’t know yet but I have faith that what we’re all doing is leading us down a right path.
Perez: I graduate this semester so I have been applying for the Fulbright Scholarship to go study social design in Denmark. I also plan to apply to work in creative agencies with a high interest in non-profit work and social design.
Traci Turner compiles “Student Spotlights” for University News. Contact her at email@example.com with suggestions.