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Students from the Visualizing Public Policy course at Parsons and the Urban Policy Lab at Milano present a proposal for policy reform to the Correctional Association of New York. Photo by Benjamin Ace.
Students from the Visualizing Public Policy course at Parsons and the Urban Policy Lab at Milano present a proposal for policy reform to the Correctional Association of New York. Photo by Benjamin Ace.

Designer, Meet Policymaker

Always seeking new challenges, The New School is now taking a stab at prison reform. After a yearlong campaign, the Correctional Association of New York is contemplating a major makeover—from both a policy and design standpoint— thanks to a collaboration between The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy and Parsons The New School for Design. Students in the Urban Policy Lab, a course overseen in part by assistant professor Jeff Smith, partnered with Communication Design students from assistant professor Andrew Shea’s Visualizing Public Policy class. The collaboration exposes “right-brained” and “left-brained” students to each other, creating a more robust final product for clients who work with the Policy Lab.

“Today, so many of our policy problems have major design processes,” says Smith. “Policy analysts and designers need to cohesively interact in order to maximize political feasibility and impact.”

Photo by Benjamin Ace.

Photo by Benjamin Ace.

Now in its second year, the collaborative lab—composed of four eight-student teams equally representing Milano and Parsons—develops policy recommendations and designs for a range of real-world clients. Over about six weeks’ time, teams complete two proposals that they then present. Many of the clients end up incorporating the students’ proposals into their existing strategic plans or campaigns.

“Today, so many of our policy problems have major design processes,” says Smith. “Policy analysts and designers need to cohesively interact in order to maximize political feasibility and impact.”

The Correctional Association, a nonprofit founded in the early 20th century, spent the last year looking at prison conditions in order to advocate for parole reform, particularly for aging convicts. The campaign, titled Releasing Aging People from Prison (RAPFP), requested a rebranding and policy analysis from The New School team. Although the endeavor was always collaborative, complexities arose resulting from the differences in the approaches used by the policy students and the design students. “Design students think in a much more nonlinear fashion,” says Smith. “They are structured differently, and tend to work in larger teams with constant feedback. We teach Milano students to think in a linear manner, and often alone.”

Overcoming that difference is an essential part of the course, says Smith, and the lesson was not lost on students. “The Parsons students reformatted and redesigned the Correction Association’s campaign logo, really pinpointing how to best convey the RAPFP debate to the general public,” says Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye, a Master’s student at Milano. “That’s something the rest of us never would have thought to incorporate, and definitely wasn’t an easy task to complete in just six weeks.”

For students from Milano, understanding the community they were dealing with—the prison population—was crucial to their analysis. “People who are incarcerated aren’t really seen as people by the general public,” says Ndugga-Kabuye. “Part of our research was looking at current policy and understanding the human costs associated with the issue.” In the end, the team presented easily digestible infographics, a new logo, and policy proposals to the Correctional Association in early March, with very positive feedback.

“Working with a design team vastly expanded my outlook and understanding of urban policy reform and campaigns,” Ndugga-Kabuye explains. “The Parsons students are able to visually re-create what we were thinking and came up with a host of ideas that greatly influenced and restructured our original proposal.”

That sentiment is precisely what Smith sought to generate when designing his course. “We want our policy students to understand that in our current complex world, there’s a critical design component to campaigns and reform initiatives,” he says. “And for the Parsons students, they want to do more than make beautiful things—they want to give back to the world. This lab underlines the deep relationship between the both policy and design.”

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