Design, particularly graphic design, is not a profession that most inner city kids consider, partly because many don’t know that such a profession even exists. In fact, the whole notion that somebody had made design choices about the size, color, typography, etc. of a simple sign comes as a revelation to some kids. Jessica Weiss, a student in the nonprofit Inneract Project program, explained her surprise. “I just thought, oh, someone wrote this sign. Someone wrote that sign. No, it had to be designed.”
This is exactly the lesson that Inneract Project founder Maurice Woods hoped to pass on. Woods, a senior designer at Studio Hinrichs in San Francisco, started the program in 2004 when as a graduate student in a University of Washington’s Visual Communication Design class, he got the assignment to “Use Design to Try to Change the World.” Drawing from his own experience growing up in the violent teen-gang and drug-plagued town of Richmond near San Francisco, Woods wanted to help young adolescents expand their awareness of the career options open to them.
Woods says that he didn’t really know about design until he got into college. At 6-foot, 10- inches, Woods set his sights on becoming a major league basketball star. He played on professional international teams, but realized that he wouldn’t make it into the NBA. Armed with a basketball scholarship, Woods and his mother searched college catalogs for a profession he might like. “I’ll never forget this,” he says. “We were flipping through catalogs and my mother says, ‘This is graphic design. You used to like to draw when you were young. You should try it.’” He did, and loved it.
Luckily, Woods is also determined to use his design skills to give back to the community. For him, it starts with exposing inner city kids to the possibilities. “I ask students what design disciplines there are. They don’t know. They know animation and game art, which are within their world, but nothing else. We explain to them that the shoes on their feet, the packaging of food, the logo on their clothes, the jacket cover of CDs, everything had to be designed. Someone figured out a way to communicate something that is compelling.”
Woods’s Inneract Project focuses on middle school kids, ages 11 to 15. “We talk to parents about what design disciplines are out there and try to provide classes that give kids a segue into the professional world.” The six-week, half-day courses have been taught at Expressions College for Digital Arts in Emeryville and the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Volunteer working professionals (graphic, industrial, architecture, photography) recruited from local AIGA, AIA and other design organizations teach all the sessions. Currently, Inneract Project has nearly 100 volunteers and some 300 inner city students – and interest keeps growing.
Recently CBS Channel 5 recognized Woods with its Jefferson Award for community service. Though honored, Woods explains his motivation. “I’ve lived in Richmond all my life and I have seen a lot of kids looking for a positive outlet and not having it. I want to give kids an opportunity to use some of the things they love to do in art and turn that into a profession. Hopefully we can change their lives that way.”