Throughout the years, our studio gifts have gotten a lot of attention. They have made their way into many design books and won design awards. But they were created essentially to prove that design could be an effective tool for social change.

Making these projects was always a win-win situation. We would be able let our ideas and passions have some air to breathe and simultaneously provide a "voice" for a non-profit organization that was working to make the world a better place. This was one of those rare occasions where everyone involved got what they wanted. In each case, the organization involved received a financial donation from us. Our work created free publicity for them, and we got to design and write the piece in any way we wanted...being able to express our own ideas without the existence of fees, client revisions, or a wild group of cooks to manage in the kitchen. However, we were always faithful to exactly what that particular organization provided to the world; that was the only absolute rule we followed.

In all honesty, these projects were never easy to produce, since they often required unusual printing or handling techniques. Most of these techniques couldn't be mechanized entirely and required the "human" touch, even though all of them were duplicated in relatively small quantities. But despite all the time we could have spent sleeping, they were well worth every moment.

This idea was truly unique when we started it in 1990. Sure, we had all seen the cards from companies that read "We have made a donation to the Hat Foundation of America in your name...etc. etc." but when I received that kind of card, the communication seemed incomplete. Perhaps it was the kid in me, but I wanted to receive something more tangible than a line of text representing what was meant to be a "present".

I began to connect my notions about gift-giving at that time and we began to make a new kind of gift at the studio. It was a communication that was alive on every front: the purposes of a not-for-profit group, the concept and design of the gift, the object itself - all blended into one unique message. What better way to make our design perspective and our social interests known all at once? What else would give our personal design ideas form, serve a useful purpose, and give our clients and friends something to carry home? These projects became, in essence, every designer's dream come true.

Sometimes just by learning about the efforts of a charity organization, I was inspired. For example, in the case of "Common Cents", I found out that this group collected $206,000 in pennies and small change the prior year through the efforts of school children, and had actually put the money into viable community projects. I was so impressed that I began to try to find a way to get their message out, directly but humorously in what later became the "Coin Gift".

I was particularly interested in finding the lesser known non-profits, the ones that have little or no money to spend on mailings or promotion. There are so many that we never hear of who are doing wonderful work. This wasn't a hard and fast rule, but I found that through the years, the projects became that much more rewarding because we were also helping to "get the word out" about a number of small but highly effective groups that certainly could use the free publicity.

Humor remained important to me in these projects, and it's a style of communication that I like to try whenever I can. In a world where far too many "good" causes get lost in an earnest request for funds, I felt that finding some humor in the whole process might get better results. This isn't always possible in the case of many organizations, and certainly not always appropriate, but whenever it can be done, it can be a really useful tool.

It's wonderful that these projects have been so successful: new audiences learned about organizations that were actually making social change; we were able to create an arena to tell them about it. "Design as social change" sounds like the title to a textbook chapter, but our experience with these projects has given me a first-hand opportunity to see it in action. That's the underlying philosophy in these studio gifts, because if you start to add up all the small efforts, even mountains will relocate over time.
© 2000 Clare Ultimo