Project M: Design that Makes a Difference

Forty trees lay horizontal in Nancy Collins’ yard, an enormous pine had split Lori Reed’s house cleanly in half, and Suzan Matherne’s home studio sat, roofless, its contents completely damaged by water. Yet on Thursday, September 15, all three women walked into the opening session of the AIGA national design conference.

The New Orleans designers were wary of leaving this mess behind to attend what would feel more like a vacation. “When the storm hit, I thought there was no way I could go,” Reed says. “There was too much to deal with. But then, my house was uninhabitable, there was not a hotel room within 300 miles and I had grown tired of flopping on friends’ couches. A luxury hotel room with an actual bed, running water and electricity was a dream. Plus, I needed to escape this hell, even for only a weekend.”

But as representatives of the AIGA/New Orleans, they also had a mission: enlist help for the designers they left behind from those who knew them best—the 2,400 designers at the conference. “I felt a responsibility to our chapter, to our entire design community,” Matherne says. “I wanted to help give our chapter a voice, a face, to represent them in person and hopefully help.”

Arriving in Boston on the same day, and also seeking support from their fellow designers, John Bielenberg, Kodiak Starr and Lucia Dinh maneuvered a lumbering refitted 1995 Chevy 3500 ambulance into the Hynes Convention Center. Starr and Dinh had spent the summer under Bielenberg’s guidance in Belfast, ME, converting the ambulance for the Project Mentor initiative, one part of Project M (, a summer program that’s brought recent graduates to Maine each summer since 2003. With adequate funding, the Mbulance was planning to depart Boston on a country-wide tour to record mentoring experiences and advice for designers.

With its driver, Starr, dressed in an authentic EMT suit, its strobing lights and hyper-reflective stickers, and hundreds of attendees sporting bright blue stickers promoting the Project Mentor Expedition Team, the Mbulance generated the most buzz of any exhibitor at the conference. But it was second, of course, to the still-growing disaster on the Gulf Coast.

Days after Katrina hit, New York studio The Chopping Block had launched Displaced Designer (, a message board for designers to post information about their safety and location, then their requests or offers for help. AIGA assembled a task force, started a relief fund and began hosting a similar service on its site. William Drenttel, partner in Winterhouse Studio and founder of design blog Design Observer, noticed that efforts were being duplicated. He contacted The Chopping Block on AIGA’s behalf with an offer to combine resources. Immediately, hundreds of requests for supplies, temporary housing, office space and education began to be matched by volunteers.

Beginning just two weeks post-Katrina, the AIGA conference added several sessions to address issues of relief and recovery, as well as the future role that designers could play in evacuation and emergency procedures. On Friday, September 16, the New Orleans designers, along with Drenttel, now acting as task force director, participated in a panel on AIGA’s progress. During the emotional hour-and-a-half, it became painfully apparent that between the offers for help and the requests from those in need was a huge physical disconnect. Any hope of getting the outpouring of supplies promised by studios across the country would require a expensive logistical coordination. At one point, Reed thought aloud that what they really needed was a mobile studio that could bring computers, materials and resources to the designers in need.

During a break, Nancy Collins saw the Mbulance parked in the exhibitor hall and approached the first person she saw with a blue M’ sticker. It was Bielenberg. She asked him what the M’ was for, and Bielenberg explained Project Mentor’s goal to travel the country speaking with designers. “Are you coming to the Gulf Coast?” asked Collins. “After Katrina we are sorely in need.” Collins and Bielenberg both suddenly realized the potential value of the gargantuan vehicle.

Within a few days, the Mbulance had changed its mission. Bielenberg set dates for the Mbulance’s arrival in New Orleans. Several enthusiastic conference attendees offered sponsorship to pay for travel expenses. Bielenberg and Starr contacted studios, schools and AIGA chapters from Maine to Mississippi to begin coordinating donations. On October 12, with Starr once again as Bielenberg’s co-pilot, the Mbulance returned to Boston for the first of 10 scheduled pickups.

In 10 days, Bielenberg and Starr drove over 1,800 miles, from Belfast, ME, to New Orleans, stopping to load up in Boston, Connecticut, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Washington D.C., Charlotte and Atlanta. They collected—and this list is by no means complete—five iMacs, five G4s, eight monitors, seven printers, four scanners, portable hard drives, Pantone chip books, several tons of office supplies, books and furniture, and over $1,200 in monetary donations and gift cards.

By posting information on the Displaced Designer and AIGA/New Orleans website, sending emails, repeated calls to cell phones as service improved, and, the most valuable communication tool in post-Katrina Louisiana, word of mouth, the Mbulance team scheduled three events in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Mandeville. For many of the designers who attended, some of whom hadn’t designed at all in past two months, coming together in this context was therapeutic: the Mbulance became a physical representation of assistance, and one that wasn’t wrought with the frustration of federal aid agencies. “Just to have other creatives to talk to rather than insurance agents or FEMA or Red Cross or contractors,” Reed says. “It brought hope that we are still a creative community.”


Although sponsored and coordinated by AIGA, the Mbulance promised to help all designers, regardless of their affiliation, and many who came to the events were shocked that they could just show up, with no paperwork or long lines, to get the materials they needed. Phil and Carrie Molay are principals in the design firm Moonshine Studio, and had lost all their design tools when their home office was submerged under eight feet of water. Now working out of a small rented house, they heard about the Mbulance visit from some friends who were members of AIGA. The Molays received a blueberry iMac, an Epson printer, a scanner and a copy of InDesign, in addition to various supplies. Suzan Matherne, awaiting a FEMA trailer to work out of while her home is repaired, even found the source of her donation. “I received an Adobe Creative Suite, which found its way to me by way of another designer, who received it from (Kansas City-area designer) Ann Willoughby,” she says. “I am so very grateful, I just can’t tell you.”

“Many people had specific needs and I would guess that everyone who had specific request got at least 90% of what they wanted,” Starr says. “Several people got computers, monitors, scanners, printers, plus many other supplies—everything they needed to at least get business going again.”

The Mbulance’s detour south revealed the exceptional cooperation of tiny, tight-knit networks of designers who supported and served each other from every edge of the country. Believing in this impossibility when formulating their plan made the Mbulance team reconsider what they thought was truth: that large, far-reaching agencies like the Red Cross would be able to help more than two men and a 10-year-old ambulance. This way of thinking is something Bielenberg wants to instill in the graduates of Project M—something that he calls “thinking wrong.”

“Our project definitely took a turn when we decided to support the AIGA/New Orleans chapter instead of a mentoring road trip,” Bielenberg says. “Altering our plan from a mentoring tour to a relief mission to New Orleans has a certain ‘think wrong’ aspect. Also, the speed at which we organized and funded the expedition forced us to ignore convention and advice.”

“I kept telling John Bielenberg that Mbulance should only make the trip if designers in New Orleans thought it would be helpful,” says Drenttel. “John made it happen, and it was a huge success. I think part of it was the donations, which were sorely needed. It was also this symbolic vehicle, which had made so many stops along the way, arriving there. Mbulance became a meeting place.”

“I love that this project happened so quickly and there was such a great response, all the way from our sponsors, to the local sign shop that made free decals for us on the spot, and all the people along the way,” says Starr, who’s now freelancing in New York City. “The ‘thinking wrong’ part is just going for it and not planning everything out, just following your gut and giving it a shot. We did not have support from everyone, I think people were thinking about it too much and not reacting to the real situation. It seems people are afraid to take a chance—and most great things come about because of a mistake or risk. The only way it would have been a failure would have been if we did not go.”

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