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Policy Meets Design: Rebranding Immigrant Day Labor

It's 4:45 a.m. A Guatemalan day laborer wakes up in his Staten Island home that was damaged during Hurricane Sandy. By 5:45 a.m. he needs to be at the same street corner where he always waits for contractors when they come by looking for workers. It's dark and rainy outside, and he'll be soaked by the time he's picked up. It's no way to start a day and just one of many reasons why permanent hiring halls are needed, and have been an goal of one New York City organization since it first started.


El Centro del Inmigrante is a Staten Island group that promotes the economic advancement and security of immigrant workers. We partnered with El Centro during the Spring 2013 semester as part of a unique collaboration at The New School between Milano Urban Policy students and Parsons' Communication Design students. Our goal was to envision a new hiring hall in Staten Island.

The hiring hall would provide workers with a safe, dry, and warm place to wait for contractors. It would include necessities like bathrooms, while also providing immigrants with services like job training and citizenship classes. Hiring halls would also help workers avoid harassment from residents, storeowners, and anti-immigrant groups.

We saw our collaboration as an opportunity to build on the strengths of our disciplines and amplify our impact. Professor Jeff Smith advised the Milano Urban Policy students as part of a course called "Laboratory in Issue Analysis." They analyzed the issues involved in obtaining and running a hiring hall. Professor Andrew Shea taught "Visualizing Public Policy," a class in which students used design thinking to translate the public policy into easy-to-understand forms.

Milano students researched the feasibility of a hiring hall on Staten Island, where day laborers have played an important part in the post-Hurricane Sandy cleanup. Students evaluated the benefits and drawbacks of various locations, using traditional policy analytic approaches, which provided a framework to help guide El Centro. "The recommendations offered key insights on various models and best practices nationally," said Julie Behrens, an El Centro consultant. "We're forging ahead with our efforts to develop this important community asset."

The Parsons students read through the recommendations before visiting El Centro and thought they would be visualizing the hiring hall. But they were quick to point out that El Centro's logo did not reflect their community outreach and advocacy, while El Centro’s branding and website—El Centro’s public face—felt stale. Students were also aware of the hostilities that immigrant workers face, and envisioned an awareness campaign to address those hostile public perceptions. El Centro quickly signed off. They knew these upgrades would strengthen their organization and would help them better-promote their work

The new logo uses the same colors, but features a handshake neatly wrapped inside a "C" to symbolize El Centro's goal of building community bonds. They choose Memphis, a slab-serif typeface, since it adds weight and suggests that immigrants should not be thought of as transient. The new website design features larger imagery and better hierarchy that creates a more immersive experience.

Students called the awareness campaign, "Yo Trabajo" ("I Work") to help people relate to immigrants by highlighting common reasons why people work. It functions as a template that people can customize with different images and handwritten explanations of why they work.

Students presented their final design materials to El Centro along with a style guide that included production details. The students' fresh perspective helped clarify El Centro's vision, according to Behrens; the organization will soon implement the designs.

Milano-Parsons collaborations are rare, but everyone agrees this was worthwhile; Parsons' students learned how policy analysis can inform their design approach, and Milano students were able to see their recommendations evolve. Our students gained critical new insights from their collaborators' divergent approach.

Given the variation in how people approach social problems—stemming from neurological, cultural, and experiential differences—we recommend similar trans-disciplinary collaborations to meet new challenges. By building relationships and embracing different paradigms early in the collaborative process, groups can broaden their perspective, and make a difference with visionary organizations like El Centro.

Milano students: Nohely Alvarez, Nicole Brownstein, Justine Gonzalez, Benjamin Van Couvering, and Marco Zelaya

Parsons students: Leonardo Araujo, Shravika Bothra, Ambar Del Moral, Constantine Giavos, Jacob Hernandez,Anthony Iciano, Lindsey Kim

Images courtesy of Andrew Shea

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