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Purpose By Design

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WRITTEN BY: SHAUNA JOHNSON

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At times, graphic design — the creation of visual content to communicate messages — can become something bigger than client service or the selling of a product, something fueled instead with purpose for the benefit of society at large.

It’s in that space where Kofi Opoku, an associate professor of graphic design in West Virginia University’s School of Art and Design, prefers to work as he brings together his interests in design and technology to generate conversations around issues of public concern.

In one iteration of his core research, Opoku, a self-described visual communicator serving a range of clients, is focused on whether homelessness in Morgantown can be better understood when viewed through the lens of design.
“I see technology as this tool that can clarify problems, rather than technology existing as a solution in itself,” Opoku said.

His latest experimentation involves virtual reality, which immerses users in simulated 3D environments, and augmented reality, which superimposes information on real-world objects, and potential applications of both for experiential educational and documentary benefits in graphic design teaching and practice. 

“I’m always on the quest to find new tools for storytelling,” he said.

Specifically, Opoku has tested VR and AR photo and video additions for his existing catalog of personal stories from unsheltered Morgantown residents first profiled in “Face of Homelessness,” a humanization project he launched in 2017. 

“Think of it this way: A book follows a sequential order and has sight and touch as its primary sensory inputs. Websites are nonlinear and can utilize the sensory inputs

of sight and sound. AR and VR are nonlinear and even more expanded in their sensory input,” Opuku explained.

The idea is to give people ways to explore issues on their own by enriching otherwise ordinary content presentations. 

“It introduces the body and gestural control to navigate content. The more sensory input points involved, the greater the potential for engagement.”

Homelessness was an issue Opoku first took on via graphic design starting in 2013 with “Hidden in Plain Sight,” or HIPS, a digital, more data-driven approach to the issue.
“I started from there, started playing with all the statistics 
and data, visualizing the data, understanding the data of homelessness, but it wasn’t enough and so the offshoot of that became the stories,” Opoku said of the later “Face of Homelessness” project, currently available in digital and print formats and the winner of multiple design awards, including a Gold Award from Horizon Interactive in the Advocacy/ Nonprofit category.

Originally from Ghana, West Africa, Opoku, a former advertising art director and former video editor, moved to the United States in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree in graphic design at WVU.

Man Smiling

Kofi Opoku, an associate professor of graphic design in West Virginia University’s School of Art and Design. 

His volunteer work with a church meals program exposed him to societal and economic disparities in a country with, what he saw as, so much opportunity and available support services. 

“Graphic designers always try to bridge this gap between their clients and their customers. In this case, the homeless project, I don’t really have a client. There is an issue. I do have a customer and I want them to think clearly about the issue,” he said.

Homelessness is an issue that, in his view, is — at best — not understood properly or — at worst — ignored.

“Design should not be relegated to conventional problem- solving, whereby design becomes the Band-Aid for our social or marketing issues. Design is also good for an accurate
and engaging presentation of a problem. It should promote dialogue,” Opoku said.

The pursuit of that in his work involves offering opportunities to see unsheltered people in new ways, giving stakeholders, organizers and community members access to alternative perspectives.

“There isn’t a single, cookie-cutter way of saying, ‘This is exactly what makes a person homeless.’ It’s not there. It’s unique to each individual. Just think about it, that’s what the website, “Face of Homelessness,” is saying,” Opoku said.

Though the project remained largely stalled through the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s one that may never be fully finished. Along with additional VR and AR options, Opoku’s hoping

to conduct more interviews to amplify other voices and his project is also already serving as inspiration for the separate “Humans of Morgantown” awareness project from students in the Reed College of Media’s Martin Hall Agency.

“It’s not meant to be a stale thing,” he said. “The project is an ongoing endeavor to try and get people who have experienced homelessness to tell their stories.”

It all supports Opoku’s overall pursuit of more human- centered design.

“Graphic designers do make pretty things, but we don’t just make pretty things, we make pretty things that have purpose,” he said.