Mission Forward 408 with Eleni Stamoulis

Communicating For All with Eleni Stamoulis

We welcome one of our own to Mission Forward this week: inclusivity advocate and graphic designer, Eleni Stamoulis. Her voice is welcome counsel ensuring that the projects that we take on at Mission Partners are as inclusive and accessible as possible.

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We welcome one of our own to Mission Forward this week: inclusivity advocate and graphic designer, Eleni Stamoulis. She joined the Mission Partners team in 2017 and since that time, she has been involved in an extraordinary array of client and partner projects. In brand refreshes and rebrands, website redesigns, and all kinds of mission-critical campaign elements, her voice has become welcome counsel for ensuring that the projects that we take on at Mission Partners are as inclusive and accessible as possible.

We talk about Eleni’s journey as a designer and the traumatic brain injury that sent her on her path of growth and life-long learning. We talk about the power of design to transform ideas and beliefs. As she says, design isn’t just about what’s on the page. It’s about everything around us that is designed to affect change. We’re grateful that Eleni is using design to affect change for good.

She is deep into the final stages of her own MFA, where her thesis is focused on the experiences of Black, Brown, and Latinx students in design education. As such, she’s currently performing a research project that aims to understand the role race plays in the educational experience of graphic design students in the United States. Are you a design student or educator? Visit EleniStamoulis.com today and submit your response. She promises it won’t take more than 10-15 minutes of your time. Click the link to learn more!

Along the way, Eleni recommended some fantastic resources we’d like to amplify:

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox: Hi friends, and welcome to this episode of Mission Forward where each week we bring you a thought provoking and perspective shifting conversation on the power of communications as a tool for social change. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm, and certified B corporation. We have such a special conversation with graphic designer, inclusivity advocate, and my colleague at Mission Partners, Eleni Stamoulis. Let me tell you a little bit about her. I first met Eleni in 27, the same year we opened the doors at Mission Partners through our mutual connection to the Universities at Shady Grove. Over these nearly five years of working together, it’s so hard to believe actually that it’s been five years. Mission Partners clients and I have come to rely on her for just about everything from brand refreshes and re-brands to website redesigns to all kinds of mission, critical campaign elements. But most of all, I rely on Eleni’s council for ensuring that the visual brands that we work on are as inclusive and accessible as possible. As a fellow lifelong learner, Eleni is also deep into the final stages of her MFA, where her thesis is focused on the experiences of black, brown and Latinx students in design education. And I am thrilled to have her with us today on the show. Eleni, welcome to Mission Forward.

Eleni Stamoulis: Hi Carrie. It’s so good to be here. I’m so excited to talk about design and inclusivity, and all that. It’s one of my favorite topics.

Carrie Fox: Awesome. And we are so thrilled to have you as part of the Mission Partners family with your expert and the insights that you bring to the team. Eleni, I mentioned you and I have worked together for a handful of years, but I want you to go back a couple more steps. Tell me how this journey as a graphic designer has evolved for you. What first made you want to go into this field and how has your perspective on design changed in the last couple of years?

Eleni Stamoulis: So I got into the design field by pure chance. Right before I was supposed to go off to college I had a brain injury. So as you would expect, I did not go off to college. After a year or two, and I started to feel better that I could actually go to school, my goal was to just go and figure it out later because I was tired of being a sick kid. I just wanted to go out and be a normal person, quote unquote. And I luckily discovered The Universities at Shady Grove, which had a communication program through the University in Maryland. And I chose communication not because I was particularly super passionate about it to be honest, it was something that I liked well enough, and I figured was general enough that I could figure out what I wanted to do later. Like I said, I just wanted to get into school. What I didn’t know when I applied though was that this coms program at the Shady Grove campus had a visual communication emphasis with a bunch of electives and graphic design and photography, things like that. And I signed up for one of those classes, not because I knew it was visual. My orientation leader said, "Oh, take this class. The teacher’s really cool." And so I signed up, and it was great. I loved it. After the first class I was hooked. Design was so cool. You could do all these really cool things and the way you put them together affected how someone received a message. It was this combination of creativity, but analysis as well which I really loved. And I was also super fortunate that the professor of these classes, Bob Coleman, took me under his wing and fostered my growing interest in the field. He let me do a lot of independent studies with him leading up to be a TA for one course. And despite 50% of my time being in the computer lab with Bob learning, becoming the other person students would go to if they had questions, I didn’t really think of graphic design as a career because I was like, "Well, now my communication major, they’re kind of different." I thought it was like just an extra skill. And I thought I wasn’t really good enough for it to be full time. When I was about to graduate, Bob kind of took me aside and he’s like, "I know you have no idea what you want to do," which was accurate. To Bob’s credit, he knew that. And he was like, "Eleni, I think you’re really good, and I think you could do this as a career. You should look into grad school." And so I did. And with his help, we found a program that would work for me. It was University of Baltimore and I applied, he wrote my recommendation, and I got in and I started this semester after I graduated my undergrad. So I went straight into grad school, and I also loved it. There I soon realized that MA wasn’t going to be enough education for me. I wanted to be able to teach, and to teach at a college level you need a terminal degree. And more specifically, I wanted to be the type of teacher that Bob was for me. Everyone deserves to have a Bob in their life that cheers them on, and fosters their interest, and tells them that they’re good enough to do what they love to do. So I transferred into UV’s MFA and integrate design program, and that’s where I am now. And in grad school, that’s where I really began to learn more about the design field and the power design has not just kind of the mechanics of it. And it really fascinated me this idea that a poster could send a powerful message about saving the planet or racial equity. And that’s when I started to realize that design wasn’t just about graphics on a page or a screen, but that everything around us is designed, and that all that design could be used to affect change.

Carrie Fox: I love that you shared that story. For as long as I’ve known you, I’ve known bits about Bob, and I know how special he was to you, but to share that here in that detail, I love that. And I talk about that a lot too, about how important it is to have a champion, right, when you don’t even believe in yourself to have someone who believes so much in you. And my goodness, how lucky the world is that he believed in you in that moment because I’m so glad that I get to work with you in this way.

Eleni Stamoulis: Yeah. He was pretty amazing. He unfortunately passed away last year due to COVID but… So he’s not going to get to see me finish grad school, but he did see me become a designer.

Carrie Fox: That’s awesome. I want to touch on something that you just introduced because it’s really been key to a lot of your work the last couple years. And it sounds like you… it perhaps didn’t step into the field knowing that this was going to be your focus, but you now really have centered in around social justice, and even more explicitly racial justice and design. Talk to me about what was that moment that made you realize that you wanted to zero in your thesis on this topic.

Eleni Stamoulis: It was a combination factors. In grad school I started to learn more traditional design theory and history. And to be honest, it’s very white and it’s very male. It didn’t change how much I loved design, but it did make me reexamine the dynamics at play. Around that time I also discovered how non-diverse our field is. About 71% of the field is white with I think, 3% identifying as black African American, 8% as Latinx, which in comparison to the labor force is a huge disparity. Black and African American people make up about 13% of the labor force, and Latinx make up about 18%. So there’s a huge gap there. And it’s kind of ironic in some ways because designs often used to amplify the message of racial equity. In summer of 2020, we saw all those amazing, moving posters and ads and things like that. But internally as a field design is not very diverse. And like I mentioned, a lot of design history and theory is very Eurocentric and based on Western ideologies. And as I was talking with classmates about it, I came also realized that some of my classmates and I do not have similar educational experiences. I am a white cisgendered woman whose family was well off enough that they could pay all my medical bills when I had a brain injury, send me to college, help me with grad school, help support me during college. I was able to find an amazing job through connections from my school, had an amazing mentor. So despite having a pretty debilitating medical condition and all the challenges associated with that, my academic experience was still a lot easier than some of my classmates of color. And I found that pretty unfair because I struggled a lot, and it’s just not okay that other people are running into issues that they also have no control over and they don’t have the same privileges in life that I had. And so all of this kind of led me to my thesis topic where I’m researching the role race plays in design education with an eye on what educators can do to better support black brown and Latinx students. This idea of upholding Eurocentric teachings, and lack of role models, and this systemic racism I play in education all perpetuates this otherness of an exclusion from the field. And there’s a lot we can do in education to be more inclusive, and educators have a huge role in that. When I picked this topic in the spring of 2020, it was a great idea, but it became so much more relevant in the following months. And I know of few weeks ago you talked with Tim Hikes about the power of design and its ability to tell stories and connect with people. And at the base of it, if design isn’t diverse, we’re going to lose some of that power to connect with people because the connection won’t be genuine anymore. And so my job at Mission Partners has really allowed me to explore that power to dynamics design at role at plain design. But my thesis research I’m hoping will help me give more of that power to historically marginalized voices. Yeah.

Carrie Fox: Eleni, hearing you talk, it’s making me think about all of the work that’s happened in recent years to diversify the STEM fields. And for a long time, it first start started on technology. How do we diversify the technology field? And we saw a lot of time, and energy, and resource being put into as far down into elementary school levels to ensure that young people were not opting out of fields before they even had a chance to opt in, right? Because people were saying, or kids were saying, "No, that’s not a field for me. I’ll never succeed there." But when it comes to design and diversifying the design field, is it a similar notion where we have to think well before college, maybe even into high school and before to ensure that the doors are open and wide enough for future designers to see themselves as designers?

Eleni Stamoulis: Yeah. There’s a lot of great work being done. Dr. Jacinda Walker has the program called designExplorr, and her master’s thesis was actually on this topic of how to get kids interested into the design pathway or career well before college. So she has a great program called designExplorr that does that. Antoinette Carroll also has a great organization called Creative Reaction Lab that also has a similar idea of getting young people interested in solving solutions in their community through design. So because those were already at play, I really wanted to focus on the higher education aspect because a lot of research hadn’t been done of looking at design students in higher education. There’s kind of some general research and some informal things, but I really wanted to examine what could be done because there’s also… It’s not like design programs lack diversity, the field does while there are some programs, depending on what area of country you are, if it’s public or private institution, there are some diversity issues there. But in general, the diversity and education is much higher than it is in the field. So there’s some lack of connection between those two. And so that’s what I want to see and figure out kind of what can educators do to help make sure that jump from education to career happens.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. And gosh, it sounds like it’s both behavior change and systems change, right? Behavior change in the notion that some of this is around the stereotypes that have been put on wrongly so. But who’s a designer and who’s not? Who’s determined to be in this field and who’s not? And so how we can recreate and rewrite the narrative to what it means to be in the design field is maybe one path to explore. And then the other piece I’m hearing from you is around systems change and how the field, and maybe even how organizations operate to create the space for a more diverse set of designers to thrive and flourish. Inside, what you said, at the top, often white dominant, white centered cultures that are not designed for everyone to thrive.

Eleni Stamoulis: Exactly. And there’s a bunch of different factors at play that contribute. So one is lack of awareness like we talked about. There’s also the idea of discrimination, and also a lack of role models in the community. In recent years there’s been a lot more spotlighting of black designers and what they’ve done, but in the curriculum there’s… In the traditional graphic design curriculum there’s less black designers. The basic graphic design history book written by Philip Megg, which didn’t come out until I believe the eighties didn’t feature a black designer until its third edition, and it was only one. And there’s been a lot of other books since then that have done more, but it was this issue from the start and it was just kind of perpetuated because no one was addressing it. And now people are finally addressing it, but it’s like, "We have to undo all this work that’s already been done." And sometimes it feels overwhelming because it’s like, "Well, how am I… I don’t write a history book. When am I going to do that?" And there’s so many things we can do as individuals. Some of the kind of most well known issues that underrepresented groups face when entering design are lack of access to networks and lack of support. So something an individual could do is mentor a student or sponsor a ticket for them to go to a conference because conferences are great way to network and learn things. This past year, I sponsored a kid, not a kid, a young man’s ticket to go to the AIGA Portfolio Conference see if he could talk to people about his portfolio and what he could do to work on it, and things like that. And experiences like that, especially with large organizations that have such big networks, it can create a valuable opportunity for people. And doing small things like that help change the field.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. But you’re right. Every door that can be opened is a good door, right? It sets up someone to potentially realize their future and realize their potential.

Eleni Stamoulis: And there’s so many great books out there now that are starting to reexamine the field. This past year a great book was released, it’s called Extra Bold. And it’s a feminist inclusive non-binary field guide to graphic design or for graphic designers, excuse me. And it’s a wonderful book that is going over stories and ideas that aren’t in our traditional sources. And I know Anne Berry just released a kick starter campaign that’s out right now for a book about the black experience in graphic design. And so if you’re interested in want to support, those are two great resources to kind of relearn your, kind of reframe your lens of the field

Carrie Fox: Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, we’ll put those in the show notes and also the organizations you mentioned at the top. So I want to make sure that we direct folks to learn more about them too. I want to shift us just for a second or maybe just advance us down the field a little bit here that you and I have worked on a number of different re-brands together. And we often start with research. We have to under understand how our nonprofit alliance and in many cases how the sector generally communicates about their work, how they are communicating about their commitments to justice before we then provide some recommendations that help inform what that future brand could look like. And I’d love for you to reflect on what you have seen over the last couple years on the number of re-brands we’ve worked on. Are there any themes that you find coming up over and over again when it comes to nonprofits who are going through this rebrand process? Where their points of hesitation are because what we know is that change is hard. Always, change is hard, but when it comes to building a more inclusive brand, a brand that is focused in on themes of justice and equity and diversity and inclusion, we know there are some natural challenges along the way. And I’m curious from your point of view, what stuck with you about the process these last couple years?

Eleni Stamoulis: The biggest one is when it comes time for the actual change, committing to the final idea and running forward with it until the last steps to implement it and go forward, which I can sympathize without hesitation because I’m definitely a person that can get caught up in all the what ifs, and play out all of those in my mind forever. So I understand that anxious feeling that clients sometimes get. Before you’re kind of in the final stage before you can really turn back and do anything. And that’s why I think putting that extra time into user research and interviews to test concept and logos and colors. That’s so important because then you can come in and remind the client that 90% of people in your community that we interviewed had a positive reaction. And it helps remove that burden of decision. It doesn’t feel as do or die, like it’s got to be right or else we’ll never fix it again. It’s right, because we did this research and we know it’s right because of X, Y, Z. And so reminding them that we didn’t arrive at that final concept by pure chance of the creative process. There’s research behind it, there’s things that we’ve done to ensure that we are arriving at the right decision. And that’s what I think helps so much in that final stage with clients, and helping them kind of push over the edge so we can really go into implementation and how this would look in kind of the broader sense of their brand.

Carrie Fox: What I really love about what we’ve centered at Mission Partners the last couple years in re-brands is we talk a lot about community led and community centered design, and gets at what you’re saying now, right? That it. For a long time, I think, was the norm and the expectation that the senior level boardroom, the most powerful leaders of the company would be the ones that choose the future decision of the organization, especially when it comes to the brand work. But that there’s an opportunity to shift that, and to think about how you distribute that power and distribute that opportunity among the community so that it truly is community led and community centered. Anything that you would reflect on how you’ve seen the results change when organizations really do center community voice and community change rather than the expected leaders and those who tend to hold the most power in those decisions.

Eleni Stamoulis: When organizations involve their community, the process might take a little bit longer sometimes, but it generally goes a lot smoother because we are getting a more diverse set of opinions and perspectives. We’re getting a lot of different worldviews when we interview these people and talk to their community members. So by doing that, even though it might take us just a little bit longer, having the community in the process makes… it just goes so much smoother and just makes it a lot more enjoyable sometimes because you’re not going back and forth between like, "Oh well, what about this? And what about why?" You’re really kind of collectively doing it as a group with the community, and to hear what they have to say also makes my job better as a designer because in the end, they’re the ones looking at the logo. The leadership team is going to see it, but they already know what it means. Their community is the one that really matters, and who’s going to decide how to interpret the logo. And so to hear from them in advance is very valuable.

Carrie Fox: And it certainly does feel like those projects are the most authentic, right? You know it. You and I just attended an event for one of our clients a couple weeks back, and we walked away from that saying, "That was the most real and authentic experience we ever could have been part of," because we knew it. We knew that it was really truly of the community.

Eleni Stamoulis: Yeah. It was so great. And they also did a great job of having an event in pandemic times. I thought they handled it really well, and it was a great way to show their new brand. And just like everyone, all the comments that I saw on the chat, really reaffirmed what we saw in the earlier process of what we heard from the community. So even if those community members weren’t in that initial stage of research, I saw them say the same things in the chat that people were saying that we talked to. So it was also kind of a confirmation that this was the right direction.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. Yeah. And shout out to Justin and East Boston Social Centers who have an amazing new look in large part, thanks to Eleni. So Eleni, you have hosted some learning labs for our team, you’ve written a number of blogs. You are always researching what’s working when it comes to inclusive marketing and accessible marketing. And I’m curious what you’re seeing these days. Who’s doing it well? And are there any examples that you’ve seen of brands that have faltered a bit in the process?

Eleni Stamoulis: So Barbie is one brand that I think of a lot, probably because I liked Barbie when I was a kid. So as an adult I have fond memories of them. And I’m a first to admit that Barbie has not always gotten inclusivity right. But in recent years they have done a really amazing job of expanding their collection to be more inclusive. A great example is their 2020 presidential campaign doll set. The presidential candidate was a beautiful doll with dark skin, big curly hair, this bright pink power suit. So it was still Barbie, but sent such a powerful message. They also have dolls that have vitiligo, limb differences, arm wheelchairs, even things like dolls with unnatural hair color. I used to have purple hair. And I knew that when I dyed my hair purple that, Carrie, you were going to be okay with it. And that also as a graphic designer I could get away with having a natural hair color, but unnatural hair color has nothing to do with professionalism. So showing that in dolls, I think is a great idea. There’s a lot of great companies that do a great job showing different body sizes. So Knix and ThirdLove are two bra and intimate wear companies that do an amazing job showing people who identify as women at different body sizes and age range, which are two kind of areas that are often overlooked in diversity. They kind of get relegated to the back, and I think it’s really important to include them. Ben and Jerry’s always done a great job of reflecting their values and their marketing and brand. And social media has also changed kind of the landscape of how people reflect their values. In some ways it has allowed almost like a sarcasm-ness to come out. So I think of Duolingo on TikTok who’s social media manager has done an amazing job of establishing the personality of the Duolingo mascot. And I’m thinking to this comment a few weeks of ago where they were talking about all brand meeting, and they were calling all the brands on TikTok to come, and Chick-fil-A commented and Duolingo commented back, "Rainbow sauce only please," in response, which was kind of a sharp dig at Chick-fil-A. But TikTok kind of went wild over it. And this idea that social media allows that kind of more tongue in cheek response, I think appeals a lot to people. Now, brands that have misstepped, there’s a few. There’s a lot, but the few that come to mind are what I call who signed off on those? And they’re incidents where the company just shows a complete lack of cultural awareness. So there’s two in particular that come to mind. H&M had this kid’s hoodie that said coolest monkey in the jungle, which is fine. But then the kid modeling it was a black kid, and the white kid’s hoodie said survival experts. So that message, it was just, "Who signed up on that?" And then another one was Louis Vuitton who released a sweater that was supposed to pay tribute to the Jamaican flag, but the colors were green, yellow and red, which are not the colors of the Jamaican flag. The Jamaican flag is green, yellow, and black, and Twitter pointed it out that they seemed to be referencing the Rastafarian flag. And I think even Bob Marley’s daughter tweeted at them, and which was really funny. And they Louis Vuitton tried to backtrack and say it was inspired by the culture. And eventually they just pulled it because it was obviously just a simple gaffe and not a simple gaffe, multiple points in the process had to fail for that to have happened. And the reason I think that these are such big missteps is because not only is it offensive for these products to have been released, but it also gives you a look into the company culture, which is either so homogeneous that no one thought it was a bad idea or the environment is which in one that people don’t feel safe enough to speak up and say something when they see something. So I think it tells a lot about a company’s culture and marketing or advertising department when things like that happen.

Carrie Fox: Gosh. So that is first of all, such a good question to ask. Who signed off on that? But then to what you were just saying it’s like, "What is that team… How’s that team made up, right?" Because you’re right. It’s probably a whole lot more than the final sign off. It’s everything that’s going on inside that organization that maybe led to that final sign off.

Eleni Stamoulis: Yeah. And it’s one of those things like, "Did someone speak up before and was shot down?" So they’re like, "Well, why bring that up again?" Is it a person of color that feels like maybe they won’t get… If there’s no one there to back them up, they could be attacked, and they’re prioritizing their safety over this ad, which they definitely should. And so I think it just says a lot about what’s going on in the company when things like that happen because both of these instances, Twitter and social media was on it immediately. I don’t think either the listings were up for longer than a few days, or I think the H&M one in particular, wasn’t up for more than 24 hours. So it’s such a big marketing pitfall because they obviously had these things manufactured as well. So they lost a lot of money. And it’s just telling that because it’s pretty obvious. And if their company culture is in such a way that something that obvious doesn’t get called out, it says a lot about how the company operates.

Carrie Fox: Let’s wrap up there. So I want to take us to big picture design question. What does it take? What are some of the factors that you feel like have to be in play for a thriving, inclusive design team to be working well, right? It’s more than just having diversity on the team, but it sounds like what I’m hearing from you is there’s some really important other factors that have to be at play too for truly inclusive and accessible design to take hold?

Eleni Stamoulis: Yeah. I think the big factor is company culture because even if your team is diverse, if that diverse team doesn’t feel like it can be its authentic self in their job then it’s kind of like negating having a diverse team because they’re not able to share their perspective and world views in a way that’s safe and helpful. So I think it’s really important for leadership to foster a diverse and safe culture, which there’s so many studies showing that it’s better for the bottom line anyways. And then I think internally in teams, especially smaller teams because a lot of times, especially in smaller organizations which I run into a lot with our clients who can be small sometimes is there might not be a graphic designer on the team or there’s just one. And what can that one person do? Because they have a lot of power in the design that the organization puts out. And so I think one thing to do is to listen. Design should never be created in a vacuum. And so I think it’s really important to make sure that even if you are the only designer on a team or there’s just a few of you is to just go around and talk to other people, see what they have to say about your work. I’m one of two designers on our team, and I’m constantly talking to other people on our team even if they’re not designers because I find it so helpful to hear what they have to say. And you often get tunnel vision. So even getting an outside perspective in that respect is great. And then I think it’s also important to think about what message does this send and is this a message I want in the world. A professor once told me that design creates culture, and then went on to show us all the ads that they made as a young designer that objectified women or encouraged young people to smoke. And he was telling us like, "I made these mistakes so you don’t have to. Don’t do this. This is bad." And so when I make a design now I kind of think like, "Would I have to show my future students this in a design ethics class?" Because I don’t want to have to put a message out in the world that makes it a worse place. I only want to put messages out that make it a kinder and safer world. So that’s something that’s always in the back of my mind to think about the final message.

Carrie Fox: Well, that sounds like a great place to leave it today. Design creates culture. How much you have shared in 30 minutes is unbelievable Eleni. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your insights with us today, and for everything you do to contribute to such an amazing culture at Mission Partners.

Eleni Stamoulis: Oh, thank you so much. I’m so excited. And if there’s anyone listening that would like to participate in my research, I currently have surveys open for design educators and design students. If you’re a current student or were formally a student, it’s totally open to you as long as you attended a program in the United States. So I think we’ll be able to link those in the description below, but I’d love to have you take my survey.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. You got it. We will get all those live links in. Please contribute to Eleni’s survey, and Eleni, thanks so much for joining us today.

Eleni Stamoulis: I’m so glad to be here.

Carrie Fox: Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimra Haroon and the Mission Partners team in association with TruStory FM. Engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is by Vic Davey and Josh Leak. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, we hope you will consider doing just that for our show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or colleague. Thanks to your support. We’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.