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Helping through design: Peter Lusch takes graphic design skills to Sierra Leone

Since joining the Penn State faculty two years ago, Peter Lusch, assistant professor of graphic design, has made an effort to connect with faculty doing work in sustainability and systems thinking to foster his own research. Those efforts paid off this summer, when he visited Sierra Leone with the Humanitarian Engineering Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Program, where they helped illiterate farmers learn to build and maintain greenhouses and grow produce via diagrams on a tablet.

“We found applications for sharing knowledge with people in different ways,” explained Lusch. “I’ve done socially based projects, but I had never thought of using design skills for humanitarian needs in the developing world until this project.” 

The trip came about after Lusch connected with Khanjan Mehta, assistant professor of engineering design and director of HESE, through the expert database on the Penn State Sustainability website. According to Lusch, Mehta’s open-mindedness and inclusiveness allowed him to appreciate what he was offering – design thinking support for STEM-based work. Lusch’s role involved a two-year collaboration between his graphic design students and Mehta’s HESE students. Lusch’s group transformed what was originally an all-text manual into something visually-based to help the farmers understand the instructions without having to read.

This year he was invited to join HESE on the group’s trip to Sierra Leone. Not only did Lusch help with the implementation of the greenhouse manual, but he also taught non-design students on the HESE team how to design promotional materials for a diabetes awareness program.

“I never thought I would end up in Africa two years after meeting Khanjan, but that’s what happened, and I’m glad that it did. This kind of work is not something I could have accomplished in the professional world. My approach utilizes a large, research-based university to pursue this type of inquiry,” said Lusch. “HESE taught me ways that I could someday lead my own ventures abroad. There are lots of facets to pursue in my research because this is important work, and I want to continue to do it. The question is how to become a champion of my own efforts and projects.”

Lusch is also working on meaningful and socially engaging projects at home, including a voting rights exhibition, which has been shown on the University Park campus. His long-term goal is to find ways for Graphic Design students to have study abroad experiences that are humanitarian and collaborative in nature. Lusch acknowledges that this is not the traditional path for graphic design students; however, he argues that the field is changing and that this is a perfect opportunity for students to get out of their comfort zone.

“That’s what universities are set up to do. If we were only giving students what they expected, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs as faculty. Humanitarian work and travel abroad are life-changing experiences that I want our graphic design students to have.”

Using their skill-set more broadly will help students become more versatile in the ever-changing job market, explained Lusch. “Interdisciplinary work environments are asking for innovative-minded designers. Despite some criticism that millennials get, they have a ‘let’s change the world’ ethos. What better place to test these inquiries than in college?”

Applying design thinking in other disciplines has also led HESE students to inquire about taking graphic design courses, in order to gain a better understanding of how it applies to their work. Lusch agrees that STEM students with design skills on their resumes will be more competitive, and said he welcomes them into his courses (Penn State now offers a graphic design minor). He also admits that he learned things from the HESE students that made him appreciative and aware of the benefits of cross-disciplinary engagement.

“Students have so many opportunities available to them at Penn State to connect the dots between different disciplines, including the offices that help facilitate students being able to do these things –the financial aid office, the study abroad office,” said Lusch.

When asked what he would tell students considering studying abroad and getting involved in humanitarian and sustainability efforts on campus, Lusch responded, “Do it! You can’t put a value on the experience of making a difference in someone else’s life whether you are a teacher, a student, or a designer. There’s this feeling of pride and accomplishment in being able to say ‘I used my skills and I helped someone!’”

More Information:
Penn State Graphic Design
Humanitarian Engineering Social Entrepreneurship (HESE)


Article by Stephanie Swindle. Originally posted on Penn State News.

Peter Lusch with farmers in Sierra Leone. Photo by Sara Ritter.
Farmer in Sierra Leone looking at iPad