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Field Notes

Using Design Empathy to Tell Stories from the Past

Constructive partnered with the Sephardic Foundation on Aging starting in early 2020 to redesign their brand from the ground up. We helped them with brand strategy, visual identity, and finally, their website, which launched in mid-June. Working with an organization with such a long and rich history made it especially important for us as designers to understand who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going next. So we made sure to build opportunities to practice design empathy into our process.

SFA is a historic organization that began in 1951 as a nursing home in Brooklyn for New York’s community of Sephardic Jews. The home was a sanctuary for where Sephardic people could grow older with others who held similar values. Looking to grow their impact, SFA reimagined their mission in 2015 to more broadly support Jewish older people through philanthropy. 

As part of our design process, my colleagues working on brand strategy visited the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan to look through their archive of photos and documents belonging to SFA. They came back with tons of inspiration to begin reframing their history and visual identity  in a contemporary way. Our idea for the new logo came from learning that the handshake symbol had been a prevalent seal for many historical Sephardic organizations around the United States. It reflects a key belief within the Sephardic community that we are all a part of the collective humanity and we should embrace everyone with compassion. 

When it came time to begin designing their website, I jumped at the chance to visit the archives as well. I had two objectives during my visit: get a better understanding of SFA’s history to inform our web design strategy, and select photos and documents that would appear on the History page of the website. 

At the archives, I was astonished by how much there was to look through. Almost seventy years of meeting notes, annual reports, financial docs, construction specs, and hundreds of photos. The photos were mostly of the residents in the home doing day-to-day things. Cooking meals together, doing chores, spending time together and with the staff. Though these photos were nice, I struggled initially with deciding which ones I should choose to showcase on the site. I had in mind that I wanted to show the lifestyle of the residents to illustrate how well the home cared for them, but with so many options, deciding which images should represent SFA’s history to the public felt like a big responsibility. 

I’ve always found the act of archiving to be somewhat problematic. It requires a certain amount of subjective curation that ultimately influences how a story gets told. And since not every event, person or experience can be properly documented, when tasked with storytelling, it’s important for designers to consider who is responsible for deciding what gets remembered and what gets lost to the sands of time. 

Since we didn’t know what the History page’s narrative would be yet, my hoarder mentality kicked in. I figured that having too many more photos would be better than not having enough, especially given that this page would only be able to capture a small fraction of SFA’s history. I selected as many photos as I could that were both aesthetically pleasing and captured SFA’s brand and spirit. 

One of SFA’s board members joined us at the archive later to help us comb through the photos. He had grown up around SFA when it was first founded as the Sephardic Home for the Aged by a group of middle aged people who were concerned that Sephardic people didn’t feel culturally accepted in Jewish nursing homes. He had a picture perfect memory of who was who in the photographs. He knew everyone’s names and he pointed out friendships, families, and rivalries. His perspective altered how I was choosing photographs because the photos became less about my personal aesthetics and more about which ones were actually important. I began to get a better sense of the organization through the people. History literally came alive when he pointed out someone and told us their life story. 

I’m glad I got to go to the archive to learn firsthand about the home. It gave my work more weight to it because I felt I had to get the history right so it can be remembered as correctly as possible. Sure, we will as curators determine the stories we want to tell by the things we choose and omit, but I find lived experiences and history to always be the most inspiring.

About the Author

Doug Knapton

Doug Knapton

Doug is a visual and UX designer who is passionate about creating positive brand experiences for mission-based businesses and nonprofits. He specializes in interactive data visualization, mobile design optimization, and long-form editorial storytelling. After graduating with a BFA in Graphic Design from Pratt Institute in 2015, Doug joined TIME, where he specialized in creating long-form digital experiences and cross-brand native advertising campaigns. At Constructive, Doug collaborates with clients to create user-centric UX and visual design—working closely with team leads to ensure that design execution is aligned with strategic priorities. In his free time, he enjoys illustrating absurd compositions.

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