Detail from 2017 ad project by Advertising student Benson Rong and his project partner.

Students Tackling Social Issues in Their Art and Design – Part III: Advertising Student Benson Rong

This is the third story in a three-part series on ArtCenter students tackling social issues—from ethnic, racial, religious, class, sexual and gender identity to topics including immigration, women’s rights and protecting the environment—in their art and design, both in and outside of class.

For seventh-term Advertising student Benson Rong, tackling an inclusive and wide range of social issues in his work started with an internship last summer at Santa Monica social impact ad agency Enso, whose tag line is “Building mission-driven brands and shared missions with fearless creativity.”

One of the projects he worked on was an educational campaign bringing attention to the Equal Rights Amendment, a long proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for citizens, regardless of gender. Enso’s end concept included men and women of different backgrounds saying “Duh” to the amendment needing to be passed. Rong used his ArtCenter friends as both the performers and film crew.

“I realized that the work we do out in the field really matters, and the fact that I was doing something bettering the world in some way made me feel good at the end of the day. I wasn’t trying to force another car onto someone,” said Rong, with a thatch of bleached blonde hair and a black beanie, stretching his legs outside during a crisp day at the Hillside Campus. “I’m kind of shy, and not the kind of person to be an activist, but I do like to get involved. With Enso, I became more sensitive to a lot of different issues,” he said.

I realized that the work we do out in the field really matters, and the fact that I was doing something bettering the world in some way made me feel good at the end of the day.

Benson Rong
Detail from 2017 ad project by Advertising student Benson Rong and his project partner.

Rong immigrated from Shanghai, China to California with his parents when he was 5, and grew up in Diamond Bar as “a typical suburban boy” and “in a bubble,” he said. His businessman dad pushed him to pursue creativity—while his Chinese traditional folk dancer mom was more ambivalent—and he got into photography as a teen. Taking an ArtCenter for Teens Brandcamp Summer Intensive class about advertising and graphic design propelled him to apply to ArtCenter.

For a Spring 2017 Advertising Lab 2 class taught by Ryan Gerber and Rob Palmer (BFA 92 Advertising), Rong partnered with recent Graphic Design alumna Melia Tandiono (BFA 16) on a typography project also for an ad competition.

The competition’s brief asked for a solution for a misrepresented culture or community, so Rong and Tandiono decided to focus on Arabic-speaking refugees to the U.S. learning English. They created a sparse but powerful three-part print campaign in which sounds from English words are compared to similar sounds from Arabic words, highlighted in red, green or blue, with the rest of the type black. One poster, for instance, reads: "The oo in book is like the ق ب ق ب in ب.

“The mirroring thing visually was a template in which we could switch out different words,” said Rong. “We chose the main colors of the flags of countries such as Syria and Afghanistan where Arabic is spoken. We wanted the campaign to be simple and also functional, since it would be seen by people who don’t know design. We wanted people to be able to read it from a distance, such as in a train station.”

Detail from Berlin-based zine Judge Me by Advertising student Benson Rong.

At the College, all students take Humanities and Sciences academic classes, which include social issue-based offerings such as “Queer and Now” and Rethinking Feminism and Identity. Interdisciplinary department Designmatters—with a new undergraduate minor in social innovation—revolves around design as a catalyst for social change, and features studio-based classes confronting issues such as homelessness. Graduate program Media Design Practices (MDP) has a Lab track using design to explore science, technology and culture, and partners with Designmatters on a Field track in which students practice social impact design in global locations such as Mexico City and Uganda. Socially conscious student club WOKE is an open forum for students to express themselves.

“I always make openness for assignments that lets students use their art and design as the way to show me what they’re learning,” said Media Design Practices faculty and anthropologist Elizabeth Chin, who teaches Spring 2017 Humanities and Sciences class Race and Racism. “Students have so much to say about things that they themselves have experienced, no matter what their race is,” she added. “They’re also thoughtful people. Part of education is being able to think critically about the things that happen to you in your life.”

Rong’s own personal passion project has been creating an L.A.-based print zine inspired by a print zine called Judge Me he started while participating in the Fall 2016 Graphic Design and Advertising study-away program Testlab Berlin XI: Real-Time Design / Socialtecture.

In Berlin when the U.S. presidential election took place, Rong was impressed by the German city’s openness to gay people and culture. There, he took photos of 30 people, and asked readers to assume—with each photo—whether each person was gay or straight.

“It’s about why we’re still making these judgments based on how people look. At the end, the zine reveals that everyone was gay,” said Rong. “I decided to carry that concept over to L.A. because in L.A. there’s still a stigma. I’ve always wanted to explore the community in some way, but I never found the perfect reason for me to do a project, until I got to Berlin. Why not use our skills and creativity to make a better world or raise awareness?”

Next: Part I—Illustration student Alejandra Fernandez—of series on students tackling social issues in their work.