Detail from GirlSight project by Lori Nishikawa and her Designmatters Girl Effect studio partners.

feature / students / media-design-practices / product-design / humanities-and-sciences / designmatters / sponsored-projects / internships
April 12, 2017
Writer: Solvej Schou
Photographer: Solvej Schou
Images courtesy of Lori Nishikawa


This is the second 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.

On a recent day sitting in her cozy Craftsman rental house in Alhambra, and wearing a casual green sweatshirt and jeans, Maui born and raised Product Design student Lori Nishikawa—set to graduate next term—carefully laid out a heap of photos on her living room desk. The pictures ranged from shots of high heels and bibles to multi-colored containers of food.

Five teenage girls in South Africa took the photos, after being given cameras to document their after-school activities and most valuable possessions. The research fed into Nishikawa, then-student Therese Swanepoel (MS 15 Environmental Design) and then-student Carolina Rodriguez’s team project for the Nike Foundation-sponsored Fall 2014 studio Girl Effect, a collaboration between the interdisciplinary Designmatters Department and Product Design focused on creating money-and-time saving tools for girls living in poverty in Africa. The trio’s initial idea—a white, round affordable camera called GirlSight—has now evolved into a systems approach they hope to grow over the next few months, and partner with a company on.

“Understanding girls from a local level is more important than trying to design one product for the entire world,” said Nishikawa. “Our approach now is looking at the girls’ landscape and seeing what existing resources are available to tap into. How do we tap into an infrastructure like Instagram where girls are already known for collecting those images? It’s silly to think that these girls don’t have access to phones. A lot of them do. How do you utilize the data and time they’re putting into a platform like Instagram to actually help them? As a designer, I like being that bridge that can connect people and communities.”

Empowering herself and others to problem-solve social and environmental issues is exactly what Nishikawa is striving to do with her Designmatters undergraduate minor in social innovation.

One of my biggest dreams is being able to go back home to Maui and in some sort of way help the initiative of saving the ocean.

Lori Nishikawa
Detail from GirlSight project by Lori Nishikawa and her Designmatters Girl Effect studio partners.

Revolving around design as a catalyst for social change, the Designmatters program 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. All students take Humanities and Sciences academic classes, which include social issue-based offerings such as Race and Racism, “Queer and Now” and Rethinking Feminism and Identity. At ArtCenter, the socially conscious student club WOKE is an open forum for students to express themselves.

“This post-election period has been characterized by a deep divisiveness and sharply contrasting visions about the U.S. as a nation, and has brought to the forefront key debates about complex issues that have broad implications about how we live today and how we might fare into the future,” said Mariana Amatullo, vice president of Designmatters.

“Designmatters offers students a dynamic exposure to issues, tools and methods that are going to strengthen their ability to contribute their creative talent as informed citizens, no matter what career trajectory might await,” she added.

Nishikawa participated in Fall 2016 Designmatters studio FUTURE CRAFT Japan + Thailand, which involved working with artisans in Northern Thailand and creating designs that extend Northern Thai craft traditions to global markets. She gained insight during Spring 2016 Designmatters studio Aquarium of the Pacific: Blue Hope, a collaboration with the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. Nishikawa traveled to Chile in Spring 2016 for Designmatters studio Safe Niños, which challenged students to reimagine the campus of pediatric burn treatment facility and studio partner COANIQUEM with healing and nurturing human-centered environments.

Detail from GirlSight project by Lori Nishikawa and her Designmatters Girl Effect studio partners.

Nishikawa and Product Design student David Hollo created student-led and Product Design-hosted Spring 2017 Designmatters Transdisciplinary Studio (TDS) class Design for Transformation with the class’s instructor Matthew Manos (MFA 12 Media Design Practices), and help from Environmental Design student Alvin Oei. Individuals and teams work on toolkits addressing economic inequality and activism within different communities.

On week 10 of the class, Nishikawa gave fifth-term Illustration student Michelle Kim a confident pep-talk during Kim’s presentation on the status of her project Portraits for the People, addressing homelessness near ArtCenter’s South Campus. Nishikawa discussed the impact of Kim’s toolkit based on detailed sketches of homeless people, and graphic note-taking. “With Designmatters students, they are the biggest dreamers you could ever meet,” said Nishikawa later, at home.

“So creating this safe haven for them to dream and dream big, and making sure that we guide them so they aren’t trying to do something that we know doesn’t work just from our own experience is great. It’s important for students to understand their strengths and create these communities of people that share the same purpose.”

A self-defined “macro thinker” and “visual storyteller,” Nishikawa after graduation wants to focus on large-scale issues such as ocean pollution—important in her native Maui—and advocating for women in industrial design, she said. She started off at ArtCenter as an Illustration major, before switching to Product Design. “I can tap into my illustration skills, but also my product strategy skills by understanding what research needs to be done before I can even propose a solution,” she said.

She’s currently doing her second internship at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working with her mentor, ArtCenter alumna Jessie Kawata, a JPL creative strategist and lead industrial designer. Nishikawa previously did a 14-week research project with design historian and Humanities and Sciences faculty Arden Stern on how designers can help oceanographers. The first among her family to leave the Hawaiian Islands for an education, she talked fondly about strangers in Maui being intimately referred to as “aunties” and “uncles,” and eventually wanting to return to her roots.

“I’m really focused on social impact because I had a safe, privileged life, growing up in the Hawaiian Islands, and I think that I have this responsibility to create social change,” Nishikawa said. “I was sheltered and shocked when I first came to the mainland and I saw all these issues going on. Now my best friends are all international, and I’m becoming more aware of the issues all around us. Still, one of my biggest dreams is being able to go back home to Maui and in some sort of way help the initiative of saving the ocean.”

Next: Part III—Advertising student Benson Rong—of series on students tackling social issues in their work.