Meaningful by Design: Incarcerated Designers at OCE

This article was written by Adult in Custody Todd Davilla and edited by the Oregon DOC Office of Communications for clarity.

An AIC’s Opportunity to Connect with the Community

In 2016, Oregon Corrections Enterprises (OCE) launched a new business unit focused on providing marketing design services. This marketing design unit began with a single adult in custody (AIC) designer, but has grown to a team of five over the past three years. The AIC designers create graphics and layouts for print and digital media, as well as design logos and branding, and create photo realistic 3D renderings and animations. The designers use current industry-standard software like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and 3ds Max.

Supporting Community Causes

The AIC designers approached their supervisor, Ryan Taub, with a request — to be given opportunities to lend their design skills toward supporting charitable causes. Mr. Taub agreed and asked each of the designers to identify which “greater causes” were the most personally meaningful to them. Giving each AIC designer their choice of agency was particularly important. Like all of us, AICs come from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences. Issues and causes that resonate for one may be different than those that resonate for another. Some AICs are veterans, some are parents, and others may be affected by a particular disease or disability. When AICs are able to choose personally meaningful projects, it helps them feel more connected with the communities many of them will one day return to.

Designing the CCJ Report Cover

The Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) connected with OCE about designing an illustration for a report about racial disparities within the criminal justice system. Specifically, their report found that since 2000, disparities between whites and non-whites were declining, yet still in need of improvement.

Our entire design team was invited to develop conceptual sketches. While each designer developed his own ideas, we periodically bounced ideas off each other for feedback. My concept was to show a hand pushing against a bar within the equal symbol that was askew, trying to straighten it. In developing the idea, I really wanted to push past the most obvious symbols for “equality”—such as the scales of justice—in order to arrive at a (hopefully) fresher and more provocative image. We each submitted our concepts, with layout and color variations, to the CCJ editors. They appreciated all the concepts, and in the end selected mine, with a few revisions to the color scheme and layout.

Conceiving an illustration such as this one presents a number of design considerations. Most cover layouts will include the publication’s masthead or logo, along with some text describing the contents inside. It’s important that the illustration not distract from these elements. Also, I’ve learned from experience in design that simpler is almost always better; if the underlying concept is strong, simplicity will enhance the core message, making it clearer and stronger.

The loose, painterly style of the illustration was also a conscious style choice. I wanted to communicate that criminal justice reform is a continual work-in-progress—often a slow, arduous, and gritty one, that requires vigilance. Although this illustration was entirely painted within Photoshop, I aimed to give an organic, textured feel to the subject matter. After a couple rounds of refinements, the editors at CCJ seemed quite happy with the final result.

This was a very rewarding experience for me, to be able to go “outside the box” of my normal, day-to-day design work. I felt empowered to use my abilities to comment visually on a subject that has personal significance for me. I know I speak for all of us on the design team in saying that we dearly hope for more opportunities like this in the future.

A Brighter Future

Supporting “greater causes” is only one aspect of our design team’s push toward simulating conditions at “real world” design shops as fully as possible. Graphic design firms in the community often lend their time and talents toward charitable work. In 2019, OCE’s graphic designers were excited to be the recipient of such kindness, when two designers from a Portland creative agency spent the afternoon with the team. The outside designers presented examples of their own work, donated several design books to the team’s library, discussed their processes, and shared industry insights. Furthermore, the outside designers offered to provide critiques for any of the AIC design portfolios. The meeting was hugely inspiring for all us involved, as we envisioned a future for ourselves in the industry upon release.

Graphic design presents an excellent career option for AICs releasing back into the community. According to the Oregon Employment Department, graphic design jobs are growing faster than the overall average for jobs in the state. Furthermore, Oregon’s graphic designers earn $28 an hour on average, meaning a living wage that can lead to financial independence. Finally, because costs for graphic design software and computing equipment are reasonably low, becoming self-employed is a viable option for graphic designers who are willing to launch their own business. All of these factors add up to a hopeful future for AICs who are training in this field.

The OCE graphic design team is excited to keep pushing toward mirroring conditions at real-world design shops. Such steps may include: more interactions with outside designers, implementing more industry-standard workflows, and redesigning the team’s work space within the prison to more closely resemble a real-world studio space. In the process, OCE will be further humanizing and normalizing the work environment for its AIC designers, as we prepare to succeed in the community one day.

If you are interested in collaborating with the AIC design team, please contact OCE through their website.