Cristina Vera Bridges
Early on in my career, there was a project I worked on for Chicago's homeless services. The City wanted to create these little business cards to hand out to housing-insecure Chicagoans to access services. When I started working on the card, I thought about the services for the people in need and how they accessed resources. I'd worked with vulnerable populations before but hadn't indeed considered how design could make a difference in a purposeful way. For this project to be successful, it didn't need to change the whole game.
Instead, it was crucial to create something that was both eye-catching and best represented our audience's interest at the same time. Some of the best strategies are tried and true. This card became a lifeline for people struggling to keep their heads above water, and that was the mindset we maintained to produce it so the most people could benefit. Creativity amplifies existing efforts of purpose because creativity is a vehicle for engagement.
In the same way that big ideas need small words, complex challenges need simple solutions. A project doesn't always have to be bells and whistles. Simple is effective. The goal is to reach people who haven't had contact with the message or the brand.
Over the years, my understanding of design has evolved. Design is about improving the way things are and making the world a little better than how you find it. Creating something that looks cool has limitations because everyone's taste is different. Instead, good design focuses on impact and when designing for the public — equity. Designing with people and understanding how they receive and respond to info is vital. Likewise, understanding where their trust lives goes a long way to ensure the success of a message.
Since starting Vera Creative, we've established ourselves as partners for legislators, social workers, and organizations engaging in social good to amplify their missions and message. The focus throughout my career is amplifying and activating these messages by design. Ultimately, programs that seek to make a positive change don't have the chance to make a difference if people don't know about them.
Sometimes, creatives are granted the privilege to do work that has a lasting input. But the deciding factor often centers on how purpose and empathy inform the work to best influence how the audience understands and aligns with your message. To ensure that you're directionally correct when designing solutions, get first-hand input from your end-user to create effective solutions that make their lives a little better.
Back in the day, I worked in Chicago's Lathrop Homes, one of the City's first public housing projects. I was at the Mary Crane Center, a HeadStart program, where I greeted every single parent that came in. I got to know all the different kinds of parents that'd drop their children off. The teen moms that worked in fast food, the single mothers who were doing their best. Some kids even relied on the Head Start program for their only nutritious meal a day. A lot of the people faced a lot of socio-economic challenges. Their struggles and successes were woven together into the fabric of the neighborhood.
When I went on to lead citywide Head Start campaigns, I was familiar with many of their challenges. I understood how to connect with families throughout the City because of my experience at the Mary Crane Center. I also understood underserved audiences because I was a member of that audience as a single Latina mom myself. I wanted to do right by my daughters, neighbors, and the families I served when I went to work.
I came not only to understand the folks I served, but I developed much love for them too. This connection reinforced mentality and renewed heart of service fueled my passion for connecting hard-to-reach came from working with them and understanding how folks decided to digest the info. Communicating with care came to mean communicating clearly and in a way that was easiest for our audience to understand. That meant using familiar language and tone to reduce the distance between the people I served and their needs. The strategies that I put in place with Head Start were successful at the time, and many are still in place today. That lasting impact stems from understanding and collaborating with the people you're designing for, so the goal is to be their thought partner.
We're always continuing to learn. Things have changed since I started serving the community over two decades ago, even though the principals remain. Today, Vera Creative has found its stride in partnering with value-driven organizations that serve hard-to-reach communities. Communities that we stay plugged into because we keep the connection alive to provide for underserved folks. The next steps for Vera Creative are to continue to expand on our purpose-centered design process to create more positive change for the communities we serve. Specifically, to elevate Vera as a thought partner and not just a typical creative agency.
Not only do we continue to build upon our expertise, but we're also constantly learning about whom we serve and how we can improve what we do. We've partnered with IDHS on COVID-19 small business canvassing, supported stakeholders throughout Illinois to prevent mass eviction, and worked to improve preschool enrollment in the City of Chicago despite the challenges of the pandemic. It's our team's collective openness to improve in our crafts, engage with the communities we serve, the willingness to check our understanding, and our fantastic outreach teams that help keep us plugged in.
At Vera Creative, we begin with knowing who we fundamentally are as an organization before setting the tone for our creative process and collaborative partnerships. We put purpose at the center of our collaboration and the solutions we design. Constantly regrounding ourselves in the values we hold close and our audiences' challenges for the social good.
What about you? How do you stay connected to the people you serve?