The University of Utah
College of Architecture + Planning

Sara Ference Rethinks Social Impact

Sara Ference Rethinks Social Impact

As the end of April nears, students in the design studio are in the middle of a final push to complete their thesis projects. Sara Ference, B.S. Design ’17 will be graduating with the rest of her class on May 5th. Sara’s thesis work, facilitating transportation in the Salt Lake City refugee community, is a reflection of the multi-disciplinary pedagogy central to design education at the University of Utah. Sara’s depth as a researcher has not gone unnoticed in the University. She received the Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher for the College of Architecture + Planning from the Office of Undergraduate Research. The University of Utah recognizes one graduating senior from each college every year. You can see Sara’s work on Wednesday May 3rd at Studio Elevn where she will be presenting her thesis along with her classmates in the Design program’s senior show. 

Sara’s view of design is deeply human. The values that orient her practice cannot be missed as she describes its origin and present trajectory. She began her education as a Health, Society and Policy major before taking time away to engage in volunteer work. That work  solidified the importance for her of keeping her academic interest grounded in impact, very human and close to the ground.

“Design is a vehicle for so many things, like education [and] changing culture. I mean these are the ways that it happens, the little nudges that design can really produce, that’s how culture gets changed. It’s just a matter of whether we’re being deliberate about that.”

Sara is holding her sketchbook in her lap and a pen between her first and second fingers. Her speech relaxed, quiet but her tone is assured.  A understated blue dress and black, rubber boots echo the natural qualities of her communication, underscoring a kind of poise. She begins an explanation of the path that has moved her towards her current work facilitating public transportation in the Salt Lake City refugee community.

When she returned to school after volunteering she took a class in design thinking. She really resonated with the course content and the experience left her feeling somewhat divided in terms of her academic trajectory:

“I have this deep desire to help people, but I loved design at the same time. I’ve always loved art and drawing, everything related to design. I always thought that design was just to make things look pretty. I didn’t think you could really make an impact. [I thought that] people who wanted to help people shouldn’t be focused on things [like] how to make it look nice. What does that even do?”

She reflects on the tension that emerged between what for her, at the time, were competing  worlds. She says of the conflict:

“I really wanted to switch to design, but I was like no I can’t do this because I can’t become one of those designers that doesn’t help people and just focuses on materialism and becomes, you know, the typical designer who dresses nice, but forgets about the little guy”

She resolved this divide by choosing both: design and people, design for people. Sara’s humanitarian concern has served as a landmark, a placeholder for her values as she has navigated the academic world. In her time in the program she has stayed dedicated to her values, using them as a reference to guide the development of her skills as a researcher, designer and an artist.

Sara’s thesis project is a seamless marriage of her depth as a researcher and her skill in visual communication. But she has never forgotten her initial commitment to herself: to work on projects that are important to her. She spent some time working for the Refugee and Immigrant Center in Salt Lake City as a transportation orientation leader. While there, she noticed several pressing issues.

“Being involved in transportation, essentially showing [refugees] how to get around Salt Lake I recognized that there are a lot of problems with that process and that it’s very difficult sometimes to adapt. Problems such as language barrier, fear, not only fear of getting lost, but fear of hostility.”

Sara resonated with the pain of these issues, drawing on experiences that she had had of the difficulty of orienting, or the anxiety of feeling lost while traveling. She noted that even if she had an app, sometimes it was not very useful, because the visual and spatial language apps employ can be less than intuitive at best. This became the challenge: she wanted to prove to herself that design can really be applied to an issue with direct impact on quality of life.

“This was part of the promise [I made to myself] , I was working with refugees and loving it and thinking that I want my career to be in refugee resettlement and then I kind of deviated and went to design but still with that promise of you are going to work with refugees.”

What started as her thesis coursework has evolved into sustained research and development. She intends to continue this work beyond the scope of her career in the Design program from which she graduates in a few weeks. The work is layered and extensively researched, but Sara sees her design work as falling into two major areas: Policy / organizational design and a digital intervention in the form of an app.

She is working to establish a structure within the Asian Association which helps the mentors of refugee families teach these families how to use public transportation. Recognizing the difference between resonating with the very human fear experienced in the face of something new and the arrogance of deciding for someone what their needs are:

“It’s not as if it’s super difficult [to learn to use the bus], but it’s amazing how much easier something is when you have someone next to you who has done it before and can say ‘I’ve got your back.’ I’m not trying to patronize these people and say, ‘no you can’t do it’ I recognize that it’s scary too.”

The app rethinks conventional languages of navigation, digital and otherwise. Sara has an interest in digital spaces which triggered an exploration of this avenue.

“A lot of it has just been born out of problems that I have with google maps. Like ‘turn in 400 ft’ 400 feet means so little to me, but ‘turn at the gas station’ yeah I get that. Google maps doesn’t think about navigation in the way that I think about navigation. I’ve been really fascinated by how people pay attention to landmarks and how they pay attention and orient themselves in space, how they relate to where they are. I’m working on an app; essentially navigation that isn’t tied to language, you don’t have to speak English to use it. It’s very image and landmark heavy.”

With this map, Sara is offering to communities that she is involved with a tool analogous to the one that she created for herself as a way of navigating her practice as a designer: a landmark. A reference that is grounded and real, something to come back to in an experience of confusion or disorientation.

Image: Office of Undergraduate Research 

Author: Sayde Price