Designing for Action: An Interview with Jessica Teal

How one designer created a business centered on graphics that could change the world.

With news of another mass school shooting, one more red dot has been added to the School Shootings in America map, a microsite that graphic design firm Teal Media created with Everytown for Gun Safety.

Teal Media, which also creates graphics for Greenpeace, Stop Hate, EndGagNow and more, has been designing microsites, graphics and short videos in partnership with Everytown for the last five years in a campaign to end gun violence.

The firm was founded by designer Jessica Teal, former design manager for Obama’s presidential campaign where she was responsible for everything from podiums’ CHANGE signs, and associated microsites to T-shirts, car magnets and airplane wraps.

With Obama elected and Teal unable to find another job that offered the same level of energy and fulfillment, she started her own freelance business designing for issues and causes ten years ago.

In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, we spoke to Teal about designing to end gun violence and graphic design’s role in inspiring the public to give a damn.

What’s unique about designing for the Everytown “brand”?

Though incremental progress has been made, the movement still faces tremendous hurdles and pushback, despite being well-funded and supported. How can we keep people engaged, learning and taking action, especially when they are discouraged? How can we keep the issue front-of-mind, without inundating or overwhelming people or worse yet, numbing them to the issue?

We need to keep these basic human reactions and emotions at the center of our design solutions. Our designs need to be appropriate, strike the proper tone of the moment and be well-timed. 

What’s an example of an Everytown graphics campaign that struck the right chord at the right moment?

The Not One More campaign. A father of a victim from the mass shooting at the University of California Santa Barbara put out a call to action to send postcards to politicians with “Not one more.”

Teal designed the postcard for the effort with an aesthetic that was as simple and straightforward as the message. We also assisted in developing assets for the website tool that allowed people to send the postcards to their elected representatives and also created social and email graphics to promote the tool as well as step-and-repeat backdrops and podium signs for press events.

600,000 Americans used the tool and more than 2.4 million postcards were delivered to elected officials.

How did your communications and design background cross over to socially conscious projects?

In college, I became the Director of Design for our student government; started our school’s first student-published print magazine where I was the Art Director; and interned at newspapers, advertising agencies, and marketing firms. After college, I was the Design Specialist for the Office of the Clerk at the U.S. House of Representatives and then worked as a designer with the Democratic National Committee.

There, I was able to see how design could contribute to a national conversation. I saw website graphics I created urging people to “sign the petition” lead to boxes upon boxes of signed pieces of paper being delivered to elected officials. I saw my print pieces hung on people’s doors all across the country to get out the vote for election day. And I saw graphics I created sent in emails raise thousands of dollars.

I was amazed: My design work was actually contributing to people taking real action that had real impact on the world.

What’s particularly challenging about designing for these types of clients?

In the 10 years since Teal Media began, there’s a lot more “noise” that you have to break through on social media and other platforms. To make an impact, you need to be relevant, timely, memorable, consistent and persistent. Changing someone’s heart and mind is a long-term play. There are people just as passionate, innovative and dedicated as you working on the other side of the issue.

It is incredibly rewarding. You aren’t just designing for design’s sake. You aren’t designing to sell a product or increase profits. You are designing for something greater, something that can change the world.

What advice would you give an emerging graphic designer who would like to do this kind of design work?

Take those jobs doing the grunt production work and take them at organizations that garner national attention—your work will gain tons of exposure, you’ll gain more confidence as a designer, and you’ll become more proficient in your design skills because, well, you’ll have no choice.

You’ll also likely meet others at the ground floor of their careers—writers, social media specialists, web developers—and you’ll form a special bond with these people. These are the people who doubled down on their passion and took jobs that maybe weren’t as lucrative as those in the private sector but took them because they could go home at the end of the day knowing that they did something that contributed to the greater good. These are the people who will go on to change the world. And you’ll be one of them.

Update: Teal Media recently released downloadable posters for #MarchForOurLives events. Check them out here.

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