How do you design communications for a charity that rescues and rehabilitates victims of torture and trafficking – people who’ve experienced horrific treatment from fellow humans – without scaring off your potential audience with graphic illustrations of the evidence?
To a certain extent, we’ve become immune to images of violence, thanks to the make-believe, Hollywood version with fake blood and gore splattered around in schlock-horror movies. But, if written accounts and photographic evidence of real torture scenes land on your door mat, attached to a ‘please give generously’ donation envelope, the likelihood is it will go straight in the bin to avoid ‘scaring the children’ – or even scaring the grown-ups.
Dealing with the aftermath of torture, and also offering help to women who’ve been trafficked to this country and forced into prostitution, the Helen Bamber Foundation provides medical, psychiatric, and legal support to hundreds of clients, helping them rebuild their lives while dealing with practical issues such as housing and language difficulties. Classified as illegal immigrants, after escaping from their torturers, the police hand these victims over to the Home Office, which seeks to send them back to the very same places they were abducted – or escaped – from.
Mike Dempsey of CDT Design volunteered his professional expertise to the Helen Bamber Foundation three years ago, and immediately realised that it didn’t have any resources. ‘I looked at the material, all photocopied, and disorganised, with no good photos,’ he says. ‘It was doing amazing work, but it’s a small organisation in comparison to the big charities. I told it, “If you look organised, you’ll get your message across”. I believe that design can effect change in many areas. It’s not frivolous, if it comes from a place of understanding.’
With such sensitive subject matter, the major issue was how to communicate visually. ‘This is the dark side of life – human trafficking, rape, torture. It’s so awful, you can’t show that in photographs. No one wants their portrait taken,’ explains Dempsey. ‘Instead, we decided to express ideas symbolically, through illustration, which can say so much more than a photograph, and by taking language further.’
One of the earliest iterations of the identity featured a broken chair, evocative of a torture scene, followed by an intact chair, made complete again through the foundation’s intervention.
Working with illustrator Laura Carlin and copywriter Tom Lynham, Dempsey orchestrates their input. ‘The graphic designer is the chef who makes the ingredients become effective,’ he says. Carlin’s sensitive rendering of the female figure, and Lynham’s storytelling style, rendered in a naive, hand-written form, create a very personal exposition of the victims’ stories, turning them from statistics back into living, breathing people.
The forthcoming installation Journey, in London’s Trafalgar Square, gives the public an opportunity to experience Dempsey’s communication strategy, writ large, across a series of ocean-going shipping containers, which each ‘house’ the story of a survivor.
A number of artists are working on the containers, including Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell and sculptor Anish Kapoor. Dempsey’s team, which includes actor Emma Thompson, has papered one container with blow-ups of Home Office correspondence, highlighting the department’s insensitive, bureaucratic language, in contrast with Carlin’s delicate line-drawings of the women involved.
Thompson is a Helen Bamber Foundation trustee and high-visibility campaigner; her A-list status grants access to decision-makers, including London mayor Ken Livingstone and Westminster City Council, which gave permission for the installation. Thompson will also be in attendance daily to raise public awareness of the foundation’s work.
Asked what advice he’d give a designer considering charity work, Dempsey speaks quite plainly. ‘If you’re going to donate your time and expertise, and persuade other people to work for free, you really have to believe in the cause,’ he says. ‘Don’t do this thinking “It’s charity, this’ll win an award”. Find like-minded collaborators, and approach the job just as you would any other. Read everything the organisation can give you about what it does, and then simplify – don’t make the message too complex because you need to engage with diverse audiences, to raise both funds and awareness. So, hone it all back, be simple and direct. Finally, always use imagery that works in harmony with the words, but doesn’t simply repeat the text.’
That Dempsey has been deeply affected by his involvement with the Helen Bamber Foundation is obvious from his parting comment. ‘I couldn’t do what the lawyers and therapists do – the stories are so painful. All I can do is help it get its message across, and whatever I can do, I will,’ he says. l
The awareness event, Journey, takes place on 23-30 September, 11am to 5pm, in Trafalgar Square, London W1