05 set, 2016

JWT London's Emilie Sheehan's Creative Solution to the Refugee Crisis

Emilie Refugee Challenge Image 1

Earlier this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the IKEA Foundation launched the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge, calling on the global creative community, across all disciplines, to come up with bold, innovative solutions that could improve the lives of refugees across Europe.

The UNHCR revealed that in 2015, the number of global forced displaced people surpassed 60 million for the first time since World War II.

JWT London Interactive Designer Emilie Sheehan’s creative solution was the only UK entry to make the top 25 shortlist of the 631 ideas that had been entered from 70 countries.

Her idea, An Unexpected Journey, is a bi-lingual graphic novel that would be given to child refugees and children in host countries. As Sheehan describes on her site, “…half of the book is written from a refugee child’s viewpoint. The other half is written from a local child’s perspective, with the two stories meeting in the middle of the book.”

“The book’s purpose,” Sheehan continues,”is to create empathy for refugees coming to Europe, as well as an understanding of each individual child’s culture through an engaging story.”

We caught up with Sheehan to hear more about her the challenge, her shortlisted idea and her passion for design.

In your original pitch deck for An Unexpected Journey, you highlighted that host countries often have a limited understanding of refugees’ plight. For many who don’t have access to credible news sources, a comic book is a more accessible way to explore another experience or culture. Can you talk about how you first came up with the idea of creating a comic book that targets children?

I was thinking of a different way to communicate a refugee’s journey in a personal and human centered approach. Comics books are a very unique and powerful tool for communication and they have a long history of reflecting society.

There is already some literature that has been created that tells the story of refugees but there didn’t seem to be anything for the refugees themselves (as well as children from host countries).

Although children are not born with prejudices they develop them through their parents, the media and society. A comic book is an absorbing adventure that allows children to play out moral and ethical dilemmas through the protagonists. It helps children form their own opinions and I hope it will break down barriers.

How did your skills and insights from working at an ad agency influence the way you approached this project?

Having worked on pitches and tight deadlines I was able to plan my time effectively, and able to present the idea in a compelling way.

The open and creative environment at J. Walter Thompson was a real benefit, as I spoke about my initial concepts with a lot of my team and senior creatives from the agency. I received invaluable feedback and encouragement.

I had some really useful insights that helped to shape the proposal, and Dave Dye gave me some important tips on how to present the idea.

Describe your design process. How do you get from idea/concept to a tangible design? 

When I first heard about the competition I was eager to use my design skills to make a difference and take on the challenge of tackling such a huge crisis. I am really interested in human centered design and collaborating with different people.

I organised a hack design day at the weekend with a group of people from different backgrounds in the field of design and UX. We had people who have worked in refugee camps give us first-hand accounts of what the main problems refugees face on a day to day basis and what needs to be done as a whole. That day we came up with lots of different ideas, which were a great starting point for the project.

I was keen to make something that was analogue as the market is already over saturated with digital solutions to refugees. I wanted to create something that was accessible and effective, that was beneficial for people from the host country and for refugees. I continued to think about this till I came round to the idea of a comic.

As I didn’t have the time and resources to create a comic book I thought the most important way to communicate was the make a striking visual that would act as a front cover for the comic and represent the idea. I did a lot of research into children’s books, illustrations and visited Forbidden Planet to take a look at all the different graphic novels out there.

I also spoke to a friend of mine who is a comic book editor to get tips on feasibility of the idea, and how the story would work.

Tell us about the cover art. What inspired the imagery and what did you want it to convey? 

What struck me the most in my research was that the majority of refugees don’t want to leave their homes, it is a last resort. They are fleeing to find safety and entering a new and unknown world. I wanted to depict what they are escaping from and the hope they have for their future and what new places can offer them.

The comic will feature two children with superhero powers. It is a graphic novel where half of the book is written from a refugee child’s viewpoint. Both will go on a journey, and have obstacles to overcome. The other half is written from a local child’s perspective, with the two stories converging in the middle.

What are your future plans and hopes for the comic book and the conversation surrounding child refugees? 

I see this comic as an ‘origins comic’ where the characters’ backstories are introduced and they develop their powers. I think this could easily become a series as it has such a strong message of hope in adversity.

I am continuing with the idea but I am looking for partnerships or sponsorship to back the project. I am currently researching writers and comic book illustrators that are willing to participate to help me create a draft to present to publishers.

In these times of global crisis, we need heroes that represent the idea that anyone can help.

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