As part of SVA Products of Design’s partnership with Veterans Affairs (and held through the Design Research and Integration class taught by IDEO’s Lawrence Abrahamson) , designers Jiani Lin, Alexia Cohen, Teng Yu, William Crum, Kevin Cook, and Antriksh Nangia used design to examine gender and the military—creating two design proposals aimed at changing the way people “see” women veterans.
Faculty Lawrence Abrahamson asked a group of over 50 people to “close their eyes and to imagine a military veteran.” Then he asked, “Now, how many of you imagined a woman vet?”
Two hands went up.
Framing the many weeks of design research was the question: How Might We establish a new cultural norm that a woman veteran is also a veteran? The team undertook both primary and secondary research, pouring over VA and VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) materials, conducting 10 expert interviews and 27 intercept interviews in New York City, along with online surveys distributed through social media.
The team distilled 5 insights—yielding 5 design principles in the form of “How Might We” questions:
Quote: “People would say, ‘You’re too pretty to be a vet.’” —K.K., Veteran
Insight: Civilians are largely ignorant of the military.
Principle: How might we use the public’s curiosity to deliver better information about women veterans?
Quote: “We need more female generals. The more women in combat, the more women we will have in higher ranks.” —D.V., Veteran
Insight: Structural barriers in the military keep women from getting equal recognition.
Principle: How might we draw attention to the roadblocks to women’s equality in the military?
Here the designers created a tangible prototype to investigate these insights more fully—designing a highly-researched (and playable) board game that takes players through the user journey of Active Duty, and then through Veteran Life. (Gameplay reveals countless obstacles in both; the deck is indeed stacked against women.)
The media portrays women vets as victims, not as heroes.
Quote: “I want to be portrayed as strong and capable, like I did my job well…I don’t want to be perceived as a victim.” —M.D., Veteran
Insight: The media portrays women vets as victims, not as heroes.
Principle: How might we invert the media’s portrayal from victims to rockstars?
Here the designers created a tangible prototypes that speculated television screenshots—clichéd portrayals of women as pitiable and “less than.”
Quote: “Men wear vet gear, women don’t. Female vets don’t associate.” —LK, VA Physician
Insight: Women are less likely to project their veteran identity than men.
Principle: How might we empower women to willingly express their veteran identity?
Quote: “The first time someone publicly acknowledged [my service], I broke down.” —K.K., Veteran
Insight: Women vets want to be recognized and honored—just like their male counterparts.
Principle: How might we show women veterans the recognition they want and deserve?
Here the designers created a very simple tangible prototype—juxtaposing the festooned hats often worn by male veterans, with the absence of an equivalent identifier for women vets.
The majority of the subsequent work centered on the designers’ creation of SheServed—a brand, campaign, organization, collateral, and website for women vets—along with it’s first “interactive” initiative, the Postcard Stories Campaign.
The team was very inspired by the “Live Strong” campaign and bracelets, which together raised both public sensitivity to cancer—along with donation funds for cancer research. “With SheServed, the managing organization puts out the messaging materials to vets and to the general public, telling them about the initiative and driving them to purchase the branded materials,” the team reasons. “In turn, the funds collected are given to organizations that support female vets.”
And of course there’s the power of social media: “The campaign collateral also gets shared on social media through the #SheServed Campaign—which in turn helps create organic momentum around the campaign…that then promotes the project further.” And once the pins, hats, t-shirts and other collateral make it out into the world, the social media posts become infinitely more powerful and empathy-loaded. “There’s a big difference between an image of a logo pin, and and image of a person wearing that pin,” the designers argue. “Once Instagram fills with photos of real-life vets identifying with the movement, along with civilians wanting to show their support, the campaign will have a greater authenticity—and therefore a higher likelihood of success.”
And to further drive awareness, perhaps the most persuasive elements of the campaign are the billboard ads, which are strong but respectful.
The SheServed Postcard Stories Project provides a platform where women servicemembers’ stories and achievements can be shared and celebrated.
Postcard Stories Campaign
The SheServed Postcard Stories Project provides a platform where women servicemembers’ stories and achievements can be shared and celebrated. The campaign would leverage the military’s team-first mentality “to get vets to celebrate their peers.” It would empower women vets by showcasing their accomplishments and appreciation, and would also get stories in front of a larger audience by leaning on men vet allies.
Here’s how it works: Vets are sent blank postcards and are invited to respond with a defining story about an outstanding woman veteran they know. The SheServed team curates submissions, publishing select stories on the online platform, and collected in printed books (with permissions of course).
Certainly, there was a push from critics to move the method of submitting stories from postcard to website—arguing that it would be more accessible and “easier”—but the team was resolved in starting with the zero-tech approach. “We really like the idea of the ‘hand-written”, they reasoned. “There’s a ton of research that tells us that the kind of writing that happens with a pen is different from a keyboard, and we also like referencing the “writing home from overseas” trope that is closely identified with people’s perception of the military. Of course, we can always add online forms once the campaign gains traction.”
The team spent a lot of time considering the obstacles for getting both of these campaigns out into the real world—everything from “agreement on the style and color of the logo” (always an impossible task!) to building enough critical mass for reasonable adoption. Still, they argue, “social media has changed everything. We figure that if we can get some key influencers—with high social media clout—to be a part of the launch on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, anything is possible. It’s really just a question of believing that the optics of the overall campaign are solid, and then lining up sympathetic manufacturers to help with the production. We think it’s all very, very possible.”