Art Direction for the Homeless

homeless3Good design has the power to please, to encourage, to inspire, but the ends that it serves are more often mercantile than magnanimous.

Perhaps that’s why a recent project that allows homeless people to trade in their Sharpie-on-cardboard signs for colorful, professionally designed and hand-painted ones seems so, well, moving.

A partnership between artist Kenji Nakayama and aptly-named homeless advocate Christopher Hope, the Signs for the Homeless project works with the homeless in Boston and Cambridge to craft eye-catching placards. The homeless then receive them and $20 before returning to the streets.

homeless2“They tell us what they want, what they want the sign to say, what colors they like, even maybe what kind of lettering they want,” Hope told

While Hope suggests the new signs might improve their holders’ takings, he makes no bones about the fact that the real purpose of the project is to encourage people to engage with the homeless – to see that they’re human, too.

One is left not knowing exactly how to feel about this project. Is this simply putting paint on an epidemic? Is it tacky? Is it empowering for the homeless? Why does this feel like a story in The Onion come to life? Or have we simply reached a point where good design seems strange unless it carries with it the promise of a paycheck?



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