Be a Truth-Speaker: Protecting & Empowering Students through Graphic Design
By Andréana Lefton
1. Risk and Resilience
How do we protect students on (and off) campus? How do we create a culture of trust, mutual protection, and collective action, in which young adults feel free and safe to speak up?
The statistics are terrifying:
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, claiming the lives of 1,100 students each year.
- Almost one third of all college students report feeling so depressed they have trouble functioning.
- Between 20 and 25% of women report being sexually assaulted in college. In 2014, nearly 100,000 of all sexual assault cases involved alcohol.
But there is cause for hope too:
- Student-led groups like RAINN, organizations like Take Back the Night, and the #MeToo movement are championing an end to sexual violence and a culture of fear.
- New technologies and human connection are combining in powerful ways. Campus health centers are helping students create self-care plans, while apps can alert authorities to immediate threats.
- In the wake of student deaths and negative press, some sororities and fraternities are soul-searching and changing policies to prevent hazing, pledging, rape and alcohol abuse.
The question of student safety is one that NeigerDesign and their clients are grappling with. These clients include national fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) and Educational & Institutional Insurance Administrators, Inc. (EIIA).
For both SAE and EIIA, NeigerDesign designs educational materials and advocacy campaigns, helping transform student risk into resilience.
2. A New Look at Greek-letter Life
Recent headlines read: “Why Colleges Should Get Rid of Fraternities for Good” (Time magazine) and “The Dark Power of Fraternities” (The Atlantic). In True Gentlemen, a recently released book by John Hechinger, the author writes:
[T]he American college fraternity faces an existential choice. It can perpetuate the ugliest chapters of American history. Or it can turn a page and once again reflect the country’s highest aspirations.”
“Turning a new page” on Greek-letter life is a good way to describe The Record, SAE’s official magazine. The publication, while visually glossy, does not gloss over hard reality. Its articles delve into student suicide and racist acts on campus. It reports on internal policy shifts, aimed at ending hazing, pledging, and rape. The magazine also educates SAE brothers on how to walk the walk—how to be gentlemen in word and action.
According to Johnny Sao, Director of Communications at SAE:
“SAE realizes there is an opportunity to be a voice of change, to be a leader of the discussion. Moving forward, The Record will be shifting its focus to a teaching platform. While it will still retain some of the human interest pieces, the future of the publication lies in the education we can provide to our 20,000 subscribers.”
With its bold graphics and sleek modern design, the magazine’s layout has evolved through a collaboration with NeigerDesign, spanning over 17 years and counting. This history is recalled by former SAE Director of Communications, Brandon Weghorst:
“Sigma Alpha Epsilon first partnered with NeigerDesign in 2000 upon their outreach as an Evanston business. What stands out is their ability to take our editorial or graphic vision and turn it into reality by presenting a beautiful and thought-provoking piece.”
The magazine’s eye-appeal, while important, serves a higher purpose. Carol Neiger, lead designer and founder of the Evanston-based firm, was inspired by these questions:
- How do you overcome fear and silence?
- How do you amplify the power of voice and encourage others to speak out?
- How do you inspire students to take personal responsibility?
- How do you clearly communicate a difficult, painful topic?
There is a desire, by fraternity members and leadership, to reform this national network. As Johnny Sao notes:
“A majority of staffers at any fraternity, not just Sigma Alpha Epsilon, had a positive experience with fraternities and sororities as undergraduates. We are trying to preserve and provide the same experiences and opportunities we had as collegians.”
The benefits of community and brotherhood often include the harms of peer pressure and toxic “within-group attitudes” that promote misconduct and sexual coercion, according to an article in Time. Because of group loyalty, some men feel compelled to cover up the bad behavior of their friends:
Fraternities give young men a sense of belonging and a sense of community. However, the challenge for those young men is that they tend not to speak out against things that are wrong, including many of the big issues affecting students: inappropriate behavior, sexual misconduct, and alcohol and substance abuse.”
(The Record, Fall 2015)
Fraternities admit that real problems exist within their organization. This complex reality is what Brandon Weghorst hoped to share with The Record’s readers—including and beyond SAE membership:
“Some of the best pieces discussed issues such as suicide, alcohol and substance abuse, PTSD, men’s health, and sexual assault and misconduct…we [also] had opportunities to showcase the positive benefits and experience that comes with membership in a Greek-letter organization, the types of stories that are overshadowed by the negative press because of the actions of a few.”
The design and content of the magazine reflect this aspirational, service-minded vision. Unlike many Greek-letter publications, which have a similar template, NeigerDesign’s approach to each edition of The Record is distinct and has richly benefited from a diverse team of talented designers including Jason Harvey, Jennifer Ramazinski Miller, Cassidy Whitworth, Jim Hutchison, Joshua Rains and Jonathan Amen. Every issue has its own look and feel, depending on the subject-matter of the main story. At the core, a focus on “change” and “being a leader” has taken center-stage.
3. Reaction and Pro-Action
In Oklahoma, on a bus heading to a Founders Day event, several young SAE brothers led a racist chant, which was caught on video and went viral. This blatant act joins a long list of deaths, bullying, and sexual assault, involving fraternity men. The public and media outcry has been intense. SAE realized it had to make some major changes to protect students and reestablish trust.
In his book, journalist John Hechinger traces the influence and evolution of SAE, including a recent game-changing ban on pledging, sharing that “on March 7 , coinciding with the celebration of the anniversary of the fraternity’s founding, [then-SAE president Bradley] Cohen announced the pledging ban…The move made national headlines, drawing praise from many quarters that had once condemned SAE.”
The ban on pledging is intended to save lives. Too many students have died in alcohol- and pledging-related accidents. Last November, SAE also rolled out a temporary moratorium on alcohol at fraternity events—a decision which initially caused backlash, but was later embraced by some student members as a positive bonding experience.
Helping a brand recover and regenerate is something NeigerDesign knows how to do. As their Fall 2015 issue of The Record shows, this is not merely a public relations campaign. The main article, “When Silence Overshadows Action,” documents efforts by SAE to curb harmful behavior, changing a closed culture of privilege and risk into a more inclusive, healthy outlet for young men.
The article’s design is stark and arresting. Words rip through the blackness of a blank page. There are no faces, no photographs. The deep gray and brick-orange palette conveys both urgency and hope. Carol Neiger explains the perspective and concerns that fuel her work on campus safety:
“Students are often most vulnerable during their college years. They can feel isolated, anxious from the pressures of academics, as students are exposed to potentially harmful situations that range from bullying to substance abuse.”
She also mentions the “courage and talent” exercised by leadership to “take responsibility for these precious lives and put real stories out there is a way that is honest and compelling as well as in some cases, sad and tragic.” According to Brandon Weghorst:
[The Record] can provide education not found in the classroom, and we make sure our members understand that they are their brother’s keeper. That’s a lesson that transcends Sigma Alpha Epsilon. In our society, we need to look out for one another and, at the same time, hold each other accountable. Only then can we learn from our mistakes and grow personally.”
By banning pledging and hazing, SAE is communicating to its members that it stands by its creed—and expects the same of them: “The True Gentleman is the man…whose deed follows his word…a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.”
4. Tools for Truth-Speakers
Codes of conduct and official policies will hopefully impact student behavior. Educational programs may slowly shift beliefs and increase understanding. But how are crimes and other harmful incidents reported? What channels are available for students who want to speak out—without fear of personal reprisal?
These questions concern EIIA, another NeigerDesign client. Educational & Institutional Insurance Administrators, Inc. is a company that, according to its mission statement, “is committed to protecting the promise of faith-inspired private institutions of higher education through the delivery of innovative insurance and risk management solutions.”
Using both financial and ethical lenses, EIIA helps college and university staff understand how a lack of reporting can negatively impact insurance premiums and the institution’s reputation. Naturally, saving money is a big incentive where institutions are concerned. At the same time, EIIA focuses on the moral imperative of protecting students and staff.
NeigerDesign was asked by EIIA to design materials for an awareness-raising campaign. The aim? To promote the Campus Conduct Hotline®, an anonymous and confidential reporting resource for students. EIIA sponsors this hotline as a safe channel for voicing concerns including hate speech, sexual harassment, hazing, unethical business practices, and related threats to self and wellbeing. According to EIIA’s 2016 annual report:
The call center is staffed by trained personnel with advanced degrees in psychology or social sciences who offer guidance to callers, who are often stressed and unsure about what steps to take next. To maintain anonymity, a case number is assigned for reference and follow-up. Most important, the institution is notified immediately.”
The difficulty lies in marketing and promotion. Students are inundated with negative and fear-based messaging. Orientation for incoming freshmen and women highlights threats like date rape and drugged drinks at parties. The media emphasizes danger and violence. While it is important to educate students on risks, data-overload can lead to passivity and tuning out.
For the Campus Conduct Hotline® to be effective, NeigerDesign’s campaign must offer a fresh and memorable visual hook, so students will use this tool—and not ignore it.
NeigerDesign’s approach blends collaboration with expertise. The first step is listening to the client’s needs and goals. Carol Neiger explains, “We always start with research of some type. This always includes an intake session with our client and often extends to online surveys, qualitative interviews with stakeholders or focus groups. In this case, our client contact, Monica Turner, Associate Director at EIIA, provided a lot of initial input. She provided direction for the redesign of existing posters and brochures.”
As a next step, the NeigerDesign team created a survey to collect insights from EIIA Members. Their findings included:
- Highlight confidentiality
- Your report will be taken seriously
- Convey purpose and examples of the hotline’s use
- Distill message: “If you see something, say something” (see, speak, act)
- CCH is a resource for everyone: students, faculty, and staff
- CCH is third-party administered
- Strong, updated visuals needed
The values embedded within the CCH campaign are similar to those Sigma Alpha Epsilon seeks to nurture in its membership:
- Voice—Speak up/stand up
- Ethics—Do the right thing
- Community—We’re all in this together
- Safety—You will be protected when speaking up
NeigerDesign then took these ideas and values and translated them into words and images. Graphic elements create different energies, depending on their tone and combination. NeigerDesign’s aim is to harness these energies for collective good. This process can seem a bit like magic. But for NeigerDesign’s team, there is a fine-tuned method at work. Jonathan Amen, NeigerDesign’s Associate Creative Director explains:
“Once we had some poster headlines created, we went to our sketchbooks and developed many rough concepts, critiquing them as a group, revising them and creating prototype versions for four of our best ideas to present to our client.
“Because we have a diverse group in terms of age, it was important to include our entire team in the critique. This way we could represent [perspectives from both] the parent and recent college students." He also added that:
In poster design it is crucial to be able to draw people in—to attract attention. We accomplished this with engaging words and eye-catching graphics. Once we get people to read a poster then the next most important thing is to inspire action. In this case we want to create awareness of the hotline and make it easy and unintimidating to contact the hotline.”
The Campus Conduct Hotline® is currently used by 109 academic institutions. Its services have expanded to accommodate students and faculty in study abroad programs, and an option for reporting incidents electronically.
5. Voices and Visions for Change
A sense of community can be both blessing and curse when it comes to misconduct and unhealthy behavior. If a culture of kindness and accountability is strong, students may be less likely to act out, knowing they will implicate their friends and cause pain to others. At the same time, if silence and cover-ups prevail, Greek-letter communities can act as a barrier to justice – and an antagonist to campus safety.
Which way will the pendulum swing? It depends, largely, on communication:
- Are universities, fraternities and sororities talking to each other, collaborating on behalf of student rights and health?
- Do open and safe forums exist, in which students can voice their experiences, gain better coping strategies, and seek restorative justice?
- Are we, as family, friends, and citizens, doing our part? Are we speaking out about racism, sexism, violence, and self-harm – in a way that invites dialogue and mutual understanding?
- Are we, as individuals and institutions, reaching out to people who hold different or contrary views to our own, establishing a connection, and learning to work together?
One conversation that fraternities will need to have is about privilege, addressing the harmful effects of this mindset, as well as the positive benefits of “spending” that privilege on behalf of collective well-being:
It is not enough for me to recognize that as a white person I carry an invisible weightless knapsack of unearned advantages. I also need to decide what to do with it. Privilege gives me power that I can use for social change.”
(Peggy MacIntosh, scholar and activist)
There are over 250,000 total SAE members (undergrads and alum) in the United States, including a large percentage of business leaders and politicians. Imagine the good these individuals can do, in partnership with other organizations working for social justice, public health, campus safety, and women’s advancement.
As fraternities like SAE attempt to launch a new chapter in Greek-letter life, they will need help communicating their message in a way that resonates with both members and non-members. As Brandon Weghorst says, “Unless people have a background in design, they don’t likely think about how visual elements play a role in enhancing what the narrative is trying to convey. If we can draw the eyes to our message, then we have succeeded.”
NeigerDesign’s team appreciates the complexity of this task. They seek a path to positive change through visual storytelling and public awareness. This work must be approached with sincerity and urgency. The lives of our youth are at stake.
Andréana Lefton is a writer and educator. She has lived and worked in the U.S., UK, Europe, and the Middle East—always on the lookout for hidden beauty and unheard voices. Explore more of her essays.