Project M

by Arvi & originally published on SpeakUp

With John Bielenberg’s announcement of a summer Project M session in Greensboro, AL; I can’t help but look back with fondness on my experience and time with Project M. This is my story.

originally pubished on SpeakUp

I graduated from Syracuse University in 1996 full of excitement to enter the design field. I had the crazy idea that I was going to change the world of design and if I was lucky, become an influential designer at the end of my career. I was 21

I have been lucky. I’ve had the opportunity to work on a wide array of projects for companies of all sizes, I’ve met some very talented people, I’ve been nationally recognized by design shows and publications, and I’ve been able to make a career doing what I love to do. I’ve worked for six different studios and lived in three cities, most recently San Francisco. In one sense, everything has gone as I’d planned.

But by the time I reached my 30th birthday, I’d lost the excitement and enthusiasm I felt at 21. I’d reached a point in my career where I could no longer see myself designing corporate logos, brochures and websites for the rest of my life. Okay, I thought, now what?

The answer grew out of a project I was already involved in.

Six years ago I started working with Sappi Fine Papers to promote Ideas that Matter, a unique competition that recognizes that designers’ creative ideas can have an impact far beyond the design world and that design can be a powerful force for social good. Initially, I saw the project as an opportunity to advance my career. As it turned out, it gave me so much more. Working on Ideas that Matter transformed my sense of who I was as a designer and what I wanted from our profession.

Then about a year ago, as I was doing some research for Ideas that Matter, I found something called Project M, an intensive summer program designed to inspire young designers, writers, photographers and filmmakers to prove that their work can have a positive and significant impact on the world. I decided to contact John Bielenberg, founder and Director of Project M. After a few emails and some procrastinating on my part, John said “Be prepared to having an incredible adventure changing the world together… just a little.” That was it. That was all l needed to hear. Project M promised to be not only an opportunity to do something meaningful but a chance to get away from the so-called “real world” and think about where I was in my career and life. It was time to figure out why I chose this business.

So at 33, I decided to take a month off and join Project M in Greensboro, Alabama. I knew that Greensboro would be different from everything I knew, and it certainly was. I grew up in New York City and have always lived in a big city. Greensboro has a population of about 2,700 people. That’s about the population of a few apartment buildings in New York City.

Did I also mention that Project M was in the month of June? … in Alabama?! Needless to say, it was hot and uncomfortable, but exciting. I loved being in a small town where within a couple of days I knew everyone, everyone waved hello and the dollar store became the most important store in town.

Our month-long adventure culminated in the creation of the Project M Lab in Alabama, a permanent home for Project M. It is a place where designers can get away from the real world, live somewhere far from the familiar, and work on projects that could make a difference. It’s a place that can teach designers that their work can have an impact that affects communities and people’s lives. We decided to not design an artifact, but to establish an institution where people can visit to tackle the tough issues of our day, like poverty and hunger. Now that I’ve returned to San Francisco, I’m determined that talented young individuals should continue to have the chance to attend Project M. But it’s not easy; each Project M participant must pay $2,000 which helps to fund the project, related expenses and housing.

Now I don’t know about you, but as a young designer, I’d have found $2,000 hard to come by — especially when I was fresh out of school and looking for a job. So I decided that instead of raising money for myself to attend Project M, I would “pay it forward” and help someone else by establishing “Design that Cares”, a socially-based design collaborative aimed at helping people connect with others to inspire and create change. Along with a former colleague, Justin Gonyea, we designed a poster with the Project M ethos of “Think Wrong”. We are selling the posters at Proceeds from the sale of the posters will go directly to helping someone else attend Project M.

I am truly lucky to have been a part of Project M and to be reminded of why I love being a designer. As Project M becomes more of a distant memory, I often think of the advice that John Waters said to me: “Never loose that fire that’s in you… always keep that passion and energy.”

To submit an application to Project M, visit

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