UNICEF art director Camila Garay on saving lives with design – and why she needs your help

Interview: Find out how Camila has shown design is key to the UNICEF message  and why not all big data is bad. Discover too her tips on making it within social development as a designer, and the mission of the Marble initiative.

Data is the Big Bad Wolf of 21st century life – but it doesn't always have to be this way.

Nor does design simply have to be something trivial, or just the basis for holding a buzzed-about creative conference.

It was at one such buzzed-about conference where I came across a meaningful presentation from UNICEF's Camila Garay which proved both of the above. In it the organisation's art director revealed the importance of design in delivering an important message, as demonstrated by a thrilling new UNICEF initiative named Marble. 

Camila and JKR's Tosh Hall speaking at D&AD 2019

Spearheaded by Camila and other UNICEF talents, Marble is a science and art collective incubated by UNICEF and co-designed with the D&AD award-winning agency Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR).

I spoke with Camila following her presentation at this year's D&AD Festival to find out more about both Marble and her work at UNICEF. In an era defined by the slow dismantling of longstanding institutions, it's now more important than ever to showcase the ways such bastions are staying relevant in the 21st century, and the key work they do which arguably can be taken for granted.

Big data for good

With partners ranging from Microsoft to Harvard, Marble is an open initiative that seeks to tackle some of the biggest problems affecting children today.

"We have five running initiatives at the moment which are currently tackling suicide, inclusive cities, migration, epidemics and fragile contexts," Camila tells me in the D&AD press area.

"For the suicide project we're collaborating with data scientists from places like Microsoft Research to gauge suicidal patterns amongst teenagers by what they’re typing in search engines."

Camila is excited by how partners like Microsoft can be equal partners in the project; Marble, as she tells me, can be owned by whoever wants to collaborate and bring their professional expertise to the table, working closely with UNICEF’s core Marble team, including Natalia Adler and design strategist Purva Sawant.

"We start off with a problem and then match with partners who can donate their expertise," she explains. "Once we’re at the package stage we’ll invite creatives to design the various research projects with us. It might be a fine art painter or someone into 3D spaces; the possibilities are endless.

"We really have to do this," she argues. "With all these sorts of complicated numbers, you need clarity and a visual understanding is crucial. It doesn’t end with the packaging either; we have to make sure the message gets to the officials and policymakers who make the decisions about children around the world, and ensure they really understand it.

"But we also want designers to be there at the start of the conversation, so it’s more than just a packaging thing. It becomes about having our creative teams available throughout the whole process."

Camila is excited by one design solution already presented to Marble – that of the initiative's branding, as revealed exclusively at D&AD 2019.

"I’m super excited by our identity as it’s a new way of working for UNICEF," she continues. "My design team worked with JKR to create a look which conveys that we’re about navigating a maze in order to find complicated information.

"Because Marble is a project that can exists only together with others we had to create its own identity to ensure that each collaborator involved, whether you are a UN agency or a private company, can feel the same ownership of the projects."

Design Diamonds

Camila's well-versed in bucking trends within UNICEF, telling me that eyebrows were raised when she first started at the organisation over three years back.

"Some people weren't sure why UNICEF needed a designer in the research team. I started off on a six-month stint and had to kind of force myself upon them saying, 'Hey, you need a full-time designer,'" she laughs.

"UNICEF is such an exciting space to be in, but my first ever project for them was working on slideshow presentation templates.

"I tell you this as though it might have been a step down from working on big glossy ad campaigns, those presentations had a big impact on helping our 150 researchers communicate better.

"It was the first step in giving the data team a chance to communicate the work they were doing into really important places. I remain proud of those presentations as I saw the confidence of our staff members as they realised what design could do for them."

Image from UNICEF's Sociopreneur intitiative

Camila's design team of five sits within UNICEF's 150+ strong data research and policy team, as situated in the institution's New York HQ.

"There’s a big communication presence that manages UNICEF’s social media and websites; I used to be in that space but theirs is a more systemic approach to design, focused on campaigns and keeping the world informed about what UNICEF is doing. 

"In our unit we’re allowed to take longer time to research and create a visual language around a project."

Each project comes with a philosophy borne from Camila's past experience working in luxury: a key attention to craftsmanship.

"I realised early on in UNICEF that we should be packaging our research projects the same way I used to package diamonds in luxury.

"There shouldn't be a compromise in quality just because we're working with people. Aren't they more important to the world than diamonds?"

Making the change into making change

As we finish up our chat, I ask Camila on what advice she would give to designers like herself who'd like to move from their current field into social development.

"Be very sure why you're doing this," she warns. "If you're tired of grinding and working the long hours, you might just need a holiday."

Another word of caution for designers is to expect to be pioneering at all times.

"Once you're in social development, you're going to need loads of patience as you might have to educate people about something they don't necessarily know about: design and creative work. It took me a year to do this myself at UNICEF.

"This is why it's actually much harder in this field, and why there's less glamour. You really have to know why you're there. I sit in a cubicle without any glamour whatsoever, but I know the work I create makes me happy, and that's all that's important."

If wanting to know whether designing for social development could make you happy too, then Marble might be the perfect taster. Camila and team have an open call for collaborators on their website, and are keen on speaking with creatives of all disciplines.

"Marble is collecting a basket of expertise, so it doesn't matter what background you come from; we might be able to clue you into our work and create a project with you."

This openness ties in with Camila's reluctance to ever adhere to one kind of visual language.

"What's the point in designing anything when everything's already been designed, right?" she teases.

"Regardless if you’re working with a new initiative or an established brand, it’s so important to layer different approaches and experiment with styles and different techniques in order to create something engaging, unique – and possibly world-changing."

Hit the Marble site to find out how you can help.

Camila with Natalia Adler (middle) and Purva Sawant

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