March 2- 8, 2006
naked cityGreen Graphics
A Philadelphia design company that makes advocacy look sharp.
: Michael T. Regan
Curtis knows that if he plied his trade in a country other than America, he'd be harbored in a cold, dark basement, slaving away in secrecy, like Ross in her day. His life would be at risk.
Curtis, creative director of Public Interest GRFX, the Philly-based graphic design and marketing firm for a national network of state-based nonprofit Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), knows he's no revolutionary. But he also knows he's helping shape the evolving voice of an increasingly savvy generation of anti-establishment consumer and environmental advocacy groups who aim to effect social change.
Whether that's a successful Clean Water Act lawsuit against Pennsylvania polluter P.H. Glatfelter (2001), or the passage of the $3.2 billion "million solar roofs" initiative in California (2005), it adds up to "tangible results that make people's lives better," Curtis says. "These groups we represent don't hold candlelight vigils. Some just sue until the undesirable action stops."
GRFX completes 30 mixed-media projects (Web pages, brochures, newsletters, annual reports, petitions, posters, postcards or video clips) a month for 40 or so organizations a year. More than 30 or those are in the PIRG network. PIRGs began springing up 30 years ago on college campuses. It was during the infancy of desktop publishing, so most did their own public relations. Others hired freelance designers.
Since 1992, GRFX, which was founded by Ken Ward and Ennis Carter (both of whom have since left; Carter formed Design for Social Impact), has provided a one-stop clearinghouse for the niche market. In fact, to contain costs, PennPIRG and PennEnvironment share office space at Broad and Walnut streets with GRFX, which has also worked with non-PIRG action groups including Green Corps and the National Environmental Law Center.
"It's tough to find a graphic designer or public relations firm that's willing to work with nonprofitsand willing to work with us on the dollars and cents, too," says Nathan Willcox, the energy advocate for 15,000-member PennEnvironment.
Mt. Airy's Curtis, 39, who was GRFX's first full-time designer, now heads a team of three full-time graphic designers, two Web designers and a videographer. He admits he's both designer and advocate.
Curtis' personal interests in energy efficiency lie in campaigns like PennPIRG's Fuel Buyers, a co-op that uses group buying power to negotiate fair and affordable prices for 1,100 households and small businesses in the state. He's really beaming over Pennsylvania's Growing Greener II, which directs $625 million towards river and stream restoration, the expansion and preservation of open spaces and family farms, and hazardous waste cleanup.
"The states have always been the laboratories for democracy in this country," Curtis says. "By sharing resources on campaigns, working on coordinated strategies and planning for future fights, the state PIRGs put us closer to the tipping point on solving many of the problems that face America."
An outdoors enthusiast, Curtis remembers fixing hiking trails in Idaho as a high schooler with the Student Conservation Association, but says he'd never coupled environmental issues with politics. He does not consider himself a political expert, and blames GRFX for not doing enough at the municipal level, something he's out to change.
Influenced by PennEnvironment's and GRFX's work, on Feb. 16 City Council passed a nonbinding resolution opposing a PGW-proposed LNG (liquefied natural gas) docking station in Port Richmond. A docking station would allow energy companies to transport natural gas in massive quantities efficiently. But according to PennEnvironment, a study done for the U.S. Department of Energy found that an LNG tanker leak could result in an explosive fire causing major injuries and significant structural damage within one-third of a mile from the spill site, and potential injuries and property damage up to one mile. "Add one lunatic with a rocket-launched grenade or a car bombscary," Curtis says.
GRFX designed neighborhood window signs with a line drawn through the letters "LNG" and a slogan: "Another Philadelphian against PGW's risky energy plan."
Even if a client doesn't prevail in its cause, Curtis feels a GRFX campaign still helps each organization emerge as a "more sustainable, viable organization."
All the Web sites GRFX designs are clean, simple and direct. Uniform by design, there isn't much splash or flash. "If you're asking if my creativity side is satisfied," he says, "for me, it's more about helping solve problems."
A visual communications major at the University of Delaware, the Newark native thought he'd become another "ad guy," but an internship spent writing a yogurt script convinced him he didn't want to be in the advertising world.
"I couldn't see myself putting more crap into people's lives," he says. "I remember asking myself, "If they bought more yogurt, or didn't, how was that going to make much difference in their lives?'"