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Saving Lives, by Design

Story by
Nancy Joseph

A woman forced into prostitution against her will, with no plan or resources for escape, opens a feminine product in the privacy of a restroom. Inside the packaging she finds information for getting help and the phone number of a dedicated hotline. She tears off the phone number—disguised as a fortune cookie “lucky number” to avoid suspicion—and flushes the rest down the toilet, per package instructions. She leaves the restroom with an important lifeline and hope for the future.

Pivot Project Team

The Pivot Project team includes design graduate students (from left) Kari Gaynor, Josh Nelson, Melanie Wang, Mike Fretto, and Adriel Rollins. "We had taken a seminar... on alternative design and were anxious to go beyond theory,” says Nelson.

This scenario may become a reality thanks to five UW graduate students who recently developed The Pivot Project, aimed at combating human trafficking. Their weapon of choice? Design. The project won the 2013 Design Ignites Change Idea Award and is a finalist in the Industrial Designers Society of America’s Ideas competition.

“Design, at its root, is creative problem solving,” explains Tad Hirsch, assistant professor of interaction design in the School of Art and advisor for the project. “The goal is to analyze a problem holistically, looking at an entire system of interactions and experiences, and then locate intervention points where design can have an impact. The design could be a physical object, software…it could be almost anything.”

Pivot Project packaging

Information about getting help, including a hotline phone number, is tucked inside the packaging of a feminine product.

Hirsch has been using design to address social issues for more than a decade. After he joined the UW faculty in 2011, he established the Public Practice Studio to encourage this approach at the University.  Pivot Project team members were among the first to come on board.  “We had taken a seminar with Tad on alternative design and were anxious to go beyond theory,” says Josh Nelson, a graduate student in industrial design. “We didn’t want to simply produce an awareness campaign; we wanted to directly impact people.”

The team considered numerous social issues before settling on human trafficking in Washington, an issue that “is right under our noses but not often acknowledged,” says interaction design graduate student Kari Gaynor.  As explained on The Pivot Project website, human trafficking can occur in any industry when force, fraud, or coercion is used to compel a person into any form of labor against his or her will. Their team chose to focus on sex and agriculture, two industries in which human trafficking is particularly common.

The first step was detailed research about human trafficking.  The students started reading secondary sources but quickly found the literature inconsistent.  What they needed, they realized, was to partner with an organization with expertise in human trafficking. They began cold-calling organizations but got no takers—until they contacted the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network (WARN).  “They totally got what we were trying to do,” says Nelson. “Once we talked to them, everything clicked and things started to happen.” 

"We didn't want to simply produce an awareness campaign; we wanted to directly impact people."

Gaynor says that coming to the project with an open mind has been key. “WARN dashed some of our assumptions about human trafficking, and we dashed some of their assumptions about design and what design can do,” she says. “It’s been important to be flexible and really listen to people with expertise in the other area.” WARN staff explained to the students that they don’t rescue victims by pulling them out of trouble. Instead victims choose to rescue themselves, and the organization supports them once they have made that decision.  The victims are at greatest risk of harm and violence when they decide to leave their situation—an important consideration in any intervention.

After months of research, the students identified intervention points where design could be of use. They then came up with about half a dozen concepts, from pie-in-the-sky to practical. “The challenge was to find a way to distribute information to a group of people who are really hard to access,” says Nelson. “It’s such a secret world, it’s hard to figure out how to get in there.” 

Pivot Project instructions

A detail of the information sheet inside the packaging. To see the entire front side of the sheet, click here. click here 

They found their solution in feminine products. The students realized that, by slipping their message into such products, women could read the message in privacy and safety. Any information that could put a woman at risk could be flushable, with just the hotline phone number, ingeniously disguised, remaining.

The team knew they had a workable idea, but making it a reality required multiple partnerships. After more research and numerous phone calls, they connected with a sanitary pad manufacturer, a packaging manufacturer, and a printer to print the message on flushable paper.  They then designed the packaging and the interior message, with WARN staff advising on the wording. The team created separate messages for sex workers and agricultural workers, with the latter message offered in Spanish as well as English.

“It’s important that women be able to quickly look at this and understand how to use it,” says Gaynor, “because they might only have a few minutes by themselves.”

The Design Ignites Change Idea Award is validation that the team is on the right track. “We’ve been working on this pretty hard for a year,” says Hirsch. “None of us are getting paid to do this. Passion drove this project.” In addition to Nelson and Gaynor, team members include design graduate students Mike Fretto, Adriel Rollins, and Melanie Wang.

The award comes with a $1,000 prize, which will be used to produce 1,000 samples. In a pilot project, WARN will work with street clinics and hospitals to distribute the samples to its target audience.

“Not everybody will relate to these messages or be ready to seek help,” says Gaynor. “It’s just one way to reach people and help them get out if they decide they’re ready.”

For more about The Pivot Project, visit the project’s web page or the Public Practice Studio website at