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ASU design student improves conditions for refugees

Design student Taylor Loutsis
May 11, 2015

ASU 2015 commencement banner

Taylor Loutsis has been an undergraduate student for the past eight years.

In that time, he has attended three universities, declared six majors and traveled across multiple continents.

“I’m extraordinarily impulsive,” Loutsis said. “So I saw something shiny, in a sense, and I just ran for it. But that shiny wasn’t materialistic, it was more like curiosity.”

This month, Loutsis will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in design in graphic design from The Design School in the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, but for this self-motivated, 25-year-old changemaker, the degree is just the beginning.

The journey

Loutsis’ story begins in Seattle, where he was born and raised.

“When I was a little kid, I would ask my dad for a pile of dirt so I could make a city,” he said. “I would make these giant earth cities with lakes and pipes, I would make houses out of shoeboxes. I didn’t really put it together until this year, but I was super interested in designing things or making things that represented space.”

Loutsis started his undergrad at Washington State University, but it wasn’t until he got into the design program at Arizona State University that things began to fall into place, partially because he spent so much time exploring. One summer Loutsis earned an artist residency in New York, another summer he took an internship in Germany, and one semester he studied abroad in Singapore.

“While I’ve been at ASU I‘ve had the opportunity and tools to do an excessive amount of exploring in a short period of time to really fine-tune what I want to do,” Loutsis said. “That paired with the fact that our studio is exposed to all the design disciplines at once. You’re going through the hallways and you see industrial design or you see architecture. It’s like a cross-pollination.”

This exposure to other disciplines within The Design School was essential for Loutsis’ most notable project during his undergraduate career, Erasing Boundaries.

Erasing Boundaries

“On June 20, the Associated Press released an article that there were over 50 million people displaced globally for the first time since WWII,” Loutsis said. “That article connected all the dots for me. For the graphic design program, you have to pick a social issue for your final project, and I knew I wanted to do something architecture-related. So it was like OK – refugee camp housing, architecture, social issue – it just made sense.”

But Loutsis knew he couldn’t tackle such a large issue with his skill set alone. He met with his program director, Al Sanft, and proposed a project that would bring in the help of a civil engineering student from University of Portland, an architecture student from Pratt Institute in New York, an industrial design student and an anthropology student from ASU.

The team Skyped once a week during the semester, and gradually Erasing Boundaries began to take shape. The multidisciplinary project reimagines housing in the Kiziba refugee camp in Rwanda, which has a population of 17,500. 

The group has worked closely with Kigabo Mbazumutima, a doctor from the West African Republic of Benin who survived the genocide and has been instrumental in connecting Loutsis and his peers to the local refugee community in Arizona.

“We’ve learned that one of the biggest issues with refugee camps in Africa is that there are multiple tribes with different languages – so there’re language barriers from within,” Loutsis said. “Part of our concept is erasing the boundaries within the refugee camps.”

Aside from being the initiator of the project, Loutsis created the branding, the book, the exhibit design and the video for Erasing Boundaries.

“Graphics are so important because they unify the project, they make it more cohesive,” Loutsis said.

Next steps

After graduation, Loutsis is moving back to Seattle. He already has a job lined up at Arscentia, a company that specializes in exhibition design and design of retail space. He also has applied to join the committee for urban development of the city, and he has signed up for woodworking and metalworking classes on the weekends.

But, he noted reassuringly, Erasing Boundaries isn’t going away just yet.

“That was what was so beautiful about this experience – it showed that this type of project could be executed without having to be together,” Loutsis said.

In August, Loutsis and the other members of the group are traveling with Mbazumutima to his home village to do a site analysis of potential locations for a new community space that might take the form of anything from a health clinic to a school. The group is applying for a substantial grant to help ensure that these designs can one day become a reality.

“There are so many question marks,” Loutsis said. “But we’ve definitely gained the trust of the refugee community here. They know we’ve already invested a few hundred hours into this out of our own will. That’s the most magical part about it – there’s already been that emotional bond.”

In the end, all of Loutsis’ experimenting at ASU paid off, and he was able to discover a path towards his ideal career.

“My dream is to get a masters in architecture at Yale,” he said. “They do their first year in pro bono and they’re more about storytelling and conceptual design, so it seems like a good fit for me.”

As always, he remains invested in making sure there is a link between graphic design, architecture and all of the different design disciplines.

“But I want to take at least five years off,” Loutsis added. “Eight years of undergrad is a long time.”