Anti-human trafficking class uses art and design to help others

In 2015, students in a Columbus College of Art & Design special topics course revealed a surprising insight about central Ohio organizations that serve survivors of human trafficking: Many of these nonprofit service and care providers lacked basic communications support.

“Most nonprofits and government agencies have little or no capacity for marketing and communications,” says Michael Compton, Assistant Professor of Industrial Design and Master of Design. “Many of them tell us that their funding sources wouldn’t see communications as a priority.”

As a result, he says, “not only does their fundraising suffer, but much of the public doesn’t even know these services exist – including the survivors of human trafficking.”

To respond to this need, the students, alongside She Has a Name, a local educator and trainer for volunteers in this topic, started Survivor Care Alliance, a forum for designing and sharing communication media with anti-human trafficking services that need it.

And CCAD started a class specifically dedicated to the topic of using art and design to help stop human trafficking, the illegal trade of human beings of which Ohio is ranked fourth largest for in the country, according to the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force.

The course, called Anti-Human Trafficking Brand Strategy and Design, allows students to combine personal professional goals in art and design with service learning. Students have completed pieces for volunteer training, fundraising, venture capital investments for social enterprises, and a website for a Franklin County court.

“When you dedicate yourself through whatever skill you have, to work on projects that are not for materialistic selfish reasons, not only you evolve as an artist but as a human,” says Sahar Fadaian (Master of Fine Arts, 2019). “I believe there can’t be great art when there is no touch of genuine care and humanity in your daily practices and steps.”

Fadaian has traveled around her homeland, Iran, with her father for his documentary anthropological filmmaking since she was 14. She came to CCAD to study for her MFA after spending several years working as a pharmacist — a path she felt pressured to pursue as “an independent female creative mind in a patriarchal society like Iran, where there can be more struggles and inequalities to sustain a secure life.” Her conceptual and documentary photography explores what it means to be alive and oft-forgotten. The class was the perfect intersection of her creative and professional pursuits.

“I desperately and actively want to be aware,” Fadaian says. “I want to care and I want to learn how I can channel this all through my skills to offer to someone, to something, for a cause, for a change.”

The class has similarly provided CCAD with an opportunity to innovate as an institution in ways that matter both civic and commercially, says Compton, who leads the course.

“It isn’t just money or technology that drives innovation. Our deeper values also drive innovation,” he says. “We take students who have technical and creative capabilities and equip them with organizational and community capabilities. These ’social’ capabilities are more and more meaningful to the commercial marketplace.”

In fact, he says art and design is “experiencing a crisis of relevance” as designers face increasing global competition for their technical skills and fine artists outgrow the gallery retail system.

“One tempting response to increased competition is to become commercially obsessed, but we can’t direct all of our energies to commercial pursuits without denying part of our conscience,” he says. “Even the most successful commercial firms understand that values are what drive their brands and give them saliency. Before we can talk about smart cities and autonomous cars, we have to make sure we still have the means to develop smart and autonomous people.”

Abbey Sutula (Advertising & Graphic Design, 2019) took the Anti-Human Trafficking Brand Strategy and Design course last year after a friend recommended it as something that vastly changed her approach to the design process. It did the same for Sutula.

“This class really taught me the value in design thinking, research, and strategy before going into any project,” she says. “As designers, we’re mostly focused on the end product and the execution. But this class taught me the importance of research. It was an invaluable experience having the opportunity to work with real clients. I became much more invested in my community here, and I think it’s extremely important to become involved and give back when you can, which this course offered.”

As the Anti-Human Trafficking Brand Strategy and Design students learn commercially relevant skills, like project and account management for their employment pursuits, they also get to explore their capacity for achieving change and growth in themselves and their community.

“And in the very least,” Compton adds, “they get to work with some of the most remarkable people in our city that they will ever meet.”

Indeed, learning from the survivors has been one of the most impactful experiences of the course for Fadaian.

“This course is giving me a great opportunity to not only educate myself about the horrific issue of human trafficking,” Fadaian says, “but also work alongside humans who have pushed through their limits and unfortunate circumstances, evolved and grew into people who are mind-blowingly inspiring. They’re teaching us the empathy, sympathy, and care they themselves had no share of for years.”


Human trafficking is a huge problem here in Ohio, across the nation, and around the world. If you’d like to learn more, join us at the Columbus International Film & Animation Festival on March 23 for a reception, documentaries screening, and panel discussion on the potential impact of art and design in effecting social change around this destructive crime and how to help survivors. Read more here.