When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. earlier this year, the panic was real, and an awful byproduct of this anxiety sometimes manifests itself in hate, fear and ignorance. When BFA Design faculty members Sally Chung and Roland Dubois heard from some of their third-year students about racism aimed at Asians and Asian Americans, they knew they had to act.
"It broke my heart," Chung says. "I realized we had to use our greatest tool of art and creativity."
As a senior experience designer at BCG Digital Ventures, Chung recruited designers from all over—her current and former students, fellow SVA faculty, her professional and social-media networks, and beyond—and established Masks for Unity, an Instagram campaign featuring various designed augmented reality (AR) face filters for Instagram stories, encouraging mask-wearing and fostering togetherness. Chung's goals were to engender community during challenging times and support those affected by hate-crime attacks.
Dubois, a product design lead who teaches immersive design (AR/VR/XR) classes at SVA, launched a series of extracurricular workshops for volunteer students and artists to create their AR Instagram face filter designs with SparkAR. After months of production and coordination the team was ready to launch the campaign.
“We had a unique opportunity to utilize social AR as a platform to counteract negative messaging on social media,” Dubois says. “Empowering our students and artists to share the Instagram face filters, which they thoughtfully designed and crafted, is a crucial way that we spread our campaign's message for diversity and inclusion."
Masks for Unity went live on Instagram in early May. The uplifting, anti-racist AR face filters, combined with the ease of sharing them widely through Instagram stories with hashtags like #FlattentheHate, helped the initiative go viral—they now have over 11,000 followers.
The @MasksforUnity Instagram also features students' testimonials about experiencing racism and the campaign's impact. "My students who were attacked during the pandemic have told me numerous times that they felt so empowered and touched to see this campaign grow," Chung says. "It healed their wounds and it reminded them art is their greatest power."
As an added benefit, students who participated in the project were able to collaborate and learn from design industry leaders. Chung says her students were thrilled at the opportunity, which "geared [them] to design professionally and strategically."
In late spring, when the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis effected widespread actions against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Masks for Unity showed its solidarity by pivoting to the creative needs of BLM and related civil-rights organizations. Masks for Unity also grew through #FriendsforUnity, a collaborative hashtag series that featured influential creative professionals like design leader and TED Talk speaker Antoinette Carroll, author and Thomas Jefferson University's Health Design Lab director Bon Ku, and Worldgirls entrepreneurs and founders Laken and Carlissa King.
"We showed our community how these leaders are doing good beyond their professional work and giving back to the community," Chung says. In turn, they helped spread the word and support the cause.
Up next: a #MasksforUnity Instagram takeover on two of Chung's employer's Instagram pages next month: @bcg_life and @bcgdv. Chung encourages anyone who would like to volunteer or contribute to the campaign to reach out to her.
"Art is a unifying force," she says. "We should all be proud as designers and artists and use our superpower for a good cause."
Chung and Dubois created the campaign with the help of marketing specialist Grace Kim and copywriter Karun Mukhi. BFA Design students and alumni involved in the project include Yixuan Cao, Rok Cho, Tiyasha Ghattak, So Hee Koh (2020), Rosie Siqi Luo, Tianying Lyu (2020), Alessandro Martinez, Mary McClure, Heeje Nam, Marques Oden (2020), Jessica Heumyeon Park, Yulan Ren, Shantanu Sharma, Sojeong Shin (2020), Xiyuan Sun (2020), Aly Yoonjung Sung, Kaylan Tran and Yinjia Wen. BFA Design faculty member Jaclyn McKay also contributed to the project. For the full list of participating designers, click here.