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Authentic Creativity Brings a POW Story to Life

Saturday, March 8th, will be a big day for the Andersonville National Historic Site in Andersonville, Georgia. A memorial to all American prisoners of war throughout U.S. history, Andersonville is located on the grounds of one of the largest Confederate military prisons in operation during the Civil War. Saturday’s big event: Andersonville will be introducing a new Activity Book for aspiring Junior Rangers.

Don’t think an activity book for kids is big news? That’s because you haven’t heard the story behind it—and you haven’t seen it. And that’s the mark of great graphic design: telling someone’s story (or sending their message) through design that captures it in a way that words just can’t.

With 20 years of experience as a marketing writer under my belt, I have always been in awe (ok, and more than a little jealous) of good graphic design. I don’t claim to be an expert in the area, but I’ve been around long enough to know when I see something that makes me say—what is the technical term?—wow.  Working with Julie Cofer, Art Director at id8 and the creative force behind this amazing book, for the past 10 years, I’m not sure I’ve ever not had a wow moment when I see what she creates…which brings me back to the Junior Ranger Activity Book.

When Stephanie Steinhorst, Park Ranger at the Andersonville National Historic Site, approached id8 about designing the book, she made it clear how important it was—important enough for them to reach out to a graphic design agency. They had two pretty challenging goals. First and foremost, the book needed to really grab and keep children from ages 6 and up engaged enough to complete the book and earn badges and patches, which was not going to be an easy task, considering the subject matter (the history of a POW camp during the Civil War) and the fact that today’s kids are more at home with a tablet then a paper book. The second goal, quite simply, was based on pride in their park. Each year, National Parks compete with each other by submitting educational pieces…and Stephanie and her staff want to win with the Activity Book.

Stephanie came to the table with the idea to create an interactive book that would allow the kids to explore the experiences of prisoners at Andersonville.  The question was, what should it look like? What would grab the attention of a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old? After hearing about the project, Julie was immediately captivated. She likes history, yet in her career as a graphic designer, she has never worked on a history based project. The idea of creating a piece that could bring history to life, to make it jump off the page, to capture the enthusiasm shared by Stephanie and the staff at Andersonville, yet be appropriate for such a wide range of ages was a challenge she was excited to take on.

This is where Julie’s unique talents as a designer kick in. She will tell you that her inspiration for design is very different for each project. There is research, of course, but she also tries to see things from a different angle. If competitors are all doing it this way, then why not try it that way? If the trend is this, why not shake things up and try that? Ultimately, though, inspiration comes from being able to pinpoint the essence of the client or project.

Being a fantastically talented artist aside, this is what makes Julie’s designs so successful: she listens. She gets into the client’s head (in a good way!) and really works to understand not only the subject matter, but where they are coming from, who they are, what speaks to them…and what success means to them. And I can see that when I look at her designs…and that’s when it happens…wow. How did she come up with that?

What immediately inspired Julie as she began working with the Andersonville staff were the materials they sent, which “made the history of the place feel so real.” That was the seed for the concept she presented.  The book would be as authentic as possible, with photos and artifacts that were detailed and accurate, staying true to history. The Andersonville staff pointed her to other sources, including the Library of Congress, historical societies, and websites with newspaper archives to gather assets for the book. The staff also shot some images themselves. This little book became more than a design project; it became a labor of love—and the results are visual proof.

We won’t find out for some time whether Andersonville will win the contest, but there is no doubt that, beginning on Saturday, there will be a lot of very proud, brand new Junior Rangers thanks to that little Activity Book.

And that’s what really good design is all about.