Human-Centered Design Class Creates Artifacts to Help Arkansas' Marshallese

Students presenting their work to members of the legal community and representatives from The Arkansas Coalition of the Marshallese.
Photo by Kali Davis

Students presenting their work to members of the legal community and representatives from The Arkansas Coalition of the Marshallese.

Being pulled over by a police officer can already be a nerve-wracking experience. Do you have your license and registration handy? Do you know why you were stopped?

Now, imagine you don't speak the same language as the officer. How would you communicate? How will you understand what's happening?

Many members of Arkansas's large population of Marshall Islanders don't have to imagine this type of scenario because they've lived it. But what if a relatively simple solution could help in this and other common legal situations like it?

Enter Marty Maxwell Lane, an assistant professor of graphic design, and the students in her human-centered design course.

"Human-centered design has the ability to tackle the world's messy problems by designing 'with' people rather than 'for' people," said Lane, who offered the course this spring through the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences Department of Art. "This semester we partnered with the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese to design solutions for issues related to the law."

Lane said eight teams in her class took on project topics including adoption, college enrollment and community, educating law enforcement, cultural history, arrest issues, educating lawyers and judges, healthcare and insurance, and basic entry information for Marshallese new to Northwest Arkansas.

The teams' goal was to create innovative design solutions to help both the Marshallese and all who interact with them understand one another better, and to break down barriers of communication.

The class selected the Marshallese community after Lane spoke with a criminal defense attorney who mentioned all the challenges members of this community face when dealing with the legal system.

"They can be deported for crimes of 'moral turpitude' which can be subjective; there's a tendency to confess to crimes they didn't commit, and just general cultural differences. For example, there is no such thing as trespassing on the islands," Lane said. "It really struck me. There is so much misinformation, so many assumptions and a general lack of awareness."

Arkansas, and in particular Springdale, has a large population of Marshallese because after a long and complicated history, in 1986 the Marshall Islands and the U.S. entered into the Compact of Free Association. This agreement allows for the Marshall Islands to keep full sovereignty and receive defense and other benefits from the U.S in exchange for allowing U.S. military bases on the islands.

As a result, the Marshallese benefits include being able to work and travel in the U.S. without a visa or time constraints, which has led to a diaspora from the islands to the U.S. Springdale has emerged as a prime location because of its numerous jobs and more affordable housing.

Lane's students approached the challenge with relish, forming their design teams after learning more about the Marshallese community from an expert panel including a Northwest Arkansas criminal defense attorney, an immigration attorney, a documentary filmmaker and a representative from the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese.   

The students used a variety of qualitative research methods — ranging from ideation, mapping and brainstorming, to inquiry, prompts and observation - to identify points of appropriate design intervention. They also conducted visual and verbal audits, created personas or character profile archetypes to represent audience needs, mapped the values and needs of their audiences and used this information to create prototype designs.

Students Alex Johnson and Ariel Romero took on the opening scenario — they wanted to find a way to use design to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the Marshallese, particularly by making it less challenging for a poor English-speaking individual to understand and communicate with an officer.

Their project has four major components all related to being pulled over. The first is a "know your rights" magnet with basic information, and the second is a video that includes a step-by-step walk through of what to expect when pulling over and interacting with a police officer. The third component is a dual-purpose document sleeve that keeps all driving documents in one place, and serves as an aid to a poor English speaker because it has icons depicting common reasons for being pulled over that can be pointed at to help communicate.

Similarly, the fourth component is a wallet-sized card holder with bilingual tips for what to do when being pulled over. The holder also contains multiple copies of a shareable card that reads, "Hello Officer, I can't speak English well" on one side and, "Could I have a translator, please?" on the other.

"We did lots of field work and lots of interviews to understand what would help," said Romero, a senior majoring in graphic design with a minor in communications. "We even toured police vehicles and walked through the process of an officer pulling someone over. We wanted to look at the details and see what they'd talk about and ask for."

Johnson, a senior majoring in graphic design with a minor in marketing, agreed and said the pair is hoping to take their materials out of the prototype phase and into production. They are currently applying for grants to help make this happen.

"It was a very interactive process," Johnson said. "The Marshallese community members requested a card or something similar, and then we were able to create these prototypes and expand based on their feedback."     

Romero said he could also envision the pair creating similar materials for other cultures who may also face language barriers when interacting with law enforcement.

Johnson, Romero and their classmates in the human-centered design course created about 24 items throughout the semester that are now on display in the Fine Arts Building Gallery Exhibition Cases through the end of summer.

Lane said reactions to the items so far has been very positive, and that she'd like to work with the Marshallese community again next time she teaches the human-centered design course, while shifting focus specifically to healthcare issues. She also said she's excited for more students to take the course and experience the power of human-centered design.   

"It's a way of approaching problems that puts people first," Lane said. "Now these students truly understand the conditions of the people they're designing for, and they've learned to design based on a deep understanding instead of by making assumptions."

For more information about graphic design at the University of Arkansas, please visit  

To make a gift in support of the graphic design program, please call 479-575-4272 or email


Marty Maxwell Lane, assistant professor of graphic design
Department of Art

Andra Parrish Liwag, director of communications
J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences


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