By Victoria Rabelo Gerson
Belonging is a topic, word, a feeling, that I’ve been exploring in my own work since my early beginnings in graphic design in high school. I still look back at the short book I designed titled “Home” using photos of my travels through Brasil, where my family is from, as an important artifact. In this book, I documented my thoughts and feelings during my trip to Brasil and wrote about feelings of belonging several times. I wrote about how family and friends from my mother’s home country made me feel so accepted, even after not seeing them for 5 years. How everyone let me in, making me feel like I was where I belonged. I wrote about how “never before had I felt like I’d seen my mother for who she truly is until I saw her in the place she so obviously belongs (Figure 1).” And about “the assurance of knowing who I am, where I came from… feeling like I belong in this place and in this skin.”
When I went off to study graphic design in college, I continued to investigate these themes of background, heritage, and culture. I designed a set of fifty postcards, each featuring a photo from my travels across both Brasil and the US. I came up with the idea for a food service inspired by my mom’s homemade and traditional Brasilian cooking. I was inspired by the nature of handmade and manual processes that are prominent within Brasil and used my sculpture classes and access to the fab lab to handmake cooking utensils and laser cut doilies mirroring the hand-sewn doilies my grandmother used to make (Figure 2). I did a rebrand of the city of Vitoria, the city where most of my family resides. And all of this, as a search for my own culture and heritage. I have used design time and time again as a tool to learn more about where I come from, in pursuit of belonging.
On Belonging & Othering
My final project in college was called “Other” (Figure 3), I wanted to create a platform where people who have a common experience of trying to understand their mixed cultures can share their experiences, feelings, and thoughts on their identities. Particularly those who identify as being in the middle of cultures, who may feel like they don’t identify with one or the other and find themselves in a unique middle space where one may feel in-between. In this, I was looking beyond my own experience and wanting to understand the experience of those around me. I wanted to see our thoughts, ideas, dreams, and experiences represented in the world.
On Design Ethics
As I went through graduate school, I was busy learning how to do design research, working at the VR studio in the university’s library, volunteering and protesting, and writing a thesis. I was not as concerned with my cultural background or heritage, as I was with pursuing things related to my concerns for certain social issues such as climate change, questioning the ethics of graphic design, and wanting to understand how design could be used for good.
In response to the AIGA Designer of 2025 Design Futures Trends: Core Values Matter, my classmates Shadrick Addy, Harrison Lyman, and I created and ran a workshop with our cohort that we called “The MGD Code of Ethics”. In this workshop, our classmates collaborated to co-create a manifesto, or code of ethics, outlining a collective code of ethics for their design practice (Figure 4).
Today, I’m a design educator and professor who teaches design students in the classroom, and this workshop was deeply influential in how I approach teaching in the classroom. I realized that “good” was subjective, and if anyone was going to design “for good,” they would have to define that for themselves. So how can an individual, or a designer, know what design “for good” is for them if they don’t investigate and reflect on their own values, goals, visions, and ideals for the future? We must connect with those parts of ourselves to know what pursuits align with our own moral compasses. I have continued to do this workshop with students across many courses and levels.
On Design Ethics + Identity:
To make those connections between design ethics + identity, I created a project that complements the Code of Ethics workshop, what I now call the Identity Canvas or Identity Mapping workshop. I developed a series of questions that cover a past/present story of self, social identities, communities, goals, values, and a future story of self. Students answer these questions and prompts, visualizing them though a mind map (Figure 5). Once the mind map is complete, students are asked to create a piece that represents various parts of their identity, based on this mapping.
This project is medium agnostic, allowing for a diverse range of explorations and deliverables. Ranging from zines as guides for queer students, proposals for new schools for marginalized communities (Figure 6), and animations exploring non-binary identity.
I have run the Code of Ethics workshop and the Design Identity Mapping workshop together, individually, and in different orders, with both undergraduate, graduate, and mixed courses. Students identify that their positionalities manifest into their values, which make up their manifesto or statements of design practice. As graduate student Narayan Ghiotto stated in a written reflection, the values, beliefs, and paradigms we live by and within form the essence of our identity, and the manifesto creation experience illuminates the importance of consciously choosing the values we live by in order to purposefully act on them.
I have created activities and projects that ask students to bring their perspectives, worldviews, cultures and influences into their work to develop feelings of belonging in the design classroom, field of design, and society at large. The purpose of these workshops and projects is for students to understand how their own identities, backgrounds, values, goals, communities, and interests play a part in forming their design ethics and design identity. I want students to understand that what’s important to them does belong in their work, and they can do work about what is important to them. But in order to get there, they must investigate their identities and develop a design ethic.
Victoria Gerson, MGD ‘20, is a designer, researcher, and educator from Miami, FL. She has Brasilian heritage and comes from a line of teachers who inspired her to become an educator.
She is based in Gainesville, FL, and teaches undergraduate and graduate graphic design courses at the University of Florida. Previously, she was a Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Houston. Victoria has developed classes on design activism and seminars on topics relating to design ethics, social responsibility, and identity + positionality.
Victoria received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from the University of Florida, and a Master in Graphic Design from North Carolina State University. In her graduate work, she explored emerging technologies as a tool for educational purposes such as climate change communication and science education. She uses collage as a medium for responding to socio-political issues within the classroom and as a personal practice. Her work and research explores localized techniques, traditions, and cultural heritage.