Karen Parry


I‘m Australian and grew up in a sleepy beach town called Surfer’s Paradise. I was curious to see life beyond my own country and wanted adventure and challenges from the world. I had a burning desire to live in a non-English speaking country, realizing I would learn a lot about people — and myself. And how true that was. I’d been living in Berlin for 18 months when the wall fell, an incredible experience. Along the way, I’ve also lived in Sydney, London, San Francisco, and, for the last 13 years, in New York.

My company is Black Graphics. It’s just me. I love working directly with my nonprofit clients to help them achieve their goals. Nonprofits need to use design well to get their messages and stories across — it benefits all of us and our communities. When I started working with the nonprofit sector 20 years ago, it was a very different landscape; today the sector is much more professional in all respects.

I went to art school in Australia, and I’ve studied user experience and instructional design at SF University Extensions. I also completed the Type@Cooper type design course in New York. Over the years, I’ve taught photography, design, and advanced typography classes. My hobbies are painting and drawing and moonlighting as a DJ.

How did you become involved in socially responsible communications and why do you believe design can be an effective tool for this goal?

It happened by accident — and necessity. I had transitioned from print design to web design in the wild west days of the mid-1990s. I was immersed in the San Francisco tech startup world for five years until the 2001 crash. There was no work, pinkslip parties were everywhere, and even my agency, who’d found me great gigs, ceased to exist. Everyone was scrambling. I had some friends who worked for nonprofits, and so I switched back to print and started working for all the wonderful causes that mean a lot to me and the community at large. I’ve been immersed in the nonprofit world ever since.

My clients are incredible, and collaborating with them is a reward in itself. Together we work on a range of materials — toolkits, infographics, how-tos, reports, logos, brochures, and branding materials — that help everyone, from on-the-ground community advocates to government agencies. I’ve been able to work on issues as interesting and diverse as: food and water equity, livable-walkable communities, land use and urban agriculture, social justice and protecting the environment. Because nonprofits are not selling tangible products, they must explain their mission and purpose and how they are going to succeed to donors, advocates, or volunteers. Stories help accomplish this, and design is a very effective tool for storytelling — a perfect match really.

Given the confluence of events and challenges our society now faces, does 2021 present any special opportunities, urgencies, obstacles to designing for good?

Budgets are tighter for some nonprofits now, and, as is true in the for-profit sector, staff can be hard to find. My clients have refocused on their core missions after pivoting to deal with COVID. Equity has been a focus in recent years, and the pandemic has highlighted more than ever the need to view everything we do through an equity lens. A lot of people don’t understand the difference between equity and equality, so more education is needed before we can even hope to achieve a better society for all.