Graphic design at UAB gives artist the skills to lead clients to the top

This spring, Samantha Richardson won her second Mosaic Award, the American Advertising Federation’s highest honor, for her work with a new Birmingham, Alabama, nonprofit, In Solidarity: The Beth El Civil Rights Experience.
  • Photo: Cary Norton, Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Photo: Cary Norton, Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Photo: Tyler Jones, Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Photo: Archives, Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Photo: Archives, Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Photo: Cary Norton, Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Photo: Cary Norton, Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Photo: Cary Norton, Design: Samantha Richardson

  • Credits: Jennifer Jones with Heart Smile for AAF Birmingham

Sam Rich StreamSamantha Richardson
Photo: Andrew Laningham
Artist Samantha Richardson is helping her nonprofit clients stand out with what she learned at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

A graphic designer for 10 years and working in independent practice, Richardson has a mission to use her skills to make meaningful differences for the community. A 2017 graduate of the Department of Art and Art History in the College of Arts and Sciences, she learned about community engagement, creative empathy, and social responsibility and design — which became the core pillars of her work. While she was a student of Associate Professor Doug Barrett, Richardson’s Bachelor of Fine Arts project on the Birmingham neighborhood Fountain Heights won the American Advertising Foundation’s highest honor, a National Mosaic Award. 

Now her work for a new Birmingham, Alabama, nonprofit is winning awards and helping win her client national acclaim.

In Solidarity: The Beth El Civil Rights Experience opened in January, and in March, the Alabama American Advertising Awards honored the work Richardson and others did with a Mosaic Award. The award recognizes individuals whose commitment to diversity and inclusion is evident through their creative work and initiatives. In Solidarity also won a Gold ADDY for its public service campaign and three Silver ADDYs for its website, guide and film.

“Being recognized a second time with the Mosaic Award is such an honor and a testament to the UAB Department of Art and Art History and how it prepared and educated me for a design career centered around social impact,” Richardson said.  

In May, In Solidarity was featured in The New York Times, and the film for the project was named a 2024 Telly Award winner, earning Silver in the category Advocacy & Causes – Non-Broadcast.

In Solidarity: The Beth El Civil Rights Experience

On April 28, 1958, someone placed 54 sticks of dynamite outside a window at Temple Beth El, one of the city’s oldest synagogues. It did not explode. The incident was part of a wave of bombings and attempted bombings at Jewish institutions across the Deep South in 1957 and 1958.

In Solidarity: The Beth El Civil Rights Experience explores Birmingham’s civil rights history through the Jewish community’s lens. The 90-minute, docent-led tour includes a short documentary connecting the incident to present-day white supremacy, with audio stories from congregants who reflect on the Jewish experience in Birmingham and participatory exercises to discover Jewish community members during the Civil Rights Movement.


Tyler Jones, director of 1504, a narrative studio in Birmingham, had seen Richardson’s previous work for Beth El and approached her to collaborate. For the project, Richardson says she relied on a core principle she learned at UAB to inform her design choices: Use the existing visual language of the community.

“I like to pull visual elements forward from the communities that I am participating in, like imagery from the stained-glass windows and illustrations created from photographs,” Richardson said. “That gives it authenticity and helps people to clearly see and connect with it.”

It was also an opportunity for Richardson to practice skills she had not used in a while, skills she learned in Michelle Forman’s ethnographic filmmaking course in UAB Media Studies early in her education.

samrichPoster WEB 2 2Richardson’s first Mosaic Award in 2017 was for her integrated campaign to raise public awareness and preserve the Fountain Heights neighborhood, one of Birmingham’s most historically influential neighborhoods.Learning about design

All the care and thoughtfulness she learned in design, she says, came from Barrett, who educates students in core design principles at UAB.

“It was only one part of my education, but it left such a profound impact on me and is a testament to his leadership,” Richardson said. “He helps students cultivate their own personal interests and voice, which I feel is a tremendous feat for the select classes that we had together.”

Bringing community leaders into class teaches students how to embrace participatory design. Students also learn how to evaluate what makes a community special and magnify it, to make it its brand personality.  

Richardson was involved in community engagement work at UAB from the start. Throughout her design courses, she did a brand identity project with the Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, and her final project helped cultivate the ideas which drive her practice, she says.

The Department of Art and Art History has long included a wide variety of graphic and digital design courses with more traditional courses such as painting, printmaking, sculpture and photography. But in August 2024, the department will launch a new concentration specifically in graphic and digital design, giving students expanded opportunities for professional development as they pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree. This new professional course of study will focus more on technology and provide real-world tools and in-demand professional skills for students looking to enter the design job market.

“These courses are necessary to build a competitive portfolio and better prepare design students to enter the marketplace,” Barrett said. “There is a stated need to prepare more students to enter the workforce with professional skills in graphic design, and the concentration will meet this need.”

Currently, UAB design alumni are employed at almost all local agencies and design firms in the city, he says. These alumni are very active in providing in-class instruction, critiques and lectures and will play an important part in UAB moving forward as professional design partners in the planning and implementation of coursework for the concentration, according to Barrett.


Richardson says she has learned that a strong community of stakeholders and a participatory style of design are important to help make work that is inclusive to all different types of people.

“That is one of the ways in which I was so fortunate to have collaborated with Margaret Norman, who was director of Programming and Engagement at Temple Beth El and is now stepping into a new role as director of the Jewish Community Council in Birmingham,” Richardson said. “She is a stakeholder who understands that community and is deeply connected with it, and that keeps the work rooted and authentic.”

She is grateful for the opportunity to be aligned with both 1504 and Temple Beth El.

“1504’s work has a beautiful respect for different people and ways of living,” Richardson said. “The way that they tell stories is so thoughtful and considered. It is wonderful to help support people as talented and involved in important community issues as Margaret and Tyler.” 

Richardson’s advice to upcoming students is to find out what they are passionate about and pursue those interests to make their work more meaningful.

“I am passionate about giving people the creative tools that they need to thrive,” Richardson said. “Find people who share the same passions as you and ask how you can support them. Ideally, you want to give these changemakers the tools they need to succeed far beyond your involvement in the project.”