Empathy is emotional jet fuel, and here at Red Thinking, we always lead with heart. So, when The National Crime Prevention Council came calling in 2022 wanting help with their “Go For Real – Say No To Dupes” campaign, the first thing we said was, “Great! Is McGruff involved?”
As a huge part of many Red Thinker’s collective childhoods, McGruff truly leaned into empathy – albeit with more biting – to keep kids safe. He met our younger selves where we were in order to help us move forward, and it was a THRILL to work with NCPC on their online brand enhancement, helping teens and tweens shift their buying habits away from dangerous dupe products to genuine goods.
From this first initiative together, the ideas kept rolling, and shortly thereafter, we had the opportunity to dive into one of the most powerful, inspiring, and emotional campaigns we’ve ever been part of: The Lives Project: A Fentanyl Digital Remembrance Quilt.
A MATTER OF LIVES
It’s no secret the U.S. has been struggling with the opioid epidemic for decades. Fentanyl, first introduced in 1960, is its current face. Designed to help manage severe pain in cancer and post-operative patients, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid and controlled substance 100 times more powerful than morphine. While it wouldn’t be linked to overdose deaths in the U.S. until the 1980’s, a sudden surge in 2006 kickstarted a steady rise in overdose-related fatalities and led to fentanyl being labeled a public health crisis.
We had quite a few questions at the outset of the project, and the answers were a gut-punch. Drug dealers were disguising fentanyl’s addictive properties by mixing small amounts of it with other illicit street drugs like cocaine and heroin or as fake prescription Xanax, Percocet, and Adderall pills to hook their customers. Worse, they were marketing it to young people like candy, using terms like “rainbow” fentanyl. Cheap to make, easy to smuggle, and hard to detect, these and other deplorable efforts to profit from fentanyl addiction has positioned our nation on the brink. According to the DEA, fentanyl is now “the leading cause of drug-related and accidental death for Americans under 50.”
Every 5 minutes, someone in America dies from fentanyl.
SILVER THREADS, AMERICAN MADE
So – how do we as a nation combat this ruthless, faceless problem that has made a home in our neighborhoods? Or worse, our living rooms? Red Thinking was asked to solution these very real, very sobering questions. The answers manifested into what came to be called The Lives Project.
As a fully go-digital idea from Paul DelPonte, Executive Director of NCPC, The Fentanyl Digital Remembrance Quilt was inspired by the original AIDS Memorial Quilt. On behalf of fentanyl victims and their families, Red Thinking established TheLivesProject.org to properly honor with compassion the lives lost to accidental fentanyl overdose. The site would also provide fentanyl awareness and education information, and easy ways for visitors to support, donate or get involved and put an end to this epidemic.
Embracing the core emotional aspects of memory, ascendance, hope, and respect, Red Thinking designed the brand concept as a whole from a position of empathy, producing a microsite that launched in advance of the National Fentanyl Summit in October 2022. Actress Ava Michelle – who lost her brother Devon to fentanyl – and McGruff the Crime Dog® unveiled the digital fentanyl memorial quilt and set the tone for the meeting, as three key government agencies came together with community leaders and other advocates to find solutions to address this U.S. public health crisis.
NCPC’s goal for this project was to put an end to this crisis through education and a call for donations. To ensure the Digital Remembrance Quilt maintains the relevant longevity to achieve this goal, Red Thinking created an immersive experience that uses a narrative framework and subtle design cues to provide visitors control as they navigate the website, allowing it to evolve as the fight continues.
Specific to the design, our team had to balance the importance of remembering the individual alongside NCPC’s message. They achieved this by blending gentle palettes and color treatments with large typography and strategic animation. As users scroll down through the site, the eye is drawn to key areas of the page. This includes important copy points and CTAs, as well as the faces of loved ones lost to fentanyl, background images, and text. Each element is pushed upwards as the user scrolls downwards, creating a sense of hope that juxtaposes the importance of each story with the gravity of the epidemic.
Another stylistic choice we made was to create more of a free-form UX/UI. While a grid of faces would have been impactful, the “floating” layout enables visitors to focus on each individual, while the endless scroll provides the “statistical” impact element, capturing the true devastation fentanyl has brought on communities across America. We recognized early on fentanyl was and is an indiscriminate killer; this tends to make anything associated with fentanyl “criminal;” our design approach was developed to treat the victims with compassion and respect, with the floating elements calling to the fleeting nature of memory and fragility of life, enabling visitors to see fentanyl victims as their loved ones still see them – full of life and goodness and more than just the circumstances of their final act.
In August, the world will observe National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day. Thinking ahead to this date and how we may celebrate the loved ones lost, members of the team commented on how emotional this project was, as fentanyl’s true impact was front and center nearly every day.
Our culture makes it easy to minimize victims of “criminal” activity, often by the sheer volume at which bad things seem to happen. It is NOT EASY to live in the process of honoring the people lost to this crisis and asking strangers for support to help fight back. At times it felt like shouting into an abyss. Sometimes it still does. But it’s crucial that we do not lose our voices in these moments – that we make the echoes louder, and longer. Because this is the work that can – and will – help end this crisis. Not just one voice, but the many voices, each doing their part, towards achieving something bigger.
Red Thinking believes we all have the capacity to tap into this part of ourselves – it’s what we mean when we say “lead with heart.” We hope visitors to TheLivesProject.org and the Fentanyl Digital Remembrance Quilt take with them a sense of hopeful urgency that puts in perspective the precious fragility of our one life – and be inspired to do their part to help others in crisis.
Which, in this case, begins with the call to simply – remember.