North­eastern Uni­ver­sity graphic design pro­fessor Thomas Starr thinks of him­self as an author.

Whether for a book jacket or a visual op-​​ed, he cre­ates his sto­ries by inte­grating the verbal with the visual.

For one project, Starr designed a book jacket for math­e­mati­cian John von Neumann’s “The Com­puter and the Brain,” using an apple and an orange to illus­trate the author’s com­plex argu­ment for the sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences between machine and mind.

Visu­ally rep­re­senting the written or spoken word helps people to better under­stand the issues,” says Starr, whose research focuses on the civic and social func­tion of graphic design.

Over the years, Starr’s heavily social and polit­ical work has illu­mi­nated issues such as U.S. mil­i­tary deaths in Iraq, repro­duc­tive rights, HIV/​AIDS and gun violence.

Calling atten­tion to the most impor­tant ques­tions of the day need not be left to politi­cians or non­profits, he says, noting that a graphic designer’s talent for per­suading a cus­tomer to buy a new pair of shoes could be used to per­suade that same person to pay atten­tion to homelessness.

The best way for me to draw atten­tion to issues that are cru­cial to society is to use my talent as a designer to create a spec­tacle,” says Starr, who counts Milton Glaser and Shepard Fairey as two of his favorite graphic designers.

In 2005, he took on youth violence.

Funded by a grant from the National Endow­ment for the Arts, Starr trans­formed a Boston city bus into a memo­rial to vic­tims of urban violence.

He illus­trated the impact of child homi­cide by printing on the bus state­ments made by chil­dren about other kids who were killed. “She was just a little girl,” one said.

The memo­rial, which won Starr the Society for Envi­ron­mental Graphic Design Award in 2007, con­fronted the entire city. “It was hard to ignore,” he says. “We tried to reach people who were obliv­ious to the extent of the problem.”

Starr also pub­lished visual op-​​eds in The Boston Globe for every 1,000 Amer­ican sol­diers killed in Iraq.
The sim­plicity and imme­diacy of his design for the first 1,000 mil­i­tary fatal­i­ties in Iraq—an iden­tical sil­hou­ette of a coffin for each sol­dier killed—documents a tragedy in a way that a pho­to­graph of the live sol­dier accom­pa­nying his or her obit­uary could some­times sug­ar­coat, Starr says.

…We don’t ques­tion why we are shown vitality when the words indi­cate the oppo­site,” Starr writes in one of the op-​​eds. “…On an emo­tional level…the pic­tures cancel out the words.”