Communications Design (M.S. 2012)
City and Regional Planning (M.S. expected 2015)
Student Government Association president and full-time grad student Elisabetta “Leeza” DiStefano is pursuing two Pratt graduate degrees one right after the other. After earning a magna cum laude B.F.A. in graphic design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), she worked for two years as a personal trainer in the health/fitness field, which sparked her interest in package design as a way of making important information easier for the health-conscious to grasp. DiStefano has just completed her first Pratt master’s degree in the Communications Design department before undertaking a second in City and Regional Planning.
Why the shift in fields?
Package design is just a small microcosm of much larger problems. While working as a fellow at the Pratt Center, I realized I wanted to know more about community development. I had taken History and Theories of City Planning with Eve Baron in summer 2012, which resulted in my final decision to apply. Now that I’m accepted into the City and Regional Planning graduate program, I couldn’t be happier or more honored.
How do you think your background in communications design will inform your work as a city planner?
City planners sometimes get carried away with information overload. I feel that a communications designer can help make that information much more clear, concise, and targeted. Having the planning degree on top of the communications design degree will allow me to have more freedom in career choices. Eventually, I hope to grow and expand my own consulting and design firm.
Tell us about the website you created for New York City community boards.
Many people assume that slapping something together in Photoshop is considered “graphic design,” but it takes someone who is trained to really make sense of data and information in order to reintroduce it to the people who need it. While currently my own knowledge is limited, after I complete the planning degree, I will be able to offer the combination of understanding the data and being able to communicate it through design. It will give me an edge that many of my peers do not have.
I am in the process of creating a website that links information across community boards, a resource for residents interested in seeing what is going on throughout the city. Something like this calls on both disciplines. Using design tools that will be useful to various constituencies is important to me. The website domain that I am building this on is “NYCunite.us” which redirects to “communitynyc.us.” This is a design/branding strategy to suggest to people that New York needs to be more united than the “United” States was on July 4, 1776—especially post-Sandy.
Do you think NYC was prepared to respond properly to Hurricane Sandy? From a planning perspective what needs to be put in place?
There has to be better communication overall. I commute to Pratt from my family home in Howard Beach; we were not evacuated and were completely unprepared when Sandy struck. After speaking with the Pratt Disaster Resilience Network, which was formed by planning students within five days afterwards, it was apparent how important it is that all city agencies should have mandatory emergency plans set in place. This is a policy issue that needs to be improved.
I understand during Hurricane Sandy your family home was flooded and lost electricity?
Yes, but my parents stayed in Howard Beach because they were afraid of looters. I lost my car in the flood, and I’m still living at the Pratt House rather than commuting by subway late at night. Considering that it is also the winter it is difficult to do much without having enough daylight. It will take about a year before we go back to complete normalcy.
What do you take most pride in having accomplished during your SGA term?
I have been SGA president for one semester thus far. What I personally take pride in is the implementation of our website, which I collaborated on with a team from Information Technology over the summer. This helps with transparency of information to some extent. I worked with Matt Kipel, chair of Student Life, to have all the student organization forms be online.
What other activities do you pursue?
I like to work out, and I’m also involved in my church, Bethel United Pentecostal Church in Old Westbury, Long Island. I’m also founder and chair of the Type Directors Club Pratt Student Group. The model that I created is being replicated at FIT and at the School of Visual Arts.
How do you juggle so many responsibilities?
God definitely gives me the strength. I am a very spiritual person and I think among all the chaos, one particular scripture gives me inspiration: “Work hard and become a leader, be lazy and never succeed.” That verse alone reminds me of why I shouldn't be intimidated by having to manage so many tasks.
What would we be the most surprised to learn about you?
That I once participated in body building competitions and have a trophy to prove it!
Text: Adrienne Gyongy
Photos: Courtesy of Elisabetta DiStefano