Kirsten Ufer, creative director at the Houston Zoo. Courtesy of Stephanie Adams / Houston Zoo

Who will preserve the earth’s fragile ecosystems, protect its endangered species from extinction, and ultimately save the planet? The graphic designers, that’s who. People like Kirsten Ufer, who trained at UH, worked for a while at the Children’s Museum, and now spends her days as the Houston Zoo’s creative director. 

“I call myself the accidental conservationist,” she tells us, accidental because she was not the sort of animal-loving child who usually grows up to work in zoos, accidental because she comes not from the world of tufted deer but typography, not reptiles but raster images. “This is a far cry from a design firm, which is where I am supposed to be.”

Then again, given her talent for conceptualizing conservation, one wonders if Ufer isn’t exactly where she’s supposed to be. It’s Ufer and her team who dream up the zoo’s inspired iconography, both on its grounds and off. And whatever her canvas—be it print advertisement, gala invitation, or souvenir cup—she is an unapologetically romantic artist. No T-shirts depicting slaughtered rhinos for her.

 “Really negative images are not really appropriate,” she says. “We feel like they give no hope. We try to give messages that reflect joy and fun and life.”

Selected works from Kirsten Ufer’s design team for the Houston Zoo. Courtesy Houston Zoo

One imagines that such messages are best captured by someone who experiences joy and fun on a regular basis, and sure enough, Ufer’s day is full of such moments. Designers do not typically find themselves serenaded each morning on the way to work by a geriatric gibbon. (They are serenaded by magazine editors, which are not quite the same thing, appearances to the contrary.) They don’t usually get to find creative inspiration in a 16-foot giraffe repeatedly shooting its 18-inch prehensile tongue at the lettuce in one’s hand. 

And designers don’t often enough get to feel they are doing important work. “Actually, what we do is very instrumental in saving species,” she tells us of her team, offering the zoo’s Attwater prairie chicken–breeding program as an instance of this.

If a designer’s job is “to tell visual stories,” as Ufer puts it, the trick is to find an important one to tell. “Usually those stories are ‘Hey, buy this product!’ or ‘Look at this cool T-shirt!’ or ‘Come to this concert!’” she says. “That’s all great and fine, but for me, literally saving a species is so much more gratifying.”

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