An article of mine is running in the Design Issues column of the January/February 2008Communication Arts. It started out as a piece about design education outside of traditional design schools, but then turned into something more — about grassroots engagement with public space and the power of design to envision change. Thanks Nicolas, Kim, Chris, David, and DK for their insight.
It’s is not just in design schools. It’s not just in mentorship programs at top shelf firms. Design and education meet in the streets.
Most graphic design education points to a career as a design professional. But the same tools we use to undertake user research, solve problems, and satisfy clients can be used by young people to voice their opinions and meet the needs of their neighborhoods and communities.
The stories below are shining examples of design as populism. The designers of these projects – amateurs and professionals – have moved beyond a passive relationship to the world, beyond the daily pattern of serving clients, responding to assignments, and deadlines.
By taking it outside, they are asserting a positive vision and owning the spaces they live in – and in the process are making these places better for us all.
Memorials shape our collective memory. They are a tangible, public stake against forgetting, a manifesto to the present and a reminder of the past as a warning for the future. Put forth by loved ones after a tragedy, grassroots memorials are at once both personal and public – often filling a void where government-funded memorials leave off. Some are subtle collections of flowers and personal items, occupying quiet corners of common space. Others scream out for attention. Rendered three-stories tall on the side of a building, the memorial mural on Butler Street and Third Avenue in Brooklyn is hard to ignore.
The design is a tribute to 28 pedestrians killed by cars between 1995 and 2007 in the streets of Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. The mural depicts three young boys, fifth-graders Victor Flores and Juan Estrada, and 4-year-old James Rice. All three were killed by cars speeding around corners – Rice was struck down just a block from the spot where the mural now stands. The driver who hit Rice got a ticket for failure to yield. Represented as towering figures painted in ghostly blue, the boys hold up redesigned streetsigns with traffic-related symbols urging respect for pedestrians. The three boys are accompanied by a blank silhouette holding up an unambiguous red stop sign declaring: “Not one more death.” The effect is chilling.
On September 21, 2006 the Art Director’s Club convened a panel discussion on design and social change. They dubbed it “Designism.”
When I first heard about it, I was not optimistic. I’ve been disappointed before by how professional associations have addressed social design, and the MP3 sat on my desktop for a long, long time. After all, how radical could a professional association actually be when its bread-and-butter is mammon itself?
But after finally listening, I was very nicely surprised. The talk covered a nice, broad range of approaches to design for social change: from Milton Glaser’s big-table, middle-of-the-road approach to Jessica Helfland’s quiet collaborative engagement to James Victore’s more autonomous guerilla style.
But the best surprise of all was George Lois. I’d always loved his work. Those big, provocative Esquire covers are truly classic. But it was a special treat to learn of the progressive motivation behind them, that the man himself was an foul-mouthed, outspoken leftist — and a veteran to boot.
A year later, when asked about a follow up event, Glaser responded: enough talk. This one should be a call to action. Designism 2.0 took place on December 13, 2007.