A Graphic Campaign That Uses 'Superpowers for Good'

One week ago Saturday, I was fortunate enough to catch a presentation by a group known as the Beehive Design Collective. Their brief stop in Elkhart was one of many throughout the country to talk about “Mesoamérica Resiste,” a large-scale graphic campaign that addresses “globalization in the Americas, focusing on resistance to mega-infrastructure projects that are literally paving the way for free trade agreements that devastate local economies and communities.”

Meaningfully summarizing what the "Bees" do is difficult given the breadth and number of projects they take on. In a nutshell, however, they are collaborative storytellers, generating copyright-free graphics—drawn in black and white and devoid of human representation—that serve as rich, visual narratives and educational resources. The graphics, printed on fabric for display, are impressive in terms of their scale. However, the dimensions are nothing compared with the sheer complexity and detail of the imagery. Several days after seeing it up close, I’m still trying to get my brain wrapped around the stylistic and compositional nuances embedded in “Mesoamérica Resiste," though I can certainly appreciate the 10 years that went into completing the work. (With layer upon layer of symbolism, the end result is the kind of illustration that you could probably spend another 10 years deciphering.) Pretty amazing stuff.

As mesmerized as I am about the work of the Beehive Design Collective and all of the great things they are doing, I keep coming back to the question of what impact (if any) the experience of hearing about this project will have on the way others and I think and act. While the activist part of me wants to use this inspiration as motivation to pursue new and wonderful artistic endeavors, the reality of teaching, writing, working and the deluge of never-ending deadlines tempers my enthusiasm. Yet, I keep asking myself, “What is stopping me? What is preventing me from practicing what I preach and finding ways to use my superpowers for good?”

I can certainly argue that teaching exempts me from any additional obligations related to helping humankind; I’m already doing my small part to try and make the world a better place, right? Unfortunately, rationalizing the merits of non-participation does nothing to stop the flow of nagging questions and counterarguments.

And so, for the last week, I’ve been fantasizing about temporarily moving to Machias, Maine, where the collective is based, to spend some quality time absorbed in pen-and-ink drawings. I can’t realistically swing that kind of trip, at least not within the next few months. But if Machias is off the table for the time being, what options are still within reach? Well, if the goal is to help bring stories to the surface in the form of a collaborative, highly stylized, culturally appropriate, location specific visuals, which would serve as both a historical record and a challenge to future residents, the Maple City might provide plenty of material to work with. From its history as a link to the Underground Railroad up to the current revitalization efforts taking place in Goshen, the potential for narrative development connecting us with our environment is limitless. I’m imagining local residents and business owners, artists, historians, biologists, musicians, farmers, politicians, city planners, teachers, lawyers, students, healthcare providers—everyone, basically—united by a visual story that speaks beautifully, but also truthfully, about the complex ecosystems and relationships that make us who we are as a community.

Imagine, too, if the aforementioned composition that resulted from a cross-disciplinary collaboration was copyright free? Perhaps, then, this grand visual narrative would genuinely belong to all of us. The imagery would be ours to re-envision, remake, reinterpret, share, and could, most importantly, take on a life of its own. We don’t often talk about art or design in such a way -- that is, as something that should be passed on to others so that they can do whatever they want with it. (How many of us are willing to surrender control over what we create?) Yes, I’m appealing yet again to the better angels of our collective nature by suggesting such a thing. Still, the thought is a refreshing one.

Acknowledging a Debt to Mrs. Sanders, Decades Later

My creative writing books, 1983-84

Mrs. Sanders, my second-grade teacher at University Elementary School in Bloomington, Ind., was one of my all-time favorites. Memories of being in her class have faded, of course, but I still have the creative writing books from that year in school, which now serve as physical and symbolic reminders of what I learned as a 7-year-old. Mrs. Sanders gave specific assignments but I remember how enthusiastic I was about having a notebook dedicated to writing. Before long, I had run out of pages in the first book and had moved on to a second one.

Mrs. Sanders gave me an invaluable gift by teaching me to enjoy writing before I had the chance to dislike it once and for all. There’s no doubt that I frequently find it to be a grueling mental exercise, but my belief in my ability to write has rarely, if ever, wavered. There aren’t many other areas in my life that I am similarly confident about. Nor do I consider myself to be a great writer; not having pursued it as a career, I lack the education, frame of reference, repertoire and discipline that professional writers possess. My point is simply that I was encouraged to write, discovered as a second-grader that it could be “fun” and, consequently, saw it as part and parcel of all creative endeavors. The positive associations I have with writing were instilled in me early on by a beloved teacher.

If I Became President

Many essays, reports, press releases, research papers, journals, artist statements, contracts, written evaluations, abstracts, recommendation letters—and yes, blog posts—later, I’m thankful that my introduction to writing was a positive one, that it was presented as not only something useful but as a creative and expressive form of communication.

Though it can be difficult to categorize, design is also an expressive form of communication. In this day and age, technology provides access to the tools necessary for executing ideas, making the very title “designer” pretty loosely defined. As a result, establishing and demonstrating the true value of design becomes an uphill battle. The democratization of design is generally a positive development, however, elevating the work of creatives as prestigious and deserving of respect becomes simultaneously harder.

It has become clearer to me over the years that in thinking critically, working collaboratively, and engaging the creative process, a true designer must be able to talk as well as—you guessed it—write. Perhaps I’m coming to the realization later than some of my cohorts, and perhaps it sounds counterintuitive, but writing is as much a part of being a good designer as the designing part is. And while writing likely doesn’t draw creative individuals to the design profession, the design profession demands that creative individuals know how to write.

Too often design is perceived as being separate from the content -- that is, the window-dressing that makes information pretty. But for us, the significance of words and the choices we make when it comes to presenting them cannot be separated out from the meaning derived from them, or from the context they provide. Even if we aren’t the primary authors of whatever written content we happen to be working with, it is incumbent upon us to actually read it and ask questions in order to understand how to visually interpret and convey the information.

Writers are still writers and designers are still designers, yet there exists a meeting place between the two. Both professions are attuned to language, after all. And though the long-term significance of a creative writing notebook was obviously lost on me 30 years ago, I will always be grateful for the interest it sparked in me, and the foundation it set for helping me get through school and smoothing the transition from being a student to a working professional. Thank you, Mrs. Sanders, wherever you are.

Connections, Agency for Designers of Color

This winter has been, at least for some of us, exasperating and seemingly interminable, the extreme cold and lack of sunlight making it difficult to want to venture outdoors, let alone be productive indoors. And though my energy level has nearly bottomed out at times over the course of the past few weeks, there have also been wonderfully bright moments to distract from the monotony of overcast skies, frigid temperatures and winter weather advisories. A few weeks ago, for example, I had the opportunity to talk to a group of regional high school students about design. These kinds of informal presentations are actually pretty fun since I’m able to interact with a range of people beyond the college-aged students I typically work with. I like the challenge of figuring out how to present design in a way that makes it relevant to anyone and everyone, regardless of their backgrounds.

And as I think about how to tailor my words, I am inevitably reminded of why I chose a design profession over some of the others I considered like architecture, psychology and even genetic engineering. But I’m also uncomfortably aware of the fact that I work and teach in a predominantly white sphere.

The students at this most recent talk represented an ethnically and economically diverse crowd of would-be designers and their parents. Though at least a few individuals appeared vaguely dubious about what I had to say at the outset, the participants were respectful, energetic and engaged, willing to hear me make my case. I doubt that my 45-minute talk will ultimately influence the decisions these students make with regard to their career decisions moving forward.

However, I would like to think that I was successful in conveying the breadth of design’s power and presence, locally, nationally and internationally. I would like to think that by the end of the session, students could envision design as a vehicle for shaping their world for the better. Mostly, I appreciated how rare it was for me to be in a room with prospective design students and their families, most of whom were people of color.

In a 2005 essay titled "Searching for a Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design Education," the late Sylvia Harris penned the following: “What influence have African Americans had on contemporary graphic design? Is there such a thing as an African-American design aesthetic? These are questions that I have been asking designers and art historians for the last 10 years. The answer I am usually given is, 'I don’t know.' The relationship of ethnic minorities to the development of American graphic design is rarely discussed or documented by our profession because of the historic lack of racial diversity in the field.”

Harris goes on to mention the growing interest in reexamining the history of graphic design as a way to include traditions that have previously been overlooked, and addressing the limitations black designers run into when they adopt “mainstream aesthetic traditions in order to feel accepted and be successful.”

Though my contributions to the design world are nothing compared with Harris’, her perspectives—and apparent frustrations—mirror my own. The issue is not about training an army of black designers to make the design world more racially mixed numbers-wise. The issue is about ensuring that a range of experiences and viewpoints are represented within society and, moreover, that budding designers of color feel connected to design from a cultural and historical context.

Why does this even matter? Well, for starters, many of the images we have come to associate with African-Americans and black culture, at least in the mainstream, are harmful distortions, caricatured depictions that call the humanity of black people into question. Helping designers of color exert greater agency when it comes to visual representation and contributing fresh ideas, consequently, is a step toward eradicating the harm that has been done as a result of neglecting the significance of black aesthetics.

I should state unequivocally that I have a deep appreciation for design traditions rooted in European influence. The program at Kent State where I studied for my MFA, known for emphasizing the International Typographic Style, was instrumental in making me a better designer. Without the discipline of that training, I would never have learned how to balance unrestrained, expressive visuals with the beauty of simple, structured typography.

My point is simply that as with most things in life, there should be a balance; just as there is still room for the European-inspired design influences, there is room to expand, creating new traditions that include the voices that continue to be overlooked.

Sochi Graphics Pay Homage to Digital Era

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics is capturing much of the world’s attention at the moment, and though the athletes are front and center, just as they should be, design is also prominently featured. From the opening ceremony (malfunctions notwithstanding), to the athletic uniforms, venues, advertising, online resources and mobile apps, the entirety of the Olympic Games is nothing if not designed. This is nothing new, of course. Design has been playing a significant role in the Olympics for decades, albeit to varying degrees, and we’ve come to expect the visual fanfare that is now part and parcel of these events. Just as there is historical precedent when it comes to the Games themselves, there is also historical precedent regarding the pictograms -- that is, symbols representing objects, words or concepts -- that are an integral part of the Olympics.

In a 2010 nytimes.com motion graphic piece titled "Olympic Pictograms Through the Ages," Steven Heller provides commentary on various attempts at remaking the pictogram wheel. His critique, equal parts entertaining and informative, distills some of the key issues down to a succinct four minutes wherein he explains the merits of certain pictogram systems over others in a way that designers and non-designers alike can appreciate.

I certainly have my own favorites. I’ve already written about Lance Wyman’s contributions to the Mexico City Olympics in 1968;  as one of several design team directors, Wyman’s “Mexico68” logotype and pictograms, which were integrated into every visual facet of the games, are a testament to the power of design in serving a variety of practical functions as well as creating a sense of place unique to that particular event in that particular area, at that particular time in the world. Just marvelous.

And it might be thanks to my ethnic Swiss/German roots as well as my Swiss Style design education that I find Otl Aicher’s system—including the collateral pieces such as posters, brochures, packaging, etc.—to be simultaneously well-organized and eloquent. (Yes, grids and structure can yield beautiful, expressive design.) The visual language that Aicher developed for the pictograms alone is impressive, and serves as a reminder of how often we take good design for granted. When design is doing what it’s supposed to as a communication device, we often overlook the amount of effort that goes into the process of making a complex system visually consistent, effective and easy to understand.

As one of the most recent incarnations of Olympic graphics, the sochi.ru / 2014 logotype has distinguished itself in unabashedly paying homage to the digital era. I’m not sure what I think about the implications this might have for the branding of Olympic Games in the future. Nor is the family of pictograms particularly memorable—I might be in the minority but find the forms to be too child-like given the degree of athletic rigor we expect from Olympians. Beyond that, I’m gratified to see typography getting the love and attention it deserves. Rather than being an afterthought, overshadowed in the visual hierarchy by another mark, the stylized type is the logo, seamlessly integrated with the Olympic rings. (The play of the “hi” of “sochi” against the “14” of “2014” is a nice touch.)

Not every design system developed for every Olympic Games can hope to surpass those that have come before it. As a ritual of sorts, however, re-envisioning what currently exists for a different place, time and context presents an interesting challenge. I tend to be rather critical about design but can only hope to imagine what an extraordinary experience it is to participate in such a highly anticipated (and publicized) process. My excitement about the Olympics has waned over the years, due in part to the accompanying media frenzy. Yet, beneath the layers of slick advertising and commercialization of sport, there is still something captivating about the fundamental language of design, and the historical significance of pictograms in particular that provides an unending foundation for creative interpretation. If the rollout of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic pictograms are any indication, we've only just scratched the surface.

A Designer Joins the D.I.Y. Debate

More often than not, I’m so ensconced in the bubble of my daily schedule that I become removed from—and oblivious to—some of the informal yet pertinent conversations that are happening within the design community. During the moments when my brain is simply too fried to function properly, however, and I’m mindlessly scanning blogs or catching the latest piece of hilarity from Key & Peele, that’s when I tend to stumble upon the interesting stories that are tangentially, if not directly, related to design. In the midst of one such brain-fried moment, I came across a brief interview between Ellen Lupton and Steven Heller on the subject of the do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) movement and its implications for design professionals. Lupton and Heller are both individuals I admire—I use Lupton’s book "Thinking with Type" as a course text and am working my way through "The Education of a Graphic Designer" by Heller—so was inevitably fascinated by their conversation. Though the discussion took place several years ago when Lupton’s "D.I.Y: Design It Yourself" text was first published, the questions the two authors pose are still relevant, testing the boundaries of design as a profession.

Heller argues in favor of maintaining differentiation between amateurs and professionals: “By making our work so easy to do, we are devaluing our profession…With everything so democratic, we can lose the elite status that gives us credibility.”

Lupton then parries with the following:

“Perhaps our credibility shouldn’t come from design’s elite status, but rather from its universal relevance to daily life. Not everyone is a design ‘professional,’ a person dedicated to solving complex problems and carrying out large, capital-intensive projects. But everyone can design elements of their own life, from their personal business cards or letterheads to their own flyers and wedding invitations.”

Both make valid points. And, predictably, I agree with both.

The part of me that is squarely in Heller's corner bristles when my profession is seemingly relegated to that of glorified software-users who take advantage of the magical source of free fonts and vector art (aka the Internet's) to design stuff. The part of me that agrees with Heller also remembers pouring every ounce of emotional and physical energy I had into my design education. I don’t consider myself to be a creative hotshot but I can attest to the fact that having a terminal degree in the field requires much more than inherent creativity or proficiency with Adobe programs. Yes, the idea that I haven’t earned the right to claim expertise on some level, despite the effort I’ve put into becoming better and more knowledgeable about design and teaching, rankles.

On the other hand, to Lupton’s point, design as a form of egalitarian expression is a powerful concept. One need not wear the title “designer” to produce work that is worthy of acknowledgement. One need not wear the title “designer” to produce work that, even in a small way, makes the world a happier or more interesting place. Good design cannot be suppressed, regardless of who is doing the making and creating.

All of this is to say that I would rather put what time and energy I have into figuring out how to accommodate change as opposed to fighting against it; I prefer to use my design superpowers to help address the larger, systemic and complex problems Lupton describes than get caught up in territorial battles over business cards and letterhead. The design profession is changing, after all. D.I.Y. design might in fact be encroaching on domains previously overseen by professionals. However, with design education simultaneously providing paths to new collaborative, interdisciplinary career opportunities, there’s still room for everyone.