i.club気仙沼 – i love kesennuma
Having done a research trip through several cities in the US (which was all awesome), I’ve landed in Japan and travelled up to one of the towns, Kesennuma, along the northeast coast that was hit by the earthquake and tsunami last March. I went to take part in an amazing project born out of Tokyo University’s i-school initiative (Maru NPO), funded partly by SCF Japan (horrah!) and private companies.
I arrived at dusk and saw the massive vessel, eerily marooned in the middle of a highway, quite a distance from the harbour. When we re-visited it the next day, I realised that its surroundings was once peoples houses, shops, schools and businesses – though nothing remains but concrete foundations and wrangled debris. Underneath the hull were several crushed cars. Next to it, a temporary shrine of paper cranes, flowers and toys was erected to remember the family and friends who had died that day. Kesennuma had lost 1038 (+ 259 still missing) people. We then visited several homes to understand how they were getting by – some better than others. I was heartened by how welcoming and positive they all were, demonstrating their strength and resilience. Though their stories weren’t all encouraging. I felt a fresh surge of anger in discovering that the government were slow and inadequate in assisting the community on all fronts – infrastructure, services, industry and basic housing – many were going into another bitter winter in temporary fibro shacks. I was there on the last day of the national election and understood, first-hand, the apathy and lack of confidence (60% voter turn out – shocking but inevitable) – electing the least worst of all parties.
The role of non-profits and university-led projects are salient in this context. i-school’s initiative is using design and social innovation as a way to re-build Kesennuma’s devastated local seafood industry. It involves local high-school kids and their input to re-discover their native food resources and generate many ideas that could lead to new businesses. This project, ‘i-club kesennuma‘, focusses on dry foods – products that doesn’t require refrigeration so it could be made and distributed easily as well as be a nutritious provision in an emergency. Its focus is to shift the attention from raw food like sushi and sashimi (used to be its main industry) which is costly to keep and limited in what can be eaten, often resulting in a large amount of waste and high energy bills. The kids’ vigour was generating another effect – pride and hope for their town – infecting the adults with a renewed optimism to face day-to-day difficulties.
The photo above shows a scene from a workshop I took part in – the young people conducted quasi-ethnographic research and talked to local residents, later sharing interesting insights about customs and products that they discovered. There was a lot of laughter and lightness. The next workshop is in January and February that involves them making the actual dry-food products in partnership with local businesses. I won’t be able to take part but I hope to keep in touch with the researchers at i-school to see what happens. I felt that there was a huge value in this project than evaluating whether it succeeds in producing a viable product.
The trip to Kesennuma was mixed with many thoughts and it’ll take me a while to digest all of these feelings. I still feel powerless and frustrated, living so far away from home but the connection with the kids and the community was a real, tangible feeling that I’ll remember for a very very long time…
Japanese universities under threat
Who would’ve thought that tertiary education in Japan would become under threat. Currently, there are 783 universities that are unable to sustain their programs, due to prolonged decline in childbirth. In a bid to make themselves more attractive, some universities are making their entrances easier, leading to poor graduate standards.
Horikoshi Gakuen University has been ordered foreclosure. Unable to sustain their staff, their 220 students will have to find another university to graduate from. Mr Harumi (anthropologist and graduate of Tokyo University) mentioned over coffee, how many university students, even at Tokyo Uni, were lazy. The pressure placed upon them prior to entering was so immense that he said that many became lazy once they started. Some lecture-based courses with few hundred students rely on final exams to pass, allowing the students to fool around most of the time…!
In contrast, I was invited to an open presentation of student projects in Shibuya last night (see photo). These students are attending i-school at Tokyo University who were carving out new business opportunities for Japanese companies (like Ajinomoto, Meiji etc) using Design Thinking in an emerging market like India. Based on an ethnographic research trip to India, their task was to create novel and unique business ventures. Echoing a similar model to our GRC, the students presented their work confidently to a panel of business people and academics, who were not shy in putting forward their sharp critique. Some of the points, particularly on the way certain assumptions, generalisations and lack of awareness of context was very insightful and hopefully help the students learn from the feedback.
I was pleasantly surprised by how brave the students were in entering into such ‘unknown’ territory, whether that was a foreign culture like India, having complete trust in a design and bringing that into business and to be critically evaluated in front of the public. It was a really well-attended event, and judging from the number of suits, many people were probably corporates. This framework of learning is something we take for granted in Australia, UK or the US and so its refreshing to witness it here in Tokyo.
It’s a beautiful autumn day outside, top of 4 degrees today and slightly overcast . I see college students (super intelligent) criss-crossing the green lawn, kicking the brownish leaves, on their way to class. An American flag gently waves in the background. This is what an American college campus feels like, and I love it!
Since arriving at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, I’ve been warmly embraced into this campus life. I’ve literally jumped into classes, often not knowing exactly what the classes are or what I was required to do, but its often (thankfully) turned out ok. The two classes I’ve been in so far has been ones where there’s a mixture of student levels – from undergrad, postgrad and research candidates. What seems like a pedagogical nightmare to me, fellow colleagues shrug and accept this as how it is here. The breadth and depth that the students are required to perform at is also very interesting. For example, I took part in a class run by Kristin Hughes, Bruce Hanington and Tim (forgot his last name). This class is called “Design and Policy for Humanitarian Impact”. It has 20 students split into 8 project teams, a mix of design grad and undergrads, and some from the Heinz school of public policy, and a few from HCI, Engineering, etc. The inter-disciplinary mix was fascinating to see, and each group had to research an issue of their choice, which was very meaty and rich. I was really impressed by the quality of their work and the insights they’ve gained already, though was concerned how they would manage such a huge task in a short timeframe. Big issues like enabling teenagers to discuss sexuality with family members; creating hands-on extra-curricula activities for high schools; combined sewage overflow; addressing cross-cultural discrimination between black African Americans and Black Africans… that the students weren’t afraid to tackle these ‘real-world’ problems was great to see.
I also got to see Aisling’s class on Critical Design. Students had to create a fictitious campaign on any issue of their choice. Many of these were imbued with a wicked sense of humour (’Design your ideal man’ or ‘Electric shocks from a guitar to make you practice to perfection’, ‘A mirror that records and plays back’), and produced very convincingly. Some of them sparked discussions and questions about gender, race, values, privacy, identity… it was all fascinating. I was really amazed by the way the design students weren’t pushed in providing ’solutions’, and as research, provoke questionings and open further avenues. These are great projects that I could learn from.
The presentations I did briefly in Kirstin’s class, Jodi Forlizzi’s class on Service Design, and in Laurene’s class on research methods was received well (I think). In these presentations, I had aimed to emphasise the ‘imperfection’ of methods, showing instances where things went wrong and having to improvise but what you can learn from making those mistakes. Another bug-bear of mine that I spoke about was that methods aren’t always replicable and generalisable. I feel that some of the critique I made, especially about service design had ruffled some feathers… perhaps in a good way?
The future of design education…?
We’ve been talking about this a lot. WE, I mean, by a few people in Communication Design at RMIT, and some like-minded people I’ve hooked up with on the COTEN forum. The timing of these two colliding couldn’t have been better and I guess that’s the power of social-networking – if there is no physical community-of-practice that is broad / informed enough to have a fruitful discussion, I can easily tap into a one on-line. Wow.
Communication Design at RMIT is in trouble. Its been rudderless for so long I can’t remember. But now, the bolt of lightning has struck from above, and we’re getting our act together to consolidate what our future will look like, led by re-structuring the prized, the precious, the prodigal Works. I have been vocal in welcoming this change, some have been pissed off, some have been confused, and some have been apathetic to the whole thing. It has also led to student activist/protest (The infamous ‘H’ that only lived for a few hours on 20/5/10 – see below) but I am not sure if that had jolted the staff in to open dialogue with the students – well, perhaps, not just yet anyway.
The discussion about the future of our program is intricately linked with the future of the practice. What we are seeing is a global movement in design where disciplinary practices are starting to collapse, being replaced by fields/words such as ‘design thinking’ or ’systems thinking’ in approaching complex real-world problems more holistically. No longer is design bound to the ‘things’ they make. Design is moving away from products to process, from production to utilisation, from transaction to relationship building (as Arne van Oosterom says from Design Thinkers). This all sounds familiar to those who are playing/studying/working in the field of Service Design.
However, in teaching this new mish-mash field of design, Cameron said “it almost feels like universities are saying, we don’t know how to prepare you anymore so we are just going to throw you in amongst ‘real world problems’ from the start. To this, John Thackara said ‘There is a real challenge here. A lot of design persons, not just students, are venturing into the (grotesquely named) ’social impact space’ – and they tend to be well-intentioned, but not well-prepared.’
This is the danger I see with what we propose to be the future of design education, and at a micro-level, for our program. We, at MCD studio, have only begun understanding the nature of design’s agency in real-world problem contexts, let alone got a handle on how to teach/coach/mentor/guide/facilitate undergraduate students into it. Our knowledge and expertise as a community of practice has only begun to be developed through the collective input of a fantastic range of PhD candidates, like Miek and Nifeli.
Real-world projects are f***ing hard. I don’t sleep well at night when I’m in fully immersed in projects. Take the bushfire project as an example. They’re no longer ‘projects’ – they’re like having a full-on relationship break-up argument because it presses deep, emotional buttons and I can’t help but take them home and toss over them in my sleep…!
I’ve walked into that project (well, put my hand up willingly) without knowing a lot of what I know now. Some other projects I’ve done in the past, well, I wouldn’t want to do it again – the experience was so awful. At the end of the day, one cannot help feel powerless in shifting/changing things to a more desired state – because we designers are so ideological.
I’m ranting again… but what I thought I should think about more deeply is the ‘baby-steps’ to introduce students with. What would 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th years do – what skills can one gradually develop over the 4 years that can educate a designer to be able to take on ‘real-world’ problems? And, if we are going to focus more on core design skills than field-specific ones, what goes and what stays – because we can’t teach everything. If we can’t teach everything, what alternative methods/mechanism can we facilitate so that students learn from peers/outside influences in combination to what is taught by the university?
TBC. This is just the start.
Another workshop with M today proved very fruitful. From the various information collated, R + J created a spreadsheet of an audit of the current activities, mainly focusing on materials that has been printed. From there, they also evaluated how effective that was and the priority of it being worked on further.
Another evaluation was conducted to see what the energy workshops are currently doing, in terms of its effectiveness in behavioural change. A rough calculation indicated that as a result of attending these workshops, 1% of Moreland households were reducing their carbon emissions. This was a very positive and reassuring feedback to gain. However, the future plan is not as simple as undertaking the workshops 10-fold, as that is not able to be resourced successfully by the organisation. In order to make sense of what the ‘gap’ or ‘potential’ is, we created a ‘map’ that consolidates all this information into a birds-eye view of the activity that is already taking place. This ‘map’ was roughly drawn like below. On the x-axis, we plot the number of people (or even better, identify the personas) who the activity is informing, and on the y-asis, we plot the degrees relating to behavioural change.
insert diagram here.
From this map, it is easier to see at a glance, what is working for who, and also identifying what are needed to reach the 10% target. We felt that this visualisation can enable us to plan the next steps more effectively and build on the current and projective knowledge of the staff. Initially scribbled (badly) on the whiteboard, I was quite surprised that both J and R nodded enthusiastically to the purpose of this diagram and stating how this visualisation made sense of what they were doing so far. I was again reminded of the power of visualisations – how such ‘maps’ and sketches can be catalytic and revealing. We also discussed how great it would be to have them displayed more prominently and permanently, as a reminder and communication tool for the rest of the staff. These are things we can tackle another time.
On reflection, there are two things I have learnt from this process. Undertaking the workshops and regular discussions with the organisation had prompted them to re-look and re-evaluate what they are doing. It had highlighted that, in fact, they are actually doing something positive and effective already. This seemed to have boosted their morale and optimism for doing even better. This was something I had not expected – that engaging them through this process also had an added benefit. Secondly, I am encouraged that they are already ‘owning’ the activities that are undertaken, and even doing it further than I had expected. I was conscious that I was setting ‘homework’ for them to do and I was a little worried that this may seem patronising. In contrast, J revealed that she liked these tasks and ‘homework’ set, and this was reflected in how she extended them further. B’s visualisations and R+ J’s spreadsheet are great example of these. They had infact considered very thoroughly each task that was asked them to do, and not only did it well but have really made them effective for each workshop so that we can accelerate further.
The Grampians 22-27 June 2007
What an awesome place. Handful of labsome and Phd students visited the Grampians last weekend for a mapping project. Co-ordinated by Milesy, he wanted us to place constraints on the way we ‘mapped’ the particular area we were exploring.
My recent experience in taking pottery classes has awakened to ’see’ through touch. Its a new experience where I’m forced to mold clay on a wheel without looking at what I’m doing, opposite to my usual practice of being visually led and relying on sight to do design. Molding the clay through sight can be detrimental because the hands responds to what it sees and tries to over-correct the errors. But when I mold through touch, I can ’see’ how thick or thin the walls are, how to smooth out the bumps and how to centre an off-balanced clay. Its a completely different relationship, one that is felt through the body via the fingertips rather than perceived through the mind via sight.
The visit to the Grampians seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore this idea more and use ‘touch’ as one of the constraints. Rather than my usual practice of taking photographs and being visually led, I decided to make ‘impressions’ of things that seemed interesting on the walk. I took along small balls of clay which I flattened into a disc.
Here are some of the results. I’ll upload all of them onto the flickr shared site.
and also here are impressions of other plants and then taken a photo on a rock surface.
The process of creating these small ‘impressions’ was transforming how I saw the landscape. I was struck by the scale of detail – from the delicate whispy-ness of plants I was trying to capture to the eternal existence of the rock surfaces we were surrounded by. There was so much to be felt through touch. I would often loose a sense of scale when looking between the texture of bark and the rocks behind. Both weathered from and resilient to their environments. I imagined what kind of ‘impressions’ could be made from those rocks if there was clay big enough to be able to do so. What could be felt if you could run your fingers over the caves and cliffs of Mount Zero. I also noticed that I captured different aspects of a plant’s life cycle, from its fleshy leaves to how it became withered and brittle; a flower in bloom to the seed pods they created. Through the impressions created, I also noticed details that were invisible to the eye previously – a pattern of bumps on the underside of fern leaves or star shapes created by gum nuts – a delightful surprise revealed through clay.
Others have captured different aspects of the trip. You can view them here (or go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/affectiveatlashallsgap/)
Dear John: Design as catalyst for action
This text has been published in Antithesis, published by University of Melbourne. Please cite this text as:
Akama, Y 2006, ‘Dear John: Design as catalyst for action’, Antithesis, vol. 16, pp. 112-123
This paper will discuss Dear John, a collaborative project initiated by a group of postgraduate graphic design students inspired to motivate young people to defeat John Howard and the Liberal Party in the 2004 Australian national election, with the intention of using design as an agent of activism and intervention.
Motivated by the significance of grassroots websites for fostering community action and the increasing power of viral electronic campaigns to influence change, Dear John website set out to mobilise and spread its message by engaging young voters to download and forward witty emails and materials within their “networked” community. Recognising that many people have turned from being political in the traditional sense, political rhetoric and journalistic spin were avoided. The message reinforced by Dear John was that personal political involvement may be as simple as the act of wearing a t-shirt or putting up a poster.
Dear John invited people to download copyright free t-shirt transfers, badges, posters, screen savers and forward letters and clipart to their friends. In addition there was a gallery space on the site to showcase materials visitors had made themselves, creating a virtual space for a community of people who, out of concern for the outcome of the election, sought a place in which they can practice and participate in democracy.
Research context of Dear John project
Dear John was one of the research projects undertaken during the last year of my practice-led research degree in Communication at RMIT University. Practice-led research in the context of design is a way of producing knowledge. Peter Downton argues “research is undertaken to test existing knowledge, and to produce and increase knowledge; design processes both use knowledge and also produce personal knowing and collective knowledge. Such knowledge is different, not inferior.”1 Research through design puts forward the idea that “designing is a way of researching, and is a way of producing knowledge. Design knowledge consists of the knowing and knowledge designers have and use, concerning design and how to do it.”
Practice-led research critically employs a cyclical process of designing and reflection, revealing and illuminating theories derived from practice, which in turn informs the practice. Leon Van Schaik explains practice-led research as a way “[…] to show how a theory/idea/concept makes a difference to their design, and this is demonstrated through their ‘designing’– or their practice […] experience drives practice, and practice drives theory, which in turn affects experience.”2
A key awareness that frames my research is that this heuristic process is situated within the personal – it is about how I understand my design practice and how I engage as a practitioner. My research interest, situated within graphic design, is to examine ways to enhance the design process so that communication outcomes engage the active participation of the audience.
Frascara explains that “communication design is an activity directed at affecting the knowledge, the attitude and behaviour of people […,] defined this way, people assume a central role[.]’ 3 This approach recognises that design practitioners play a central role in shaping and informing the ideas and behaviours of people and their environment. To clarify, my research exploration is not concerned with the role of design in promoting consumerism, but with how to effectively amplify and extend the social role of graphic designers through processes that actively engage people. The Dear John project became the critical incident in my research, where the experience highlighted another role design could play within society. This will be explored further in the ‘Conclusion’.
The disaffection and sense of powerlessness apparently felt by many people is a source of mounting public concern. Demonstrations in Seattle, Prague, London, Gothenburg and Genoa confront governments and media with worrying signs of disturbance in the depths of the social body. If there is still a tendency to stigmatise all acts of protest as the work of an irresponsible carnival of activists, falling voter turnouts in national elections are beginning to oblige even the most complacent politicians to face the fact that growing numbers of citizens feel their democratic votes count for nothing.4
With another election looming on the horizon, our team of designers recognised that many people have turned from being political in the traditional sense. The challenge therefore was to motivate young people to discuss and debate the socio-cultural issues that determine the society they live in.
At the beginning we assessed:
1) the significance of the youth vote in the Spanish national elections in March 2004;
2) the recent success of grassroots websites for fostering community action in the US;
3) the ‘connected’ lifestyles of young Australians;
4) the culture of forwarding witty emails, and;
5) the increasing power of viral electronic campaigns to influence change.
From this we decided to have a website called Dear John to target uncommitted voters between the ages of 18–30, with the challenge being to engage this often cynical or disinterested demographic in the 2004 Australian national election. We believed that many young voters’ disinterest in politics would resonate with the following three responses. First, diminishing belief in the rhetoric of the empty sound bite: “all politicians sound the same”. Second, increasing cynicism towards the power of mainstream news media to independently report politics: “it’s not news, it’s spin”. Lastly, a sense of being overwhelmed by information overload and the responsibility to make an informed decision: “don’t know where to begin or who to believe”. In designing Dear John we decided that we would avoid the language of journalism or politics and avoid pushing articles to substantiate our politics. Instead, we chose to make it personal – the message reinforced that personal political involvement could be as simple as the act of wearing a t-shirt or putting posters on a wall.
Most of the Dear John design team had never taken part in a politically-oriented project and many were nervous about designing within such an unfamiliar context. Our uncertainty about the election date (which could be called by the Prime Minister one month prior to Election Day) meant that we had to be flexible with what we wanted to achieve. Being a self-initiated project, we had no budget and the hours we could commit to had to fit in with our jobs and other commitments. This resulted in many sleepless evenings and weekends, but also allowed us to form stronger bonds and develop a greater ability to work as a group. Due to time constraints, many ideas initially planned had to be rejected and the Dear John website was live for just over a month prior to October 9, 2004. Finally, we had to rise to the challenge of writing copy and press releases for the media – skills that are not commonly emphasised or inherent in our practice – and we managed to overcome these challenges by seeking advice and input by other practitioners.
A “Dear John letter” is a term derived from a WWII phenomenon in the US where wives or girlfriends wrote letters to their boyfriends or husbands who were servicemen stationed for long periods overseas in order to announce the break up of their relationship. We extended the Dear John concept, using an intimate tone and humorous language to give the public a forum to announce that they no longer wished to associate themselves with certain policies represented by John Howard, and why. We reinforced this message by asking people to vote Liberals last, but also to make their own choices on who to vote for. Various categories for possible Dear John letters were listed in order to capture as many different viewpoints as possible, ranging from national patriotism, concerns for the environment, treatment of asylum seekers and increases to university fees, et cetera (see Fig. 1 & 2). Some involved lengthy detailed letters, others were short and to-the-point. These ideas were then extended to t-shirts, posters, screen savers, badges and flyers. We wanted the messages to spread by “network activities” such as word-of-mouth and the use of email to forward funny jokes and pictures.
The Dear John website (fig. 3) housed 5 poster designs, 10 t-shirt designs, 13 versions of the Dear John letter, as well as badges, stickers and screensavers. The design of the website communicated an open, friendly feel, with downloads being available within 3-4 clicks. We also ensured that anyone with a basic home computer and printer could produce the posters and t-shirts themselves.
Each designed artefact invited different kinds of audience participation through the use of various tones, languages, visual styles and messages (fig. 4). Some utilised hand-drawn illustrations with a naïve and child-like quality in order to initiate a personal and intimate discourse. Artefacts that aimed at specific interests used a more direct language and referred to particular issues that might engage targeted responses. Other artefacts included simple ideas or instructions for DIY practice that might inspire people to develop their own message (fig. 5).
In order to be effective with those fatigued by cynicism or overwhelmed by rhetoric, we avoided polemical language. We also did not want Dear John to look like a political announcement. Our strategy relied on intimate, first person storytelling. We were not focussed on facts that aim at drawing parties into denials and counter attacks, instead we asked people to inform themselves on issues that mattered to them and choose who to vote for themselves. In order to facilitate this process, the Dear John site had links to most political parties and independent media outlets. This access to other websites fostered an independent way for people to source information.
Our site stood out from other political sites in its look, feel and ways of communicating. We mixed aesthetics with politics and the site became a ‘designed’ vehicle to share our concerns. Other political sites at the time relied on pushing information-intensive criticisms about the Howard government’s policies which did not consider how to effectively engage responses from their audience. Their approach seemed to be based on the assumption that factual information and reasoned argument is sufficient. It also highlighted they failed to consider the range of voters they wanted to communicate to, especially the undecided and less opinionated voters. From observation, these sites had the common element of talking AT their audience, assuming that the importance and seriousness of the content of their messages will make readers take note.
Through press-releases sent to broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, TV and radio stations and web publishing houses, Dear John received nation-wide public media coverage. In Melbourne, for instance, the A3 lifestyle section of The Age newspaper published a feature story with a full-page front cover colour photograph of people wearing Dear John t-shirts.5 In general, the media took a ‘politics and fashion’ angle without trivialising our cause or messages. Statistics of the website revealed that the highest number of hits and downloads occurred when it was mentioned in the media. We also received numerous e-mails from people who were encouraged or enraged by our site. The negative responses were few and far between and often assumed that we were pushing the Labour Party. However, such responses also indicated that Dear John was successful in getting people to actively engage with it. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggested that Dear John had spread through ‘network activities’, such as word of mouth and chance encounters, as we had hoped. For example, one person wrote to tell us they had been curious enough to visit the website because they had seen a waitress wearing a Dear John t-shirt.
Dear John then began appearing in websites related to political commentary and in personal blogs that, in turn, provided further links to the site. Within the first 2 weeks of operation the site received over 4,000 visitors with 150,000 hits. This indicated that most visitors were also downloading or forwarding items available on the site, actively spreading the messages through the networked community. By the Election Day on 9th October 2004, the site received 12,561 visitors and 550,000 hits.
The website also invited people to send back letters they wrote themselves and artworks they created in response to what we made available on the site which were then displayed on the site’s public gallery. This was considered to be an important aspect of Dear John as it would allow people to voice their opinions and, in effect, recreate the site as a public domain. We hoped that it might become a virtual space for people who, having a sense of solidarity in being concerned about the outcome of the election, might practice and participate in democracy. We felt that the presence of people on the site through photos and messages (see Fig.6) was important to bring the discourse back to the individual, and to demonstrate various ways people can be involved in and express opinions about politics.
As a practicing designer I have always felt a certain unease with the overemphasis of graphic design’s role in promoting consumerism in society. Amongst the literature in graphic design, the ‘First Things First manifesto’ is one of the most prominent texts in addressing such issues. The manifesto was initially penned in 1964 by Ken Garland but after being re-circulated in 2000 it ignited discussions in the design community about the ability of design to address social issues. It argues, ‘Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.’6 Although the manifesto has indeed prompted discourse amongst students and practitioners of graphic design, it appears to have also polarised debate. On the one hand criticism has been fired at designer’s pandering to capitalist consumption, while on the other, criticism is returned at what is argued to be the moral preaching that design should alleviate conditions of society. For this reason, I believe the debate does not offer any direction or an alternative model to how graphic designers can move forward.7
Within the debate on design’s social role, arguments for the designer’s social responsibility are still largely framed by charity and good intentions such as doing pro-bono work for socially oriented organisations, or using environmentally friendly methods of printing and production processes.8 However, the designer’s act of benevolence within such framework still operates on the same model of dictating a client-centred agenda with a controlled outcome to achieve a specific response from the audience. Here, graphic designers are perceived as the middle-people between client and audience so as to inform people of specific information for instance, or to sell or make commodities desirable through their packaging and advertising.9 In this model content is still a commodity—whether it be a product, an idea or a social issue—that is sold or told to the audience, implying a closed and concluded conversation because the objective is to limit the responses to only those desired.
However, in my view, the social aspect of graphic design might deploy communication as an exchange between participants involved in a two-way dialogue. For graphic design to fulfil its social role, I believe it needs to acknowledge the active role audience plays as participants within the communication exchange, and not limit audiences to passive and silent receivers of information.
In my opinion of the Dear John project, design’s role was different to the dominant model of design as it enabled audiences to create their own experience in communicating their message. Statistics of visitors and hits to the website—people sending photos, artworks and e-mails—publicly displayed the various ways in which our messages were received. More importantly, this feedback mechanism has enabled me to understand the power of design in affecting people in personal ways. Dear John project offered an alternative model to the social role of design.
The Dear John design team were aware that viral-marketing campaigns used in most commercial context was controversial due to its clandestine way of selling people a commodity without their awareness of such advertising taking place. Though Dear John relied on a similar method of the viral spread of ‘word-of mouth’ to reach people, I believe that Dear John had been transparent and open in it’s intention of engaging people to voice their own opinions. Rather than the ‘sell and tell’ role of conventional graphic design, Dear John actively encouraged people to choose how and what they wanted to say.
Even though Dear John declared its aim to defeat John Howard by voting Liberals last, in my view, this became a secondary purpose to the project. Within the context of the 2004 Australian national election, Dear John, as a design intervention, engaged people by enabling conversations to start, and people were encouraged to voice their concerns. The notion of providing opportunities for people to amplify their voices and creating a space for such voices to be shared and communicated, allowed a number of unique interactions. Dear John explored a broader application of the power of design by offering a different way for engaging the audience within a political campaign discourse. This different model of design, in my view, has potential to contribute to society in many ways, as it engages people to be active, thinking and decision-making participants of society through communication. Undertaking this project has raised further questions regarding the potential for such a model of engagement with the audience in the day-to-day practice of design within society.
From observation, it appears that there is a trend amongst certain technologies and entertainment in moving towards engaging a participatory response from audiences. Voting for eviction on Big Brother, interactive TV, mobile phone technology and an increasing number of ‘blogs’ (personal web journals) are providing opportunities for individuals to become co-creators of content, rather than passive receivers of information. However, the majority of such participatory activities are largely driven by commercial agendas and are far from promoting civic values.
Similarly, an increasing number of networked communities actively seek ways to question decision making processes, accountability, transparency and honesty within corporations and organizations. (Eg. Civic journalists like Margo Kingston’s Webdiary on the internet are joining a collective of independent media groups to provide an alternative to mainstream media). Dear John was a designer’s direct and personal response to the society we live in and to how people participate in it. However, looking back at the project with some distance, Dear John seems to have been a part of an increasing number of networked citizens forming a collective global movement in carving out the space for democratic practice.
1 Peter Downton, Design Research (Melbourne: RMIT University Press, 2003), 91.
2 Leon van Schaik, The practice of practice: practice based research in architecture (Melbourne: RMIT University Press, 2003), 13.
3 Jorge Frascara User-Centred Graphic Design: Mass Communications and Social Change (London: Taylor & Francis, 1995), 3.
4 Rick Poyner, Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World (London: Birkhauser, 2001), 8.
5 Matthew Murphy and Guy Gurgess “Keys to Power”, The Age, Sept. 30, 2004, A3 section, 4-5.
6 Rick Poynor, First Things First 2000, Eye Magazine 2001. http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature.php?id=18&fid=99. (accessed August 2005).
7 Steven Heller, Michael Bierut, and William Drenttel, Looking Closer: Critical writings on graphic design. Vol. 4, (New York: Allworth Press, 2002); Rick Poynor First Things First 2000.
8 Steven Heller & V. Vienne (eds.) Citizen Designer – Perspectives on Design Responsibility, (New York: Allworth Press, 2003).
9 Rick Poyner No more rules – graphic design and postmodernism (London: Laurence King, 2003).
Thrown into confusion
As was suggested by the panel at the Graduate Research Conference, I am now reflecting back on Management vs. Community project. I am trying to be critical in my reflections but I am finding this extremely hard to do in not making valued judgements. On some level, I think I am trying to think of ‘what could have been done differently’, but this ‘idealism’ moves away from the hard, harsh reality that it did not, and could not have been done differently
This project is an ideal one to reflect on to really unpack what I am exploring within human-centred design. This project had all the ‘human’ drama that there possibly could have been. One illumination from the reflection revealed that I think I am exploring the ‘empowerment’ of designers within projects. I think Management vs. Community was a case study where the designers didn’t feel empowered. But, why is their feeling of ‘empowerment’ important? At the same time, I genuinely felt that the ‘community’ should also feel empowered. Or, perhaps I am trying to explore the delicate power balance between these people?
If you have a value system where you believe that everyone should be valued equally, which I guess is the democratic model, then it is equally natural to expect this within any organisation or interaction amongst people. But, that is easier said than done, right? Management vs. Community presents itself as a classic case study of it being a lot harder than one thinks it is. Management vs. Community to me, was a ship steering through a minefield of power imbalances. Who got their say, who’s voice was listened to, who made the decision in the end etc etc. The designers were just a part of the ‘voice’ amongst many.
Though, the only difference about this particular scenario, was they weren’t discussing how often the toilet should be cleaned or not. The visual identity represented how they would be perceived by others, and how they saw themselves as a united whole. It concerned the identity as a collective. So, was this a ‘design’ project? Yes, the expression of the identity needed someone with skills, knowledge and background to produce it. However, it was also different to just designing the ‘visual’ outcome, but how the entire process was ‘designed’, orchestrated and managed as well. Again, the designers and I were novices to this sort of project, so we just did what we could. But in hindsight, I think the project should have spanned a lot more time, undergone more discussions and possibly should have had more ‘designers’ involved in it.
In design, there is always the ‘ideal’ isn’t there? I think anything that a designer undertakes can never be perfect, it can only come as close to being perfect.
Bonnie Doon 1st – 4th July
The journey to Bonnie Doon was both mental, physical as well as a spiritual experience for me.To be surrounded by an environment rich with unfamiliar smells, sounds and sights helped trigger different thoughts in my head. It enabled me to be more reflective and contemplative in responding to the thoughts that Laurene had asked us to think about, which was Design, Research and Practice.
We went for a stroll down to the creek that ran near the property. Rain had fallen the night before. Raindrops were sparkling amongst the leaves scattering the mid-morning sun. Colours of greens, browns, reds, was at an intense vibrancy. The air was cold, clean and crisp. The process of walking, looking, breathing, listening, and my passion for nature and the joy of being immersed in it, was heightening my senses to the surrounding. Unwinding me and relaxing me from the daily stresses of work and study in a city.
During the walk, I began collecting interesting things…
Curly shaped leaves.
Odd shaped leaves.
Twigs with nuts and buds.
A pine cone with amazing texture.
Moss that looked like fabric.
Whilst scavenging around and amassing a collection of natural wonderments, I was also opening up to the intervention by the surrounding environment. I felt myself relax more. Walk slower. Let my mind wander. This led me to think about my intervention on the environment. The footprints I leave. The twigs that I take. Leaves I was collecting… and as I reflected, I wrote my thoughts on the leaves. It was a literal response of my intervention on the environment. A personal dialogue with the surroundings.
Engaging with this activity of writing helped me gather dispersed abstract thoughts into a more focused one. I likened the leaves to a sketchbook where I could jot down thoughts as it came to my head. A stream of consciousness. But rather than writing in my sketchbook which is my usual activity, I felt it important that I wrote on leaves, as a mark / symbol of my presence in the woods that faded with time. I left these leaves hanging off a branch, and I liked their inconspicuous nature. I liked how it blended in with its environment, and you wouldn’t know it was there until it was pointed out.
This activity revealed a great deal about my idea of design and design methodology. Though these revelations weren’t ‘new’ concepts as such, I gained a hightened awareness of my concept of design and methodology from this experience. I reflected on how I liked my piece blending in with the environment. This is because I place more value on experience and engagement of design, rather than the value placed on designed artefact alone. The writing on the leaves made it look and feel more ‘personal’, inviting others to peer closely at it to read the writings. When reflecting on my piece in the woods, I saw the leaves as ‘triggers’ and ‘residue’ of dialogue that I had in my head. The leaves (artefact) play an important role in enabling engagement, or retaining a residue of an engagement, but its the engagement which I place importance on in design. All these concepts are strong themes within my research.
On the second day, the themes within my research began to emerge more clearly. Instead of choosing a site/location to intervene with in the environment, I was content in being just where we were standing when my turn came to present my piece. So instead of relocating, I gave everyone a leaf that I wrote on with new thoughts since the day before. I wanted to share them with the group, as a trigger for dialogue or a residue of my thoughts. From this engagement, I had interesting responses.
Mike asked, “xxx”.
Keith commented, “xxx”. Keith’s comments echoed a question I asked myself earlier. If I valued the conversation and engagement by others, did it matter what I wrote on the leaves? Why didn’t I ask everyone else to write a question on the leaves themselves?
These questions relate to a comment on ‘agency’ that came up in the last GRC. ‘Agency’ means; ‘the means or mode of acting, or instrumentality’. Since then, I begun exploring the concept of the ‘agency’ and the designers agency, in creating engagement with others. I think I had a tendency to ignore or overlook my agency within a design project, by putting too much emphasis on what others did. So, when applying this to the ‘leaves’ I shared with others, it was driven by my intentions, but still allowing the input by others. The dialogue triggered by the leaves had an open-ended engagement, but the content of our discussion were closely related to my research interests.
The conversation triggered by the leaves echoed a concern I had within my research. I have often struggled with the paradox between somewhat opposite poles of being self-centred and submissive / neutral designer. However, I have come to realise that the two positions are not mutually exclusive and my research explores the position of being somewhere in between. This position in between acknolwedges the active role and agency a designer has in the process, as well as allowing input and engagement by others.
After two days filled with insightful and diverse conversations and discussions on design, research and practice, we were looking forward to going home to a hot shower and a good warm night’s sleep. Personal hygiene was something we rather not share with others! The trip to ‘Donnie Boon’ began with silly-ness and laughter and it continued throughout the four days, mainly during meal times.
There were many moments to highlight – Nurul made us an amazing soup with yogurt, vegemite and eggs at 2am in the morining. Neal put on an entertainment with shadow puppets. Laurene opened up a cafe serving poached eggs and porridge for breakfast. Mike became the woodsman and whittled himself a pipe. Tania and Keith shared their passion and knowledge on chickpeas. Lizzy’s question “What’s the purpose?” became our catchphrase during the trip.
We are a diverse group of individuals that came together for a shared passion for research through design. I often take these friends for granted, but this trip had reminded me of how fortunate I am. It is an invaluable community of practice where each contributes their own perspectives, criticality of thinking and richness of knowledge.