Designism 2.0: Part One, "See"
Tonight I attended Designism 2.0, an event at Manhattan's Art Directors Club devoted to promoting and exploring socially conscious design. The organizers at the ADC devised the proceedings with the intent of building upon the initial Designism event (held in September of last year) by adding a direct call to action. It was clear from the presentations of tonight's panelists and the audience's reactions that the design community has no shortage of desire to, as invited speaker Milton Glaser put it, "participate in the life of our times." Clear-cut strategies for putting that passion to use, however, were more difficult to find.
The first panel, titled "See," was moderated by Alissa Walker, well-known journalist and editor of the popular design blog Unbeige. The three panelists were young, successful designers who recently completed self-financed work with a political purpose. Between them, the well-curated trio seemed to encompass an entire generation's social responses. There was Ji Lee, the man behind the famous Bubble Project, whose street-artist sensibility showed in his enormous Afro wig (he always makes public appearances in costume); Andrew Sloat, a graphic designer and maker of short political movies, whose identifying physical characteristic was his sunny smile; and the brainy, serious Ellen Sitkin, distinguished by her stylish black-framed specs.
Sitkin's work with John Bielenberg's Project M took her and seven other designers to Hale County, Alabama for the month of June with the vague mission of creating something that would make a difference in the poorer communities there. As the group discovered, more than a quarter of the residents of Hale County live below the poverty line, and almost as many have no connection to the municipal water system. Inspired by one of Hale's local papers, the Greensboro Watchman, the team created a 24-page newspaper-style spread about the county's water-access problem in just a few days. At buyameter.org, you can view the piece and donate to a fund established to assist the needy in Hale County. It takes $425 to bring clean water to a household; so far, about $30,000 has been raised.
Andrew Sloat's shorts constitute a fun, patriotic mix of typography and cinema. He premiered a new three-minute movie (made with $3,000 of his own money) which spells out the first sentence of the preamble to the Constitution letter by letter using t-shirts worn by a multicultural group of people, who pivot and slide into various configurations in order to assemble all the words. The movie's recognizable setting--a school gymnasium--lends a plaintive note to this humorous work. It's as though the democratic principles outlined in the preamble were, like childhood memories, both almost close enough to touch and irrevocably distant.
As Alissa Walker was quick to point out, the three panelists seemed to be motivated by different forms of frustration. Fed up with the banality of the advertising world in which he made his living, Ji Lee invited the people to talk back by pasting empty voice bubbles on billboards and posters on the streets and in the subway. The "Bubble Project" phenomenon spawned a book, Talk Back: The Bubble Project, and has spread around the world via the internet, but perhaps just as rewarding was the "adrenaline rush" Lee says he got from his guerrilla activities. Andrew Sloat said his movies come out of a desire to subvert his own political stridency with a more "open-ended, sentimental" message. Ellen Sitkin felt that her day jobs in design didn't fulfill her need to explore "the human side" of the discipline. Each designer found a project suited to his or her personality, one that spoke to both overarching desires of young political artists: to do good and to be understood.