Design as Social Protest

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"Molotov Flower Bomber" by Bansky.

Ivy Chuang, Knoend.
Ivy Chuang, Knoend.
I heard wind of the news of the proposed closing of 220 California State Parks earlier this month and felt my stomach drop. It didn't really sink in until this past week – when I read another article in a magazine that reconfirmed the fact.

I suddenly had a flashback of a memory I had from college. I attended Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and in my years there I was active in the environmental group, eventually becoming president of the club. During my sophomore year, the school was proposing to put tram routes straight through Lullwater Park to connect two parts of the University campus. Lullwater Park is one of the last remaining lush natural habitats within Atlanta - naturally, as the environmental action group we wrote a petition and collected signatures to protest this proposal. Among our less than 10 members, we stood at a table outside the student center for months on end almost daily, and between us we collected over 1,000 signatures. Our efforts resulted in multiple town halls addressing the issue, and we really thought we had effectively raised an amount of dissent that would prevent the construction of the tram routes. Then classes ended, and most the students including myself went away for summer vacation. And when we returned, construction on the routes had progressed without our knowledge. The administration took advantage of the physical absence of protesters and bulldozed away.

At the time, I felt completely defeated. But in hindsight, some good came out of our rabble rousing, after I graduated, a task force was put together to come up with a comprehensive management plan for the park, and the University president vowed that he would protect the land from further encroachment. As far as I know, this has held true though this day.

I relate this story because too often, we don't even pick ourselves up to protest. We don't believe that injustice will occur, and then before we know it, things happen, and we just adapt to the new rules. How many times have I signed a petition, and then did nothing more? I've been a California resident since 2000 (with a departure in 2002 for school in Milan), and to be honest, I have no idea what the hell happened that California's budget is in the shambles that it is. and there is no clear resource for me to educate myself easily either. Isn't there a web/graphic designer that could tell me what happened in a nice data visualization diagram? I would take a stab at such a thing if I knew what the heck happened!

Credit: Navid Baraty
A couple of months ago, I met a CCA grad student whose thesis was based on "Design as Social Protest." Robyn Waxman and I connected via the community site of the Designer's Accord, and I became a volunteer on her FARM project. On a toxic strip of land on Hooper Street alongside the CCA campus, Robyn and her fellow FARMers (including myself) have been constructing a 66-foot long vegetable and herb garden. In multiple conversations with Robyn, we've discussed the potential of design as a driving force to enact change. For the FARM project, Robyn designed a brand identity, posters, and other media forms to enlist fellow students and community members to participate in her project. She went on to create a kit, so that others inspired to construct urban gardens could follow the FARM model.

Buy-a-Meter Campaign for HERO.

At the Compostmodern conference in San Francisco earlier this year, John Bielenberg of Project M and Pam Dorr of HERO shared the stage to talk about their collaborations to improve the lives of low-income residents of Hale County, Alabama. Here are two prime examples of people that recognize need, and utilize design as a part of the solution. The Buy-A-Meter program has raised over $30,000 to give Hale County residents access to clean water.

Poster by California State Park Foundation.

So coming back to the CA State Parks' impending closures, are there more ways that designers can motivate people to act on this issue? In Kauai, volunteers pooled together to repair a bridge in Polihale State Park. Within eight days, they made the repairs needed for free – despite the fact that it was estimated that the damage would cost $4 million to fix. (Read the full story on CNN.) Couldn't volunteers pool together to help the parks stay open in California? After a search on the net, the only options I saw to take action were for signing a petition and donating to the California State Park Foundation, or signing up to be an ongoing volunteer at the state parks. While those sound like a start, it might not be enough... How can design change the course of disappointment? How can the power of design be harnessed to ignite change?


Ivy Chuang is the founder and design director of Knoend, a San Francisco-based studio with sustainability and innovation at its core. She is a nomad, surfer, cook and occasional artist.
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