18 May 2004

To the Streets

I wrote the essay below for the Design Issues column in the May/June 2004 issue of Communication Arts. I profile a couple of folks using graphic design for advocacy. I didn’t call it out explicitly in the text, but it’s of some relevance that the projects here are generally not pro-bono projects “for charity,” but are organizations started by designers generally working with broader communities. Check it out.

Taking it to the Streets

Graphic design for advocacy

Walking the streets of New York City in February 2003, one couldn’t help but notice all these little blue stickers. Stuck to walls, phone booths, bus stops, scaffolding, mail boxes — they popped up everywhere to announce the February 15 march against President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

The blue stickers were just one of the many anti-war graphics circulating at the time. Around the Web, activists were posting free, easy-to-print designs using a variety of techniques: clever slogans, typographic play, dramatic photos and the ironic use of vintage propaganda imagery.

But the February 15 stickers on the streets of New York were different — simple and bold, a little blue banner announcing the time and place of the march. They did not make an emotional appeal with pictures of scarred and armless Iraqi children or U.S. soldiers, nor was there any argument about why the war was wrong.

The February 15 posters were not intended to change people’s minds in a direct way, but to notify the public about the upcoming protest — and to make dissent visible. The mainstream media had entirely avoided covering the anti-war movement prior to February 15. In the face of this de facto censorship and police obstruction over the route of the march, the stickers acted as thousands of little acts of civil disobedience. And with the urban landscape as a medium, the stickers set the stage for even larger acts of defiance.

Activist L.A. Kauffman designed the stickers, which were produced by the coalition United for Peace and Justice. Volunteers distributed over 200,000 stickers around the city in just under a month. And, while the accompanying poster design featured a growing list of cities with simultaneous marches on the 15th, only after the event did the significance become clear: on the same day in over 600 cities around the world, over 10 million people protested the war.

It was an example of what historian George Lipsitz describes in his essay “Not Just Another Social Movement, Poster Art and the Movimiento Chicano,” “[Posters] lead people toward affiliations and alliances that can augment their power.... Movements have to create spaces for social change — figuratively by using memory and imagination to expand the realities and possibilities of the present, but also literally by creating physical places, institutions, and events where the hope-for future makes itself felt in the present.”1

The stickers prompted me to seek out other examples of design in the public interest. Below are a few current projects in the United States. Each uses graphic design in a different way and within different constituencies. But they share this in common: they use design as a means to facilitate public participation.

Though the designs were produced by individuals, they are connected to larger social movements — helping to build those movements, engage people in political processes, help them make informed decisions and stand up for their rights.

Public participation, large and small

The Friends of the Highline (http://thehighline.org/) is a nonprofit organization working to convert an abandoned elevated rail structure along the west side of Manhattan into a unique, elevated public park. Founded in 1999 by writer Joshua David and artist Robert Hammond, FHL has taken a multi-pronged strategy: working with city, state and federal officials to obtain the necessary approvals and paperwork, as well as consulting neighborhood residents and engaging the broader public, incorporating them into the process.

To fire the public imagination, FHL held a public design competition soliciting visions for redevelopment of the Line. Designs poured in from across the city and around the world. The jury awarded special prizes for the design that best addressed accessibility and the one that best incorporated native flora.

Proposals included a roller coaster, movable gardens, and a one-and-a-half mile elevated swimming pool — wild ideas celebrating the Line and New York City — testing the limits and provoking debate.

While the competition was a work of large-scale public participation, FHL also uses design for participation on a smaller scale, distributing hundreds of elegantly designed postcards to solicit comments from the public and, in particular, residents living in neighborhoods near the Line.

FHL pays special attention to the design of its materials. Its feasibility studies, newsletters, Web site, information distributed at public meetings — everything they publish is direct and clear, projecting a confidence, stylishness and attention to detail. As with their newsletter that is printed on recycled newsprint, their materials also embody a commitment to the environment and sensible budgeting — aspects they hope to embody in the final design of the Line.

Hammond notes, “When we started the project, we had little credibility and lots of opposition. Most people thought it was impossible and would never happen. Designers and artists were one of the few groups who did not care if it was impossible — they recognized it was a dream worth fighting for. So we used their talents to give our materials the look and feel of a much bigger organization. People were impressed with the design of our brochure and invites. It made them excited about joining and being involved with the project. I think the design helped win over people who were initially very skeptical of the project. It helped build the momentum we needed.”

The hard work has paid off. At the July 9 exhibition preview, New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller announced a $15.75 million funding commitment for planning and construction.

With recent civic budget cuts and other projects around the city faltering, Hammond attributes the FHL’s success to a broad support base which includes long-time neighborhood residents as well as the newer art and design-based businesses. The culminating gala benefit included many A-list authors, actors and artists — hardly your typical, dull ribbon-cutting, and a testament to their outreach.

And, he says, the design of their campaign materials is key. “Good design is not just a good goal, it can help make things happen.”

From public intervention to public policy

In 1997, while New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani crowed about a declining murder rate and various quality-of-life improvements, the number of pedestrian fatalities was rising. Every 27 minutes someone in the city was struck by a motor vehicle.

To memorialize the victims and raise awareness of this crisis, ad man Harris Silver and a couple of friends took to the street — literally — to the pavement wherever someone had been killed by an automobile, painting an outline of a collapsed body along with the victim’s name and date of death.

Silver has since founded Citystreets, a nonprofit organization focused on pedestrian rights and safety issues in New York City.

Citystreets (http://citystreets.org/) is run out of the office of Think Tank 3, a creative agency Silver founded with creative director Sharoz Makarechi in 2002. Think Tank 3 is a full-service agency that does everything from marketing strategy to full campaigns, graphic design, production and buying media.

Accordingly, Citystreets’s campaign for pedestrian rights crosses many media: print design, video, intervention in the streets and good old-fashioned face-to-face lobbying.

While the stencil project has not directly impacted public policy, the idea has become viral. “We know of stencil campaigns in Atlanta, San Francisco, Vancouver, Amsterdam and Sydney,” says Makarechi. “Every now and then we get a call — someone’s cousin was struck by a car and they want to put down a stencil.” Over 200 outlines have been painted in New York City alone.

Citystreets does not just criticize the city, they have analyzed data identifying the intersections with the worst fatality rates, and graphed out solutions and recommendations. They have met with the Department of Transportation, testified before the city council, and briefed all the mayoral candidates on their findings.

As creative professionals, Citystreets offered a critical assessment of the city’s communications campaigns. They found that almost all the city’s safety advertisements were geared towards preventing drunk driving. While needed, Silver noted that only twenty percent of traffic accidents in New York City result from drunk driving. Citystreets proposed a broader messaging campaign to encourage drivers to drive responsibly and turn more safely across pedestrian crosswalks.

They have also tracked the astonishing increase in cycling fatalities in recent years. The most common, and often deadly, injury to cyclists is being hit by a car door opened suddenly in the path of the moving cyclist.

Citystreets designed an elegant warning sticker to post on the passenger doors of all New York City taxis. Transparent, save the thin sans-serif type, the sticker quietly asks passengers to please look for cyclists before opening the door. The stickers cost pennies to produce per vehicle and their implementation would only require a directive from the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission that regulates 35,000 vehicles on the streets of New York.

They presented their idea to the Commission, even offering to pay for printing the stickers, but the Commission declined, responding, “We do not believe stickers are an effective means of communication.” This is rather absurd, since the Commission itself requires every taxi to display a range of stickers and information to the passenger: a city map, the driver’s license number, the flat fare from JFK and a Taxi Rider’s Bill of Rights.

Again, Citystreets took matters into their own hands and called on the public to participate. They printed the stickers themselves and distributed them to supporters for free along with a page of information on the issue, and the address of the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

It’s too soon to tell whether there have been fewer accidents, but the grassroots pressure has had some effect: in May 2003, the Taxi and Limousine Commission announced a new Taxi Rider’s Bill of Rights sticker with pictograms warning riders to exit curb side and to watch for cyclists. The design is not as elegant or prominent as the Citystreets design, but it’s a start.

While Citystreets has no formal membership structure, they do have a loose network of supporters that attend events and participate in actions, as well as informal links with related organizations around the world. “If people want to get involved they should just e-mail us. It’s easy to adopt the stencil project to raise awareness,” says Makarechi.

Drawing connections between Think Tank 3 and Citystreets, Makarechi notes, it’s all about design. “We do design and strategic thinking about design. We are urbanists. We care about cities and about how people live. We care about our environment. We are not anti-car, but are looking at how streets are designed.” She adds, “We live in a city, we can make it better, and we know how.”

Information (Design) is power

Also in New York City, the Community Mapping Assistance Project (www.cmap.nypirg.org/) produces a different kind of graphic design for advocacy. CMAP works with local groups to use information design and mapping in their campaigns for social justice. Steven Romalewski started with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) as a student in 1984 and has been involved ever since. He began using design for an environmental campaign that mapped toxic sites on Long Island. After a few years he considered starting a project to provide mapping services to other nonprofits. With Marty DeBenedictis he launched CMAP. The project now has six full-time staff.

CMAP is a project of NYPIRG, a nonprofit organization, and relies on grants and donations to keep its service fees low, making its services accessible to other nonprofits. CMAP develops maps for reports and proposals, posters for display, advocacy materials for lobbying and recently, online applications that generate maps dynamically on the Web.

Using data from the New York City Department of Health, researchers for NYPIRG’s campaign for stronger legislation against lead poisoning found that 94% of the highly lead-poisoned children in New York City are African-American, Latino or Asian/Pacific. By using the same data, CMAP also found a clear geographic concentration of childhood lead poisoning in neighborhoods of color.

When the city government announced it would sell off city-owned land used for community gardens, community groups worked with CMAP to produce maps of each city council district and the gardens in that district. Presented with the graphics, city council members realized the impact of the plan on their constituents and successfully worked with the community groups to block the demolition of the gardens.

CMAP used the same technique to illustrate the impact of a proposal to cut youth programs. The maps helped restore two million dollars to programs across the city.

Politicians, it seems, love visuals. CMAP’s graphics make the message clear, and spare officials from reading another long report or boring legal document. And the press loves graphics too. CMAP’s work has appeared in New York magazine, Crain’s New York Business, Hoy newspaper, and the New York Times. The maps have been used in news conferences held by the New York City Public Advocate’s office, NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.

A few other groups in the United States provide mapping services to nonprofits, city agencies and larger, government or environmental projects. However, CMAP is unique in its local advocacy experience. It has worked extensively with local non-profits and has a history of engagement with the political processes of New York City.

CMAP spends a lot of time making its maps accessible, balancing simplicity and functionality, but client education is just as important. CMAP does not just provide technical services, but gives advice on what types of images, information and maps could be used, helping clients develop an understanding of the power of design to make their case to officials and the broader public.

And many of CMAP’s clients are repeat clients. Over the years, CMAP has helped hundreds of clients use clear, accurate, information design to build community support, to move public policy and to participate in the political processes that affect them.

Not just another small business

Tumi’s Design (www.tumis.com) is the only bilingual, full-service Web development, design and print shop in Oakland, California. The shop is owned and run by people of color. In their words, “Our mission is to develop effective media solutions while promoting human rights and ethical business practices.”

Tumi’s works with clients of all sizes. Larger clients include progressive organizations like the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Vanguard Public Foundation and KQED Public Broadcasting. Tumi’s also produces work for smaller, grassroots organizations and local events that promote social justice and urban art. As such, Tumi’s sliding scale is an important part of their business plan.

Tumi’s does not just service the local community but is an active participant. They join in and sponsor events, and employ and train local youth. In turn, the community also participates in governance of Tumi’s — Tumi’s works with an advisory group of community organizers, consulting them on political questions. As such, Tumi’s is accountable to community and to the larger movements it participates in.

The staff of Tumi’s see themselves as not just marketers but activists. “The work is not about consumerism,” says graphic designer and co-founder Favianna Rodriguez, “It is about people empowerment. Design firms don’t always have to go corporate. Designers play an important role in the movements for social justice. It is images that mobilize us.”

Working with youth and local arts programs, the staff are also members of a community producing its own images. “The media is dominated by corporations,” notes Rodriguez. “Hip-hop, street style — things that came out of our neighborhood are used by corporations to sell back to us. Latinos are becoming a profitable market, but there are not a lot of Latino designers.” The staff at Tumi’s strives to develop work that is relevant to youth and communities of color — another co-founder is a well known graffiti artist rooted in hip-hop. “A lot of us were brought up in hip-hop... We don’t want our work to serve corporate interests, we want to speak to our audience.”

As part of their work on youth organizing and movement building, Tumi’s designers also participate in national forums about media justice, Web-based activism and hip-hop organizing. Tumi’s produced over 50,000 anti-war posters seen around the United States. In California, they produced materials and helped coordinate campaigns against Proposition 21, the “Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Initiative,” and Proposition 54, the “Racial Privacy Initiative.”

Rodriguez is also active in a number of local arts organizations. She is a founder of the East Side Arts Alliance that programs cultural arts and community programs for the multi-ethnic community of East Oakland. The organization uses the arts for community activism and allows members of the community to learn about their neighbors and to share cultural traditions.

Rodriguez also helped found Visual Element, an arts program for young muralists. Building on their experience with the youth program and teaching experience at Oakland’s Castlemont High School, next year the staV of Tumi’s will participate in Project YES, an educational program for youth in East Oakland, an area, Rodriguez notes, that has one of the highest homicide rates in the country. Tumi’s will conduct a workshop on graphic design and train young people in the skills they need to work towards careers in design.

“Historically, political graphics in movements throughout the world have shaped our society,” says Rodriguez. “One of [the] languages of liberation is art and design.”

Making change

Returning to the streets of New York City a year after the February 15th march, one can still find traces of those stickers and posters. The scratched and peeling remnants have become a whisper of dissent woven into the fabric of the physical city, digested into the collective memory, reinforcing subsequent protest — and informing the upcoming election campaign.

But first, it starts with an individual.

Say an individual at a party is rude. If one person complains, others would chime in and offer support. But if no one complains, the group may assume that nobody else thinks it is a problem.

This is a social phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance.” Members of a group develop a false impression of how others are thinking, feeling or responding by misinterpreting their visible behavior.

Or to take a more serious example, in an emergency situation, members of a group may assume that the situation is not really an emergency because everyone appears calm and no one seems to be taking action.

In other words, when each person waits for someone else to take action, no one does.

Artists and designers, some without traditional backgrounds in design, initiated all the organizations and projects listed above. Still these are not just creative individuals working on creative projects, but individuals working with organizations and movements, and engaging in civic processes. In many cases, they are empowering communities to act for themselves, rather than acting on behalf of the groups: not charity, but mutual support.

Together these groups are using graphic design as a powerful tool for advocacy, to build community, and a means to participate in the decisions that affect our lives.


1. Published in Just Another Poster?/Solo Un Cartel Mas?: Chicano Graphic Arts in California/Artes Graficas Chicanas En California, ed. Chon A. Noriega. (Santa Barbara, University of California, 2002).