1 June 2009

Più design può

Più design puòNearly a year ago, SocialDesignZine (SDZ) published a blog item about design and the city that found its way to the folks in the Provincial Office of Florence. They were intrigued. So what would you like to do about it? they asked. Send us a proposal.

Gianni Sinni and Andrea Rauch, the team behind SDZ proposed a modest conference: a few critics, a few practitioners discussing design for democracy, society and the city. Then silence for eight months.

Finally, two months before the proposed date, funds were approved and the SDZ team swung into action. Both studios engaged their staff: the hall booked, website designed, print materials designed and produced, travel coordinated, and on May 22 and 23 they hosted Più Design Può, more design can. Attendance was free of charge and over 200 students and designers turned up to hear the lineup of Italian and international speakers. No one from the Office of Florence attended.1

The intersections and gaps between designers, the state, and the public ran throughout the discussions. Renewed attention to public utility graphics in the 1970s helped public offices use design in a more consistent way. Design, they realized, characterizes the relationships between citizens and public administration. Now the emphasis has been turning to how cities can facilitate citizen-to-citizen communication in an accessible, inclusive and sustainable way, to promote and enable participation in both social life and public affairs.

Picking up on the event title, designer Beppe Chia, current President of the AIAP, encouraged designers to widen their perspective and vision. Not just to complete a given project, but to share the project: shift from designing for to designing with. Designers should turn particular attention to local aspects of culture and community and avoid monolithic standardization.

Aldo Colonetti reiterated this idea, focusing on “difference” as a fundamental characteristic of society and communications. In both politics and design, both designers and public administrations must take into account differences in a heterogenous society. In fact, designer should avoid arrogance and let society talk, creating spaces where those who are not yet represented can make themselves known.

Emanuela Bonini Lessing2 picked this up as well, asking the classical corporate identity model is still suitable for communications design of the city? This model operates more in the private-commercial field than the public-institutional field. How can a design program embrace the fragmentation in the social, cultural frame? She showed sampled from communications programs in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Bristol as well as the “I ♥ NY” campaign and a walking map of London. These campaigns construct unity despite fragmentation and promote a specific vision that varies according to local conditions. Still these maintain a hierarchical approach. Can the image of the city be projected from a bottom up process? What are effective grassroots structures for community communication? A few tantalizing prospects were implied, but mostly left as an exercise for the audience.

Steven Heller spoke about campaign graphics in the 2008 US Presidential elections. Campaign material is generally as neutral as possible, he noted, and anything radically innovative can have an adverse effect. For a bit of context, he showed various graphics used by the Bush administration. President Bush was not an articulate leader so needed all manner of signs, symbols, and graphics to communicate his message. The horsey beveled edge, drop-shadow vernacular style was of particular note.

After a few slides of Hillary Clinton and John McCain graphics, he turned to the meat of his talk: Obama’s campaign graphics. Team Obama team didn’t start with a concerted strategy, but instead responded in real-time to a fast changing landscape. Unlike McCain’s message of “me,” Heller proposed, Obama projected a message of “we.” For a relatively young candidate, Obama’s team needed to project a mystique of stability, experience, and dignity, and at times strategically employed historical imagery to create an “instant vintage” look — one that was practically updated hourly on the website. Heller then showed the evolution of the Obama logo, sketches from the process by which they arrived at the now famous O. Both Obama’s graphics and television commercials left an impression of hazy hopefulness. This lack of specificity also lent itself well to a wide variety of custom graphic applications by different interest groups. Some were created by the campaign, some by supporters themselves. And some images blurring the boundaries between the two: on one side, a series of populist “underground” poster designs produced by the campaign-affiliated Scott Thomas Group; and on the other side, the famous Shephard Fairey poster produced independent of the campaign, but eventually embraced by it.

Marcia Lausen presented her work redesigning the US voting process itself. She began with a walkthrough of Palm Beach, Florida’s butterfly ballot, the one that confused voters and tipped the 2000 election and thrust the country into 8 years of George W. Bush. Her home district Cook County, Illinois, also uses a butterfly ballot and so Marcia and her class of students set out to develop a more usable version. Almost immediately they ran up against the election code. After diligently demonstrating to city officials why all caps type is less legible than mixed upper- and lower-case, how centered text is less readable than left-justified text, they were able to eventually win a changes to the local law — a process which 1 1/2 years of lobbying. The class then looked not just at the ballot, but the entire voting experience from the perspective of both voters and poll workers. They found inconsistent and confusing materials on both sides. After an intensive research process, the class developed a redesigned voter guidelines, illustrated poll worker instructions, and even a more accessible voting both. Industrial design students put together a collapsable kit (with wheels and handles!) that included the voting booth, poll worker table, trays and instructions in one handy package. The AIGA eventually adopted the project and the effort went national. Other design and usability professionals soon joined the effort and a developed a set of design and usability guidelines for a variety of ballot types, including sample screens and a recommended workflow for electronic voting (a project I also contributed to.) All of this knowledge has been captured in a handsome hardcover book designed by Lausen’s studio and published by University of Chicago Press. It has since been distributed to state election officials and members of the Federal Election Assistance Commission.

Michele de Boer and Marc van der Heijde from Studio Dumbar in Rotterdam also have extensive experience working governments, civic and cultural organizations. A brief from a design for the city of Maastricht required a virgin angel, shield, and star — elements of the traditional coat of arms used by the city. The resulting logo is a simplified, more geometric version of the seal, but it’s the photo treatment takes it further. The city launched the new design with a public campaign with beautiful full-color photos of citizens in various locations holding up the shield. The overall campaign is a visual declaration of citizenship and, taken as a collection, project the vitality and diversity of the city. Citizens recognize themselves in the imagery and see themselves as part of a society, connecting and identifying through design. Through a website, citizens and apply to be in future photo shoots.

A different project for engaging the public is the identity program for the city of Unjeong, Korea. Only Unjeong doesn't actually exist yet. It is being designed from the ground up to be a model of ubiquitous and sustainable city. The population in Asia is growing rapidly and in need of places to put people. The graphic identity system by Studio Dumbar consists of a arc of dots, traces that can be layered to create patterns ranging in intensity from simple to complex. The patterns will be used on printed materials, signage, and embedded into the physical environment: on roadside barriers, sidewalks, and public interactive touch screens. The city planning is moving at breakneck speed, but I can’t help but wonder if this will end up like so many other modernist utopias like, say, the beautiful, ultra-designed, and ultimately impractical Brasilia? How do you design for a community that does not yet exist? I asked Michele and Marc about this over dinner and they seemed aware of the issue and concerned. It was, however, somewhat outside of the scope of their design brief.

Questioning the design brief is just what won them the commission to redesign the Dutch government’s graphic identity. The brief: give us the most beautiful graphic identity possible, one that fits the Dutch tradition, but also goes to the extreme. The response from Studio Dumbar: No. The government, they argue, runs an extremely diverse set of agencies, each with their own program, voice, and in some cases, branding. The solution, argued the Studio, is not to develop a logo, but an overall platform for communication. The key elements they proposed are modesty and balance. The logo should be kept small, to offset the voice of the speaker (and accommodate some very long agency names.) The new typeface accommodates both sober and light usage and is suitable for usage on banners, magazines, government forms, even official cars and boats. The style guide encourages strong vertical and horizontal compositions, split bilaterally. The logo should be at the top, in the center; useful and present but unobtrusive. It’s a polite vision of government itself. The new system is both elegant and flexibility, but Studio Dumbar’s contract is rapidly coming to a close. What will happen when government agencies are left to use the design without professional guidance?

They also showed a cookbook they designed which was sold to raise funds for the World Food Program and hunger relief in Malawi. 52 celebrity chefs donated recipes and Studio Dumbar contributed design services to produce the second book of the series. The sun from Malawi’s national flag was taken as the organizing design motif, with the dishes of each spread photographed with at a different hour and cast of shadow. The book was sold cheaply — only $10 — and was a popular success, selling out. Another sequel is being planned.

Enrico Camplani and Gigi Pescolderung from Studio Tapiro in Venice discussed a few of their public interest projects:

  • Social awareness campaigns: A “right to read” project focused on design for legibility, noting guidelines for size, contrast, and typeface. (“We will all lose our vision eventually.”) They also showed graphics for a public interest campaign around difficulty pregnancies that required sensitive and sober, not sentimental, treatment.
  • Public signage: The studio developed a beautiful scheme for a wayfinding system in Venice, though the city officials ultimately did not follow their guidelines. They developed public signage and visual explanations of the impact of the sea wall in process to protect Venice from rising seas, as well as historical signage marking important sites through the city.
  • Graphics for cultural events: for the Venice film festival, they devised a number of interesting visual treatments, blurring and distorting the symbolic winged lion to keep the familiar (and cliché) symbol fresh. A separate group of posters for an events series layered drawn elements (music notation, writing, diagrams, etc) over a close-cropped photos. The result lends a visual consistency to a wide variety of subjects, moods, and color schemes promoting a variety of events.

While other speakers focused primarily on design for government and civic institutions, I spoke about design for grassroots organizations and social movements. Using a few examples from my most recent article for Communication Arts, I described a typical non-profit advocacy cycle and how design can work at each stage. Design, I argued brings people together to visualize change, create power, pressure policy makers, and build alternatives.

The remaining presentations were not translated into English, so I don't have much to say there, but discussion of the graphic identity programs in Rome and Turin looked interesting. A typographic bike tour of Florence also provided a bit of historic and real-world context, and was just great fun.

The conference took place just a month after the release of SDZ’s most recent publication Design for the City a beautiful book of case studies on design for public institutions in Italian cities and provinces (though some European and US examples are included as well.) But it's also something of an advocacy document. The thick yellow hardback book gives some heft to argument for effective design. And I can imagine its heavy thunk on the desk of some European bureaucrat feeling a little jealous and competitive with other European cities.

On advocacy within the field of design, Mario Piazza ran through a manifest of 100 years of social design manifestos. I was able to find links for most of the documents he mentioned and have added them below.

[Update, July 22, 2009: This list has been revised and expanded in a separate blog entry.]


Ironically, in the shadow of these spectacular manifestos, what was most inspiring to me about the event was just how ordinary it all was. These designers, writers, and critics made public interest work a part of their standard practice. There was no hype or self-congratulation, it was just a basic part of what they do. It was normal. And that was thrilling.

That said, conference was indeed covered by local TV news and even written up in one of the local papers. And though no city officials attended, the impact of the event has rippled forth. Word from provincial headquarters is that an official or two have been raising the need to “do more with design.”



1 The President of the Province could not attend because the conference took place during a campaign / electoral period in which candidates are forbidden from attend to public events (particularly, I imagine, ones sponsored by public funds.)

2 On learning that no translation service was available, Emanuela translated her complete slideshow from Italian into English a mere two minutes before her presentation. Though she spoke in Italian, the English speakers could follow the slides. Truly gracious!