L'Unità. The left-wing Italian paper (founded by Gramsci in 1924!) has a nice writeup about my work.
>  19 October 2006 | LINK | Filed in


OK, here goes. I’ve never intended this blog to be about me personally, but whenever I talk to a group of design students they often ask the same questions. This time one of them made a transcript. Many thanks to Stephanie Diederich at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’ve edited the text a little and fleshed it out in some places.

SD: How’d you get into your line of work?

JE: In the late 80’s and early 90’s I became increasingly aware of events in the news: riots in my home town, in Miami, Florida, the first Gulf War, genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans. I had a pretty privileged, middle-class background and when I went to art school in New York City in 1991, I was suddenly faced daily with poverty and homelessness. By the time I got to grad school, I was making increasingly politicized artwork. I decided that I didn’t want to make big abstract oil paintings or decorative objects for rich people. I started playing with cheap, reproducible work — multimedia, works on paper, tiny paintings to give away. My work was increasingly populist and my peers and faculty were increasingly defensive about the fact that I wasn’t “buying in.” I dropped out after a semester and decided that rather than use my politics in my art, I would use my art for my politics. I decided to become an activist designer.

Continue reading "FAQ" »

>  18 October 2006 | LINK | Filed in , ,

Please Note

Social Design Notes, blogging here since 2002, has no relation whatsoever with the Social Design Network™, circa 2006. While their mission sounds nice enough, their logo contest is an example of unethical spec-work, and the fee-based portfolio site and jewlery sales — a whopping 17% donated to charity — make it look like this initiative is more about cashing in on the idea of social design. (And does that ring remind anyone else of a classic video game?)
>  21 August 2006 | LINK | Filed in

Eye for an Eye

Two poster mockups. Click above for high resolution PDF’s. Please reproduce and distribute.

Got a another idea? Here’s the unicode text.

>  25 July 2006 | LINK | Filed in , ,

Notes in Time Out

Time Out NY

This week’s Time Out New York is running six pictures of Japanese manhole covers I took in 2002. It’s part of the cover story on “how to make New York better by stealing the best ideas from other cities.”

The photo editor found this old blog post and contacted me.

(And seeing it in print, I think the first photo is upside down. I always thought it was birds against the sky, but now I think it might be flowers against a river...)

>  21 July 2006 | LINK | Filed in ,



Stepping our for a bit. See you again in early July.

>  22 May 2006 | LINK | Filed in

Cut and Paint

Liberation Stencil

Cut&Paint is a zine of stencil templates, ready to cut, ready to paint.

Volume two is in the works with a deadline for submissions on February 20, 2006. In addition to stencils, the issue will include a how-to section, photos of stencils on site, and articles on stenciling, public space, and politics. Check the submission criteria.

The first issue is nearly sold out of its run of 400 copies, so I helped the team post the stencils online. It’s a quick and basic site for now, but will evolve as we add more images. The first 41 stencils are up and ready for download at

>  6 February 2006 | LINK | Filed in , , , , ,

Words in Print

Just when you’re pounded by clients and far too busy to think about updating your blog, Print magazine publishes a nice little write-up pointing readers your way:

Print Magazine, July/August 2005“Most designers agree, even insist, that design is more than clever imagery selling goods and services — it also influences how societies function. Social Design Notes, a remarkably informed and highly useful blog edited by John Emerson, explores design’s sociopolitical power and inspiration. A New York activist and designer who oversaw Web sites for Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch, Emerson launched his blog is 2002 as a ‘bridge between design activism — to push designers to think about acting in the public interest and to help activists see how design can facilitate their campaigns.’ Emerson explores how design is used to support and challenge the status quo, posting one historical note about the ‘Black Panther Coloring Book’ created by the FBI during the civil-right movement, and another about South Africa’s use of the comic book to prepare its citizens for their first election. Emerson also discusses the built environment, praising former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani for having championed design to improve the lives of the disabled. And Social Design Notes’ Resource page contains tools — such as free stock photos — designed to convert readers into true reformers.”

The July/August 2005 issue also has a several excellent articles on sustainable design, and is worth checking out for this alone.

But it makes you wonder — why doesn’t the magazine itself use recycled paper? Despite the “In Print” column which touts the magazine’s “early environmental outlook,” this is not addressed. So, do they care about sustainability or not? I know design magazines are hardly a lucrative venture, but the article “Fiber Optimistic” on page 57 points out that cost differences between recycled paper and not are nowadays “negligible.”

But then why not take it a step further. If toxic printing processes and non-recycled paper are harmful to the environment, why not consider sustainability as a criteria for your annual design competition?

Imagine what a massive force the AIGA could be if they required printed entries to their annual showcase use recycled paper.

Would this punish designers for the choices of their clients? Perhaps, but then why shouldn’t judging the beauty of a product take into account the nature of physical object itself? If designers care about competitions, why shoudn’t they push their clients that much harder? Why don’t all design competitions consider sustainability as a criteria? Does this impose some kind of “political” viewpoint? One could argue that not requiring this broadcasts a political viewpoint just as clearly.

Would the AIGA’s dues paying members revolt? Certainly some, but as the issue of Print notes (p. 11):

“This year the AIGA formed a national task force to develop policies and programs for the organization in support of sustainability. Following a poll revealing the environment to be the profession’s most pressing concern, the Worldstudio Foundation and the AIGA, through their ‘Design Ignites Change’ collaboration addressing social issues on a local level, made sustainability the focus of their first project.”

Hell, the AIGA’s last national conference was largely devoted to discussion of sustainability.

So at what point does sustainable design cease to be a “special issue”? When does it become incorporated as a fundamental part of what we do? And when do our design institutions take a stand and show some leadership? When do we start demanding it?

Is this all unreasonable? I would point out that it’s already happened once before. The American Institute of Architects, another national design association, went through a very similar internal debate years ago and came out embracing the green.


Update July 18, 2005Print responds:

“It’s true, Print does not currently use recycled paper, but we are looking into doing so as soon as our current supply of paper is fully depleted. It has been an economic issue in the past, but we are hoping to persuade our publishers to spend a little extra on this aspect of responsibility.”

>  17 July 2005 | LINK | Filed in , , , , , , , ,

Dear Emigre

Here’s an old rant from the archives. The file was last modified on October 10, 1999. I was responding to the anguish and lamentations about the “state of design” in those magazine pages. It took a few issues, but they eventually did print an edited version of my letter.

I would phrase things differently today, but in any case here’s the original text:

“Dear Emigre:

Here’s an idea for all your ennui: PRO-BONO. Doesn’t anyone out there believe in anything besides a clever italic or an ironic stock photo? ‘The state of design’? There’s a big wide world out there, and contrary to what you may or may not have read, things ain’t looking very pretty, friends.

Emigre HatWhat’s so bad about capitalism is not that it produces bad design or co-opts your concept... but that there’s a real human cost. (A severe one.) An environmental one, too. (A massive one.) While you were working on that comp late that night how many acres of rainforest vanished? How many children went to sleep cold and hungry? Or went to sleep forever because their parents couldn’t afford medical care? How many millions spent another birthday in jail? Or were ‘disappeared’ by a governor they didn’t vote for? Or were murdered because they spoke a different language or didn’t wear the proper veil? Or were raped by their employer... at the factory that made that shirt you’re wearing? Yeah, so what are you going to do about it?

There’s a difference between an annual report for Lockheed and an annual report from an NGO like, say, Amnesty International. Does anyone know what ‘samizdat’ means anymore? You designers have the tools of the media right under your pudgy little fingertips! Give a stage to the disenfranchised! Broadcast the voices of the invisible! Pry open the sleepy eyes of the complacent! Jam the media! Organize your work place! Speak truth to power! Venture forth into your community... Just get off your ass! ‘Resistance’ indeed. What the hell are we in this for anyway? A couple of blue ribbons? A fast buck? The esteem of your peers? A new look or a clever punch-line?

What will be your legacy? If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Stop your whining and do something.

P.S. Thanks for the great magazine.

>  14 May 2005 | LINK | Filed in


Finally managed to upgrade the design a little, lose the tables, and integrate my old home-brew blog software with MovableType. Please let me know if you notice anything out of whack. I’ll check the error logs later, too.

The resulting code is an ugly hybrid, but it works for now and all my old URL’s live on. It’ll facilitate other improvements soon. The RSS and home pages are now static, too, so that should speed things up a little.

I meant to have all this done by the first of May to mark the blog’s three year anniversary, but have been crazy busy. Whatever happened to my eight-hour day?

>  13 May 2005 | LINK | Filed in

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