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Socially Conscious Graphic Design

Socially Conscious Graphic Design

Communication, Arts & Culture, Environment

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  • DesignInquiry: Montréal – Day 3: Navigating the City

    Community, Communication Design


    I wake up to my third day of DesignInquiry with a lingering feeling of unease. How am I going to participate as a non-academic? I consider leaving, but after some friendly encouragement from the framers, decide to stick around.

    The first presentation of the morning is about mapping water flows through the city. The overview of water systems comforts me. It connects to my professional practice with the Fraser Basin Council Society’s Community Planning program.

    My heart beats faster while we discuss the concept of the city as watershed, groundwater flows and daylighting city streams. I learn some practical information about hydro power in Quebec and the local watershed. These are new concepts to some people in the room. Someone asks what a watershed is.

    John Calvelli, faculty from the Alberta College of Art and Design, lectures on comparative ontology. He reads from a paper he wrote comparing Montréal landscapes and health statistics. His landscape photos include the reclaimed urban landfill where Cirque du Soleil set up their über green circus arts centre: La TOHU.

    Moore explained to me on the metro the day before that the famous Montréal circus company is on a quest to lead city sustainability efforts while becoming an international circus capital. Their facility is located on what was once the largest urban landfill site in North America. The site received nearly a million tons of waste every year for twenty years. Today it is a model of ecosystem revitalisation and green construction. Guided tours and recreational activities educate visitors about the systematic renewal.

    Conversation spills into a lunchtime discussion until it is time to depart for the afternoon exploration. Griffintown is an old district wedged between the LaChine Canal and historic Notre Dame street. It was the home to Irish immigrants in the 19th and 20th “century. Now it is a grey industrial area and home to artist studios and the occasional installation.

    Montréal artist and designer Alice Jarry has prepared a selection of walks that allows us to separate into small groups to navigate the neighbourhood. I walk with Bobby Campbell an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a flare for colourful shirts and He Li, a student from the University of Lethbridge.

    We wander past the New City Gas Complex. The building is over 150 years old. It was once the headquarters of one of the innovative gas distribution companies that helped light up Montréal during the Industrial Revolution. It later was transformed into an electric company making it an ancestor of Hydro-Québec and a heritage link to the watershed discussion from the morning. Today it is an artist community centre decorated with random sculpture and a fading Ron Terada sign from the 2010 exhibit; Fugue Urbaine.

    He Li discovers details in the sagging, sighing buildings for her photography series on architectural ornamentation, but the historical context is subtle. I make a mental note to come back with my ipod loaded up with Lisa Gasior’s sound walk of the area.

    He Li and I decide to break from the group. She wants to photograph the oldest parts of the city and buy a souvenir. I want to go for a bike ride. We make our way to Old Montréal’s Place d'Armes. Developed in 1693, the square is the second oldest site in the city. Lining the square are the Notre-Dame Basilica and the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, the New York Life Building and the Bank of Montreal head office. The office is Canada's first bank and where my grandfather worked for several years. He-Li takes photographs of building details adorning the walls architecture.

    At the Old Port we rent two BIXI bikes. The BIXI system is a bike rental system that allows citizens and tourists to check out a bike with their credit card and bike to a destination and park it at one of the many docking stations around the city.

    We pedal leisurely next to the St. Lawrence River. I enjoy the grip of the bike handlebars in my hands and the simple motion of shifting weight from pedal to pedal. I stop worrying about how to contribute to the Inquiry because I have confirmed my muse - a sustainable system in the design city – the BIXI Bike!

    I decide to build on a series of bike stories I started collecting with Hyuma Frankowski last summer. This could be an ad-hoc co-design investigation akin to the theories Anne Galperin discussed yesterday. I tell He Li my idea. I will need her description of the first time she rode a bike. She tells me about riding on her dad’s bike in the streets of Beijing.

    When we arrive back at the Grey Nuns Residence I notice that we’ve missed some serious group design activity. Chris brought in his button making machine and the participants have seized the opportunity to produce a multitude of tiny illustrations tucked into half-inch circular metal pins now securely fastened to shirts, belts, and jacket labels

    We eat. After dinner – Joshua Singer, Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University, discusses the city as ecosystem and landscape urbanism. Singer covers a lot of historical ground through the lens of the city as palimpsest and a selection of unique maps. I love the rogue GPS bike route maps he incorporates.

    Bobby Campbell surveys ebullient advertising produced by different ethnic groups in his community. His presentation is entitled: Borderlands, Style Collisions.

    The framers take stock of where we are at in our loose schedule. I realize that beyond curious questions on others’ research I haven’t contributed a whole lot. I crane my neck to look at the lines of couches with people behind me and pipe up. “I am interested in city systems from a sustainability perspective with a focus on transportation.” I say. There is a tired silence – I think it’s 10:30pm. Someone says to me, “If you could push that interest through a pinhole – it would be more valuable to us.”

    I’m struck by the realization that I’ve struggled to look at the world through an integrated systems perspective for the last five years. I’ve forgotten that ‘god is in the details’

    As the day winds to a close I grab the chance to collect more stories from Josh and Alice about their first time bike rides and ask them to trace out the routes they took into my sketchbook. Back in my room, I transcribe the three stories I received and get to work recreating it on a large sheet of paper. I stay up too late and lose track of time.

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Whenever I draw a circle, I immediately want to step out of it. Buckminster Fuller

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