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Socially Conscious Graphic Design

Socially Conscious Graphic Design

Communication, Arts & Culture, Environment

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  • DesignInquiry: Montréal – Day 5: Designing the Invisible

    Communication, Communication Design


    It’s 8:30am. There is rush hour traffic pumping through the intersections along rue Ste-Catherine. I’m checking on the handmade sign I taped to a BIXI docking station at rue Guy five hours earlier. The sign is still there!

    I make it back to the Grey Nuns residence where more presentations from DesignInquiry participants are being loaded on to a laptop. I slide onto one of the waiting couches as the lights are dimmed. Within a few minutes I am intrigued by a presentation on Typo-geography by Stuart Henley, Principle Lecturer and Course Leader from the Bath College of Art and Design, who discusses visualizing language and the ramifications of the QR code.

    Karina Cutler-Lake from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh shows us her creative explorations of rapid transit lines, maps and sublime letterpressed pieces. She admits she is moving away from commercial work at this time. This leads to a discussion into whether design needs to result in an artifact. Florian Sametinger points out that, “design has moved past problem-solving to the act of generating knowledge.”

    I think back to an article I read in the DesignInquiry journal about using design thinking to produce ‘systems’ instead of artifacts. In ‘Designing the Immaterial’ Eric Benson of ReNourish reveals the tension he feels between the desire to produce more graphic design and reduce the amount of resulting landfill waste.

    His conclusion is that graphic designers need to use their design skills in different ways – to re-design the systems that we are bound by. Benson writes, “The holistic nature of the design process is definitely needed to help design better systematic solutions for bigger issues.” He is encouraging his peers to find ways to also redesign the invisible systems that are not currently serving us (food and agriculture, health and safety, housing).

    Systems-thinking is one of the foundations of sustainability planning. We live in a complex world with linking parts. Read an overview of ‘Understanding Complex Systems’ here. Sustainability initiatives and education programs are typically interdisciplinary and collaborative. Understanding interrelated systems allows people from all skill sets to see how their actions affect profound realities such as climate change, clean water scarcity, and sustaining human life. To find ways to protect the climate and nourish people in the long run we need to be systems thinkers.

    I believe the BIXI bike system is an example of passing through the threshold of producing goods (a great bike) to designing systems (a low carbon transportation option). This system is generating knowledge about how to rely less on automobiles and depend more on human power.

    The system components of the BIXI system are; the bike docking and locking system, the pay station, the bike, the tracking system, the city’s transportation planning and travel pattern research, and the corporate sponsorship. BIXIs are sponsored by companies (Telus, Desjardins and Alcan) yet they depend on the public infrastructure like bike lanes and sidewalk storage space. Designing this system required robotics experts, industrial designers, policy-makers and business leaders to work together.

    The system is not perfect. There are times when too many bikes show up at one station and there are not enough bikes at others. It’s disheartening to see BIXI staff in large pick up trucks with trailers load overflows of bikes and drive them to empty docking stations. This happens because BIXI is so popular. The scheme has been adopted in other cities - Minneapolis, New York, Toronto and London. In fact, the London mayor gave William and Kate a double BIXI bike as a wedding gift. Sadly, the BIXI system would probably not work in my hometown of Vancouver – where there is a mandatory helmet law. BIXI Montréal encourages riders to bring their own helmet but it’s not legislated.

    Later that day during we visit the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). We are welcomed, hosted and toured around the impressive building. The Centre has an unprecedented number of prints, drawings photographs and publications about the nature of the built domain. It is housed in a 130,000-square-foot building with the six galleries there are education programs, curatorial opportunities, a study centre and a bookstore.

    I am most charmed by the archival posters from the 1940s on display urging citizens to “Plant a Victory Garden”, “Save Fuel” and “Insulate Your Home.” These posters with wartime messaging are eerily similar to climate protection messages to eat local, reduce energy consumption and get out of your car. After sketching a bit in the sun on the expansive lawn of the CCA I refocus on my own poster campaign to evoke positive emotional memories around cycling. Back at the Grey Nuns Residence I get to work writing out more stories.

    There is a special dinner that night organised by MA student Josh Davidson. He’s asked us all to bring a local ingredient from our home matched with a local ingredient from Quebec. When it comes time to eat there is an eclectic array of hors d’oeuvres including polenta, foie gras, smoked salmon on orange slices and the garlic jelly I brought from Thunder Bay coupled with aged Quebec cheddar. We’ve designed this meal by assembling our own of culinary landscape.

    I chat with Jane Edmundson the Assistant Curator at the University of Lethbridge gallery about the show she will be helping to put together based on the DI research about the City of Design for the Portes Ouvertes. Between tentative samplings of duck liver she explains that our piece will be huge banners draped from the ceiling of the airy foyer in Concordia’s Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex.

    After the feast, I find myself back on rue Ste-Catherine at 1:15 am posting up two more large posters with hand written cycle stories. A guy on a bike stops to inquire what I am doing. He’s a graffiti artist and he tells me his tag name. He watches me, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, peeling the backing off long strips of double tape from the four-foot high sheet of paper I’ve unfurled.

    This poster is of He Li's story: "Before I could ride a bike, I always sat on my dad’s when he rode. Sometimes on the front sometimes on the back. I remember at that time he only had one coat for protection from the rain. So I hid in his coat. Sometimes my dad used the coat to hide me in order for the police not to see us."

    The graffiti artist advises *me* to watch out for police before biking off. I mount the posters without any protests from the authorities and make it back to my dorm room exhilarated.

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

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