Classes for the spring semester began last week at Lasell College, where I teach. In my Graphic Design 1 class, I introduced the first project, which is a poster design for the Sochi Winter Olympics. After reviewing the specifications (size, colors, required elements) and target audience, we began thinking about the poster’s message. I asked the class, “So…. anything of interest happening in Sochi these past few months? Like any controversies?” Finally, one student mentioned the newly passed anti-gay law. We had a brief discussion about it. As part of their research for the project, I encouraged them to find out more so we could discuss it further. I had researched it myself and shared what I had found.
President Vladimir Putin signed a law at the end of June prohibiting the promotion of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors. It has been interpreted as banning gay pride parades — children might see them — and preventing any discussion of homosexuality among teenagers. — Washington Post, Sept. 29, 2013
The law is a violation of human rights and is incompatible with the Olympic principle of inclusion. Throughout the world, many have voiced their objections to this law by calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games. President Obama is one of several world leaders who are not attending as a result of Russia’s human rights violations. On the other hand, people argue that having a strong gay presence at the games would be a more effective stance. There is a widespread campaign to increase the visibility of LGBT people during the Games. The U.S. Olympic delegation includes 3 openly gay and lesbian athletes (Billie Jean King, Caitlin Cahow, and Brian Boitano). Coalitions have formed to implement various strategies for educating the public and supporting LGBT people, such as Principle6 Campaign, Pride House International, and Uprising of Love.
I told the students that I had struggled with whether or not to assign the project this year. Every spring, I teach Graphic Design 1, and the first assignment is always a poster design. When the Olympics are happening, I make it a poster design about the Olympics. But this year, I wasn’t sure if designing a poster for Sochi would upset any students or make anyone feel invisible or uncomfortable. The problem would become magnified if any student didn’t want to do the assignment based on ethical issues. How would I handle that?, I asked myself.
Early in my graphic design career, I didn’t feel like I could say ever “no”. I had to do what I was asked to do. It was my job. Fortunately, I was not faced with a situation where the client’s values differed significantly from mine, such as a nuclear power plant. In a case like that my conscience would have told me “I don’t agree with this client’s environmental policies, so I’m not comfortable designing a brochure for them.” I’m not sure what I would have done.
As I gained more experience, I began to realize that I could say “no.” We don’t have to be silent. There is a choice. You don’t necessarily want to lose your job, but you can voice your concerns in a diplomatic way. Stay true to yourself. Now that I run by own business, I let my conscience be my guide.
I wanted to give my students that same sense of empowerment in the poster assignment. If they had an objection based on human rights principles, I would allow them to design a protest poster instead. The requirements would remain the same, but the message would be different. Several students expressed interest in doing a protest poster. It will be interesting to see how they approach this project and what design solutions they create.
Later in class, I showed slides of poster designs from previous Olympics. For the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, I talked about Hitler’s theory of racial superiority and how much courage it must have taken Jess Owens, as an African American, to participate. Owens then blew the theory out of the water by winning 4 gold medals. Here’s a great video about his story: http://www.olympic.org/jesse-owens
Jesse Owens and the Berlin Olympics are analogous in many ways to the Sochi Olympics. It will take similar acts of courage and conscience for gay athletes to participate in Sochi. We’ll soon see if history repeats itself with similar achievements in this year’s Games.