When the dreary, dreadful day finally arrives, turning on the television is not an option. (I had promised myself that I wouldn’t do that.) Instead I decide to attend the “Design as Protest” Day event in New Orleans. We will plot, design, bitch, moan and mourn together. Will it do any good? It might not. Will it make me feel any better, at least temporarily? It might, and that’s enough for today.
Our facilitator, Bryan Lee, an African American architect and cultural activist, kicks things off by asking us to write our “concerns” about the incoming administration on some sticky notes. “Use as many as you need,” he says, laughing.
In an anxious frenzy, I scribble about twenty quick ones: “End of civil liberties, “End of civil rights,” “End of free press,” “Deportations,” “Climate change,” “Steve Bannon,” “American Fascism,” and so on. My handwriting has an unhinged quality to it. If given more time, I could’ve easily come up with another thirty. This part of the process is not particularly “therapeutic” or even fun.
After posting our concerns on the wall—there are hundreds of them—Bryan asks us to split up into small groups and identify one or two main ones. Our team of five includes three young women (a planning student, an architecture student, and an aspiring graphic designer, all from Tulane); and two guys, an artist/arts organizer and me (the old grump).
It’s easy to be cynical about design – the egos, the culture, the money corrupting it – but the act itself always starts from an optimistic place: What is possible here? That question, I realize, feels empowering, even as an inauguration day exercise.
Bryan now gives us forty minutes to create a “design response” that addresses one of those issues. This part of the workshop is what I came here for—and what designers live for—because it’s communal, fun and hopeful, a form of inspired, directed play. All of our options are open. It’s easy to be cynical about design—the egos, the culture, the money corrupting it—but the act itself always starts from an optimistic place: What is possible here? That question, I realize, feels empowering, even as an inauguration day exercise.
As it turns out, climate change (the obvious issue for everyone in the group) proves too difficult to solve in the limited time allotted. (Perhaps if we’d been given another half hour.) Instead we land on an art and public information campaign aimed at exposing the practice of gerrymandering.
We call it “Who’s Gerry?”
During our brainstorming session, the urban planner among us finds a Washington Post article showing the 10 most gerrymandered districts in Congress. There’s one close to home: Louisiana’s Second District. This Rorschach-like blob, a suburban district, looks (at least, to me) like a giant inspect intent on swallowing the city of New Orleans. It makes all sorts of disenfranchising twists and turns, systematically avoiding Democratic (and predominantly black) voters. The Post ranks it 10th (out of a possible 435, quite an accomplishment).
But, as any architect or designer will tell you, constraints and limitations like this can spark creativity. So it is here: that insane district opens up all kinds of design possibilities. “They’re certainly interesting as formal objects,” the architecture student says of the bizarrely drawn districts.
The ideas come fairly quickly: a week-long walk along the district’s “contiguous” route; a “drawing of the district line” event; a website with overlays showing what a more democratic district might look like; “Who’s Gerry?” posters, highlighting the issue of voting rights; even a kid’s coloring book. (As a bonus, our graphic designer draws a second congressional district pizza, complete with toppings.)
The other design responses are equally smart. There’s a mirrored-glass pavilion, created to encourage public interaction; an interactive bus stop, designed to raise public awareness about voting; and a timely idea for a app that would combat fake news by instantaneously checking story sources.
Bryan says that event organizers will eventually gather the best ideas (there are simultaneous Design as Protest events happening all over the country) and publish them later this year. But for me, today, the question of what we’ll do with these ideas is almost beside the point. These ideas are fuel for the resistance. And this event is an exercise, a flexing of our muscles, a sort of workout in the gym, in preparation for the battles ahead. The work of redesigning our democracy—or at least protecting what we have left of it—has just begun.
Featured image via Fast Company.