Civic Lessons

2 months ago by

Written by K. Emma Ng
Supported by Creative New Zealand

Emma Ng is a contributor to Aotearoa Design Thinking 2017, a series of commissioned critical design essays published by Design Assembly and funded by Creative New Zealand. 

This article is the final in a four part series on design and politics that was published over the course of this year — bookended by the 2016 U.S. election and the 2017 New Zealand election. The series will consider the role of design and designers in shaping political engagement through subjects as diverse as “the worm” (remember that TV gem?), and initiatives designed to engage citizen participation outside of the electoral system. What do politics look like? And why does it matter?

Part one: What does a fact look like?

Part two: Feeling Our Way Toward Election Day

Part three: Interview with Todd Atticus


The end of an election just marks the beginning of the next three years. The announcement of election results is no reason to rest satisfied, or to dwell in dejected melancholy. Voting is but one form of political action.

Politics is, and can be, contested in many other ways and at many other scales. Here in the United States, we’ve seen municipal and state governments diverge from federal policy to take their own positions. While the White House has stated its intention to withdraw from the Paris Accord, states like California remain committed to taking action against climate change. “Sanctuary” cities and states, such as Oregon, Austin, and Chicago, have declared themselves, battling the slowly descending federal blockades on immigration. Emerging from the emotional wreckage of the 2016 election, organizations, outlets, and individuals are searching for ways to break through the despondency with localised action, seeking avenues for making one’s own community “a better place”.

Having just weathered another General Election in Aotearoa, I wanted to end this series for Aotearoa Design Thinking on an optimistic note, by looking at the possibilities for design and designers to support political engagement outside of the electoral system. It was a decent election for design initiatives geared toward getting people out to vote and/or bolstering their ability to make an informed decision about who to vote for. I certainly felt more assured than usual; my gut feelings and smudgy values backed up by concrete knowledge, thanks to the political matchmaking tools that abounded this time around. To name just a few: TVNZ’s Vote Compass, The Spinoff’s Policy, and a refreshed On the Fence, brought to us once again by Massey University’s Design+Democracy project.

On the Fence, “a gameful questionnaire that helps young undecided and first-time voters engage directly with issues by matching their personal values with political parties.”

Policy, in particular, revealed just how difficult (read: poorly designed) it has been to access the information that can assist us in becoming informed voters. Parties unevenly upload their policies to their own websites, often buried in layers of website navigation and shrouded in complicated language. Some policy areas are absent from the websites, or scattered crumb-like across press releases and numerous documents, or the policies might be outdated or inconsistent with the messages party leaders are delivering on the campaign trail (Winston Peters, we’re looking at you).

Policy, a newcomer to the election interactives arena. Policy draws together parties’ key election policies, presenting them in a “consistent and accessible way.”

Does it need to be said? It should not be hard for any voter to access and interpret the information they need to make their decisions. Design, the practice of organising information delivery, is a mechanism by which we can crank up or down the degrees of opacity. Policy showed that plain language and considered design (backed by competent developers) can transform our ability to access, filter, and interpret this information. It was also lively. A great many of the populace are not versed in the corporate world, but policy information tends to be presented in the manner of an annual report – pedestrian, with content loosely sloshing around within the margins of the page.

So design is proving its capacity for doing good during campaign season. But how can designers – particularly those not employed by the government and its agencies – sustain this work between elections? Just as the makers of Policy have done, how can we identify and apply ourselves to the points at which people are barred or dissuaded from political actions because their access (to information, avenues for change or expression, or their elected representatives) is limited?

First, we might carefully consider what our working definition of politics is. Mine is broad: the negotiation of power to work out how we can live together. With the word “politics” descended from the Ancient Greek conceptions of the city (polis) and the citizen (politēs), I think it makes sense to think of politics as an activity that determines how people coinhabit place. I like this definition because it brings politics home to everyday questions about how we are allowed to live our lives, and how we can support others to live theirs – questions that design is intimately involved with.

Scaffolded within this definition are different levels of political agency – sometimes we work with government, and sometimes we work against, or in spite of, government. This is a helpful distinction to make as we consider the roles that designers can play in facilitating political agency. Sometimes what designers do is about expressing political voice and influencing decision making at a governance level, and at other times it’s about improving people’s capacity to live within the systems enacted by government.

Design is also a discipline oriented toward imagining possible futures (though sometimes to its detriment when designers stumble forth with blind enthusiasm – at a talk I recently attended an architect noted that we must also consider the bad things we’ve done with good intentions). Max Harris, in his recent book, The New Zealand Project, suggests that creativity is a core value (alongside care, community, and love) that should drive politics today. Why? Because creativity is about “fashioning things of value” and because creativity can help us to be ambitious in our visions for the future. Creativity occupies pride of place in the designer’s toolkit. So I want to consider some of the short to medium-term ways that designers can support community and civic engagement. How can designers use their innate creativity and technical skills to help individuals and communities fashion things of value?

One organization I admire here in New York is the Center for Urban Pedagogy. CUP, as it’s often called, is a “nonprofit organization that uses the power of design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement.” Their work takes various forms, but essentially aims to demystify policy and planning so that residents both know their rights and can better participate in decision-making processes. The issues they’ve tackled include the juvenile justice system, how zoning laws affect neighbourhood development, and food access. Recruiting designers as “Design Fellows”, CUP has them collaborate with specific community organizations to produce publications and other teaching tools that explain important policy issues for the people who most need to know.

Some of the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s resources, developed by community and advocacy organizations in partnership with designers, and available for purchase or free download on their website. These tools are also distrubted free of charge through the community organizations.

For example, a poster-pamphlet about rent stabilization law aims to help tenants understand their rights. In New York rent stabilization helps keep housing affordable by limiting how often and how much rent can increase, for low-income tenants. In neighbourhoods like Chinatown, rapidly rising property values mean that landlords often pressure their tenants to move out, but CUP’s pamphlet helps them understand their rights and tenants can even show landlords the pamphlet as backup. Produced in English/Chinese and English/Spanish versions the pamphlet contains information about how to challenge landlord harassment and other illegal practices, as well as how tenants can organize collectively to remain in their homes. It was produced in partnership with a community organization called CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, who have since been working to distribute it throughout Chinatown. It is also available to download for free online. Another of their publications is “Dick & Rick: A Visual Primer for Social Impact Design”. The tongue-in-cheek publication is aimed at designers who are engaged in community-oriented work, and it’s message is “Don’t be a Dick”. It contains a simple set of illustrated guidelines for community engagement, with Dick representing the “don’ts” and Rick representing the “dos”.

A foldout page from the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s “Why is Chinatown Getting So Expensive? Tenant Rights” pamphlet/poster.
A page from the Center for Urban Pedagogy publication “Dick & Rick: A Visual Primer for Social Impact Design”.

Since the 2016 U.S. election, design organisations in New York have been pumping out programmes with reinvigorated political purpose. The AIGA (America’s largest membership organization for designers) launched an initiative called “Citizen Designer Now!”, while the AIA, architecture’s equivalent organization, founded a “Civic Leadership Programme”. These programmes seek to “examine our roles as designers and citizens” and “cultivate deeper civic engagement and responsibility”. These organizations might be trying play the long game, but unfortunately these programmes are also susceptible to an inflated grandiosity, and a disciplinary introspection that borders on narcissism. At an event I attended recently, the opening speaker spoke of the ambition to install architects in public office – “We want an architect president!” – though thankfully, one of the panellists later questioned whether this was really the most helpful sentiment to galvanise designers who want to contribute to meaningful change.

It is perhaps humility, rather than ambition, that can help us best direct our energies. Like with any design project, we need to begin by listening (both to build trust and to really understand what needs to be done). Humility is understanding that there might be others who have already begun on the projects we want to initiate, and that the most effective course of action might be collaborating with those groups who are better positioned than us, or have already established relationships of trust with those we seek to serve. And despite design’s natural tendency toward problem solving, we must be wary of coming ourselves as a replacement for government. We might work with government or in spite of government, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that our work can alleviate government of their responsibilities and accountability.

Stepping back from the brink of grand ambition, CUP stands out because it is an organisation that supports designers to do what designers do best, partnering them with existing community organizations who already have expertise. CUP identifies concrete outcomes that its fellows can work towards, and the programme has both short and long-term impacts: in the short-term it helps residents navigate policy and know their rights, in the mid- to long-term, this knowledge bolsters their ability to become involved in the decision-making processes that shape the policies that affect them.

Imagine if the Designers Institute of New Zealand redirected even a little of the energy and funds that go into the annual Best Awards toward establishing, say, one design fellowship per year, allowing a designer to spend a couple of months working with a community organization like JustSpeak, Community Law, or the Citizens Advice Bureau. Organizations such as these do incredible work, but often don’t have the resources to spare or the design expertise on staff to think about information delivery in the detailed way that designers can do. In Aotearoa there are a few design studios and agencies dedicated to social change projects, such as Curative and the Auckland Co-design Lab. But the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s appraoch is slightly different. Rather than maintaining a small roster of clients, CUP’s work is highly targeted, with the process designed to allow them to address whichever issues they feel are most urgent in any given year. CUP identifies community and advocacy organizations to offer these free design services to, employ designers in a paid fellowship model, and then act as a one-stop-shop for accessing the variety of resources produced. Artists and designers are also employed as “teaching artists” in schools (a common model in New York), where they work with school students to research aspects of the city and produce resources.

There are many ways that designers can do political work in between elections. What I’ve chosen to focus on here is, perhaps, the simplest of kind of action – designers doing design work. In logistics systems, the link between distribution centres and individual customers is called “the last mile”. It’s the metaphorical last mile that design and designers could easily contribute to, taking the knowledge developed community and advocacy organizations and helping to ensure that it is, in CUP’s words, “truly public: accessible, meaningful, and shared.”



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