Murky Crystal Balls: Graphic Design and Envisioning the Red Zone

2 weeks ago by

Written by Cameron Ralston
Supported by 
Creative New Zealand


Ahead of the draft plan for the future of the Christchurch red zone being released, Christchurch citizen Cameron Ralston looks into the role design plays in communicating public decision making and public engagement.


Whether you see it as a park, a dumping ground, an old home, a garden or a rabbit hive the residential red zone of Christchurch is a space of great opportunity. Eight years on from the September 2010 earthquake decisions are being made on the future uses of the vacant land, which runs along the Avon River from the central city to the sea. Design once again has been called upon as a tool of engagement and planning.

Regenerate Christchurch was established in April 2016, through a partnership between the Crown and the Christchurch City Council, to lead the regeneration of the city through ‘development of regeneration plans, strong leadership and advice.’ This piece concerns itself with the potential political impact graphic design has on place-making and public knowledge. The Ōtakōro Avon River Corridor was identified as one of the top priorities for Regenerate Christchurch.

Simultaneous with all the work being done by the different offshoots of governing bodies has been planning and lobbying by other groups. These include the Avon Otakoro Network (AvON), the East Lake Trust, Greening the Redzone and the Avon Otakoro Forest Park.

Each cause primarily promotes their desired outcomes online. No doubt, as with many project’s websites, templates are great tools to giving the appearance of professionalism. Each of the listed outside organisations use standard websites but use imagery to evoke their visions. This means maps, concepts and videos. Besides text, the top down map and flyby are the main visual outlets. Space, when viewed from such distances can be cut and divided easily. Some of these fit in alongside the Regenerate Christchurch plan more than others. The East Lake Trust has especially found itself in contention with Regenerate Christchurch recently. A rowing lake within the Horseshoe lake reach seems more feasible when dropped on a map.

The power of the east lake is as a visual symbol: a rectangular block that can be placed in the visual memory. For a large public base that doesn’t have a lot of time or understanding of the land and transport science or live in further parts of the city the image is the key.

Other projects use visual icons throughout their plans. Groups representing the ecological desire to return areas to natural states incorporate native birds throughout their websites. The initial and subsequent Avon-Ōtakoro Network ‘vision maps’ drop these birds alongside the underlying river structure.

These images spread beyond maps and into logos (both Greening the Red Zone and Avon-Ōtakarō Network use birds) and official images such as the below image used by AvON in which birds are superimposed on another photograph.

These early works create aspirational visual goals – what the people want the future to look like.

Following all of the various inputs and visions by different groups Regenerate Christchurch held the Red Zone Futures exhibition. This ran from the 26th of May to the 30th June 2018 at 99 Cashel St in Cashel Mall. A number of short videos that show the space are available online. An online ‘engagement hub’ was set up to run in conjunction with this, featuring much of the same information and allowing for the public to submit their own feedback on the options presented. We are currently in the ‘design’ stage of the plan having already passed through the ‘vision’ stage.

Common themes of restoring nature were present in the images presented by Regenerate Christchurch. Birds are ever present again, the header image on their exhibition webpage features pukeko surrounding a walkway. The kayak is another symbol, frequently used to signify the human activity side of the plan. This regularly appears in the visionary images and was even manifested as a virtual reality experience at the exhibition where visitors could sit in a real kayak and paddle around wearing a headset. The panels featured colourful designs packed with information and maps. Fake Instagram posts, a shot at the youth, were printed on the panels with Photoshopped images of people and text commenting on how wonderful the new place is. The options appear bountiful looking at the exhibition alone.

Throughout the exhibition the corridor is never really shown as it is now. What we see is a glossy positive future with lasting economic benefits. The provided windows into the future are always complete, always utopian. Counter to this are initiatives such as Place in time. This Christchurch documentary project features work by contemporary local photographers cataloguing the changing city. Tim J. Veiling’s work is especially focussed on the red zone and catalogues how the landscape has changed over time. One of Regenerate Christchurch’s six key principles is ‘Honouring the Past’. This might be through incorporating elements from the lived in landscape such as signage, plaques, and letterboxes. The wholly optimistic image of the future is hard to place alongside the complexities of the here and now.

Like other blueprints before it, the exhibition was a sort of pitch. There is a massive amount of information that exists through all the planning processes for the developments. The tricky part is simplifying it in a way that gives people options they can understand and involves them in meaningful ways. It can’t look ‘too expensive’ or not thought through enough. So design has a heavy hand to play here. It’s not always political and the decisions made by designers may not be politically motivated but as a discipline that deals with the public they can have political consequences. As Matthew Galloway writes:

Design—at once editorial and form giving—is able to make projections, offer an alternative to prevailing/popular narratives, or re-package current circumstances. It is able to use its everyday context—engaging with the public—to say something through traditional and familiar means… Again, it is the central role that graphic design plays in visualising content that plays an important part here, differentiating it from other political activities in its ability to transform ideas into tangible models for action, or mimic existing visual language.

Political currents run through design work. Being critical of the elements in each presented design can give us another level of insight into the decision-making processes. For example in Greening the Red Zone’s response to the Red Zone futures exhibition they write:

Imagery is important too, for example the plastic playground images in the Red Zone Futures exhibition are not consistent with an environmentally sustainable Red Zone.

Although this may have not been a conscious decision by those who made or utilised the images, such details have political consequences. In this example the use of plastic clashes with the image of the area as environmentally sensitive.

What was omitted is often as much a focus as what was included. In this case the omission of a fresh water lake option from the exhibition resulted in a petition being submitted with 10,388 signatures.

Recently the cost breakdown for the Red Zone Futures exhibition was published. $485,910 was spent altogether. Graphic design for the panels and displays alone was just over $10,787 dollars; printing of the exhibition materials was an additional $22,709 thousand; video production, interactive exhibits, design and fit out of the space, and advertising combined was around another $300,000. I’m usually reluctant to talk about money in regards to these things, as investing now is obviously important to future success (especially considering developing the red zone is estimated to cost 800 million dollars), but the numbers here give insight into the level of power given to graphic design in these situations.

Graphic design also provides frameworks from which future steps are taken. Christchurch citizens have grown familiar with graphic timelines that tend to disappear once their schedules run behind time. Regenerate Christchurch has its own timeline for the process.

Excluding dates from the image was likely a wise choice given that history of delays. Along with this Regenerate Christchurch provides a more complex map of community engagement.

These diagrams make the public feel included in the process. They’re peace-of-mind graphics that let the people know they have a voice. However in the past it has been seen that the use of such graphics can be misleading. Matthew Galloway has previously addressed this in his critique of the Share an Idea campaign, another major past public exhibition. In his piece he questions the implementations of visual language and large-scale community engagements to create legitimised brandings.

By painting a picture of democratic process, the CCC was able to subtly sell a brand of governance and assert a level of control over outcomes of the campaign through obtaining consent and buy-in from its citizens. The visual language of the campaign reinforced these concepts. The speech bubble design, which forms the central motif of the brand, overtly signifies freedom of thought and opinion.

Similar critiques can be applied to the Regenerate Christchurch exhibition. By enforcing their vision they effectively promote the status quo. Most people could have told you that the gondola idea would be unpopular as with the eco-friendly vision (it’s no coincidence that the ‘green spine’ has been a favourite nick-name for a long time). In the report on the exhibition feedback Regenerate Christchurch utilises the speech bubble motif again alongside snippets of feedback that pertain to each area. Without much access to the full scope of the feedback it becomes questionable how clear the motives are. As Emma Ng wrote last year:

Design, the practice of organising information delivery, is a mechanism by which we can crank up or down the degrees of opacity.

I’d add to this that the scales of distribution also contribute to the controlling of the messages. These perhaps make it harder for the smaller organisations I started the article with to survive. I do think that Regenerate Christchurch has at heart a great desire to make the most of the great opportunity the Ōtakōro Avon Corridor presents. And alternatives to public consultation seem hard to come by. However, there are trust issues around how information is displayed. As designers when engaging in civic conversations it may be our role to relate and respond to the visual clues in an insightful way.

What makes the political power of design in these processes worth thinking about and revisiting is that it can help us find our way through the layers of vision and reality. Even when design seems banal it affects the views, aspirations and expectations we have for the future. It affects claims of legitimacy and authenticity. We should be questioning the completeness of what we see. What extends beyond reality and into fantasy? Instead of looking through clear crystal goblets we more often are gazing into murkier crystal balls. Design doesn’t just give us glimpses into the future but actively shapes it.

 



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