As a maker, educator and contributor to the visual culture, I strive to create work that is informed by methods within both disciplines of socio-economic sciences and humanities. I focus on how meaningful relationships between people, the environment and design can be strengthened. To me, the largest impact of change begins through localized efforts of community awareness. My research explores ways to inform and engage the public on understanding how places and people network to remain viable. A foundation that stems from the seemingly simple yet complex idea that everything in life connects. This interconnectedness shows how systems can remain sustainable or why they fall apart. I explore methods of revealing complex connections that make up existing human systems.
Systems thinking helps to understand how these dynamic connections relate and contribute to the whole. Through the nature of connections and the rich interconnectedness that make up systems, we find ourselves positioned in a place subconsciously. I explore these connections, systems and network theory in an attempt to understand how these relationships construct the social and cultural environment around us. I then look at how this affects behavioral patterns of living. Questions that inform my research are: How does economic exchange influence the culture and social behavior of a place? How can community-based design help strengthen the relationship between people, design and the environment while exposing areas of needs? In what ways can various networks be made visible in an effort to disseminate, process and interpret information?
Small Change Leads to Big Change
Mapping out economic networks in an effort to reveal the interconnected nature within systems is a driving force behind my research. Making these relationships visible through design is one way of communicating these complex connections. I can reveal visually what is working and what is not.
Experience has taught me that through direct relationships and interactions of support, people tend to care more about their part in the whole. It has shown me that we are interdependent. We do make individual choices but they are not made in isolation. Our everyday decisions affect those around us as they also create patterned ways of living. These patterns build the social and cultural environment around us. My thesis research and creative work were sparked through the recognition of how I changed my own behaviors due to the interaction with the people and the culture of a place.
In an attempt to understand this change, I began to investigate how the patterns of human interaction in the small town of Athens, Ohio influenced my everyday decisions. In other words, why was I more conscious of the choices I was making? Why did I start to care about where I was spending my money or what I was throwing away? Why was I suddenly interested in knowing the source of my food?
Collaborating and connecting with the people in the community, I began to see the rich network system that created the culture of this place. The community of Athens is addressing large global issues, through smaller and more localized ways of connecting and supporting human independence. I have found that Athens, Ohio has a deeply embedded network that is protecting the environment, economy and people. This promotes positive social change for a more sustainable lifestyle. My research is revealing how Athens is addressing these issues through localized and direct relationships of economic and social exchange.
Atlas of Athens, A Visual Literacy of Place
To understand the impact of interconnectedness on existing systems within a place, I use methodologies within the realm of qualitative research. A few methods of research I have employed are visual, experimental, narrative, oral history interviews and experiential. I also use mapping as a mode to understand and reveal my findings throughout the process. The variation of research is informed by transdisciplinary methods of engagement that allow room for a broader presentation of results.
From 2013 – 2016, I have connected directly with the people and land that is Athens, Ohio. Throughout my research process, I have been collaborating with several community members who are considered to be the substantial weavers in the fabric of the Athens community. Direct connections build meaningful relationships that have been informing possible design solutions to visualize the network that sustains this place. Focusing on the Athens community economic network of exchange is one method of understanding how a place constructs the culture and social behaviors that are present.
I designed a case-study of Athens that visualizes the complex network of people working together. Incorporating elements of ethnogoraphic research and narrative research through various methods that include oral history interviews—I am telling the story of place. More importantly, this research is showing how people connect with one another and how they connect resources to the people. This allows for a larger audience to learn ways in which they can insert themselves into a community in an effort to benefit their individual life as well as the larger community as a whole.
This project is a prototypical venture that identifies the human networking system within Athens and will be applied to other communities. The results connect and extend the intersection of art and design. Both disciplines have changed the way I perceive the world and in return have helped me to change the way others perceive the world. The visual literature serves as a transferrable experience. The results encourage positive change in behavior by facilitating awareness of oneself within a larger society.
The actual project consists of several components that reside within a 24" x 30" book—adapting the concept of an atlas. The atlas houses the removable components. The main component is a physical map that unfolds to 10' x 2.5'. The map is a close-up view of downtown Athens, Ohio, rendered through the use of mixed media. The locations of people and places that are involved in the local network are denoted with a number. The cartographic piece is influenced and informed by the aesthetic of early world maps, mappaemundi, along with contemporary map makers and authors such as Paula Scher, Joyce Kozloff, Matthew Cusick, Shannon Rankin and Dennis Wood.
The second component takes the form flash cards that serve as the legend or key to the map. The flash cards are informational points of reference for the numbered locations. The third component is a printed book containing information on the process and meaning behind the atlas, along with my personal narrative of place.
Oral History Interviews were conducted to capture the diverse group of people within Athens which allows for various perspectives and experiences of this place. The entire project exists on a website which allows for a broader dissemination through technological access.
This atlas is the beginning to a larger series of how design can be appropriated to promote, preserve and educate others on the benefits of cooperation and connection. It encourages positive social change as an effort to relinquish dominance thinking and emphasize sharing. Considering the notion that everything is connected, I question the ways in which this can be shown through visual language with an intention of strengthening communities. The endless possibilities and ways to disseminate this idea is exciting and challenging. I look forward to connecting the results of my current research with the process of how I approach future design projects involving positive social and economic change. This project will serve as a model for mapping out other communities and systems. Visualizing data for interpreting and processing information is an effective method that can be employed across multiple disciplines. Information design is beautifully effective in its complex nature and potent in its simplest graphic rendered form.
Utilizing the Athens, Ohio local and regional network has become the foundational prototype for revealing this successful interdependent network and its positive and lasting impact on culture and society. It will teach other places how to grow. Visualizing for other communities to show how they are working together or even how they may lack in cooperative efforts brings awareness to the forefront of how a place can become stronger and remain economically viable. My research addresses larger global issues through the simple understanding and reminder that our role and decisions as an individual within society, is where the largest impact of change begins.
Using design as a way to strengthen relationships between humanity and the environment is a relevant and meaningful approach to change. This encourages and facilitates self-discipline, critical thinking, values and community which foster a sense of responsibility as citizens of the world. My research benefits and supplements graphic design with goals of balancing traditional practices with new perspectives in both theory and practice.
STATEMENT OF TEACHING PHILOSOPHY
Change begins first within oneself. The world today is convoluted with messages that directly influence and navigate our perception of the environment around us. These messages embody and address the political, economical, environmental and social behaviors that create culture. Learning leads us to understanding how these behaviors can be changed through visual communication. Education provides the framework to understanding the role of the individual within society and how the behavioral change of an individual can begin to shape change on a larger scale.
Visual communicators have long possessed the power of influencing behavior and shaping culture through the dissemination of messages. It is my role to continually explore design as a universal language to connect diverse people and cultures in an effort to understand and communicate the world around us. I am interested in how design thinking can emphasize the awareness of the role of the individual within their community as this will then extend the impact of their role as a citizen of the world. One formative function of the academic environment is to facilitate awareness of the role of oneself within the rapidly changing society in which we all take part. Fostering a sense of individual responsibility strengthens the humanist agenda of design. Victor Papanek proposed this idea in 1971 as he set the stage by addressing the responsibility of the designer. Papanek sought to improve the quality of life and the human being through design.
In Papanek’s book, Design for Human Scale, he discusses the lack of the relationship between design and people. He writes, “Two new areas must be considered by designers: alternative means of distribution, and the consequences of the design act itself.” Written in 1983, the lack of the relationship between design and people is still being addressed in the twenty-first century. Many design students are challenged when asked to shift design thinking for the people and not always for commodity. Emphasizing this realm of critical thinking allows the student to become sensitive to the environment and people—considerations that serve a greater purpose regardless of the final product.
Education must remain appropriate to the times in order to remain effective. History teaches us what is and isn’t working. Penny Sparke discusses design in the twenty-first century in her book, An Introduction to Design and Culture. She talks about the impacts of “massive global economic, technological, social and cultural shifts that have occurred” as the problem for designers to consider. She writes, “Instead, design is currently looking for a role to play in a world in which debt is more of a reality than wealth, in which environmental disasters are part of daily life and advanced technologies have transformed social relations beyond recognition.” In a time where the human race consumes the equivalent of 1.5 planets and personal relationships are technologically dependent—the need for design as social change is more imperative than ever before.
As an educator, I encourage my students to approach graphic design with a socially driven agenda through a combination of collaboration and community networking. Emphasizing the value in human connection embeds a deeper understanding of the results of our choices. This leads to more thoughtful and intelligent decision making in an effort to create change. Students are challenged to consider the role of ethics throughout the design process as they are asked to approach design solutions through sustainable methods. Design thinking in this manner, creates awareness that helps students develop a sensitivity during problem solving that informs more meaningful relationships between people, the environment and design.
The simple awareness of how one decision affects a greater whole better informs how to approach any design problem. In an effort to solve a problem most effectively, we must fully immerse ourselves inside the process. It is in the action of process that understanding occurs through research, writing, and making. Meaning begins to surface and the translation of meaning is explored. Students begin to see how certain materials and aesthetic considerations contribute to meaning. They realize how the smallest decisions of texture, material, color, typeface, and space can all influence the larger message. This sensitivity helps students nurture and formulate their own aesthetic and methods to form-giving. Throughout the explorations, the student is constantly questioning their decisions and reflecting upon the choices they are making. Weaving in design ethics and social responsibility empowers the student as they are learning how to contribute to a larger sense of purpose.
I have learned that the smallest decisions made in form-giving have greatly impacted the effect of the overall design. My goal is to not only teach the essentials of what makes or breaks a good design, but to encourage the individual taking part in the dissemination of messages as having a specific responsibility. Remaining informed and aware of the environment we live in is the key to understanding how to properly appropriate design in the twenty-first century landscape. My pedagogy is to not only provide mentorship, but to help students gain a deeper understanding of the role of visual communication within culture and behavior; to help them learn how to express their own voice and to know when to switch from objective to subjective and back to objective; guide them through effective design research methods and processes as they develop their own; and how to appropriate application of meaning throughout the process. Through the collaborative community of peer and teacher relationship, my students reap the benefits of creating relevant and beautiful work that serves the public in a meaningful way.
Armstrong, H. 2009. Graphic Design Theory. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Emmott, S. 2013. Ten Billion. New York: Vintage Books.
Papanek, V. 1983. Design for Human Scale. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc.
Sparke, P. 2013. An Introduction to Design and Culture: 1900 to the present. New York: Routledge.