Designers Talking: Alphabetic Image of The City in Milwaukee
Flashback to your spring break. Now that the first long light of summer is upon you. By that I mean upon you in the way that you might actually have time to savor it and do something with it that is not a lesson prep or a grant application. Do you remember what was happening during that week in March or April that was a blink between admissions, committee work, grading, scholarship, sleep and seeing your family? I don’t know about you, but I was looking for a definition of graphic design in Milwaukee. Coming from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was also looking for spring. Heading north to find a definition of graphic design while looking for spring in Milwaukee meant driving into a snow storm.
So on the Thursday of my spring break, after a few days of rest, relaxation and portfolio reviews, I dropped my dog off at daycare, and loaded up my car with the necessary tools for defining graphic design: my macbook pro laptop, iPhone 6S cellphone, black and colored sharpies, super sticky post-its, giant newsprint post-it pads, chipboard, and a silhouette cameo cutter. Oh yeah and my mind, my hands and my heart. And two pairs of boots—one for fashion and one for slogging in the snow. Everything and anything to leverage design thinking and design making for a two-day graphic design residency called Designers Talking. I proposed a brief called Alphabetic Image of the City, inspired by Kevin Lynch’s book Image of the City and ideas from the Situational International to operate a form of “typogeography” by engaging in a “typographic dérive” through the city that would end with a community drawn alphabet. These are fancy international art english words, for a walk around the city inspired by its typographic and urban character.
The residency is curated by Nate Pyper. Nate works as a designer at the Milwaukee Art Museum, but Design Talking is organized independently by him. The format is a one-day design residency and exhibition that closes with a public opening that same night. The residency is followed the next day with an afternoon salon that also welcomes anybody from Milwaukee’s community to discuss the work. Even though you have several months to plan your project, ostensibly you are performing a one-day design charrette by yourself with Nate as your life line. So my crazy ambitious proposal was actually remotely possible. As someone who has led a lot of design workshops in various contexts, from design schools to business improvement districts I knew I wanted to take a different tack than just work generated solely by me.
This could be why I have a design instead of art practice, though I know I am intentionally treading in murky waters. If I read or view my own work as an artist, I make it because of the same reason my friend Carolyn, a painter does: I make work so I can talk about it with others. I make dialog driven work. I know I am in a sticky wicket talking about ye old art-design axis on a design educator’s blog. Don’t read me wrong; the fact that in 2016 there exists a growing ecology of residences, grants, and autonomous design work is really compelling for our discipline. The calls and ideas for expanded graphic design practice are real now. I argue it augments and enhances the spaces where we are more directly engaged with clients and users.
In fact, from the moment Nate invited me I knew I wanted to create a work that was participatory. My current research interests can best be held under the umbrella term poly-mode. Poly-mode is a neologism I coined in grad school that is the title of my MFA thesis and the name of my current graphic design studio practice. However it’s also an attitude, strategy and ethos for grouping a heterogenous body of work that includes my work as a design educator. For me that means projects where I have principal agency like Alphabetic Image of the City. I get greater say in the parameters for engagement. I think doing this kind of work makes me a better educator and bell hooks agrees: “Professors who embrace the challenge of self-actualization will be better able to create pedagogical practices that engage students, providing them with ways of knowing that enhance their capacity to live fully and deeply.” Whether I am in the classroom, working with clients, or making personal work, ultimately my aim is to inspire people to be the best versions of themselves to effect positive change on society. This kind of impact requires what I call a “pedagogy of empathy.” That empathy (not to be confused with sympathy) comes from making my own work that fulfills and fuels me, so I can give that same gift to my students. Poly-mode makes the case that a graphic designer who practices self-care is in the best position to help care for society, inside the classroom and outside of it.
Relatedly, I have been thinking a lot about the often unaddressed relationship between design and marginalized communities. As a whole, my research investigations attempt to be a counterpoint to the often non-visible uses of design to otherize people. This is a lofty aim, especially when Nate invited me to make a self-initiated piece of design in a city that I am not from and have not spent much time in. To say I was nervous and concerned would be an understatement. I wanted a project that could support my desire to connect to Milwaukee’s unique urban texture and its denizens. I knew I would be at the not always comfortable nexus of participant and observer—a position that I know well from past design work I’ve done infused by ethnographic intelligence. So I asked Nate for help. His friend Adam Carr, active citizen and resident historian suggested several neighborhoods that would have “good ‘found typography,’” were near high concentrations of “independently-owned businesses and retail…would be near main streets or neighborhood-based commercial districts.” This lead to the best “quirky and unique signs” which often were in traditionally black owned and resident neighborhoods. Suddenly this personal endeavor was having me walk the lines of a city striated by segregation, otherwise known as the american city. It called to mind my hometown of Washington D.C. or any other major urban environments I have had the fortune to live in our great land. Typogeography was also expressing the cartography of culture.
Designers Talking happens at various locations across the city so it already has this kind of itinerant or migratory aspect. The design nomad is a construct I have explored in past design work, lectures and presentations and so I donned a role of a kind of graphic design flaneur, a kind of wander looking for truth. One who was okay with his own ignorance. One who’s outsider status lent a kind of critical distance. The autonomy and agency that I so craved. In this case a flaneur with iPhone out and boots on (thankfully the snow had melted by the time I was on my dérive). With Adam’s guidance via email: I wandered Center Street in the 40s and 50s (start at “Farquarson’s” and head west), then Villard from 32nd to 38th Street (including that “You’re Someone Special” sign we saw after the “Do Black Lives Matter?” talk — attached), and down on MLK Drive (not super dense, but a fair number of independently owned shops from Keefe to Walnut). As I finished wandering neighborhoods I too felt like the outsider, a half-rican american man walking the beats of hoods I didn’t quite belong in either. Was I lifting and separating as so many highfaluting graphic designers before me had? Was this grassroots, was this authentic enough?
The eve of the opening I prepared an animated video projection of some of my favorite images from the day, set up my computer station where I was musical DJ, and type designer, printer, and cultural interpreter. Again I was at a nexus, this time of digital and physical. In real time I began digitizing an alphabet that was a mix of the letters I saw that day, and forms from my own type designs. As I cut them out on the cutter in chipboard and later vinyl, another life line, Bill Kaminsky, an alum of the VCFA hung them up in the window, or gave them to attendees at the opening who I welcomed with various word and typographic prompts. In addition to the newly gathered from in the city, and my own visual language, I asked attendees to draw their own letter, name their favorite letter, and find new words to spell out of the word “Milwaukee.” Most of the people at the opening and salon where other artists and designers, but from a rich mix of subfields and experience levels. Having a frank conversation about how someone was or was not familiar with a particular neighborhood depicted in my photos or the process required to digitize and draw a letterform was very refreshing. The fact that this was all happening in an architecture and design focused gallery, Mobile Design Box, supported by University of Wisconsin Milwaukee made the questions of disciplinary and socio-cultural boundaries all the more laden with ambiguity.
This project and its ongoing outcomes have me optimistic about the expanded and polymodal state that graphic design education and practice is in and continues to evolve toward. It is a nexus with a plethora of nodes, a rhizomatic zone that we and our discipline find ourselves shifting between participant and observer, digital and analog, maker and thinker and so many other poles that defy bifurcation. We are all betwixt roles, oscillating, looking for home. And in the process we are creating conversations that are not easy, but that I hope you all want to be a part of. I know I do.
This project was funded by a Miami University PREP Grant from the Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, A Designer’s Talking Residency, Silas Munro and Nate Pyper, and a lot of love and support.
Munro serves as Assistant Professor in Communication Arts / Graduate Graphic Design at Otis College of Art and Design, and Guest Advisor in the MFA Program in Graphic Design at Vermont College of Fine Arts.