A new kind of graphic designer for the post-crisis city?
By Francesca Birks
March 28, 2016
How can designers improve cities — and how can city governments support them in doing so? Laetitia Wolff has spent the past few years exploring these questions.
Wolff, who describes her work as “cultural engineering,” studied literature and political science in Paris, then spent two decades working in design exhibitions, consulting, and publishing (including a stint as editorial director of Surface). In 2011 she immersed herself in urban issues by taking on the leadership of desigNYC, which matched New York City–based nonprofits with pro bono design services. Today, she continues to grapple with community-scale challenges as the program director of civic initiatives at Making the City, a creative placemaking and community-centered initiative of design organization AIGA/NY.
We discussed public engagement, procurement, and changing career paths.
Talk to me about the civic-led design work that you’ve been doing.
Well, I think that the mentality of designers has changed, largely influenced by the economic crisis, but also by natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy.
While I currently work with placemaking initiatives in New York, dealing with the important role of public space as an urban asset, I work mostly with graphic designers as opposed to urban planners.
The financial crisis made two things obvious to the graphic designer. One, there were fewer jobs, and two, they had time to donate. Everybody felt that they needed to apply their skills for the greater good. So instead of thinking primarily about their clients — doing whatever other people will give them money them to do — they have been thinking about themselves more as authors and mediators: people who can interpret the world around them, come up with ideas and design briefs.
I’ve been working around this area by helping graphic designers find new opportunities to open up their practices and amplify the impact of their work beyond the studio.
How does that work in the context of cities?
With the growth of urbanization, the city becomes the new reality — almost like a new medium for designers. All these wicked problems need more attention than ever before. There’s a need to diversify the voices around the table, and I feel like the graphic designer could be a great player in this conversation.
But that’s a grand statement that doesn’t mean anything unless you give shape to it. You can give reality to this connection between designers and cities through, for instance, directing them toward very concrete community-based issues that haven’t been dealt with very well in the past. In a lot of cases government agencies haven’t had the resources, the focus, or the time to deal with problems facing disenfranchised communities. This is where designers can come in — they’re able to facilitate conversations, help communities sift through the challenges they face, and bring a creative outlook.
Do you see the graphic designer as a systems integrator?
Very much so. One of the lessons learned in the initiatives I’ve been leading for AIGA/NY and desigNYC is the incredible potential for the designer to be the glue in a project, connecting people, places, and problems in ways that nobody has done before.
So for the Red Hook AIGA/NY project we first brought on Red Hook Initiative, which is very active in the local low-income housing population, but then we also brought on the Brooklyn Library and Good Shepherd Services. Those organizations are serving many of the same people, but they had never worked together. Design can trigger conversations between people that often lead parallel lives.
So what do you think the relationship between the designer and government agencies could be?
I’m very interested in this topic because it really touches on the true definition of innovation. How do you implement innovation? It’s a big word that means anything and everything, and even more so when applied to the public sector. But when you create systems within government agencies that allow for creative processes to be inserted into the traditional way of doing things, it becomes interesting.
I was just asked this question by the EDC [New York City Economic Development Corporation], trying to think about ways it can better support the creative economy in New York and how designers can be a more active part of this conversation. I think the DDC’s [Department of Design and Construction] Design and Construction Excellence program that was launched by [former agency commissioner] David Burney a few years ago was a very good example of how you can shift the government’s perception and use of design — bringing in the notion of a standard of excellence, shifting from a culture of “We know this — we don’t need anyone else from outside.”
The City of Montreal has been a pioneer in this area. Their Bureau of Design has triggered a lot of internal conversation around who has the expertise for design. Is it only the urban design department of the city that can manage projects holistically? Finding ways to improve procurement systems and change contracts so that people from the outside can come in to bid is so important to making the government more familiar with the design process.
Another thing: how can the government work with civic initiatives that designers are developing by themselves? Like when AIGA/NY says, “Okay, I want to do something important for our city — we’re going to work in East New York.”
What if the City was facilitating those sorts of programs through long-term grant systems or annual programs? I’m from Europe; I can’t help but think that cities should be involved in that sort of thing.
How do you see this playing out in the future?
Ultimately it’s about designers being comfortable with different kinds of clients. In the ’60s graphic design was mostly about serving big corporations; when graphic designers were hired they had one client for the rest of their lives. Now the clients are often small, nimble nonprofits without many resources, or they’re government agencies planning projects that need an identity. It’s important for graphic designers to diversify their client base, and in that regard these kinds of civic initiatives can play a major role.
In the ’60s graphic design was mostly about serving big corporations.
And this shift to new kinds of work is important for the cities as well as the designers. Cities can also benefit from the ability to draw from a wider variety of design skills in order to bring the benefits of design to more communities and in new ways.
Take placemaking, for example. As people increasingly move into urban centers, successful placemaking relies on cities recognizing the unique character of individual neighborhoods. Graphic design can play a major role in articulating those identities.
I think we’re in a completely different moment right now. Integrating this sort of iterative thinking, prototyping, listening into design practice — integrating some form of community engagement — has become more obvious and common. It’s not like everyone can do it; not everyone is good at it. I think there is great interest that is nurtured, again, by the economy, by our sense of responsibility — but I think it’s yet to be fully nurtured. We can learn more about how to do this work better.