There are powerful stories in the community that are not always known or heard — stories from people who have much to say, but lack the opportunity to connect. Graphic design can build those connections through social engagement, which seeks to create social change through means such as visual commentary, nonprofit work, and/or directly with the community. Embracing the latter, the exhibition
misperception, held at Towson University’s Holtzman MFA Gallery from July 13–August 10, 2019, showcased the art of residents of The Children’s Home (TCH), a group home in Maryland serving youth who have experienced trauma in their lives. misperception shifted my design role from interpreting stories to facilitating them through teaching, curating, and with the support of TU BFA Graphic Design student Hayley Furman, producing the residents’ work for this exhibition. Doing so allowed these youth to connect to the Towson/Baltimore community through art/design and speak for themselves.
Socially engaged graphic design has a rich history and contemporary relevance. Design movements, manifestos, and posters have denoted the issues, politics, and culture of societies over time. Design studios such as IDEO and exhibitions such as: “Philadelphia Assembled” and “BMORE Than the Story” utilize social practice theories and applications. My studio and scholarship likewise explore social practice, in this case working with youth in the foster care system. On September 30, 2017, of the estimated 442,995 children in U.S. foster care, 6%, or approximately 26,580 reside in a group home. TCH serves a portion of these diverse youth, ages 13–21, and provides a wide variety of therapeutic and educational services to meet their individual needs including crisis intervention, therapy, life skills programs, and psychiatric rehabilitation services.
Just as designers begin commercial projects by immersing themselves in creative briefs and research, social practice designers immerse themselves in their communities. Since 2017 I have created and led multi-disciplinary workshops with TCH youth on their campus.
misperception provided an opportunity to showcase their work in a professional gallery during ArtScape, so TCH and I enthusiastically worked together with their residents to create new pieces.
Residents learned how to generate ideas, create patterns, choose color palettes, and explore composition. With limited access to computers and varying participation week to week, I utilized analog design processes to accommodate the needs of the participants. Doing so gave participants new design knowledge and built confidence in their drawing skills. I digitized the work exactly as directed, returning with proofs for them to adjust as needed. As the designs neared completion, I brought in my laptop for final edits, giving residents an opportunity to see how the software worked and speed up the design process.
Residents’ efforts became posters, tiles, prints, and photography. Prompts such as, “What would you like the community to know about you?” resulted in themes on: love, death, music, compassion, paths, and faith. Poster participants began by creating a repeating pattern. As some completed their poster and others could not, the patterns were also fired onto ceramic tiles as a visual representation of process and to recognize everyone’s efforts.
Residents also explored typography using laser cut black and white letters glued onto a black or white background; not to make words, but to study the relationships of form and space. Intersecting letters came forward or receded depending on the background, resulting in interesting compositional tempos and textures.
Photography sessions covered basic skills including depth of field and composition. Prompts such as “Show us what interests you” resulted in photos on sports, fashion, and nature. A car hood, created by the residents in a workshop led by artists Michael Whitehead and Aaron Maybin, was also curated into the show.
To bring the communication full circle, I designed a visual message board for visitors to communicate back to the residents once it returned to TCH; and a brochure about TCH for visitors to take with them.
Building community through this exhibition was accomplished in many ways: 1) most importantly, it said to these youth, who have been through extraordinarily difficult circumstances, that they, and their work, are valued in our community; 2) it built awareness of TCH in the community that may not have otherwise existed; 3) it gave gravitas and support to the idea that social practice in art and design can and should be celebrated and seen; 4) the residents’ willingness to share their themes of love, compassion, music, death, etc. are basic human experiences we all share. There is no stronger way to bring people together than to remind each other we are far more similar than our differences suggest.
misperception was generously supported by a Towson University Faculty Development and Research Committee (FDRC) Grant, BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore, The Children’s Home, Inc., TU College of Fine Arts and Communication, and TU Department of Art + Design, Art History, Art Education. Photography by Kimberly Hopkins and Hayley Furman.