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Getting the Conversation Started
With the Living Principles

by Phil Hamlett

Then, by firing up a digital projector the size of a suitcase and shining these images onto the façades of these structures at night, he created an arresting visual chronology of each building’s peculiarities and history. Of course, the sheer spectacle stopped people in their tracks: Locals who had long ignored the buildings in question began stopping to find out exactly what was going on. As crowds grew, and as awareness of subsequent evenings’ activities built, idle passersby turned into throngs and mild curiosity escalated into something larger and more productive. Questionnaires were utilized to capture additional information, feedback and suggestions for how the buildings might be used. Participants were provided with walking maps to additional structures and encouraged to attend future interventions and continue the dialogue.

Left: Abandoned property on West Main Street, Charlottesville, Virginia. Right: William Culpepper (right) talking
to onlookers who are curious about the “Grafik Intervention” taking place.

Grafik Intervention establishes—and then builds upon—a rich cultural connection. The project effects change through an integrated collection of working parts: weaving a tapestry of historical context with the façade projections, encouraging neighborhood engagement and dialogue, determining exactly what sort of change is desired, providing channels for communication and creating feedback loops between citizens and policymakers. By generating initial interest, tapping into community pride and camaraderie, sparking—and then documenting—dialogue and through direct engagement and awareness, Grafik Intervention demonstrates how positive results can occur and motivate community members to take action and pride in their own neighborhood. Strong stuff.

After becoming the assistant professor of graphic design at Ferris State University in Michigan, Culpepper performed additional interventions, with his students’ help, that further validated the project and solidified its process. What has emerged is a flexible framework through which additional iterations can be developed and deployed—pretty much anyone anywhere can conduct their own intervention by securing the procedural guidelines and technical requirements for doing so from the Grafik Intervention Web site. As such, the project becomes a platform for co-creation, a broad participatory canvas in which any number of contributors can bring to life their own vision of their respective communities. Taken cumulatively, this project will ultimately build a narrative of the neglect and hope that defines our current economic condition and help to transform one of the most distinguishing features of the great recession.

Grafik Intervention does account for the factual metrics used to describe the plight of commercial real estate (leases, deeds, occupancy rates, square footage, etc.), but focuses on the more powerful emotional interplay found within a community. People who would never venture into zoning ordinances or concern themselves with commercial real estate are now engaged in a process that will have profound effects on those very things. While it is of course possible to use design in analytical fashion to present the numerical data that describes this plight, design's greater strength is its unique ability to touch people at an emotional level. By recognizing that people respond with their hearts before their heads, designers can create more meaning and make deeper impressions that have more resonance.

When the Living Principles invokes things like “visions,” and projects like Grafik Intervention encourage people to play a participatory role in the development of their own communities, designers are playing to their strengths as storytellers, facilitators and conversationalists. By establishing the cultural context in which these dynamics unfold and framing sustainable problems in ways that best suit their skill sets and interests, designers affect change by doing the sorts of things that designers do best. CA

Author’s notes:
The Living Principles Scorecard Worksheet can be downloaded at

Grafik Intervention can be seen online at and Hamlett
Trained as a graphic designer, Phil Hamlett has over 22 years of experience in a wide variety of design and communications roles, working for studios and clients large and small on both coasts. Currently, he is ensconced as a design educator (hence the use of words like “ensconced”) at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. As the driving force behind the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design and the founder of Compostmodern, his interest in developing sustainable business practice rounds out his time.