Section Logo
Facebook   Twitter   LinkedIn   Email  

Page2of 3
< 1 2 3 >
Not in Agreement
Progress is so messy

by DK Holland

Are you an ultra conservative, conservative, moderate, progressive or ultra progressive? While you’re supposed to check only one, “depends” is probably the more accurate answer. Humans are three-dimensional. Our multi-level viewpoints allow our minds to hold onto several concepts at once—and that’s key to understanding and learning. It puts us in the room with other complex individuals and, while we are apt to disagree on many things, we can probably agree on some things, which opens the door to cooperative and empathetic dialogue—and respect for others with whom you disagree. We often rely on good-hearted intermediaries to help turn that which is muddled into meaningful clear communication.6

In 2011, in the midst of a stellar career in graphic design, Sylvia Harris formed Citizen Research & Design to provide accessible communication to mass audiences.7 Her clients had always been universally non-commercial and her work was dedicated to clearly presenting essential information, never propaganda, to the general public. Harris was an African American born and raised in the segregated South of the 1950s at a time and place when the Klu Klux Klan still demonstrated openly. She moved north to study design at Yale and dedicate her career to information design. Designer David Gibson, her friend and partner for many years in Two Twelve (a graphic design firm well-known for wayfinding and information design), spoke movingly at her memorial, “She had a fierce desire to do the right thing that combined beguilingly with a graceful, youthful, easy charm...Sylvia was always learning new things, and once she had mastered them, she wanted to share the experience with the rest of the world.”8

Citizen R&D’s work centered on information design and wayfinding for clients such as Medicare, the US Postal Service, NYU, the ACLU and the US Census. Her perennial questions were “How will the user use this? What do we need to provide them? How do we best provide it?” When you get a delivery slip from the USPS, you see Harris’s hand on that slip. Or you buy a beautifully-conceived and executed postage stamp, you know that Harris’s advice to the USPS made that stamp possible. When you confront a behemoth like Medicare, imagine Harris patiently—and inexplicably cheerfully—helping to sort through all the dysfunction that bureaucracies create to end up with clear, helpful and well-designed communication tools.

Harris was a member of the legendary Park Slope Food Coop, a 40 million dollar a year member-run store in Brooklyn, New York, for seventeen years. Motivated largely by mutual values, each and every one of PSFC’s 16,000 members works shoulder-to-shoulder to bring affordable high-quality food to its membership. psfc needed a wayfinding system for the front of the store and Harris offered to convene a group of members to distill the need as well as to teach and train them about how this could best be accomplished. This sounds like the ultimate nightmare scenario: a professional guiding opinionated amateurs—all co-owners, all equals. Jessica Robinson, general coordinator of PSFC, says, “She walked them through a really smart process. I’ve never met anyone who had a more balanced ego. She was so professionally successful and yet able to sit down with a group of people with no design background and be an enthusiastic, nonjudgmental listener. She always found a way for people to participate. It was almost like she didn’t hear disagreement. She heard content not tone. She’d move right past negative emotions and the tension would leave the room. Robinson, who knew Harris through the coop for many of her years there, adds, “She absorbed people and their ideas, integrated them into her life.” A charismatic woman, a practicing Buddhist with a spring in her step, Harris was everyone’s best friend. The motto over her computer station was “Work hard and be nice to people.”

In July 2011 Harris e-mailed me about her new venture, Citizen R&D, which she was running out of her family’s brownstone in Brooklyn. I watched her explain in videos exactly how information design was done on the elegantly simple website she had just launched. I mused, “You are giving it all away, girl. No designer does that.” I smiled: This was the big heart of Sylvia Harris, the quintessential good citizen. Two days later she spoke at a USPS conference on federal stamp design in Washington, DC. Robust and vibrant as always, Harris gave an animated talk but, as she returned to her seat, she slumped in her chair. As the applause died away, tragically so did her big heart. Even though she was revived, she was unable to regain consciousness. She died at the hospital, with her family present. She was 57.

Feeling stifled? Conflicted due to insecurity? Confused by hard-to-figure-out mores or twisted rules of popular etiquette? Miffed by other people’s emotional issues? Not to worry, this happens to most people as they grow up. It helps to keep in mind that as tortured as most of us are, most of us just want to do the right thing.

But what is the right thing? While most people are moderate in their beliefs, extremists cling to irrationally-held views, obsessively refusing to compromise on what they feel is “the truth.” Extremists act as catalysts for dialogue. This allows the vast majority of us to dip our big toes in the extremist pool just long enough to hop back out with everyone else hanging out on the centrist shore. And through this process the majority becomes more fully informed and as a result the center shifts just a little to the left or the right. It’s how radical PETA putting a spotlight on animal rights helps the more moderate ASPCA. It’s how Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party wake up a sleepy moderate electorate. It’s how the flamboyant Gay Pride parades are helping marriage equality laws to pass in many states. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.