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Design + Occupy UC Davis: an Intervention

That one’s personally made sign could be seen by a global audience solidified the value of original graphics in a digital age, and underlined the important relationship between design and dissent.

by Glenda Drew

Email. Facebook. Twitter. You Tube. That’s how news spread about the November 2011 strikes and rallies at University of California-Davis. Scenes of Occupy UCD were distributed worldwide via electronic platforms, but the persuasive imagery was that of creative original signs, cleverly crafted Photoshop interventions, and homemade videos. In a media landscape dominated by corporate logos and cookie-cutter templates, yearning for the personal intervention, the handmade, the authenticity of design that comes from the engaged (enraged) citizen designer is on the rise! In fact, the reality that one’s personally made sign could potentially be seen by a truly global audience solidified the value of original graphics in a digital age and underlined the important relationship between design and dissent.

In the Fall of 2011, I was teaching “History of Visual Communications” in the UCD Department of Design. Teaching design in a research university is complicated; balancing the lofty goals of academic research with the practical goals of students and their career aspirations. Many faculty meetings have been devoted to (respectfully) battling the appropriate balance between design practice and theory and exploring design’s place in the humanities. As I organized lectures on the historical and technological developments of visual communications, I knew my students were more interested in practical aspects of design, the information they thought directly applied to their future design dreams—the rationality of corporate logos, the crystal clarity of infographics, the entertainment value of cereal box packaging and the use of white space in websites. We discussed many aspects of design, from technologies (pigment, reusable type, half-tones) to revolutions (religious, industrial, digital). As we balanced the many faces of design and their cultural, social and political impacts, we looked at the role of the role of design within the growing Occupy movement. Students met weekly in groups for critical discussions and simple visual exercises. During one such group activity (based on Russian Constructivism) students crafted simple collages, some expressing solidarity with the ideals of Occupy.

UC Davis joined the Occupy movement as an act of solidarity with sister campus, UC Berkeley. The first UCD strike was announced with a stark black-and-white flyer distributed via the usual suspects of social media channels. The flyer made “reuse” of a well-known graphic from the iconic posters of the May ‘68 French student uprisings, a silhouetted cop holding a baton and shield, created by the anonymous Atelier Populaire (the Popular Workshop). Ironically, our history class was scheduled to discuss that very graphic in our very next class. Only a subset of my students supported this first strike, so we attended for the first hour and listened to speeches mostly by faculty from the English department and graduate students. Teachable moments, teach-ins, classes on the quad; many of my colleagues contributed, but I wasn’t sure how best to engage my own students. In class, we continued to discuss the potential active role design could play and agreed to do something if another (albeit unfortunate) opportunity developed. Three days later, UC Davis became known worldwide as he Pepper Spray Campus.

In the afternoon of the now-famous Friday, November 18, I received an email from an excited, Occupy-active, student with a link to her homemade video recordings of her friends with linked arms getting pepper-sprayed by UC police. I watched with disbelief. Everyone watched. Emails. Tweets. Facebook posts. YouTube videos. My husband-person and I spent hours posting those links along with the students, and watching the numbers of viewers grow exponentially. By Friday evening, UC Davis achieved its goal of worldwide recognition, with a most undesirable reputation. By Saturday evening, a new rally was announced for the following Monday, where Chancellor Linda B. Katehi would address the Davis (and beyond) community.

That same Saturday evening my family and I were getting ready for a holiday trip, which we postponed so we could attend the rally. As soon as our kids were asleep, my husband-person and I made a simple poster recalling Martin Luther King’s strategy to peacefully demonstrate with linked arms, a tactic the UC administration had labeled as “violent.” On Sunday morning I text messaged a couple of my most active history students, reminding them we said we would do something, and encouraging them to design signs that would be easily printed for the rally on Monday. Later that day I was shopping with my eleven year old son, Rocket, for jeans, and students started text messaging with design ideas for posters. I was in the dressing room giving feedback on jeans and poster designs simultaneously! By voice, “Those are a little long,” with taps, “Do you think this design speaks to the greater ideologies of the Occupy movement?”

By Sunday evening, two student designs were ready for printing. A personal favorite (and crowd pleaser), showed an image of a student holding the world on his shoulders. The student designer, Mika Sakaue, described her inspiration: “I grew up working with my parents on their farm…we worked really hard; it’s not an office job. I saw my father’s back; just watching him work on the farm and trying to support his family…that family was a weight on him. Since the economy crashed and UC fees increased, my family has been really struggling to keep me in school. There has been a whole burden and weight on my family, and I also saw that pressure and weight on the students, especially during the protest. That’s how I came up with the graphics: The students, who are the future of America and the world, having to carry the weight and burden of the actions of the 1%.”

Sunday afternoon I also called another student to talk over the possibility that he make something stencilable, that we could spray paint live at the rally. I had heard about a “Hella Occupy” stencil artist at UC-Berkeley the previous week and felt inspired by the idea of real-time design activism, one that culminated in a fresh and free souvenir! Another vigorous back-and-forth email process began that ended around midnight, with comments, setbacks and progress. We ended discussing slogans ( “Off With Her Head!” didn’t make the cut). Student designer Theron Brown described his graphic process: “It’s going back to the old school street art…I was looking through some photos for some inspiration and I saw one of two people sitting on the floor holding hands from the Friday before (the pepper spray day), so I took that idea of the people sitting there holding hands just surrounded by the police officers, and made a simple graphic that would be stencilable…The police force seemed excessive. It looked like those officers were out there with full swat gear. They could do whatever they wanted to, to anybody who walks by yet there were these kids sitting in a circle and it seemed like who should be the one feeling threatened, the kids sitting in a circle or the officers, fully armored up? That’s why I put the tagline “Feel Threatened,” kind of like “Got Milk,” so it could be read in multiple ways.

The world watched the post-pepper spray rally on Explorer, Safari, Chrome and Firefox. The fact that my elementary school age kids were already on holiday break (thank you furlough days in a downsized economy), further complicated the day. Not only would the rally be very charged, but my kids would also be with me all day (parenting is about integration, right?). Not much could be better to an eleven year old boy than his own Xacto knife and a pack of blades! As the energy on campus elevated, students packed into my very small office wanting to help. The process became very participatory in unexpected ways, delegating cutting, taping and packing supplies. As we headed to the rally with partially cut stencils and the previously printed posters, the campus was buzzing with people biking and walking to the rally in droves. We were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of walkers approaching us, bicyclists stopping us in the street, to get our posters. We completed cutting stencils under a tree at the rally as a line formed almost immediately with demonstrators who wanted the stenciled-poster. A production line seemed to form organically with my son as the last to spray paint—shaking his paint can, stepping one foot forward and leaning into his stance like a pro (what don’t I know about his suburban life?). According to Rocket, “The first thing that we did was put a yellow circle in the middle of the paper as a sun or a beacon of light. We positioned people’s hands right over that sun. Then we sprayed on the cops in the background.” My daughter, Penelope, distributed the finished posters to the enthusiastic audience. Even my department chair stood in line for a poster!

The impact of what became a very participatory design process was significant for Theron: “I am admittedly a control freak. When it comes to my art I like to control every single detail of it, down to the pixel. When I build a website it has to be pixel perfect. Going into this knowing that others would help produce the posters on the spot, I built a template. It was pretty awesome to see that sometimes people would spray paint it a different way or use a different color than I imagined. It ended up looking so different, more profound in a different sense than I thought originally. “

The day ended with obsessive media scavenging to see the revolution as emailed, facebooked, twittered, you tubed, even televised. The Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Der Spiegel, Al Jazeera, and many others printed a photo of my gas-masked husband-person holding the result of our one-hour Saturday evening design intervention! Funneled through the channels of social media and networked communications, those graphic messages reached a global audience; unlike the hand-scrawled strike signs of demonstrations past. It was gratifying that In the age of social media, the graphic messages printed on posters and carried by demonstrators, continued to play a vital role and gave a public face to the movement.

Weeks later, in my department chair’s sparse conference room, I looked up from a ho-hum conversation about curriculum and saw one of Theron’s spray painted posters pinned to the bulletin board. Displayed alongside artifacts from my chair’s days at the Getty was the imperfect and unclean proof of design as praxis. I thought about what Rocket said about the posters after the rally: “You can use them for so many things! You can use them as posters at the rally by holding them up. You can use them also as posters to put on a wall for lots of people to see. You can save them because they’re really cool. They will stay for a long time and they are an amazing symbol.”

The posters remind us we were part of this movement. Both noun and verb, design has a profound impact on our lives, especially when it is personal and original. Designers have a great opportunity to harness the power of visual language to make meaningful messages and design education can support this (as well as the rationality behind corporate logos). Not only did we find a unique and helpful way to contribute to the movement, this design praxis significantly affected the students involved. As Mika recalled, “I was doing something that not only did I love, but it was also extremely meaningful and for the first time in a long time I felt alive and I felt like I had a purpose in the world.”

P.S.: This is a shout-out to all the design students who stopped by, shook & sprayed, bought more supplies and kept us company!

Glenda Drew is an Associate Professor of Visual Communication at the University of California, Davis, and is an interdisciplinary artist who has been exploring personal and social issues through digital, interactive media, Web design and installation for nearly two decades.

Copyright © Glenda Drew. All rights reserved.