The first post-lunch session featured Project M, an organization founded by graphic designer and entrepreneur, John Bielenberg, on the premise that, as he puts it, the only way to make real change is to think wrong.
Project M began after Bielenberg heard a talk by Samuel Mockbee, the eponymous founder of Rural Studio in Alabama. Bielenberg wanted to model the objectives that Rural Studio applied to architecture within the field of graphic design. He wanted to encourage student designers to disrupt the conventions of their schooling and apply their skills to address community needs.
Project M has done work from Maine to Costa Rica and many places in between. In East Baltimore, an area plagued with all sorts of urban blight, a group of students executed an intervention inspired by the small neighborhood parks that have been installed on empty lots left after bulldozing crackhouses. In the spirit of "thinking wrong," Bielenberg readily shared the failure of the first good idea for this project. Initially the students had planned to hand out seed-empregnated pamphlets about urban landscaping which could themselves be placed in the ground and watered until grass grew. In practice, it didn't work, so instead they papered the windows of abandoned buildings with poster-size photographs of emerald grass. The intervention transformed a condemned block into a vertical landscape. Check out thisisnotgrass.com for more on that.
Bielenberg surveyed several other projects, but today's talk focused in particular on the work Project M has done in Greensboro, Alabama, in collaboration with an organization called HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization), directed by Pamm Dorr (who co-presented with Bielenberg today). Project M set up a permanent home and workshop in Greensboro, where HERO has been building radically affordable ($20,000) houses for members of the local community.
One recent collaboration between the two organizations was the Buy-a-Meter campaign. The campaign asks people to donate a water meter to a family that cannot afford access to clean water. The eight Project M students designed a compelling print campaign to support and promote Buy-a-Meter. It's a great example of using graphic design to make positive change—something that often seems confounding compared to the more tangible ways in which we've seen architecture and industrial design used towards environmental and socially-resposible ends.
The Project M website has about a thousand links to interesting places in case you'd like to lose yourself for a while in an armchair exploration of socially-engaged graphic arts.
When not working in design, Sarah Rich writes, talks and forecasts about food and consumer culture.