Karl Sluis & Craig Stover – College for Creative Studies
The United States of America
“Common Sense” is an art exhibit consisting of 13 installations that examine the past, present, and future state of the American Dream.
Karl Sluis, Design Manager at P&G
Craig Stover, Staff Designer at Streng Design
This project was completed while the designers were seniors at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan, USA
A brave and imaginative intervention into the political arena which is too often avoided by designers. It treats a sensitive issue in a sensitive way. While it may e difficult to judge from such a distance whether the goal of attracting and holding the attention of a closed mind has been achieved, the courage to try deserves applause and emulation.
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
The American Dream draws a rallying cry from all – the American Dream defies definition. These two realities are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, draw upon one another, much like a catchy pop song with meaningless lyrics. For many, the American Dream signaled the better opportunities that would great each new generation. Evidence mounts that this Dream may be but a dream, a collective promise that amounts to only that – a promise, that can either be upheld or broken.
Glenn Beck --- “Death Panels” --- the Financial Crisis of 2008 --- Joe the Plumber: these were the challenges that inspired Common Sense. Despite our unfettered access to facts and figures, opinions, biases, and exaggerated narrative rule our social discourse. Spectacle, in its ability to command attention in an increasingly fragmented world, poses a true threat to understanding and stability. It does not pose a threat, however, to using the power of the spectacle to animate facts.
We set out to explore how we might make information more compelling – how we might make topics like history and statistics exciting – and what influence the tangible had on the spectacle. We experimented with and explored the idea of socially discursive design, design that addressed not the needs of one, or some, but the needs of all. Clearly, we were very excited to work on this project – it was experimental, intellectual, risky, and above all else, fun.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
We're both from southern Michigan and have seen some of the best and worst of the American Dream. What was once a land of promise and optimism is now a place crippled by the short-sighted decisions of the past thirty years. Make no mistake - we acknowledge a biased perspective. This does not mean that we cannot be agnostic and fair in our treatment of the facts that inform this perspective. We see no need to sing to the choir, to congratulate ourselves for our knowledge and understanding - we would much rather explore the facts and share what we've learned. If our biases are undermined, we'll share that discovery. If our beliefs are supported by history, we won't retreat from sharing the same.
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
We considered our interests, admittedly. Were we not to consider our interests, how could we possibly find something interesting to share? This was our greatest challenge - to create spectacle that might attract and hold the attention of a closed mind, and then open it, even if only for a moment. We considered the range of ages and biases that might visit our exhibition - we considered the degree, or even lack thereof, of political will in our audience - we considered the city in which we would present our work. To address these considerations, we reflected on and researched those matters related to the American Dream.
We were very fortunate to have fantastic support from the College for Creative Studies - we thought with care, and ambition, to make the most of the resources we were offered. To create a spectacle, an entire art exhibit created by two young men, in the course of six months, we had to carefully apply our limited time and expertise. Our project ran on tight timelines - our design reflected our needs for ease of manufacture and transport - our exhibit was scaled to our needs, then supported with efficient construction. We do not know what we would do without oriented strand board.
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
Common Sense required deep, deep research, analysis, computation, and visualization. Wikipedia and government database wesbsites, especially the Census Bureau's database, were invaluable assets for the project. In fact, the ability to do so much research at such speed was made possible only in the past few years. We synthesized a great deal of information and build a number of spreadsheets in Excel to bring together figures from different sources.
Our work also involved a great, great deal of testing and iteration. We put hard and brief limits on our initial brainstorming so that we could fail early, and fail often. Each individual exhibit is the result of many paths explored, dead ends reached, impossible problems met, and practical solutions created. Working largely with physical prototypes, experiments, and mock ups forced us to confront real, tangible problems, rather than continue thinking and thinking over our ideas. This careful balance of concept, strategy, and execution kept our project on time and on purpose.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
We certainly hope it's gladdening! We also hope it is educational and, if not paradigm-shifting, then at least a suitable counterpart to the current enthusiasm for information visualization and design.
We wanted Common Sense to encourage visitors in three specific ways. First, we encouragef people to think critically about the nation and the beliefs and principles that guide our political will. Rather than fall to the narrative static of media, we hoped to interrupt habits and encourage reflection. Second, we facilitated play, the open and safe experimentation with ideas and insight. We made room for silliness to foil seriousness. Finally, we provided an optimistic and fair look into the future, hoping that our visitors would look not at the pitfalls we face, but the opportunities for which we can reach.
We have been offered a berth in both an experimental exhibition space and a children's exhibition in Detroit over the course the past few months. We certainly hope that world hasn't heard the last of Common Sense.
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
Our project would have benefited from more perspective on the real needs of the immediate community, rather than lofty and earnest ambitions to attract the attention of wider culture. Detroit is a city in real need and our project would have benefitted from acting locally while thinking globally. We may have done more to open and change minds by simply getting out in the community and seeing what help we might be able to provide. Though we were rigorous about sharing our work and seeking the input of others, we may not have thought with a local or wide enough mind about the real problems that we face.
That, or use less helium balloons. Our helium reserves are dwindling fast, sold at fire sale prices far below market value, due to misguided legislation passed in the 90s. Each balloon of helium should be worth a hundred dollars, market value.