Charlotte and A-Town were just a taste of what the American South has to offer: in this chapter of his road trip chronicle, Dave shares an optimistic outlook from New Orleans and Austin. Keep up-to-date with all of the adventures on Route 77 by following @DaveSeliger on Twitter!
Day 8: New Orleans, LA
In just two years, the work of creative studio Civic Center has become synonymous with grassroots urban revitalization in cities like New Orleans and Detroit. A visit to their studio was at the top of my list for my road trip plans, and I relished the opportunity to sit down with studio founders Candy Chang and James Reeves, as well as newcomer Olly Blank, to chat about Civic Center's history, philosophy and projects.
The Civic Center crew
Surprisingly, Civic Center actually began as a record label in New York before moving to Helsinki and eventually settling in New Orleans in 2010. Chang studied architecture, then graphic design, soon realizing that "design is pretty powerful and can get people's attention." But what for? Chang's answer came during a collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy in New York City. The goal of Street Vendor Guide project was to allow the population of vendors in the city, who normally have little interaction, to connect and "share stories." Design could be used to facilitate the flow of information.
This experience led Chang to "focus on cities, but ignore the disciplines around it." Conversation centered around urban design in one's city can often be inaccessible because "design is cloaked in academic terms," although "at the end of the day, we're talking about very basic language." In recent years, there has been a dramatic shift out of the suburbs and back towards the urban centers of America. "People are starting to return to cities," said Reeves, both physically and psychologically.
A page from the Street Vendor Guide
A potential challenge is motivating all the members of a community to partake in the necessary conversations about their neighborhoods and lives. "People are lined up for Black Friday at 4:30am," said Reeves, "but how do you get people to line up to talk about their child's school?" A history of ineffective government can destroy citizens' faith in the systems behind education, housing and law enforcement. This fate is all too real for the good people of New Orleans, who are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina seven years later.
Yet the "most interesting things are happening where the government has been neglectful," described Reeves. Black market or unlicensed businesses emerge in the sidewalk cracks of the city, not by criminals, but by the common person "out of necessity." Civic Center helps to bolster this movement by providing the "tools and tactics to bypass the government." Reeves and Blank wondered aloud if this approach to government—or rather the lack-thereof—made Civic Center a political organization, but eventually decided that politics are besides the point when a government fails its citizens. "We want to see the government get involved in the conversation," said Reeves, "but it's not happening."
A poster hanging inside Civic Center
One theme about design in America I've encountered over the course of my travels has been about connectivity via the Internet. However, in New Orleans, where less than half of the residents have access to the Internet, connectivity within communities needs to be rethought. "People feel if they retweet something, they're making a difference," said Reeves. This desktop do-gooder mentality is only compounded by New Orleanians' aversion to outsiders and, well, maybe the Internet is not the answer to all problems of creating connections. In many ways, Civic Center is truly a return to analog forms of communication. Similar to her experiences with street vendors, Chang wants to leverage the knowledge in a community. "You don't bump into every neighbor," said Chang. "Potential wisdom doesn't get passed on."
Civic Center's house-cum-storefront-cum-studio
Although Civic Center is well-known in the design world, the founders don't even see themselves as designers. "I just think that the word 'design' is meaningless," said Reeves. "It's so ambiguous." Chang simply sees the Center's mission as one of "restoring dignity to public spaces" and creating channels of communication between community members. This sentiment about design is something I've now encountered numerous times on my trip: design in America is becoming less about which "professional" field of design you work in and more about making connections between disciplines in order to solve complex problems. And Civic Center is a perfect example of this: the studio's immediate future includes opening a storefront, publishing books, going back to their roots to start a vinyl record label, inviting a law firm into their space, and just "bringing in people who make cool stuff."
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Day 10: Austin, TX
While I was in Texas, I stopped by the Austin Center for Design, the social entrepreneurship educational program started by Jon Kolko. Chap Ambrose of Pocket Hotline and Alex Pappas of Hour School, students in the program's first session last year, were there to greet me at the Hackberry house (half-jokingly referred to as the "Halfway House") and talk about their experiences in AC4D.
Chap Ambrose and Alex Pappas of AC4D
"The basic premise of the school is taking design methodologies and applying creative problem-solving skills to things that matter," said Pappas. AC4D students work with the ideal that "people are more important than things." Each year brings a new topic of focus—the first year tackled homelessness, while this past year addressed nutrition—such that each student works on developing services that relate to the theme. But the projects don't just stay in the studio after graduation; the ultimate goal of AC4D is for the students to take their projects live in whatever fashion they see fit, which often means in the form of a social innovation start-up. The trajectory of classes at AC4D is meant to support this mission, with design classes at the start of the program and business classes by the end.
The first year of the program drew a diverse cross-section of students. Ambrose was working in a non-profit where he became interested in the "software side of things." Pappas was tired of working in the product design industry for companies like New Balance and Motorola. "I was sick of working on shit that didn't matter," said Pappas, "and designing more plastic crap for the world." Going back to school after such a long break was not easy, especially when all of the students were working full-time day jobs. However, Kolko had made a serious impression on his two former students from SCAD. "The program was unaccredited, we couldn't talk to former students, and the professors were all tentative," said Pappas. "It was a big risk, but I believed in the ideals. And I want to be surrounded by people willing to take a risk."
The long break from school also gives each student perspective. "At the age we're at, we all have had jobs," said Pappas, "so we understand that school isn't about getting an A. It's the catalyst to make you learn a new set of skills." For instance, Ruby Ku, co-founder of Hour School, had no idea how to code, but her web-based project required the skill. "People associate unaccredited and informal education with being lazy and not rigorous," said Pappas. "But Jon is a rigorous guy. His answer to 'I don't know how to code a website' is 'Well, fucking learn how to code.' You're held to extremely high standards."
The projects that come out of AC4D reflect the empathy the students are able to develop for social problems they may have never considered before. Pocket Hotline makes it easy for volunteers to help out with a non-profit's hotline; calls to the front desk are forwarded to a volunteer's cell phone, reducing pressure, for instance, on greeters at homeless shelters. Hour School allows the homeless to teach skills and give back to their community, leveraging the knowledge the homeless possess. "This changes their perception of themselves," said Pappas, "as well as society's perception of them." The students' enthusiasm for their projects doesn't end with graduation. "The biggest difference between AC4D and any other program," said Ambrose, "is that literally the next day after graduation everyone's in here working on their project."
Chief Experience Officer Peter Eckert of projekt202
I stopped by UX/UI firm projekt202 to speak with Chief Experience Officer and co-founder Peter Eckert who, like AC4D's Jon Kolko, also came from frog design. Eckert described what he sees as the evolution of the necessary skillset of the designer. "I don't think designers need to be good at hand-sketching anymore," said Eckert. "They just need to be good at creative thinking and problem-solving skills." Traditional design education focuses too much on the development of specific skills instead of creating designers who can adapt and work on real projects that require a range of talents. I've heard this opinion two other times as well, at the VCU BrandCenter and at AC4D. "Design research should also be taught," said Eckert, "it shouldn't just be psychologists doing design, but designers doing all aspects of design."
The Advisory Board Company's Austin space
Finally, I had the chance to meet with Scott Strzinek, Managing Director for Real Estate and Facilities at The Advisory Board Company, who recently led the redesign of the company's Austin office space in collaboration with the architecture firm SmithGroupJJR. "We're innovative with products," said Strzinek. "We just redid our logo and branding. But why not also be innovative with our space?" The space is divided into a series of different "neighborhoods," each with the ability to control its own lighting; some spaces I walked through were bright and bustling, while others were dark and calm. In order to foster opportunities for collaboration and creativity, there is frosted glass doubling as whiteboards built into a plethora of surfaces: walls, workstation dividers, doors, windows. A ribbon of reclaimed wood weaves through the space, creating nooks for both informal and formal meetings.
Austin is such a hotbed of new and exciting technology firms that it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract fresh talent. Beyond crafting an office culture that allows beers on Fridays and a ping pong table in the lunch room, similar to what recent graduates may have experienced in college, the workspace itself can be a tool to differentiate one company from another. "People come in and say, 'I don't know what you guys do, but I want to work here,'" said Strzinek. More importantly, though, is that design is beginning to be embraced by those who have had little interaction with it in the past but understand the psychological and behavioral benefits that are inherent in a well-designed space or product.
Notes From the Road
New Orleans is one of those cities that simply cannot be described; it needs to be experienced. So many other cities that I've spent time in could easily be confused for one another, but New Orleans stands out as extremely unique. The buildings, the people, the houses, the attitude—it all felt like I was in another country. New Orleans even has its own distinct smell (and not just the one on Bourbon Street). I wonder if all cities in America could be so unique. What if Boston embraced its colonial roots? What if DC embraced the wonderful monuments that are scattered throughout the city?
And yet Bourbon St. in New Orleans is perhaps one of the most despiccable places I've ever been. In these absolutely gorgeous buildings with amazing architecture and details, there are more bars than I can count, strip clubs, sex clubs and hookers hanging out on the front step. It's truly a clash of cultures: imagine Las Vegas condensed into a foreign street from Epcot. The result is simply chaos. My friend described New Orleans as a city that thrives on chaos, though. No other city could take such a disaster as Hurricane Katrina in stride.
The chaos also filters out into the residential communities. When visiting Civic Center, I had the chance to walk off the beaten-to-death tourist path and spend time in Bywater, which borders on the Lower 9th Ward. The shotgun houses are stacked nearly on top of each other, each painted in vibrant shades of orange, blue, pink, and green. Flowers and trees threaten to take over the sidewalks, if not the neighborhood itself. It is easily the strangest street of houses I've ever walked down and yet it felt like such an amazing place to call home. Each house seemed like it was truly lived-in, not a suburban cookie-cutter home waiting for some love.
Lastly, I was surprised to find out that New Orleans has become the newest Hollywood in America. The city has doubled for every location imaginable, which I find odd when the city is such a distinct locale in itself. Yet while walking with the Civic Center guys, we randomly stumbled on a Liam Hemsworth movie that was filming, using a classic New Orleans neighborhood to double for New York City. How anyone could mistake New Orleans for New York City is beyond me, but it's definitely cool that New Orleans is taking on a new role and, with that, an entirely new industry and economy.
Soundtrack to the Movie Adaptation of This Road Trip
1. Mogwai - The Sun Smells Too Loud
2. South - Paint the Silence
3. Communist Daughter - Not the Kid
4. Led Zeppelin - When the Levee Breaks
5. Rogue Wave - Lake Michigan
6. Frightened Rabbit - Head Rolls Off
7. Death Cab for Cutie - Your Heart is an Empty Room
8. Califone - Bottles & Bones
9. Elliott Smith - Angeles
10. Come Talk to Me - Bon Iver
11. Yes - America
12. Diplo - California Soul (Remix)
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.