Case study: Cards For Humanity

Client
Artists in the St. Petersburg Florida Area
Project Title
Cards For Humanity
Duration
January 2016 to Present
Description

Project Brief

This all started when my next door neighbor came over to help me move a bookshelf and then laughed at my command center. At the time, I was working from a large folding table, the 1970s hand-me- down kind with the brown faux-wood laminate flaking off, exposing gnarly patches of naked fiberboard underneath. My neighbor informed me that he was a furniture designer on the side, little did I know, and could hand-craft a real wood desk for me. He handed me his business card... I promptly returned the criticism with all of my endearing graphic-designery candidness.

This story would be more charming if I told you my neighbor made me that walnut desk. The truth is, I never did get a new desk. He moved away, although I still letterpress-printed his cards and then mailed them to him. And even though I was already self-aware of my un-pro desk, the encounter made me realize the blind-sighted side effects of one- track-minded professional craftsmen, including myself. We are great at making things. However, our skills and/or priorities are generally very specific.

Upon completing Co-Lab: Collaborative Design Survey, a four-year research project studying collaborative processes specifically within the field of Graphic Design, I learned that the model for (1) small-scale, (2) open-ended, (3) forced encounters (4) between diverse practitioners (5) ranked equally across a horizontal platform that (6) requires interacting in physical proximity, and (7) is mediated by some “excuse” or “distractive” element that stimulates play and (8) the freedom to fail, tends to work best. Considering all of these Co-Lab-inducing vibes, Cards For Humanity is an ongoing Collaborative Design for Social Change experiment to promote underappreciated local indie artists and their collaborative activities in my St. Petersburg community, through custom, hand-crafted calling cards.

Budget

Approximately $50 per artist and 20% of my time are donated to Cards For Humanity. This covers the cost of paper and other production materials. The purpose of the project is to test a barter system of traded arts services. As part of my practical research on Collaborative Design, the success of this experiment relies on the premise that the calling cards and design services are free for the artists, and experiments with unconventional designer/client fiscal relationships.

Research

My continuing research on Collaborative Design informs the Co-Lab projects that I have been conducting in the St. Petersburg community, including Cards For Humanity. Co-Lab: Collaborative Design Survey is a book and blog for the people, by the people. While the book juggles interviews, essays, and illustrations, digital pixels are infinitely cheaper, allowing a rich database of supporting research online. Co-Lab’s content is entirely original, fleshing out perspectives from a range of diverse, Collaborative Design practitioners. Contemporary design firms are small, voice-heavy, interdisciplinary collaboratives who own culture and combine authorship. Co-Lab is an argument for effective, socially aware futures by designers who think Collaboration Now = Design Punk.

On the website, 100+ diverse practitioner interviews from art and design studios across the States support this argument that small, interdisciplinary collaboratives can make anything from nothing. Some of the collaboratives include Project Projects, UnderConsideration, The Art Guys, The Questa Project, Type Together, The McCoys, Yale CEID, Play Lab, Eyebeam, Flux Factory, Aziz + Cucher, Mandel + Zakari, Free Range, Design Republic, Detroit SOUP, Graffiti Research Lab (GRL), Free Art and Technology (FAT), Jessica Hische + Russ Maschmeyer, Anna Wolf + Mike Perry, 0 to 1, Toormix, Quest University Canada, Bleu Acier, Baltimore Print Studios, Post Typography, The Infantree, OK Go, Animus Arts Collective, Brothers Dressler, Ninth Letter, Odyssey Works, Temporary Services, Ben Kiel + Ken Barber, Type Supply, Tomato, MK12, !nd!v!duals, MICA Center for Social Design, Skolos-Wedell, RISD’s ADColab, The Yellow Bird Project, and The Copycat. In addition to the Q+A case studies, the book features ten contextual essays on specific Co-Lab topics such as Sandboxing, Huddle For Warmth, Responsive Thinking, Artistic Responsibility, and Indies, that equip young and hungry designers with models for varying collaborative processes. The Co-Lab project was made possible by BIS Publishers.

Strategy

I very much enjoy making things for people, regardless of whether they want what I make or not. Cards For Humanity is all about repping the underground artshood. It’s the best way I know how to give back. Because I have been helping my artist friends with their branded identities at no charge for a while now, I have conceded to the idea that trading arts services is more worthwhile than treating colleagues as clients. At this point, the project has extended beyond the scope of my circle of artist friends. So the cards are free aside from the beer new acquaintances buy me when I get to know who they are. Pubs are essential meeting grounds for identity-related inquiry. Beyond what I learn about the artist from this initial conversation, the only other rule is that they are not allowed to have any say about their card’s design. This is mentioned at the beginning of the meeting. This is to promote craftsmen respecting fellow craftsmen. The way I see it, local indie artists are armed with quality-crafted cards, who spread the word of their design origins. Promoting a model for open-ended bartered services, I have found that offering this opportunity has not only encouraged more dialogue and camaraderie between artists and designers, but has increased the crossover of interdisciplinary arts activity and collaboration on other projects in my community. I am still surprised by the results. An idea that originally manifested as an ideal proposition has grown to the scale of a larger network of artists and designers supporting one another in various ways.

Challenges

The project started off slow. At first, I thought it was a complete bust. It took a few months following the initial round of cards that I had made for two separate artists before the project began to take off. Instead of proactively seeking more artists myself, I wanted to see what activity could result by word of mouth. I learned that if this project were replicated elsewhere, to encourage the designer to trust that it takes time for word to get around, as the artists disseminating their cards casually mention the origins and basis of the project to others, who may or may not be interested. Designing an initial round of cards for four or five artists might also speed up the process.

After producing cards for a handful of artists, the demand snowballs. I would have felt more pressure to keep up with the requests, however since the endeavor is pro bono, the artists were sympathetic to my delay. I also worried that there would be a few artists who would not accept the cards that I made them, however by stressing the idea that this was not a typical designer/client relationship, and assuring them that they had no investment on their part, this kept everyone’s egos at bay. I also think it helps that the artists are able to see the cards that I have made for other artists and approach me and my design decisions with trust. To my surprise, I have not had a single artist refute the cards that I have made.

And although the production costs typically didn’t exceed $50 per artist, that can still add up. Fortunately, my institution was keen on contributing to the project and funded my meager research costs. At this point, the project is even-keeled and self-sustaining.

Effectiveness

The most demonstrable proof is that the artists are using the calling cards! And I know they’re using them, because more and more artists come to me asking to play “the game” too. Furthermore, many of the artists have told me that their clients and agents love their new cards and are also receiving more business, thanks to them.

Kevin Yoder and Jesse Vance are my most notable success stories. Kevin was actually able to recently quit his job as a financial analyst at a local startup, and make the transition to pursue his passion of furniture design full-time. Kevin attributes the cards as the catalyst to his spiraling peak in freelance work. Jesse says that he has booked more noise fests at his nonprofit space, the Venture Compound, and was recognized for the Best Good News/Bad News for St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District. Now he is also a Senior Sound Technician at St. Petersburg College.

Aaron Dietrich, a St. Petersburg Labor Relations Union Organizer and Graphic Designer at P3 Marketing, formed the No Sirvice Underground Arts Collective, which was launched by the network of artists and designers he met through the distribution of Cards For Humanity cards. No Sirvice provides a movement for non-commercial creative resistance and the group hosts pop-up light+sound shows on Second Saturday ArtWalk events in downtown St. Petersburg, among other unsolicited activities. They continue to acquire members through Cards For Humanity.

I have also introduced this model for collaboration within the classroom. My students are asked to find and contact three artists in the St. Petersburg area, who they do not already know personally, and design+produce an edition of 500 calling cards for each artist. My students tell me they love the opportunity to meet new artists and make something for them without worrying about their client’s expectations. They say the stress-free creation is cathartic and it’s a refreshing change of pace from their other real-world projects. Also, that it feels good to design something that’s helpful for someone else’s career and feel validated when it’s well-received by the community. Upon graduation, they have already started to create communities of their own.

Additional information

Let’s Play!
I welcome anyone who lives in the St. Petersburg area and is interested in participating in Cards For Humanity to contact me! Additionally, I would also love to hear about other instances of designers who are inspired by this collaborative process to take up their own version of Cards For Humanity within their communities. Feel free to drop a line! designstudiocolab@gmail.com

Links

Cards For Humanity blog: http://co-lab.us/cards

Interviews:
 http://co-lab.us/blog/

Book on Amazon:
 https://www.amazon.com/CO-LAB-Collaborative-Design-Survey/dp/9063693737/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418054705&sr=1-1&keywords=co+lab

Book on BIS Publishers: 
http://www.bispublishers.com/co-lab-collaborative-design-survey.html