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Advertising is everywhere we look. It’s
spreading faster and faster to every corner of every street. Public
spaces, and the public in general, are helpless victims in this
aggressive invasion. There is an inherent sense of powerlessness when
faced with advertising messages, because we, as consumers, are treated
as passive recipients. Advertising doesn’t ask for our opinion. It
doesn’t engage us in an exchange. It only screams at us—whether we like
it or not. The corporations behind these ads simply aren’t interested in
listening to what we have to say because listening requires giving up
control and being open for negative feedback. So how can we, the public
have our voice heard? My own frustrations in confronting these issues
gave birth to a device that cracks the system.
Four years ago, I was working as an art director at a global advertising
agency in New York. The agency offered a good salary, friendly
colleagues, easy hours, great benefits and a glamorous business card. I
even had my own window office with a view, yet I was deeply frustrated.
Even though I came up with innovative advertising ideas, which the
client and agency both felt would engage consumers, the ideas always
ended up being killed because of the conservative mentality that
pervaded the corporate culture.
Clients and agencies tend to shy away from trying new approaches. New
means risk. The initial excitement clients had over my ideas quickly
gave way to fear of the new. Even if a good idea managed to escape the
agency walls, it would likely go through a barrage of testing to make
sure the ad didn’t offend anyone. The irony is, work coming out of this
process usually isn’t liked by anyone.
After four years of trying to make good ideas see the light of the day, I
realized I shouldn’t depend on others to make a great idea happen. The
only way was to do everything on my own: creation, funding, production
and distribution. I wanted to create a simple device that would
instantly transform the way people see ads, giving them the power to
respond. The speech-bubble sticker was the solution.
I financed the printing 20,000 bubble stickers and started carrying them
with me all the time. Whenever I saw a street ad with a face—BANG!— I
placed a blank bubble sticker next to it waiting to be filled by any
anonymous passersby. I placed empty bubble stickers on ads everywhere:
bus stops, telephone booths, subways, construction sites and building
walls. Surprisingly, bubbles were filled in very quickly. To my delight,
a lot of responses were smart and hilarious, so I started taking
pictures of the results. Soon, I had thousands of filled-in-bubble
In 2005, the Bubble Project
was launched. Here, people can find the collected bubbles organized by
themes: social commentary, sex and drugs, politics and religion, media
and fashion, art and philosophy, humor, and personal messages. There are
also downloadable bubble templates so people can make their own
bubbles, for free. The site was featured on Boing Boing
(the world’s biggest blog). In that one day, the Bubble site received
over 50,000 visitors. This crashed my server, but opened a whole new
world of possibilities. Other bloggers started to write about the
project. Magazines, newspapers and several TV programs started to
feature the Bubble story. Recently, Newsweek and ABC World News
both featured stories on the Bubbles. People around the world are
connecting with this project and are setting up their own Bubble sites:
Italy (progettobolla.com), Argentina (proyectoburbuja.com) and Romania (coming soon), are some of the newest ones.
Like money, advertising itself is not good or bad. I do believe though
that there are good and bad ways to use its power. I actually enjoy
advertising when it entertains or makes me think. Unfortunately, that’s
not the case with 99.9 percent of the ads I see. I also take issue with
the proliferation of outdoor advertising, encroaching upon our public
spaces. When we watch TV, we enter into an unwritten contract, agreeing
to watch shows for free, in exchange for consuming a corporate message.
Going outside now seems to have the same strings attached. The bubbles
instantly cut this string, transforming million-dollar corporate
monologues into free public dialogues. As my mentor and friend Stefan
Sagmeister pointed out, “everybody wins with the Bubble Project.” The
advertiser benefits because more people to look at their ads when
they’re bubbled, and the public finally gets a chance to talk back and
express themselves. We can all enjoy seeing the transformed ads once
given the human touch of the public’s point of view.
Video: AIGA Medalist Michael Mabry
About this video
Michael Mabry was recognized with the AIGA Medal for expertly melding design and illustration to create a playful and sophisticated visual language that is highly intuitive and intuitively right. Learn more about his work.
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Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, interview
While in school, design students learn many things, from design concepts like gestalt, processes from brainstorming to production, and even the technical aspects of software and code. All of that is essential to becoming a designer, but there’s one thing the typical curriculum may not cover: How to give—and receive—a good design critique.
How do we think outside the box? How do we generate new ideas? Lisa Schneller shares some answers to these questions, culled from her experience at AIGA San Francisco’s “D. Talks: Power-Up Your Creative Process” with Maria Giudice of Hot Studio, Ji Lee of Facebook, Rick Byrne of CBS Interactive and Josh Levine of Great Monday.
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