Design in Public and the Seattle Design Festival
SUSAN SURFACE (MArch ’12)
Program Director, Design in Public
Design in Public, a strategic initiative of the American Institute of Architects Seattle, is the 501(c)3 entity that produces the Seattle Design Festival. Its stated vision is of “a future Seattle – recognized as a world design capital – where communities, designers and leaders work together to create their shared best city.” The organization exists to promote this place and its industries, and is very much aligned with the tradition of courting global visibility through the production of cultural events and exhibitions. As I come from an organizing background that is more grassroots and less 501(c)3, I work to shift our priorities and policies somewhat, while remaining within this framework.
At Design in Public and the Seattle Design Festival – which just wrapped up, having run from September 12th to September 25th this year – we focus on what is happening, what is needed, and what best serves the people who live in Seattle. We have learned our lessons from San Francisco, New York City, and London, places that have intentionally and rapidly transformed themselves into bland, expensive parking lots – and concluded that we should first take care of our own. Rather than seeking to convene an international array of experts and leaders, we are invested in promoting and showcasing local talent.
Our efforts are multidisciplinary and encompass all design professions – architecture, planning, graphics, interiors, UI/UX, industrial, landscape, and others. Further, we recognize that design, as such, need not be professionalized, and we work to educate designers about the efforts and accomplishments of citizen-experts all around us. We see the Seattle Design Festival as an opportunity both to show off designers’ efforts and aptitudes, and to educate designers about work accomplished outside of professional confines. To this end, we maintain a robust “family” of designers, policymakers, business interests, and other people engaged in and affected by design decisions.
As organizers of the Pacific Northwest’s largest design-focused event, we are constantly evaluating our policies, programming and content according to standards implied by the following questions: “Who does this benefit? Who might be excluded? How can we rectify that?” We view both the organization and the event as opportunities for wealth and resource redistribution, and we are proactive and transparent with sponsors and program partners with whom we anticipate concerns or ethical conflicts. For example, two of the Seattle Design Festival’s sponsors are an architect and contractor for our county’s new Children and Family Justice Center, a $210m juvenile detention facility which has been the focus of substantial public scrutiny (Seattle’s own City Council recently passed a resolution to completely eliminate juvenile detention.) When Design in Public received a program proposal from a community group involved in protesting the youth jail, we immediately told them of our sponsors’ affiliation so they could make an informed decision about their continued participation. The sponsors were also contacted and invited to participate in the event, though they declined the invitation. The community group ultimately chose to convene their panel at our Conference, and a rich conversation ensued.
The Seattle Design Festival’s programs are scheduled through an open call. There is no application fee and no specific requirement other than that the content must pertain to design, and should address the yearly theme – in 2015, that was “Design for Equity.” The theme we choose establishes our programming for the full year, not only the two-week long festival. We understand the concept of “Design for Equity” to be the bare minimum standard for any adequate, competent design process or product, and not a special category comprising “extra-good,” or somehow superfluous “do-gooder” activities.
Since we basically outsource our programming through an open call for programs, the events at the Festival truly reflect the interests and priorities of people in our city. We accept programming of all types (exhibitions, films, lectures, panel discussions, tours, performances, and more); from all types of hosts (design firms, individuals, artists, lawyers, city agencies, real estate developers, community activists); and in all types of venue (from luxury showrooms and museum auditoriums, to free spaces in community centers and branch libraries). We have rigorous quality control standards, and insist that all groups involved adhere to the principle of “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Participants are not allowed to host events that talk “about” demographic groups, if those groups are not directly self-represented. If an architecture firm proposes a panel discussion on the design of domestic violence shelters, for instance, we require that someone who has actually lived in a domestic violence shelter be involved as either co-organizer or speaker.
We encourage participants in the festival to create programs with interactive and conversational opportunities, and to avoid hierarchical lecture-audience event models, whenever possible. We require program partners to make their events accessible by booking ADA-compliant venues, providing all-gender restrooms, and providing multilingual and ASL interpretation. The vast majority of our programming is free and open to the public, and all programs with fees have either sliding-scale or scholarship options. So that attendees are not burdened or excluded by having to arrange or pay for childcare, we maintain a policy that children, families, and breastfeeding are welcome at every Festival program – including those with technical, professional, and academic content.
One of our favorite examples of citizen-led public transformation comes from a community group called RBG the CD, or Red/Black/Green the Central District, a historically Black, working class neighborhood. Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) recently inaugurated a special project to paint several sidewalks in our historic “gayborhood” in rainbow stripes, spatially recognizing the history of the Capitol Hill area at Gay Pride 2015. RBG The CD then painted a Central District sidewalk in Red, Black and Green, colors associated with African diasporic heritage. SDOT’s immediate response was – thankfully – not to remove the new design, but simply to ask RBG the CD to modify the designs with reflective strips for nighttime safety. This direct action has since pushed SDOT to implement an open policy for neighborhood groups to design their own crosswalks. This is an example of a city agency playing catch-up to what our citizen-experts are already doing to mark public space as their own.
There is a tendency among architects and designers to describe their ambitions in the civic realm in terms of “bringing architecture and design to the public,” or “designing with or for the underserved,” or even “educating society about architecture and design.” Design in Public operates instead from the assumption that the amorphous “public” already understands the significance of architecture to contemporary society – themselves. They often know it better than those who are in decision-making and gatekeeping positions do, because they live with its effects.
In turn, we frame designers as everyday members of the public, rather than an elite category of professionals. We are neighbors who serve on community boards, march with #BlackLivesMatter, and show up to support each other’s efforts. We are skeptical of totalizing terms like “the community” or “the general public,” while we recognize that we are the public, too. By normalizing, and actualizing, this attitude through our work on the Festival, we hope to transform the principle, “Nothing about us without us,” into standard design practice. We encourage designers to un-learn their professional aspirations to heroism, so that we might all come to understand ourselves as collaborative, participatory visionaries.