Every step is an opportunity for an experience, a chance encounter. As we step into public spaces, these opportunities increase exponentially.
At home and in the studio, I take walks with others to work through details of a project. As we walk, we’re at the same time responding to our surroundings. Walking keeps our minds sharp; it improves my ability to think, to problem solve, and to develop ideas as they take shape. But I don’t think of walking as an active process of gathering thoughts, but rather extending a thought. It feels much like solving a maze.
Stanford researchers have proven that walking boosts creativity, suggesting that a person's creative output may increase 60% on average while walking.
Short Walks on Long Tangents
Lately, I’ve been walking two and a half miles to work. The slightest smile from a stranger fills me with joy, hope, and rejuvenation. My return smile is often met with increased acknowledgment—a widened smile revealing teeth, a kind greeting, a quick nod. I am so gratified by these quick exchanges that I’m always looking for more interaction.
Moving through public space can be transformative, and so these spaces have power, they are sacred and in need of mindful consideration.
While on these walks I come across neighbors, friends, and strangers, dogs, birds, squirrels—all things that can provoke me to think and act. I also come across various forms of communication, that fall into the categories of signage and advertising; both help guide me through my day, but they don’t often provoke me.
Provocations Lead to New Associations
Here is where I see an invaluable opportunity. Our public spaces—where our minds are the most active—need more ideas. Diverse ideas, sans agenda, that can provoke new thoughts. Perhaps change our actions and thereby our lives. Perhaps change the world.
Design can and should play a larger role in shaping our cities. Certainly through the first order of how things look and appear, but more profoundly the second order, the cultivation of an increasingly mindful public.
This isn’t exactly a new idea, just one the contemporary American metropolis has forgotten or under-prioritized. Most EU countries have regulations to avoid the unaesthetic effect of poorly-made public communications. This in turn creates increased opportunities and responsibility for more skilled practitioners to build the visual landscape. Case in point: Chicago’s sister city Lucerne, where the public poster is prized as the most relevant way of communicating. This is not due to the shape, but the contents and intention.
This can happen here. It is perhaps a very American approach to public space.
Freedom Within Vision
To quote Woodie Guthrie: “There was a big, high wall there that tried to stop me / Sign was painted, said "private property" / But on the back side it didn't say nothing / This land was made for you and me.”
The most poignant interpretation of this line comes from Chicago artist Lindsey Dorr-Niro: “A moment of freedom within vision, a structure and field filled with potential.”
This is what I see for great ideas in the public space, freedom within vision.
This summer, I took on the role of Lead on the Great Ideas project at the Chicago Design Museum. With permission from John Massey, and collaboration with the Museum's Matthew Terdich & Tanner Woodford we have been charged with renewing one of the nation’s most historic, landmark advertising campaigns.
For 25 years, the Container Corporation of America commissioned the day's avant-garde creative to visually interpret quotes by leading scientists, philosophers, and academics. These works were then circulated through traditional media channels. The general public was seeing the likes of Paul Rand, Herbert Bayer, Saul Bass, and René Magritte conveying the thoughts of Mark Twain, Alfred North Whitehead, and Theodore Roosevelt.
And they called it Great Ideas of Western Man.
Great Ideas of Humanity
Our revival, entitled the Great Ideas of Humanity, acknowledges globalization and celebrates the cross-pollination of ideas, philosophies, societies, and culture. We are connecting contemporary artists with important thinkers to bring continuation to this monumental series in serving the public interest.
The first two panels of our Great Ideas of Humanity campaign can be seen in situ in Chicago, at the intersection of LaSalle and Washington streets at the new Bus Rapid Transit station. Six more Great Ideas posters will be installed over the next two months.
002, Hugh Dubberly on John Dewey
001, Ivan Chermayeff on Oliver Wendell Holmes
The posters will remain up for the entirety of 2016.