Edited by Wil Renderos

This article references the book The Politics of Design

Danielle Coates-Connor: Hello, I’m Danielle Coates-Connor. I am the Chief Creative at Nonprofit Quarterly. I’m here with our Art Director, Devyn Taylor. Good morning, Devyn. How are you? Morning.

Devyn Taylor: Morning, I’m good.

Danielle Coates-Connor: Yeah. How’s the weather in Miami?

Devyn Taylor: It’s, well actually today, it’s rainy. It was beautiful all week, and then I had relatives come to visit, and then it rains. So, great.

Danielle Coates-Connor: Of course. Of course, right?

This is our reflective moment, Devyn. We are especially today talking about design and visionary imagery and what it is actually like when people authentically communicate. And where this is coming from is last week, right before our meeting actually, I really had to pull myself together to come to the meeting. I got a text from my friend Kendra Hicks’ campaign manager. Kendra Hicks is a brilliant visionary politician who’s running for her first City Council seat in Boston, District Six. And the reason I’m involved with this is not because I live there, but it’s because Kendra’s my friend. And I’m part of the care team where we’re really personally supporting Kendra as she goes through this grueling and rigorous process of running for office. And so I get this text from her campaign manager with a PDF that says, ‘this is the mailer that her opponent sent out that hit doorsteps today.

At first glance I noticed the words and what they were signaling, [image] which is a fearful discourse, and it immediately raised concern in me from a framing and messaging perspective. So I forwarded it on to friends to make sure we checking in on Kendra today if she was stressed out about this or how she was handling it. And it was then that a friend pointed out the design, which was racist. And I hadn’t noticed the imagery at first, but when you look at it here you can see, [image] clearly the contrast that they’re creating is around skin tone where Kendra’s opponent has very light skin, rosy skin, “Kodak China Girl skin”  as it’s described, and Kendra’s skin is darkened and she looks very shadowy. And has her campaign put it, it even makes her look menacing. And we know that’s a tactic people use.

The campaign rebuked and said they had no ill intent with this design, that they’d simply dropped the photo down to black and white to show contrast between the candidates and that the point of the flyer is to contrast them.

I looked at this as a designer and laughed at that, right Devyn? It’s just ridiculous to say that they didn’t alter this image and darken it in any way. But let’s just quickly go through the technical part of that. Devyn, can you walk us through what it would take to create this image of Kendra Hicks as they did in this flyer?

Devyn Taylor: It’s clear that the image wasn’t just desaturated; there was an opacity layer of some sort that was put over in order to create the effect that we see in the flyer. So you know, what the intention was behind that, obviously, I couldn’t speak to, but it’s clear that there was not just a simple desaturation there. There was some extra steps taken to get to the point that we see on the flyer.

Danielle Coates-Connor: And, conscious or subconscious, as you’re pointing to, Devyn, regardless of how they made that decision, the reality is that when we look at the politics of design, that is communicating a lot . I pulled out this book, The Politics of Design this week, and it details the way in which global narratives around the color of people’s skin have long upheld the idea that lighter skin is more pure and darker skin is more evil. This is well documented, and even the history of people describing themselves as white goes back to the slave trade. And so the idea that changing someone’s skin tone in a design piece, especially for a political candidate, especially for a district that has never had a non-white person elected, is extremely significant whether the campaign wants to admit that or not.

Now let’s look at the original photo which  I have seen before when our friends were on a text chain doing a fashion review on a text chain for how amazing Kendra looked on election day when she was out celebrating with communities since she was the person who topped the ticket in the district that day. You can see here, Kendra is in community, she is celebrating, and her face is not shadowed the way it is in this flyer.

Devyn Taylor: There’s so much schema that informs just the way people look at individuals with darker skin. And if you’re going to deliberately make changes to get to the point where the opponent’s skin is darker, then that’s coming from somewhere.

Danielle Coates-Connor: And you, Devyn, have been creating a visionary library of images with all of the branding work that you’ve done at Edge Leadership, with all of the illustration work that you’ve done for Nonprofit Quarterly and for The Voice Lab. And I wonder if you could share a little bit about how it’s been for you to be working with this imagery, this visual language that you’re creating?

Devyn Taylor: Yeah. I mean, first and foremost, it’s been super rewarding. There’s just so much richness in everything that comes out of the people at Nonprofit Quarterly. So it’s really nice to be able to create kind of like these backdrop images to enforce and hopefully enhance everything that people are talking about, everything that people are bringing to the forefront. So it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a lot of fun.

Danielle Coates-Connor: And we have Amy Costello here, who is a producer. The two of you collaborated recently on a piece illustrating a poem by Dr. Dorceta Taylor, who’s one of the leading thinkers in the world on environmental justice. Amy, welcome.

Amy Costello: Thank you, Danielle. It’s good to be here.

Danielle Coates-Connor: This piece that you two collaborated on is stunning, I think. I wonder if you could bring us in to this project, explain what is the poem that you were working with and what you all made? Maybe we’ll start with you, Amy, bring your voice in.

Amy Costello: Thank you. Yeah, our colleague who is in charge of the magazine at NPQ had brought to us a poem that Dr. Dorceta Taylor at Yale University – one of the nation’s leading scholars on environmental justice – had written a few years ago in which she describes the irony of black people in this country being encouraged to kind of go out and enjoy nature. Yet, incredible risks and deadly consequences at times they face when they do go out and try to enjoy nature. This poem illustrates through three kind of case studies, what has happened to certain black men when they’ve gone out into nature.

And as soon as I started listening to it, it was so visual and so powerful that I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to try to illuminate her narrative with some ambient sound, as we call it. And so I’m kind of a radio producer and audio nerd, and I just thought it would be amazing to bring in sounds from the natural environment to accompany her words. And so, you know, that’s what I did. And I had two very specific ideas in mind when I was thinking about the soundtrack to accompany this poem. And the first one was that I wanted it to be really spare, and not to compete with Dr. Taylor’s powerful words. And so I never wanted to compete with her voice but rather just have this quiet undertone beneath her, to kind of convey a sense of space. It was important that any sound we added would add to the experience of the black people profiled in this poem and not the white people that they were interacting with – that this was definitely a poem about the experience of black people out in nature and the dangers they face. And so the sounds I chose—you can hear, for instance, a heartbeat or breathing—an d so what I was trying to do is to bring the viewer in to the perspective of the people being profiled. And I didn’t add sounds to the white people’s perspective, for the most part. It’s not their story. And so those were the two guiding principles I used when doing the soundtrack for this piece.

Danielle Coates-Connor: Powerful, Amy. Thank you. And simultaneously, Devyn, you were working your magic. You had a original recording, you had the what came out of the Yale studio, just the raw recording of Dr. Taylor. And tell us what you went through.

Devyn Taylor: Yeah, I think it’s interesting hearing Amy talk about it, because I think we had a lot of that same experience coming, and it sounds like we’re coming from a lot of the same spaces without even having had this conversation before, so I’m gonna echo some of the things she was saying about really keeping the soundscape quiet. That’s what I wanted to do with the visuals as well is keeping the visuals quiet in a way. So the method I used was line drawing, which is really a medium of drawing that I only recently got into, and I think it has its place, for sure. Line drawings are typically made with one continuous line, or two or three, however many. Very few. And I love them because it does create connection between all of the pieces and the image. They’re usually, it’s one line that’s continuing throughout the entire image, so you pick up the stylus very little. And again, it just kind of creates a spirit, if you will, of continuity throughout what you’re seeing on the screen. And they’re also very yeah, they’re pared down, and they’re not very dense images—you only see the one line, the outline of what’s happening. And so it does create kind of a quietness of visual language. You’re looking at something that is just barely there and there enough to get the point across but isn’t something that’s overpowering. And what I really wanted to make sure of is that the visuals weren’t overpowering everything that Dr. Taylor was saying, because that’s the point is hearing her voice, really feeling what it is she’s talking about, and really putting yourself in that moment. And the visuals are also hard to look at for some of this. There’s a lot of videos out there that exist of a lot of these encounters.

The George Floyd video’s out there, the Christian Cooper video is out there, Ahmaud Arbery’s video’s out there. And whether you’ve seen it or not – some people chose not to see it because they knew what was on those tapes and that it would be a very difficult experience to watch, so—it was about really trying to find the balance of paying homage and giving justice to these stories and bringing that imagery forward, but also not bringing so much through the hard parts of that. So anyone can watch this without feeling like you’re being assaulted with these very violent and brutal images. One thing I did make sure to do was bring the actual outlines and the actual images from these encounters to the forefront. So the image of George Floyd, for instance, is actually from police body cam footage. The image of Ahmaud Arbery, there’s kind of that truck with these three armed men kind of following him, and those three armed men are literally just outlines of some of the video footage from that encounter as well. The pictures of Amy Cooper are cell phone footage of Chris Cooper’s, where she’s calling the police and holding her dog. So they’re really the outlines of these things that really happened, because again, I wanted to serve justice to those moments without bringing in the brutality of the real images themselves.

Another thing I want to echo that Amy also touched on is really bringing in the experience of the people we’re talking about—the black people who are experiencing these moments of microaggressions, macroaggressions, violence, death. So, I wanted to make sure that the stories didn’t become about the aggressors, and I think that that comes through in some of the ways that I don’t draw the features on, for instance, Amy Cooper. We don’t see her face, and it’s not because of—we just don’t have to. It’s not about her. It’s about Chris, right? So I wanted to make sure that the focus stayed where it needed to. And so I can echo Amy in that, in saying that I made a conscious effort to try and keep the stories of the black people in the forefront.

Danielle Coates-Connor: Thank you, Devyn. Amy, you worked with tape from these events as well. What was the thinking that you put into that?

Amy Costello: Well, the one piece of kind of archival tape that we used is the encounter between Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper in Central Park—and for those who aren’t familiar with the story, there was an altercation between Chris Cooper who is a birdwatcher who was trying to watch birds in Central Park, who was then confronted by a white woman with her dog unleashed, which is against rules in Central Park. He asked her to put the dog on a leash, and she refuses and calls the police on him. And I thought it would – and again, this sensitive line that we’re looking at about whose story are we telling? What visuals are we bringing in? What audio are we bringing in to keep this from the perspective of the black people we’re profiling? And I made a decision to, in consultation with you guys as well, of course, to bring in this archival tape, because there  was archival tape of Amy Cooper’s phone call to the police. And I thought it was important to kind of lay bare the egregious behavior and language that she used against Chris Cooper. And so, in this instance, we do hear her, and then we hear a very reasonable Chris Cooper speaking back to her. So I thought it was powerful audio to use. And I think it’s nice to kind of bring in that archival audio.

And the one other thing I want to say—because we’re talking about ethical design, and ethical storytelling in a way—is that I think it is important to note that we were in touch with Dr. Taylor, the author of this poem, throughout our process. And I think that’s so important when you’re using other people’s work or elevating other people’s work as we were doing in this case. With such sensitive and highly personal material to Dr. Taylor, it was a highly personal poem, I thought it was really important that we have her as a partner in this. And so I shared with her before we even started what I was envisioning for this piece—to bring in some audio that would ultimately be an animation—and she was very supportive and really, I think, quite happy that we were doing this with her work. But I just think that’s important to say, that we were in consultation with her throughout the process.

Danielle Coates-Connor: And when we think about capturing and expressing truly authentic voices, it is about that consultation, of saying, we’ve added a layer of meaning to this, did we get it right? And I think what I’ve been noticing at NPQ is that the more space that is created for authentic voices, the more interesting our content becomes. And it’s the same thing I see in Kendra’s campaign—when her opponent is going after her authentic points of view, Kendra is doubling down  with the truth of her lived experience. She’s saying, my policy platform derives from my lived experience in this city, and there are tens of thousands of other people like me. And I think that this kind of storytelling, these kind of ethics that we’re discussing here where we think about all of the different components of a story—from the tone of the visuals to the tone of the sound to whose perspective is truly highlighted, and “is this as authentic as it can possibly be?”—is, I think, a new strategy in storytelling that I’m mostly seeing led by women of color who are speaking truth, and it’s amazing to watch it resonate.

So, with that, these are the deep thoughts from the Creative Department at Nonprofit Quarterly, coming at you live—or not live, as it may be. Thank you, Devyn and Amy, thank you both for the work you’ve been doing, and thank you for sharing your thoughts today. And we want to know from everybody out there, what are you guys talking about? What do you want to hear about from us? What are you thinking about in all of these different layers of how our stories are designed? And what are the stories that we need to shift consciousness in the society and bring about the world that we are all dreaming of? That’s why we’re here. You get a hold of us if you want to talk more. Take care. Bye bye.