Posted Under: Guest Contributor,Q&A,The Designed Life
[Today: The return of guest Q&As to Murketing.com. This one comes from Nate Schulman, a master's student at California Institute of the Arts. He brought to Murketing's attention a recently completed graduate thesis project that you can read about below. More about Murketing.com Guest Q&A's, and how you can submit ideas of your own, here. Take it away, Nate.]
We all know about things like customizable shoes or DIY silk-screening outfits, which charge and assist you in the co-creation of “your” product. But those examples of “collaboration” are more about an end product than an end system. A thesis project by Joseph Prichard of the MFA graphic design program at the California Institute of the Arts offers a look at a different form of collaboration: Working with cyclists on a mapping system for cyclists.
His 4th Street Bikeway effort created an informational graphics system for a Los Angeles bike route, and involved Angeleno bikers in the process. I had a class with Prichard, and what interested me about his project was that the end-user/consumer of the program he come up with had a role in its creation — but in a new way. And I had a few questions. Those questions, and Prichard’s answers, follow.
– Nate Schulman
Q: Tell me how this project came about. Those not in Los Angeles might be asking: “People bike in LA??”
A: It started out with the vague notion of wanting to design something that would address some of the transportation problems we have here in Los Angeles. I’m not an engineer or an urban planner, but I feel strongly that there is a role for graphic design in encouraging alternatives to car use in our city.
The initial idea was a speculative redesign of the signage for Los Angeles’ 4th Street bike route. The goal was to design a comprehensive system that would make the route more attractive to potential cyclists — something that would address the shortfalls of current signage and hopefully serve as a model for future route planning.
To create a system that really spoke to the needs of the cyclists, it was important to me that I have members of the cycling community contribute to the design process. To that end, I held a series of participatory workshops where I worked with local cyclists to determine the form and content of the final system.
As the project progressed, a second component emerged that came to be as important as (or more important than) the first. In addition to the proposed “official” signage system, I designed a set of tools and templates that would allow cyclists to easily create their own DIY bike route signage. My aim was to involve cyclists not only in the design of the system but also in its eventual implementation and expansion. By providing a set of open tools, my intention was to give people the ability to design for their own needs.
What was the most exciting moment of the process? Likewise, were there moments of panic (a true testament of a thesis ;0)? If so, how did you work through them?For me the most exciting aspect of the project (and sometimes also the scariest) was the way in which I was able to interact with the local cycling community. As a graphic designer it is exceedingly rare to have direct contact with the audience you are designing for. Establishing that connection was something that I think really enriched the entire project. The workshops brought the audience into the process as collaborators and also gave me the opportunity to see first-hand how they reacted to the work I was creating.
The most stressful parts of the project mostly had to do with simple logistics. Could I find a place to hold the workshops? Would I be able to recruit enough cyclists to contribute to the project? Things like that were what caused me the most grief. In the initial phases it was also difficult trying to limit the scope of the project to something that I could actually get done in the given time frame. My tendency was always to want to go big with everything I was doing.
Fortunately I have a very pragmatic wife who was always there to talk my head out of the clouds.
This is kind of a tricky question. I don’t know if I would necessarily call cyclists my “target audience.” It would be more accurate to say that the cyclists who participated in my workshops were my collaborators — and that collectively we were trying to “target” non-cycling Angelenos and convince them to give biking a try.
Of course, to convince cyclists to participate in the workshops and to ultimately make use of the DIY tools I suppose some degree of marketing was (and still is) necessary. Mostly that has been done through the web or just old-fashioned word of mouth. Several LA cycling groups were kind enough to send out announcements about the project (as well as a survey about bike route signage) to their members. A few local blogs picked up on the story as well which helped spread the word. I also had a blog of my own that served as a clearinghouse of project information. Fortunately I was addressing an issue that is extremely important to most cyclists so it wasn’t very difficult to get people excited about the project.
As a flat, intensively long stretch east-to-west, 4th seems an apt choice for the system. How have your experiences as an Angeleno helped you prepare for this project?
Los Angeles has a reputation as being a very hostile environment for cyclists. While in some cases this reputation can be warranted, it is a lot easier and more enjoyable to get around the city by bike then I suspect most outsiders would guess. Even among long-time Angelenos, there seems to be a real fear about the perceived dangers of cycling.
Having lived and biked in this city for some years now I was able to look past LA’s reputation as a car town and see the possibilities that existed for making this a more bike-friendly city. If I had come to this project from a different background I probably would have been blind to that potential.
What projects and readings inspired you as you began work on the bikeway? Were they LA-based?
I looked at a lot of different projects and design interventions while working on the Bikeway. Locally there are tons of people doing interesting work that explores our relationship with the urban environment. Groups and projects like Fallen Fruit, Heavy Trash, 4th Street Bike Blvd, RideArc, and Islands of LA (to name just a few) provided some really great models to consider as the project was first taking shape. Local cycling groups like the Bicycle Kitchen, & the LA County Bicycle Coalition were also important resources and sources of inspiration.
In terms of critical writing my two biggest influences were the designer researcher Elizabeth Sanders, a champion of the idea of “collective creativity”, and the urban planner, Kevin Lynch, whose book Image of the City was immensely helpful in framing my thinking.
I love the optimism of student projects, but worry about their insularity. In hopes this project affects professional practice, I’m wondering, have you heard from anyone on that side of the fence about the dreaded real-world ‘p’ word — practicality?
One of the advantages of the DIY component of this project is that it can be implemented quite easily. Anyone with access to a computer and a printer can download, customize and print their own bike route signage. So in that sense the project is very pragmatic.
How (or if) this project will ultimately affect professional practice is still very much an open question. In some sense you could regard the DIY portion of the project as a testing ground for the “official” signage system. If the DIY signs catch on and prove effective, hopefully there will be a trickle-up effect, where people in the planning community take notice. Thus far my focus has mostly been on refining and publicizing the DIY tools. In the future I hope to do more to reach out to the design and planning community.
During the workshops, did you have a general idea of what people would deliver in response to your prompts? Was there anything utterly astounding? Something that made you really happy — or really sad?
As I’m a cyclist myself I did have a general idea of the kinds of concerns that people would raise in the workshops. There were some surprises in terms of the priority that people placed on various functions of bike route signage, but nothing mind-blowing.
What did surprise me was how savvy everyone seemed to be about the design issues that needed to be considered. The goals of the workshops were to determine what was lacking in current bike route signage, and to come up with ideas for addressing those shortcomings.
Going into the process I was unsure how helpful the workshops would really be in dealing with this second challenge but in the end a lot of the ideas for structuring the signage system were things that came directly from these discussions. It made my job as designer a lot easier.
Murketing.com thanks Nate Schulman (nateschulman.com) for the questions and Joseph Prichard for the answers. See 4thstreetbikeway.com, semioticsoftheride.blogspot.com, and JosephPrichard.com for more.