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Ferguson Voices: Hearing words on paper


Ferguson Voices: Hearing words on paper

Willhemina Wahlin


There are so many words on paper that I've read over the last few days, but first mention has to be made to the first responses to the first version of the design (which received a resounding 'no' - which I was hoping wouldn't happen but suspected it might, which is what all designers have to be prepared for!).

The next few paragraphs are not intended to offend or point fingers, but rather, are meant to be honest observations that I believe are important to this research project. The most important thing, I think, to note is that, although I sent the reasoning for the design approach with the PDF file, there was no direct response to those reasons. This left me thinking that the original full email wasn't read, or the responses were a little hurried. This is one of the down sides of designing in another country. Having said all of that, I am also interested in the gut reactions people had to the first design idea, because they too have worth.

My original email read:

I have an idea for the exhibition that came out of all of the research I've been doing. I just kept coming back to the home made protest signs and the idea of 'Ferguson Voices', as well as the way that PROOF does things - the down and dirty approach, no frills, you get it!

So I spent some time collecting images of protest signs, turned them into vector graphics and came up with what could be a good approach (well, I am really excited about it, but I know sometimes you don't like what I get excited about, so I won't get too excited yet!).

I was thinking I could get more letters and use them for people's names too - what do you think? The rest of the text will all be the same, but I'll choose something that goes with it well, but is nice and legible!

See attached PDF - you can see the signs that have been vectorised and then the exhibition logo.

Below are some of the comments received:

honestly, it's a little too cartoonish for my taste. it's too much like graffiti or like a ransom note, with some caps and some lower cased letters. these fonts add a levity to it that i dont think is what we're going for. [spelling and grammer from original email]

Although I don't want to take any of these comments personally, because it's all in order to be constructive, the trouble with these comments is that they don't really help that much. It gives me something NOT to do, but nothing really to get on with. There are two important points I can take from this, though - the word LEVITY provides an important clue. Secondly, that this project should avoid anything that alludes to graffitti.

The second comment was:

I don't think this is the way to go. We need to be more respectful. It feels more like taggers and they have a bad rep. it [sic] also is bad sterotype [sic] of disenfranchised breaking the law wanted to get heard. These people really thought about what they wanted to do and how to do. The whole point is that is was a transformiative [sic] experience to stand up. 

This last comment was probably the least helpful:

Who is this person? 

It again highlights the challenges of being far away and relying on other people to communicate your ideas on your behalf (even if they forward on your own words, they obviously need some further clarification). It also shows how important it is that ALL members of the exhibition project get their hands on the design brief and contribute to it. It was brought to my attention last month that other team members "don't have time" to create the information needed for the brief, but as this case shows, I believe we don't have time NOT to do it. Already I can identify one person who was not even included in the list of people included in the project (that has some decision-making power over it - of what kind I don't know) and another who has not been forwarded on the brief that I know of.

This creates a really difficult situation for a designer. Firstly, because there's no consensus on the direction of the design, the 'feel', 'look', etc. There's also no clear decision-making structure, so it's almost like designing for committee. What's more, the brief is to allow the designer to learn about the project thus far, and if people who have been deeply embedded for months don't play a part in writing the brief, they lose the chance to share their knowledge with the designers.

I really felt I had to be honest about this, because it's a situation many designers come across in their practice, but one many people who are not designers are unaware of. I'd like to suggest a few paths for people who find themselves working with designer:

  1. Ask a designer, 'would you like me to provide you with some background information on the work I've done so far?" It can be as short as one page, but you might be surprised how appreciated your willingness to share will be. Also feel free to share your vision for the project.
  2. In what other ways can I help the designer to understand the knowledge I have about the project?
  3. How can I provide constructive feedback to the designer to help them understand what i know about the project?
  4. When assessing a design, ask yourself: "Do I understand the reasoning the designer used?", and secondly "Is this my personal taste or what I feel is right or wrong for the project?"

This approach might have provided some really valuable insights that can enrich the design process. It can put the FEED in feedback.

What now?

The first round of design came out of the research, but this second round has come out of the textual analysis of the testimonies. While the first idea was about giving volume to the idea of home-made activism, the second idea is about something that overwhelmingly came out of reading and analysing testimonies through the binary system: a sense of place, of community and of loyalty to the people around you who make up that community.

Below is the collection of analysis materials.

Method of Analysis

I made sure that there was a pattern of response to every testimony. This began with a close reading of the testimony itself, highlighting in different colours where oppositional forces within the testimony became apparent (pink for own, blue for oppositional - these colours were chosen randomly). This brought me to the first point of CHaSSMM analysis, which focuses on ideological underpinnings, and the idea that, in order for there to be such, there also needs to be concepts that sit outside or in opposition to this framework.

As soon as this was done, a binary form was filled out for each, so that it was more likely to draw out a fresh response to what I'd just read. Some of the testimonies were heated and angry, others were full of compassion and love. I wanted to record my tacit impression of each individual testimony as soon as possible. I had everything ready in order to do this: all testimonies had been printed out, and a binary sheet placed in between them. I was careful not to read past the name and introduction before I was ready to complete these steps, because I didn't want time to think to deeply about what I'd read and have that affect the fresh, tacit understanding.

Once all of the close readings and textual analysis was complete, I counted how many responses each possible outcome had received. This is a new idea that I had when I began to notice that there were some responses that received a 100% response rate.

A Snapshot

Below is a list of the responses that received a high response rate (note, this is my response to the testimony):

12/12 responses: 'protection', 'local', and 'deep'

11/12 responses: 'coorperative', and large'

10/12 responses: 'fight', 'urban', 'peace', and 'parent'

9/12 responses: 'grey area' between 'angry' and 'despondent', 'blue', 'grey area' between 'delicious' and 'disgusting' (in this case it was a neutral response, rather than it being a 'bit of both').

Other interesting things to note

Only 1 testimony was recorded as 'rough'. The others were 'grey area' (4) and 'smooth' (7).

No one was recorded under 'resignation'. Along with the 10 recorded as 'fight', there were two 'grey areas' - in this case they were recorded as such because they were more driven towards peaceful solutions than any kind of resignation.

No one was recorded as 'despondent', although most people sat in between this and 'angry'.


The binary lists did come to mean something more to me that could not really be spoken, and inthis way, I think it really does have the potential to draw out project-specific understanding and make it explicit. Although I didn't create the binary list specifically for this project (which I think could actually be detrimental to the process), I found myself thinking about the terms in project-specific ways.

For example the binary opposites of 'conformist' and 'renegade' were difficult to use because, in some ways, many of the people were renegades in their own way, but they didn't tip over into the extreme definition of this word. In other words, there were other parts of their community structure that they believed in and conformed to. Other people sit in the conformist column because they were attached to organisations that they worked within - even then, they were not wholly conformist! I didn't want to think too much about these responses, but the more testimonies I responded to, the more the pattern became apparent. I also became aware of wanting to treat each one fairly, so that the responses could be stacked up against one another.


The binary system has a lot of potential, particularly because it is quite fast, but also helps to reveal key terms for individual people. What this process in the 'Ferguson Voices' project has also shown is that you can compare the response rates to get an overall project picture. For example, I was surprised by how many 'smooth' responses there was, and have started to think about this term. Also, other predominant responses, such as 'local', 'peace' and 'protection' can also be used as key terms to direct the design process. One area I would like to make improvements in is the 'grey area', to note if it is a 'not applicable' or a 'bit of both' response. I don't want it to be a scaled response because then it runs the risk of not being as immediate as it currently is. I'll explore this a bit more later.


Today I also explored two other design possibilities - again, just playing with the logo of the exhibition, rather than designing a panel, because I feel if the logo can encapsulate the visual direction, all things can go from there. I want to work on these a bit more tomorrow before I send them out, but here they are for now. The first takes on the idea of 'local', being one of the predominant key words to come out of the testimonies. Many people expressed a deep sense of belonging, and this compelled many to turn to activism - the belief that Ferguson can be a place of diversity and harmony. The second logo is self explanatory: the idea of the voices being within frames, and then escaping them - quite a literal translation visually of the exhibition name. It just came to me very quickly, and was also created quite quickly.

In terms of the typefaces, I was after something that had a lot of body - 'black' on the page - to be able to take in as much of the map as possible. The first logo is Korolev Military Stencil, with very tight tracking so that the letterforms almost become one. I created a map of Ferguson by printing a Google map, printing it, and then scanning that at high resolution (600ppi), so it could be sized up considerably (being a raster-based graphic). I copied the outlined type and offset the path, expanded that, and then spent quite a bit of time cleaning up vector points until I had it the way I wanted it.

The second logo uses a second variation of the same typeface, Korolev Condensed Heavy. It also reminds me of a clapper in movies, which also relates back to how Ferguson was filmed for and portrayed in the media.