When I do speaking gigs, designers often ask me some form of this question; “What the hell can I DO as a designer in world of civics and politics when it feels like I can’t do anything positive.” It’s a great question. For 25 years, I had a personal vow that I would never (ever) do design work for a political candidate. The whole political design scene always just left a bad taste in my mouth. On the flip side, I have loved creating design work for Gay Rights, Civil Rights, and Social Progressive causes since the late 1980’s. But the professional political design world always seemed like the third rail to me; as it does to many designers. Then my longtime friend, Dean Phillips, announced a year ago that he was going to run for 3rd district U.S. congressional seat from my great home state of Minnesota. I had known for years that Dean’s closest friends and advisors were advising him STRONGLY not to run for office. Probably for the same reason I don’t run for office. Probably the same reason YOU don’t run for office. It all just seems so horrible. People I have known for over 20 years were telling Dean flat out, “DON’T RUN, DEAN!” But Dean had another vision: and it’s a vision of joy, hospitality, tolerance, and progress with which I whole-heartedly agree. Dean took on the herculean job of running for the 3rd district.
So – I then asked myself that same question I often get at speaking gigs, “What can a designer do?” A designer can do what Dean did: Namely – a designer can get off the damn bench. That’s what a designer can do.
The day that Dean announced his candidacy, I emailed my friend and said to him, “Dean, I promised myself decades ago that I would never design for a political candidate. But if you want my hands, you have them.” Exactly one hour after sending Dean that email, he was sitting in my studio and we started designing together. In that ONE MEETING, we scoped out the plan to design his IH Metro delivery van we named it “The Government Repair Van”. Then we designed his Ice House. Then we designed his Pontoon Boat. We designed all that great, radical stuff together with his team. Dean understands the language of Minnesota both spoken and unspoken. And he understands that Minnesota is filled with both GREAT conservative progressives and GREAT liberal progressives. All of these people deserve a great design invitation. He understood what Minnesota, and the nation, really wants: We want Radical Hospitality from government. Most importantly for me – Dean understands the unique language of design. Last night, Dean Phillips won that 3rd district seat. This is a seat that has not had a Democratic Representative since 1961. For years I’ve been designing for civic engagement projects of all types. I founded The Poster Offensive, which was one of the inspirations for Art Crank, and Posters for Parks: Two greats civic-mined design shows to which I contribute regularly. I designed MN Invents and I launched Replace Everything as funding mechanisms for MN charities. All of this is awesome, but I see now that a lot of this work was simply not enough. My work with Dean Phillips has taught me a new lesson loud and clear. Designers need to get off the damn bench. THIS designer needs to get off the damn bench. Maybe you need to get off the damn bench too. Maybe.
My work for Dean has completely elevated my understanding as to what Design has to offer in the world of civic engagement and sanity for our political sphere. When the competition went LOW, we went VAN!, PONTOON BOAT, and ICE HOUSE. And trust me – the competition went very very low in this struggle. We did not go LOW – We went VAN! My hope is that more folks with passion, good hearts and great brains can see a similar path as the Dean Philips design path. My hope is the more dseigners get into this fight. It’s a fight worth winning.