A Picture of Peace

October 23rd, 2007 | 1 Comment »

Interesting discussion on the American Institute of Graphic Design‘s Journal of Design about a poster addressing gun violence in Philadelphia. The poster was designed by Frank Baseman, an associate professor in the Graphic Design Communication program at Philadelphia University, who lives in a nearby suburb.

There’s a lot of conflict over the imagery, though most of those commenting on AIGA’s site are designers who favor the poster. I don’t. In fact, I think it has the potential to increase the murder rate.

Here’s the story:

Where Is the (Brotherly) Love?

by Frank Baseman
October 09, 2007

Here follows the lamentable but true story of a pro bono project gone awry. The project, which should have been embraced by the City of Brotherly Love, resonated with followers, supporters and members of the press, only to be squashed in the end by a mid-level bureaucrat in City Hall who had the power to reject it.

I had been following the story of rising violence in my hometown since the last few months of 2006, when the total number of homicides in Philadelphia exceeded 400. Of the 406 homicides that year, an overwhelming majority (close to 85 percent) of them were committed with handguns. Though I actually live just outside the city limits, I still call Philadelphia my home.

So when a national retailer with headquarters based here offered a glittery handgun-shaped Christmas tree ornament, my tolerance reached its limits and I decided to turn my anger into a positive statement and incite a different kind of call to arms.

A Philadelphia
bus shelter
with the
taped to
the outside.
Todd Vachon

Taking a cue from Milton Glaser and embracing the title Designer/Citizen, I designed a public awareness poster as a plea to stop the senseless killing that had been going on in our city. The poster design would recognize the 2006 homicide victims—listing each name, age, race, date and method of death—and draw attention to this preventable epidemic.

I wanted the poster to be displayed in bus shelters around the city. My interest in the bus shelter as a medium stems from two simple reasons: a 4-by-6-foot poster is relatively large scale compared to my usual work. Equally important, the bus shelter is truly “out there” in public for all to see. I like the fact—and the challenge—that whatever might end up on a bus shelter could be seen by practically anyone, a distinct design challenge compared to the one presented by knowing precisely who your audience will be.

After many mostly favorable comments later…

by Emily
Tue Oct 23, 2007

As others here have, I applaud your effort and your desire to do something about the problem. I live in Chicago were we also face the problems of gun violence.

Design aesthetics aside, I still have a couple of problems with your design.

1. It’s difficult to tell who your target audience is. If it’s city officials, you don’t need to be at bus stops. If your audience is kids in gangs your message is way off. The gun looks beautiful (glorified, cool). The headline is sarcastic. And the call to action is weak. It’s shouting (not the best way to get kids to listen) and weak. It’s better to tell someone what to do instead of what not to do. That may be the reason some of these kids end up in gangs – they literally don’t know what else to do – and this poster doesn’t offer any options. Also, just seeing a gun isn’t as impactful as we would like it to be – we see them everywhere, all the time. A gun in a crib – different effect.

2. Who is your client? If it’s the city obviously they aren’t satisfied so as a designer you need to start over – preferably by asking a few questions first. I’m sure they have plans (effective or not) and they would want anything done FOR them to work with their overall plan. If you and your fellow citizens are your client then you have to go vigilante. Tricky? Yes, but it’s been done before to great effect – Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer.

3. You may be inadvertantly contributing to the problem. We are desensitized to voilence because we see it so much. (Big gun). Also, it’s not hard to imagine a gang member, killer, reading the list of names for his victims as a source of pride. Twisted? Maybe to us. (Again, consider your audience.)

And, not to get to metaphysical but what you put out comes back. So what is this poster putting out? Sarcasm, a giant gun, victims – it’s a violent poster. You can’t put out fire with fire. I really think you are on the right track getting involved and trying to be part of the solution. I think you’ve done a lot to raise awareness in the design community. Keep it up!


by Timmy Taylor
Tue Oct 23, 2007

Emily, I appreciate your critique, but you are so wrong on all points. It’s an evocative and striking image and the target audience is obviously the silent majority. It’s like the G8 ‘Make Poverty History’ protests at Glen Eagles in Scotland (and indeed elsewhere around the world) during the G8 summit. They weren’t actually targtted at Blair, Bush Schroder or anyone else. They were about raising public awareness that it was still an issue. Just like this campaign.

Now my comment…

Emily, you nailed it.

The poster makes the gun look like a cannon.
A powerful image, enough to make me go out of my way to avoid looking down the barrel or have it aimed at my back. At first I would feel fear, then resentment. After enough exposure to it, apathy.

Victim’s names are like notches on a gun belt.
Keeping score for the bad guys, an incentive to score even more points. I see the parallel to the Vietnam Memorial, but that list of the violently killed was installed well after the conflict ended. It’s black marble, not blood-red paper. Somber, mournful, respectful.

Red signals power, dominance, anger.
Exposure to the color of blood is known to increase heart rate and incite aggressive feelings. The dominating red background adds fuel to the fire. It doesn’t serve as a memorial to the dead so much as it recalls the blood spilled. I wouldn’t want my name on it, under the gun, because I would want to be remembered for my life and not a tragic death.

It IS a cool graphic.
As a designer and fan of Adbusters and First Things First, I see why designers like it. As a peace activist I feel why compassionate people want something bold to be done to stop this horrendous situation. As a business person I understand local commerce that says, don’t put that poster anywhere near my building because I want healthy and prosperous energy here. That poster would draw criminals, affecting everyone nearby. As a service business I understand that those who pay have the say. Because Frank donated his time and got other contributors to print the posters, he’s a stakeholder. Because the City controls the distribution – the bus stops – they’re a stakeholder, along with local businesses and other taxpayers. Certainly victims and their families have an interest here. So this is not a project that can be undertaken in a vacuum.

The best thing about this poster
is the attention it’s gotten for this issue, the demand it places on other interested parties to step up and do something real, because if they don’t Frank will and then they lose any control.

The biggest problem with this poster
is the target audience, the very criminals it’s designed for. People who kill people with guns would want it. The poster would be a gift, a cool item to rip off and hang in the cave. For some it’s even personalized with the names of their victims. Something to show off – virulent marketing among killers and wannabe killers.

What would I do?
One poster isn’t going to fix Philadelphia’s murder rate. It will take a sustained range of efforts to clean up and lock up, engage and educate. But if I were to create imagery that might have the potential to decrease murders, I would show what I want to see. If most of the killers and victims are Black I would show Black people having fun together. Intact families walking down the street, looking prosperous and happy. Groups of teens singing and laughing. Maybe other imagery would be like that of the old US and Soviet propaganda posters showing people looking noble, engaged in honest work.

All these bloody movies and gangsta rappers have envisioned the world as a mean, ugly place where profit and power trumps love and life. Their imagery has driven this madness. Exactly why design can be so powerful. I would give people a vision of what peace looks like. I would focus on prosperity, happiness, love and kindness.

It’s worth a shot.

Gaia Graphics & Associates… creative by nature ~ www.gaiagraphics.com

One Response to “A Picture of Peace”

  • Anonymous says:

    All I see is “STOP”, “LOVE”, and a gun. This is definately NOT the RIGHT approach.

    Camilla Titsworth