Graphic Design Symposium highlighted visual communications

Students browse the underground newspapers exhibition in Love Library. Photo by Michael Reinmiller.
Students browse the underground newspapers exhibition in Love Library. Photo by Michael Reinmiller.

Graphic Design Symposium highlighted visual communications

calendar icon10 Dec 2015    

Lincoln, Neb.-- The graphic design program in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Art and Art History hosted a symposium this September titled “Design + Social Justice” to highlight the visual communications, stories and portraits of revolutionary social movements and examined how graphic design is a tool for organizing and inspiring people to act.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Assistant Professor of Art Stacy Asher. “It’s been very exciting. I enjoyed seeing our students active and engaged with the work.”

The graphic artifacts exhibited during the symposium represented the role of art as a revolutionary force and how art and design can communicate about a need for social change. The symposium also examined the role of graphic design in creating messages that promote civil and human rights, preservation of the environment and advocacy of equal opportunity.

The featured guest speaker and visiting artist was Emory Douglas, a former Minister of Culture and artist of the Black Panther Party. Last May, Douglas received The Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the most distinguished award in the field of graphic design. His work was on display at the university’s Sheldon Museum of Art, and he was in residence in the Department of Art and Art History. His public lecture during the Symposium drew an overflow crowd to Sheldon’s 300-seat auditorium.

Also attending the Symposium were photographer Suzun Lucia Lamaina, a former colleague and student of Farm Security Administration photographer John Collier. Lamaina presented an exhibition of current portraits of former members of the Black Panther Party at the university’s Love Library. Assistant Professors of Art Aaron Sutherlen and Asher are designing a book of these portraits and the members’ stories titled “Revolutionary Grain:  Celebrating the Spirit of the Black Panther Party in Portraits and Stories,” which will be published in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panther Party in October 2016.

An exhibition of underground newspapers from the 1960s and 1970s from the collection of Black Panther Party Historian Billy X Jennings were also on display at Love Library.

Additionally, a collection of graphic design activism for a variety of exhibitions, organizations and causes by Justin Kemerling, an independent designer, activist and collaborator in Omaha, were on display at Love Library, too.

Sutherlen and Asher also held screenprinting workshops during the symposium, which were attended by more than 100 Lincoln Public School students.

“Obviously having support from the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts and the campus and the entire community was really exciting,” Sutherlen said. “Having that support helped motivate us to get it done and get it done right.”

Asher said they collaborated with many different departments and programs on campus for the Symposium, including Sheldon Museum of Art, Love Library, the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, History, Ethnic Studies, Sociology, the Center for Civic Engagement and more were all participating or provided support for the symposium. The symposium also received a grant from Humanities Nebraska.

“It really was the collective,” Asher said. “There were a lot of people who shared the vision and made it happen.”

Sutherlen said the symposium helped expand people’s view of the role of graphic design.

“A lot of people don't think about graphic design, or art even, as ways of engaging with these other colleges that are outside of creative fields,” he said. “So this was a really good experiment for us to see that could work and make that apparent. That’s something we need to keep going. We shouldn’t design experiences just for ourselves. We want to be a part of the greater college and university.”

Sutherlen liked exploring the issues the symposium raised through graphic design.

“I liked knowing that design was being examined as a means of exploring a message and championing a message,” Sutherlen said. “To see the Journalism or Ethnic Studies students, who are so engaged in the topics, see how design plays such an important role in promoting an idea was very valuable. We know there are things being written or discussed, but to show it from an artist’s or designer’s vantage point was exciting.”

And the conversations did not end with the symposium.

“The symposium was a place for conversations and discussion,” Asher said. “That’s exactly what happened and is continuing to happen.”

It has resulted in additional opportunities for their research. The portraits from the book they are designing of Lamaina’s portraits will be on display at the African American Museum in Oakland, California, from July to December of 2016.

“We’re designing that exhibition and organizing how the text and the images work together in the exhibition,” Asher said. “That museum is part of the Oakland Public Library System, and they have one of the largest archives of the Black Panther movement. It’s a neat opportunity to be able to design something using what we did in Love Library as a point of departure.”

They were visiting artists at San Francisco State University this Fall and will continue with other screenprinting workshops and book signing events next year.

Sutherlen and Asher would also like to digitize the underground newspapers so they can be seen by more people.

“The Symposium gave us an opportunity to examine and explore and figure out how to best get these artifacts into a place that others can use them and learn from them,” he said. “We’re setting goals for next year, not just for exhibitions and the lectures related to the exhibition, but how do we archive these pieces and make them usable for people to do research and use them as historical artifacts and not just disappear into the ephemera of other memorabilia that disappear? We are losing a generation of printed documents that are significant and should be archived and accessible for people to learn from and study. They were incredible photographers, authors, politicians, activists, illustrators and writers. The symposium was a starting point of what you can take from it and learn from it and move forward from.”

Asher said the newspapers are also a teaching tool.

“I integrated the underground newspapers and all the exhibits into my curriculum in advanced graphic design,” she said. “We’d like to take some of those ideas as models to share with other places that could use these activities centered around the exhibit to understand their role and think critically about the purpose and intention of the artifacts and the history.”

Sutherlen and Asher think their graphic design students also benefitted from the symposium.

“Regardless of the topic, our students were all sort of surprised at the level of intent that was put into the graphics with Emory’s work,” Sutherlen said. “Seeing the diversity of newspapers, I got a sense of surprise from a lot of them. It struck home for them that what they’re doing has the potential to be very important.”

Asher said it also helps them think about their own place in the world as designers.

“That’s a goal in our curriculum—to put themselves as designers and makers of visual culture and to be aware of what’s happening in the world,” she said.

Designers have an important role, Sutherlen said.

“We’re not just decorators or people that know programs for design,” he said. “We have an authorship to message and to be responsible with that skill is important. It’s a larger world, and we’re relating these subjects to all these areas within the college and within the world.”

Asher said, “We need to help them become more careful observers of the world.”

Sutherlen said students can often get “hyperfocused” on their own college and in their own world of art or design. He wants his graphic design students to be aware of all the diverse things going on at the university and in the world and to participate in them.

“We’re starting to see our students reach out,” he said. “They see that design is important and can be an important aspect of a research topic. It shouldn’t be overlooked. We’re getting requests a lot earlier to have students collaborate or help facilitate or design a solution for a problem.  They get it that we’re here and we have skills that are important.  It’s about understanding how design can help solve a problem. Designers have a unique perspective on these problems and can be very valuable to the team.”