March 16, 2010

Freedom and Graphic Design

First Amendment: Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly and Petition

Recently, I took a trip to Myanmar (Burma). I will have more about Burma in later posts. This post, with its video, is already way too long...


Suffice to say that Myanmar has virtually none of the freedoms we take for granted in the U.S. Many people may think this is a bore, but stick with me for a little bit...

This trailer for the movie Burma VJ should give you some idea...

I am always struck by the power of verbal, written and visual communication. These are our most powerful tools. And something that many people fear...


...They fear it in many ways. They shun expressing themselves for fear of ridicule or worse consequences. And some people fear it from those who have a mastery of communication...because people who have mastered it can lead.

Myanmar got me thinking about a project that I worked on at Meta4 Design for the McCormick Foundation. Most people I worked with on the project had mastered the art of visual communication. Others had mastered the art of verbal or written communication.

The McCormick Foundation is a legacy of the media empire (Chicago Tribune, WGN, Los Angeles Times, etc.) that was built by Colonel McCormick back in the day. To give you an idea of who Colonel McCormick was, Citizen Kane, the movie, was a fictionalized account of a newspaper tycoons such as The Colonel and William Hearst.

The Project: The Freedom Museum Web site

While attending the Institute of Design and working full time at Meta4 Design, I decided to bring “d” school design thinking methods into my work space. Meta4 Design was accustomed to designing based on intuition and client feedback. The McCormick Foundation project, however, was unique: design a Web site around the abstract concept of freedom. This was to be the nation’s first museum dedicated to the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment and was a huge investment in money and reputation for The McCormick Foundation.

The challenge required a user-centric, iterative and collaborative approach. By exposing Meta4 and the McCormick Foundation stakeholders to design thinking and flexible Institute of Design methods, our team achieved results initially thought impossible.

To get the ball rolling I first had to convince everyone that a “little bit” of research was in order...

We had a small budget and no time. Our ethnography included many different people including teenagers, teachers, parents. I even visited a prison facility to interview an inmate for an inverse perspective on freedom. All would serve as inspiration for the workshop...


...some of the best footage came later as online content...who knows how to say it better than Maya Angelou?


The video ethnography helped inspire a lively conversation which led to an enthusiastic ideation session...



The concepts developed at the workshop were great! Many of them are still relevant today, such as the mobile museum, which is now being implemented...several years later!


Some concepts where out of this world and that’s what makes for a great ideation session.


Eventually, our initial work gelled into a journey map that later became the basis for the Web site structure. [Special thanks to Michael Davis-Burchat who helped me get through this process.]


This laid the foundation for one of the most engaging museum web sites of its day...The Freedom Museum Web site. Among its awards were Communication Arts Webpick of the Week.


I want to give you an idea of how stellar the museum was. Located on the “Magnificent Mile” in the Chicago Tribune Tower, the museum held a befitting location for a destination dedicated to the First Amendment. Gallagher & Associates designed stunning exhibits set in a gleaming space anchored by a stainless steel sculpture: 12151791,. The sculpture commemorated the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.


The state of the art interactive exhibits by Second Story enthralled school aged children; the target audience of the museum. The Freedom Museum was truly a first of its kind...a “New-seum.”


The McCormick Foundation staff was an energetic and creative group of people whose CEO was retired Brigadier General David Grange of the 1st Infantry Division. General Grange was a Viet Nam combat veteran who was tough, fair and exhilarating to work for. He was used to getting things done under fire...literally!

However, it was not to last...as the economic crisis hit, The Chicago Tribune Company along with the Chicago Tribune Tower were forced to sell to Sam Zell.


The new owner had other plans for the lucrative space the Freedom Museum occupied and the General was forced to close the doors in 2009...attendance had just topped 100,000. Today, most of the staff is still working for the museum which is now mobile. General Grange has moved on to other opportunities.

I forgot to mention that the museum was free of charge...it was for education not profit.


As budgets were cut, the museum could no longer afford Meta4 to design updates and maintain the complex Flash driven site. So, the original site was replaced with a simple-to-edit version. However, the inspiration, structure and content in the first web site still lives on in the aptly named Freedom Project Web site...as we realized during the research...the online presence would out live the bricks & mortar ...

In closing, all of the effort put into this project, while very laudable, pales in comparison to the courage and sacrifice of the people responsible for Burma VJ. They still do not have a voice and so far have been fighting a losing battle...what they need are “big guns” like The McCormick Foundation, General Grange or the late Colonel McCormick on their side...

...I leave you with the full length film...90 minutes or so.
There are 9 parts...you must click t0 the next video after each part.

I hope this helps to make amends for anything I did wrong or could not accomplish...it was my first truly user centered design project. Now, even though I am here writing this post from Seoul, Korea, I still believe in the greatness of the freedoms that are the foundation of what America is today.

Oh! One more thing...my friends in Shanghai and Beijing cannot view this blog because it is censored in China...

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