The Tolerance Project

Originally published in 2002 to accompany the open-air exhibition of “The Tolerance Project”

Like most of us, I was stunned by the events of September 11, 2001. For weeks I found it very difficult to concentrate on anything, let alone do any work. For that matter, I couldn’t help but think that what I did for a living as a graphic designer was so trivial, so unimportant. As the legendary designer, Milton Glaser, commented at Voice, the AIGA National Design Conference: “I was in a state of shock after September 11th and I was not alone in this regard. Many designers in and out of New York, feeling they had a public responsibility, produced images and words to help us deal with this unprecedented event. I felt proud to be part of a profession where serving the needs of the public was considered appropriate and necessary.”

Then I realized that maybe I could do something. The AIGA Philadelphia Education Committee had discussed the concept of organizing a student design competition for a while and we thought that doing a poster as the end result could be a good project. For subject matter we wanted a “big idea,” something with some significance, with some “public good” in it. We came up with the theme of “Tolerance,” as in “love thy neighbor,” and “respecting the rights of others,” etc. And, in light of the events of September 11th, this notion seemed as compelling and challenging as ever. We thought that a competition would provide an excellent opportunity for area design students to give voice to one of the most important civic issues of our day and in a highly visible manner. So, in the Fall of 2001 a friend and colleague, Mark Willie, and I wrote a proposal for a student poster design competition using the theme of tolerance to be organized by the AIGA Philadelphia Education Committee.

From the very outset we didn’t want to produce a competition that would end up as a traditional exhibition on gallery walls. We thought of using bus shelter posters as a medium because we wanted the posters to be as accessible to the public as possible. Personally, I’ve been interested in bus shelter posters for several years for two simple reasons: 1. they are a large format, and 2. a lot of people see them. We first approached the Center City District (a local non-profit corporation) about the project as we thought they had some control over the bus shelters in Center City Philadelphia. After we pitched the idea to them, we were encouraged to see the flurry of emails that went around their offices supporting the project and it felt like we were on our way. But, we still needed an “angel” (as the physical bus shelter poster outputs cost approximately $250 each) until we got in touch with KD Graphics, a local service bureau, who generously agreed to donate the output for ten full-size posters. After that, we knew we had a project because all of our costs would be covered and the three entities: AIGA, CCD and KD Graphics, became partners in the project with AIGA Philadelphia taking the lead.

From there, we needed to reach out to the educators and the students who would undertake the assignment. The Call for Entries poster was sent to over one hundred design educators in the aiga/ Philadelphia chapter region representing over twenty colleges, universities and art schools offering degrees in Graphic Design, Illustration and Photography in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. We invited the instructors to run the project in the Spring semester 2002 and the students were asked to interpret the theme of tolerance in any manner and to use poster design as a way to explore this socially significant topic.

We were excited to receive over 300 poster designs from fourteen different schools (we believe that close to 400 students actually worked on the project as some schools chose to edit the work before submitting to the competition). All entries were judged by a panel of professional graphic designers based on excellence and originality of design and appropriateness for public display. The judges were: Janice Fudyma, Bernhardt Fudyma Design Group, New York; Steff Geissbuhler, Chermayeff & Geismar, New York and Steve Perry, Bailey Design Group, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. The judges selected ten Finalists as winners of the competition and also awarded five Second Place and five Honorable Mention awards. The poster designs of the ten Finalists were produced as full-size bus shelter posters and installed by the Center City District on Market Street from 7th to 10th Streets, the culmination being an open-air exhibition of winning posters on display in Center City Philadelphia from April 29–May 27, 2002. A reception to celebrate the event and to thank the students, design educators and sponsors was held on May 1 at Marketplace East.

We thought this was an awesome turnout for the first time running a student competition. And so, to the design educators: thank you for believing in the project and running it in your classrooms. To the students who participated in the project: the biggest thanks must go to you. It was your work that was on the line, and we were thrilled to see the level of creativity and talent that you all displayed in tackling this assignment.

Here is how Steff Geissbuhler, one of the judges, commented: “Let me first say that I think this competition was well thought out, the theme was meaningful, and the students responded in kind. I was happy to see that the visual idea is alive and well and remains the essence of our profession, as well as the cornerstone of graphic design education and that the poster, a dying medium in the United States, is still a form of sharing our ideas with the public. The use of quotes, metaphors and familiar symbols, even clich?s at times, presented in new and interesting ways communicated more clearly than any formalistic, stylistic and contrived graphics. The winners rose to the top because the concept and the ideas were simple and direct, had an element of surprise or discovery and, combined with an excellent execution, lead to great solutions. Thanks for arranging this worthwhile competition.”

One thing that made the project successful in my mind (no matter what the designs looked like in the end) was the fact that close to 400 students in our area were working on this problem asking themselves what tolerance meant to them. They were discussing this subject matter (which admittedly can get very difficult at times) amongst themselves, with their classmates and with their instructors. One might expect subject matter like this in a Sociology class, or perhaps a Psychology course, but it personally pleased me that in critiques in Graphic Design classes across this region people from all walks of life were discussing the notion of tolerance and interpreting it in their own personal way.

There is actually a rich history of “Design for Social Responsibility” within the graphic design profession, from Seymour Chwast’s antiwar posters to posters for Amnesty International and other social causes. To paraphrase Art Carey from a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the Tolerance Project, “the job of a graphic designer is to turn an abstract idea into a visual message that grabs your attention and sometimes changes your mind.”

Graphic design can be a very powerful force: design can enlighten, design can inform, design can persuade. And we as designers can use this power to promote social causes whatever they may be. I firmly believe that we have the responsibility to use our skills to make a difference. In particular, I would like the students to remember that as you begin your careers in your chosen profession, that as you find jobs and get paid to produce work for clients, that you once worked on a project for free and that it had some significance. And to repeat Milton’s words: “I feel proud to be part of a profession where serving the needs of the public is considered appropriate and necessary.”

See, design can make a difference.

Related Articles

Carey, Art. “Winning Posters Preach Tolerance.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 2002, Magazine Section, p. D1.
Weeks, Katie. “A Lesson in Tolerance.” How Magazine, October, 2002, p.14.