When Design Observer reader Sam Potts first emailed me about DOTWHO, the Designs On The White House Organization, my initial reaction was slightly exasperated bemusement: when the going gets tough, designers have a t-shirt contest. A group of celebrity judges, including Milton Glaser, Chip Kidd and Todd St. John along with more conventional celebrities like Margaret Cho, Al Franken and Moby, are slated to help select the best pro-Kerry t-shirt designs in a number of categories, including "funniest," "most stylish" and "best retro shirt," with proceeds from sales of the winners going to help the Democratic campaign.
This is all fine and good, and certainly the "official" Kerry t-shirt is pretty awful (if there were a Geneva Convention for typography, horizontal scaling would be a capital crime at my tribunal). Yet with the news getting worse every day, I wondered if designing t-shirts was anything near a sufficient response to the crisis in leadership we're facing.
But a visit to the DOTWHO website started me thinking: there's more here than meets the eye.
It's natural for designers to respond to an issue they care about by doing what they do best: design. But haven't we all sensed that often our talents are a bit inadequate, that sometimes something more direct is called for? I'm reminded of the passage in the Woody Allen movie "Manhattan" when Allen's character, Isaac Davis, suggests at a cocktail party that they confront some Nazis who are planning to march in New Jersey:
Party Guest: There is this devastating satirical piece on that on the Op Ed page of the Times. It's devastating.
Isaac Davis: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really get right to the point.
DOTWHO's site may not be about bricks and baseball bats, but it is about more than t-shirts. There are news updates on liberal issues, links to other Democratic sites, a weblog that is sure to attract more and more participation, and a light, lively tone, epitomized by the slogan "We're the T-Shirt Competition that the GOP Fears Most!" DOTWHO's President, Andrea Moed, was the original web editor for the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and she clearly knows what it takes to engage her audience. Designers can go along with theories, principles, and ideologies, but if you really want to get them energized, you need to give them a project.
Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated the "power of the project" 40 years ago. An expert on intergroup relations, he conducted a famous series of experiments that proved that disparate, even hostile, groups could be coalesced around tasks requiring cooperative participation, even tasks as trivial as pulling a truck out of the mud. DOTWHO's t-shirt project, as trivial as it is, may be the pretext around which a politically committed design community -- and its ever-increasing audience of design sympathizers -- can rally. In short, the contest is just an excuse to bring together a community of like-minded people. And who knows where that may lead.
Even to me, this sounds a little like wishful thinking. But history provides examples from which we can derive some hope. Late on a Thursday evening in December, 1955, a group of black teachers in Montgomery, Alabama, met to discuss what to do to to protest the arrest of a black woman who had refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger. They came up with a project: a bus boycott. The project became a cause, the cause became a movement, and less than eight years later, a quarter-million people marched on Washington and heard Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Designing a t-shirt is a humble act, but humble acts are how revolutions begin.
This essay was originally published in May 2004.