Thirteen design majors in the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Art, Art History & Design used their fall break to engage the local community with a “social design blitz.”
In a single week, the students brainstormed, conceptualized, created, and exhibited three public, interactive art projects designed to help bridge the gap between downtown South Bend and the Notre Dame campus.
“It’s amazing what you can get done when you don’t have time to self doubt,” says Alisa Rantanen, a senior industrial design major.
Confronting the Gap
Robert Sedlack ’89, an associate professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design, and designer John Bielenberg—who has orchestrated several other socially-minded design blitzes around the country—teamed up to organize the students’ event.
To kick off the project, students headed into the city to explore the area and conduct interviews with residents.
“We then came back and brainstormed what we saw as the biggest problems the community had—and some way to integrate the community into Notre Dame and Notre Dame into the community,” says junior graphic design major Rachel Brandenberger. “There’s a really distinct separation between the two.”
The students next broke into groups to develop three distinct projects: a “bus” made of PVC piping, a free public viewing of an original YouTube film, and an interactive chalkboard display. They put their plans in motion with help from Aaron Perri, executive director of Downtown South Bend, Inc.
The students working on the interactive display used special paint to turn the side of a parking garage into a giant chalkboard and then stenciled prompts on the wall to initiate discussion. “We wanted to create a place where South Bend community members could be heard in an unusual way,” Rantanen says.
The first prompt—“South Bend is…”—received responses which ranged from the philosophical (South Bend is a vortex of self discovery or stagnation) to the literal (South Bend is under your feet). Other discussion prompts focused on personal ideas such as “I am…,” “I dream…,” and “I love… .”
“It was intended to provoke thought about you and your place in South Bend, your relationship with South Bend,” Rantanen says. “The rain washes the chalk away so it’s always self renewing; it’s always changing.”
Senior graphic design major Brandon Keelean worked on the bus project, noting that “transportation seems to be the biggest struggle students face to get away from campus.”
After building the PVC bus frame, the students “ran” the bus from campus to downtown, depositing balloons at various local businesses, restaurants and landmarks. They also filmed the entire process and created a short video calling for a new bus line between campus and downtown South Bend.
The third group created a 10-minute movie and projected it onto a wall behind the Morris Civic Theater.
“It was a goofy mash-up of YouTube videos,” Brandenberger says. “We wanted a form of entertainment to get people engaged in downtown. It was all abstract but under the umbrella idea of collaboration with South Bend.”
The response it provoked, she says, was very positive. “People came to watch it and were really excited by the project.”
Designing Under Deadline
Creating and presenting all three projects in such a short time was grueling and intimidating, say participants. For five days they worked intensely and sacrificed sleep—but ultimately produced well-conceived and interactive design projects.
“John Bielenberg pushes you to go for crazy first and figure out if you can refine it later,” explains Keelean. “Through the process of forcing solutions we get a lot of ideas, and every once in a while there’s something really good in one of those crazy ideas.”
The combined stress and satisfaction of the blitz experience was also transformative on a more personal level, says Rantanen. “Before doing this, I felt like I was in a design rut, and I wanted to get shaken up,” she says.
Bielenberg, co-founder of the “rapid ingenuity” firm Future Partners, says the Notre Dame design students “were smart, engaged and passionate about this project.
“I was impressed at their ability to collaborate with each other under stressful creative and deadline pressures,” he says. “I set the bar pretty high and expect legendary results. This group lived up to the challenge.”
While the design blitz was intended to last only one week, it struck a chord with participants. Inspired by the experience, a number of students are now petitioning for a bus that goes directly from campus to downtown—and discussing future projects.
“We’re hoping to make another appearance downtown or use the outdoor projection idea to advertise things going on in the community as a source of entertainment for people, ” says Brandenberger.
“I hope the wall will stay,” adds Rantanen. “We just need to figure out how to provide chalk in a sustainable and consistent way.”