MFA thesis showcase: Grafik Intervention for urban blight
Instructor William Culpepper brought his Grafik Intervention message to TEDx in Bozeman, Mont. See the link at the end of this article to view the video of his presentation.

Instructor William Culpepper brought his Grafik Intervention message to TEDx in Bozeman, Mont. See the link at the end of this article to view the video of his presentation.

Cavernous abandoned warehouses. Shuttered turn-of-the-century storefronts. Skeletons of ancient churches. Chances are you’ve seen one of these corpses, not on The Walking Dead, but on the streets of your hometown. The thought that usually follows is “Why doesn’t someone DO something with that?” Enter William Culpepper, Graphic Design faculty (and alum—MFA 2002), with his project, Grafik Intervention.

Bringing awareness of blighted urban spaces to the attention of the public is the concept behind Grafik Intervention, a process developed by William Culpepper, Graphic Design faculty. Projecting thought-provoking graphic messages on abandoned buildings is part of the process.

Bringing awareness of blighted urban spaces to the attention of the public is the concept behind Grafik Intervention, a process developed by William Culpepper, Graphic Design faculty. Projecting thought-provoking graphic messages on abandoned buildings is part of the process.

Here’s the concept behind Grafik Intervention: When communities or governments neglect their own backyards, sometimes they need to rely on the vision of a graphic designer to envision brighter possibilities.

Why a graphic designer? As Culpepper explains it, the processes involved in graphic design are uniquely suited to bringing awareness and interest to underutilized and abandoned buildings.

Grafik Intervention adapts those techniques to a specific end. “With the graphic design process I’ve developed, it’s my hope that other people become more aware of their surroundings, and also revitalize buildings that are abandoned, decayed, for sale, or vacant,” he says.

What began as Culpepper’s own thesis project as an Academy online student in Charlottesville, Va., became a real breakthrough after he pitched the concept at the national conference of the AIGA, the organization for designers, in 2011.

“The committee said to me afterward, ‘You should do this again. Take yourself out of the equation and create a process anyone can follow.’” So, for the benefit of students and communities nationwide, he did just that, leading to Grafik Interventions conducted across the nation.

arizona banner 3

texas projection 6

ohio projection 3

Grafik Interventions begin with an investigation. Potential sites should be prominent enough within a community to grab as much attention as possible. The past history of the structure and its uses are thoroughly researched by students, who also seek guidance from local resources on possibilities for the structure.

“The students can get out of the classroom, leave their computers and desks and go out and interact with the community. The whole thing is based around community, conversation and interactivity,” says Culpepper.

Students use their research to create monumentally sized projections, which are beamed against the structure during times of high pedestrian traffic. The projections pose open-ended questions on how it’s viewed within the community. Questionnaire cards are utilized as a method of concrete documentation that can be brought to city officials as tangible fodder for conversations.

Because the process of land acquisition and rehabilitation can sometimes take a decade or more, even starting the chain of events is a big victory for student designers.

Students from Texas A&M University conduct research in association with a Graphik Intervention.

Students from Texas A&M University conduct research in association with a Graphik Intervention.

At one intervention at a former newspaper printing plant in Big Rapids, Mich., the projection was accompanied by sounds of clicking, spinning printers, giving a spectral second life to the neglected wreck. The community—including former pressmen, realtors and media—embraced the approach, making the intervention a smashing success and improving the structure’s chances for revival.

A recent Grafik Intervention in Flagstaff, Ariz., conducted by students from Northern Arizona University

A recent Grafik Intervention in Flagstaff, Ariz., conducted by students from Northern Arizona University

Recent Grafik Interventions have also been conducted in Arizona; Bryan and San Marcos, Texas; and Ohio. (The intervention in Flagstaff, Ariz., was chronicled by students at Northern Arizona University in a video documentary.)

Donna Hajash, left, senior lecturer in visualization at Texas A&M University, working with a student at a Grafik Intervention. Hajash says the process enables the community to “have more of a say as to what these buildings may or may not become.”

An intervention by Texas A&M graphic design students on Nov. 2, 2012, focused on an overlooked and blighted area in Bryan, Texas. Donna Hajash, senior lecturer in visualization, emphasized the role that research played in their effort.

“The design students’ extensive research in compiling historical information to create the projections involved contacting the buildings’ previous owners, visiting the Carnegie History Center, Bryan Public Library, Texas A&M’s Cushing and Evans Libraries, contacting former employees and longtime Bryan citizens, and meeting with representatives of the City of Bryan,” said Hajash, who led the project.

“By educating people about old, unused buildings in their own towns, the public can have more of a say as to what these buildings may or may not become. That is what Grafik Intervention is doing—educating the public about the possibilities that are right there in their own backyard, so to speak.”

Here’s a video record of the projections at the Bryan event:

Grafik intervention in downtown Bryan, Texas from TAMU College of Architecture on Vimeo.

Culpepper echoes the importance of embracing collaboration with established city resources: “The urban planners who work with the cities are very supportive. They are aware of the buildings, probably much more than the students are. I think it’s about having people focus attention on something and bringing others together. We’ve had towns where crowds gather and wait ‘til dark just to see what we’re doing with the projectors.”

Students test their projectors at a Grafik Intervention in Ada, Ohio.

Students test their projectors at a Grafik Intervention in Ada, Ohio.

As to what traits make graphic designers bring to this sort of community rehabilitation, he explains, “As designers, we all use sort of the same kind of process in seeing problems and devising ways to fix them with our tools and resources. And because the process is relatively linear, that application works great for stuff that isn’t exactly a typical graphic design deliverable, such as a website or poster.

A Grafik Intervention has a different container, but it’s still the same process. A designer can go out anywhere and talk to anybody—researchers, architects, inventors—and they have this process that is relatively systematic in structure that they can apply to anything.”

Culpepper dreams that his own students will get as much from the project that he did as a student himself, struggling to find a way to reach out beyond the studio. He values highest the fact that these young professionals will enter an area outside their comfort zone, with many of the variables involved out of their control—good practical experience for any creative consultant.

Beyond the literal design elements, Culpepper hopes his students will cultivate the ability to talk to strangers and tell a compelling story with confidence.

A projection from the intervention in San Marcos, Texas, by Texas State students

An important element in the Grafik Intervention process, says the Academy's William Culpepper, is telling the story of a neglected building's past contributions to the community. Here, a scene from the Flagstaff intervention.

An important element in the Grafik Intervention process, says the Academy’s William Culpepper, is telling the story of a neglected building’s past contributions to the community. Here, a scene from the Flagstaff intervention.

Envisioning future possibilities for neglected structures is where Grafik Intervention starts, Culpepper maintains.

Envisioning future possibilities for neglected structures is where Grafik Intervention starts, Culpepper maintains.

In his work as an Academy of Art University thesis advisor, Culpepper challenges MFA candidates to thrust themselves out fearlessly into the world…much as he did. He says that without studying online at the Academy, he would never would have began such an ambitious project.

“In the curriculum and the core content that the Academy offers a graduate student, developing the designer’s process is ingrained in students from the first day of class. And it carries through the years. Employers and organizations know the reliability of our students. They know they can count on Academy of Art University students to have a great portfolio of work done with the latest technology.”

Listen to William Culpepper’s TEDx Bozeman talk on Grafik Intervention here.

Follow Grafik Intervention on Facebook.

Posted: Monday, December 2nd, 2013
Filed under: Alumni News, Faculty News, Student Work
Tagged: