After going to the Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams exhibit today, I broke my discipline about not writing. It was a good thing because I found the hook narrative to begin the introduction of the In Design We Trust book. It was not easy to discover. I tried to find a quote or story from one of the many books I've read. Should I start with something about how the Declaration of Independence was printed as if a throw-a-way document, which indicated our Founding Father's lack of belief that the experiment of American democracy was to endure? Do I find a passage from literature about how someone first felt about getting their Medicaid card or first time voting on an Optical-scan ballot? How do I begin?
After mulling and reading for hours, it hit me. Begin with a box of government cheese. More than anything it speaks of why this is an important project for me. So here is the beginning hook of the book. Since it is in its infant stage, any and all comments are welcomed. In fact, after reading, it would be cool if you shared your first tangible experiences with government, perhaps it was a box of government cheese, too. Tee hee.
Introduction: Design, Trust, and Governmentality
Raised in a working class, African-American family in the 1980s, my first tangible experience of the US Federal government came in a plain, brown cardboard, rectangular box. Inside this non-package was a bright orange/yellow block of “government cheese”. Being perhaps only 10 or 11 years old at the time, I was mortified that my father had brought into our home a box of “government cheese”. Velveeta cheese product was a staple in our diet, so it wasn’t about the cheese. It was about what that undecorated box said about our family. While there was honor in being working class, that box said something different. It said that we were poor. We were poor in the eyes of the Federal Government, although I was more concerned with the neighborhood kids.
I knew nothing about 1982 Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program of the Food and Nutrition Service, probably neither did my father, or my grandmother on disability from whose house the cheese had actually come. I knew that the stable working class neighborhood of my early childhood had became drug and gang infested as my friends’ parents lost their high paying manufacturing jobs. I knew I did not trust the government or the values of my own middle class aspirations. Yet, this distrust was not experienced as welfare policy or even Reaganomics; it was experienced as a plain, brown cardboard, rectangular box, inside of which was a block of processed cheese.
Although now I understand better abstract government policies like the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, I still experience government through tangible things like forms to fill out at the DMV, displaying my drivers license or US passport, annual tax forms and information booklets, ballots, parking meters, and oak benches in courtrooms. These things are designed, sometimes, by professional designers and other times not. But like my experience of the anti-design of the plain, brown cardboard, box of government cheese, the formal elements of design such as color, texture, 3D form, etc. affect both my functional and symbolic understandings of my relationship to US Federal, State, and local governments.
This book is about how everyday people like my father, my grandmother, and even myself experience the government through tangible “things” and how the intentional design of those things affect one’s sense of trust, citizenship, and the values of democracy within American governance. It asks the questions: What does it mean to say “In Design We Trust”? How do the processes and artifacts of design helped define what it means to be an American citizen? What are the relationships among the values of democracy, the design of tangible communications and objects, and people’s actual experiences of those values? It seeks to answer those questions not in the languages of economics or law that are the dominate languages of governmental expertise, but rather in the language of design, which, while still an expert language, speaks to everyday people’s experiences of government.