Community Sensing, 2011

In collaboration with Bora Shin

How do we deal with social scenarios that we have no tool for or relationship with? How can we talk to a stranger? If we aim for a give and take structure, what can we offer to strangers and what do we expect from them? Can the idea of charity be applied in the field of design? How can a designer negotiate his role in this kind of a setting?

The 'Free Business Card Booth' attempts to ask these questions through a public performance. It is also a self-reflective process of challenging the role of designer in a social context.

Our starting point was Mac Arthur park located in LA which is heavily populated by hispanics. Without making any assumption, we went out with 2 panels asking why people come to the park, and what they would like to put in the park. The 2 panels didn't receive quality answers and so we didn't get a chance to really know who they were as our neighborhood.

So, our project started without identifying any specific issue. Our intention was to create a tool that could instigate a conversation with a stranger. And we decided to follow a common tactic of handing out something free to start a dialogue. We came up with a business card booth which makes business cards for people.

Why a business card? We assumed that a lot of people in the park would not have a business card, and therefore designing one for them could be an interesting starting point to learn about people because the business cards require basic profile information. We also thought that this process could provide people with a chance to choose what to put on the card and to decide on the overall design, and thus making it a valuable experience for anyone to reflect upon themselves.

In our initial and second performance at Fillmore Station, several undocumented workers came to our booth asking for a business card. A lot of them said having a business card would give them more credibility.

Throughout the process, we objectified our service and our relationship with people. We named ourselves as community service designer. We realized that the Free Business Card Booth could be a system that could be applied to any group of people and that's why we didn't necessarily stick to Mac Arthur park and decided to try different locations.

For our third performance, we visited an area in front of UHAUL which functioned as a place for undocumented workers to come and wait to get a moving job. While making business cards for them, we got to know more about their job, schedule and aspirations. As we framed ourselves as designers who can offer free service for a community, we encountered ethical and practical questions alongside consolidating the identity of the booth.

We were service-oriented in a way that we put our design skills for other people, exposing our identity of being a designer. However, we kept ourselves from really coming forth as an individual who has willingness and empathy to provide this kind of service. What's that stake for you as a person by doing this performance? We need to figure out whether or not we would like to frame ourselves and this booth differently.

Is this booth still going to target particular kind of people in a particular situation or an issue? or
Is it a place for an individual to get a chance to know about his neighborhood?

And the following questions should also be answered in both directions:
Did we get to know a stranger by making him a business card?
Did we get to learn more about the space and time we are living in?
Did someone benefit from this business card?