I’d just driven ten hours across the southern United States to get to rural Greensboro, Alabama. It was after 11:00 p.m. and I was locked out of what was supposed to be my house for the next month. My local contact, Kelly, was making frantic phone calls while I stretched my legs and made small talk with her husband. I found out the house had originally been built in the 1800s but they had recently been renovating it and, by recently, I mean up until a few hours ago. Finally off the phone, Kelly told us the guy in charge of the renovations, Joey, was on his way over. Joey came walking up just a few minutes later and got the key out of a bucket on the side of the house. He was a 30ish Rural Studio architecture student with long, blond hair, a beer in hand and a super friendly attitude. He gave me a quick tour and apologized that they hadn’t quite finished the renovations. The downstairs bathroom had drywall up, and questionable plumbing which was far superior to the upstairs bath, and there was no furniture or air conditioning.
The house, Photo by Tim Belonax
I was the first of my group to arrive and I spent the first night alone sleeping on the floor. I was filled with excitement and anticipation about the month to come. The next day there would be seven other young designers from across the United States (and one from India) living here too. Together we would make up this year’s Project M team and spend the month living, working and learning together from John Bielenberg (and others) in Hale County, Alabama. Fast forward two months: I was sitting in a conference room at Pentagram in New York City with Armin Vit showing him my portfolio and telling him about my experience. He, like many others, had helped make my trip to Project M in Alabama possible and upon hearing the happy ending to this story asked me to write about it.
Now rewind a year to the summer of 2006: I interned for a small design firm in Austin, Texas called The Decoder Ring, run by Christian Helms. Christian had participated in Project M during its first year in 2003. He told me about the experience and how it had helped shape him as a young designer. As the summer ended, along with my internship, I moved back to Dallas to finish my final year of school. Christian and I kept in contact and he continually encouraged me to apply for Project M. Of course I was interested, to spend an entire month with a group of other young creatives to push our thinking and problem solving skills to help make the world a better place sounded amazing. There was just one problem. If you are lucky enough to be selected, each participant is required to contribute US$2,000 to the group fund. This helps pay for housing, food, rental cars and of course producing whatever project we take on. I would remind Christian every time he encouraged me to apply that he hadn’t paid me during my internship and I was, in fact, very poor. There was simply no way I could afford $2,000 on my own, and very little chance my parents would help pay for something like this. All Christian would say was “find a way”.
I e-mailed back and forth with John Bielenberg about my interest in applying to Project M. He gave me information and told me when the application was due. Aside from being in the middle of my final semester of school and trying to finish up my portfolio I was freelancing, working several days a week at another amazing internship, and volunteering to design my school’s art and literature journal — oh, and I liked to see my girlfriend from time to time too. So needless to say I was busy and the Project M application got pushed to the very bottom of my priority list. The original deadline came and went. I’d pretty much forgotten all about it, but then I got an e-mail from John saying he was extending the deadline and would be accepting applications for another week. Again I put it off, but somehow as luck would have it I happened to have have a few extra hours on the very last day it could be turned in. I quickly put together a PDF and sent it off to John literally hours before the deadline. I hadn’t taken it too seriously because I knew I couldn’t afford it. I figured the best case scenario on the slim chance I was accepted was to ask John to postpone attending for a year so I could save some money. A week later I was on the phone with John as one of the application finalists. Talking to him for the first time I got very excited about the project. I told him about my financial situation and that it was the only factor holding me back, but within five minutes of hanging up the phone I had a plan to raise the money.
I’m pretty well connected in several online design communities, and I knew I could count on them for support. I didn’t want to just ask people for donations, it didn’t feel right taking money without giving something in return. Project M certainly has the potential to do a lot of good but it’s also a huge career move for me. Being so busy with school and my impending graduation I didn’t have time to make anything though, so in return for people’s support I gave them a promise: I told my story on a website I built and asked people to give between $25 and $100 to help me attend Project M and In return for their generosity I promised to send them a limited edition serigraph poster when I got back. I posted this online, and sent it to everyone I know and even some I didn’t (like Armin). The support was overwhelming. I launched the campaign on a Friday evening in May which gave me about three weeks to raise $2,000. By Monday, just three days later, I had surpassed my goal.
The poster: Four-color serigraph (white, blue, black, varnish)
Fast forward to July, back in Texas: I followed through on my promise and screenprinted an edition of 100 posters. The poster itself (pictured above) features an ambigram I designed during the month in Alabama. It reads THINK WRONG which is one of the major lessons, and motto, of Project M. (A side effect lesson I learned from this was that if you want to do something you can’t wait around for someone to tell you that you should or how to proceed, you have to find a way to make it happen).
Now rewind to a month earlier, in late June: As our time in Alabama was coming to an end our group was still scrambling to figure out what we were going to do for our project. Many Project M projects in the past were not finished by the end of the month and we were soon finding out why. With eight people trying to agree on what to do, with nobody able to take leadership it quickly becomes very difficult. Lots of problems and ideas were explored, there were many late night debates and with just three days left we were finally able to focus. Our group not only finished designing the project in Alabama but we also found a local newspaper to print it for us. We’ve now distributed 5,000 newspapers which has helped raise over $22,000 for people in rural Alabama who do not have clean water. It was very important to me that whatever we did was very responsible and actually did some good. I didn’t want to go back home having finished nothing, or done some self indulgent piece only designers would understand and appreciate. I am very proud of our piece and what we have been able to accomplish.
You can find out more by visiting BuyaMeter.org.
I think designers in general often get thought of (by designers!) as selfish egocentric people who only care about impressing one another and winning awards, I’m certainly guilty of thinking this from time to time about our industry — I’m happy to report that this is not necessarily true. From the people who bought one of my posters, to those who have donated to help Buy a Meter, to the advisors who took time off from their jobs to fly out to Alabama on their own dime to spend time teaching at Project M, to the other M’ers who I have no doubt will go on to be socially responsible people throughout their careers, and, of course, to John who spends months of his time to make this all happen each year, they all believe in doing something to help others. I’m told that I’ll probably become another jaded designer in a couple years, but so far this and most of my other experiences as a designer seem to be conspiring to keep me hopeful and idealistic.
I was truly lucky to have been able to go to Alabama to participate in Project M. I know it’s had a huge impact on me as a designer but also on me as a person in general and it opened a lot of doors career wise. In August when I visited Armin I was on a month-long job search. Unfortunatly he didn’t offer me a job, but by the end of the month I had half a dozen or so very nice job offers around the country. After a lot of thought I chose to accept less money to return to Austin and work with Christian at The Decoder Ring because I know we have similar values, ideals and passion for good work.