A New Course at Pratt Asked How Design Can Help Undocumented Immigrants

Taught by artist and architect Alex Schweder, the class saw students design objects for solving practical needs, providing emotional support, and changing the public perception of immigrants.

pratt Alex Schweder undocumented design
Subversive Stickers, designed by Alex Thompson Courtesy Alex Thompson

This fall, Pratt Institute of Design offered a new course called “Undocumented Design” where students developed products for undocumented immigrants in the United States. The course was taught by artist and architect Alex Schweder in collaboration the New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith alliance of congregations, organizations, and individuals working to stand publicly with families and communities resisting detention and deportation.

The course’s resulting objects fell into three general categories: solving practical needs, providing emotional support, and changing public perception of immigrants. Metropolis caught up with Schweder and Zac Mosley of the Judson Memorial Church (a member of the New Sanctuary Coalition) to better understand the course’s methodology, challenges, and goals.

Product design isn’t exactly the first thing you think of when confronting this huge humanitarian crisis. How do you think the industry can make an impact on this specific issue?

Alex Schweder: Well first of all, I always tell my students, ‘You are not going to solve this problem.’ The only thing that can really solve this problem is a series of laws. We as designers have the power to design something that is able to solve a logistical problem, comfort an individual, or change a story around a topic. For example, one of the students designed informational fruit stickers about the undocumented farm workers who produce the majority of our food. That’s a kind of activism that can bring a new idea out into the world and change a conversation. Another student designed a pillow that mimicked the smell of loved ones and the shape of a body to comfort those who had relatives who have been deported. If you can reduce some suffering, or help propel a conversation through design … that is what our role as designers is.

pratt Alex Schweder undocumented design
Second Skin Gloves
60 percent of people working in agriculture are undocumented. Pesticides, even those approved for widespread use, can be harmful to farm workers if encountered over long periods of time. The necessity of protective clothing (such as gloves) is not immediately obvious because the chemicals’ adverse effects will only be visible in the future. In the Fall 2018 semester of Undocumented Design, Harvey Feng devised Second Skin Gloves—a protective layer of fabric intended to fit over standard work gloves. The fabric layer changes color when exposed to toxic chemicals, emphasizing the benefit of protective gear. Courtesy Harvey Feng

Why did you think the nonprofit partnership was important to the class?

Zac Mosley: To be honest I was nervous about it. I was worried that the students would come in and sort of “petri dish” a community on the other side of a very big power differential. But the students volunteered, showed up for things, went to rallies. I would see them witness something powerful at an action or in court and then they would report back [saying], ‘Maybe I really didn’t get the gravity of what these folks are going through, regardless of whether it results in a design or a product in some way.’ When I saw them putting in that effort it made me much more comfortable.

AS: By partnering with these nonprofits that work directly with undocumented individuals, my students were able to have a firsthand experience observing and talking to the people experiencing their situation. They were able to grasp that they were seeing, feeling, and actually get involved in the activist component of the work. I think designers are often operating through assumptions because we rarely have complete information. I really wanted to challenge my students to break down any assumptions they had through direct conversations … and a lot of the products came from these firsthand observations.

pratt Alex Schweder undocumented design
Citizen Umbilical Clamp
Seeking cultural familiarity and avoiding institutional scrutiny, many undocumented women give birth using midwives instead of at hospitals. Under the current Trump administration, birth certificates certified by midwives are no longer accepted, leaving many people born within U.S. borders without legal status. This umbilical clamp, conceptualized by Josh Bird in the Fall 2018 semester, securely stamps the GPS coordinates of the birth while also sampling DNA in such a way that it can be used as evidence in court. Courtesy Josh Bird

Were there any recurring flags that kept popping up throughout the process that you needed to work through with students?

AS: A major one was assuming how people people should live or how they should be treated. For instance, one student has a friend who’s undocumented. And he came in a trunk. So he was going to focus on the design of the back of a trunk as something a little bit more comfortable. While that’s an earnest place to be, we have to be careful about what we design because it comes with a position about how people should live [or] be treated. We need to keep in mind this idea that design is facilitating an idea of livability.

Having taught these two semesters, what have you learned about the combined power of product design and activism?

AS: We are kind of habituated to think that the world around us is the way it is and it has always been that way. The products around us reinforce that. A great example for me is birth control. Birth control is a designed object and it constructs the way we think about sex and responsibility. You see the entire formation of a legal system around this thought process. Designing something new—something that reformulates how we think about one another or the world—is where the possibility of product and all other forms of design lies. One of the students designed a mirror that tried to combat the feeling of undocumented people always needing to hide from others and themselves. It weighs on them. So you go up to the mirror and say ‘I love you, and you’re undocumented,’ and it slowly turns from opaque to reflective. It’s something that shows this person they are present, and who they are is ok. It rejects this narrative they are told by the media, their neighbors. It helps them begin to retell their story.

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