The February 2009 edition of Print uses the Urban Studio’s poster idea as a lead into its story titled “Extreme Makeover, Main Street Edition” by William Bostwick. Morgan had time to discuss the coverage and the origins of the poster idea with the School of Architecture’s beat reporter, Stephen Stock.
Q: What is the most positive feedback you have received from a poster?
Morgan: On more than one occasion people have said something to the effect: "Could our town look like that?" We also regularly have people say: "We brought out the plan and they were hooked!"
The posters get put in people's offices, behind secretary's desks, etc. in places outside the towns - department offices in Montgomery or DC - and someone with connections to the town will see the poster and reconnect with their hometown.
Q: Does this type of coverage help or hinder your work?
Morgan: We encourage any news coverage. Particularly with a local newspaper, it’s important for them to get involved with the process; if they will champion the project/work it makes a huge difference. They can have a huge impact on the numbers of people who participate or feel involved even if they can't participate.
Q: How much difference does good design make in an urban setting?
Morgan: We believe that we are working with and crossing paths with communities who historically would have rarely sought out the services of planners, architects and designers. Traditionally, these services were seen as mainly for bigger towns.
So, when we go into a smaller community, we are often introducing them to the idea of good planning and good design. We can show them – through our illustrative master plans – that value can be added to the community, and that good design and “a plan” can help make the community more competitive: whether that’s when they are seeking a grant or foundation funding, or recruiting a new business or industry. The plan gives these potential partners confidence to engage with and invest in the community. The plan is one of the important first steps.
This introduction to the value of design also cultivates the ground for future professional projects in the community. When we identify an opportunity for a greenway or library, say, in the master plan, there is a realization that these projects are future commissions for a professional design firm. We think this will lead to, and it already has, led to jobs for Auburn graduates and our state-wide professional constituents in communities that may have never sought out their services before.
Q: In terms of the Print article, do you ever get tired of the national attention?
Morgan: Well, we don’t get that much national press coverage. For us, it is really nice because Print gets some international recognition. We tend to get more coverage nationally from other sister university programs that share or seek to emulate our models, methodologies or posters.
The poster is something that gets people’s attention every time I go to a conference or have contact with another program. There are a lot of schools that have outreach work with their local communities or with under-served areas in their region. But the poster is something that we specifically have brought to the table. It is so effective in building support in communities with local constituencies and in promoting and recruiting for the town. It keeps the plan visible – literally! Most other planning documents end up in a drawer or on a shelf and you forget that is the operating manual for your town. The poster goes up at the post office, at churches, at schools – in shops, in places where people see it everyday!
Q: Where did the poster idea come from? Was it your idea?
Morgan: It was pretty much my idea. It was an interesting result from two or three different things. One was a lot of work I had done in professional practice. Having a poster-like set of illustrations helped us talk with our clients about character, sense of place and materiality very early in the development of a building design: important components in a good design. Some of that success, that professional memory, was with me.
In the early days of the Small Town Design Initiative we did books that published our work. They were tabloid-sized booklets about twenty pages in size. But they were very tedious to produce and we could not afford to do them in color. In addition, many of the strong ideas simply did not command attention in black and white. At some point, it became a question of, ‘How can we report our work?’ Is there a way we can pull color into what we are doing? Working with our printer, we figured out that we could publish a full-page color poster for the same price of the tabloid. That kind of sealed it. It was more efficient to design. It saved time and cost no additional money. Also, when you have 20-24 pages you”talk too much!” You are not self-editing enough. What are the most important things that need to be communicated? The poster forces you to do that. It really creates a very important reason to be thoughtful, concise and focused on the concepts.
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