This article is a behind the scenes look at the formation of Project Beacon in 2017. All proceeds from this design-led poster project went to Direct Relief, to aid families affected by a vicious string of natural disasters during late summer of that year.
Wow, it’s been a tough year — Hurricanes Harvey and Irma wrecked coastal communities a mere weeks apart. An earthquake shook Mexico City one day before Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico. Close to home, wildfires burned through thousands of California acres. Puerto Rico still doesn’t have power restored. The hits seem to keep coming, leaving communities reeling and families left trying to pick up whatever pieces they have left. Tough is an understatement.
At Upperquad these back-to-back-to-back disaster events have weighed heavily on our hearts. We wanted to help. Together, with the help of dozens artists from all over the world, we built and launched Beacon, a collaborative design project to raise money for the ongoing disaster relief efforts. The result is a beautiful digital gallery, an expression of our combined hopes, thoughts and prayers for the communities facing impossible circumstances.
But Beacon wasn’t Beacon when we first started a few months ago. Back then, Hurricane Harvey had just hit and it seemed like all of Houston was underwater. News reports over the next few days said parts of Texas could be uninhabitable for months due to water damage and mold. I asked Bryan Couchman (a designer here, and Texas expat) what he was thinking and if he might want to make a poster or do something to help. In the meantime, Irma was starting to develop in the Atlantic and rumored to be another Category 5 monster preparing to wreak havoc on our shore. “Holy cow, not again” — another dumbstruck understatement. So we decided to make some posters.
Looking back, we didn’t really have a plan. We thought we’d make a couple images, donate what we could to a few local organizations and share our thoughts with friends and family. But Bryan’s a genius and worked up a few ideas really quickly. We showed the studio his sketches to get some early reactions and Marcio Gutheil jumped in right away with another poster. The big idea quickly presented itself: let’s all make posters and reach out to our design friends to see if they’d be interested in doing the same. We could collect them in an online gallery and encourage people to visit, reflect on the recent hurricanes and ultimately make a donation to help those in need.
From that early vision, we developed our mission statement and really kicked things off:
As communities around the world struggle to recover from back-to-back hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, we search for ways to support one another and heal together. Beacon is a collaborative design project meant to reflect on these disasters, create art amidst tragedy and raise money for the people affected by these recent and ongoing environmental disasters
We squeezed a lot into this mission statement; it’s a poignant encapsulation of the project and a heartfelt description of what we set out to make. But it’s also a meditative statement on the expansiveness and limitations of art in the wake of historic events.
Now, I realize the notion of using posters as a solution to real problems is probably at best naive thinking and at worst a graphic design cliché. But posters have a long history in political action. They’re designed to spread ideas, motivate and inspire. Maybe I’m sentimental, but I grew up with “A Poster Can Change the World” philosophy. I still find it a noble pursuit and an avenue to channel powerful thoughts and feelings about the goings on of the world around us. Over time, I’ve come to understand that at the very least, it’s a natural reaction to want to put your thoughts on paper; as a designer it’s even more natural that those thoughts take form in 24 x 36 inches of paper. Our images often shout louder then our voices do, and it can be one of the ways we process tragedy and (hopefully) help others do the same.
In early discussions we thought about limiting the color palette to unify the posters, but decided it was important for artists to have the freedom to decide. Turns out we should have just said pink :) Art by Ramis Khawaja, John J. Custer, Ricky Linn, Frederique Matti, Mattiel Brown (top) Jessica Strelioff, Tommy Perez, Gabriella Sanchez, Mike McNeive (bottom)
So we got to work. The first step was finding an organization that we felt confident could support these cities both in the short term and in the long run — we could already see that it would be a long and trying road ahead. The organization needed to be equipped to operate in communities with damaged infrastructure and limited federal resources. We wanted them to function like a local organization, but somehow support these international efforts. We were thrilled to find Direct Relief — California’s largest international humanitarian nonprofit. They’re uniquely poised to help in these situations, as they specialize in emergency response and disaster relief around the world. They provide medical assistance to improve the health and lives of people affected by disaster, working through a massive network of local partners in each area who are able to assess the situation, respond to immediate needs, and rebuild healthcare systems in the affected areas.
With an amazing organization in mind, we reached out to our networks to try and make this a reality. I also asked our team to suggest their favorite designers and artists — those who inspire us, those we admire, those who do thoughtful and surprising work. Then we did the most brazen thing we could think of: we asked them for their help.
Art by Bailey Sullivan, Kelsey Wroten and Morgane Sanglier
To our surprise, people were eager to lend a hand. Volunteering original work is no small ask of a creative, especially on a tight deadline alongside a heavy load of year-end work. We all had client work to consider and it can be tough to balance out the immediacy of the moment with the time it takes to actually make the work. The desire to make something good takes time and care, but news cycles move so fast. In the meantime, recovery efforts were underway after both hurricanes.
Then came Maria, a triple-punch to the gut.
Puerto Rico looked like it was wiped out. News got worse and worse as power couldn’t be restored and hospitals were shut down. “Not again, not again, not again” kept reverberating in our heads. I could feel it in the studio. I could read it in our correspondence with artists. Some folks had family in Puerto Rico that they couldn’t get in touch with. There was a renewed urgency to what we were doing.
Art by Trevor Van Meter, Ryan J. Hubbard and Justin Colt
We launched the website with about 27 posters just as the wildfires took off in California, right in our backyard. Mother Nature was unceasing and now our world was literally on fire. “Not again, not again, not again.”
Beacon is an ever-evolving project. Our store opened last week, allowing visitors to purchase posters from the site, with all proceeds going to Direct Relief. We’re closing in on 50 posters, with new additions coming in seemingly every week. We have posters about floods, fires, destruction, healing and rebirth. It’s a touching collection of heartbreak and hope.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving there are so many people that deserve our gratitude: I’m thankful to Bryan Couchman for starting this snowball. Thanks to him also for the wonderful identity work for Beacon. I’m thankful to Danielle LaRoy for finding Direct Relief, for her wonderful writing and for spearheading this project. I’m thankful for Emmanuelle Bories for designing our beautiful gallery. I’m thankful to Lily Zhou and Le Wei for developing a beautiful site as quickly as we asked them to. I’m thankful for Anya Tran and Emmanuelle again for their continued diligence in getting the shop working. I’m thankful for all of our staff who graciously reached out to their peers to recruit such amazing work: Bryan and Emma (again), Marcio Gutheil, Jessica Strelioff, Kailie Parrish, Elliott Tran, Cecilia Uhr and Wyatt Berry. I’m also thankful to them for making wonderful posters. Thank you gang, I’m proud of you all. I’m thankful to Hemlock Printing for generously printing the postcard collection (available soon!). I’m thankful to Phil Ruppanner for making such a generous donation to the project, giving us the time and space to work on this and bringing Upperquad together in the first place.
And most of all, I’m thankful for such beautiful posters by these beautiful people:
APAK (Aaron Piland & Ayumi Kajikawa), Adam R. Garcia, Anthony Morell, Bailey Sullivan, Bryan Couchman, Cecilia Uhr, Chris Gash, Chris Markland, Dangerdom, Elliott Tran, Emmanuelle Bories, Frederique Matti, Gabriella Sanchez, Globe Collection and Press at MICA, Grace Ho, Jeanne Carlier, Jessica Strelioff, John J. Custer, Josiah Zimmerman, Justin Colt, Justin Kemerling, Kailie Parrish, Kelsey Wroten, Lanny & Kristin Sommese, Marcio Gutheil, Mark Weaver, Matt Carlson, Matt Stevens, Mattiel Brown, Michael Malowanczyk, Midge Sinnaeve, Mike McNeive, Morgane Sanglier, Niya Spasova, Pinky Abraham, Ramis Khawaja, Richard Perez & Jen DeRosa, Ricky Linn, Ryan Hubbard, Scott Boms, Seth Eckert, Tim Belonax, Tommy Perez, Trevor Van Meter, Ty Wilkins and Zach Stubenvoll.
Thank you, thank you, thank you all for your generous contributions. This project is nothing without your work.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge and sincerely thank the servicemen and women, the volunteers and the good people on the ground in these areas who are doing the real work day in and day out to help these cities recover. Thank you.