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Making sense of human behavior for design and business.

Making Sense of Occupy

“I stereotype,” George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air remarks. “It’s faster.” Perhaps it sounds unfair, but he was on to something. You could use the more highfalutin language of design conferences and say something like “Framing is how we create meaning,” but the essence would be the same. In order to make sense of the world, we put things into categories. However you describe your mental machinery, there’s a good chance that the Occupy Wall Street movement has strained its gears.

Occupy Wall Street is a phenomenon that—for a while, at least—left the chattering classes speechless. Political news in this country is typically processed through a familiar left-right dichotomy. And like our food, our news is usually highly processed by the time it reaches us, courtesy of mills like Fox News and The Daily Show. The trouble with the Occupy protests, though, is that they don’t fit neatly into this familiar left versus right framework.

This hard-to-pigeonhole aspect of the Occupy movement made it an ideal subject for an exercise in design research, a practice with roots in examining foreign cultures. At the recent Design Research Conference, hosted by the Institute of Design in Chicago, Amber Lindholm and I led a workshop on the use of photography as a design research tool.

We discussed some photography basics and then ventured outside to practice. Within a few minutes, we were standing in the shadow of the Chicago Board of Trade building and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where a modest crowd of about thirty gathered, protest signs and drum sticks in hand. We spent about 45 minutes there. The workshop participants returned with images that I found impressive, even moving. The photographs told a nuanced story.

These were not one-dimensional caricatures, but individuals, each with their own reason for carrying a sign. There were middle class moms, punked-out twentysomethings, homeless men, and if I’m honest, a few who weren’t exactly members of the reality-based community. And there I go again, categorizing.

But to be fair, it’s not just natural for us to categorize and stereotype, it is actually necessary and helpful. Except of course, when it isn’t. The problem with stereotypes is that they tend to inhibit empathy and dehumanize, as we’ve seen with the caricatures of the Occupy movement. Photography’s power, on the other hand, is to counterbalance this natural tendency with a healthy dose of emotion and empathy.

But photography is tricky. For one, the photographer is in a position of power. Photographs can objectify just as easily as they can humanize, so we have to be respectful with our use of images. (I have chosen not to publish any of the images of the faces of the protestors, as we didn’t explicitly ask for permission to share in this venue.) But perhaps more importantly, photographs are limited to what’s visible. And the photographer is always at risk of aiming the lens in the wrong direction.

The day after our photography workshop, I decided to ditch the conference’s afternoon lectures and wander Chicago in search of a good cup of coffee. As I walked, a stately building caught my eye: the headquarters of a now defunct bank called Continental Illinois. It was once the seventh largest bank in the U.S., but in 1984 it attained the dubious distinction of being the largest bank failure in U.S. history (until the 2008 failure of Washington Mutual). In a paper entitled Gambling With Other People’s Money, Russ Roberts of George Mason University, argues that the rescue of Continental Illinois set a dangerous precedent that continues to this day. In fact, it was during Congressional testimony related to Continental Illinois’ failure that the term “too big to fail” was popularized. I snapped a few photos of this symbol of economic decay, thinking: this is where they should be protesting. Here is the true source of our troubles.

A couple of weeks later, as I was reviewing my photographs from the protest, I was surprised yet again. In one of my wide shots, the engraved type was clearly visible over the heads of the protesters: CONTINENTAL ILLINOIS BANK BUILDING: the same building I noticed on my coffee walk. Only when walking past the other side of the building did I notice its infamous name, but it was indeed the same building. The protestors had chosen a deeply symbolic location after all, but I had missed it entirely the first time around.

So what lesson should I take away from this? That I’m not as smart as I think I am? Or maybe: Sometimes you need to take a coffee break to see things clearly. Perhaps: Protestors can distract from one’s appreciation of architecture. Or: Sometimes it takes a photograph to truly see the world around you.