How does one transform archaic systems that have a big money interest in making sure those same systems remain archaic? That was a question I asked myself for what felt like weeks upon weeks before making a breakthrough.
Life is a constant learning cycle. Every experience is either an easy lesson or a cruel awakening. My past year has been a series of cruel awakenings.
On 14 February 2018, my alma mater, Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School, endured a tragedy. Seventeen high school students and faculty members were shot and killed in one of the largest school shootings in US history.
Gun violence is not new to the US, but the epidemic of school shootings is a newer problem. I am from the generation that will forever be known as the school shooting generation.
A group of MSD students banded together soon after the tragedy to create #NeverAgain, a campaign to end gun violence in America, and plan and execute the largest youth-led demonstration in global history. Days after the march, I joined the team.
After the March for Our Lives in Washington DC, my friends and I knew we could not let our momentum fade. We planned a 60-day bus tour across the country to visit more congressional districts than any politician had before. We called this summer journey, Road to Change.
Before the tour started, we knew we needed something that embodied and amplified our message. At the time, I was assigned the task of designing merchandise for the tour and for the organisation as a whole.
We were just a group of kids who wanted to prevent more deaths from gun violence. We never knew the growth we would see in mere weeks. We never knew we would be national leaders, heading the charge to vote out leaders who were not passing gun violence prevention legislation.
The 14th of February impacted me in indescribable ways, but my thoughts kept coming back to my best friend, Joaquin, who lost his life that day. He believed in my creative ability more than almost anyone else. As creative director, I had no idea how to artistically lead this movement, but I knew I had to figure it out.
I went to the drawing board. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has been and is the largest organisation lobbying against gun violence prevention legislation. No other country has a gun lobby other than the US.
The NRA uses fear mongering to grow and solidify its base. Most of all, it stands in the guise of patriotism, pushing the idea that its work is in the best interest of all law- abiding American citizens.
I knew in order to appeal to Americans on both sides of the aisle, I could not come forward with what America had already seen. I had to keep innovation at the forefront of my mind in an attempt to change this archaic system.
My thought process at that time was to use everything I learned in my civic classes, everything I learned while designing until the dark hours of the morning. At the end of the day, what I designed had to be original.
Many organisations already produce regurgitation enough and, with a youth movement that too many were already sceptical about, everything had to be fresh. We did not want quick marketing strategies but to actually make a difference in a system that had not yet seen its full potential.
One night, I was working on the final design for our tour, telling myself I would not go to bed until I figured it out. I was playing around with Quick Response (QR) codes for a few different projects, thinking to myself that I needed to stop getting distracted, when I realised I wasn’t distracted. I was inspired.
Global leaders like China use QR codes throughout their society. It is almost impossible to enter a movie theatre or pay for groceries without using a QR code. They are used for about a third of mobile payments. In 2016, it’s estimated that they were used in more than USD1.65 trillion of transactions according to a CNN report.
QR codes are ingrained not only in countries like China but all over Southeast Asia. In Thailand, several commercial banks have already approved QR code payments as an official means of payment.
This past year, Apple rolled out a native app allowing all up- to-date iPhones to scan QR codes without having to download external software.
We ask ourselves why the whole world hasn’t adopted QR codes for streamlined efficiency yet, but the answer is that brands and businesses are simply using them in the wrong way or not using them at all.
The QR code itself offers a wide range of benefits that can permanently change the way we do business. QR code data is easily trackable. With the website as the landing page, designers have immediate data on the effectiveness of the code.
QR codes are also inexpensive. There are a multitude of websites that create QR codes for free. Beyond that, they increase visibility for any brand almost instantly.
People want to know what each code does and they will ask every time.
While QR codes were on my mind, the idea of patriotism and loving one’s country enough to make it better kept coming back to me. Perhaps the greatest symbol of that concept in the US is the American flag.
After hours of sitting in front of my computer, I designed a shirt I had no idea would register thousands upon thousands to vote and have a national impact. I replaced the stars section of the American flag with a blue QR code that, if scanned on a mobile device, sent the user to a link that could register them to vote in less than two minutes.
One of our main objectives was to intersect politics with popular culture. Fashion and technology now had become vessels for mission. The prominence of social media has not only created a culture of influencers promoting for brands, but has also upheld a culture in which celebrities dictate popular culture.
Gianni Versace was famous for merging music with fashion. He began seating famous musicians in the front row of his shows, asking them to model his clothing, and it took off. Fashion now relies on popular artists to push their brand forward. We were building a new standard for fashion: its ability to empower and engage people in their civic duty.
This piece of merchandise has become a cornerstone in our dialogues on gun violence prevention and civic engagement. Young leaders have always brought innovation to old problems; it is a recurring pattern throughout history. I am proud to follow in those footsteps.
With the help of the New American Flag, we have not only have engaged with 100,000+ people who have attended our various rallies, town halls and community events, but we have helped tens of thousands register to vote.
The QR code T-shirt is more than just a piece of merchandise. It is a conversation piece. At every stop on our 2018 summer tour, we witnessed people being taken away by its innovation.
People were forced to interact with each other because it was impossible to scan the shirt without having a conversation. And the shirt already started the dialogue for us. Our goal had been to engage and make an impact, and the shirt accomplished just that.
There is a specific reason we were able to accomplish the feat of registering thousands of voters in less than 60 days. We connected technology to apparel and design. We connected popular culture and social media to lobbying.
We connected gun violence prevention to the larger idea of civic engagement. We included everyone, survivors or not, to share their stories, their fears, and then worked with them to create substantive reform through legislation and policy. We found the strength in collaboration because that is what works.
But design, for me, is a constant challenge. How can I do better? How can my designs do better for the world? How can they intersect with other industries to push the needle?
Even with what we accomplished through the design, there is still more that could be done. I knew I could refine it more when, after a rally, one woman said to me: “I know it was made by a man because the flag is right over the chest and the QR code isn’t easy to scan unless your chest is flat.”
For a woman or a larger person, my design posed a problem. This opened up a broader conversation on accessibility and what myself and other designers could be doing to improve technology for everyone.
What good is a design that doesn’t engage everyone with their civic duty?
On the other hand, what good is a design that engages everyone too much?
Technology should assist but it should never replace. There is power in technology, but there is also power in canvassing, lobbying and voting. My goal is that my designs never convince a constituent that tweeting or reposting an article is as effective or equivalent to casting a ballot.
The future of fashion and technology is untapped. Smart design is a rising field in fashion. Yves Behar, the founder of Fuseproject, created a clothing line that allows people with muscle dystrophy to stand, walk and move for longer periods of time with motors hidden in pods on the skin of the fabric.
Pauline van Dongen designed a jacket with built-in sensors that track activity in elderly individuals for physicians to utilise and improve exercises and rehabilitation. And Levi’s partnered with Google to create material that allows users to pause and play music, reply to texts and calls, and navigate on their commute to and from work. There is more than just my design to be dreamed of, created and sewn.
In 2018, largely due to the work of March for Our Lives and similar organisations, the US saw the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in more than 25 years. A whopping 31 percent of young people showed up to the polls and proved with their ballot that they could not, and would not, be silenced any longer.
There is power in believing in yourself and your work. There is power in thinking you can change archaic systems. There is power in believing you and your friends can do something great. Because, often times, you may just be right.
Words by Jammal Lemy