When a project takes on a life of it’s own, or even more to the point when design takes on a life of its own, the challenge is to recognize opportunity and embrace. It can hinge on disaster or true learning opportunity. It takes an ability and willingness for everyone to be open to new ideas. This happened with the an issue raised in my Fall 2009 Senior Seminar class in the Graphic Design department at VCU. My initial contact with The Virginia Poverty Law Center was an informative meeting with two individuals deeply committed to bringing about legislation to put restrictions on the practice of pay day lending in the commonwealth of Virginia. Pay day lending is a highly controversial issue in Virginia and other states in the US, a practice that the VPLC refers to as predatory lending: a practice that sucks individuals with fixed or limited incomes trying to meet daily expenses such as food, and rent and utilities (phone, heat) into a web of increased debt. Advocates of the industry claim it to be a legitimate business practice.
After my initial meeting with Jay Speer and Dana Wiggens at the VPLC I sympathized with their outrage and was motivated to see how my students might be able to translate this into a visual communication. Mistake one was that I assumed my response would be universal. I brought to the class a selection of taped interviews with individuals ended up with spiraling debt and victim of deceitful threats and harassment from lenders. In contrast I presented an ad from a lender offering the message that getting a pay day loan was easy, not invasive, and much more human that a “lending institution”. Jay and Dana were invited to the class to present to the group much of what they had presented to me. Jay showed one ad, presenting a lender with menacing teeth, suggesting that “these guys were nothing but sinister loan sharks”.
A common description of a loan shark is “a certain type of predatory lender. The lenders to whom these epithets were applied charged high rates of interest and designed their credit products in such a way as to make orderly retirement of the debt difficult. Borrowers became trapped by their loans and were unable to pay off the principal. The interest payments dragged on and many borrowers became virtual debt peons. As Cobleigh explains, "The real aim of loan sharks is to keep their customers eternally in debt so that interest (for the sharks) becomes almost an annuity.“
The first challenge to the case Jay and Dana presented arose when one student spoke with me after class about his discomfort with the project. He confessed he wasn’t sure he agreed with Jay and Dana’s view of the industry. I suggested that he might try another project as he found this morally objectionable. But it soon became apparent that he wasn’t the only with conflicts opinions about the issue. Several students began to do some research and question the responsibility of the borrowers. Were they spending money on luxuries and living beyond their means? Were they not educating themselves as to their options? “Why hadn’t Dana and Jay told us more about options, when we asked”, they wondered, with some suspicion. As the class discussions evolved there were varying opinions. Some were concerned that they were being pushed into conveying a message about the industry that wasn’t their own view. The discussion became emotional, many of these students were working jobs outside of school to pay for their own education and had little sympathy for folks in dire financial situations. At this point I recognized that larger issues were at stake. Issues of politics and economics and demographics. None of the students in the class had a direct experience with a single parent home, where when a kid comes home from school and says there’s “nothing to eat” they don’t mean there’s nothing yummy for a snack, they mean there is literally nothing in the refrigerator or cabinet.
At this point I had to reevaluate the direction I had envisioned. And listen to the group. We stepped back and began to exam our points of view. I introduced the concept of meta-cognition. We went through an exercise from my documentary studies classes that asks students to step back and examine their point of view, their assumptions and some of the assumptions of the group. We looked at an assumption that questioned a lot of our views of poverty and as we looked closer at the purpose served by such assumptions as, “people who are poor live beyond their means,” the issue of blame came up. This was a turning point for the project.
It no longer became an issue of “demonizing the industry”, as many students felt they were being led to do, and more an issue of problem solving. Blaming the lenders and blaming the borrowers was seen as “unproductive” and the class turned instead to looking at how to educate, inform and most importantly promote a discussion.
The critical piece of this was to bring this view back to VPLC and covey the discomfort and concerns of the class and to recognize the significance of this development. The students were looking at design in the way I had envisioned, but in a much deeper and richer way. They wanted to step back and look at the problem in a larger, more balanced way and in the end their view led us to a place of discourse rather than rhetoric.