I was invited by Grafist to contribute to their celebration and to share experiences with designers and students alike. In accepting this invitation I wanted to take on the challenges facing the city and to explore if and how design can bridge the growing gap between refugees and local communities. I had to find a medium to make this work.
On 30 November 1979 one of Brazil’s largest public demonstrations against the military took place in Florianópolis. The impact of those protests still resonates today so it felt like the right place to initiate a project to explore the power of design. We chose to work with flags, not a national flag but a personalized one.
Through my work I have discovered how these flowing yards of fabric can give people a voice and become a means for empowerment and connection.
For the Florianópolis project we created individual flags for individual houses based on the very characteristic and popular form and colour of the local facades. Then we asked the occupants to pose with the flags in front of their houses for a photograph. The gesture was so powerful that many participants ended up revealing all sorts of stories and anecdotes about their lives, their politics and their vision for the future. Our hope had been that something as simple as a flag would provide citizens with a voice to express themselves, which is exactly what happened.
For Istanbul we decided to use the same tool: the flag, to create “Flag Stories” – a name given to the program by the participants.
The idea was simple: I asked Turkish students from the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University to individually get in touch with a refugee and design a personal flag for him or her. The students were excited by this prospect and said: “We never met a refugee before.” The students had to listen, spend time with, and really get to know the refugees to be able to design a flag that would truly represent this person.
We went to a school that offered Turkish lesson to refugees. With some shared vocabulary and improvised interpreters among the students, everybody started to talk and interact. A common language opened up a whole new level of understanding and very soon the students and refugees found each other, started to connect on Facebook, and to exchange mobile numbers. The atmosphere was terrifically positive despite the sometimes very sad individual stories of hardship and escape.
Then the students returned to the graphic design department at the university to design a flag for the person they had gotten to know. The flag they were asked to design had to reflect the specific identity of that person.
Two days later we invited the group of refugees to the university on the banks of the Bosporus. During a ceremony, each student offered his or her flag to the refugee, explaining why he or she had made this specific flag for their newly found friend.
Offering the flag was an important part of the project. This gesture was very powerful. The ceremony was emotional, happy, and intense. As if all the energy of the world’s woes came to this single peaceful moment. That’s when we decided together to make a website and call it ‘Flag Stories’.
The idea behind our flags is that they represent not a nation, but a person: “One man – One vote”. It gives people rights and a voice. It’s a project about democracy and social empowerment.