Designs that speak out on controversies go viral

Karrie Simpson Voth

"Let Your Voice Be Heard!" poster competition creates social media storm

10/30/15
By Melissa Dixon
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- "As a graphic designer, you have incredible power to influence others."

If Karrie Simpson Voth's students didn't believe her before, they do now.

Simpson Voth is interim chair of the Department of Art and Design at Fort Hays State University, and one of her class assignments has resulted in an unprecedented landslide of social media engagement for the university.

For the past eight years, students in Fort Hays State's History of Graphic Design class have participated in a poster competition, instituted by Simpson Voth, in which students create multiple poster designs that promote awareness of social and political issues of their choice.

When the winning poster designs were shared on the FHSU Facebook page on Oct. 21, it took only a few hours for the artists -- and University Relations and Marketing staff -- to notice that traffic on the post was higher than normal.

Within 36 hours, the post reach -- how many Facebook users had seen the post -- had exceeded one million.

To date, the post's reach has exceeded 5 million.

"A great poster has the ability to grab someone's attention when they least expect it and make them look at the issue presented from a different perspective other than their own," Simpson Voth said. "They may not necessarily agree with the perspective, but they can see there are a multitude of ways to look at the world. The most effective design is one that stays with you, one you can't get out of your head; it can enrage or delight."

Partnering with the American Democracy Project, class members displayed their posters in FHSU's Memorial Union. Ballots and a ballot box were provided, and the campus and community were encouraged to vote for their favorite posters.

The ADP was created in 2003 as an initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in partnership with the New York Times. The organization works to ensure that higher education graduates are informed and involved citizens in their communities.

Topics addressed in the posters ranged from global and nationwide issues such as immigration and race to current hot topics in Kansas legislation such as education funding cuts and concealed carry laws.

The posters had an impact on those who viewed them as well as the students who designed them.

"That is why we call this competition 'Let Your Voice Be Heard!,' " Simpson Voth said. "Respectful debates took place amongst the students almost daily. The students challenged one another to find deeper meaning, research more, or to clarify their ideas further. They also learned it is completely acceptable to agree to disagree."

During the research and design process, students were educated on the issues of democracy, civic engagement and citizenship as well as social issues that impact the city, state, country and world. Part of their instruction came through discussion, a series of lectures on historical design styles, and a presentation by one of FHSU's political science professors, Dr. Chapman Rackaway.

As a result, the students became actively engaged in conversations with one another about their own political views and their involvement ¬-- or lack thereof. For many, this was the first time they thought long and hard about what they stood for and how they would get their point across visually in order to create posters that would stimulate discussions among viewers.

"FHSU's mission mentions building globally engaged citizen leaders as a core value of the institution," Rackaway said. "It's that commitment that Karrie Simpson Voth's class shows in participating in the American Democracy Project poster contest.

"That's why I am happy to play a small part in providing the students some context for the political world in which they are operating. The art her students produce is always engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking. Controversy, and sometimes difficult topics, can be addressed in very constructive ways using art as the media," Rackaway said.

The designers' social media fame is bringing tangible results.

After seeing Jill Herbert's poster design addressing human trafficking, St. Francis Community Services in Wichita contacted Herbert, a Wichita senior, asking for her assistance in developing posters and a billboard. The Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University asked to display Herbert's poster at its next conference.

The public library in Lebo requested copies of all 60 posters for an exhibition.

The national manager of the American Democracy Project in Washington, D.C., inquired about showcasing the posters at its national conference in Indianapolis in June as well as featuring the winning posters on its blog.

"I am so excited about the influence of those posters," said Gao Fan, a senior from Xi'an City, Shannxi Province, China, whose anti-abortion poster sparked thousands of comments and fierce debates on the Facebook post.

"For me, I don't take personally what people say about my poster. I am proud of what I have done. I have the right to say my opinion, and so do they," said Fan.

"Seeing the post go viral was a dream come true," said Colby senior Brittany Bange. "Our concepts and visuals were provoking. They created dialogue -- negative comments are to be expected -- challenged viewers' beliefs and even changed the minds of a few. We couldn't ask for anything more."

To see all 60 posters, visit the FHSU Facebook photo gallery "2015 'Let Your Voice Be Heard!' poster competition" at http://ow.ly/U3rJx.



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