Alumni Spotlight: Robyn Waxman

Robyn Waxman’s 2009 graduate Design thesis project was about food. It was about collective action. It was about rethinking protest. It was about figuring out what the heck is up with America’s youth today.

It was about a lot of things you don’t usually associate with design. But it was also all about design.

Consider a poster, the quintessential tool of political calls to action. These days, Waxman says, a poster can be much more than a simple piece of paper printed with a simple message. It can be digital, dynamic, a forum for exchange among many individuals rather than a one-way delivery mechanism with a single author. “It’s an opportunity for sharing within intensely connected and participatory social networks. By adding digitality to the poster format, it becomes possible to make continual updates and changes. The content is democratized, decentralized, and can expose a variety of opinions.”

There were many phases to her yearlong thesis project, among them the solicitation of ideas about how best to transform the decrepit Hooper Street parkway strip along the main building of CCA’s San Francisco campus; the creative display of the contributed ideas; the announcement of the planned project (a combination food garden and reclamation strategy for the contaminated soil); the solicitation of gardener-participants; a series of gardening events, many of which were directed somewhat on the fly by the participants; and the installation of a rainwater catchment system on CCA’s roof.

The entire process had a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it was characterized throughout by a constant feedback flow. It was iterative and subject to continual revision, much like the digital poster concept. Navigating and digesting the swarm of data she collected, then rebroadcasting/redelivering it, took an incredible amount of time and required thinking along a vast continuum of micro to macro levels.

Waxman ended up designing a variety of inventive formats, also on a range of scales, for this information collection and delivery. She projected her digital poster onto the side of CCA’s main building. She hung idea-solicitation forms inside individual campus bathroom stalls. She carved woodblock-type stamps out of actual vegetables and invited passersby to ink-stamp on paper their visions of what the garden should look like. Her thesis publication was, of course, the culmination of it all and the most massive piece of work. Moving, smart, and provocative, it is a great piece of writing and a creative work of design that interweaves, both narratively and visually, the evolution of the project and what its author took away from it.

Waxman (half-)jokingly calls her methods “slow protest,” like slow food. Consider her digital poster: Not only was the process of creating it incredibly long and complex, but so was the process of reading it. It was text-heavy and took time to digest and understand. Also like slow food Waxman’s work is about creation, from scratch. Rather than decrying something negative in a singular, explosive moment, it enacts something positive, in a subtle way, over time. It is fueled not so much by overt and specific anger as by an often-unfocused desire, latent in most young people, to do something good.

“I can no longer consider my creative (design) pursuits separate from my social responsibility to address problems in the places we live and work,” concludes Waxman. “Design is moving from a ‘designer knows best’ mindset into a mindset where the designer creates a framework for others to act. The next generation coming of age already embraces this; they’ve already got the subcultural mechanisms in place. They want to do it themselves. They’re participatory. They’re confident. They have the potential to be one of the most active citizen groups in history. My thesis examined design’s role in capturing and applying that energy.”

FARM (Future Action Reclamation Mob) work is ongoing; visit to read more, including detailed instructions and resources to help you launch your own FARM. As the Hooper Street plants begin to produce, harvesters will be needed (half the food will be donated to services for the low-income and homeless, and half will be free for the taking and eating by anyone who is hungry).

You can contact Waxman for a hard copy of her design thesis, or download it here. She has also started planning FARM Troop 2, currently slated for a former rail yard in Sacramento. There are no official FARMing rules—it’s a culture of continual revisions based on a gift economy—except that it must somehow involve reclaiming neglected or polluted land. It can take the form of an edible garden, a collective mural, an interactive playground . . .


CCA FARM Project
SFMOMA's Open Space blog

Born in 1970 in Flint, Michigan, grew up in Miami

CCA degree:MFA in Design, 2009

Other education:BFA in Visual Communications, University of Delaware, 1993

Residence:Lives in Davis, works in Sacramento

Current occupation:Professor of graphic communication at Sacramento City College; principal of itty bitty one way street; coordinator of education for the Designers Accord

Influences at CCA:Geoff Kaplan, Maria McVarish, Ignacio Valero, Michael Vanderbyl, Valerie Casey