The Context of Consumption


Sarah M. Kirchoff (MFA candidate, project manager)

Practice Area


Rochester Institute of Technology Graphic Design MFA Program


Project Vision

Garbage cans are often the center of pollution on an individual level. By implementing unexpected display approaches in particular public contexts, this set of three installations sought to heighten viewer awareness of this often-overlooked functional object and draw attention to issues of both individual and society-wide consumption and pollution.

The three installations were created in conjunction with Sarah Kirchoff’s 2008 MFA thesis titled, “The Influence of Context on Message-Making and Audience Reception in Graphic Design.” Kirchoff’s premise is that the reception of a graphic design solution is greatly affected by its viewing environment, that is, the space around it and how it is approached and accessed. Designers have a hand in controlling contextual factors that contribute to a given graphic design solution, as well as the form that it takes, and how it is presented to an audience. By utilizing incongruent methods of display (methods that rebel against the chosen context), a designer can bring more attention to his or her solution and strengthen viewer response. 

For her one-day installations on Earth Day 2008, Kirchoff chose three existing garbage cans at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Student Alumni Union. Each installation interacted with the site/context/environment in meaningful and unexpected ways, drawing viewer attention and thus reinforcing the potential for understanding three different environmental statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The contexts of the installations were integral to their success. All three sites shared the common, linked feature of the trash can, but they also maintained individual site-specific components that contributed to the uniqueness of each specific solution. The trash cans were deliberately chosen to be visible and public with paths for ample pedestrian foot traffic and consumable items available nearby. Three types of environments were chosen: indoor (Solution One), transitional (Solution Two), and outdoor (Solution Three). Incongruent or unexpected formal approaches were also vital to the success of the installations: three dimensionality, texture, and random arrangement (Solution One); suspension, implied movement, and transparency (Solution Two); and the use of outlines/abstraction, temporary media, and implied growth (Solution Three).  

Project Details
The designer used visual metaphor, wit, and a high degree of resourcefulness to communicate the consequences of runaway waste and consumption. Placed in high-traffic, high-visibility locations, these installations spark conversations and, one would hope, action on the part of students to use prudence and common sense to diminish the impact of our contemporary culture’s habits.
Juror 1
Design Firm

Sarah M. Kirchoff (MFA candidate, project manager)


Alex Bitterman (associate professor/School of Design, associate thesis designer), Therese Mulligan (professor/School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, associate thesis advisor)


Sarah M. Kirchoff, The Print and Postal Hub at RIT (printing)