Isometric collaborated with Google on the design of an immersive exhibition that narrates the Black American experience with police through ethnographic vignettes, historical context, and carefully curated data. As part of Google’s ongoing work to investigate the role of technology in addressing injustice, the exhibition was an interactive report that summarized two years of research.
To situate the findings in the context of lived experiences, the designers traveled across America to gather original photography and narratives, consulting with the Google team to develop a thoughtful and nuanced architectural framework and visual language that inspired critical reflection and collaborative discourse. To convey the intersection of the complex historical and contemporary factors that culminate in unnecessary profiling and unjust violence against Black Americans, they created a conceptual public square where interviewees’ own narratives could be presented with care.
The design team surveyed many spaces within the Google headquarters in NYC, which occupies several buildings in the Chelsea area, and identified an ideal location for this exhibition that would be situated on-campus and easy for team members to access. At Google’s request, we created a physical, tangible experience to get people to step outside the digital world that they normally inhabit at work.
Images and text were direct printed on birch plywood panels, held together by wooden framing and held in balance by metal wire. The panels intersect to form a large communal space, as well as a set of non-sequential rooms, where visitors can learn about the history and theory of the African American experience, alongside contemporary ethnographic interviews that personalize the lived experiences of people affected by that history.
In the main space, a community table in the center encouraged Google staff, selected interview participants, and members of the police force to process the knowledge together, to begin to find the vocabulary to address this painful issue in meaningful ways, and to become better allies and advocates. The first room, “Striving,” describes the limitations placed on African American upward mobility because of economic disenfranchisement, for example through redlining and incarceration.
The second room, “Profiling,” examines the effects of racial profiling in dialogue with W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of “double consciousness,” the notion that, in the face of everyday discrimination, Black Americans often have to see themselves through both their own lens and also through the lens of their oppressors. The third room, “Policing,” offers a historic account of the creation of police as slave patrols, linking history to interviewees’ haunting stories of recent police encounters.
The fourth room, “Coping,” shows videos of Black parents giving their children “The Talk,” a primer on how to handle possible police encounters, as well as expressions of hope for the future. The final room, “Reflecting,” offers space for visitors to offer a personal response to the exhibit.
The Google leadership and team were very happy with the exhibition, and engineers of all backgrounds found it helpful to their understanding of the issue. Particularly, team conversations that were held in the space staged encounters between the Google team and selected interviewees from the study. The context of the exhibition created space to educate rather than humiliate and to offer a historical and conceptual apparatus for the curators to respond appropriately.
Members of the NYC police, including the force’s official liaison, visited and also lauded the exhibit content and presentation. Those interviewees whose stories were being shared expressed affirmation that they felt seen and represented. The exhibition panels may travel to the California headquarters of Google in 2020.
“The restraint and clarity of the design give added weight to the emotional tension. The portraiture is powerfully intimate. You cannot look away.”
“This workplace exhibit profoundly humanizes and gives voice to a social issue in a dramatic way.”
“The designers and advisor pushed the client in the only direction possible. With conviction, in the right direction.”
Waqas Jawaid, Andy Chen (partners); Eleni Agapis (design director); James Tsang (graphic designer); Janina Engel (intern)
South Side Design and Building (fabrication and installation), Canal Sound and Light (lighting and audio-visual)