Interview by: Chris Costes
This is the third in a series of En Pointe interviews PLP has conducted in partnership with The Strange Foundation’s Election Infusions initiative, which is infusing home-stretch funds and momentum into critical election-focused work. Have you made a plan to vote? Find out how here.
Interdisciplinary designer Dierdre Shea started her career with a focus on ceramics, but her interests in community and collaboration have driven her beyond designing objects. She is now the force behind mutual-aid app Poll2Poll, a platform to support citizen-led reporting on local polling stations and organizing in the event of polling location changes.
Shea has a long track record of working collaboratively in her practice; she has worked with public health workers, writers, formerly incarcerated people, and futurists on a variety of projects that push the boundaries of what we expect from the artifacts in our lives—from raw material sources and sustainable manufacturing, to rituals and user experience. As the founder of Studio Orange, Shea’s work pushes the role of artifacts beyond the spaces they occupy, highlighting the ways they interact with experience, ritual, and human connection. In her own words, she “believes in the participatory process as an imperative step towards equitable futures.”
In developing Poll2Poll, currently in beta, Shea collaborates with Emergent Works, a nonprofit software company that creates employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. Poll2Poll is a unique opportunity to witness Shea’s methods applied to digital landscapes—especially during a highly anticipated election year, when design that focuses on people and community is more important than ever.
Shea spoke with En Pointe about how she envisions the project will empower individuals and communities, and how her ceramics practice influences her work on Poll2Poll.
Chris Costes: What brought this project about? Was there inspiration from an event or person?
Dierdre Shea: When the pandemic hit, a surprisingly beautiful thing happened where communities began organizing to help each other through unemployment, housing insecurity, food insecurity, and pandemic safety. This happened organically on digital platforms like Nextdoor and Facebook—tools to reach out to neighbors and get folks involved. Gray Area hosted an online workshop in July, facilitated by the creative technologist Fei Liu (and featuring a fantastic group of user experience (UX) design teachers), that taught UX by developing a digital mutual aid or bartering app. This happened in the midst of pandemic primary elections. I was living in California at the time, where mail-in ballots are pretty standard, but in most states that is not the case. We were seeing long lines in the news, polling locations closing early or not opening at all, and a lot of this information was not getting to the voter before they arrived on voting day. I thought, what if a community could organize in a similar way to share information with each other on election day and help others get to the polls? How could we facilitate that through an app? After the workshop ended, Fei connected me with Emergent Works, our software collaborator, and that’s how it really got off the ground.
CC: Did you have a personal motivation to take on this project?
DS: As I was working on the concept, I learned that a family member’s polling location had been changed during the primary election because of decreased staff due to the pandemic. They missed the change-in-location notification (or never got it) and went to the polls at the end of the day, only to find that they would have to cross town to vote. They didn’t have a car, so they didn’t go. Some people are able to be super prepared to vote, and will vote against all odds, but many aren’t. Being able to adjust on voting day is a privilege. Lack of information/communication is voter suppression, even if it’s unintentional.
Dierdre Shea at work. Courtesy of Dierdre Shea.
CC: How did your own work and practice in ceramics shape this project?
DS: Ceramics is a very community-oriented craft. There are histories in every culture of how ceramics were formed, painted, and fired, and in every one of them, techniques and style are passed down through generations. The modern urban community of ceramics is also like that, because ceramics is intuitive, but also technical. Everyone has their own knowledge and methods, so when you’re troubleshooting an issue, someone may offer a new technique, and you can see if it works with your process. You share with and learn from your peers in the studio, and everyone grows together.
This collaborative spirit has influenced how I approach other design projects in my life—especially projects that are outside of my area of experience. In this case, the project was digital instead of physical, but we are still learning about the intuitive nature of the user. Digital design is a community effort; I couldn’t have done this project without the insight and collaboration from Fei or Emergent Works.
CC: Poll2Poll is a tool that helps users find real-time information about the polling happening in their communities. What is the most essential information you want the app to be able to communicate to voters?
DS: We want the app to include information that is already publicly available through your board of elections as well as anecdotal information from your community. The Google Civic Information API, for example, is a free, publicly available code developed by Google that allows you to find information about polling locations, early voting times, etc., based on your address. Using this API, our engineer was able to streamline polling information on a platform that is easier to access and read than, say, your Board of Elections website. Someone using the Poll2Poll app could plug in their address, and the available polling information will pop up. The goal with this app is to simplify the process for voters, no matter where they live.
The second part, which we are still developing, is a platform where members within a community can report information specific to a polling place. This includes information such as:
- How long is the line? (Do you need to bring a book, or go after work instead of your lunch break?)
- Is this polling location not open as planned or closing early?
- How can you get to the new polling location?
Even being able to share with your neighbors that, “Hey, there are some intimidating people here and I feel uncomfortable,” or “English is my second language and a poll worker is not allowing me to vote even though I am registered,” helps people prepare. This is the heart of the app and the aspect we think could assist both the individual voter as well as ground-up, community efforts. It would be great to give voters the chance to respond to what’s happening in real time and adjust their plans—and to give organizers a place where they can say, “If you need a ride to a new polling place, call us. We have volunteers.”
Poll2Poll wireframes. Courtesy of Dierdre Shea.
CC: Do you feel it’s important for artists and creators to focus their efforts on elections? Are there reasons the 2020 election is especially important for artists and creators to get involved?
DS: If artists and creators feel drawn to addressing the election, then they should. I’m generalizing, but I feel like many artists understand their communities in a more intuitive way than policy makers and have relationships with their communities that exist outside of data sets. The 2020 election is especially important, but the inequities that suppress voters are not unique to this cycle. Since the beginning of our country, voting laws and policies have been in existence to support people/parties in power and to suppress those who challenge that power. Voter suppression is something that communities have been fighting against for years. And to me, voter suppression is anything in the process that puts a burden on the citizen to prevent them from voting, whether intentional or not.
CC: How do you see the role of this project changing before, during, and after communities vote? Have you seen an impact from this project already?
DS: The “find your polling location” feature will be live, but we are still working on the reporting feature, so the project will not be entirely ready for November 3, 2020. We started development in late August, and it’s just not possible to responsibly roll it out in such a short period of time. The goal is to continue to develop it into a working model for the next local elections, and we are keeping the project open source for mentor/mentee partners at Emergent Works to continue to build on it.
That said, we’re excited to share our progress because all of us working on this project believe in community power. We (society) are at a collective point where we feel like we can’t trust our lawmakers to have our best interests in mind, or to take care of us when we need help, so we are turning to each other. This project is another way of doing that.
CC: How can people get involved/participate in this initiative?
DS: Right now, I think the best way people can get involved is to visit Emergent Works (formerly Code Cooperative) and learn about what they do. This election is really important, but long term, sustained action is the only way we are ever going to gain an equitable society, and they’re doing that work. It’s been an honor developing Poll2Poll with this talented and insightful team. I have to thank our software engineer Dejohn and his mentor Vini, and Army, our project manager, for their sweat on this project.
Featured image: The Poll2Poll Design Team. Courtesy of Poll2Poll.
Chris Costes is a UX and service designer with a background in enterprise and mobile products. His practice focuses on the role of narrative, conversation, and daily interactions to change larger structures and ecosystems. He is currently lives in Pittsburgh and is finishing a Design Masters at CMU.