An International Women's Day special
Sheila Sampath lives a well-designed life.
The OCAD U Faculty of Design instructor says she’s always been involved in social activism, collaborating on public events for social justice causes and working the front lines in grassroots organizations focused on anti-oppression issues. When she designed a poster for the 2003 Take Back the Night rally and march, she experienced how design and activism could be combined. She says, “That’s how I got into design. I’d get angry about a particular issue, then I’d make something for it. I really enjoyed making something for people that could draw them in and make them feel a part of something bigger.”
In 2008, Sampath started an activist-based design studio, The Public, using design as a tactic for engaging in activism. Putting personal politics into practice, Sampath and her colleagues (who share an activist background) focus on client-based and self-initiated projects around issues of anti-oppression, sustainability and social growth. “We do research, writing and everything from planning things to making things,” explains Sampath.
Clients of The Public include a large university, a health network, and smaller, grassroots organizations. For activist-design services, The Public charges fair market prices and tries not to turn anyone anyway. The business is self-reliant (they don’t rely on grants and don’t take on corporate or commercial clients) right down to the studio furniture they make themselves. Says Sampath, “What we do is driven by our communities. We work to democratize our skill sets for our various communities. We offer skillshares, in-house residencies and internships, and produce how-to zines. We work so that we don't have to do this work anymore, and for a world in which this work is no longer needed. We design only when needed. A logo or a poster isn't always going to change the world.”
Sampath is also the editorial and art director of Shameless, an award-winning Canadian feminist magazine for girls and trans* youth. In November 2014, the volunteer-run magazine celebrated its tenth anniversary. A mirror of the work she does with her design studio, Shameless is a grassroots publication that focuses on social justice issues, particularly those at the intersections of race, class, ability, immigration status, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Sampath is working on a personal art project that explores the links between colonialism and design. In her teaching at OCAD U and in her work at The Public, she challenges concepts of design, as well as considering them tactics for engaging in activism. Says Sampath, “Activism always comes first.”