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The anti-capitalist face of design

“In order to be anti-racist, you have to be anti-capitalist. I don’t think we can actually ever be an anti-racist institution. We can be a better place, a more inclusive place. But I think racism is built into the DNA of capitalism.” - MIRIAM DOAN

  • “In order to be anti-racist, you have to be anti-capitalist. I don’t think we can actually ever be an anti-racist institution. We can be a better place, a more inclusive place. But I think racism is built into the DNA of capitalism.”
  • Miriam Doan

“TAKE IT ALL” reads the caption on Chris Rudd’s Instagram story, overlaying a video of looters emptying a Gucci retail store and a Walgreens in downtown Chicago. The incident followed an explosive face-off between police and demonstrators after cops shot a young man in the predominantly Black, south-side neighborhood of Englewood.

Rudd is nothing less than a warrior for anti-capitalism. His point of view is spot-on for activism in 2020—a year of violence, destitution, and apocalyptic overtones that has provoked people to forgo tinkering with a broken system in favor of burning it to the ground in order to build something new at any cost. This is a fight owned by the people, and true to his core beliefs, Rudd is there to back it up regardless of whether it’s palatable to the powers that be.

Yet, as an emerging leader in the city, using design as a catalyst for creating equity while simultaneously demanding the field dismantle its own inherent racism, Rudd straddles formal institutions and grassroots organizing. He’s also a full-time professor at IIT Institute of Design, founding head of ChiByDesign design and strategy firm, and dad to three girls, who—when he talks about them—literally make his eyes twinkle and a dimple peek through his beard.

It’s baffling to imagine the code-switching Rudd does in a single day in order to play so many roles for so many people. And yet, isn’t that the plight of successful Black men in America? Jessica Jacobs, Rudd’s collaborator and co-teacher, as well as a professor at Columbia College, notes, “He’s a hybrid wonder with incredible range. A revolutionary that is comfortable in a faculty meeting, or in a boardroom, or getting a grant. And he disagrees really well.”

There are rewards, of course, to win in a society that is rigged in every way to make one fail. But no doubt it’s exhausting. And there is something a little weary in Rudd’s demeanor, like he wishes someone else would take the steering wheel occasionally so he can look out the window. Call him sage or an old soul, but I have the distinct impression that Rudd was always a grown-up, even as a little kid.

Rudd treats the leadership role bestowed upon him with reverence. Having grown up with two activists for parents, this is a way of life. “The idea that a struggle is somebody else’s and not your own didn’t exist,” Rudd explains about his upbringing. “We go. We support. We fight.” His father—who Rudd calls a “proletariat intellectual”—organized on behalf of labor unions and his mother for their community.

For as long as he can remember, Rudd attended protests on the weekends with his parents, wrote papers about the anti-immigration policy Proposition 187 in elementary school, and began to come into his own as an activist independent of his family at age 13, organizing, attending rallies, and developing his own network. In high school he became an influential figure with the Southwest Youth Collaborative, interrupting a speech by Mayor Daley at Navy Pier. He got fired from his first real job at O’Hare—two years after 9/11 happened—for organizing airport workers to strike for fair wages.

Nowadays—at just 37 years old—he’s almost like an elder in the streets. When protests erupted in Minneapolis following the heinous murder of George Floyd, Rudd was en route within days to join the movement. He found himself amongst a group of mostly young protestors who had been separated from a larger pack when police and armed guards began firing rubber bullets, pepper bullets, and tear gas. They were looking to Rudd and his comrades for direction. Recalling his experiences coming up as a young activist, Rudd knew he had to help them to lead the way in their own city. “I said, ‘I walk with you and I’ll be there, but it’s your turn’ . . . I know it was terrifying for them because they literally had everyone’s lives in their hand at that point. That’s a hard thing to do . . . We taught them never go under a bridge and never go onto a bridge because there’s no escape route. Figure out where you’re gonna go if they come and attack. So they got some lessons in evasive actions and how to orchestrate marching in hostile territory.”

The impulse to teach seems to come naturally to Rudd. Top of mind right now is his push to exact an anti-racist agenda in the field of design, starting at IIT Institute of Design with his graduate students, fellow faculty, and administration. Rudd’s agenda didn’t start with the recently globally amplified Black Lives Matter movement—it’s been central to his reason for joining the school from day one. But the current climate has forced the issue to rise to the top of priorities for the field and Rudd is seizing the moment to mobilize and ensure concrete action is taken. This means developing an anti-racist committee and making anti-racism a stand-alone research domain for young designers first entering the field. Student and ChiByDesign designer Justin Walker attributes the trajectory of his design career to Rudd. “His presence alone gives space to Black students to talk about what’s going on in the world,” he says. “What is racism? What is anti-racism? How do you design through that lens? It’s not something that a whole lot of folks can articulate as well as he can.”

For as long as he can remember, Chris Rudd has been attending protests—activism shaped his life. - MIRIAM DOAN

  • For as long as he can remember, Chris Rudd has been attending protests—activism shaped his life.
  • Miriam Doan

Still Rudd’s expectations are measured. “In order to be anti-racist, you have to be anti-capitalist,” he says. “I don’t think we can actually ever be an anti-racist institution. We can be a better place, a more inclusive place. But I think racism is built into the DNA of capitalism.” The location of the school itself is rife with racist history, having been deliberately cut off by city officials from the once thriving Black neighborhood of Bronzeville by the placement of the Dan Ryan expressway in the early 60s in an effort to segregate the neighborhoods.

Rudd doesn’t like to talk about himself much, almost always steering the conversation toward his ideas rather than his person. And his ideas are seductive enough—studied and considerate of choice of word—that at several points I find myself distracted from our intended interview, ready to dive deep into a didactic rabbit hole that people like us find so pleasurable.

But eventually I get him to tell me a little more about what it was like being Little Chris. Aside from the pervasive activism in his household, what formed him?

“Were you a nerd?” I ask, then catch myself immediately, “I know you weren’t a nerd.” Rudd has a manner of being simultaneously magnetic and guarded that would suggest he wasn’t much of a joiner as an adolescent.

“I was never a cool kid. But for some reason the cool kids wanted to be my friend?” He says it like it’s a question, then adds with a smirk, “Their number twos always hated me.”

Rolling his eyes at the gang banging that was predominant as a young student at Bogan High School in Chicago’s southwest-side Ashburn neighborhood, he instead got into a graffiti crew and did hip-hop battles. “That’s all they wanted to do was gang bang. I’m like this hip hop kid, and they were like, ‘Who the fuck is he?’ They had me in honors and I hated that because they isolate you, so I flunked out immediately. I was like, ‘Put me in regular.’ So I was like—just me.”

Deliberately failing his high school advanced placement classes out of principle didn’t prevent Rudd from eventually ending up at Stanford, where he was invited to join graduate students as a civic innovation fellow studying human centered design.

Rudd’s design career developed organically from one synergistic moment following the next, but always with activism as the connective tissue. He first pursued a degree at a Chicago community college, where again he found himself in the center of a movement to simultaneously organize the student body in anti-war efforts and in support of teachers on a labor strike. From there his work helping incarcerated youth expunge their criminal records “somehow” (says Rudd) reached the d.School, Stanford’s design program, launching his career as a designer.

He started his firm, ChiByDesign, because of his “anger and frustration about the landscape of design and how design work was being distributed around the city.” He was tired of seeing a field that consisted primarily of white designers swooping in to supposedly solve problems for impoverished communities and communities of color. He decided to create a studio that would be committed from the beginning to be at least 65 percent designers of color and 50 percent women, thereby contributing to a pipeline of designers that will help diversify the field.

“What’s it like to work with the firm?” I want to know, and his response is immediate—he wants clients that are aligned with his values of anti-racism, solidarity, and collectivity.

Despite his quickly rising status in the Chicago design community, Rudd’s careful to maintain that he knows he has to be ready to walk away from it all, if his anti-capitalist and anti-racist ideas ever become too confrontational to the powers that be. “What I’m saying is real cool and ‘timely’ right now, but the moment it gets to be too much, they’ll take it away . . . We know how to survive that.”

Certainly, there are plenty of sympathizers to the Black Lives Matter movement who find the looting and fire starting that happened during some of the protests abhorrent. Rudd again meets this topic with the clarity of true conviction. “A lot of people want the best for the world. When things are messy, it feels wrong because that’s not the world they envision,” Rudd says. “What happened in Minneapolis and around the world exposes the messiness that the people who created it have done a very good job at keeping invisible.

“Aunt Jemima pancakes would not have changed their label and their branding, had they not burned down a Wells Fargo bank. The Washington Redskins would not [have been] seriously deliberating changing their mascot after decades of protests and petitions had they not burned down the third precinct. It was that level of commitment to racial justice that the people of Minneapolis showed that has now put the entire country and the world for the most part on notice that they better change things.”

Says Jacobs, “In academia there is a tendency to just want to talk about things, but Chris is always pulling back to say let’s visualize it and root it in reality. We gave our students an assignment to create an anti-racist object; simple but provocative. People have good intentions, but we reveal biases when we make it tangible.”

In the midst of performative liberalism largely being played out on social media platforms, while people are being beaten and killed in broad daylight by law enforcement, Rudd’s fight-till-the-end attitude feels like exactly the kind of leadership that’s been missing from the mainstream narrative.

“When we talk about anti-racism, one of the things that people rarely talk about is violence,” Rudd says. “I grew up in a house where you punch Klan members in the mouth. That was something you should do. It’s not just about reading a bunch of text books—it’s how are you combating these ideas and these practices.”

Just as Rudd was ingrained with the ethos of solidarity at any cost, his oldest daughter already seems to be following in his footsteps. “I have political T-shirts and sometimes I’m cautious to wear them because I don’t know if she wants to get in those conversations all the time when we’re out. But I picked her up and she had on a shirt with ABOLISH ICE, big as hell. So I was like, cool, fuck it.”

“Where does this immense appreciation for women come from?” I want to know, because it doesn’t apply only to his personal life. More than once in our conversations, he makes deliberate moves to elevate the status of women, especially women of color, attributing the success of design projects to their contributions. During quarantine, he told me how concerned he was that his work was taking precedence over his partner’s and that he needed to figure out how to make things more fair in their household. In a recent panel he put together on promoting an anti-racist agenda in design, he carefully carved out space for the two women panelists, Cheryl Miller and Dr. Christina Harrington, to be as “radical” as they were willing to be. Miller declared, “I would like to retire mid-century Helvetica and the Paul Rand look!” To nondesigners that might not sound like provocation, but in the design world it’s nothing short of unleashing a battle cry.

It’s not surprising to learn that Rudd has a particularly amazing mother. Like his daughters, he gets dimply when he talks about her. “My mom is an artist, activist. She’s super smart but it wasn’t school that made her smart. It was the studying she did outside of that and the way she can piece things together. She can make things connect. And her passion for change is unmatched, and her ability to organize is unmatched. My parents’ political principles guided their parenting. I look at my childhood and I’m like, ‘Oh shit, they were indoctrinating me.’ Glad it was the good shit.”

Without question the overdue reckoning we are all experiencing is dirty and it’s painful. But Rudd reminds us that this fight is owned by the young people who are forcing necessary change. “I want to support, fight alongside them and make space for them to maximize their potential,” he says. Rudd’s determined to make sure this moment is their catalyst.   v

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