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Civilization Brings Design and Social Advocacy Together With Their Award-Winning Studio

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 10/12/2018 | 4 Minute Read

Last year, a student asked Gabriel Stromberg a question about his work as the Co-Founder and Creative Director of the Seattle studio Civilization, and it’s one that stuck with him.

“I forget exactly how they phrased it,” he said, “but it was something along the lines of, ‘How do you feel about working with organizations focused on social change and creating a design aesthetic for them that looks expensive?’”

Their client lineup proves that, again and again, they are not only committed to great design but also in fighting for some of the world’s most pressing issues. Shout Your Abortion removes the stigma surrounding abortion and pushes for reproductive rights. Drugs Over Dinner provides a compassionate place for discussions about drug and alcohol addiction. Farestart provides job training for those in poverty or dealing with homelessness.

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From addiction to climate change to prison reform, Civilization brings their skills to the companies Gabriel believes need them the most.

“I can’t think of a better client to elevate than people who are doing this type of work,” he explained. “You can look at a lot of moments in history, like the anti-war movement to women’s right or the gay rights movement, or the SILENCE = DEATH campaign from the 80s, and design has always been this great vehicle for creating change.”

For him, it’s not merely an option to use good design as a tool for social advocacy—it’s a necessity and one he describes as “the perfect marriage.”

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It is this exact belief and outstanding work that led the studio to win a National Design Award from The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum this year. Honoring lasting achievement in American design, the annual National Design Awards celebrates design as a vital tool for shaping the world around us. So naturally, it makes sense that someone would nominate Civilization for this prestigious recognition. While their portfolio showcases a variety of styles—from hand-drawn to heavily typographic, from playful to serious—one element prevails across their work.“The thing that unites our work is our process,” said Gabriel, “and it’s based on listening. It’s all about our clients. We try to tell their stories and hear about what they’re trying to do with their organizations and businesses, and we let that guide us.”

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Civilization also turns to history to inform their designs. In addition to working at the studio, Gabriel teaches design history at a local college, and he stressed the importance of having an understanding and respect for history in a highly technical world.

“I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but history is inspiring on so many levels, and it’s a great way to feel connected to this tradition of experiences all around the world,” he stated. “Having that foundation and knowing the way that people approached things in the past will help you in the future.”

Another source of inspiration for Civilization is their client base. Gabriel said that, quite often, the people they work with are in the midst of a significant change—perhaps launching a new business or revamping their current one—and this vibrant energy helps inform their work.

The Civilization team is comprised of a small group of people who Gabriel describes as well informed, connected people who, most importantly, care about what’s happening in the world. “That’s one of the reasons we work so well together,” he mused. “We have similar values, but different backgrounds.”They’re proud of their differences and various skills, too, both inside the studio and out. Gabriel mentioned they actually have a gallery in the front of their office, and they’ll be putting up a show in December with work from their employees cleverly called, “Homework." From high-quality leather goods to independent zines, Civilization celebrates the differences in people who want to come together for the common good.

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The studio also brings design to the community in other ways, especially with their Design Lecture Series. Taking place at the Seattle Public Library Downtown, it’s not unusual for this ticketed free event to have a line down the block. Upcoming speakers include Eddie Opara, Na Kim, and Ellen Lupton. Mark your calendars—Gabriel said tickets usually sell out online within minutes.“Design is a way to connect to the world around you,” Gabriel said. And whether it’s through the work with their clients or in real life at these events, Civilization wants to create meaningful connections.

Design is a series of decisions, he said, and at Civilization, they try to create a pathway for those decisions. They choose a typeface, a color, a form language—but all with the bigger picture in mind. “It all gets tied to the subject,” Gabriel added, “because ultimately we want the project to resonate with what that meaning is.”

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