ISSUE 25  News & opinion |  October 2001 | updated 2/3/03   

  The morning that changed everything...

I was driving to work at Cuyahoga Community College about 9 a.m. on September 11. It was Tuesday, so I had no classes to teach, just planned to spend the day catching up on office work. The news on NPR was shocking, stunning: a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Then another. Then reports of planes crashing in Washington D.C. Smoke billowing from the Pentagon, the White House. It was happening so fast it was hard to absorb. The implications—sounded like war was at hand—literally made me sick to the stomach as I waited at the end of the exit ramp from the freeway.

The sun was shining. It was a beautiful day, yet it seemed that the world was in danger of coming apart at the seams.

I headed straight for the TV in the commons area where students, faculty, and workers were gathered around watching CNN. I'd been there only a few minutes when the word spread: the college was closed, leave immediately. It made sense at the time, though I'm not sure what the danger was. Whatever, it was obvious to us all that things were no longer the way they had been, and the future was filled with dread.

Revising the syllabus
Wednesday, September 12, we were back in school. No more planes had been flown into buildings, and the immediate danger seemed to have abated. As I got ready for class I looked in other classrooms, trying to see if teachers were doing anything different, or if they were pretending it was business as usual. I knew that my own syllabus had just been revised.

In the teaching biz there's something called "the teachable moment." If you're smart, you recognize when events create a situation in which students are ready to learn. All you have to do is figure out how to take advantage of it. September 12th offered a teachable moment.

We started both classes that day by sitting down as a group and talking about how we might respond as designers, as visual communicators, to express our feelings about the recent events. We discussed the media we worked in: the Multimedia class was using Macromedia Director to create a slide-show type of presentation. The Web Design II class focused on the possibilities of the Internet.

I encouraged students to present their feelings, thoughts, and emotions in their respective media. The Multimedia students used lots of images culled from the Web and television, while the Web Design project evolved into a class website with each student presenting a collection of web links to help people deal with various aspects of the tragedy: transportation, helping others, dealing with fear, etc.

The results
We spent the next month working on these responses, learning a lot of technical skills along the way. Motivation was no problem: students were anxious to find out how to edit sound, to use Dreamweaver to put together their web pages, to get Director to make images fade in and out. Throughout the process we had an ongoing conversation (in class and via email) about the events and aftermath that went beyond normal class routine.

[ Website temporarily unavailable ]

I hesitate to say that something good came out of the events of September 11, even though it's true. It seems cruel to even suggest that a side effect of thousands of deaths is that some college students and their teacher learned a lot by dealing with that reality. Yet in the end I believe that the only good that ever comes from tragedy is that survivors learn from it. As my students learned about using electronic media, I hope that we all learned about what is truly meaningful in life.

-Al Wasco, October 14, 2001

How do
designers respond?
We design something.

As ineffective as it may seem in the face of events of this magnitude, we try to use our talents to express our grief, fear and/or hope.


(American Institute of Graphic Arts)

(University & College Designers Association)

My own
(Al Wasco)

Milton Glaser,
who created one of the world's most recognized logos, redesigned it after Sept. 11: