Cleo Barnett is New Zealand born curator, strategist, and designer. Currently based in the United States, her practice explores the relationship between experience design, storytelling, and community liberation grounded in sustainability.
Since 2015 Cleo has been a core part of the Amplifier team, a non-profit design lab that builds art campaigns to amplify the voices of grassroots movements. As Amplifier’s Deputy Director, Cleo produces and co-curates global art campaigns including the iconic We The People Campaign, Women’s March on Washington, and March For Our Lives. The result of their team’s work has been millions of posters distributed and downloaded around the world, and building the non-profit organization into a globally recognized art and social justice organization.
Her work at the intersections of public art and cultural organizing has been featured at the Brooklyn Museum, on CNN, VICE, Refinery29, Radio New Zealand, the New York Times, and elsewhere. Cleo holds an M.A. in Art and Public Policy from New York University, and a double B.A. in Political Science and International Business from the University of Auckland.
Q: TRUST in design is…
A: Knowing that communities can tell their own stories.
Q: Where have you found TRUST in/ through design?
A: We have trust in the artists we collaborate with, for their unique talent to distill complex social concerns into a clearly articulated visual message. This requires an intelligence rooted in deep listening, compassion, and vulnerability. The design challenge here is how to create something beautiful out of something that is often ugly, complex, and rooted in historical trauma.
Specifically regarding design for social impact, the level of trust directly correlates with the design of the design process. How do we center the communities most affected by the design from the onset of the design process? Who we bring in to the design process, and how we collaborate with each partner, is foundational to what is designed, and how it resonates with communities.
Q: Where do you see a need for TRUST in design?
A: I’m seeing a need for us to trust in the multiple truths always present when designing with diverse teams. How can we ensure the space for equal voice on the journey of reaching consensus? How is equal voice possible without equal status? Bringing transparency into the understanding of status can be grounded in a framework of systemic and institutional oppression. By looking at status through a systems lens we can see that power and status is not accidental or individual, but rather a collectivity of consent. What are we consenting to and not consenting to? Once we reframing consent from this lens, space is opened up for folks to self-determine what they do and do not want to consent to.
Q: Who or what inspires you?
A: “We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust” — Neil deGrasse Tyson
Q: Tell us about a project that you completed that you are most proud of.
A: Over the past year we have been working on a campaign called We The Future, which launched this week alongside the Seattle Design Festival!
We The Future is the result of hundreds of visionary partners working together over the course of a year to design transformative and accessible art and teaching tools. Our government isn’t investing in our public education system, so we decided to! In partnership with artists Shepard Fairey, Rommy Torrico, Munk One, and Kate Deciccio we collaborated with young leaders from some of the most important movements of our time to create this series of iconic artworks. These young leaders will hang on the walls of schools in every state, and will come with teaching tools built in collaboration with thousands of educators and hundreds of nonprofits. These messages and their paths to action will be a constant reminder to the kids in these classrooms of what leadership looks like and the power within their own voices.
Q: What design object or story most strongly influenced your interest in design?
A: Lots of people and organizations have paved the way for what is possible for the work of my generation. Studying designers and movement leaders from the past in order to build from where they left off versus reinventing the wheel is foundational to my practice. Spaces like the Interference Archive in Brooklyn, the EMW Community Space in Boston, Estelita’s Library in Seattle and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles all archive resources to learn about the power of art to advance social justice and shift culture.
Recently I’ve been focusing my study around the design of transformative organizational structures. How do we, who know the world needs to change, begin to live the transformation we want to see in the world? If this is something your interested in, I highly recommend reading When They Call You and Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Cullors and Asha Bandele and Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown.
To all of you who have been fighting so much longer and harder and smarter than me, thank you. I am grateful to know you all.
Q: If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?
A: We are agents, not victims.