Black Squares in the Commons


A pile of various sizes of cut out black squares (from a limited resource of black board) as decided and voted upon by the students.

A solution to the prompts

A solution to the prompts

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Duration: 3 weeks
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Project Brief


  1. How do designers communicate ideas innovatively to audiences? 
  2. What are the ethics for a designer in the era of climate change?
  3. How do we continue to create in harmony with the planet's natural eco systems? 

Arrange four black squares in a 7” x 7” square format to create three different compositions from three of the following terms:

  • Tension
  • Enlighten
  • Rehabilitate
  • Skip
  • Bully
  • Wiggle

You will be using a limited and shared amount of black paper. The challenge is to share a limited resource (one very large sheet of black paper) and waste none of that resource while working together as a community to minimize your environmental impact.


Step one:
Lecture on and discussion of the term semiotics +basic foundational design terms (balance, composition, movement, etc.).

After, read the provided Chapter Two "One Atmosphere" from Peter Singer's book: One World: The Ethics of Globalization and watch Greta Thunberg's TED Talk - “The Disarming Case to Act Right Now on Climate Change”. Write a one-page reflection to answer the question: "What are the ethics for a designer in the era of climate change?" 

Step two:
Class discussion of the written reflections, climate change, and the two terms "Tragedy of the Commons" and "Commoning"

Step three:
Individually sketch out 10-15 different ideas for each one of your three chosen words in a sketchbook. Share these in the next class period to get feedback on your ideas in a small group. Narrow down the ideas to 1-2 solid routes. Count up your necessary squares and meet with the entire class to discuss resource needs.

Step four:
Decide as a group how to best divvy up the black paper (knowing we cannot provide more) to meet all the needs. Design decisions might need to change to ensure everyone can create effectively and have what they need. All decisions should be made carefully and discussed within the class and voted upon as a community.  You should have zero paper waste from this step. 

Step five:
Cut out as many squares in a wide variety of sizes from that single sheet of paper as possible. Cut neatly and carefully. No pencil marks should show on either side and edges should be extremely neat. Add these squares to the community pile. You will share from the community pile while you explore composition options without gluing down squares. Once you determine the final composition, you may take the necessary squares to complete your final piece based on your needs and the needs of others.



Learning Objectives

  • Learn about what makes a strong composition through abstract & simple shapes
  • Understanding of semiotics
  • Refine hand craft skills
  • Learn basics of sustainability in art & design
  • Ethics of creating in a climate crisis


Three compositions using four squares in each made of black paper from a community determined resource. The four squares may be of different size and orientation and adhered carefully (using a non-toxic PVA glue - like "Tacky Glue") to a 7"x7" white Bristol board. Turn in your composition with your name and title on the back.


Project terms:

  • Tragedy of the Commons - The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource through their collective action.
  • Commoning - a way for everyday citizens to make decisions and take action to shape the future of their communities through shared governance and decision making (outside of only profit-driven models)

Key foundational terms:

  • Contrast: value contrast, color intensity, texture, shape, and warm and cool color contrast. 
  • Rhythm: regular, irregular, and progressive rhythms, repetition of colors, shapes, and lines to create rhythm. 
  • Unity: color, texture, shapes, and value are used to create unity. 
  • Emphasis: color dominance, focal areas, and visual emphasis with shapes. 
  • Pattern: planned or random repetitions of colors, lines, values, and textures to create patterns. 
  • Movement: linear movement, visual movement with shapes, value, and perspective. 
  • Balance: symmetrical and asymmetrical balance, radial balance, value, shape, color, and texture balance.





This project is the first example for where basic art + design school prompts are added to with climate science parameters.

This is being done to help our students learn how to create a regenerative future together that is better for us, our ecosystems, and planet (the Ecocene). 


The predictions for this project were:

  • The students would face the traditional challenges of understanding semiotics to sketch ideas to communicate the three terms
  • The students would find it challenging to work as a community to best utilize a limited resource

In the end, both of these predictions came true, however there were no battles over the limited black paper. Instead, there was some waste as students didn't do a fantastic job of "designing backwards" to measure correctly with the black sheet to determine how best to cut it down for all. 

The Re-nourish Project Calculator should be used next time to help the students think this way.

The students had a good discussion about climate change and shared their emotions of fear, anxiety, and frustration that they are the generation faced with this challenge to drawdown our Greenhouse Gas Emissions. They have hope and see how their talents as creatives can make a big difference when they put their mind and collective will toward it.

Finally, they did realize that based on the readings, video, limited resource parameters, and discussions that we are all in this together.



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