‘Home Phone’ on exhibit as part of Ending Homelessness presentation

The role of design in drawing attention to abstract ideas, like homelessness.

What does homelessness look like?

Friday, October 9 at 7pm, the Tyee and the Museum of Vancouver are hosting a free public presentation about homelessness in Vancouver.

During Ending Homelessness: What Works, Tyee investigative editor Monte Paulsen will present the results of his multi-year investigative work on homeless. He will also discuss potential solutions to the issue, drawn from cities in Europe and North America, as well as locally. Read his stories on this topic here.

The night also features archival images illustrating the history of homelessness in Vancouver, and Jay Black’s photographs of the Downtown Eastside. An informal discussion and reception following the event features a visual art installation called Home Phone, created by Nathan Lee and Trevor Coghill from Vancouver’s Contexture Design. The piece is a de-commissioned public phone booth that has been re-envisioned as a living space.

I contacted Nathan to ask him about the links between design and social justice. I wanted to learn about the process he and Trevor used to “visualize” a social issue like homelessness, and their take on the role of design in drawing public attention to abstract ideas.


Art Darts: As designers, you are charged with presenting abstract ideas in concrete, visual forms. What are some challenges you come across in the process of visualizing such abstract issues?

Nathan Lee: Sometimes a concept can be layered on a lot of subtle levels. It’s not always easy to get those layers across, and the viewer has to be willing to make those connections. The challenge as a designer is to make something that can still be appreciated without that kind of (major) effort.

For example, in addition to the Home Phone, we make a series of wildlife-themed hanging mobiles made from old maps. They are about the connection these animals have to each other and their place. It’s heady stuff. The layering of details about the movement and family life of these animals make the project that much richer, but in the end it still has to be appealing as a mobile.


What are some very successful ways that ideas and issues are visualized? 

We are big fans of maps. They are this great layering of information, from natural history to human impacts.


When visualizing homelessness, what are some key cues you drew on for inspiration?

Our biggest source of inspiration was the phone booth itself. It had been used, and it showed. It was tagged, etched and graffitied. This project didn’t start about homelessness. We started with the loss of public infrastructure, and that lead us to the homelessness issue.

Home Phone

How are the cues or symbols you choose representative of homelessness? As in, when choosing images for a design, what criteria do they need to meet? For example, do they need to be present in the environment where homelessness takes place? Do they need to be used by people who are homeless? In other words, what defines an image or symbol as representative of “homelessness”?

We were very careful not to go in that direction for this project. Our approach from the beginning was that this should be a dignified treatment of the subject matter, so we started with some basics that we all take for granted; shelter, security and access to water, electricity and telephone. From there we made a space that would best suite those needs in the 9 square feet we had to work with. We’d like to think that the home phone would appeal to anyone, homeless or not, despite its obvious limitations of space.

Our approach was that the homeless population should have access to an appealing living space, just like the rest of us. We were very conscious about not creating a shack-type structure, so we put a lot of time and care into detail and finishing.


You specifically chose a decommissioned phone booth for the MOV exhibit. Can you explain the importance of the phone booth as a symbol in your work?

With cell phones becoming more commonplace, phone boothes are disappearing. The people most affected by this shift in technology are the homeless. Without resources like cell phones and landlines, they rely on the public phone as an important means of communicating outside their local neighbourhoods. In that way the loss of the phone booth is a loss of public infrastructure, and our response was to reshape that public facility for the people most affected by the loss.

We’re not suggesting that Home Phone is a realistic solution to homelessness problems in Vancouver, but instead as an opportunity for discussion.

If you miss the event, check out the website to view more photos and learn more about Home Phone.

Home Phone