Rikers Island looms large in New York’s imagination. It is home to a notorious complex of prisons, one whose excesses are still being discovered by the media and the courts. Many would like to see the Rikers Island closed forever, or barring that, to at least change the name to something that does not honor a slaveowner.
One group of designers has a different goal for Rikers Island—one that is within reach and, in fact, already at hand. Their problem: On one of the most prominent maps of New York City, Rikers Island isn't labeled. The island's name doesn't show up on Metropolitan Transportation Authority maps that appear inside New York subway trains. Their solution: Label it. On every map.
“Being so close to LaGuardia [Airport] and the Bronx, it was such a surprising thing for us to find out. Ten thousand people live there [on Rikers Island], and yet it’s not labeled,” Estefanía Acosta de la Peña, one of the designers behind #SeeRikers, tells CityLab “A lot of people can’t even find it on the map.”
Acosta de la Peña, along with Laura Sánchez and Misha Volf—graduate students at Parsons The New School for Design and collaborators in an enterprise called Artifice—came up with a simple correction. For the #SeeRikers project, they designed a sticker that trades on MTA’s familiar “You Are Here” trope to illustrate where Rikers Island is. The project is a guerrilla intervention to label the island on maps inside New York subway cars—and to shine a light on New York’s corrections crisis.
The Artifice designers came up with the concept as part of “Curating Global Dialogue: Incarceration,” a class at The New School. The course serves as the New York local component of the Humanities Action Lab, a coalition of 20 universities working to design new answers to vexing social problems, including mass incarceration. In fact, this week, the Humanities Action Lab is opening “States of Incarceration,” a national exhibition of 20 different projects on prisons from its 20 different partners, at The New School.
Sánchez says that the #SeeRikers project is an example of what the design studies program at The New School is all about: “How can we use design in ways that’s about more than getting people to buy more stuff?”
Note that the gesture is completely unnecessary on most MTA maps. Platform maps, printed maps, application maps, and other maps do label Rikers Island and other neighborhoods. It's the lack of these labels on subway-car maps that makes the guerrilla intervention stand out.
The team got the idea to appropriate MTA’s own visual language for wayfinding on the subway map early on. Coming up with a self-explanatory prototype sticker was tougher, according to Volf. “Often, people wouldn’t know what to do with [the stickers]. Sometimes people didn’t even know what Rikers was, let alone that it is or isn’t on the map,” Volf says. “We realized we need a very explicit set of instructions.” (The final design prototype incorporates an explanation on the sticker’s back.)
That’s a tricky case for a design intervention: The piece must simultaneously explain the problem and motivate users to do something with the design to fix the problem. When it works, it’s in part due to the strength of the original MTA “You Are Here” platform-map design. Subway riders understand it instinctively.
Acosta de la Peña, Sánchez, and Volf will see a big test of their design on Thursday. That’s the date of the opening for The New School exhibition, at which Venida Browder, mother of Kalief Browder—the 16-year-old boy who killed himself after spending three years on Rikers Island* with no conviction—will be speaking. On the same day, JustLeadershipUSA is hosting a #CloserRikers protest rally on the steps of City Hall.
Sánchez says that people can print their own stickers at home if they like. She adds that the designers haven’t received any feedback from MTA about the project (yet). But all three designers note that the subway maps aren’t the only target of their criticism.
“Of course, we are pointing at the MTA for the omission. But the injustice of making Rikers—and prisons and jails, in general—invisible, goes much beyond the MTA,” Volf says. “We’re pointing at the MTA as much as we’re pointing at the commuters, for participating in making [prisons] invisible, as much as we’re pointing at all of us.”
*CORRECTION: This post has originally misstated when Kalief Browder’s suicide took place. It has been corrected. This post has been updated to clarify that Rikers Island appears on some MTA maps.