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Bernhard, getting designers to fight together with human rights defenders

By Noah Wánebo
Photograph by Boudewijn Bollmann

In their ongoing fight against injustice throughout the world, human rights defenders may soon have an unexpected group of allies: designers.

Such a collaboration is the idea behind the new project “We Are Human Rights,” started by Eindhoven-based designer Bernhard Lenger. It envisions linking designers with human rights defenders to explore the new ideas emerging from a dialogue between these two fields.

“We believe that the collaboration between a designer and an expert from any kind of field can be very beneficial”.

While still in its early stages, the project has already linked up two pairs of human rights defenders with designers, and they will soon be followed by six more collaborations. As the project’s website explains, “the designer is a professional problem solver. The human rights defender has the knowledge and experience with the problem. Together they can come up with new ideas to influence our environment.”

Lenger says he began to think about “We Are Human Rights” when he gave a presentation on a separate project to human rights defenders with Justice and Peace in The Hague. Following his discussion, he stayed for part of The Hague Training Course for human rights defenders where he listened in on a course about how activists can respond to different threat levels, including serious threats like unexpected home visits from armed men. This made him reflect on his own relative security in the world.

“I thought, well what’s my threat level? If I’m clumsy with a knife I might cut myself, or I might get run over by a car if I’m looking at my phone,” Lenger says. “This inspired me to start thinking about what I could do for those people, how could I support them in their job.”

Originally from Austria and now based in Eindhoven, Lenger’s design career has frequently explored political themes. In one of his previous projects, “This Is Ecocide,” he collaborated with environmental lawyer and advocate Polly Higgins to envision a global court for environmental crime. Lenger says the idea for that project, which included a set piece imagining the look of such a tribunal, came to him following a visit to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where he was surprised by the lack of attention to environmental law.

“I couldn’t believe that one of the biggest courts in the world wouldn’t deal with a factor that is nowadays really important,” Lenger says.

While researching the topic, he came across the term ‘ecocide’ (also called ecocatastrophe), and the concept stuck with him. He decided to design a logo and a physical platform, to give the concept an image and to create a sense of physicality to the more abstract concepts in law.

“For me, as a creator who makes physical things, I thought if the law has the monument it cannot be lobbied away anymore,” he explains. Thought-provoking and often conceptual, his work tends to draw attention to current affairs in new and unexpected ways. Other projects of his have explored issues like the exploitation of fear and anxiety by political leaders. “We Are Human Rights” shows a similar preoccupation with ongoing global issues. Instead of a conceptual piece highlighting one particular issue, the project strives to create a concrete network uniting various designers with human rights defenders around the globe to create a dialogue and generate different need-specific designs.