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R is for Responsibility.pdf 1 27/07/2011 16:21:01

R is for Responsibility

This section is based on a series of three lectures delivered to undergraduate communication design students at Grays School of Art in April 2011

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R is for Responsibility.pdf 2 27/07/2011 16:21:02

Design and Philosophy Design and philosophy might seem a bit of a strange combination, I mean, philosophy; thats all about dead Greeks yeah? What I want to suggest to you today is that philosophical thinking is really a basic and fundamental design principle, and therefore that philosophy is important for you as a designer. In today’s world, if you want to be a good designer it’s not enough just be a designer. It’s not enough to just understand typography, layout, colour etc, you also have to understand people, society, culture. A good designer is not just a designer but also a psychologist, sociologist, philosopher. What does it mean to be a philosopher? Philosophy isn’t difficult, it’s not complicated and it’s nothing you aren’t used to. In fact, as I’l get onto later, designers are pretty natural philosophers.

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“..philosophy teaches us and unsettles us by confronting us with what we already know. ... It works by taking what we know from familiar unquestioned settings, and making it strange. ... Philosophy estranges us from the familiar, not by supplying new information, but by inviting and provoking a new way of seeing, but, and here’s the risk: once the familiar turns strange, its never quite the same again. Self-knowledge is like lost innocence; however unsettling you find it, it can never be unthought, or unknown." - Michael Sandel


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If you break it down, you could say that philosophy is basically thinking about what you do instead of just doing it. I’m going to suggest that the purpose of philosophy is to examine your life and your world, to look at the things that happen around you and ask “why?”

Lesson 1: good designers examine themselves regularly C

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As a designer, examining your own working process, your motivations and assumptions in a philosophical way is what can make the difference between being a good designer and simply being a mac-monkey.

What kind of designer do you want to be? Do you want to be the kind of designer who accepts the way the world is, accepts the role of the designer as neutral and churns out work which looks nice and doesn’t upset anyone? Or do you want to be the kind or designer who digs deeper, who examines their own design practice in relation to the world around them. The kind of designer who doesn’t accept the familiar as permanent and unchangeable just because it has always been that way, but tries to find out why things appear to be the way they are and imagines how they could be different?

I suppose this is really the question of how big your idea of design is. Do you believe that design is only a service industry which puts nice surfaces on other people’s products and ideas, or do you think that design can do a bit more than that? For just now, I’m going to assume that you’re not all complete sellouts and you might actually be interested in how we might begin to think about being this second kind of designer, the kind who does think that design is more than just a slave industry; that it can be an active force in human society, and therefore that designers need to think about and take responsibility for their own activities.

IN YOUR BED AND BELIEVE

Socrates (from Bill and Ted) apparently said this^ during the trial at which he was sentenced to death and subsequently executed for thinking too much. I’m not sure I feel quite as strongly about it as him, but I do think that examining why we do the things we do is important.

THE STORY ENDS, YOU WAKE UP

– Socrates

“YOU TAKE THE BLUE PILL,

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

WHATEVER YOU WANT TO BELIEVE.

It’s not about discovering new things, getting new knowledge, rather it’s about finding out why the things that “are” are the way that they are.


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-MORPHEUS (THE MATRIX)

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RABBIT HOLE GOES.”

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SHOW YOU HOW DEEP THE

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STAY IN WONDERLAND, AND I

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YOU TAKE THE RED PILL, YOU

WHATEVER YOU WANT TO BELIEVE.

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So if you want to be this kind of designer; to take the metaphorical red pill of design responsibility, how can thinking philosophically help you? First of all let’s take a look at how thinking philosophically in any context works in general before we apply it to design issues. Sticking with the Alice in Wonderland theme from the Matrix, I’m going to use an example from the Mad Hatter’s tea party to hopefully expose some basic principles of philosophical thought:

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?' `Come, we shall have some fun now!' thought Alice. `I'm glad they've begun asking riddles.--I believe I can guess that,' she added aloud. `Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?' said the March Hare. `Exactly so,' said Alice. `Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on. `I do,' Alice hastily replied; `at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.'

My philosopical question here for you then is:

Is “I say what I mean” the same as “I mean what I say”?

`Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!' `You might just as well say,' added the March Hare, `that "I like what I get" is the same thing as "I get what I like"!' `You might just as well say,' added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that "I breathe when I sleep" is the same thing as "I sleep when I breathe"!' `It IS the same thing with you,' said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn't much. -Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carrol

So there’s an example of some basic logical philosophy for you: Is “I say what I mean” the same as “I mean what I say”? No, it’s not the same... unless it is the same. i.e.Unless you know for sure that it is the same, you should assume that it is not.


After the perceived failure of modernism we start to get the various varieties of post-modern thought which are pretty difficult to define, but I think in general have their roots in dissillusionment and confusion with the failure of Modernism and with the idea of truth in general.

Unfortunately it didn’t work, and the major attempts of the 20th century to create the perfect societies ended up with the atrocities of Hitler’s Fascism and Stalin’s Communism which weren’t really that great.

Finding out all sorts of things for ourselves led to a feeling that we if we could find out the truth, we could also solve all the problems of the world and create a perfect society. This is what Modernism was all about.

When we get to the enlightenment, there was a shift coming together with the development of science and the Protestant reformation, where people in general no longer believed what they were told by authority, but wanted to find it out for themselves.

Up till this stage the general feeling was that there was a truth which the philosophers and theologians knew and would teach to those who didn’t know.

In the middle ages philosophical authority in general came from religious power of the institutions of Christianity or Islam who would tell you what the truth was and if you didn’t agree you’d normally get executed.

Starting with the classical period of the ancient Greeks etc. people used to argue about things and whoever had the most convincing argument would win, but as Socrates found out, if you were too clever you’d probably get executed.

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This is typical of Western philosophical thought, which is characterised by being:

Logical Rational (Reasonable) Critical Systematic Doesn’t take anything for granted Challenges assumptions

These are some of the fundamental basic qualities of western philosophical thought, If you think about it, they are probably also quite a good description of some qualities of the design process that a lot of you might use. Design isn’t so different from philosophy after all: it’s the same kind of techniques you use to come up with a design solution just applied to pure ideas.

“T va

You’re probably still a bit lost as to why I’m on about philosophy though, bear with me and hopefully we’ll get round to it. Just while we’re still on philosophy before we come back to design I thought I wanted to briefly discuss the nature of how we think about ideas today, and try to put it in a bit of context. So here’s my brief history of Western Philosophy It’s pretty basic, so I think it’s safe to assume it’s also pretty innacurate. What I’ve tried to do is pick out some major themes and periods of different ways of thinking.

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R is for Responsibility.pdf 6 27/07/2011 16:21:04

In the time that we’ve got left, I want to get around to trying to think about relating this practically to design. So I thought maybe the best way for me to do that would be to talk about how I’ve been thinking philosophically about design lately. Before I do, I just want to emphasise the point that I’m not at all suggesting that just thinking about things in a different way is going to help you at all. Rather what I’m suggesting is thatthinking thinking about things in a different way can help you to find a different way to do things.

do

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to change it.” – Karl Marx I totally agree with Marx here. We need action rather than philosophy, but what I’m saying is that action + philosophy is better and more likely to be successful than action on its own.

So now I’m going to briefly run through how I am currently trying to apply a philosophical approach to design in order to find more effective design methods for my own work. Since my purpose is to try to find ways of making design better, I started by asking the question what is it that design does?

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What is design? What do I do as a designer? There’s obviously all sorts of answers for this question. For me it boiled down to thinking about visual communication design as passing messages on through images. With each new job the message changes, but the medium is always image. So this led me to the next question: What is an “image”? Not such an easy thing to define. To find an answer here’s an example of one way to about it: Question: “If a tree falls in a forest where no one is around to hear it fall, does it make a sound?” The two possible answers to this are: 1.Yes, it makes a sound because sound is a vibration in the air which would be caused by a tree falling. 2. No, because sound is the human perception of vibrations in the air, if there is no human present to receive and translate the vibrations with their ears, the vibrations remain just vibrations. So it depends on how you define ‘sound’, either as a physical or perceptual phenomenon. It would be reasonable to subscribe to either answer depending on what assumptions you make. Now,let’s switch sound for image and try to follow the logic: Question: “If a tree falls and no one is there to see it, does it make an image?” 1. Yes, it makes an image because image is light reflected from objects. It doesn’t matter if anyone is there to see it. 2. No, because image seems to be more than just reflected light; not all reflected light

automatically makes an image. It therefore appears that image must be a distinctly human perceptual construct. What does it mean that image is perceptual? Why does this matter at all? Bear with me. For a more in depth breakdown of my reasoning see I is for Image and V is for Visual Culture. But here’s the short version: Image Image Image mind:

is is is it

more than just light. more than ocular vision. created and exists in the human is perceptual.

Q: If it exists only in the individual’s mind how can we as a group relate to the same image? A: Image is cultural. Therefore when I as a designer work with images, what I am really doing is manipulating visual culture. This is the point when it becomes actually interesting for design. If as designers we are manipulators, what is the nature of this manipulation? If we manipulate visual culture, do we manipulate people? Is manipulation wrong? Is it neutral? Could it be good?

Manipula tion = decep tion? Is manipulation the same thing as deception? I think that if design is going to be more than a service industry and contribute something useful to society, we need to work out the answers to this kind of question. It is pretty worrying how little of this kind of self-reflective thinking happens in contemporary design.

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-Jan Van Toorn

“It is striking with how little political awareness designers think about the meaning of visual mediation in a socio-cultural sense at the present time. The discipline has abandoned the previous mental space in which it reflected on its social role and has therefore lost the critical distance that determined its relation vis-a-vis the client’s brief. It has not only distanced itself from argumentative and moral capacities, but this has also led to a situation that inevitably reduces the strategies, methods and visual resources of communication design to the technological and formal aesthetic sphere.�

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R is for Responsibility.pdf 8 27/07/2011 16:21:06

Think about what it is you do as a communication designer. I think we could classify almost all our activities into one of these categories:

Branding Promoting Packaging Informing Entertaining

Are any of these activities more worthwhile than others? Designer Frank Chimero suggests a more general alternative model in which design can be seen to do three things:

Persuade Inform Delight

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Chimero then assigns a definite heirarchy in his Design Nobility Pyramid. He describes the ranking not in terms of a value system but by “potential for badness” at each stage, suggesting that delight is much less suited to “badness” than persuasion.

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We as designers need to think about what we are doing whenever we undertake a task. Is persuasion necessarily less ethical than delight? Persuading people not to beat their children is probably a more noble activity than creating a delightful infographic displaying the best child beating techniques. As Chimero says we should try to avoid creating a value system based on the type of activity,i.e. “I’m an ethical designer I don’t do packaging”. Rather I think a better approach is to think critically (philosophically) at all times about each specific job. For instance, if it’s a corporate identity branding design for a company, what will the effect of your design be? Will it help that company to achieve greater success, if so is that something that you think is worthwhile? What will the effect of that company’s success be for the public, for society, for the environment? Will it actually make any difference at all? Should you take the job, turn it down, or try to use your work to turn a “bad” job into a “good” one?

WHAT KIND OF DESIGNER DO YOU WANT TO BE? Will you choose to think about what the consequences of your work might be or will you stick to the status quo and do what the client asks no matter what?

“YOU TAKE THE BLUE PILL, THE STORY ENDS, YOU WAKE UP IN YOUR BED AND BELIEVE WHATEVER YOU WANT TO BELIEVE. YOU TAKE THE RED PILL, YOU STAY IN WONDERLAND, AND I SHOW YOU HOW DEEP THE RABBIT HOLE GOES.”


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Design and PoliticsWhat ?lartuen krow ruoy sI ?rengised lartuen a uoy erA ?lartuen ngised sI

is politics? Is your work political? Are you a political designer? Is design political?

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The question of your attitude to design and politics can be explored through your response to the question

“Can design save the world?” The images above are an example which illustrates the issue pretty well. A few years ago this was a bit of a storm in the design blogosphere teacup. Frank Chimero created the poster above right in response to the Artefact’s T-shirt above left. It’s easy to identify with his sentiment. Creating and selling a T-shirt which proclaims that design will save the world is an incredibly shallow gesture. The shirt itself isn’t saving the world. Despite it being made of organic cotton, this luxury product is certainly not benefitting the earth in any way. Buying, owning and wearing this item is not saving the world. It’s much more likely to be contributing to the world’s problems; it might be organic, but what about the rest of the production cycle: trade, manufacture, labour? For $28 you’re not guaranteed much. Pretty much any and every product we have available to purchase in the first world could be accused of these things as well. This product’s crime is that it proclaims a worthwhile message while doing squat.

I really can’t agree at all with Chimero’s poster however. In knee-jerk reaction to the Artefacture’s hypocritical stupidity, he lashes out at the wrong guy. It’s not design which won’t save the world. It’s idiotic designs like this particular T-shirt. Chimero seems to be suggesting that only direct action will save the world. That I can agree with. But it’s a big leap to suggest that design can’t be that action. Making the implicit suggestion that design is something different from action (like serving in a soup kitchen) suggests that design is neutral and does not act one way or the other.From his statement Chimero seems to suggest that design is neutral. Is that the case? If design is not neutral then what is it? Is it political? Your answer to that will depend on what you think politics is. My own personal definition of politics would be:

Politics is the process through which a decision is made which has a real effect on the conditions of existence of any member or group in that society.


R is for Responsibility.pdf 10 27/07/2011 16:21:06

I suppose the other thing which is going to have a big influence on your stance on design and politics is what you think design is. My personal favourite definition in a neat and tidy quote is this from Victor Papanek:

“All men are designers. All that we do, almost all of the time is design. ... Design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order.” – Victor Papanek Following these definitions which I would subscribe to, I would find it difficult to think of design as anything but political. Depending on how you understand the concepts your view might be quite different. This is ideology.

IDEOLOGY Ideology is something which we all have whether we are aware of it or not. It shapes the way we act and things like whether we believe design is neutral or not. But what exactly is it?

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The problem with defining ideology is that, depending on your ideology, you will define it differently. The vast differences in opinion on what it is are showcased here in Terry Eagleton’s roundup of idology definitions:

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e) (f) (g) (h) (i) (j) (k) (l) (m) (n) (o) (p)

The process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life; a body of ideas characteristic of a particular social group or class; ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power; false ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power; systematically distorted communication; that which offers a position for a subject; forms of thought motivated by social interests; identity thinking; socially necessary illusion; the conjecture of discourse and power; the medium in which conscious social actors make sense of their world; action-oriented sets of beliefs; the confusion of linguistic and phenomenal reality; semiotic enclosure; the indispensible medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure; the process whereby social life is converted to a natural reality.

- Terry Eagleton

Eagleton’s summary is that in general, the majority of views would agree that something is ideological is it is: "powered by an ulterior motive bound up with the legitimation of certain interests in a power struggle." Does this sound like a description of the everyday work of designers? I don’t think many of us would describe ourselves that way. It sounds kind of scheming. But if you think about it, what do we do that isn’t powered by an ulterior motive which is attempting to prod the viewer towards agreeing with one viewpoint or another? Is anything we do really neutral?

Obviously designers can at times for certain purposes be openly biased and subjective pushing their own agendas.Most of the time though, designers are working for someone else, translating, packaging and promoting the client’s ideology. In this process is it possible for a designer to completely remove their own ideological position and personal influence from their work and purely communicate the message of the client? I don’t think it is, but even if it was, would it be desireable? To what extent do we mediate communication between client and receiver? What responsibility do we have for the content of these mediated communications?


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To explore this, maybe it’s a good idea to look at an example of how ideology can manifest itself in your work. These two posters are by the Dutch designers Jan Van Toorn who I’ve already quoted earlier (left) and Wim Crouwel (right). These two guys were both working in the Netherlands doing graphics for museums and exhibitions at roughly the same time. Their very different views on design are pretty obvious to see in their work.

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Crouwel was a big proponent of design neutrality, for him it was all about cold emotionless type, graphic form and colour. He claimed that the designer should suppress their own personality in their work; the form should be completely separate and neutral.

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Van Toorn on the other hand advocated a completely politicised approach to design. His poster here for an art exhibition shows none of the visual content of the exhibition but rather a scribbled shopping list showing the monetary total paid by the public for the works on display. It’s a critique of the exhibition, asking the public to decide for themselves whether they think it was worth their taxes to pay for this art. Very personal. Very political. Very different from Crouwel’s approach. The two designers famously got into arguments on the issue of neutrality/ personal input. Crouwel even went so far as to ‘correct’ one of Van Toorn’s images at one point.

Even asserting a position of neutrality is an ideologically motivated action. Try as we might, our work is always going to be personal. What does this mean for the question of our responsibility in mediating communications? If a little bit of our own ideology is going to slip into our work, we are responsible for the effect of that, and so we’d better be aware of it. Becoming aware of your own ideology involves examining yourself, reflecting on your actions, beliefs, opinions: thinking critically and philosophically about yourself, your work and your world.

However, Rick Poynor recently wrote an interesting post on the DesignObserver Blog on the occasion of the opening of a Crouwel exhibition at the Design Museum. In it, he suggests that Crouwel’s cold modernism was never neutral but in fact personal: “What we can see now more clearly than ever, [...] is that his practice was often at odds with the severity of his pronouncements. Far from suppressing his own creative personality in the way he advised, Crouwel was expressing it to the full. It just happens that this personality was inclined towards reduction and minimalism.”


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"Communication design thereby coordinates an important part of the virtual integration of the consumer in the social regulatory mechanisms of the market, politics and services. It creates and maintains the symbolic connection between the power structures and our experience of reality. The engagement with private interests that was necessary for this success has left its mark on the historical and social awareness of designers and other image producers. Cooperation with institutions and adaptation to their structures has resulted in an ideological accomodation, expressed in a lack of insight into the social role of the profession and a visual mediation which is primarily articulated in organisational, technological and formal aesthetic terms. Not questioning social responsibilities implies that you surrender to that sector of society that, because it posesses all our means of survival, manouvres design in the role of entrepreneurial aesthetics. Design, often regarded as autonomous activity, thereby functions more and more as an aesthetic legitimation of the dominant ideology.”

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-Jan Van Toorn

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What is the dominant ideology in our society?

“When you build a system on a foundation of desire, dissatisfaction, envy and inadequacy, people buy things, yes, but it's no surprise that it happens at the expense of some damage to the psyche.” – Jelly Helm

“No more Guernicas, no more Aushwitzes, no more Hiroshimas, no more Setifs. Hooray! But what about the impossibility of living, what about this stifling mediocrity and this absence of passion? What about the jealous fury in which the rankling of never being ourselves drives us to imagine that other people are happy? What about this feeling of never really being inside your own skin? Let nobody say  these are minor details or secondary points. There are no negligible irritations: gangrene can start in the slightest graze.” - Raoul Vaneigem


Response? R is for Responsibility.pdf 13 27/07/2011 16:21:07

As the quote from Michael Sandel at the very beginning says, the danger with starting to think philosophically about the world around you is that once you gain knowledge, you can’t ungain it. If you discover that something is wrong with society and that there is something you personally could do about it, that’s now your responsibility. You have to choose either to act or not to act. Designers are in an increasingly powerful position in our society, and as Spiderman knows, with great power comes great responsibility.

la {{ p We all know that society is a mess, you can’t not know that. So what will your response be?

Denial: Inactivity maintains status quo

Options:

Work for change within the system

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The first option of pretending that nothing is wrong with human society and that even if there was, there would be nothing you could do about it is definitely the easiest and most common response. “I’m just a designer, how could I possibly change society?” You forget that you are society, everything you do is an action, positive or negative. If you choose not to act, your inactivity is an action. You can’t get away from it so why not rather choose to be consciously aware that there are repercussions to your activities, and although you can’t be in total control of everything, you can try to make the effect of your work a positive one.

Change the system


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The First Things First Manifesto [1964 + 2000] is typical of the second option of trying to work within the dominant ideological system to make the world a better place.

attempt to accept the responsibilities inherent in their work. Responsibilities like the responsibility not to falsely create “demand for things that are inessential at best”

It is a statement of intent by designers choosing to

It’s an excellent statement, and has provoked a lot of

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Jonathan Barnbrook Nick Bell Andrew Blauvelt Hans Bockting Irma Boom Sheila Levrant de Bretteville Max Bruinsma Siân Cook Linda van Deursen Chris Dixon William Drenttel Gert Dumbar Simon Esterson Vince Frost Ken Garland Milton Glaser Jessica Helfand Steven Heller Andrew Howard Tibor Kalman Jeffery Keedy Zuzana Licko Ellen Lupton Katherine McCoy Armand Mevis J. Abbott Miller Rick Poynor Lucienne Roberts Erik Spiekermann Jan van Toorn Teal Triggs Rudy VanderLans Bob Wilkinson

great debate and activity. Ultimately though it is still just a statement, a highly idealistic statement. The truth remains that it will always be difficult to work for social good within a system designed specifically with profit and profit alone in mind.

FIRST THINGS FIRST MANIFESTO 2000 We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators who have been raised in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable use of our talents. Many design teachers and mentors promote this belief; the market rewards it; a tide of books and publications reinforces it. Encouraged in this direction, designers then apply their skill and imagination to sell dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents, hair gel, cigarettes, credit cards, sneakers, butt toners, light beer and heavy-duty recreational vehicles. Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design. The profession’s time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best. Many of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this view of design. Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse. There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programmes, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help. We propose a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design. In 1964, 22 visual communicators signed the original call for our skills to be put to worthwhile use. With the explosive growth of global commercial culture, their message has only grown more urgent. Today, we renew their manifesto in expectation that no more decades will pass before it is taken to heart.

The third option to change the system itself however appears even more difficult. It seems almost impossible. But, as Muhammad Ali, Aleksey Veyner and Adidas say: “Impossible is nothing”.


R is for Responsibility.pdf 15 27/07/2011 16:21:11

Design and EthicsWhat

is good design?

I don’t think we should confuse “good” design with design that works. Just because something is functional doesn’t make it good. I think when we talk about “good” design, there’s two things we could be talking about: “Good” in terms of aesthetic properties: how the design makes you feelthrough sensation: colour, type, form, emotion, wit, tradition, culture, relationship. OR “Good” in terms of of the content and design in terms of

ethics: the value ethics effect of the good vs. evil.

Of course both perspectives are valid. Truly good design should be good in both ways. Here’s a few examples:

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Orkney Sling Library Aesthetic: Bad: Not ugly, but not “well designed”. I actually think it’s fit for purpose but you know what I mean. Ethical: Good: It’s a poster informing about a community group providing “info on safe babywearing” how much more ethical can you get?

Coco Pops Moons and Stars Advert

National Front Propaganda:

Samaritans Bridge Advert:

Aesthetic: Good: Well illustrated, beautiful colour, cheery monkey.

Aesthetic: Bad: Photocopied squint so contact detail is missing at base. Poor quality ambiguous image. CAPITAL LETTERS EVERYWHERE. Double exclamation marks.

Aesthetic: Good: Simple, clear, readable, no-nonsense message and phone number. Well placed on location.

Ethical: Bad: Hold on... it’s a cheery monkey with a jet-pack flying in a geodesic dome with a box of chocolate cereal. What has it got to do with cereal? Fibre is a buzz word for healthy. Chocoloate cereal is not actually healthy. Children everywhere now think that their parents have no excuse to not give them chocolate cereal. Now!

Ethical: Bad: Religious hatred, racism, ignorance. Bad all round. “Why not vote NF?” I know why not. Bad.

Ethical: Good: Providing a message of hope and a phone number for a real person to call and talk to for those thinking of committing suicide by jumping off the bridge.


R is for Responsibility.pdf 16 27/07/2011 16:21:13

Let’s look at a couple more examples to draw out some final points. Here’s two adverts from billboards on Holburn Street. One advertsing the SNP’s political election campaign, the other advertising an alcoholic drink by Stella Artois. Good or bad?

But here’s designs in shows that the way of

the thing. I think looking at these a deeper critical/philosophical way there is a big problem getting in their ever being truly good.

The problem is not with the content but with the form. Not the form of the design in terms of it’s own aesthetic properties, but the form in which the design appears, the format of these designs in being advertising.

“The fact that some advertising is amusing and well made is irrelevant, since what matters is the combined impact on the viewer of all advertising as the dominant mode of public speech. Here, the medium truly is the message, and the message is a value system embodying an ideology that many of us do not share and want to resist.” - Rick Poynor The advertising format is a medium which, in our culture speaks an ideological language which precedes and supercedes whatever message appears on it’s surface. The message is simply “buy”.

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I’d never vote SNP, but I think somewhere underneath his smug exterior Alec Salmond really cares about Scotland and is sincere in his aim to make scotland better. I’d say from that perspective this advert is not misleading, it’s not deceptive, it’s not guilting or coercing anyone into voting SNP apart from the use of “we” to assume agreement which is really not an extreme evil. As regards the design, it’s not the best, the type is pretty nasty, there’s no coherence or context to the image: where is Alec? Why is he there? But altogether, it communicates the message pretty clearly.

The medium of adverting in our society tell us to buy, whether that is the intention of the content or not. The Stella Artois advert tells us to buy not Cidre but cultural superiority, style, class. The SNP advert tells us not to vote but to buy a better future for Scotland. This over riding message of the medium, can turn a good design bad. For instance, you might see an advert for a fundraising campaign for famine relief in East Africa. This is an apparently ethically good design. It’s message is “use what you have to help those who are in need”. The message which reaches you through the advertising medium in fact tells us not how to help others but how to buy charity, and relief from our own guilt. Moreover, if successful in influencing our behaviour, say we do feel compelled to make a donation, we have learned a lesson that it is good to do what adverts tell us. The next advert you see tells you to buy Stella Artois Cidre, so... you do. How could that neutralised ethical design be redeemed? I think this is really a return to the question of whether it is better to work for change within the system or to try to change the system itself. In this case, the system is the problem, so working within it is going to be problematic.

This design is much “better” aesthetically. Nice type, colour, texture, modernist shapes, culturally loaded nostagia styled image, exotic foreign langage concept. On the other hand the message is pretty dodgy ethically: “You too can be stylish, classy and cultured by purchasing this alcoholic drink, even better you can appear superior to your friends by pronouncing it in this special way as if you were Belgian yourself!” Manipulation, seduction, classic tricks. Bad news.

To create a good design would mean finding some way to subvert the system, subvert the inherent message of the medium of advertising; to create a design which bypasses mediation and manages to communicate a message not of compassion through consumption but perhaps of the truth that the East African drought has been fuelled by our own Western “life-style choices” which are a root cause of global inequalities such as those which allow famine to have such a devastating effect for millions.


R is for Responsibility.pdf 17 27/07/2011 16:21:13

As a further example of the complex nature of making value judgements as to what is or isn’t “good” design, here’s a Help Japan poster which caused yet another teacup storm in the design blogosphere. The various arguments go along the lines of: “Wow look at this great poster raising money for Japan earthquake relief!” “What are you supposed to do with it once you’ve bought it? It’s kind of weird to put that on your bedroom wall.” “Hold on, why has the designer put his logo at the bottom? It’s pretty sick to self-market through other people’s misfortune.” “I heard that the Japanese flag has more connotations of war than patiotism for most Japanese people. This poster strikes me as an example of American projected patriotism, at best badly researched and insensitive, if not slightly racist.” “Even though they’re not keen on flags I still don’t think Japanese people will be very please with the desecration of theirs, I think they actually have a law against it.” “Stop being so mean about it, it looks so pretty!”

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“I have always felt a certain unease with the general ways in which the design profession has framed notions of social responsibility. Frequently defined by acts of generosity (i.e. pro bono designs for not-for-profit agencies) or environmentalism (i.e., the use of recycled paper and soy-based inks), the design profession, in many cases limits social responsibility to acts of benevolence or good will.” -Susan s. Szenasy


R is for Responsibility.pdf 18 27/07/2011 16:21:13

It seems that a lot of people are of the opinion that in order to be an ethically “good” designer what you have to do is to be sustainable. Here’s what I say to that:

SUSTAINABILITY SUCKS Why?

Sustainability is: vegetable inks, recycling, minimising packaging, renewable forestry, blah blah... Some of the problems I see with sustainability are:

It is reductive*

Sustainability encourages us to think reductively, always being concerned with making our own actions sustainable. But this is not how the system works. It can only work with a 100% sign up and efficiency rate: think of environmental sustainability, all the uk's most valiant efforts in carbon reductions are completely pointless in view of the emissions of the developing world (who we subcontract to make all our cool stuff anyway).

Even if the perfect system was achieved, it would only sustain*

If anything goes wrong at all, (which is incredibly likely according to our knowledge of humanity) sustainability is always going to be on the back-foot.

Sustainability is a miserable goal to aim for*

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Who wants to live in a world where you can’t do anything without first calculating and enacting its equal and opposite reaction in order to preserve equilibrium?

It also pretty much impossible*

Pessimistic but true I think. I really can’t see the human race ever becoming truly sustainable. It’s just not in our nature.

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Being less bad, is not the same as being good*

Sustainability is a flawed model based on lessening negative impact rather than increasing positive activity.

The sentiment behind sustainability is admirable. Of course it’s good and right for designers to minimise the environmental impact etc. of their work. If you have to produce 10,000 flyers, by all means do it in the least damaging way. And there are different models of sustainability, some better than others; the best of the bunch in my mind being McDonough and Braungart’s “Cradle to Cradle” model in which materials are viewed from the very start not as resources to be exhausted, but as nutrients to be used for one purpose and reinvested into another in a perpetual re-circulation of new life-cycles. These things are fine. But the purpose we are trying to fulfill with sustainability needs to be about much more than just resource use and the natural environment. We need sustainable societies. The big picture is more important than the details.


R is for Responsibility.pdf 19 27/07/2011 16:21:14

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“And here is the central dilemma for any To discover what that is requires designer working today. When it comes to some critical self-reflection. consumer goods, every new design (or“Could it be old design re-editioned as if new), no that matter how well considered, sincerely increasingly graphic intentioned or just plain alluring, design is contributes to the gigantic over-production of things. Whatever itless is, the in any purely rational assessment, we solution and almost certainly don't 'need' it, keenly more as the problem? we might desire it.” This is the -Rick Poynor squeamish There are reasons why the world is possibility in the state it is in: for professional instance, the Third World is an economic concept necessarily graphic created by the demands of the First World etc. designers are loathe to If you want to help the world; if you want to do “good” design, you confront, have to go beyond sustainability and actually do something because in proactive to improve rather than sustain the world. To really do so doing, the good you have to attack the roots profession of whatever the problem is. risks We need to think critically about apparently ethical concepts like undoing sustainability, and work out itself. This is exactly how ethical they really are, and what our response will the threat be. posed by What we need is a new concept, a new model, something proactive any rigorous like Enrichment or Enhancement, discursive Reform, Advance, Betterment, Amendment rather than critique.” Sustainability. How are we supposed to go about this? How can we find ways to be good designers? If you want to work out how to be a good designer, first of all, stop being a bad designer. Is that one of those things that’s easy to say but hard to do? No, it’s easy to say and easy to do. The only hard thing is knowing what it is that you are doing wrong so you can stop doing it.

-Loretta Staples If you really want to be a good designer, you’ve got to be prepared to “risk undoing yourself”, to self-destruct your previously held assumptions and become a new different type of designer. If you look critically at your own practice and find that you can’t reconcile your responsibilities with your actions, you have the choice to either ignore your responsibilities or modify your activity.


R is for Responsibility.pdf 20 27/07/2011 16:21:14

Being a responsible designer means digging deeper into the background of each project that comes your way and asking questions relating to the ideological motivations at work. Rick Poynor suggests a simple strategy for starting of the road to responsibility:

“... the process of unlocking and exposing the underlying ideological basis of commercial culture boils down to a simple question that we need to ask and keep on asking: 'In whose interest and to what ends? Who gains by this construction of reality, by this representation of this condition as “natural”?” I think that’s a good place to start. But beyond that, it’t up to you to think for yourself as to how you integrate responsibility into your practice. Will you continue to tag it on as an added extra just for brownie points, or will you break apart the way you work, take a good look at it and put it back together in a better way? How will you respond to the challenge of design responsibility? What kind of designer do you want to be? C

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The original presentation files can be viewed online at:

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PeterBuwert.com/portfolio

References: Michael Sandel Socrates The Matrix Lewis Carrol Karl Marx Jan Van Toorn Frank Chimero Victor Papanek Artefacture Terry Eagleton Wim Crouwel Jelly Helm Raoul Vaneigem First Things First Help Japan Susan S. Szenasy Rick Poynor Loretta Staples

lectures section.

in the

http://artefacture.com/ Beirut, M. Drenttel, W. Heller, s. (eds). Looking Closer 4: Critical Writings on Graphic Design. New York: Allworth Press; 2002. http://boingboing.net/2011/03/13/help-japan-poster.html Carrol L. Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. London: Random House; 2007. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html Eagleton, T. Ideology: an introduction. London: Verso; 1991. http://frankchimero.com/ http://observersroom.designobserver.com/rickpoynor/post/wim-crouwel-the-g host-in-the-machine/26058/ Toorn, J. Design beyond design:critical reflection and the practice of visual communication. Amsterdam: De Balie; 1998. Heller, S. Vienne, V [eds] Citizen designer: perspectives on design responsibility. New York: Allworth Press. 2003. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/index.htm Papanek V, The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture.London: Thames and Hudson; 1995 Poynor, R. Design without boundaries: visual communication in transition. London: Booth-Clibborn; 1998. Poynor, R. Obey the giant: life in the image world. London: August; 2001. Sandel, M. Justice: 8 The Good Life. BBC4 television broadcast, 8.30pm Tuesday 15th March 2011. Vaneigem, R. The revolution of everyday life. London: Rebel Press. 1983. Wachowki, A, Wachoski L [directors] The Matrix [Feature film] Warner Bros. Pictures. Village Roadshow Pictures. 1999.


R is for Responsibility