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« Article: Better by design | Main | Ethical designs' false humanism »


David Bjørkmann Berry

Having just read your Creative Review piece I have to say that it is exactly the criticisms that I have been levelling at graphic design in private conversations. I thought it was a well-aimed and well argued piece that I thoroughly agreed with.

I wonder if the superstar designers will respond to it as a personal attack or show a little bit more reflexivity and consider it as a critque of graphic design more widely?

David Bjørkmann Berry

But I have a real criticism with the false dichotomy you make between 'work' and 'politics'. This implies that somehow work (i.e. the economic sphere) is outside of the political process - which is strangely reminicent of neo-liberal arguments about the 'naturalness' of the so-called free market.

Whilst I completely agree with the grand-standing and hyper individualised emptyness of the big designers. And completely echo your call for collective social action and politics I find this fencing off of work as slightly bizarre.

Especially considering that work as an repressive activity has been a major part of left-wing politics for the last century. You even highlight the fact that designers are happy to pay low-pay, no benefits as an issue for them to consider.

I would suggest that the call to politics is a call to the political in real social action connected to social movements involved in resistance to oppression. This takes place in *all* spheres of human life and *work* remains one of the key sites of conflict and oppression around the world.

Nico Macdonald

In response to David's comments, one of my key observations is that there are few, if any, examples of significant change that came about from the actions of individuals who had no collective self-interest. It follows from this that I recognise the potential of workers taking collective action in their workplace with respect to traditional trade union issues and, potentially, more political issues. They have a collective self-interest. I could even just about imagine designers taking collective action to address the 'low-pay, no benefits' culture of the industry. (If New York taxi cab drivers can taken collective action then almost anything is possible.)

What I don't see as productive is design leaders trying to turn their professional work into a political statement or form of action, and I have never seen this lead to real progress. These leaders do have some collective self-interest, but it bears no relation to the kinds of things around which they campaign – and anyway, they don't do things collectively.

While I recognise the potential of collective action, models for engaging in this need to be re-evaluated in the light of the defeat of traditional forms of collective action, the substitution by media events of collective protest (Greenpeace et al), and the tendency to characterise people as victims 'the system'.

Nico Macdonald

My article elicited considered responses from Jonathan Barnbrook, Sallyanne Theodosiou, Andrew Howard, Michael Johnson and Josh On, in the October, November and December 2005 issues of Creative Review. I hope that they will be posted here in due course.

In response to the many points made I contend that many leading figures in design have come to epitomise their political views rather than, and at the expense of, their design thinking and practice. That their politics is out-of-date, ill-informed, narrow, often opaque, and frequently patronising. That they are more interested in self-expression and showing their ‘moral virtue’ than learning about, discussing, debating and engaging in contemporary politics in the real world. And that they are so blinkered they can’t see the world from any perspective other than design.

I acknowledge Jonathan’s point that not every designer who produces politically-based work is either badly-read or motivated by self-promotion. And he is right that there are many designers with a critical knowledge of their place in society. I have gained much inspiration from such people. My concern is with our supposed design leaders and activists, who present radical sermons and statements while being unaware of their lack of knowledge or critical insight – or how conventional they are!

Michael notes that “I’ll take the politicised, engaged, thinking designers over some style-counselling any day of the week”. Of course we want switched-on, knowledgeable and questioning designers. Apart from anything they can make great professionals. The problems seems to be that the decline of political life and the waning of real public debate have left many designers feeling frustrated and impotent. Some have tried to make up for this by using their work as a substitute. But this doesn’t work, and, informed by the same old politics, tends to reinforce the problem.

Andrew thinks it is ‘laughable’ to distinguish the older generation of designers from the current generation, as they are all politically-motivated. First, it is foolish to elide the politics of that generation with politics today. Did he not notice the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of left and right politics, the transformation of Britain’s New Labour and the collapse of the old Conservatives? What passes for politics today is the bastard child of 60s radicalism, in which the positive aspects of the latter (equality, anti-racism, anti-imperialism and national self-determination, the questioning of authority) have been appropriated and turned against us.

In this situation being ‘political’ amounts to something different. My main point was that this generation of design activists often seek to epitomise their beliefs, to be defined by them, to say ‘Look at me, aren’t I enlightened and pure’. Unlike their forbears, they don’t appear to have much interest in learning about, debating and engaging in contemporary politics beyond the world of design.

Jonathan notes that “the world has changed drastically since the work that was idolised so much in the article was produced”. I agree. As I have noted the graphic activist perspective has failed to recognise what has changed, and has stuck to an out-dated world view. But the positive characteristics of this world view – scepticism, humanistic, problem-solving, forward looking – have become their opposite – cynicism, misanthropy, problem-creating and conspiratorial.

However, the design activists and our design leaders have recognised that the vogue issues in the wider world have changed, and now encompass environmentalism, sustainability, multi-culturalism, globalisation and militarism. What they didn’t do was critically question the politics behind and the presentation of these issues. Nor did they recognise how mainstream the once radical interpretation of these issues had become – to the point that they have gone beyond the realm of politics into unconscious acceptance. Instead they added a design perspective and passed them on to us wholesale, in conference keynotes, college lectures, articles and papers, and, of course, visual propaganda. In doing so they sold designers and students short.

Andrew argues that design is not something you do during the day, leaving politics for the weekend. As citizens I agree that we shouldn’t leave politics to the weekend. But I do wonder why it is that, more than any other profession, many designers consider they have a duty to express their political views through their day-to-day practice. Our graphic activists might be a bit shocked if their printers, Web site hosts or office cleaners adopted a similar approach, telling us, to paraphrase Andrew, that “cleaning is already part of the world, engaging with it is not an option”.

One justification for privileging design is that as Jonathan argues “we are right at the point at which information is ‘spun’”, and as Andrew argues it is “through the building of consciousness that values and aspirations are promoted”. But these argument reveal more about designland’s sometimes blinkered view than about the real world. As the saying has it, a man with a hammer always sees nails. And it is not surprising that graphic designers – like the media types who invented the term ‘spin’ – tend to see the world, including the arena of politics, primarily in terms of communication. If communication design were really so powerful designers would run the world. Jonathan hopes that after reading my article “students or professionals do not feel discouraged at expressing themselves honestly through their work”. It seems very indulgent to believe that a core element of design should be about expressing yourself. Designers are not artists. The role of the designer is to mediate between clients, the people they serve, and external constraints, and devise great solutions.

And a very worthy role it is. But for all the graphic activists’ apparent concern for humanity at the macro level, there is surprisingly little focus on creating great solutions for real people at the micro level. Considering that designers have aspired to make, and have made, a real difference to the quality of people’s lives, isn’t this still the best application of designers’ skills?

Instead much design debate is focused on blaming ordinary people’s behaviour for problems – pollution, waste, congestion, global warming, low wages – or patronisingly lecturing them about their lifestyles – smoking, eating ‘junk food’, being lazy and consuming too much. For a human-centred profession, humanism is too often absent from designers’ perspectives.

Of course it is positive that, as Michael notes, “designers are thinking about their world”. And it is very positive that this debate is taking place in one of the key British design publications. But Michael caricatures me when he charges me with “digging out the same old 60s-activist-sans-serif-sfuff and saying ‘it’s not the way it was’”. I don’t want to go back to the politics of the 60s, nor to design as ‘style-counselling’.

In reality it is the graphic activists themselves who are stuck in the past. However we proceed we will more original thinking, and more informed and critical debate, than our design organisations have facilitated in recent years.

Of course I could forgive the “slightly stumbling steps” Michael sees the ‘design for good’ movement taking. My problem is with the conceit of ‘design for good’. Design is intrinsically good. And it needs to be better, particularly so it can harness all the potential we have to improve people’s lives. The faux-politics of graphic activism runs counter to the quality of thinking and the humanism we need to help realise a better world using design.

Published in Creative Review Letters, December 2005.


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