Reading & Writing
A new kind of dialogue / Article
This is an ammended version of an essay first published in the Canadian magazine Adbusters, issue 37, Design Anarchy, 2001 and later (2002) reproduced in the anthology Looking Closer 4, Critical Writings on Graphic Design, Allworth Press, NY.

Searching for values, design looks in the usual place — inward, never outward 

“Don't make something unless it is both necessary and useful,” goes the Shaker adage, “but if it is, don't hesitate to make it beautiful.” There is a simple equilibrium to this philosophy, and in today’s world of commodity production, equilibrium is in short supply. It is precisely what the market economy and its supporting ideology robs us of. We are submerged in excess – a futile abundance, high in material use but low in spiritual substance, which in its inability to satiate us, subjects us instead to a continual hunger. The Shakers would perhaps nod their heads knowingly to see so much materialism producing so little sustenance. Equilibrium is a state of balance to which excess is antithetical. 

Far from the isolationist world of the Shakers, the debate taking place within the world of design is also about need, use and aesthetics. It, too, has been addressing notions of excess, and although these issues have been recently placed on the agenda through the publication of the First Things First 2000 (FTF) manifesto, it is not a new debate. What should be self-evident by now is that talking about contemporary design practice draws us inevitably into a wider social discourse. Design is not an abstract theoretical discipline – it produces tangible artefacts, expresses social priorities and carries cultural values. Exactly whose priorities and values is at the core of this debate. 

Many designers do find contemporary design practice problematic. We are drawn to design because we are excited by the visual and all its creative possibilities, by our pleasure in understanding how to craft a work, by our sense of satisfaction in organising ideas. We are sustained by the possibility of exercising skill and of creating beauty, and not least of all, because we have a talent for all these things. In parallel, we are troubled by the thought that the results of so much effort and dedication may be trivial, or worse, that they may serve damaging, ultimately antisocial, interests. 

Looking inwards into the profession may resolve some questions, but the biggest dilemmas clearly spring from the nature of the wider social framework within which we function. Attempting to define the range of our skills and our area of expertise is one thing. Controlling how they are applied socially is another. We're involved in the creation and expression of ideas and messages – in the world of perceptions as well as conceptions – and we need to understand the territory we inhabit, we need to understand the rationale behind the sort of world views we are being asked to construct. 

This means learning to sift through what John Berger has described as the modern rhetoric of bourgeois politics, the purpose of which is to conceal the true nature of the underlying economic practice. Marx’s genius, wrote Berger, was his resolute insistence on the practice, refusing to be deceived or diverted by the rhetoric. The rhetoric tells us that the marketplace is natural, that ultimately it is the most efficient way to meets the needs of the majority while rewarding individual initiative and skill and developing human potential. 

It is none of these. At the heart of capitalism lies a pitiless logic, an economic imperative rooted in material acquisition and possession. It is a logic that celebrates self-interest. It has constructed a system which contains no concept of sufficiency because its function is no longer concerned with satisfying human need, but satisfying the appetite for personal wealth. And since there is no such thing as sufficient wealth, there can be no such thing as sufficient production. But human needs have material limits. This is not good for the economic imperative. Therefore new demands have to be created so that they can match the profitable output of industrialised production. This is the inversion of supply and demand – the myth that the production of goods is based on need. It is best done by dividing our needs, desires and activities into the smallest possible units so that products and services can be created to satisfy them. In promoting these values, other things are kept from view, go unnoticed or are simply ignored; acts of heroism, of self-sacrifice, of courage and of resistance by countless millions who are the necessary victims of simple greed explained away as ‘natural law’. 

So much has been written about this that it is tiresome to cover the same ground. Those still in doubt about the extent of our manipulation should read Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders. First published in 1957, Packard’s work remains a powerful exposé of the advertising industry and its attempts to “invade the privacy of our minds.” If this is not enough then try Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness or Naomi Klein’s No Logo – the list is long. These works look beneath the veneer of "normality" and uncover the real priorities and values of our economic system and the culture that springs from it. 

The division and separation of our needs and desires fragments our consciousness. We are kept from being complete. Social activity, including thought, is subject to specialisation and compartmentalisation. We are encouraged to concentrate on the details of our activity – to develop its internal logic. This is what it means to be a good professional. Thus we lose track of how things fit together. In our allocated areas of professional concern there is little time for the wider picture. 

It is this disconnection which makes possible the American designer Michael Bierut's now famous dog-biscuit argument, referred to by Rick Poynor in a previous issue of Adbusters. “What makes dog-biscuit packaging an unworthy subject of our attention,” asks Bierut, “as opposed to, say, a Walker Art Center catalogue?” Poynor counters by pointing out the disparity that the question implies for those whose dose of wit and beauty has to come in the form of dog-biscuit boxes. But an even more obvious reply springs to mind – dog biscuits themselves! It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where and when it happened, but sometime over the last 30 to 40 years the priority life-goal of dogs seems to have become the taking of vitamins. Only the apparently ill-informed could contemplate depriving their dogs of the vitamin-rich, teeth-sharpening, bowel-regulating, hair-shining dog-biscuits that are so essential to their health and happiness. It is the same sort of invention that persuades us that we need umpteen types of shampoo, depending on our age, gender, profession, activity level and the texture, coloring and sheen of our hair.  

It's true that there are points in the work of a designer in which it is necessary to become completely immersed in the internal logic of the work. Creative work is not possible without the intimacy of close proximity. But sooner or later the process has to reconnect to a larger, external logic. There has to be a set of reference points that lie beyond individual works or clients, some sort of guide that can locate our activity within a collective value system. It is this that is missing from Bierut's question and without it, dog-biscuit boxes are undoubtedly as worthy as anything else. 

When I received the first draft of the FTF manifesto I expressed my reservations about adding my name. I felt something more comprehensive was needed. Like some other signatories, I questioned the call for “a new kind of meaning.” This has nothing to do with a distaste for ambiguity. On the contrary, ambiguity often has the power to disturb because it gives the imagination what it needs — an idea free of fixed associations or interpretations. But I believe that in calling for “a new kind of meaning,” the manifesto just misses the mark. If there is a problem about the role that graphic design plays in what Jan van Toorn describes as “the circulation of material and symbolic commodities,” then it’s related not just to the content of these cultural messages, but also to the forms of communication which carry them. 

The endless stream of messages that invade every corner of our lives are not open-ended; they are monologues. It's for this reason that a call for “a new kind of dialogue” would have been more appropriate. It has the advantage of suggesting that we need to address forms as well as content. Every form circumscribes what is able to be told and the sorts of dialogues which are possible. Replacing billboards by car manufacturers for ones by Greenpeace doesn’t amount to much more than swapping one monopoly of perception for another. Better not to have any billboards at all. 

Thinking about forms of communication and the impact these have on the nature of cultural dialogue also helps to avoid the kind of politically correct posturing in which the compilation of lists of “acceptable” clients comes to be seen as a measure of one's worthiness. The nature of the dialogue is as important as where it originates and what it expresses. In theory this does not exclude anyone. In practice, however, those whose interests lie in the commodification of our lives will have nothing to gain in creating the sorts of dialogues that are essential to democratic society. 

The cult of the instant permeates our ability to imagine. Immediacy is primary, efficiency is equated with speed. We scan for quick responses and quick solutions. Thus the extent to which extreme, usually violent, action is celebrated in much of our popular culture is a reflection of the dominant predilection to eliminate obstacles rather than resolve problems. “Slow” solutions, which involve approaches that are local and accumulative, lack the thrust of modernity. They seem somehow less appealing, less convincing. To suggest that a daily, continual questioning of our priorities and our social ambitions is a strategy may not seem earth-shattering. It is nevertheless necessary and linked to a more far-reaching process. “Democracy,” wrote John Berger, “is a political demand. But it is something more. It is a moral demand for the individual right to decide by what criteria an action is called right or wrong. Democracy was born of the principle of conscience. Not, as the free market would have us believe, from the principle of choice which – if it is a principle at all – is a relatively trivial one.” Most of us do not have the power, or even the economic independence, to challenge head-on the priorities of those who pay for our skills. But for those of us who are hostile to the commodification of our culture and who are concerned to defend democratic values, there is always the possibility of collaboration and discussion in search of the sort of design agenda which might provide a set of social references that encompasses our values and that stimulates our creative skills. 

Rick Poynor has characterised my position as calling for “nothing less than the politicisation of all design discourse and practice,” in a way that suggests that I lie at one end of the spectrum. Perhaps this is true, for I do argue that an analysis of design’s cultural, social and political impact should be at the core of our practice. This means learning to stand back from the daily routine and building habits in which we persistently evaluate what we communicate, to whom, in what ways, and for what purpose. The sorts of strategies and policies that might arise from this will be dependant on context – there are no “off-the-shelf” solutions to be handed down from above. The politicisation of design in this sense amounts to a way of localising our activity within a wider social spectrum, a mode of thinking which is the basis for acting. It is based on the idea that effective action is impossible without understanding.

When it comes to the social and cultural impact of our skills and energies, there are many designers who are uncomfortable with the ideological implications of our practice. Many also recognise how problematic is the search for alternatives. None of us should be castigated for not being genial enough to find quick answers, but there is simply no excuse anymore for not looking.

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© Andrew Howard. Available from: www.studioandrewhoward.com