Reading & Writing
Design Beyond Commodification / Article
This is an ammended version of an essay first published in Eye magazine, issue 38, volume 10, winter 2000.

It has always been possible for designers to adopt a political stance in relation to their work. But doing so is normally seen as an individual (possibly eccentric) choice in which concerns which are understood as external to the activity of design are ‘smuggled in’ as part of a personal agenda. Yet we work with forms of visual communication every day, perhaps not understanding how they carry, and are in themselves, expressions of social value. This is what it means to talk about the cultural politics of design - something that rarely happens within most everyday practice: it is not part of the normal cognitive production process of graphic design practice. Politics is already an active ingredient in visual culture, in forms of representation and expression, but the view persists that political emphasis is a question of personal choice connected to the individual rather than an integral and unavoidable part of the territory. 

We are surrounded by images that are crafted by designers. These constructions, most evidently in advertising and publicity, but not exclusively so, influence our worldviews. They create and sustain ideas about what is normal and desirable. They are cultural expressions designed to influence our aspirations and to fuel our desires. They impel us to participate in the creation of lifestyles that demand the acquisition of goods as a measure of progress and status. 

We cannot allow ourselves to believe we are simply communicating information. “Every advertisement for a family car”, writes Owen Kelly in Community, Art and the State (1) “is a piece of propaganda about the desirability of driving rather than taking the bus or train. Over and above the effect of a specific advertisement in selling us one or another car, we are sold the idea that we need a car, whatever the brand.” 

This is the way in which design communication embodies social values - through the selling of ideas and not simply products. In choosing between brands of dog biscuit, to use a popular example, we are being told that dogs need them to be healthy - which makes one wonder how they managed to survive so long without them. At this point the argument about companies creating much-needed jobs will appear, and any real public debate and discussion about what might constitute socially useful jobs can be neatly circumvented. 

The ideological process of commodification knows no boundaries, which is why we can no longer find refuge in the now defunct distinction between commerce and culture. Whilst one sells commodities as value, the other sells values as commodities. Paradoxically, the form of expression and communication they use to do so, are essentially the same. 

Some would argue the design profession is not equipped with the theoretical tools necessary for us to examine and understand how visual communication influences the way we think socially - a common analysis of politics, economics and culture. And yet, it would appear self-evident that the relationship between how the world around us is expressed and how we actually experience it, would be a fundamental area of study and concern. Dutch designer and teacher, Jan van Toorn argues that the professional success of design is connected to “the creation of images and visual stimuli in the media which are essential to the retail of products, information and entertainment.” Design, with its “crucial role in the dream-world of commodities” creates and maintains “the symbolic connection between the power structures and our experience of reality.” 

He suggests that the profession has had to make an ideological accommodation which has prevented it from retaining a wider social and political perspective. “Not questioning social responsibilities” says Van Toorn, “implies that you surrender to that sector of society, that because it possesses all our means of survival, manoeuvres design in the role of entrepreneurial aesthetics” 

As a way forward, the English product designer Peter Lloyd Jones, suggests that we need to stimulate “an appreciation of imagery expressive of other social relationships, this time the values of a wider-ranging social solidarity.” He proposes the creation of a new mythology capable of expressing new meanings and values. He acknowledges that the creation of myths is the work of poets rather than designers, people who are “rooted in concerns more substantial than shopping, in tune with the deepest fears and desires of their society.” Designers may not create these new narratives, but it is for them “to respond to them and, using all the resources of industry, to generate a physical world which expresses their deepest content.” 

Both Van Toorn and Lloyd Jones speak of a need to create different narratives that express new social values and foster different dialogues. Their descriptions of the practical ways in which to do this seem to be less clear, less complete than their arguments about why it is necessary. And although saying so runs the risk of fuelling support of the status quo and the paralysis of thought that surrounds many sectors of the profession, it should be pointed out that the power of their arguments is no less compelling. Formulating alternative models of working is problematic to the extent in which our daily lives are encompassed by the institutions and ideological structures of capitalism. Solutions will not spring from within individual social practices alone. 

One attempt to place social issues on the design agenda was the publication of the First Things First 2000 manifesto, based on the remarkable 1964 version written and organised by British designer Ken Garland. This reworked version, signed by 33 prominent graphic designers, provoked a range of responses, from rejection to support, with a great deal of irritation and indifference in between. Monika Parrinder (Agenda, Eye no. 35 vol. 9) noted that while many designers are sympathetic, they also feel that the manifesto presents “an idealism that is impossible and impractical to live up to on an everyday scale.” She notes that no solutions are proposed. However we need to ask if it is reasonable to berate someone who tells you there’s a fire in the building because they don’t also lead you to the exits? 

For some people, the problem comes from not knowing what to do, and for others not understanding what the problem is. Tim Rich, writing in Design Week, in a piece intriguingly entitled “Ideas before manifestos”, (intriguing because it contains no ideas) asks the question “Who is more likely to reduce the harmful effects of car pollution - a designer who creates a website for Reclaim the Streets (nice example) or a heavy-duty recreational vehicle designer who reduces emissions and increases fuel efficiency?”. Despite the perplexity of comparing Web design to engineering, a second of thought will tell you that the answer of course, is neither. The vehicle designer will only do what his employers allow him to do. Convinced? Well think about the fact that designers and engineers long ago designed batteries and light bulbs that had almost infinite durability? How about alternatives to oil based fuel and energy sources that have been deliberately kept under wraps? Just two examples, amongst countless others, of industrial advances that have never seen the light of day because they conflict with an economic and political imperative, that incidentally, bears no relation what so ever to keeping people in employment. But it gets worse. 

Lack of critical faculty is given a new lease of life in Richs’ celebration of the Finnish paper company Sappi and their “Ideas That Matter” campaign. You may have thought that the advocacy of nineteenth century philanthropy as social progress belonged to the history books. You would be wrong. “We should applaud its (Sappi’s) initiative, says Rich, and be thankful for the commercial logic behind the project”. What’s good for business is good for us. The motivation behind Sappi’s campaign may well contain genuine intentions, but that is not the point. Companies large or small, are not accountable to us, we have no power to insist that they use their profits for specific purposes, we are just lucky if they do. No company owners will support initiatives that stand to jeopardise their economic interests - interests that will often be defended regardless of their impact on the lives of the majority. Individual initiatives such as Sappi’s might even produce progressive work, and that would be good, but a future which is dependant on the enlightenment, or not, of those who have the power to affect our lives, is not much of a future. 

In 1973, Ivan Illich wrote that unlimited production is a threat to human life. We now know that the threat extends to global life. This is not a moral issue, although some may wish to make it so. It is a issue of practicality, of necessity. 

In what way is it possible then to separate the desire to change the priorities of visual communication from the desire to oppose and change dominant culture and the political and economic systems which support it? A move to change any one of them must be a move to change them all. Paradoxically, this interconnectedness poses real problems. I have always known that to raise these issues would lead to ideological and strategic locations that lie far beyond the boundaries of normal professional concern and debate, as I have always known that many would be reluctant to make the journey. Graphic design, as any discipline seen in isolation, offers a view of the world from one window. Meanwhile, outside sits a panoramic culture that envelopes our consciousness. 

The political economic imperative that demands limitless production is the same imperative that demands the commodification of our needs and desires. From it flows a dominant culture that creates and sustains the idea that this is natural and even necessary whilst suppressing and minimising the expression of views to the contrary. 

Some designers ask whether the aim of the FTF 2000 manifesto is to create an awakening of conscience or “advocate a wholesale rejection of commercial work.” I would argue that the single most important objective is the politicisation of design discourse and practice. I cannot speak on behalf of my fellow signatories but I hope they share with me the belief that our attention as visual communicators must be directed not just at the content of our work but also the forms it takes, and the extent to which channels of communication and expression are open and accessible: “we are all concerned,” states Another Standard (2), “individually and in common with others, to establish our own views and to express our understandings and our ways of life. The degree to which we are successful, and the ways in which we are successful, lies in how far our cultures are democratic.”


1 Owen Kelly, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels. Comedia, 1984.
2 Another Standard 86: Culture & Democracy. Comedia, 1986.

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