American Centre for Design:
22nd Annual 100 Show of Excellence, 2001
the long march
Back in that mythical year 1968, in Paris, a German student leader named Rudy Dutschke came up with an idea that sounded blasphemically conservative to the young revolutionaries who were about to storm the next Bastille. Dutschke argued that trying to take the strongholds of bourgeois power - the educational, political and trade institutions - by force would amount to romantic heroism of the most ineffective kind. Instead, he proposed a rather less sexy strategy: go in, behave - and take over. He called it "the long march through the institutions" and thereby essentially urged the protesting student generation to take the epitheton of 'our future leaders', bequeathed to them by their arch conservative parents who obviously hoped for continuity, serious. Of course he also meant that the route from the perifery of idealistic purism to the vile centers of practical life should not result in loosing one's faith about what and why change was necessary to begin with, as it had done with generations of young 'future leaders' who had sowed their oats in 'épater le bourgois', before vanishing completely into the background of their ancien regime offices.
Dutschke's idea to slowly infiltrate the centers of power and engender change from within, sensible as it may have been, didn't take into account an age-old reflex of youthful activism - they want the world, and they want it now. To venture into the lairs of the enemy, work with them and slowly operate your way up along the small margins of whatever influence you may exert untill you've reached a spot where you can stand tall and authoritatively say: "we're going to make some changes around here", is a tough act to follow. Even today, when in quite a few places youth seems to be a prerequisite for power, it is hard to withstand the lure of the status quo, once you're part of it.
On the other hand, there has probably been no time in history when Dutschke's strategy could have been employed more easily than in ours. Institutions are hardly the buttressed retreats for the powerful they used to be anymore. And power itself has been democratised considerably, by the joint forces of a flattening of social hierarchies and the empowering effects of the media. Of course, there are still people who are "more equal than others", and the flipside of consumers' rights is that everything seems to be about consumption these days, but the average individual in western society has more tools, more platforms and more opportunity to fight for what they think is right than the Paris student revolutionairies could have ever dreamed of. Since it's not so much about fighting for your right to be heard anymore, the focus for 'fighting the cause' has shifted. Everybody can have their fifteen minutes of fame - on a daily basis, if they want -, so the main point has become: how to use them. And why?
This is where design comes in. Another famous Paris'68 slogan was: "l'Imagination au pouvoir!" It was a slap in the face of those who tried to keep things as they were, unquestioned. Design played a pivotal role, not only in getting the message across that things could be different, but, most of all, getting people to read it with a broad smile of recognition, which, as any marketeer will confirm, is the first stage of action. The power of imagination has since proven to be immense -- and totally unattached to ideology. In fact, while some of the activists' poster designs and slogans of those days can compete with the best art direction and copywriting ever - think about "Under the Pavement is the Beach!" as incitement to break up the tedious streets and use the bricks at leisure -, the design lessons implicit in activism have been embraced most effectively by that old stooge of Big Capital, advertising. In a time when designers of all nations gather to discuss solemn manifestos about getting their priorities right, it may be useful to point to this fact: activism was there first. And not just since 1968, either. With only slight exaggeration, one can hold that any innovation in mass propaganda has started with the powers that be, slashing the opposition and taking over their PR approach. Goebbels is unthinkable without the combined efforts of the Futurists, Eisenstein and other entartet mavericks of public address. The Nazi's prime PR manager is also ex absurdum proof of the fact that the techniques of mass communication are as 'value-free' as elementary math. What counts is the reason for using them.
Imagination is what links the perifery to the center. The difference is, of course, in which direction one allows the imagination to wander, and for what purpose. Is it to sedate consumers or to activate citizens? One of the problems of today's society, and the culture that it breeds, is that this distinction cannot be made so clearly anymore. What if Benetton proves to be a serious factor in raising AIDS awareness? What if Greenpeace were successfully selling branded pullovers through a worldwide network of franchises? Well, then those who think that commercialism and good causes are incompatibly opposed have a problem. Which they do. One thing we've learned from Benetton is that commercialism can be a great medium for public awareness campaigns. The other lesson, courtesy of Greenpeace, is that when activism appropriates commercial branding strategies and adopts the corresponding commnunication techniques, it can become dramatically more effective.
Design can be a dangerous tool in the hands of demagogues, but it can also be a powerful weapon for those who oppose them. 'Outsmarting the competition', it's called these days, and it works. For instance in a host of websites, which critique and caricature companies for being irresponsible, while stealing or paraphrasing their brand image to do so more effectively. Whats the difference between 'Monsanto' and 'Monsantos'? The first is a large international biotechnology firm, who advertise with the slogan "Food . Health . Hopetm", the second is its faultfinder. Just like the URLs differ by only one letter, the designs of both homepages are virtually the same, while, of course, the contents are radically opposed. In a media saturated culture where image is everything, this kind of 'hacking' can be hughly effective, or damaging, depending on your point of view. The example - and there are many more - also shows that design, however bland it may be in this case, becomes an important part of the content when it's directed to an audience of experienced 'readers' of mediated messages.
While the Monsantos case represents a rather radical, and in terms of copyrights not wholy incontroversial approach, the practice of 'culture jamming', as it has come to be known, is becoming more and more popular amongst designers who want to use their talents for worthier causes than selling the likes of genetically modified dogfood. At best, the design strategies used to critique social or cultural wrongs can use the perpetrators' own weapons against them, as the apartment size billboard against smoking I saw last year in Los Angeles did: against a rosy sunset, two Marlboro cowboys rode into the distance. The copy line quoted one of them, saying, "I miss my lung, Bob." Eat your heart out, Philip Morris, they're on your trail!
I want to stress here that, although it may sound cynical, I'm convinced that in general one can do both: earn a good living by working for companies that are not obviously out to poison the world, although they may have their tacky sides, and at the same time - as long as it's not the bosses time - work with those whose critical view on the bigger picture you share. Although it is hard to imagine that the anti-tobacco billboard could have been made by the same designer who did the Marlboro ads, allegiance and critique are not incompatible - should not be incompatible. The idea that one should be completely and utterly faithfull to those who pay you strikes me as rather mediaeval. As does the idea of total and utter opposition to anything that doesn't comply with your own standards. The absolute antithesis between a purist perifery and the corrupted centers of power seems to me to be as obsolete as that between Utopia and Babylon. They both have become suburbs of the global village, with a lot of trafic between them. Theoretically, we know and accept that in our intricately mediated culture, singular messages have ceased to exist. So too have unambiguous messages. State that as being the outcome of the postmodern condition humaine, and people will nod enthousiastically and chant, to anybody who won't agree: it's the context, stupid!
So why not practice this condition by stimulating a critical awareness of it, through design? Obviously, even if not everybody can repeat Milton Glazer's "I only work with friends, or people who can become friends," each designer - each citizen - has their own mental and moral bottomline. A line they do not want to cross. But what used to be called 'the perifery' is not that fenced-in reservation of noble principles or political idiosyncrasies anymore. Neither is it the marginal social sphere where critical minds wind up begrudging the bad bad world outside, while at the same time keeping their hands clean. One great potential of the mediated society, with its open access to the infrastructures of mass communication, is that if you care enough, you can make a difference right in the center of the discourse. Although you may not be in a position to forge radical change now, you could be part of the public debate and help change the perspective. Showing the other side of issues that are threatened to become highjacked by single-interest lobby groups, and compensating for simplistic views on complex problems, are activities for which graphic designers are very well placed. As communicators in a world which hinges on communication, they share a large part of the responsibility for the quality of the public debate.
Culturally speaking, in spite of the growing forces of globalisation and concentration of economic power, the world has become a network of periferies. These 'periferies' may be called life-styles, subcultures, pressure organisations, lobbies, themed communities, special interest groups, NGOs, IMCs, activists, or what have you, but regardless of which way you tag them, they interlink, communicate, interact, and overlap. Interfacing these 'periferies' with each other and with what is left of the encompassing centers of cultural identity and power is a design commission of the greatest importance. In my view, its a commission that is central to any design activity.
Maybe this is the designers' version of the "long march through the institutions." If, after the collaps of the Berlin Wall and the end of political polarization as we knew it during the cold war, radical and total opposition isn't an effective option anymore, that doesn't mean that the only options left are consensus or resignation. There still is plenty of room for valid and effective dissent. The fundamental design aspect of this is that, since design has become not only a problem-solving tool, but a visual language, designers are in a perfect position to channel critical notions and alternative views into even the most prosaic commisions. When working from this mentality, designers could take the imagination to the next level - activating a critical sensibility in stead of merely triggering buying impulses. Consequently, this view on design will not accept that design's visual language be used as "hidden persuader", to lure an unsuspecting audience into blindly agreeing with the messages presented to them. Quite the contrary: they aim at being openly provocative, directed at a critical and visually literate audience.
In fact, some of the smarter companies have already adopted this view on how to interface with a critical and well informed public, from the likes of Benetton and The Body Shop, who have successfully extended their brand image to embrace social responsibility, to such mega corporations as Shell, who have rather radically altered their public address after they had to concede that Greenpeace was better at the game of manipulating public opinion than they were. Outsmarted in their own arena, they adopted a much more open policy. Other companies pay lipservice to an increasingly critical public by adopting slogans like "Sometimes you gotta break the rules" (Burger King), "Innovate don't imitate" (Hugo Boss) or "Be an original" (Chesterfield cigarettes). In his exemplary article on advertising as "the whispering intruder", in Eye, autumn 1998, Rick Poynor pointed out that "this rhetoric, exhilarating as it might sound, is nonsense - there is nothing remotely radical about upholding the status quo, however stylishly you do it - it is part of a larger tendency, particularly in American advertising, to claim for the consumer the language and "attitude" of uncompromising rebellion." When 'rebellion' becomes a life-style option promoted by major comodity brands, it is time to regain some of the territory lost to advertising. Designers do have a responsibility in guarding against a dumbing down of their visual language and of what is communicated through it. They can honour that responsibility by looking beyond the decorative effects of virtuoso visuals, at what all this visual exuberance boils down to in terms of cultural meaning. Is it to entertain consumers, or to empower citizens?
This design mentality is a modus operandi which judges form in terms of content, and which sees content in terms of (implicit) action. Since the core of design, for any medium, is to interface information with actions by readers or users (practical or conceptual actions) in a social and cultural context, it follows that designers should be aware of their ethical and social responsibilities. From this mindset the world of communication is regarded not as abstract result of theory, nor as neutral field of 'problem-solving' expertise, but as a very real environment in which real people interact with each other on the basis of real needs and real information. Beyond formal virtuosity, the designer has a responsibility, as Dutch designer Jan van Toorn put it in the 1970s, to "visualise the origins and manipulative character of a message": that is, cast a message in such a form that it enters into a meaningful - and critical - relationship with its cultural, social and informative context, a necessity which grows all the more urgent now that the information society is beginning to show signs of becoming an information deluge. This mentality of engagement with the contexts of the design, and with the people and causes which it serves, can be the basis for engendering change in a society and culture which are not yet perfect.
Every design, in essence, is a criticism of the context for which it has been produced. A good design activates those contexts by offering an understanding of, a comment on, or an alternative to them. One of the most idealistic attitudes that a designer working from this mentality, can have is the will to increase awareness of the complex inter-connections in our mediated culture, and, above all, to increase insight into their nature and content. To be able to contribute to this, a designer must be able to call on more than aesthetic and technical knowledge. Designers must realise yet again that their profession is about analysis: a critical eye is not periferal to design, it's at its very center. Consequently, that is what socially and culturally responsible design should aim at: keeping the eyes and minds of viewers wide open.
(This article is partly based on my 1999 essay "An ideal design is not yet", and may be read as an elaboration on some of its core ideas.)