14 September 2009

The Social Role of the Graphic Designer

Pierre Bernard, co-founder of Grapus and Atelier de Création Graphique, delivered this lecture in Minneapolis in 1991. It was reprinted in Essays on Design I: AGI’s Designers of Influence, London 1997.

Artists have for a long time been heading for ghettos, whether rich or poor. Other people have been subjected to a major mass-media aesthetic — or for the most underprivileged — to its leftovers. Our Western society is working at two different speeds. For the minority, a world of calm has come into being in which design means authentic quality. Art can be part of every life. It is a world in which a materialised and human reality can develop.

For the rest — the majority — what is offered is exactly the opposite. Art is something to be visited in reservations, and spiritual harmony is to be found in other realms, religious or chemical.

Inequality is on the increase. The humanist dream of a unification of our planet’s history in the capitalist logic of multinationals has in practice become a reductive standardization. It has thus been deemed legitimate to give arts and artists the function of entertainment and decoration, while techniques and technicians take care of efficient production.

This division of labour amounts to a complete capitulation as regards the principles on which design is founded. The division between the artist as creator and the artisan as technician has been born again out of the ashes of those founding principles. It marks a return to the Stone Age.

I believe that the single identity of the artist and the technician in the person of the graphic designer forms the basis for his capacity to assert his role strongly — and to take his own specific action as an individual who is a part of civilization. I believe that the social function of the graphic designer is a subject to be approached through opinions and persuasion rather than through logic and knowledge.

“Life will always be hard enough to prevent men from losing the desire for something better,” Maxim Gorky said. The graphic designer’s social responsibility is based on the wish to take part in the creation of a better world. It seems simple to declare such a principle, but given the contradictions of real life, the principle does not lead readily to practical rules of behaviour.

A social critique

Any assessment of the social dimension of graphic design must always be made in a specific concrete situation, and this is a most difficult task. We all live in society; but not in the same one. At least, thank God, not yet.

Today, the production of visual communications consists essentially of advertising. Visual productions in advertising are hugely sophisticated and articulated in relation to gigantic mass-media networks. They transcend frontiers and cultural divides. Their basic critique has been developed by the Marxist critic John Berger in Ways of Seeing. He demonstrates that “glamour” is a modern invention in terms of images. It is the expression of the pursuit of individual happiness, considered as a universal right.

Berger goes on to say that “publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.”

There is a difference between advertising and graphic design. Advertising is today more and more centralized, international, generalized and, therefore, standardized — like the economic forces that produce it, and the products it deals with. Graphic design, on the other hand, continues to be created and to structure itself in an autonomous and diversified manner — in direct contact with the specific social fabrics of different societies around the world. It is this diversity that provides the possibility for the development of graphic communication across the world in the future.

If we look at simplified representation of graphic communication, we see that it has transmitting subjects (clients and graphic designers), messages and objects (goals, ends, products), and receivers (audiences and consumers) with their needs and expectations. Second, communication happens in a concrete time frame. The link between these two propositions gives us the social dimension of graphic design.

From the point of view of time, one can classify communication on a scale. At one end of the scale, we find the graphic design that I call the graphic design of permanence, aiming at the medium and long term. At the other end of the scale there is an ephemeral graphic design, aiming at the short term.

From the point of view of space, I also distinguish two major classes of graphic design: graphic design integrated with either a physical structure or an identity; and independent graphic design. We notice that independent graphic design is often short-lived, whereas integrated graphic design is more permanent, both varying according to time and place.

Permanent graphic design

What is the typical landscape of permanent graphic design? It consists of architecture and urban design; newspaper grids; charts, maps and diagrams; reference books such as atlases and catalogues; calendars, notices, instruction forms and signs; plans and pictographic systems. They all work toward the visual expression of a general structural development.

The goal of this kind of graphic design (permanent, integrated) is achieved by integrating the message (form, content) with society. It confirms established values and asks that they be accepted. It transforms the idea, the judgement, and the aesthetic value into tangible “natural” reality. Generally, graphic design is presented as functional, but the symbolic role it plays quickly becomes permanent and takes on a new functionality: ideological integration

In the recent past, permanent, integrated graphic design was a vehicle for many humanist aspirations and major progressive values. Today, in conjunction with the demolition of the mass media and the gradual shrinking of the world, the goal of social consensus often leads such design to forget specific social realities in favour of a higher international model, one that directly produces packaging. Permanent, integrated graphic design is one of the math areas of intervention for graphic designers who are conscious of their social role.

Short-lived graphic design

What is the typical landscape of short-lived graphic design? Here, in contrast to permanent graphic design, the landscape seen to include diverse and specific acts: narrations and contradictory, divergent or opposite affirmations on posters, newspapers, advertisements, windows, leaflets, programmes, books, exhibitions, films, videos and so on.

This type of graphic design (ephemeral, independent) aims at transmitting specific messages linked to specific situations. Ephemeral, independent graphic design seems to have an operLaucoaii nature opposite to the functional nature of integrated, permanem graphic design. Its products are ephemeral. They attract attencci and then disappear.

If this classification — permanent versus ephemeral and integrated versus independent — is valid, we can conclude that the ideological consensus is linked to socio-graphic stability. That is, people tend to think alike if the visual landscape is structured and unchanging. And the feeling of freedom is linked to the presence of numerous and varied disagreements in live exchanges. However, as Berger has shown us, this “display” of freedom is mere illusion, when the general strategy behind it leads exclusively to consumption. For how long, and to what socially progressive ends, comes the feeling of freedom through consumption?

It is this dead-end situation that has led many high-level graphic designers to abandon ephemeral, independent design for the permanent, integrated projects considered to be more worthy.

Designer and client as co-authors

Let us move from the time frame of graphic design and examine the different participants and their relationships.

In the process of communication, the graphic designer and the client together constitute the transmitter. The message will be the result of their collaboration. Who chooses whom? By nature, the client needs the graphic designer only occasionally, whether the arrangement is repetitive or continuous.

Unlike the graphic designer, who looks for a kind of communication that is in relation to the nature of the message and of the presumed receiver, the client’s concerns and existence are elsewhere, outside of the communication process. The client looks for what would appear to be a solution (a graphic product) to his problems, in a competitive context. It is for this reason that the client tends to consider communication as strictly instrumental, and the graphic designer as a neutral transmitter of his message. The instrumental conception of visual communication is often the one adopted by clients who themselves have a very narrow view of their own role as transmitter.

But can neutral aesthetics exist? Can the message of the client always be unequivocal, never ambiguous? The truth between the client and the graphic designer will always be a complex and subjective truth. Otherwise, this collaboration has no reason to exist and can be advantageously replaced by a mechanical act.

It is through the contact established at the outset of the collaboration with the designer that the client can be brought to widen his perspective and transform his desire in order to obtain, among other things, that result. It is this contact that can make him conscious of his cultural role and his power of decision over the time frame of the communication.

The designer would like to choose a client for his apparent social role. The client — whose pragmatism about cost influences his demands — chooses the designer because of his know-how in relation to the economics of production. The depth of the relationship depends to a considerable extent on the nature of the consideration the client has for the know-how of graphic design. While many small-scale clients in the social, cultural, political, and even economic fields have high expectations of graphic designers, many others with considerable social influence are unaware of graphic design or have a very simplistic conception of it.

It will be absolutely essential, in the years ahead, to make graphic design known in its complete technical, intellectual, and artistic dimension. Then, graphic designers will be in a position to identify and respond consciously to requests that generate social acts that they can support in their role as co-authors.

This notion of co-authorship seems essential to me, from an ethical point of view. The necessary co-operation between client and graphic designer will lead the client to share the aesthetic position (not devoid of ideology) of the designer, and it will lead the designer to accept the validity of the ideological position of his client. It is this particular balance between co-authors that allows the production to be oriented toward a cultural act, which. by definition, is always risky.

If this important notion does not operate in the client-graphic designer relationship, then it becomes a service relationship only. And under these conditions, professional responsibility becomes a delusion.

The graphic designer and the receiver

The relationship between the graphic designer and the receiver can work efficiently only in the presence of the client. The notion of quality shared by the client and the designer will be determined by the respect in which the receiver is held. This appreciation will be expressed in the cultural level of the message (form, content) in relation to the present cultural level of the receiver.

If social and cultural measuring devices can be used to give valuable information about receivers, they can also be used to consider the receivers simply as military “targets”, where the objective has to be achieved by any means. Such measurement can also lead to a communications strategy based on the isolation of the general public into typecast groups. By crystallizing diversity it transforms a group of free-ranging citizens into several small groups of specialized consumers.

One of the major social functions of graphic design is quite the opposite: broadening the cultural horizon of the public directly concerned.

The relationship between the graphic designer and the receiver also works within the mediation of the message. In most cases, this mediation imposes a one-way communication. The communication does not communicate: it soliloquizes. The right to respond on equal terms does not exist.

The situation forces the two subjects of the communication, client and graphic designer, into social isolation. The client’s status is one of power, and his isolation in mediated communication leads him to want more power. The social status of the graphic designer is one of dependence. Confronted with his isolation, there are two directions he can take: one toward greater dependence on the client; the other toward a greater awareness of the balance needed in the communication process. The less specialized they are in a repetitive relationship with the client, the more freedom the designer will have to make the choice to become the receiver’s silent ally.

The graphic designer and the message

It is through the message that the graphic designer as co-author finally confronts his or her knowledge, culture, conceptions and sincerity. The graphic designer must define a strategy and be aware of other existing social strategies, including those that arise from different national situations. In relation to the message, the graphic designer applies pertinent expression codes whether derived from local, national, or international culture — thus producing emotion and meaning. As in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, this capacity of graphic designers to find paths through the “dark forest of signs” makes them artists in the full sense.

If one conceives one’s work as being based on the status of a technician and an artist, this implies having a general cultural objective that goes beyond merely giving form to an operational discourse.

This “going beyond” tells us we cannot be satisfied with the practice of ephemeral graphic design that has no relation to (or is in disagreement with) a global society. Nor can professional satisfaction arise from a permanent graphic design that remains unaltered despite the struggles and historical changes of the world it purports to reflect.

For this reason, it becomes necessary to link ephemeral and permanent, integrated and independent, in order to assert an articulate, complex cultural conception that is not elitist, populist or reductive. Therefore, social graphic design corresponds to the cultural dimension of the message, to its articulation in a long-term project of cultural development, where the permanent-integrated (strategy) and the ephemeral-independent (tactic) are not in contradiction.

In opposition to the standardized profusion of advertising, we must work from particular social situations — from their specific dynamics and their manageable human dimensions. It is from these that small communications units will be able to build creative works that will regenerate and develop the visual riches already attained by society.

If the moral values that founded graphic design have almost disappeared in favour of those of triumphant marketing, they continue to underlie the awareness of many designers and students scattered around the world. It is this consciousness that must be encouraged and maintained. We can hope to see these values flourish openly within the different social realities to come.

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