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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.

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>  14 September 2009 | LINK | Filed in

Più design può

Più design puòNearly a year ago, SocialDesignZine (SDZ) published a blog item about design and the city that found its way to the folks in the Provincial Office of Florence. They were intrigued. So what would you like to do about it? they asked. Send us a proposal.

Gianni Sinni and Andrea Rauch, the team behind SDZ proposed a modest conference: a few critics, a few practitioners discussing design for democracy, society and the city. Then silence for eight months.

Finally, two months before the proposed date, funds were approved and the SDZ team swung into action. Both studios engaged their staff: the hall booked, website designed, print materials designed and produced, travel coordinated, and on May 22 and 23 they hosted Più Design Può, more design can. Attendance was free of charge and over 200 students and designers turned up to hear the lineup of Italian and international speakers. No one from the Office of Florence attended.1

The intersections and gaps between designers, the state, and the public ran throughout the discussions. Renewed attention to public utility graphics in the 1970s helped public offices use design in a more consistent way. Design, they realized, characterizes the relationships between citizens and public administration. Now the emphasis has been turning to how cities can facilitate citizen-to-citizen communication in an accessible, inclusive and sustainable way, to promote and enable participation in both social life and public affairs.

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>  1 June 2009 | LINK | Filed in , , ,

Do Artifacts Have Politics?

After much searching I finally found an electronic version of this essay via a dead link and archive.org. I’m posting here to save it from the memory hole — and have fixed the HTML formatting in the process.

By Langdon Winner, from The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. 19-39. This essay first appeared in Daedalus 109 (1980): 121-36.


No idea is more provocative in controversies about technology and society than the notion that technical things have political qualities. At issue is the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority. Since ideas of this kind are a persistent and troubling presence in discussions about the meaning of technology, they deserve explicit attention.

Writing in the early 1960s, Lewis Mumford gave classic statement to one version of the theme, arguing that "from late neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable."1 This thesis stands at the heart of Mumford’s studies of the city, architecture, and history of technics, and mirrors concerns voiced earlier in the works of Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, and other nineteenth-century critics of industrialism. During the 1970s, antinuclear and pro-solar energy movements in Europe and the United States adopted a similar notion as the centerpiece of their arguments. According to environmentalist Denis Hayes, "The increased deployment of nuclear power facilities must lead society toward authoritarianism. Indeed, safe reliance upon nuclear power as the principal source of energy may be possible only in a totalitarian state." Echoing the views of many proponents of appropriate technology and the soft energy path, Hayes contends that "dispersed solar sources are more compatible than centralized technologies with social equity, freedom and cultural pluralism."2

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>  10 June 2008 | LINK | Filed in , ,

The Vision Thing

An article of mine is running in the Design Issues column of the January/February 2008 Communication Arts. It started out as a piece about design education outside of traditional design schools, but then turned into something more — about grassroots engagement with public space and the power of design to envision change. Thanks Nicolas, Kim, Chris, David, and DK for their insight.


The Vision Thing

Seeing and creating change through design

It’s is not just in design schools. It’s not just in mentorship programs at top shelf firms. Design and education meet in the streets.

Most graphic design education points to a career as a design professional. But the same tools we use to undertake user research, solve problems, and satisfy clients can be used by young people to voice their opinions and meet the needs of their neighborhoods and communities.

The stories below are shining examples of design as populism. The designers of these projects – amateurs and professionals – have moved beyond a passive relationship to the world, beyond the daily pattern of serving clients, responding to assignments, and deadlines.

By taking it outside, they are asserting a positive vision and owning the spaces they live in – and in the process are making these places better for us all.

Human Traffic

Memorials shape our collective memory. They are a tangible, public stake against forgetting, a manifesto to the present and a reminder of the past as a warning for the future. Put forth by loved ones after a tragedy, grassroots memorials are at once both personal and public – often filling a void where government-funded memorials leave off. Some are subtle collections of flowers and personal items, occupying quiet corners of common space. Others scream out for attention. Rendered three-stories tall on the side of a building, the memorial mural on Butler Street and Third Avenue in Brooklyn is hard to ignore.

The design is a tribute to 28 pedestrians killed by cars between 1995 and 2007 in the streets of Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. The mural depicts three young boys, fifth-graders Victor Flores and Juan Estrada, and 4-year-old James Rice. All three were killed by cars speeding around corners – Rice was struck down just a block from the spot where the mural now stands. The driver who hit Rice got a ticket for failure to yield. Represented as towering figures painted in ghostly blue, the boys hold up redesigned streetsigns with traffic-related symbols urging respect for pedestrians. The three boys are accompanied by a blank silhouette holding up an unambiguous red stop sign declaring: “Not one more death.” The effect is chilling.

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>  29 January 2008 | LINK | Filed in , , , , ,

Designism 2.0

On September 21, 2006 the Art Director’s Club convened a panel discussion on design and social change. They dubbed it “Designism.”

When I first heard about it, I was not optimistic. I’ve been disappointed before by how professional associations have addressed social design, and the MP3 sat on my desktop for a long, long time. After all, how radical could a professional association actually be when its bread-and-butter is mammon itself?

But after finally listening, I was very nicely surprised. The talk covered a nice, broad range of approaches to design for social change: from Milton Glaser’s big-table, middle-of-the-road approach to Jessica Helfland’s quiet collaborative engagement to James Victore’s more autonomous guerilla style.

But the best surprise of all was George Lois. I’d always loved his work. Those big, provocative Esquire covers are truly classic. But it was a special treat to learn of the progressive motivation behind them, that the man himself was an foul-mouthed, outspoken leftist — and a veteran to boot.

The event and podcast launched a number of bloggy responses and inspired a project or two.

A year later, when asked about a follow up event, Glaser responded: enough talk. This one should be a call to action. Designism 2.0 took place on December 13, 2007.

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>  2 January 2008 | LINK | Filed in , , ,

The Conversation

An article of mine is running in the Communication Arts August Photography Annual 2007. The dialog format is a bit different, so I’m curious to see how it’s received. It started out as a rebuttal to many things I’ve heard other, sometimes very prominent, designers say about why they eschew political engagement. Many of the points started as blog posts here. Thanks to Jamie, Adam, DK and Acacia for their feedback on the draft.


“The Conversation”

When should designers make a political commitment?

Late afternoon at a sunlit café on a high traffic street. Young faces stare intently at their laptops while the smell of roasted coffee and beat of a down tempo groove fill the air. Cups clatter on white modernist tables amidst laughter and the buzz of machines grinding beans. The coffee menu reads much like today’s headlines: East Timor, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Colombia.

Bells on the door jingle as Robin walks in. Sam looks up from a bright orange couch.

Sam: Hey! How’s it going? How are you?

Robin: Excellent. You? How’s business?

Sam: Really good, actually. An identity design we did just got a big award. So that’s nice. What’s new with you?

Robin: Things are good. Let’s see… A poster we did helped turn out nearly a hundred thousand people to that protest last week.

Sam: Whoa! How’d you get involved in that?

Robin: I just heard about the march and got in touch. It was a chance to do something for a cause, something the studio believes in. And, honestly, it was an interesting design challenge.

Sam: Sounds great. But do you ever feel conflicted? I mean, look at those posters about the genocide in Darfur. I’m all for rising to the challenge, but don’t these thing just take advantage of the cause by exploiting some tragedy as an excuse to make a clever design?

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>  1 August 2007 | LINK | Filed in , , ,

Collectives for Designers

My third piece for Communication Arts. I guess that makes me a contributer. This one ran in the September/October 2005 issue, the “Interactive Annual.”

I started taking notes for this a year and a half ago at Designs on Democracy. There’s plenty of advice around for designers starting corporations and for freelancers protecting themselves, but I couldn’t find anything on design collectives. So I wrote it myself.


Consider the Collective

More than business as usual

Some of our most venerable institutions started out as collectives. Before they were Push Pin Studios, they were a network of freelancers in a shared studio space. Before they were Pentagram, they were a partnership of three. In its twenty years, the French studio Grapus grew to encompass three collectives under the same roof.

Collectives, also known as “co-operatives,” “cooperatives” or “co-ops” are groups of individuals who join together to undertake an activity for their mutual benefit. Co-ops may be for-profit or not-for-profit, unionized or not, and legally incorporated or not — what’s different about a co-op is that it’s owned and operated by its members.

You may be familiar with a neighborhood food co-op or credit union. These are consumer co-ops which pool resources to offer discounted services to their members.

Graphic design collectives are “producer co-ops,” owned and operated by their employees. This is quite different from a firm with an employee stock ownership program. Co-op workers share in decision making and responsibility, as well as profits and losses.

Why form a cooperative? One argument is that organizations owned by the communities they serve are more accountable, and can emphasize service over profit. When employees govern their own workplace, they can design a happier, stable and more equitable work environment.

But there’s also the value of organizing according to one’s ideals. Though we are supposedly living in a democracy, most of us spend our days working for private tyrannies. Living and participating in a democracy should consist of more than just voting once a year. We should be able to participate in the decisions that affect our lives.

One member of a cooking collective sums it up: “We’ve tried not only to feed people well, but also to treat people well. Over the last 30 years our company has come to represent something bigger than we ever anticipated, and something better than the usual business.”

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>  8 September 2005 | LINK | Filed in , ,

Guns, Butter, and Ballots

An article of mine is running in January/February 2005 issue of Communication Arts.

If any of you were wondering what all that Nixon bit on the Federal Design Assembly was about, it was background research for this.


Guns, Butter and Ballots

Citizens take charge by designing for better government

What did the President know and when did he know it? In April 2004, the White House declassified one of the President’s daily intelligence briefs issued just a month before September 11, 2001. The brief specifically states that Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden were planning attacks on the United States with hijacked airplanes.

Graphic designer Greg Storey was horrified. Not just because the information was all right there, but by the design. It’s no wonder the information could be ignored. The document is an uninflected, grey mash of sans serif type. Might thousands have been saved if the information design had been better?

“Nothing in the text is emphasized, making it difficult to scan,” Storey noted on his Weblog. “It would be much better if keywords, names and places were in bold and/or in a different color. Make it so that within seconds the President can see how serious of a threat it is.” Mouse in hand, Storey created a redesigned brief of his own (below right), adding a larger headline, highlighted key terms and, most prominently, a large colored number indicating the level of the threat.

Though no one in government ever contacted Storey, readers of Storey’s blog clamored for a document template they could use themselves. He dutifully responded. (Visit http://airbagindustries.com/archives/002868.php.) “My intentions were nothing more than to rant about what I saw to be a problem with how our government works day to day,” he wrote. “I thought I would spend a few minutes in front of Photoshop to see what I could come up with.”

Alas, President Bush does not actually read the daily briefs, the Director of Intelligence summarizes them to him out loud. Nonetheless, Storey’s redesign is a dramatic example of how information design might affect the government and the public.

But the truth is, graphic designers across the country are already hard at work collaborating with local, state and national government officials to harness the power of design in the public interest. Their work affects the lives of millions of Americans by improving public safety, promoting public health and facilitating democracy on a massive scale — often at the initiative of the designers themselves.

That government agencies use graphic design is nothing new. From posters to packaging, identity and, of course, forms, the federal government is one of the largest purchasers of design services in the world. But much of this work is less than inspiring — even obscure or downright misleading. For a variety of reasons, government designers may be stifled by bureaucrats and lawyers. And sometimes it seems like the lawyers and bureaucrats do the designing themselves.

The late 1960s and 1970s, however, saw a number of seminal graphic design projects sponsored by the U.S. Government. To name just a few: Vignelli Associates’s graphic standards for National Park Service publications; Danne & Blackburn’s NASA “worm” logo; and Chermayeff & Geismar’s logos for the Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Bicentennial.

Continuing a wave of public art initiatives at the time, Richard Nixon even asked Congress to triple the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts and created the Federal Design Improvement Program to help upgrade government architecture and graphics.

But by the end of the 1970s, faced with an energy crisis and an economic recession, the new leadership shifted the government’s priorities. By the 1980s, a backlash raged against public arts funding. Budgets were cut and interest in public design projects waned.

Still, during this period, two masterpieces of modern infor- mation design were developed, both of which have had a demonstrable impact on public safety.

Burkey Belser’s company usually designs communications materials for law firms and other services companies. But in 1978, he was asked to design the EnergyGuide label for the Federal Trade Commission. The frustrated regulators had become desperate after a top-shelf New York design firm had failed — and submitted a hefty bill in the process. The EnergyGuide that Belser designed is a bright yellow informational sticker that must be displayed by retailers on all major appliances (like air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines). The Guide shows the estimated yearly operating cost and energy consumption on a scale from least to most efficient. Consumers actually used it to consider not just purchase price, but cost over the life of the appliance. The success of the label convinced government regulators that you could modify consumer behavior through clear, friendly information design, gently pushing them towards more environmentally friendly, if slightly more expensive, purchases. Multiplied by millions of refrigerators, the energy savings have been enormous.

Belser’s 1994 redesign of the Nutrition Facts label also attempts to influence consumer decisions. But the label, the most widely reproduced graphic in the world, very nearly had no designer at all.

In 1991, Congress mandated that the science behind the label be revisited. Originally developed in the 1960s, the previous label was based on a culture of famine during the Great Depression and two World Wars. Hunger was an epidemic. Food was scarce and the country lacked an interstate highway system to move fresh fruits and vegetables to market. The government’s priority in the first label design was to fend off malnutrition, rickets and scurvy, and so the label highlighted essential vitamins and minerals. In 1991, Congress realized we were living in a different culture — a culture of plenty...and of fat. They tasked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop a new labeling scheme to fend off an epidemic of obesity.

The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA was well equipped with top scientists, nutritionists and epidemiologists, but lacked experience in public communication. The Center had hired another big New York design firm, but was dissatisfied with the results. And so they prepared to go it alone.

Sharon Natanblut had a background in marketing and public relations, and had just started at the FDA as advisor to the Commissioner for strategic initiatives. When she found out that the scientists were designing the label themselves, she intervened. “The scientists saw graphic design as a trivial thing,” she recalls. “They thought more information is better. But ultimately, it is the design that helps you understand it.”

Natanblut knew Belser from his work on the EnergyGuide and knew he could communicate with both scientists and government officials, and would ensure that the design reflected the goals of the project.

Belser offered to do the job for free (though was able to charge for some expenses.) “If ever there was a call for pro-bono work,” says Natanblut, “this was it.” Belser comments, “Designers should really take on public projects as a part of citizenship. That’s why we did it. How often do you get a chance to affect so many people? Anyway, I didn’t want to mess with the government procurement process at the time.”

Belser and his staff put in countless hours and, after designing 30 variations, learned there is no such thing as a universal symbol. They found that literacy is more complex than they had imagined. The label had to be accessible to both poor and fluent readers. They found that poor readers stumbled over commas, dashes and semicolons, and that graphs, icons, pie charts are more sophisticated than they’d thought, requiring a relatively high degree of visual literacy. In focus groups and in public comment, designs that used these elements were slaughtered.

Eventually Belser and his team developed the current layout. The generic and anonymous looking design is anything but. The placement and grouping of information and the use of boldface create a visual hierarchy. To combat increasing obesity, the new design highlights calories, fat and cholesterol. And the resulting label is used by health-conscious shoppers to count calories and monitor their cholesterol intake. As former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler recalled, “The nutrition facts label has within the space of a few years become a standard that many Americans use to make basic decisions about their diet and nutrition.”

The apparent lack of “marketing devices” is also misleading. The space is branded with a kind of “look of truth” — neutral, scientific, institutional and authoritative.

Nonetheless, obesity continues to rise at a dangerous rate — fast becoming the number one cause of death in the United States. In response, Belser is currently working with concerned advisors to government to further modify the design.

One might argue that it’s not the government’s place to interfere with people’s behavior or engage in “social engineering.” Belser responds, “I don’t think that there’s any government, corporation, or anybody that is not trying to influence somebody else. We have a Constitution and body of laws that say certain areas are off limits...But what the government is willing to do, and what, I believe, has a perfect right to do is to manage issues of public health and safety.”

Citizen action

The Nutrition Facts and EnergyGuide labels show the reach of government sponsored information design. Recently, however, the design process seems to be shifting.

Whether designers are tired of commercialism or were awakened by the 2000 butterfly ballot fiasco, there seems to be increasing interest in civic engagement. As portrayed in the 2000 reissue of the First Things First Manifesto and the AIGA’s recent Voice conference, designers are increasingly thinking about social responsibility and looking for ways to get involved.

In fact, several recent government design projects have been driven from the bottom up rather than the top down. Redesigns of the 2000 census, voting materials, New York City’s ubiquitous choking victim poster and the 1040 tax form were all initiated by designers themselves. In some cases starting out as class projects.

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>  21 January 2005 | LINK | Filed in , , , , , , , ,

To the Streets

I wrote the essay below for the Design Issues column in the May/June 2004 issue of Communication Arts. I profile a couple of folks using graphic design for advocacy. I didn’t call it out explicitly in the text, but it’s of some relevance that the projects here are generally not pro-bono projects “for charity,” but are organizations started by designers generally working with broader communities. Check it out.


Taking it to the Streets

Graphic design for advocacy

Walking the streets of New York City in February 2003, one couldn’t help but notice all these little blue stickers. Stuck to walls, phone booths, bus stops, scaffolding, mail boxes — they popped up everywhere to announce the February 15 march against President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

The blue stickers were just one of the many anti-war graphics circulating at the time. Around the Web, activists were posting free, easy-to-print designs using a variety of techniques: clever slogans, typographic play, dramatic photos and the ironic use of vintage propaganda imagery.

But the February 15 stickers on the streets of New York were different — simple and bold, a little blue banner announcing the time and place of the march. They did not make an emotional appeal with pictures of scarred and armless Iraqi children or U.S. soldiers, nor was there any argument about why the war was wrong.

The February 15 posters were not intended to change people’s minds in a direct way, but to notify the public about the upcoming protest — and to make dissent visible. The mainstream media had entirely avoided covering the anti-war movement prior to February 15. In the face of this de facto censorship and police obstruction over the route of the march, the stickers acted as thousands of little acts of civil disobedience. And with the urban landscape as a medium, the stickers set the stage for even larger acts of defiance.

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>  18 May 2004 | LINK | Filed in , , , , , , , , , , ,