21 February 2004

Design Insurgency

With reference to this discussion, I’ve posted this condensed translation of the lecture notes presented by graphic designer Neville Brody and historian Stuart Ewen at the AIGA conference in San Antonio, September 1989. It appeared in the January/February 1990 issue of Print.

Design Insurgency

In its enthusiastic youth, design was invested with vision. Awestruck by futurism, swept by currents of modernity, design, it was claimed, could communicate new ideas about society, light the way to new and democratic ways of seeing.

Designers took part in great public debates over the fate of civilization. Design, they believed, could transform reality; it could help to deliver humanity from the social inequities of the past and give rise to a utopian future. Without such commitments — we were warned — design would merely lay a gloss across the face of barbarism.

These hopes have gone unrealized; the gloss is everywhere. Design is shackled by historical amnesia. The sense of social vision that once inspired it is but a dim memory. Obedient to the orders of corporate clients, designers are cogs in the wheels of commerce. They serve as pastry chefs in glorified soup kitchens, doling out mass-produced visual gruel.

Design is employed to discourage ideas, to bury thought.Design has little recollection that it once saw its role as one of creative communication; of exploding false outlooks and turning the world upside down. Instead, design is employed to discourage ideas, to bury thought. Design has become just a profession, an instruments of commercial guile, of calculated deceptions.

Empires were first based on a trade in raw goods; populations were dominated by the sword.

Empires were then built on manufactured goods; populations were disciplined by the clock.

Today’s empire is an Empire of Images; populations are led by their line of sight.

Design and Typography are the ways by which invisible goods are made visible.

In the rush for gold, design groups serve as armies of occupation in the battle for our minds; shock troops for the triumph of the superficial.

The impulse to mask the terms of social experience — or to offer images as a surrogate for experience — is reiterated again and again across the consumer culture.

Consumer society is mentally and culturally programmed to accept image manipulation. The packaging of abbreviated ideas jeopardizes actual thinking... critical thinking... common sense. Human subjectivity is cultivated as a resource for economic exploitation.

Life issues — social, material, environmental, spiritual — disappear from consideration amid a blur of disembodied representations. Within the dazzle of the spectacle, the real problems, needs and hopes of millions are made invisible.

In their lives, in the vernacular regions of popular expressions, people struggle to break through the din... to be seen... to be heard.

The trajectory of design follows the logic of an economy constructed of thin air. The manufacture of goods has given way to the manufacture of information. A “symbolic economy” — inflated by finance, credit and a global trade in abstract value — diminishes the notion of production for use. As one more negotiable currency, design decorates the acceleration toward catastrophe, transforming it into a persuasive conception of beauty before our eyes.

Design is propelled by the priorities of commercial gain. Wherever one turns, the capture of the eye is the preferred strategy of merchandising. All information is distorted by the means by which it is made appealing. “Good design” is defined as that which sells. Packaging overwhelms content. Our vistas are cluttered with images, yet — more and more — there is the unsettling realization that nothing is there.

In the uninterrupted flutter of changing appearances that characterizes the consumer culture, almost every form of representation bears a tenuous connection to matter, assuming — with increasing rapidity — the character of expendable currency.

One hundred thirty years ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes prophesied a culture of bodiless images about to take hold. “Every conceivable object of Nature and Art,” he wrote, “will soon scale off its surface for us. Men,” he predicted, “will hunt all curious beautiful grand objects, as they hunt cattle in South America, for their skills, and leave the carcasses [behind] as of little worth.”

This describes the practices of today’s style industries. Design is now the hunter. Fuelled by an economy predicated on planned obsolescence, design — like all commercial media — consumes every vision in its path. To create the impression of progress, of change, and of an “ever-evolving new,” predators of style prowl the terrains of human expression and creativity, desperately seeking surfaces to appropriate and sell.

The terrain of vernacular expression becomes contested ground; commercial colonizers and local populations struggle over the locus of meaning.

Design hijacks and recycles culture. Style is ripped from any source, and turns up in a place where it is least expected. Colliding world views are translated into design, images to be purchased. All faces are seen; few are given voice.

Design no longer informs or educates, it blindly promotes the accumulation of wealth and power.Design no longer envisions, it advertises. Design no longer informs or educates, it blindly promotes the accumulation of wealth and power; it aestheticizers corporate greed and commercially motivated waste. Design is something to be used up. Its primary significance is that it will lose significance.

Whatever the “skin,” or its origin, its meaning is compromised — or lost — when it enters the realm of the style market. Within an ever-shifting tableau of design, all images send the same message: consume, use up, replace.

How a distributed message is communicated determines how it will be received, and how a message is received determines its form and structure.

Conforming to the logic of disposability, the most fundamental truth underlying an image is that it will soon cease to exist. While changes is design depict a charade of progress, the cultural garbage grows deeper and deeper. The perpetual waste of goods, the destruction of the earth’s environment, become acceptable norms. A trust in the promise of “the good life” requires an ever growing leap of faith.

Design is a hungry animal that constantly needs feeding, but it is using up its sources of reference. Culture is not a bottomless pit that can be endlessly ransacked. Design is in fact now eating itself through the last resort of self-reference.

Content can be dangerous. It can undermine the design message, the message that:

  • packaging is all important;
  • the image of the content is the content;
  • there are no “goods anymore... only advertisements.”

We are no longer expected to read; only to recognize... respond... buy. Interpretation is stifled. Ideas are muted. Meaning gives way to presentation. Presentation creates a need; promises a fulfillment; closes the deal. Those that evoke the desire promise us the means of satisfaction. Packaging is the tool of a seduction.

Packaging seduces through a process of codification. Information and culture are delivered pre-codified, pre-digested, pre-packaged, ready-to-wear. Little is left to the imagination. Imagination is dangerous. It can imagine things not for sale. All power to the imagination!

At the heart of design lies an ethic of deliberate swindling. Images without bottom offer us fantasies of freedom: the freedom to be lifted out of the dreariness of necessity; the freedom to be who and what we wish; the dream of wholeness. According to the endless chain of visual ideas, satisfaction can be purchased across a retail counter... or from a catalog. Shopping replaces citizenship in the practice of democracy, and buying becomes the only remaining means of expression.

In the Empire of Image, typography, too, vies on the battleground of perception, seeking to shape and limit the vistas of possibility.

In the beginning there was the Word. In the end there was Typography. Words contain the power to persuade. Commercial uses of typography have hyper extended this eloquence. At the summit of this power stands the corporate logo: the ultimate exercise of typographical authority.

It is not the words we use, but how we display them. The initial message of written communication is its type style. The choice of typeface, weight, size and position dictates the emotional response to any piece of information or disinformation. Typography commands our attention. It lays claim to Truth. It propels the word past the barrier of reason... massaging, tantalizing, or alarming the psyche.

If you approach design purely as a solution to a problem, all you can ever hope to communicate is the problem itself.

In the world of advertising and design, a toxic society is daily rendered desirable. Tear it up!

The need for art and imagination to break free from the market has never been greater. It is a matter of survival. What is critically needed is a fresh approach to visual communication — a design insurgency — freed from the fetters of the “bottom line.”

Somehow, we must find a route towards the idea that design can be a meaningful response to people’s needs; more than an answer derived from a marketing question, more than a recycled skin.

Designers must assess the consequences of their work. The practice of design must be motivated by ongoing social concern. Designers must move beyond their drawing tables, step outside their Macs, reconnect their concerns to contours of popular experience and aspiration and establish a means for dialog.

Design today is approached as if selecting from a supermarket shelf. This reduces any element used to the meaningless, and leads to a state of pure ornament and gesture. Decoration is not a substitute for a good idea, and most design today works in the belief that the more you add, the better it is.

Against the deluge of commercial icons, we must nurture voices of resistance, reopen the question of who has a say.Against the deluge of commercial icons, we must nurture voices of resistance, reopen the question of who has a say.

We are still using a typographic language that was created for a different society with different thoughts and ideals which it needed to communicate in a different way to ourselves.

We must find new languages; and rethink the world according to the needs of individual human communities. The dominance of surface over substance must be overcome. There needs to be a reconciliation of image and meaning.... A design insurgency.

Typography and design can be removed from the confidence games of consumer engineers, and become part of an organic process: affirming free thought, free expression, new social relations.

This can not be left to the wiles of “experts” or “specialists.” As long as design is defined as a profession — an insulated commercial priesthood — the public will be seen as little more than fodder for the market.

The requirements of community, the preservation of human and material resources, the liberating powers of education — not indoctrination — should stand at the center of the design process, guide its development.

True education must encourage social criticism, vision, creative self-expression, questioning, dangerous ideas... even subversion, where necessary.

If — like reading, writing, arithmetic — social and environmental awareness, visual literacy and critical design were elevated and encouraged in schools from an early age, more and more children would begin to master the means of visual communication.

Such education can then be carried on into the arenas and practices of everyday life.

On that day, people will move beyond consuming images. In the ensuing visual dialog, more voices will be heard, alternative possibilities will be acknowledged. The realm of public expression will step beyond the boundaries of commercial inducement, representing, and responding to, social, environmental and spiritual needs.

A democracy of expression will begin to nullify the power of packaged illusions.

Many of these themes appear a decade later in the 2000 re-issue of the First Things First Manifesto, an update to the 1964 declaration. The emphasis on individual, creative resistance reminds me of Adbusters, which began publishing the same year this speech was delivered. A compendium of Brody’s graphic design, The Graphic Language of Neville Brody was published a year earlier in 1988, as was Stuart Ewen’s work of cultural criticism All Consuming Images.

It’s interesting to compare the ideas expressed here with the work currently displayed on one author’s Web site. Plenty of exhuberent and expressive work, but I can’t find much social criticism or design in the public interest.