2 January 2008

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.

I attended the talk in the ADC gallery, surrounded by selections from the Graphic Imperative exhibition of political posters. The evening was divided into two panel discussions with a brief intermission and postscript.

Moderated by Alissa Walker, the first panel featured three young designers:

  • Ellen Sitkin described her stint with Project M. Inspired by the methods of Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio, each year John Bielenberg brings together eight young designers to a struggling community to spend a month developing a public design project. The result of the 2007 team’s work in Hale County, Alabama is a broadside promoting access to clean water and the installation of water meters.
  • Andrew Sloat showed two short, typographic video projects on passages from the U.S. Constitution.
  • Ji Lee discussed his Bubble Project posting speech bubble stickers on advertising for others to insert their own dialog to enhance or subvert the ads at hand, in most cases to use them as a platform for impromptu social commentary.

While the presentations were pleasant enough, the projects were not without real conflict: Ji Lee noted various arrests for vandalism, and Sitkin touched on how the Project M participants found themselves within the racially and politically charged context of the community — something humanitarian projects often face. A local backlash was mentioned, though not really addressed at length.

All of the projects were self-funded and the investment seems to have paid off, at least for the creators, earning accolades, attention, project offers. Project M has channeled some of this attention into further fundraising for water access projects.

After a brief intermission of Japanese bar nuts and beer sponsored by Sapporo, the second panel was introduced all too briefly by Tony Hendra. You may remember Hendra from such films as This is Spinal Tap and Spitting Image. Decked in writer’s union T-shirt, he laid it out:

“I believe design can change people's minds. Design that bristles with attitude and irreverence.”

“Dissent is not a self-indulgent luxury, as Reagan would have you believe. It is a civic obligation.”

Amen to that.

The ubiquitous Stephen Heller moderated the second panel: Milton Glaser, Janet Kestin, Liz Resnick, with a response by Michael Wolff.

  • Resnick presnted a series of social issue posters created by design students in her class.
  • Glaser discussed recent graphic campaigns on Darfur and Iraqi refugees
  • Kestin presented the “Campaign for Real Beauty” she created with Ogilvy and Mather for Dove.

What struck me about the first Designism is the power of humor as a bridge, and the value of everyone just doing their own thing. Satire, in particular, seems a good way to penetrate skepticism and reach beyond preaching to the choir. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Designism 2.0 raised questions about the role of institutions and of criticism.

Resnick’s posters touched on a range of social issues. Who says design students should be content with points, lines, and planes? I love the idea of teaching design principles while engaging with real issues. I was glad to see the door was opened, though was disappointed that the excercise stopped short and failed to venture beyond the classroom.

The Dove campaign combined short videos, print ads, workshops and downloadable materials for teachers to address the effects of commercial images of beauty on young women and girls. The campaign struck me as a sincere effort to address an important social issue, albeit, as Wolff was keen to note, in the service of moving the merchandise. Here was advertising criticizing advertising, addressing images of beauty and body — but pushing beauty products. The campaign and its emotional documentary-style videos clearly struck a chord in the audience. (And the room let out a collective gasp when Heller suggested they do something like this for boys.)

Ever the elder statesman, Glaser discussed the importance of reaching a “mainstream” audience of hearts and minds, and his was the one presentation that introduced political lobbying as part of a campaign — in this case with handy postcards ready to send to Congressional representatives. Glaser’s showed a number of strategies in development for telling the stories of Iraqi refugees: postcards, posters, advertisements, bus shelters and subway broadsheets. Glaser brought home the role of institutions to broadcast a political message: using both the “non-political” School of Visual Arts and the non-profit International Rescue Committee to fund and broadcast the message. Glaser was keen to call attention to the value of touching the right intitutional actors, no doubt helped by having a fully conceived campaign in hand and a reputation behind him.

At that point, Wolff shook the room with his aggressive and provocative response: “The problem with using design as a disruptive force is that everybody is using design as a disruptive force.” That is, design doesn’t change anything if it’s not novel or compelling, and since design is everywhere and its tools easily accessible it’s, frankly, a dead end. His ad hominem attack on Glaser as “out of touch,” evidenced by Glaser’s struggle with the slideshow controller, was duly booed.

Wolff’s contentions were picked apart by both panelists and audience and I’ll save the play-by-play for discovery in the podcast. But it did raise the question of evaluation. “How effective are your methods?” “How do you reach beyond the ‘design community?’ Questions like these often come up at events like these, and I’ve tried to address them here before.

At these events, I find lots of folks who want to do something. But a career in design doesn’t provide much context. It’s hard to know what to do. At the other end of the spectrum, are lots of folks doing things that just strike me as wacky and naïve. So how do you evaluate design for social change? Having worked in and with non-profit organizations for a while now, I have a few opinions. Now and then I find myself at events with lots of eager young people talking about their non-profit projects. I catch myself being dismissive. After all, these folks are sacrificing their time blowing through their savings to try and make the world a better place, working on projects they truly, deeply care about. But what’s a constructive way to evaluate its effectiveness? This is a hard problem not just for designers, but for activists and non-profits as well. Ending a war, successfully passing a law, commuting a sentence — these are specific and events, but ones that take many years of outreach, lobbying, and organizing by many different constituencies to achieve. I suppose the real question here is: how does social change happen? And how can design facilitate that?

I’m still working on a satisfactory answer for myself, but there are plenty of recent and historical examples to learn from. Sometimes it leans on a vanguard elite, sometimes popular uproar. Sometimes years and years of struggle and outcry, sometimes a singular monumental event. Usually, it seems to be a combination of the above. At some point, change becomes necessary and possible.

Which brings me to that call to action. It was a full house at the ADC, and the questions from the audience were generally on point. This echoed the response the organizers received after the first Designism event. Email poured in from people wanting to know more: “How can we help? What can we do?”

To this end, at the top of the evening, Ami Dar presented Idealist.org. Idealist remains a great resource for finding non-profit projects. In fact, the Art Director’s Club is building their own interface connecting the idealist database of organizations and projects with the ADC’s own database of designers and art directors. The simple interface mockups look promising so far, though it’s clear the ADC itself is still figuring out its role. Ending with Idealist was also a bit out of context considering the evening’s discussion really failed to address much collaboration with non-profit or other activist organizations (beyond Milton Glaser’s delivery of the fully conceived campaign to the International Rescue Committee.) Nothing much was said about movement building, organizing, or the joys, sorrows, and power of working with coalitions.

So what next? I come back to James Victore’s remarks at the first Designism: just get out and make something. Don't wait for funding, “don’t fucking wait for anybody to ask.” This meshes well with the presentations, which primarily consisted of designer-initiated projects. And there’s great value in trying things out and reflecting critically. It’s a fine starting point.

And to that end, sharing stories is a powerful vehicle. Events like these do that — and show how much appetite there is. I just hope it doesn’t stop there.

An MP3 of the first Designism event is available at http://www.adcglobal.org/downloads/podcasts/0008_designism_SM.MP3

On January 3, an MP3 of Designism 2.0 will be up at: http://www.adcglobal.org/connections/podcasts/?id=35