Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

The culpable designer

The culpable designer
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Forgive me; I have been a bad, bad blogger. I’ve been busy. “Oh sure” you say, but it’s true. The studio has been chaotic as of late, and we’ve been working to keep on top of things. At times like these it seems that this blog is easy to put aside amidst all of the projects. Now that I have tried to present a rationale for my bad blog behaviour, I’ll attempt to steer my writing back on course. Today, I’d like to present the notion of “bad” design.

I think we want to be good

Most of us recognize the level of self-congratulation which our industry falls victim to. In one respect, this can be appreciated as a simple survival tactic—it helps to elevate and promote our practice to the unindoctrinated. I also think we all enjoy the general idea that we are involved in something “good”.

As a result, we speak of way-finding signage systems that save lives, poster campaigns that build awareness for worthwhile causes, user-interfaces that build accessibility for those with visual limitations, and countless other systems and solutions that we like to believe improve lives.

The truth of the matter however, is that most of our work helps to sell products and services. Our firm, smashLAB, does much the same. In order to stay in business, most of our work is far less focused on the general good than we would like. Through our efforts however, I like to think that we do some good things. We provide a space for our designers to grow and learn. The revenues generated by our studio keep the families of its members fed. Also, I like to believe that our efforts help groups articulate their message, and therefore, add value to what they do and stability to their lives.

That being said, I humbly accept that our efforts overwhelmingly serve to lubricate consumerism.

Bad design

When designers speak of “bad design”, they are generally referring to visual treatments which are displeasing, the haphazard output of a poorly trained designer, or at most, design solutions which simply do not work. By design that “doesn’t work”, I mean to imply: design with messages that do not reach the viewer, and products that do not function as intended.

Most designers who refer to “bad clients” are referencing those who are bullies, heavy-handed, or simply unaware, yet unwilling to trust in the insights of professionals. Sure, we call them bad, but this is a misnomer. Overwhelmingly, we mean that they are difficult to work with, or that the designer/client experience was less than pleasurable.

If we accept that our general barometer for “bad” is primarily superficial and personal in nature – as it is in the above examples – it leads us to consider that which truly is bad. I ask whether we should redefine bad design as: work that causes harm or helps support the efforts of clients who do damaging things.

The examples of truly damaging design are plentiful; however, to skim the surface, we could reference messages that serve to further the stereotyping of a population, are hateful or sexist, or those which are intended to confuse or misinform the audience. There are propagandist messages which often fuel hatred and result in loss of life. There is messaging that sanitizes the work of companies who butcher the landscape. Without any doubt, you could add many more examples to this list.

The usual suspects

As a bit of a closet-environmentalist, I am often distressed by how we feed the rampant consumerism which seems destined to spell the end for our planet. We speak of doing “good”; yet, we haven’t forced the makers of jewel cases out of business. Although we reference it somewhat, we still don’t seem terribly concerned by the waste we create, or the forced-obsolescence which we encourage by crafting and popularizing temporal styles.

In my research on damaging design, I seemed to come upon many of the typical culprits. It was easy to find information on design as it has been employed by the tobacco industry. One of the more harrowing indictments can be read in the study, The cigarette pack as image: new evidence from tobacco industry documents, by Wakefield, Morley, Horan and Cummings, where they note, “Cigarette pack design is an important communication device for cigarette brands and acts as an advertising medium. Many smokers are misled by pack design into thinking that cigarettes may be “safer”.”

Certainly I knew that the tobacco industry built a false mythology around their products while misleading consumers; nevertheless, I had to wonder about the designer who received that brief. Could a designer feel comfortable about making cigarettes seem “safer”? My surprise was compounded by how easy it was to find design firms who still actively promote their work for the tobacco industry.

And a couple of others

Other products that do harm through packaging and misrepresentation are not hard to come by. In fact, I can’t imagine that any of us are even surprised by this any longer. That may be one of the more troublesome facts: as a culture we have come to accept that deception is an acceptable attribute of our social landscape.

There are those such as Victoria’s Secret. Their mailings have surpassed their more utilitarian role of solely cataloguing product and have now become cultural artifacts. They are noted regularly in media, and without question carry substantial brand currency. It’s interesting to note the cost of these catalogs to the environment. Victoria Secret mails approximately one million of them a day, of which almost all printed on virgin fiber.

Our endangered forests are being compromised to sell shiny underwear. I have to wonder about the many creative people work on these catalogues. We can suppose that a small army of creatives style them, take the photos, design the catalogues, and subsequently coordinate all of their related marketing. To learn more, and enjoy some smart activism around the issue, visit the Victoria’s Dirty Secret website.

The challenge of course is that so many of the things that we do and buy have an impact on the world around us. There are plenty of resources which document the bad behaviour of multinationals; however, it’s easy to forget that some of the more ambiguous choices we make also have impact and therefore must be considered. In order to be the people we seem to want to be, we have to scrutinize the decisions which at the outset may seem less clear-cut.

Before we move to this however, I would like to consider one group that used design to murder millions.

Designing terror

In a recent project, we needed to explore the notions of power, and the iconography that helps convey such associations. As we worked through a long research process, we came upon the design of the Nazis and the Third Reich. It was a particularly strange experience, as we realized just how powerful the graphic and brand design of that group was.

This led to a degree of a moral struggle in the studio. Although we were doing nothing to help further the ideas presented by that group and their propaganda, touching upon such an ugly part of history brought discomfort; nevertheless, it was hard to argue that there were lessons to be learned in deconstructing the visual makeup of this design. So, we researched it, analyzed it, and upon completion destroyed all of the research documents. Although we felt the need to understand these methods, we did not want to have the legacy of such atrocities represented within our studio.

This did get me thinking however. Who were the designers behind the Nazi’s propaganda? Did they know what horrors their work would help bring to life?

An identity for genocide

Although for the general public, it is a seemingly new construct, brands are a reality which few would question the power of. Individuals see themselves as “Mac-people”, “Chevy-drivers”, or “Pepsi-drinkers”. Further reflection on this point hardly seems called for; however, I believe that it is fair to note that we have a tendency to over-generalize brands as being limited to the domain of corporations.

This common misunderstanding is becoming corrected by the more brand-savvy; yet, many still do not appreciate that brands are equally existent in not-for-profits, nations and even individuals. With this in mind, we should consider that the Nazis used brand design as a powerful tool in their nation-wide brainwashing efforts and war-mongering.

In Steven Heller’s review of Peter Adam’s book Art of the Third Reich, he notes that, “The Nazis are often credited with the most successful national “identity,” ever designed; and its visual propaganda was among the most effective in the modern world.” He also acknowledges that “Hitler had such an acute understanding of the effect of images on the German people that nothing about Nazi art was left to chance.” Their understanding of the power of visual communication, coupled with their absolute control and ceaseless consistency, helped build a brand identity that conveyed strength and power, wrapped around a symbol that still evokes fear today.

One could argue that design played only a small role in this genocide, and that design’s involvement in such atrocities can at most be fractional; nevertheless, designers seem quite comfortable in taking credit for the successes which come as a result of their work (i.e. a brand strategy that helps build market share for a company). If this is in fact truth, and we accept that design has the power to do “good”, we must also acknowledge that our work can be put to dire use with similarly significant impact.

Perhaps this is an indictment of some of our predecessors. It may ask what we can do to right these wrongs, and begin to take responsibility for the power that we claim we have. Yet, here we are, 60 years later, either unable or uninterested in critically contemplating the role of the iconography from this period in history. If we do not even ask the questions, are we anywhere near the point of taking some kind of responsibility?

At its most frightening

When we move beyond the visual juggernaut which the Nazis used to spread their message and build their dominance, we find some of the other ways which they used design to drive their efforts. One of the most frightening of these is documented in Edwin Black‘s book IBM and the Holocaust, in which he presents the strategic business alliance between IBM, and the madness of the Fuhrer—which in-turn proved to be a hugely lucrative arrangement for an American giant of industry.

Through his thesis, Black brings forward the case of the IBM Hollerith punch card machine that was used to tabulate and alphabetize data and which he argues consequently “put the ‘blitz’ in the krieg.” He discusses how IBM and the Nazis jointly designed custom systems which “enabled Hitler to accelerate and in many ways automate key aspects of his persecution of Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others the Nazis considered enemies.

One has to question whether those who were involved in such efficient system design are in some respects as indictable as those who used them to their monstrous ends. This brings to us the debate of whether a designer’s awareness of malicious intent makes her/him more at fault in such scenarios. Is there not a reasonable statute for implicating this party at least in some fashion for their involvement in crimes perpetrated as a result of their involvement? (Edwin Black seems to believe that IBM was well aware of what ends the Nazis were using their systems to do.)

It should be noted that Black’s thesis has come under some scrutiny; nevertheless, documented response on the topic from IBM does little to exonerate the company and their involvement with the Third Reich; additionally, Black has countered such criticism.


Forgive me if I’m repeating what others have clearly brought to the community’s attention before. It is needless to say that the notion of responsibility in design is far from a new topic of discussion. Others have explored the notion of industry-wide responsibility; moreover, it seems that our industry is in large part self-aware and considerate of its social environment.

That being said, this may be a topic requiring further investigation and prolonged discussion. It’s clearly something that is becoming more a part of our lives, as we find greater transparency in corporate activity and gain an awareness of the impact our work has when done for those with malevolent intent.

Michael Bierut recently brought forth the discussion of designers’ responsibility in his article When Design is a Matter of Life or Death. In this piece, Bierut recalls the 30 year old story of William LeMessurier, the structural engineer responsible for the Citicorp Centre located in Manhattan. The article documents one individual’s effort to “right” a situation. LeMessurier’s predicament was not one of consciously harmful work, but rather an error for which he took responsibility.

A code for all of us

Most of us are familiar with the First Things First Manifesto of 1964 and its update 2000. These efforts to unite designers in a more balanced and healthy pursuit are admirable; yet, to some they have felt rather challenging to implement on a daily basis. What of a set of simple principles for all designers, in particular those struggling for work, that can serve as a moral touchstone?

Although our industry quite readily drafts codes of ethics which pertain to clients, the design community, and general business operations, our profession still seems to lack any unifying ethics – something which could be our own version of a Hippocratic Oath – which could be applied to perhaps the most relevant group: the audience and the public interest. The welfare of the public at large is just as much our responsibility as the desires of our clients. I would argue that the paradigm is similar to that of the press. Though the news media is often privately-held, it still must be accountable to the public.

The relevance of morality as it applies to professional practice may be a debate beyond the scope of one blog post; yet, I continue to return to the idea that with any amount of power comes an equal proportion of responsibility. As much as I (perhaps naively) hope that our politicians and leaders exercise their influence with sobriety and sound judgment, I am inclined to lend the same gravity to our roles. If an oil-spill threatens an environment, we expect the party responsible to clean up the mess. Wouldn’t it be equally logical for us as designers to clean-up the social or cultural messes we make? At very least we must consider the consequences before we act.

You and me

Near the end of the film “True Colors”, Abernathy of the Justice Department notes to Tim Gerrity, “You don’t own it ’til it costs you something.” At this point in the picture, the protagonist has assisted in the entrapment of his best friend, a young politician with ambiguous morals. Although the movie falls victim to a fair deal of melodrama and overly simplistic character portrayals, some of its themes resonated with me.

For those of us who are ambitious and like to believe we are moral, there are many crossroads at which we must make decisions which often seem unclear. I like to think that at these times we define who we are, both as designers and as human beings.

Three or four years ago, our studio was struggling to earn clients and build stability. At that time, two groups expressed an interest in our services: one was a diamond company, and the other a small cigar shop. We struggled hard with these choices. Ultimately, the cigar shop didn’t have a workable budget, so the point became moot. The diamond company however would have had the budget. The project never moved forward so we didn’t have that call to make, but with enough interest and a large enough payday, it may have proven tougher to say “no” to them.

In both instances the fates intervened, and kept us from working on these projects. It does however raise the point that as moral as I believe our firm to be, when times were tough, our morals seemed to become rather flexible. In the coming years, I expect that similar choices will present themselves, and we will again be forced to test where we stand on projects that have negative consequences, or at least will not result in any betterment of our community.

The big one

I fear that in writing this piece, I have chosen to focus on overly simple examples to illustrate my point. Let me be honest; during a lengthy discussion on this topic yesterday, my wife pointed out that I had perhaps missed something by not better considering some more ambiguous situations. As our chat continued, Nike became a telling example.

For years, Nike has served as a goal of sorts at our firm. We’ve always appreciated the investment that their company makes in creative, and have admired the work that has been generated to promote their brand. They have so much become a part of our studio’s language that we often say things such as, “We really need a Nike”, by which we mean that we would love to work with a client that has both a substantial budget and a progressive design philosophy.

In writing this, I quite likely serve to sabotage any chance of such a relationship ever coming to fruition; however, by making Nike the topic of our conversation, I must admit that the topic became more real and challenging. I may someday regret having written this passage and the cost of it. Maybe this illustrates just how much of a struggle these issues can be for many of us.

Should Nike turn to our small company and offer a contract – knowing the press they have received regarding their sweatshop practices – would we really be acting morally to take on such a project? In researching the issue, it becomes even more cloudy. Although Nike has seemingly made efforts to change some of their practices, reports point to the fact that their efforts remain inadequate.

This is the kind of challenge that may frame this issue best. What are we really willing to do when such an opportunity comes between our professional aspirations and our personal values? Through the glass of history, we are able to make such issues seem overly simple and clear; however, when faced with these decisions in real life it’s hard to not feel more conflicted.

Ask yourself honestly. What will you say if McDonald’s, big oil, or a major clothing-label that employs sweat-shop labour comes knocking? It’s easy to answer quickly; but really, think about this one. Pretend that work has been a little slow over the past months and your household expenses are getting pinched as a result. Let’s up the ante a bit to make it interesting. Let’s make believe that this client is willing to hand-over full creative control, will impose no budgetary limitations on the printing of the effort, and will make available funds that ensure that you will not have to take on any other work for the year. Is it still as easy a call?

This comes down to us. Do we toe the line?

Closing note

I’d like to end with a brief word on the nature of these blog entries.

With time, these pieces have evolved into something which I feel are not entirely blog posts, but are also not quite essays. I’m quite comfortable with this, as most often the articles are written rather hastily over the course of a scant few hours. As such, they lack the depth necessary to contend with any serious writing. I do like to think that they prove sound discussion pieces however.

Additionally, it is not my intention to make these articles feel tedious or moralizing, and I’d like to do what I can to mitigate this perception; however, I do attempt to present a strong argument in the hopes that others will battle me on them. These words at best represent one designer’s opinion, and should at times raise your ire or demand rebuke. On many occasions, I see gaping holes in these articles; nevertheless, I find it interesting to play with some of these ideas, and then toss them out in hopes of sharing and encouraging dialogue in our community.

In the masthead of the ideasonideas site you’ll find the words, “a blog that invites dialogue”. I am doing that right now. I’m asking you to become a part of this dialogue. Please, lend your voice. Tell us about the cases in which you have made a tough call—one way or the other. Or, share some of your thoughts regarding the blights on design which we so rarely speak of. Who does the most harm? Who has stepped up to the plate, and tried to fix the damage they did?

This is a discussion worth weighing-in on.

Suggested further reading

An Interview with Milton Glaser, by Martin C. Pedersen
In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design, by Paul Nini

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

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