Monday, March 8th, 2010

New Designers and The Moral Imperative

New Designers and The Moral Imperative
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The following is in response to an interview with Paula Scher on the blog Pr*tty Sh*tty. In it Josh Berta asked Paula questions about her work and design in general. A few of her remarks, surrounding socially-concentrated design, felt troublesome. Read the interview here and (if you’re so inclined) look over my response:

I am a corporate designer. I make design for companies who sell stuff. Most of the people I work with are nice; some are not. Nevertheless, Paula and I work in the same general arena. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not one of those “ivory tower” folks she references, by any stretch of the imagination.

As I work through this interview, though, I wonder if there’s a generational divide worth contemplating.

Paula, if you’re reading this, I certainly don’t intend to belittle any of your work. It’s lovely and visually innovative. I admire that, as many do. In many respects, I’d like to follow a similar career path. All of that beautiful visual work ties up into a nice bundle, and I (like many others) would love to someday have the packaged monograph documenting such achievements.

The problem is, I can’t… and I think that’s largely a matter of exposure.

Should I have graduated from art school when Paula did, I wouldn’t have been burdened by the same (admittedly bothersome) considerations we’re aware of today. I would have simply obsessed over type, tried to “push visual boundaries,” and explored the discourse surrounding design. And I would have loved all of that.

I’m of a generation that isn’t so lucky, though, and future ones are even less so.

Few of us can look at those blister packs and not see that there’s a cost to them. Sure, the manufacturer will never have to pay it, but “ordinary people” will. Meanwhile, it’s hard for me to not imagine the seas of waste created by those (handsomely designed) contact lens solution packages. I’m not criticizing Paula for being involved in this work—these are simply considerations that would weigh heavily on me, should I be tasked with such projects. (Again, this is a bothersome predilection, but ignoring it makes the concern no less real.)

I’d like to stress that I don’t intend my comments here as an attack on Paula. She is part of an era in which a purely corporate sensibility was by far the norm. Meanwhile, even if she felt differently, it would likely be quite difficult for her to answer these questions in any other fashion, given the nature of her client base. I simply can’t imagine Coca-Cola and Cargill being particularly impressed if she said, “The design solution is beautiful, but I have misgivings about working for companies with such dubious histories.”

I worry, though, that her observations are somewhat narrow in scope.

Paula notes that few of her clients think in terms of “social responsibility.” Perhaps they should. Many are as powerful as governments (some arguably more). Is it really so strange to expect that they maintain a certain level of accountability amongst the people who buy their products, and the planet, which allows them to prosper? Paula says, “Of course they shouldn’t cheat, steal, pollute, etc.” but sadly, many of them do exactly this. The measure Paula seems to claim “heroic” is one of financial prosperity—of making their “businesses successful” and “hiring people as a result of it.” While both are fine things, they can’t be looked upon independently from broader social implications.

I don’t expect Paula to personally stand up against these corporations, but she seems to imply that economic prosperity is the single most important measure of an organization. To me this is very old (and likewise very dangerous) thinking.

But as I read this interview, I keep thinking that there are two views of design at odds here that don’t need to be. Paula’s is a world born in the arts (in which aesthetic sensibilities are paramount), tempered in a business setting (in which the notion of profit is supreme). The thing that’s missing here is that these two concerns, while important, don’t exist in a vacuum. There are simply larger considerations that must be taken into account.

And this, in my mind, marks a generational divide. If I may attempt to speak on their behalf, I believe that what designers (like those in the comments field of the original post) are asking is how we address the concerns Paula sees as focal (good visual design, coupled with effective client solutions) with work that does no harm, or is perhaps even beneficial for the greater populace.

But I’m not sure that Paula quite sees it this way.

She seems to imply that there are two pockets of designers: ones that create work for the “ordinary people,” and those “ivory tower designers” who are “afraid to get involved in mainstream packaging, promotion or corporate work.” But this is horribly polarized and inaccurate. Many of us do that “mainstream” sort of work, but see that design’s power is only partially used by employing it in purely corporate pursuits.

So some designers (but likely still a small percentage) also think about how they can do some kind of “good.” This isn’t a fringe activity, nor is it one we should relegate to the sidelines. It doesn’t even need to threaten anything that Paula does. In fact, it enriches design. This notion of good design, as Paula discusses, can still remain concerned with issues like, “too many big lines of typography, poorly chosen type and bad spacing…” but it can be so much more. She expresses concern that, “Many talented young designers today have abandoned their roles as improvers of the general visual environment.” Yet, in no way do these things need to be seen as mutually exclusive.

Where I agree with Paula is that many of these “good-for-society” projects just don’t reach as broad a populace as they should. This, however, doesn’t diminish the need for such messages and exercises—it is simply indicative of how small a part of the dialogue non-corporate efforts are. This is for good reason: these designers simply don’t have access to the many billions of dollars to spread such messages, like multinationals do. As a result, designers have to work doubly hard to reach these “ordinary people.” Because, frankly, the last thing the “ordinary” person needs is another sweetener or toe fungus remedy. These “good-for-society” messages, which Paula seems to admonish, probably have more to do with most people’s lives than any other new branded product.

The part I love in all of this, is that Paula seems to almost see some kind of a threat in these designers wishing to do “noble” design, as they might somehow deplete the pool of designers ready to take on corporate work. I, for one, am quite convinced that this will never be a concern. For every designer ready to address social concerns, there will be an army of others much more interested in taking home a nice paycheck. (Really, don’t sweat this one a bit Paula.)

Paula feels there is a responsibility for designers to, “raise the expectation of what design can be.” In my mind, that’s exactly what the current and next generations of designers are trying to do.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Kara says:

    Not exactly the same, but of a similar ilk?

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! I hadn't read Scher's article until you pointed it out, and I have to say I was distressed at the ending. The assumption that all corporations and brands are *worthy* of good design and communication is where things go awry for me.

    I don't know that we elevate the design profession by improving the visual landscape of contact lens solution packaging, and I say this as someone who uses contact lens solution every day; and who switched away from Renu when B&L had product quality issues. Better packaging design won't bring me back, and the fact of the matter is that I'm practically blind 50% of the time I look at the packaging anyway.

    But more to the point, I think it's well past time for the communication design profession to grow up and think responsibly about the types of communications and clients we work with. To think that First Things First (both the '64 and '00 versions) is leading designers astray by calling on them to think about the *content* of their work just blows my mind. This is not an ivory tower issue, it's a future of society and humanity issue; we need to privilege high-quality communications for organizations of all kinds that have a long-view of their stakeholders and place in the world. Truly good design for B&L and Renu would be reducing the packaging waste, incorporating a measuring tool to help people use less product, and inform people about recycling the packaging in areas with limited curb-side plastic recycling.

    Perhaps I'm naive for believing in First Things First, or that design *can* create positive change in the world, but I can't help feeling that simply reducing the "visual pollution" in the grocery story is good enough. If that's all design is, I'm going to quit now and move to that beach-side cabin in Hawai'i...

  3. Detrus says:

    This is a pattern in every industry, since industries as they once were start to seem a bit narrow in comparison to our multitasking world.

    Some people are so focused on using their brain in one way, thinking about too few things, it becomes difficult to communicate with everyone outside their bubble. Math, art, design, oil, transportation, politics, education all fall into this trap.

    They are interested in perpetuating their particular approach, and don't understand that nothing can get established for long in a world that's changing faster and faster.

    So widening the scope of thinking should help them. Instead of thinking about visuals only, think about as big a picture as you can fit in your head. Environment, anti-corporate social movements, pollution, computers, politics, and business are just a few things that a visual designer needs to link together. Similarly the wall street risk takers would have felt less pain if they considered social issues, pollution, economic bubbles in too few industries (like construction) in their models.

    If an industry or any human activity doesn't connect the dots and correct itself from the inside, it will get corrected from the outside. No human activity exists in isolation.

  4. paula scher says:

    Dear Eric,

    I think you missed my point. If you care about society, and you seem to, please engage with the devilish corporations. You are the one who can help them do the right thing. I try to do that all the time. Sometimes, I succeed sometimes incrementally, but at least I try.

    Everyday products and services need you as much as the "worthy causes". I always worked on both. The Gristedes on 8th Ave and 26th St. in Manhattan is a piece of hell and is inhabited by poor people. The Muji store that sells environmentally sound tee-shirts in the Jet Blue terminal at Kennedy airport is just lovely. Rich people go there.

    Give it some more thought.

  5. Hi Paula,

    I’m struggling with how to respond. First of all, you’re right: I do think I missed your point. Perhaps this is due to the length of the original interview, but even as I read (and re-read) it, I’m still left somewhat perplexed. As I scan your comment above, I’m even less clear on what you’re trying to convey.

    Before I continue, though, I’d like to note that in no way do I mean to infer that you shouldn’t be working with the corporations you do. That’s your choice, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Heck, I’d have a hard time turning away work from such groups. (We all need to pay the bills, one way or another.)

    The part that concerned me, was that it seemed like you were making assumptions about others’ decisions and motivations. You referenced their fear of more mainstream projects—something I’m unsure actually exists. Meanwhile, your term “ivory tower designers” is hard to see as anything other than pejorative in nature. I’m of the mind that such notions set up an “us versus them” tone that’s dismissive and largely unnecessary.

    Thanks for coming here and responding, though. I appreciate that, and didn’t expect it. A few brief notes:

    I don’t see corporations as “devilish.” In my opinion, those that do bad things are simply a victim of their size. The further people get away from other people, the harder it is to understand the ramifications of their work. This is perhaps best evidenced by shareholders demanding higher return on their investments. My guess is that few think about how these returns are reached—and the impact had on others or the environment.

    I do agree with you that designers should engage with clients where they can make positive change. As you’ve noted, that sometimes means packaging their products (or offering) in a more visually attractive manner, in turn helping make their businesses more profitable. (I should note that this is sort of a baseline, though. Most of us try to do this anyway; don’t we?)

    We also find folks like William McDonough and Michael Braungart who engage with many large corporations (i.e. Ford), in order to help them make better decisions. Their reasoning for doing so is like yours, in that they feel that someone has to take on that role; meanwhile, they believe that this is where they can have the most impact, as these groups are simply so big.

    Clearly, these are highly complex and multifaceted issues. I think that’s why I was sort of taken aback when I read the original interview. What I read, seemed like you were thumbing your nose at others who were trying to do something good. If I misunderstood that, I apologize. I couldn’t let it pass without making some noise, though.



  6. The elephant in the room appears to be design.

    In my view design is no longer worth all the energy directed at it. Design is no longer an exclusive activity limited to those with access to the tools. Design is not enough anymore.

    Anyone wishing to express content in a compelling manner doesn't have to look far to find the form-giving skills necessary to deliver a message effectively. Designers not able to add value to content are merely stylists and style has an extremely limited type of value.

    There are no visual innovations unless what is being conveyed is innovative. There are no design innovations unless form enables content to intervene in the world to greater effect. Design is a given nowadays, there is no need to waste so much time discussing the importance of design in business.

    Design does not have the power to change the world, it can only assist in articulating potential solutions, solutions that are unlikely to be provided by designers. To beautify a misbehaving corporation is not a moral crime. Beautification is cosmetic and doesn't fool anyone. For those needing to assess the world in moral terms this should be plain to see and they cannot claim to have been seduced by anything design may have contributed.

    If the fundamental ideas in a brand are not affected a discussion about design is a waste of time. This view takes the issues under consideration in Eric's post out of the hands of designers. Designers may sometimes be well positioned to flag these issues up for people with suitable competencies but designers should not assume responsibility for these issues on behalf of their clients.

    In my view Paula is sufficiently experienced to tackle some of these issues but it is an unrivalled working experience in the field that has enabled this; not some inherent design capability. A discussion about the role of design in relation to issues such as corporate behaviour and sustainability in general seems naive.


  7. vax says:

    I think you're right about a generational shift...

    There are lots of designers 35-45 who went to art school in the late 80's to early 90's in a very combative environment.... some have PTSD from this even now....

    It seems design/art school changed a great deal after 1995 or so... the web opened some people's minds and the increased employment of young designers caused a big change in the business...

    and some ivory tower designers did survive this.. they have tenure and talk about posters and dada and signs for the Berlin transit system and they seem to be afraid of marketing/advertising...

  8. vax says:

    re: Andrew Sabatier says:
    "The elephant in the room appears to be design. "

    Very interesting... as well as the comments about modern designers often being stylists...

    For the purely visual, I think a great deal of the recent "great designs" I've seen were really either:

    1. great photographs with minimal type/design
    2. really strong concepts wrapped in minimal design

    hence... "design" is more of the invisible part... not the endless type tweeking that's had it's day...

  9. Pingback: The thing about the design community. | I love graphics!

  10. Steve Perry says:


    I think that 'type-tweaking' is part of the invisible. It's one of those elements of design that the end user does not understand (or really care about).

    It's like good welds on a bicycle frame, good quality carbon fiber or an Apple Mac – none are (or have) something that the end user will really look for but as a whole they all feel good to use, they feel like a quality product, they add something to the product and they make you feel like you want to use it.

    So, back to type tweaking. Correctly kerned type with nice leading is not something that the end user will look for (nor is it something that the untrained designer will use – but that's another topic) but it does add to the whole package, as do other tiny elements.

    Okay slightly off topic but I just wanted to reply / add to what vax said.

  11. Jae Xavier says:

    You can be an idealist or you can compromise your sense of individuality to others.

    For instance, the character Howard Rourke in the book Fountain Head. Rourke never compromises his design ideals but he also understands what will result of being committed to his own design ideals only.

    Take any creative discipline from A to Z: the ones who risk it all become hated, get stoned to death, and create movements the result the next wave "what is in."

    My point is... don't complain after being hired in whatever company you work for, you put yourself there in the first place. You want to have everything your way, do it on your own and push for spread your own standards.

  12. Ryan says:

    I feel like I hear discussions about social responsibility in design all the time and I'll be honest, I don't really get it. Our design choices are no different than the choices any individual makes. You can refuse to drink anything but fair trade coffee, or boycott companies who utilize sweat-shops to make clothes, but few of us actually do this, or if we do, we do so inconsistently. I think many designers overestimate the power of design. This is not to say design cannot be a powerful force for good (or evil), but a vast majority of the time the best we can hope to do is play a small part in elevating the visual quality of our culture. The only way this can happen is if talented individuals choose to work for companies that contribute to this visual culture. I think this is part of what Paula was trying to say.

    I also don't buy that this is a generational difference. I am in my mid-twenties and found what Paula had to say refreshingly grounded.

  13. Ryan, I once felt a lot like you. I get the feeling, though, that as you examine this kind of thing more closely, you'll likely come to some of the same conclusions many of us have: design is powerful, design does change how people think, and design can be used to make bad companies look good (quite effectively).

    That's why you see McDonalds and Coke at the Olympics. The related associations and ideas are powerful ones. That's why companies put so much time and effort into ensuring that these messages are working the way they want them to.

    The reason that designers need to be aware of this--and, ostensibly active around it--is that we know how easy it is to change perceptions through design. Some designers will choose to ignore this, but I don’t know if that’s terribly ethical. Ours is an industry that is closely tied to consumption. Meanwhile, many of its practitioners have profited nicely from sanitizing groups that probably shouldn't have been.

    If you're really interested in the discussion, I encourage you to read David Berman's book: Do Good Design In fact, even if you're not interested, you owe it to yourself to give his book a “once over.” It's a quick read, and he makes some really strong points.

    You note, "You can refuse to drink anything but fair trade coffee, or boycott companies who utilize sweat-shops to make clothes..." and you're right, that is an individual decision. The problem is that designers often skew facts, so that consumers don't really know what they're choosing.

    That's why we need to think about what we do, and take some responsibility.

  14. Ryan says:

    Just to make clear, I don't think that discussing social responsibility is a bad thing, I think I just kind of see it as a personal choice.

    Every designer has her own standards for deciding what kind of work she is comfortable doing, but I don't think designing for Philip Morris is any different than working as their accountant or even cleaning their offices.

    Whatever work we do benefits our client or employer, and if we are not comfortable with that, then we should not work for them, but to hold designers to a higher standard than any other professional does seem a bit "ivory tower" to me.

  15. I know I've already noted this, but I must stress that I remember saying very similar things, not so long ago.

    The Philip Morris scenario you illustrate is a good one, but I ask you to take it one step further.

    The janitor or accountant, for the most part, performs a service that is "closed." The job is done, the labor is paid for, and all's pretty much finished. The books are balanced, the floor is clean... that's it.

    The designer, however, has to recognize that their work isn't quite so innocuous: it lives on. That new campaign proposing that smoking is fun, liberating, or a social statement of some sort affects how people view cigarettes.

    So a child with still undeveloped critical thinking skills considers trying one. Or, a regular smoker feels a little reassured that they're not alone in buying another pack. Or, someone trying to quit has one more reason to put that off another day.

    I don't know about you; perhaps you can put that out of your mind. A lot of us can't, though, and this sort of thing doesn't end with the tobacco industry.

    Lots of people live crummier lives because of the lies they've been told. I know this sounds like a conspiracy theory or leftist commentary of some sort... until you realize that it's really just the way it is.

  16. Ryan says:

    Eric, I do disagree with distorting the facts in design. Dishonesty is wrong regardless of profession. I am lucky to work in-house for a large corporation I believe does good, honest work and I have no reservations about doing the job I was hired to do. I guess what I have a problem with is the judgment implied by some that work is worth more if it is done for cultural institutions. Don't get me wrong, that kind of work is also great.

    I will be sure to check out that book. Thanks for the recommendation.

  17. @Andrew Sabatier: I almost feel provoked, many products and sites depend on good design to even be sellable. And its not a given, not at all.

  18. Greg Scraper says:

    I think what Paula is saying is absolutely true. Designers want to do "cool" work. "Cool" is album artwork and museum posters; "cool" is book covers and local coffee shops. It's all ensconced in what we've been told that our profession was. The fact is, that 90-95% of our work is corporate in nature, and if everyone who's good is off making pretty dancer posters, someone's got to do the crappy work, and it won't be anyone who's good. I think that's it, that's the sum of her message. Do good work everywhere, so that our value as designers isn't deprecated.

  19. Sigrid says:

    Great lecture last night, Eric! And Paula was excellent too. I am sorry the light was too bright for your presentation.

    There has been a discussion going on, on the GDC listserv about graphic design as art and mystery as opposed to what most of us are trying to be now, which is "strategic partners." I for one, think the magic needs to come back a bit. As a visual person, the composition and drama of type and layout is why I went into this profession to begin with.

    Like you, I sell myself as a strategist, and with some of my clients I do get to be in the boardroom with the VPs at a planning level. Others just see me as a decorator.

    I don't want to be either one, decorator or strategist really, these days I realize I am an artist first of all (just speaking for myself, personally). I am rediscovering art, and trying to bring it back into my graphic design practice.

    So while you said that in art, we can make it "perfect" (I may be misquoting you) while in design, we try to make it "work", I somewhat disagree. Design is all about the end product. Design clients really don't care that much about the process. Whereas I've only recently realized, art can be all about process and does not have to be about product.

    Like many designers I've spoken to recently who were affected by the recession last year, I have rediscovered art. I have been a designer for 21 years, and I have felt the burn out over the last couple of year, but this past year I had more time for art, and it's been very inspiring. So I am rethinking my view of myself as a "strategic creative partner" and coming back to the fact I am foremost an artist.

  20. Albert says:

    I used to like your posts Eric, but I sincerely think you are ranting without any real argumentation, and you are sounding like a resented designer, as if achieving success as Paula has done is a bad thing. I will love to see you turn down a Coca Cola redesign. (That is, if you were that talented to be offered something like that.)

  21. @Sigrid--Thank you! I'm glad you liked the talk. :-)

    Some clarification:

    Form is important. I wasn't meaning to say otherwise. My point was simply that in recent years, there has been a proliferation of celebrated design work that doesn't address function whatsoever.

    In itself this isn't a bad thing, but I tend to categorize such work more as "art" than "design." Such work is about self-expression, instead of solving a problem, and I don't think that on its own really constitutes design.

    (For the record, I quite enjoy self-expression, but try not to confuse it with what I'm doing in my professional practice.)

    On the next point--the "perfect" one--I need to clarify. The quote I referenced (which I too am paraphrasing) went something like: "An artist gets something amazing or nothing; a professional gets something amazing or something."

    I read that remark to mean that one should recognize design as a collaborative process, in which the designer must "bend" from time to time. I think his idea was that while an artist can stick solely to their principles, a professional needs to see the end result as more important than just "getting their way."

    Then of course, that's just how I interpreted it.

    And as for the "magic," I agree: that's always an important part. :-)

    @Albert. I'm tempted to respond "bite me," but instead, I'll ask you to simply reorder your process:

    Instead of commenting first, try reading, and then *thinking.* Then comment after you've done that for a while. (If the second part is too difficult, please continue insulting people--I'm sure that works quite nicely for you.)

  22. Ryan says:

    Albert, why would you weigh into a discussion to add such a useless comment? At least add your full name and take credit for what you probably wouldn't have the guts to say to his face.

  23. Spiros says:

    I am torn between the two views, the point of the interview, the ivory towers and all that but i surely love the Discussion. Surely we need more of that. Kudow to both Eric and Paula and to all those commenter that engaged!
    Keep it up Eric.

  24. Cenk Guven says:

    Thank you Eric for bringing up this discussion and the opportunity for designers question themselves, their profession and all about design. I'm a new designer, not even a professional one yet, and have already started questioning all these things. At both schools that I had attended in Vancouver, Langara and BCIT/Emily Carr, Helvetica was shown and this is how most students like myself got familiar with Paula Scher. Her attitude and words in the film were fresh and different from most other designers. She among all others took my attention and respect. However, I'm also one of those people here who cannot get her message in this discussion right. I have reread it a few times and I think the reason we don't get it is that we need examples. I mean Paula Scher says she deals with devilish corporations herself and tries to help them do the right thing all the time, but probably for obvious reasons (client relations, privacy and all) she cannot give us examples, names of those companies and how exactly she helped them, but I'm very very curious as a new design student (as well as an average citizen) how she did/does that... how can we help these devilish corporations do the right thing? Maybe she cannot give company/product names but maybe she can find a way of sharing these lessons with us because it is such an important subject, not from design and designers' point of view but from everyone else's. I really would like to know how those corporations change their ways after a designer like Paula Scher starts working with them? Thank you.

  25. Richard says:

    I'm not sure if it's just a design thing. I think most (left wing, at least) people ideally want to do a job which they feel benefits the world, rather than just their wallet.

    Unfortunately, most people have no choice but to go where the money is.

    Where Paula is probably right is that people should still take pride in good work done for 'bad' companies, even though it is much easier to take pride in work done for ones own pleasure.

  26. Definition says:

    "An artist gets something amazing or nothing; a professional gets something amazing or something." - good one

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