Thursday, February 15th, 2007

In defense of the ADC

In defense of the ADC
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The ADC sent us a poster. It contains an apocalyptic scene of gluttony, violence, greed, nuclear holocaust, crippling tidal waves and gas-guzzling Humvees. The fiasco is peppered with paparazzi, whilst the four horsemen of the apocalypse fly in on flaming horses. Some designers are aghast by it and have posted their disapproval to the ADC.

I love a good argument, so when I found this post at Be A Design Group . I thought I was up for some good fun. However, I was surprised to find that SpeakUp‘s Armin Vit seemed alone in defending the piece. Additionally, while some arguments were substantial, many were poorly articulated. I groaned aloud as I read “This ADC poster = crap!” and “this poster just plain sucks” As such, Id like to offer a defense for the 2007 ADC Show poster.

Some history

Many are familiar with the the 85th Annual Call for Entries poster and the discussion that ensued. When Steven Heller criticized that piece he seriously contemplated how it missed the mark. He also explored the hazards of attempting satire, particularly in referencing ethnicity.

This year’s piece however is quite radically different. Admittedly, it warranted some discussion; however, my concern is the nature of the criticism. In my readings, the two key arguments centered on the notions of quality and morality.

Good is not a relevant measure

“Is it good?” is an impossible question; yet, it was used by many in objection to the poster. The concept of good however is rooted in the subjective and carries little weight in critical argument. Was Duchamp’s urinal good? Was Warhol’s Disaster Series good? How about grunge type or David Carson’s aesthetic? All of these have been argued at length and will continue to be.

Good is a construct for which we cannot establish a relevant metric, and therefore remains a debate without the possibility of intelligent resolve. I would argue that as visual communicators, we are wiser to focus on whether a piece is effective. This discussion allows us to consider measurable results instead of falling in to the quagmire of subjective or emotional response and bickering.

Was it effective?

This question was in fact raised by some of the poster’s critics. I (unfortunately) am unable to answer the question as I was not informed of the project’s directives. I can, however, consider the reaction we had to the piece at our studio.

Upon receiving the mailer from the ADC, I called the others at smashLAB over for a look. We were all amused and found ourselves caught up in the small vignettes scattered throughout the piece. In our minds, it was nice to see a relatively serious organization having a little fun, instead of just falling in to the old ways of promoting an awards show.

Although we rarely post mailers in our studio, we hung the piece above our fridge. The next day we once again discussed the piece. Who did it? What were they saying? Was this an indictment of contemporary culture or a send-up of the news-media’s hyperbole of any situation for increased audience? This curiosity extended our experience with the piece.

Was it effective? Yes, in our studio it was. We engaged in it, in a way we rarely do. Was it effective in the public sphere? Perhaps; it did elicit interest, discussion and debate.

Whether you love or hate Eminem, it’s fair to say that by flirting with taboo subject matter he has cemented himself as an icon. This piece uses similar tactics to create brand awareness.

A case for social commentary

Some argue that this poster is in bad taste. I argue that these detractors are in fact less offended by the subject matter, and more so by its ambiguity. Responses such as, “I just don’t get it” evidenced how perplexed they were.

I have to wonder if these same critics ever watch South Park or the Daily Show. Are they familiar with such notions as farce and satire? What of the notable works of art that either critique or protest the state of affairs? Consider Francisco Goya‘s commentary in the brutal Disasters of War, the controversial satire of comic book artist R. Crumb, or the social protest in some of the work of Pieter Bruegel?

Would the ADC poster be more palatable if it came bundled with a statement from the art director explaining her/his intent? I have to ask if the people at TBWA\Chiat\Day felt that they didn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator with this one. It would also be fair to presume that this audience could handle an illustration without every corner smoothed off.

I fear that as designers, we’ve all been ridiculously chasing a kind of “slick-ness”. Perhaps our corporate work lends us to do so. We are rewarded for focusing on style instead of substance. This is sometimes necessary in our work; nevertheless, our preoccupation with “professional” design shouldn’t limit us from appreciating work that falls outside of these boundaries.

Let’s have good debate

When Tibor modified images of pop-culture icons to augment their ethnicities, he was bombarded by mail-bags of outraged letters. It’s a pity that these people missed the point. His experiment forced us to confront our own stereotypes and he did so without uttering one sanctimonious or cliché word.

Tibor had the attention of the world, as his photo-manipulations were brought in to question by the media. He commanded sensationalism and thrust us in to discussion. That’s design at its best, and such efforts should be defended.

Think, argue, discuss, fight, whatever. I’m all for a good pissing-match. But let’s debate intelligently and remain open to work that doesn’t fit in to our constructs of quality or morality. Comments like, “this just sucks” simply weaken the level of discourse amongst designers.

Besides, flaming horses and swords are funny.

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