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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