Friday, 15 August 2008
by Scott Ballum It is surprising to find myself as a graphic designer in the seemingly irreconcilable position of having more interest in discussing socially and politically relevant work than the relevancy of design itself. Perhaps that it is because to me, talking about the potential of design is like talking about the potential of language.
Talking about design is like talking about the diction and eloquence of a speaker before considering the content of his/her address. It is not to say that studying and understanding the nuances of such form is not important, or to ignore the fact that in most cases the form will highly effect the reception of the content, but it does seem that reaching this level of dissection, of understanding, would really only be worth the bother should the content be pertinent enough to warrant further examination.
The visual illustration of an idea, as an act itself, is not much of a challenge. Most simple to moderately complex concepts can be visually conveyed by most individuals. Party games such as Pictionary, Charades, and their imitations rely on the basic human ability to indicate the abstract with referential, metaphorical or literal expressions. That is to say, anyone can draw a pictogram of a chicken crossing the street. This ability itself is not unique to those who call ourselves designers or artists. Drawing a more life-like or highly stylized chicken, if the only goal is to depict that same scene, is nothing more than an exercise in excess. To imbue emotion or tension, or some other level of information into that scene, or rather the notion of even the benefit of doing so, is where we begin to impart anything particularly special on the situation. However, it is not until the chicken is petrified, wearing a burka, and looking over its shoulder as it races across a war-torn avenue as a symbol of on-going everyday violence in any one of several Middle Eastern nations, that the image begins to warrant a further inspection into its composition, scale, choice of medium, line-quality, or color-palette.
This is particularly evident in the realm of graphic design. Ours is a considerable industry based on the creation of logos and identities, the study of the strategies of doing so, and the marketing of one’s aptitude. We aim to reflect the characteristics, attributes and values of our client in as few strokes or shapes as possible, or often only by the choice of typeface in which to set the client’s last name. Thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent in the attempt to do something that, anyone who would think critically about, or even some who are regarded as masters of it, will tell you is completely impossible. The very best that can be done is to create a design that is socially appropriate to the industry in which the client is looking to compete, meaning one that looks at least a little bit like everyone else’s design, with some slight variation and hope that no one’s already done it exactly like that before to avoid embarrassing cease-and-desist notices. Values and attributes can only be alluded to by referencing the logos or visual representations of more established companies that share our client’s carefully selected viewpoints. No meaning or subtext, nor emotion or tension, can truly be infused at this point. It is a tactical speculation of what will please the subjective tastes of a client. Or perhaps to put it more crudely, guessing which color the client wants his chicken.
I’m not the first to point out what should be obvious. We live in an era in which we are defined by what we own and who we do business with. Appearance is everything in what we buy, what we drink, what we wear. And we, as designers, are not only subject to that scrutiny, we are the ones creating the definitions. By the associations we create or the styles we emulate or riff upon, we decide what cool looks like, smells like, where it travels to, and what it drives. We play along with the visual and stylistic definitions of success, and with a few flicks of the wrist, we can dress up just about anything in clothes. We can assign associations between distant cousins of commodities, make the old look new and the new look old. Whether we are influential enough as designers to have the most influential clients, or we are independently bucking the trends for clients who want to look like they’re bucking the trends, we shape perceptions, define styles and establish the criteria by which we ourselves are then judged.
Every time we send something out into the world that perpetuates, or even redefines, what cool/success looks like, we are urging others to consume it. Our goal is to tell them that they need it, that in order to remain cool or successful they need to own it, wear it, eat it, drive it, smell like it, and listen to it. And then we leave the studio and buy, wear, drive, spritz, and turn on what another designer has convinced us we need. We are part of our own machine as we fulfill the desires to maintain our inclusion in the status quo. One would think we would know better than this.
This overwhelming cycle has been a long time coming and will continue to consume us well into the future unless we partake in some unforeseeable dramatic evolution. For decades we’ve been working towards this point. Advertising and marketing has made us, has given us the content, if not the language and tools, and we in turn have made them the dominant modes of communication that they are. We’ve created a world in which anyone, any organization, no matter how noble or trivial, must look the part to play the game. As much as there is to be said for the undesigned, unpolished zine or local business, wider acknowledgement and distribution is dependent upon meeting a certain criteria of aesthetics. It’s a yardstick that we have created and trained society to use and now nothing is free of its scrutiny.
What this tends to mean is that those with the most money, the wealthy businesses or the established publications they sponsor, get to hire the biggest brand-name designers. Visual artists who have the most experience making people look good – or have already created the visual landscape of an entity’s competitors – are hand picked to bring others into the fold. By investing us they are following the rules of capitalist economy. The wealthy look wealthier and get to remain the wealthiest, and the have-nots get completely overlooked. When we aim only to satisfy our clients, to draw the chickens they hire us to draw, our creations are devoid of authenticity or authorship. We will occasionally take the time to serve a client or two in the cultural or social non-profit world, but most often we’re motivated by the prospects of stretching our wings a bit creatively, as well as adding something new and shiny to our portfolio. By the notion of actually helping a cause we are truly passionate and play in the design-conscious world we’ve built up around us.
This image is on strike!
But here lies a dissenting proposal: What if we just stopped?
Imagine that every working visual artist employed in the product or service promotion economy stopped working. No new logos, no more chickens. If we’re any good at our jobs, which also demands problem solving, creative thinking, project management, business/interpersonal skills, technical proficiency, and presentation abilities, there are many other things we could do to sustain ourselves. No more slick advertisements. No new commercials, no new billboards. No more magazines in which you can’t discern what’s content and what’s sponsorship. No more websites with flashy homepages and bells and whistles. No new groundbreaking book jackets, no clever posters, no redesigns of redesigns.
The world would not fall apart, and the mass hysteria we would like to believe would devour First World nations would not occur. Everything in existence would remain for quite some time, and to be honest I wonder how long it would take before anyone noticed Coke hadn’t re-branded itself in a while. Trademarks and publications that had been part of our culture for decades would live on. Billboards would stay up, and it would be many months before they showed weather-wear and sun bleaching. Some magazines would cease to publish, but any based on real journalism, literature or academic writings would manage to carry on. It would be several years before anyone noticed that the web’s exponential expansion had slowed. Customers would keep shopping.
But time would pass and the playing field would begin to level out. Corporations would have little else to do but actually talk about what they manufacture. Retailers would resort to listing the products they sell and the prices they sell for. Car companies would finally explain how their vehicles are or are not unique. Non-designers would begin using their own creativity to figure out how to wrap presents, make birthday cards, reinvent their wardrobes, and pass their leisure time. After a transition period filled with starbursts and powerpoint-created graphics, our visual world would quiet down. We would expect less from graphic appearances and demand more from content. Promotions from the telephone company would begin to look no different than information from the local theater or charity drives from a soup kitchen—but suddenly the messages would be immediately distinguishable. With real information at their disposal, consumers would be able to make more educated decisions, and more frequently decide that the clothes, gadgets and cars they already own are enough.
Once content had become key, we now-latent visual designers would have the opportunity to flip the tables. Already established in our other careers, we would be free to take graphics projects at our choosing, calling local service organizations, workers unions, cultural institutions, environmental and political agencies and international human rights leagues. With content we could feel truly passionate about as our guides, we could elevate these humble clients to levels of popularity and notoriety reserved today only for computer and sneaker companies. The sudden novelty of combining beauty and messages would rock an economy of individuals unsure of what to do with their disposable income. Education and philanthropy would become the norm while society’s expectations would center on decipherable and informative content. When a powerful and significant message comes first and we as designers see our jobs as ones of providing clarity and platform, our successes would be measured on an entirely different scale. There would be no industry standard into which we would try to make our clients fit . No references we would borrow and steal to provide context in a saturated market. We would actually be free to be as unique as our client’s messages without financial burdens and expectations.
We would have the freedom to experiment, to be wrong, we would even have the freedom to be ugly. As long as we had something to say, we would have the freedom to say it without our voices being judged before we had a chance to be heard. Instead of drawing chickens whose sole goal was to get to the other side, they would have noble purposes and interesting narratives. Form, color, composition and structure would reveal their importance as appropriate to a specific message that they supported understanding. More than likely, I believe we would decide that intention and significance would play a far greater role in how we measured ourselves and our successes.
This idealistic, design-as-a-luxury-for-the-culturally-and-socially-relevant world is not likely to happen soon. It would be naïve to suggest that the most popular and economically successful amongst us would have any desire to shake the status quo and put our industry, with our clients, and the rest of the world on equal footing. It is true that, short of this scale of revolution, we will continue to be trapped within the wheels of commerce, so if there is any hope at all of escaping the machine in which we draw ourselves, we must find some other option aside from this instantaneous global shift in priorities. We will have to do it on our own.
Even as individuals we can choose to dismiss the choices currently before us, to check ourselves out of the cycle, be deliberate and conscientious about both what we consume and what we produce, focusing our attention and energy on messages and causes that shape society in ways in which we feel emotionally and intellectually connected. When conversations and critiques prematurely turn to composition and color, we can push back with answers about content and context. When assessment of our work or our value as visual artists is measured by the language we speak rather than the substance we bring to the table, we can decide to align with our dissenting priorities and our new-found worth as messengers of social and political urgency. And when we find we have more important things to say, even the most colorful and masterfully designed chickens will no longer hold appeal.
Scott Ballum, graphic designer and writer in New York, is the founder of Sheepless, a studio created with the intention to separate from the expected herd mentality and make deliberate, considered decisions in both production and consumption. In his professions Scott works to educate himself and others about consumerism and individual choice, and to support social and cultural organizations affecting positive change.
Clients and collaborators include the Art Directors Club of New York, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Parrish Art Museum, School of Visual Arts, Signature Theatre Company, Webby Awards, and the Alhurra Television Network. Scott has served as Design Director of Housing Works, the nation's largest community-based AIDS service organization and a leader in social enterprise, and Senior Designer at C&G Partners, a multi-disciplinary design studio catering to the arts, media, and public spaces.
Scott also founded Consume®evolution Magazine in 2005, dedicated to exposing a growing complacency with globalization and consumerism and offering viable alternatives to a "mass-produced" lifestyle. In 2008, he began the Consume®econnection Project, in which he aims to spend a year meeting individuals involved with the production of every item he consumes.