What does it mean to be a designer in today’s corporate-driven, over-branded global consumer culture? The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne’s Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility.
So, what is the responsibility of a designer when the design is impeccable but the client is tainted? Being accountable to some moral standard is the key. A designer must be professionally, culturally, and socially responsible for the impact his or her design has on the citizenry. Indeed, every good citizen must understand that his or her respective actions will have reactions. All individual acts, including the creation and manufacture of design for a client, exert impact on others. But Rand could not foresee Enron’s gross betrayal. And even if large corporations are sometimes suspect, why should he or any designer refuse to work for Enron or any similar establishment? A designer cannot afford to hire investigators to compile dossiers about whether a business is savory or not. Yet certain benchmarks must apply, such as knowing what, in fact, a company does and how it does it. And if a designer has any doubts, plenty of public records exist that provide for informed decisions. However, each designer must address this aspect of good citizenship as he or she sees fit.
Two years ago, when Milton Glaser was illustrating Dante’s Purgatory, he become interested in the “Road to Hell” and developed a little questionnaire to see where he stood in terms of his own willingness to lie. Beginning with fairly minor misdemeanors, the following twelve steps increase to some major indiscretions.
- Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
- Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy.
- Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
- Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
- Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
- Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
- Designing a package for children’s snacks that you know are low in nutrition value and high in sugar content.
- Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
- Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
- Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
- Designing a brochure for an SUV that turned over frequently in emergency conditions and was known to have killed 150 people.
- Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.
A dozen additional steps of varied consequence could be added, but Glaser’s list addresses a significant range of contentious issues. Designers are called upon to make routine decisions regarding scale, color, image, etc. — things that may seem insignificant but will inevitably affect behavior in some way. An elegant logo can legitimize the illegitimate; a beautiful package can spike up the sales of an inferior product; an appealing trade character can convince kids that something dangerous is essential. The graphic designer is as accountable as the marketing and publicity departments for the propagation of a message or idea.
Talented designers are predisposed to create good-looking work. We are taught to marry type and image into pleasing and effective compositions that attract the eye and excite the senses. Do this well, we’re told, and good jobs are plentiful; do it poorly and we’ll produce junk mail for the rest of our lives. However, to be what in this book we call a “citizen designer” requires more than talent. As Glaser notes, the key is to ask questions, for the answers will result in responsible decisions. Without responsibility, talent is too easily wasted on waste.
This book examines and critiques through essays and interviews three areas in which designers practice and in which responsibility to oneself and society is essential. Sections on social responsibility, professional responsibility, and artistic responsibility offer insight into how our peers view their practices as dependent on moral codes. The final part, raves and rants, is a soapbox, pure and simple. Our goal in editing this book is not to offer dogmatic decrees or sanctimonious screeds but to address the concern that the design field, like society as a whole, is built on the foundation of… well, you fill in the blank.
The second edition (June 2018) of Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne, is now available from Skyhorse Publishing, Amazon, and other good booksellers.