“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. [...] We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
― Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda (http://phys.org/news/2015-07-american-mindedward-bernays-birth.html accessed 21/02/16)
I was working on a set of pictograms for a shopping mall about a month ago, and I stopped dead in my tracks when it came to creating the male and female toilet signs. I realised that here, I had an opportunity to make a difference. It took me the best of 2 hours (which is very long to think of a concept when you work commercially) to think of conceptualising ways to portray the female and male toilets that was both obvious to the public and fair in how they represented both genders. I turned to my colleague and asked her if there was any way to represent the toilet signs that didn't feed into western gender binaries of a pink dress for girls and a blue suit for boys. "No, not really" she said. At this we looked at each other and laughed, in a sombre sort of way, aware of both our possibilities as creative game-changers, but also as reluctant conformers.
As a creative, this topic may seem never-ending. It's a polarising design question, that prompts tuts, sighs and often pessimistic answers. I recently went to Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam and spoke to a lot of students and tutors about the responsibility of the designer. The dialogue around this subject will not simmer any time soon, simply because everyone has their reservations about what exactly a designer is in the first place. In this shifting economy what is the responsibility of the designer in this mass consumerist reality? Today the practice of visual communication mainly consists of advertising, rebranding, rebranding, some more rebranding, and finally supporting mass consumption. Edward Bernays, often classed as the godfather of public relations said “Modern business must have its finger continuously on the public pulse. It must understand the changes in the public mind and be prepared to interpret itself fairly and eloquently to changing opinion”.Propaganda in design of course isn't a new thing, and actually in history both have often gone hand in hand. Yet it is startling when confronted with your own role, how little you feel you can do. For me, there is a certain culpability attached to designing for massive corporations who only get richer and richer; whilst the marginalised become poorer and destitute. This realisation of my own privilege calls to action on my behalf. I can no longer hide behind the 'grad-designer just starting out so it's okay'. I recognise that as a designer, I have a unique influence that can often transcend language barriers, culture differences and racial issues (e.g signage systems, pictograms, logo–marks). I see how my ideas and concepts ultimately contribute to the society.
At the Kerning Conference dinner in the summer of 2015, whilst gnashing down slabs of meat and drinking all the Italian wine in the world, I met Jan Middendorp, an independent type writer and educator, from the Netherlands— we touched on this very subject. I'd mentioned wanting study typography and wanting to find reason within a lot of things. We talked of Akan (Ghana) symbols and language as a whole. His talk (Kerning Conference 2014) answered a lot of questions regarding social responsibility that I didn't even know I had. We may think that graphic design is a very consumerist driven speciality, but Middendorp says "there was a time when graphic design was about high ideals: improving people’s lives; providing safety and guidance; defying capitalist greed; saving the world". He continues:
"We could use some of that today. The world has become so complex, and the flow of information so overwhelming, that it would be really helpful if designers used their skills to expose its mechanisms — daring to be funny, incisive and irreverent. But most of us cannot cope with so much content. We lecture each other about kerning, M-dashes, apostrophes and Comic Sans. Students revel in cool Klein blue and hipster irony. Professionals complain about the fonts in iOS 7. We consume as if our lives depend on it. Have we painted ourselves into a corner, or can we still design our way out?"
—Jan Middendorp (http://2014.kerning.it/speakers.html#middendorp accessed 20/02/15)
To this you might say 'oh but what idealistic and unrealistic thinking, only spewed by designers who've already made their mark in the industry—furthermore, how do I pay my bills by just doing good?'. A valid point perhaps, but dare I ask you to consider myself, a graphic design graduate, with a mere 80 pence to my name as of today, living in London, a city that charges you for breathing, and consider that the plight for producing honourable and ethical work does not stop at the esteemed or well-known designers. If anything, more and more creatives in my generation are turning to a life of making things that leads to good. Example: Temi Coker, Jendella Benson, just to name a few.
So in view of this, two years after university, and 4 design jobs later, I've come to the conclusion that I'd like to do something worthwhile, even if the cost is security and comfort (success defined by worldly-thinking). Though it may seem unrealistic to say 'hey! I'm gonna do something to contribute to bettering the world, or at least my community'. I believe that it's exactly what most designers should be aiming for. I think as commercial advertising designers, we need to be aware of the unique privilege that we have. We have the capacity to inspire, deflect, inform and persuade.
Art movements like De Stijl or Bauhaus, and designers such as Johannes Itten and Piet Mondrian prove that design was larger than just making people buy stuff. It was political, uncomfortable and most importantly it was about challenging the norms. Consider the manifesto of the Bauhaus movement:
"Architects, sculptors, painters – we all must return to craftsmanship! For there is no such thing as “art by profession”. There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan. The artist is an exalted artisan. Merciful heaven, in rare moments of illumination beyond man’s will, may allow art to blossom from the work of his hand, but the foundations of proficiency are indispensable to every artist. This is the original source of creative design".
The passion! the reason! the dominion! Is this way of reinvention possible? Let's forget about whether or not it is necessary, forget of reasons, think of concepts. In more ways than one, design has always existed as long as there has been communication between humans. It's been about making thoughts into solid objects and philosophies into things you can see. Design and Typography has for the most part been about making solid the things that are intangible.
"have fun, because if you don't have that then what do you have?"
Celia Rosa, Screaming Beans Coffee Bar (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
It has to be noted that this argument depends on the economic stature of where one lives. I've noticed in Amsterdam that the design culture is a lot more conceptual, the outcome of a lot of designers' work is sometimes left to the public to decipher and pull apart. The work in Amsterdam (I keep saying Amsterdam because I haven't been exposed to other cities in the Netherlands yet) tends to be more experimental, not lacking deep meaning or reason. From what I've gathered, there is freedom in thoughtful creative process. Martin from MeStudio tells me "not to be afraid, explore and figure it out", Celia, says "have fun, because if you don't have that then what do you have?". This is a stark contrast to London, where the designer disappears, and it's not so much about enjoying what you do—that is until you get to very senior level, where a high percentage are men anyway.
When you compare the fluidity and concept-driven design of Amsterdam, to that of London, you come to realise that responsibility of the designer lies in economic climate of the city or country. In London, my employability and respect as a designer is largely dependent on the content I create for corporations. The bigger the company, the better. In other words, your worth is tied to how much money you have made a particular company, if in doubt—name drop. This is a stark contrast to being in Amsterdam where people are interested in my extra-curricular activity. For example, when I go see some of my design friends in Amsterdam, the first thing I show them is my children's book or my blog with all my illustrations. Whereas in London, my illustrative, and thought-work sometimes dismantle me as a designer, so I tend not to show that stuff at all. It's why I tend to keep my illustration and graphic work separate.
"There was a time when graphic design was about high ideals: improving people’s lives; providing safety and guidance; defying capitalist greed; saving the world"
Jan Middendorp, Kerning Conference (Faenza, Italy)
Yet in the midst of pondering over design and its commerciality, I cannot completely disregard the work ethic and determination that I have picked up from working on highly demanding design agency projects. Commercial work has its merits, this cannot be denied. But I think there is room for bigger thinking than pound signs. I have become interested in wanting to undo myself and then reinvent myself in another way that I can contribute something positively to the people around me. One way I've done that is by working on my children's book. It's not there yet, but it will be. Long story short, I noticed a lot of young black girls vehemently disliked their thickly coiled hair and decided to do something about it. Another project that I worked on was 'Smile, Bitch'. This project came from the need to document the escalation of street harassment from a seemingly positive word. Again, drawing from real life experiences set a drive and determination in all that I do.
To conclude, as time goes, on I become more convinced that the bridge between who the designer is as a person and what the designer produces is far more closer than I initially thought. I am committed to working on projects that push boundaries and I want to continue creating content that is witty, sincere, intelligent, especially on this blog. I suppose there is no end goal, there is only progress. Who knows what will happen in a few years and what projects I will have in front of me. For now, the aim is to do good, and hopefully have fun doing it too.
http://bauhaus-online.de/en/atlas/das-bauhaus/idee/manifest accessed 22/02/16
http://2014.kerning.it/ accessed 22/02/16
http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/12/consumer.aspx accessed 21/02/16
http://phys.org/news/2015-07-american-mindedward-bernays-birth.html accessed 20/02/16
https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/t/tye-spin.html accessed 20/02/16
http://guity-novin.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/chapter-29-propaganda-posters.html#Six accessed 20/02/16