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Review - The Power of Design Part III

Well, what more can be said? Armin and Marian’s reviews covered most of the conference quite thoroughly. Since I’m the last up — I’ll try not to beat any grounds that have already been well-covered, or unnecessarily re-open any freshly-healed wounds. So here goes.

First of all, I have to say that this conference was different. And different is usually a good thing.

I’ve been to a number of national AIGA gigs (this was my 6th), and the one thing they’ve all had in common was a sense of celebration in graphic design. A sense of self-indulgence, self-recognition — an affirmation that as a profession, we were a force that was making a positive impact on society and culture.

Then came Vancouver. This usual, smug sense of celebration was replaced by an overwhelming sense of undeniable guilt — coupled with a self-realization that as a profession, we have ignored a number of global and societal responsibilities that will not be denied. The tone was stern and seething.

It was like going to some sort of religious design revival. First, with fire and brimstone, Fritjof Capra showed us the inevitable path to global destruction unless we changed our ways. Then a succession of speakers like Mike Volkema (CEO of Herman Miller) and Susan Szanasy (EiC, Metropolis) marched on-stage to reiterate the sustainability message, pleading for the rest of us to heed the warnings and seek (design) salvation. Many, like Janine James of The Moderns, used diagrams and colorful models to show us their path to enlightenment. It was riveting, sobering, and powerful stuff.

Of course I’m generalizing here, but you get the idea. Like I said…it was different. And different is usually a good thing.

But wait, there’s more. There was a secondary theme, one that I found even more fascinating and unexpected: the Future (of design). Bruce Sterling opened the conference with his non-Utopian vision of the future — “one that had people in it,” to paraphrase. Bruce Mau and Andrew Zolli ended the conference by discussing the ethical and moral questions that design has yet to face and answer. Mau showed a (photo) featherless chicken, designed and bred to survive in third-world, hot climate conditions. Similar to bio-engineered corn, the mutant chicken was designed to solve a problem: starvation due to over-population and dwindling resources. But in doing so, the design solution resulted in a moral dilemma — to play God with nature, or to allow millions to starve? This was a moral decision that designers were never prepared to face. Mau warned that in our quest for design solutions, whether they were noble intentions or not, we would face many new and unexpected moral difficulties.

You might have heard mentioned in one of the other reviews that “brand bashing” was committed by a few speakers. I didn’t bring this up to start another WWF brand/Adbusters war. Rather, I brought it up because I think that this questioning of “the power of branding” is indeed one of these newly-formed, design moral dilemmas that Mau spoke of. Let’s face it — the science of brand marketing has become a formidable force. It has as much devotion as any religion. It’s as powerful as any cultural, political, or economic force. It shapes our future. But as a profession, are we morally or ethically prepared or justified in weilding such a powerful force?

So that’s where I left off — with questions unanswered, and an odd sense that I’d stepped into the wrong professional conference. Where was the eyecandy? Where was the smug, celebratory design carnival? Something’s different.

Interesting conference.
….

Just a quick note to recognize Terry Irwin, the national staff, and the volunteers. It was a superbly run conference. Amazingly efficient. I know there must have been a thousand problems back-stage — but it was seamless from where I was sitting.

And thank you to our gracious Canadian hosts — Matt Warburton, Rob Peters, and the rest of the GDC gang. You gave us good weather and even better beer.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 1645 FILED UNDER Critique
PUBLISHED ON Nov.04.2003 BY Tan
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Tan’s comment is:

Apparently, people must be tired of hearing about the conference.

Last to the party I suppose. I was, and still am, buried with work. *sigh*

But let's talk about this question of moral choices in design. I'm not talking about being judgemental, but let's talk about the moral decisions in graphic design. Or are there any?

We lament the loss of a shipping logo, discuss the loss of innocence when a candy bar gets re-wrapped, and argue about what constitutes "marketing". Aren't these debates more than just questions about design? Aren't these moral debates as well?

Let's be honest here.

On Nov.04.2003 at 11:09 AM
kev leonard’s comment is:

hey, it's never too late to talk about the conference.

professionally, we as designers are always expected to, first and foremost, have our client's best interests at heart and now all of a sudden we have to care about the environment and society.

i have always been a proponent for good environmental responsibility, but have always struggled with (short of using the recycled emblem on the stuff i have printed) what the hell i could do to make a difference.

now, after the conference i think i have some answers.

that being said, if we as designers are the thinkers that bring order to chaos i believe we can certainly also tackle the moral responsibilities placed on us. we create artifacts for a society/audience that our clients need to remain in business. we are a link in the chain of crap that ends up as non-biodegradable garbage. can we ask that the printed item—after use—be recycled? can that recyclable item be run on tree free/non-elemental chlorine free stock? with veggie inks?

i guess to answer the question you posed more straightforwardly—yes we have moral issues we need to deal with

On Nov.04.2003 at 11:49 AM
joy olivia’s comment is:

First of all, I have to say that this conference was different. And different is usually a good thing.

Was the AIGA conference sponsored by Apple? I'm just joshing, Tan! You know I love ya.

Kidding aside, I have been slightly shocked by the dedication of threads on this site regarding the AIGA conference, especially because the organization seems to garner atleast one tongue-lashing or snide comment weekly. C'mon, why are we so AIGA obsessed? Aren't there other professional orgs out there?

On the topic of morality, though, Mau isn't the only big name graphic designer speaking out publicly about the concerns many graphic designers have regarding the business and our role in it as part of the communication machine.

Last May at the Society for Publication Designers' conference in NYC, several individuals spoke out about a different moral trend -- the dumbing down and sleazifying if you will of US magazines.

Stephen Colvin, president of the company that brings you Maxim, Stuff, Blender and The Week, took a lot of heat for his work, despite his company's financial success. His numbers were scary, but not that surprising. Put women with big breasts and cheesy headlines on your cover and your numbers will go up. So much so that even publications that never had women on their covers in the past (such as GQ, see below) were able to pull up their numbers by following the lead of Colvin's successful men's mags.

Does it make GQ's award-winning graphic designer Fred Woodward and his "creative team" less moral for playing the cleavage game to sell their publication in an arena where the competition is becoming increasingly more newsbite-like in format?

Going into the conference, I dismissed Colvin's publications as trash and never knew how successful they were. Since, I have been in the gray, struggling with whether or not we should be lauding the Colvins out there in the magazine industry or bashing them. It's not like he didn't make some sense. Sort of.

Basically, it's always about the words and images working together to compel the reader to dedicate some of their most precious commodity -- their time -- to reading the article. Therefore it's important to provide the right editorial package with more visuals and the least amount of words necessary to get the message across. When looking at the layout, consider if it would pull you in as a reader even if the topic doesn't interest you. -- Steven Colvin, May 2003

It's just his execution I'm trying to still understand outside of the fiscal realm.

A slightly different moral discussion, I admit... but one worth mentioning. Neville Brody really summed up exactly what I was feeling when he presented, and I'm sharing because it really fits in with this discussion.

As designers, we inform the outcome. We're the translators of these invisible contexts. We're like filters in a way. Design these days is pretty much like processed cheese. There's not a lot of difference in the stuff out there. So what do we do? What happens next? Because we can have an impact on how people think, we need to ultimately NOT be afraid to raise our voices and tear up the walls and try new things. Embrace changes. Increase awareness in others. Share our knowledge! -- Neville Brody, May 2003
On Nov.04.2003 at 11:56 AM
Tan’s comment is:

I love that Brody quote Joy. Thanks.

And yes, I love your editorial examples -- the cleavage game as you call it -- are age old moral design issues. But Colvin's point is a valid one: as designers, aren't we supposed to find and use the more succinct and effective methods to visual messaging? More so, since we're always talking about serving the clients best -- isn't that exactly what Colvin does?

But Colvin's case is a more clear-cut moral issue. Back to Mau's point -- what if the moral dilemma involved design intended for the greater good?

Mau's featherless chicken seemed to upset lots of people. I thought it was a funny, and ingenious design solution to world hunger. But I can certainly understand those who object.

Then, there's the Segway, designed as a solution to urban transportation and pollution, but seen as a waste of money and technology by many. No one seemed to come up with a better solution to a bicycle till Sturgess built the damn thing. And all anyone seems to talk about is how dorky people look riding on it. Where are the environmental, anti-fossil-fuel crusading designers when you need them?

On Nov.04.2003 at 12:22 PM
marian’s comment is:

Hmmm. Something I have to challenge.

I really need to address what I viewed as Bruce Mau's unquestioning acceptance of the "design" of various technological/biological experiments. I don't believe the featherless chicken was developed to "feed millions of starving people in the third world." I believe it was developed to eliminate a step in the processing of poultry. Similarly, he showed both genetically modified potatoes and rice, supposedly enhanced to help the starving millions. What he didn't mention is that these foods are also "designed" as proprietary crops for the manufacturers, so where once the poor rice farmers grew rice and reseeded from their own crops, they would instead need to buy the patented seed every year from eg. Monsanto. Who gains? We have the means to feed the starving, and it is not by "developing" new life forms. Bruce Mau is so used to being viewed as a god that he does not see anything unusual in putting the designer at the outer ring of influence, even above nature (I mean really, wasn't that lesson learned with the Titanic?).

I believe that to design unquestioningly is immoral. We all have different beliefs, and one person's dream client is another's devil. But I do think we need to do the research, and ask the questions that will satisfy each of us, within our own beliefs, whether a client or a project is something we should accept.

In that context, I don't think branding can be taken whole as an ethical issue. It all depends on who you are and who/what you're branding for.

Aside:

The tone was stern and seething.

I actually didn't see it this way. I didn't feel admonished. I did feel guilty, but I'm an old hand at that. In general, I found the message from the conference to be relatively optimistic.

On Nov.04.2003 at 12:25 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I agree Marian -- it was optimistic, but in a serious way, not a jubilant way.

When I said seething, I meant intense, not angry.

> even above nature

oh, I don't know about that. Hypothetical: suppose the rain forest was being destroyed by a mutant strain of fungi -- and we can design a mutant species of red tree frogs that could eat the fungi and save the forests and ultimately the world -- is that hubris over nature? Or is it designing to maintain the balance of nature?

And I'm sorry Marian, but does everything have to come down to greedy intentions and captilalist corruption? Sure, there are misuses, but you make it sound positively devious.

On Nov.04.2003 at 12:46 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

These are good questions. I don't have much time right now, but I wanted to mention a few things in case it takes me awhile to get back here.

There's a big difference between the world as we imagine it to be and the world that is, but, its impossible to create what you cannot first imagine. Some things simply will not change, some things are locked into place and any discussion or hope to change them is energy better spent on what you can control, directly or indirectly. For example: capitalism, commerce, and globalization will be with us for a very long time, we're not going to "evolve" out of any of those things nor will we destroy them. The argument that globalization and capitalism are inherently bad and must be resisted is short-sighted and a total cop-out for designers and creatives of all kinds.

Why? Because as a designer or other such creative (how come no one talks about writers here?), it is your purpose and obligation to take what you have and make it work. Think marketing and advertising are stupid and contribute to a room-temperature IQ society? Great! Do something about it, MAKE THOSE THINGS BETTER, don't just whine about how "awful" they are and re-dedicate your life to designing books and posters based on the "structure" of Derrida's deconstructive grammatological theory of everything and nothing.

Think about how many opportunities come your way day in and day out, and think about how many of them are almost "perfect." Probably none, and that's probably why most people spend more time waiting for "the right time" then making the right thing out of the wrong timing.

As far as morals are concerned, in short, I'd say that capitalism is a moral system with certain flaws, and that designers are obligated to create work that tells the truth and gets people to think about familiar things and situations in a new way. Don't do work that insults or demeans. A billboard for Tequiza or whatever freaky liquor concoction AB creates next isn't automatically dishonest, sexist, crass, or ugly--its up to the designer either to make it those or things, or make it into something else.

I think there are professional obligations that exist as well, ones that we owe to ourselves and one another. Designers complain about many, many things in regards to clients especially, and I wonder how many of those could be solved if ALL designers settled on a standard of handling things--whether its no spec work, or not letting focus groups decide what to make, or only giving one solution in a presentation. I don't know, I'm just throwing things out there that have been points of contention in the past.

On Nov.04.2003 at 12:51 PM
kev leonard’s comment is:

> Mau's featherless chicken seemed to upset lots of people.

it's always a little freaky to see something new. i don't give a damn in most cases (about looks). as long as the problem is addressed and solved... well. if someone can come up with a chicken that doesn't loose body weight in extremely high temperatures—another plus and people won't be weirded out. not to mention most people don't eat chicken feathers and when preparing said chicken for dinner or lunch removing the feathers is just one more step that can be avoided. efficiency and function. if that's not good design i don't know what is.

but seriously, the flip side is that humanity has proven on more than one occasion that it doesn't always know best.

>Hypothetical: suppose the rain forest was being destroyed by a mutant strain of fungi -- and we can design a mutant species of red tree frogs that could eat the fungi and save the forests and ultimately the world

again on the flip side, can there ever be enough testing to know what impact (perhaps negatively) hypothetically, the frog will have on the environment... or maybe i watch too much t.v.

On Nov.04.2003 at 01:25 PM
Sarah B.’s comment is:

And different is usually a good thing.

I for one, have never been able to attend an AIGA or any other design conference. Say I had attended - do you think the way the conference made you feel you have done so to myself and other "conference-virgins" - or was that perception because you had been to others? I am just wondering if it would have possibly been a "turn off" for newbies, and esp. students.

When I was in my first choice in college, communications and media, I attended a few trade shows and conferences and none of them ever sparked creativity, and made me excited about what I was doing (perhaps that is why I am not doing it) but there was NO effort at all to make us feel that way - -from what I saw.

Just wondering what you think. I am sure it was different for everyone.

On Nov.04.2003 at 02:10 PM
marian’s comment is:

suppose the rain forest was being destroyed by a mutant strain of fungi -- and we can design a mutant species of red tree frogs that could eat the fungi and save the forests and ultimately the world

But this is ancient history. Humans have been attempting to "solve" nature's "problems" for a long time, and most of these attempts backfire: the creatures we introduce (or create) are not robots programmed to do our will, and the world is littered with examples of introduced species that have done more harm than their intended good. So those mutant tree frogs might take over the whole rainforest, disrupting the life cycles of other species and leading to a massive imbalance, causing, say the rise in a pest that thrives on the trees, leading to the ultimate destruction of the rainforest.

And besides, fungi are not destroying the rainforest, humans are, and I find it bizarre (but predictable somehow) that we consistently look to technology to solve problems that a) we created and b) we have the means right now to do something about, if only we took the global effort to do so. So instead of, say, driving smaller cars and designing efficient mass transit systems, and reducing waste etc., we try to "fix it" with some new technological advance so that WE don't actually have to change anything.

The point is, humans are so fucking egotistical, we think we have it all figured out. Now we can design our own life forms for the betterment of ... the human race! Give me a fucking break! Contrary to popular opinion, chickens, animals, forests, these things are not "resources", they are living things that were doing a helluva lot better without us. Anyway, that's a huge debate, probably not suited for a design forum.

but does everything have to come down to greedy intentions and captilalist corruption?

No it doesn't have to, but it often does. The point is that you shouldn't just blindly accept what corporations (or governments or designers or blog authors) tell you. You need look no further than the cigarette industry if you don't believe that some companies really don't care how they make a buck, so long as they make it. Pharmaceutical companies regularly sell drugs that have been banned in the US to the 3rd world market. Do they do this because they don't believe they're harmful, and they really just want to help out those poor people? With actions like that you really have to question the motives of some people.

For instance if Monsanto offered their Vitamin-E enhanced rice grains to the 3rd world for free, or even allowed farmers to reseed their crops with the altered seed, I'd have a different view of that. I'd still be wondering what impact the new seeds would have, how they could cope with local conditions, and what, if any side effects there might be, but I'd give them kudos for the intention.

Anyway, enough. I have to disappear for a while, so if you retort and I don't get back to you it's not because I'm sulking.

On Nov.04.2003 at 02:28 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I am just wondering if it would have possibly been a "turn off" for newbies, and esp. students.

I think its all in how you look at it--if a student, or anyone else, loses interest in design because of an experience at an AIGA conference, they probably won't make much of a designer anyway. You gotta come with it on your own terms; I'm not always the biggest fan of that organization, but what they do, especially when I disagree with it, essentially fuels my passion for design and advertising.

On Nov.04.2003 at 02:36 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Marian was making an excellent point about companies like Monsanto; then she wrote:

Bruce Mau is so used to being viewed as a god that he does not see anything unusual in putting the designer at the outer ring of influence, even above nature (I mean really, wasn't that lesson learned with the Titanic?).

Bruce Mau and I have a friend in common. Between the advantage of personal anecdotes and very limited direct observation, I am dismayed to see an inaccurate personal attack here. He is a thoughtful designer and the last to suffer from an oversized ego.

If his presentation left you with such an impression, blame the presentation.

Marian then redeemed herself and wrote:

I believe that to design unquestioningly is immoral. We all have different beliefs, and one person's dream client is another's devil. But I do think we need to do the research, and ask the questions that will satisfy each of us, within our own beliefs, whether a client or a project is something we should accept.

In that context, I don't think branding can be taken whole as an ethical issue. It all depends on who you are and who/what you're branding for.

Determining the "goodness" of a client in no way completes any discussion of a designer's ethics. The designer also must question their own actions. These questions can range from the mundane to the big-picture.

example of a Mundane question:

My branding firm's website features pseudoscientific proprietary jargon to describe our branding process. Is this a reflection of my insecurity, the fact that this process isn't much different from other firms, or as an intimidating strategy to justify higher fees?

example of a couple Big-picture questions:

Does the message I present for the client also have a homogenizing effect on culture at large? Does my goal to strengthen my brand also dumb down public discourse? (I'm thinking of companies like Fox News here)

In a collective and public process like design, everyone involved has an ethical burden. The entity known as Branding is neutral, neither good or evil. Value judgements lie in the specifics of Branding practice.

That said, I reaffirm my anti-Branding stance. But that's another discussion...

On Nov.04.2003 at 03:05 PM
Tan’s comment is:

> I for one, have never been able to attend an AIGA or any other design conference. Say I had attended - do you think the way the conference made you feel you have done so to myself and other "conference-virgins" - or was that perception because you had been to others? I am just wondering if it would have possibly been a "turn off" for newbies, and esp. students.

Good question Sarah. I actually think the conference was probably very inspiring for young designers and students. The discussions were very big picture, and had a sense of importance to issues outside of just graphic design. You would've enjoyed it.

For older guys like me, it was a mixed bag. Lots of people are unsure about the economy, the future of the market -- and probably wanted to hear about more tangible action items and ideas. Hear more about concrete ways to inspire and improve their business practices and craft, rather than be lectured about what they're not doing right. For that crowd, the conference was probably a bit of a letdown. That's just my personal impression gathered from conversations with a few friends who also attended.

But hey, you can't please everyone.

At the end, I was glad I attended, and felt that my dollars were well spent -- despite any disagreements I may have with the presentations. Heck, I haven't been this charged after a conference, good or bad, in a while.

The next conference is in Boston in 2005 -- I'd start saving now. You shouldn't miss another one.

> In a collective and public process like design, everyone involved has an ethical burden. The entity known as Branding is neutral, neither good or evil. Value judgements lie in the specifics of Branding practice. That said, I reaffirm my anti-Branding stance.

You'd make a good politician Mark. I have no idea whether or not to argue or agree with you.

On Nov.04.2003 at 03:42 PM
Patrick’s comment is:

>So instead of, say, driving smaller cars and designing efficient mass transit systems, and reducing waste etc., we try to "fix it" with some new technological advance so that WE don't actually have to change anything.

So true. This reminds me of this article commenting on the marketing of upcoming hybrid vehicles. I think it's a sad - but telling - statement that in order to sell an item (hybrid gas/electric engine vehicle) which features a great advance in technology that offers a real ecological benefit (dramatically improved fuel economy - up to double the city MPG), the marketing has to focus on a small feature that makes life slightly easier for a few people that might use it (a power plug in the car*).

*And of course using your vehicle as a portable generator, as a GM spokesman recommends, will just use more fuel.

On Nov.04.2003 at 04:24 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

In response to my following comment:

In a collective and public process like design, everyone involved has an ethical burden. The entity known as Branding is neutral, neither good or evil. Value judgments lie in the specifics of Branding practice.

Tan wrote:

You'd make a good politician Mark. I have no idea whether or not to argue or agree with you.

It's not a matter of agreeing with me or not. People who quickly damn Branding as evil close themselves off to any potential benefits to the practice. I vaguely remember an old adage how the mark of a cultivated mind is the ability to consider two conflicting ideas at the same time.

To consider design or branding practice without total Belief or Doubt forces you to clearly consider the ramifications of your actions.

Of course, theory is easier than practice. All we can do is try.

On Nov.04.2003 at 05:50 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

Bruce Mau and I have a friend in common. Between the advantage of personal anecdotes and very limited direct observation, I am dismayed to see an inaccurate personal attack here. He is a thoughtful designer and the last to suffer from an oversized ego.

Not knowing the man, my comments probably aren't accurate, but I still have to ask: if he doesn't have a huge ego, why do his "cultural awareness" quizzes that he uses to hire new designers focus almost exclusively on individuals and institutions that his firm works with? Amidst all of his talk about exploring new boundaries and the like, why test others on what they know just about YOU?

Other than that, I've always enjoyed his work and his ideas. Very cool guy.

On Nov.04.2003 at 05:56 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I don't think anyone's slamming Mau here Mark.

I don't know Bruce personally either, but I have to say that the man and his words are damn impressive. If he does have a big ego, then well, he deserves it. He thinks big, does big, is big.

I'm a fan, can't you tell?

On Nov.04.2003 at 06:19 PM
marian’s comment is:

If his presentation left you with such an impression, blame the presentation.

Fair enough. His presentation led me to believe that Bruce Mau is so used to being viewed as a god that ....

p.s. I'm not slamming Bruce Mau. I actually thought he seemed kind of sweet, for a god. I was just surprised by the way he presented his material.

On Nov.04.2003 at 07:32 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Kidding aside, I have been slightly shocked by the dedication of threads on this site regarding the AIGA conference, especially because the organization seems to garner atleast one tongue-lashing or snide comment weekly. C'mon, why are we so AIGA obsessed? Aren't there other professional orgs out there?

I should have commented on this earlier and I hate to break into this featherless chicken and fungi-eating frogs discussion´┐Ż

Personally I don't think there is any other organization that is as relevant for graphic designers as the AIGA. That is why I have an "obsession" with it, because in the end they are it and I feel it's my own personal responsibility to challenge them, support them and push them. It is the biggest organization for designers in the US, their actions might not affect me directly in any way (unless they eventually take on accreditation) but indirectly they do and I'd be crazy if I just sat here kerning all day and do nothing about it.

I wouldn't call it obsession, it's more like preoccupation.

On Nov.05.2003 at 05:18 PM