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The Once and Future Brand
by David Stairs

Branding.
From the pages of Print and Communication Arts to the sessions at the AIGA biennial conference, this is what can only be called a hot button issue for graphic designers. The AIGA even sponsors a seminar on branding, based upon the book The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. To quote from its prospectus:

The upturn will be driven by brand. Here’s why:

Cost cutting has gone as far as it can.
Venture capital is offline.
Features and benefits don’t sell anymore.
Tough economies always intensify competition.

What’s left is brand. Happily, brand is something you can influence. The trick is to make the most of the resources you already have: people, networks, knowledge and the value behind everything you do.

If you think this quote, sounding like a pep talk at a business quality circle session, is a trifle shallow, the general critical design commentary on the matter does not wade much deeper. Perhaps the reason is that designers have been in a lovelock with modern corporations for the last century. From Peter Behrens’ work for AEG to Lester Beall’s International Paper account, from Raymond Loewy’s Studebakers to recent corporate redesigns by TrueBrand, designers have seen it as part of their responsibility, and privilege, to make corporations visible, profitable, and value neutral.

Perhaps no company has a more hallowed reputation among designers than IBM. Many of the most famous designers of the 20th century, including Elliot Noyes, the Eamses, and Josef Mueller-Brockmann worked for big blue at one time or another. The story of how IBM’s chairman was inspired enough by Adriano Olivetti’s store to seek to elevate the outward appearance of his own company is the stuff of design legend. But there is a darker side to the story, one that should be known by every design student.

In his meticulously researched 2001 book, IBM and the Holocaust, Edwin Black weaves a grim tale of corporate greed and indifference. Himself the son of Holocaust survivors, Black tells of being stunned by the realization one day at the National Holocaust Museum that IBM machines had played a part in the disaster. Upon further investigation, a story long and deeply repressed took shape of a multinational corporation whose wholly owned and tightly controlled foreign subsidiaries profited enormously from contracts with the Third Reich. In describing the widespread Nazi adoption of IBM Hollerith punch card technology in the 30s Black writes:

“Hollerith technology had become a German administrative way of life. Punch cards would enable the entire Reich to go on a war footing. For IBM, it was a bonanza.” (1)

The lists of Jews and their addresses would not have been possible without these machines originally developed by a German American for the U.S. Census Bureau in the 1880s. Unfortunately, German anti-semitism combined only too well with American laissez-faire capitalism, to devastating ends. IBM’s drive for record profits allowed the company and its founder, Thomas Watson, Sr., to look the other way as the Nazis compiled census information in their home and conquered territories.

“During the frenetic rush to expand business with the Nazis and automate more and more Reich projects, never once was a word of restraint uttered by Watson about Dehomag’s (IBM Germany) indispensable activities in support of Jewish persecution. No brakes. No cautions. Indeed, to protest Germany’s crusade against Jewish existence would be nothing less than criticizing the company’s number two (after the U.S. Census) customer.” (2)

IBM’s complicity in the Holocaust is not a thing that makes the nightly news. After all, IBM is a great American company as attested to the way its resources were rescued and returned to it after the war. But the terrible truth is that, as with all of its projects up to this very day, IBM engineers helped design the applications of its technology. Thus did The Solutions Company assist in the Final Solution.

After the war the American people were bamboozled into believing IBM to be a bastion of liberty. Through careful application of plausible deniability, IBM’s administrators successfully distanced the company from its association with European genocide while making IBM indispensable to the victorious allies.

One must assume that the post-war American Jewish design luminaries, like Paul Rand, knew nothing about the company’s pre- and wartime activities. But contemporary designers can be better informed. With the resources available to us now, it is with only the most breathless naiveté that one assumes corporations are purposed for anything other than short-term profit. And while an individual may accept a role in the creation of corporate wealth, it is patently obvious that that great concentration of wealth should not be extorted from any individual or specific group of individuals.

Gunnar Swanson, writing on Speak Up (where the response on logo and brand strings can run into the hundreds of comments) said: “The AIGA seems to be making real attempts to drag the business into a more respectable position. The area where people figure out quickly that strategic consideration is in order is branding so it’s not surprising that it might get stressed a bit more.” But, in spite of the Gain conference, maybe you’re still feeling a little queasy about the Faustian relationship of design to business?

The word engraved on the topmost step at the IBM Academy in Endicott, N. Y., where many German managers were trained, was “THINK,” not “BLINK.” Design is not value neutral. If designers are ever to move beyond being mere “page decorators” (Swanson’s term) perhaps the next time you consider a corporate branding assignment you will recall these words of Edwin Black:

“No one will ever know exactly how many IBM machines clattered in which ghetto zone, train depot, or concentration camp. Nor will anyone prove exactly what IBM officials in Europe or New York understood about their location and use…it did not matter whether IBM did or did not know exactly which machine was used at which death camp. All that mattered was that the money would be waiting—once the smoke cleared.” (3)

Blink? Let us never.
Think, and think again.

Notes:
(1) Black, Edwin. IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Company. New York: Crown, 2001, p.87
(2) Ibid, p. 115
(3) Ibid, p. 375

David Stairs is the founder and executive director of Designers Without Borders.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2121 FILED UNDER Essays
PUBLISHED ON Oct.26.2004 BY Speak Up
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

David, thank you for the essay.

I often think about Toyota trucks & terrorists & rebel militias. I suppose (& hope) the Toyota pickup as terrorists vehicle of choice has more to do with Toyota's reputation than with any active marketing to terrorist groups.

On Oct.26.2004 at 11:38 AM
graham’s comment is:

nice one david.

best topic in months.

the list of the guilty is long (the list of those who'd make excuses for them longer).

On Oct.26.2004 at 12:45 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

David—I’m curious how you would hope designers respond to this. What would you hope that we would believe or, more importantly, do differently than we might have before?

At first I thought the criticism was of the rather thin approach of Marty’s book and much branding discussion. I was surprised that you were concentrating on a more sophisticated view of brand development. But we came quickly back to “the Faustian relationship of design to business.”

The example of IBM and the Third Reich makes the Faust legend work semi-neatly. At least it’s easy to cast the Nazis as Satan and anyone providing support to the Holocaust as having sold their souls. But this is graphic designers’ Faustian bargains we’re talking about, isn’t it? Are you claiming that Rand, et al sold their souls later by supporting IBM’s image? (Pardon my picking at the metaphor but does Faust become a VAR of satanic influence or an itinerant buyer of karmic scrap?)

Would working for IBM now be part of the bargain? Is there a statute of limitations on soullessness? We know that nobody presently working for IBM had anything to do with German census taking in the 1940s.

Is the lesson that corporations may be evil so we shouldn’t work for them? Is it that naive hero worship is, well, naive? Is it that we should only work for startups so we know they haven’t had time to strip the flesh and hide the skeletons?

Is the brand connection here that you believe the nature of brand development is some sort of Holocaust denial?

I think we’ll have to hunt to find anyone on this website defending the Final Solution or suggesting that contributing to it (knowingly or naively) was good. Evoking the death camps may let us off too easily. “Nope. None of my clients are, to my knowledge, actively engaged in the systematic genocide of millions of people. I’m okay.”

What do you think is the real lesson here?

On Oct.26.2004 at 01:14 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> David—I’m curious how you would hope designers respond to this.

I'm not sure if there is any response to be expected. I mean, what can we do? Surely all of our clients have done something bad, from smoking a joint (but not inhaling) to not paying all taxes to running over a dog with their car. We can't be expected to drop all clients based on past actions. Of course, if some client had been a past member of the KKK, he would not hear back from me.

Where David's essay succeeds is in bringing it up. IBM is an unattainable legend of grandiose design for most designers. From Rand's logo to VSA's annual reports, designers covet — and are taught to covet since college — clients like IBM. Even on Design Observer, we feel nostagic about such great patrons of design. I think acknowledging what David has brought up could help in becoming, or trying to become, more aware of clients' past and present activities, even if it's just to make an informed decision on whether to say yes or no to a client.

The harder question is, knowing this, would it be possible to say no to IBM if it came knocking on our doors?

On Oct.26.2004 at 01:41 PM
graham’s comment is:

Gunnar: "Evoking the death camps may let us off too easily."

yes, and . . .

ignorance is no excuse, nor is not speaking out (i know from experience). but, as you (gunnar) say, where do we start? i don't believe there is an answer-your example of only working with start-ups eerily (coincidentally?) echoes elem klimov's visual depiction of this philosophical question in relationship to hitler at the end of his masterpiece film, "come and see". as you say-"Evoking the death camps may let us off too easily." the understanding that tacit agreement with respect to, say, the reduction of detailed, useful, perhaps complex text to a series of pat key phrases because "no one will read that many words" is in all cases a very serious matter might be that starting point. in "evoking the death camps" there is implicit the reminder that even the smallest matter should not pass unnoticed. is that all?

yes, and . . .

On Oct.26.2004 at 01:52 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Brands are not evil or good. People are.

How far back, and how comprehensive should the blame go? And should subsequent generations be asked to not only remember, but to pass on the legacy of hate — no matter how justified?

There are so many companies and entities that had a part in WWII. I found out a few years ago that the company that makes Wusthof-Trident kitchen knives made all of the bayonets and ceremonial knives for the German army, including the Hitler youth group and the SS. What about Braun? Their coffee makers and shavers used to be weapons of war and torture. And how about Volkswagen, or Mercedes, or Lufthansa airlines?

Let's not forget the Asian-Pacific war. What part did Fuji Heavy Industries (parent co. to Toyota and Subaru) play in the bombing of Pearl Harbor? And so on.

This brand guilt and persecution is pointless. I'm not suggesting that corporations shouldn't be accountable, but it serves no purpose to suggest that this debt to humanity must still be repaid by these companies.

Boycotting work or consumption of these brands won't change history.

On Oct.26.2004 at 02:02 PM
david stairs’s comment is:

The use of IBM as a value-added design model is employed here to suggest that no for-profit corporation can ever be fully trusted. Corporations are money-generating entities that damage communities, environments, individuals, people's ability to self-govern, etc. In the annals of corporate obscenity IBM's case is particularly repugnant because they played both ends against the middle, supporting the Third Reich until it was no longer politic, then becoming a patriotic U.S. military contractor until it was time to swoop in and scoop up the profits placed in escrow by assiduous Dehomag managers for after the war. (Read the book, but don't let me know about your IBM stock holdings)

At AIGA Vancouver David Orr was one of the keynote speakers. His book, "The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention" should be required reading in all design programs. Two weeks ago I was again at an AIGA conference, this time FutureHistory in Chicago. Here one of the speakers (they're all blending together) had already forgetten the lessons Orr gave in Vancouver, maintaining that we "move much faster than nature," or words to that effect, a typical defense of the techno-corporate paradigm.

Have I lost my mind? How does this relate to IBM and the Holocaust? Simple. What designers need, more than any brand blog, is to change the way they look at the world. As Orr contends, this involves implementation of "slow wisdom." New models of professional practice don't leap fully-formed from Jove's brow. It's more like a collective breech birth, extremely painful, even life-threatening.

Elsewhere on this site I've quoted Victor Margolin's claim that, "Design is essentially a middle class profession that has delivered a comfortable life for middle class people, while also indulging the wealthy." Like many others, David Orr among them, Margolin is searching for an alternative to the ascendant paradigm of unrelenting technological expansion combined with dominating world capital. He writes: “Should designers wish to direct their knowledge and skills to the satisfaction of human needs, they are faced with the fact that a system of support to achieve this end is necessary. They must therefore create situations of practice themselves or else find partners with whom they can work.” This may mean developing alternatives to work-for-hire in a market economy, but heh, anything's better than corporate plausible deniability.

Brand persecution? Holocaust denial? Working for start-ups? My colleagues betray professional cupidity. If there is a lesson here it's that designers need to get their thumbs out of their butts, or, unlike Little Jack Horner, the plumb we collectively pull out will not be such a good thing afterall.

On Oct.26.2004 at 05:06 PM
Greg’s comment is:

I think the point of the essay was missed. Gunnar asks,

"What do you think is the real lesson here?"

Leave it to Gunnar to critique the critique of a book that is critical of IBM's place in WWII. When do we stop talking about talking and actually talk? The real lesson is not to boycott IBM because previous employees did things that might be considered morally questionable. It's not about IBM at all (anymore). The real lesson is to take a good hard look at the next assignment you take on, or you might accidentally wind up on their end of the pool, with your hands in the air saying, "But I didn't know!" Are you helping kids get fat at a fast food restaurant? Are you asking people to fund an organization that may have terrorist ties? Are you helping a corporation gloss over the fact that they are harmful to the environment? Whatever your beliefs, are you holding to them, or do you only have beliefs when someone asks you? As designers we all have the power to persuade, and much more so than the average human. But with that power comes the responsibility to use it with care.

On Oct.26.2004 at 05:20 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

It is always good to be reminded that the design work we do to advance the success of our clients may, in fact, be supporting an organization involved in unethical practices. Being diligent in scrutinizing our clients’ practices must be a part of our own ethical behavior. Point taken, David, and seconded.

However, I have to disagree an assumption you seem to make -- similar to one made by Naomi Klein in “No Logo” -- which makes branding synonymous with bad corporate activities. Like Tan said, brands (and branding) are not evil or good. I use branding approaches to help not-for-profits, charitable organizations, and government agencies make meaningful connections with their constituents.

We must not be naive as to how our work gets used. We must be aware of who we’re working for, to the best of our ability. But let’s not stifle the value that we can be to organizations that deserve to be heard and seen. And I have no problem with making branding a part of that package.

On Oct.26.2004 at 05:28 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

David—no for-profit corporation can ever be fully trusted

And non-profit organizations can? Nobody has ever “damage[d] communities, environments, individuals, people's ability to self-govern, etc.” for any reason but shareholder dividends.

My colleagues betray professional cupidity. Sorry. Since I was the one quoted (thus, I assume, the avaricious bastard in question) I don’t feel out of line in asking for a bit more syllogism here. How, exactly, did I unwittingly show my baser side?

Note that I asked for clarification about the intent your essay and questioned its effectiveness. You responded by making charges against my character. In decent society this requires an explanation at the very least

Greg—I think the point of the essay was missed. Gunnar asks, “What do you think is the real lesson here?” Leave it to Gunnar to critique the critique of a book that is critical of IBM's place in WWII. When do we stop talking about talking and actually talk?

The point of the essay was missed, at least by me. I think it is possible that the point of the essay is missing. I can make several guesses about the point. Any or all may be correct but if someone can help me understand it will save me responding to ideas that I have made up for the lack of a clear idea clearly stated.

I’m sure you must mean “talking about talking” in the sense of avoidance of important subjects but the talking is, after all, all we’ve got here. For a website whose subject is essentially verbal rhetoric about visual rhetoric, talking about talking seems appropriate.

Depending on what David meant, the story of IBM and the Third Reich was probably a fascinating diversion from the real talking you urge us to get to. If the point is that we need to make difficult ethical considerations, why compare it all to an easy one? As I said, it lets us off too easily. Neither I nor any of my clients has shoveled thirteen million people into ovens and caused the deaths of thirty million and the physical destruction of so much else. I pass the test. I don’t have to think about it. As a piece of ethical rhetoric, a call for making the hard decisions, it is weak.

There’s a cliché in the legal biz: Extreme cases make bad law. Telling us not to collaborate with the Nazis doesn’t tell us much about who else to not collaborate with. Stalin. Pol Pot. Who else?

If, OTOH, the lesson is anyone who does anything for money will do everything for money then it is not merely weak, it’s offensive and stupid.

If the lesson is that entities that we admire for their use of design are not always otherwise admirable (and, by extension, that the best looking can doesn’t always contain the best food) then, Duh.

So yes. The point of the essay was missed. Can you help me out with some explanation?

On Oct.26.2004 at 07:26 PM
Karon Miller’s comment is:

I have David as a teacher and I can say that he likes to make his students think outside the box. His point just may be to make you think about what you are doing as a designer. Do you really know the companies that are using your designs and what connections do these companies have around the world? I think the point of the article was to say that designers have a moral obligation to make sure that their designs and ideas are used to support a belief system that mimics their own. And if it doesn't then they need to be prepared to deal with the personal and professional fallout that can occur as a result.

On Oct.26.2004 at 08:37 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Karon—When David is not making you think outside the box, does he talk about, well, design? Things like clarity, communication, effective rhetoric, or persuasiveness?

“Do you really know the companies that are using your designs and what connections do these companies have around the world?” In the case of my clients I’d say, yes. I pretty well know what they are doing. Most of my work is for non-profits, community groups, environmental organizations, cultural organizations, universities. . . you know, the “good guys.” A few others are the sort of scum who want to make money—small and medium sized businesses. Hey! The universities. I don’t know what goes on in every lab. Should I?

You seem to be raising two points. One is an answer to my question. Thanks. “His point just may be to make you think about what you are doing as a designer” I suspect that it is not “just” that. I’m not sure what else it is.

The other point you raised is the introduction of what seem to be your answers for what a designer should or should not do. Although “Do you really know the companies that are using your designs and what connections do these companies have around the world?” is phrased as a question, it seems to be a statement that one should know and one should not work for those that do what you consider wrong, bad, or evil. I can’t argue with that. I agree. I support you 100% on that.

When phrased in that manner, it’s easy. When an extreme example is given—Would you design a computer system to identify the people who would, as a result of your work, be sent to camps to be systematically exterminated?—it’s pretty easy, too. Life is harder (and more interesting) than that.

On Oct.26.2004 at 09:44 PM
Don Julio’s comment is:

The harder question is, knowing this, would it be possible to say no to IBM if it came knocking on our doors?

Even if it were possible (but why would you really say no to IBM today?), who would we call to do this prequalifying investigation of potential clients, the Design Police? If we discover post mortem that the client has been consumed by the dark side, should we refund the money and take back our work?

Okay, so I'm thinking - not blinking - but should I add a new cost center in the estimating category for deep preemptive research? Can I mark up my private investigator costs by 20%? What steps are you advocating here, or is it just that we should continue talking?

Corporations are not evil - I personally dislike that generalization - but by sheer size they are always the easy targets. Big = Bad. Many have grown as a result of successful business plans and good management. Even if there are enough to tarnish the image, what is the qualifier for evaluating them? Perhaps a corporate rating system at badcorporations.com?

On Oct.26.2004 at 10:15 PM
Michael H.’s comment is:

Damn.

I'm not sure what the requirements are to be an author here... but why isn't Gunnar one? Just curious.

Karen, I'm glad that David has you guys thinking outside the box. I for one am in awe with his history lesson about IBM's involvment with both sides of WWII, but I was left scratching my head wondering what the point was. I figured it for an enlightning and reflective... history lesson, because I couldn't draw the parallel between the brand of IBM, and what he describes as a situation where people that were employed in positions within IBM to make the decisions to support both sides of the war. Like Tan said, "Brands are not evil or good. People are."

In something very similar to this discussion, AIGA Voice has a great downloadable PDF by David St.-Lascaux comparing and diessecting two (what seems to be) directly opposing logos in the search of answering which is the better designed logo: the swastika or the peace symbol?

On Oct.26.2004 at 10:17 PM
Matthew Rodgers’s comment is:

I'm reminded of the conversation in Clerks, about the Death Star and the contracted workers of the Empire... how they were not innocent workers; they knew who they were working for and what the risks were. I think that's the point of the article, know who you're working for, and make sure their activities (profit or non-profit) don't conflict with your ethics.

On Oct.26.2004 at 11:33 PM
Greg’s comment is:

Depending on what David meant, the story of IBM and the Third Reich was probably a fascinating diversion from the real talking you urge us to get to.

I don't think so. In that day, prejudices were rampant. You only have to look at our own segregation and mistreatment of african-americans or the herding of japanese-americans into camps during WWII. So the question that IBM had to answer and chose to remain silent on wasn't as clear then as it would have been today. Are there issues that today are cloudy, but will seem as clear in 50 years as the ethical dilemma of helping nazis seems today? Issues that we might be helping to promote the wrong side of? David's point is that we have to choose sides now, not just when the dust clears and there is an established victor. We have to be the ones leading the evolution of morality, since we're in such a powerful position to influence.

On Oct.27.2004 at 11:38 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Greg—Issues that we might be helping to promote the wrong side of? David's point is that we have to choose sides now, not just when the dust clears and there is an established victor. We have to be the ones leading the evolution of morality, since we're in such a powerful position to influence.

Care to mention a few of these? I’m not disagreeing with your statement. When I was ordained as a minister in the Universal Life Church in Sproul Plaza in 1970, I asserted my allegiance to the church’s doctrine, belief in what’s right. I haven’t changed my position. Now that we all agree that we should do good, does anyone want to ’fess up to what you think that means?

David seems to believe that all for-profit corporations inevitably do evil thus promoting them is wrong. Is that the cutting edge of ethical prognostication?

On Oct.27.2004 at 12:05 PM
Greg’s comment is:

David seems to believe that all for-profit corporations inevitably do evil thus promoting them is wrong. Is that the cutting edge of ethical prognostication?

Again, I respectfully disagree. I don't think the opening paragraphs should be interpreted as "branding is evil, don't do it." I think it should be interpreted as, "Branding is a powerful tool, use it with care." No one talks about the power they wield, they just wield it, for better or worse. David's essay is not supposed to be a list of things to boycott for their "evilness." That's up to the personal ethics of each designer. You asked me to mention things that are morally unacceptable for a designer to work on. I can only speak from my own personal (and admittedly young and naive) perspective, but here you go:

Cigarettes kill, and they're addictive. I'd never help Marlboro refine their image, nor do a cigarette ad, no matter the payment. I'd also never do work for a large multinational corporation known for putting small businesses out of business through questionable business practices. Large superstores are fine for large cities, but for small towns (such as the one I grew up in) they're death for small businesses, and ultimately for the towns themselves. I'd also never do work for a fast food company that didn't offer healthy alternatives. Companies that acknowledge that their food is fattening are fine, so long as they're not trying to sell you on convenience while turning a blind eye to health and nutrition. I wouldn't knowingly do work for a corporation that is cooking books to get people to invest their hard earned money in an enterprise that will eventually go belly up.

These aren't strict guidelines, either. I'd have to look at each circumstance and the work I was being asked to do. But I think David's point is that there are a lot of branding consultancies, designers, and others that haven't really thought about such things, and are just doing whatever comes their way without deciding whether or not it's right.

On Oct.27.2004 at 01:16 PM
Don Julio’s comment is:

But I think David's point is that there are a lot of branding consultancies, designers, and others that haven't really thought about such things, and are just doing whatever comes their way without deciding whether or not it's right.

There's no "what's next" component here, or suggestion on how to peel back the company layers and see the man (or persons) behind the curtain. The primary information is typically coming from the company itself. Nike might be a good example with sweatshop issues, yet they constantly produce great design work and communicate a strong and vibrant brand.

You can start a "design blacklist", or consider Adbusters as a source of who is supposed to be "socially irresponsible", but really - what criteria is there to carry forward here once you get past a few big targets? Some are more obvious than others (ie., tabacco), but with limited information at our disposal, the decision to work with some companies is really based on a superficial review paired with a quick gut check.

On Oct.27.2004 at 01:45 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Greg - I'm curious, what are your personal feelings about designing for the liquor industry.

On Oct.27.2004 at 01:50 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Greg—I wrote that “David seems to believe that all for-profit corporations inevitably do evil thus promoting them is wrong. Is that the cutting edge of ethical prognostication?” and you claimed that he did not.

How is one to interpret

“no for-profit corporation can ever be fully trusted”

and

“Corporations are money-generating entities that damage communities, environments, individuals, people's ability to self-govern, etc.”

?

Perhaps David will clarify.

You (i.e., Greg) claim that the Nazi stuff was to show that ethics develop and we should be aware of how things will look in fifty years. Not promoting a product that kills people is something one has to think about and consider what it will look like in fifty years? “[L]arge multinational corporation known for putting small businesses out of business through questionable business practices”? Damn. That’s a subtle one, too.

Graham talked about actual ethical dilemmas. They are much more subtle and troublesome than the question of whether to support Nazi genocide or the sales of lethal poisons. Why the bold show of the refusal to do the unthinkable?

As long as we’re talking about ethics:

David—Earlier I quoted you: “My colleagues betray professional cupidity.” and I responded: “Sorry. Since I was the one quoted (thus, I assume, the avaricious bastard in question) I don’t feel out of line in asking for a bit more syllogism here. How, exactly, did I unwittingly show my baser side?

Note that I asked for clarification about the intent your essay and questioned its effectiveness. You responded by making charges against my character. In decent society this requires an explanation at the very least.

I was serious. Unlike my friend Maven, I do not use bold type lightly. I also do not make accusations about people’s characters lightly. Nor do I take accusations about my character lightly. Either a coherent explanation or a brief apology will do.

On Oct.27.2004 at 02:24 PM
Greg’s comment is:

There's no "what's next" component here, or suggestion on how to peel back the company layers and see the man (or persons) behind the curtain.

Ok...sorry about that. I thought it was clear. Decide personally. Put some research into it. Don't rely on some "blacklist."

Greg - I'm curious, what are your personal feelings about designing for the liquor industry.

I wondered if this wouldn't come up. I actually wouldn't mind doing work for SOME alcohol companies. A lot of them don't really purport to do anything but enhance a good time. I realize that under the right circumstances, it's addictive, and when consumed in rediculous quantities can be fatal, but that really seems more like a personal flaw in the individual consuming alcohol. I also think cigarettes can fall under this category, but unfortunately they tend to be much more habit forming, and more health-inhibiting. Also, most alcohol companies have programs dealing with drinking responsibly. It's harder to "smoke responsibly." That said, many liquor companies are just out for profits and not to promote a good product. It's really just a judgement call. I also acknowledge that I might be wrong.

Not promoting a product that kills people is something one has to think about and consider what it will look like in fifty years? “[L]arge multinational corporation known for putting small businesses out of business through questionable business practices”? Damn. That’s a subtle one, too.

Touche'. (an aside- how do I type the accented e?) My only real response to this is that someone designs for Wally World and Camel Lights ads. I'm sure they don't worry about who they're hurting, just where their next paycheck's coming from.

OK, so I put it out there who I would and woudn't design for. Someone else? Maybe Gunnar can illustrate more clearly the type of ethical dilemma that he'd want a response to. Maybe David could elucidate. BTW - I love this quote - I do not use bold type lightly. Definitely poster-worthy.

On Oct.27.2004 at 03:27 PM
Michael H.’s comment is:

> (an aside- how do I type the accented e?)

Option+"e" and then the "e" key again.

é

On Oct.27.2004 at 03:37 PM
sheepstealer’s comment is:

Greg’s comment about working for the producers of alcohol included the phrase:

I realize that under the right circumstances, it's addictive, and when consumed in rediculous quantities can be fatal, but that really seems more like a personal flaw in the individual consuming alcohol.

I think that phrase can summarize our whole dialog.

How many terrorists communicate using outlook? How many drunk drivers kill someone while driving a 4Runner? And let's not forget how many sports heroes are accused of killing their ex-wives wielding Swiss Army knives and wearing Bruno-Maglis. So am I promoting terrorism, drunk driving, and murder if I design for these companies?

I don't suppose IBM wrote a creative brief to their designers that said, “We'd like to show how our technology can easily track names of the people you don't like. And after their elimination let us show you how easily the un-needed names are deleted.” Of course I'd never accept a job under those pretenses.

I think it's really easy to point fingers at others whose shoes we've never stood in. I'm not going to turn a blind eye and say that I don't carry responsibility for the companies I promote through design. But I also think it's presumtuous to assume that IBM was sitting back and saying, “Hey, let's see if we can make a bunch of cash by helping the Nazis kill people.”

So here's what I take away:

1) If my client asks me to do something I don't believe in, I shouldn't do it.

2) If my client starts doing something I don't believe in, I should decline further work and tell them why.

3) If my client's customers start doing things I don't believe in... I don't think I can take responsibility for “the personal flaws of the individual.”

On Oct.27.2004 at 09:05 PM
david stairs’s comment is:

Gunnar—

"Cupidity" was a poor word choice and I apologize right here before the entire world. You may or may not be cupid, sir, but you most certainly are captious.

How else explain the pettifogging questions and middle-school malice? It's obvious you had a second-degree case of dudgeon long before I ever responded, probably over being quoted in the first place, so let's drop the histrionics and Socratic sleight-of-hand.

In venturing to lecture me about "clarity, communication, effective rhetoric, or persuasiveness" through my student Karon Miller you've provided the perfect example of the very professional shortcoming I was trying to expose: myopia.

Designers don't read, at least not widely enough. Not that I expect them to read what I recommend, except to follow my arguments. But design monographs don't cut it as reading material. Nor, for that matter, do my posts to this site.

When I suggest that the sad story told by Edward Black about the Holocaust has connotations for designers, it's not that I believe anything I can ever say can begin to address that horror. But the way IBM benefitted from the use of its technology is closer to the way Dow Chemical benefitted from the use of Agent Orange, knowingly and wittingly, than the way Toyota benefits from a militia using its trucks. I hope this is obvious.

In describing what went wrong with the corporate model after the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad decision David Orr says:

"That decision, and others subsequently, have placed U.S. corporations beyond effective public control. The right to use their wealth as persons enables them to influence the votes of legislators and to evade the law and weaken its administration. Exercising their right of free speech, corporations fill the airwaves with incessant advertisements that condition and weaken the public mind. The exercise of their economic power creates dependencies that undermine public resolve. Their sheer pervasiveness erodes the basis for alternative, and more sustainable, ways to provision society. The practical effect is that corporations are seldom motivated to do what is in the long-term interest of humanity if it costs them much. And were they to do so, their stockholders could sue them for failing to maximize returns to capital. It is hardly possible to conceive of any long-lived society that provisions itself by agents so powerful yet so unaccountable and so focused on short-term profit maximization." And this guy was a keynote speaker at the Power of Design conference. Was anybody listening?

Further examples are legion. Look at When Corporations Rule the World by David Korten, or the analysis of the Report of the Club of Rome, for starters. The latter reviews all models of the future, pessimistic and optimistic, concluding that we won't be rescued by technology.

Am I off track again??? Damn proseltyzing tendencies. And I've never even been ordained!

Perhaps I should have called the Faustian bargain a Procrustean bed, a Pyhrric victory, or a Platonic solid. At least then the literalists would be less likely to be blinded by their own noses.

To Greg, Graham, Armin, and my students...thanks for the covering fire. I hope you have found this as amusing as I have. Read the books. And don't forget to dot and cross those rhetorical i's and t's!

On Oct.28.2004 at 01:34 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

David—Apology accepted. Yes. Captious, myopic, and (although you didn’t mention it) presbyopic, too (although vastly less the second and a bit more the third since the Lasik surgery a few years ago.) I will, however, plead not guilty to being pissed about being quoted. We all love seeing our names evoked and since I wasn’t much more clear on your intentions for quoting me than I was on the rest of your article, I had no good reason to take offense.

What did offend me was a pattern of muddled thinking, counter-factual assertions, and unwarranted implications. (The characterization is not a sample of belligerence on my part; it’s just an attempt at an accurate description.)

I didn’t consider my initial post to be as hostile as you seemed to. I opened and closed with the substance of my post: How did you hope we would respond and what did you think the real lesson was? I didn’t think that merely asking the simple questions would make my confusion clear enough to elicit and answer so I gave some specifics for my confusion. Most of it was prodding rather than an attack. In retrospect, my snarky picking at the Faust metaphor was not useful. I apologize to you for the nastiness and to all for the counter-productivity.

I confess that I haven’t read Edward Black’s book but when it came out I read and heard several lengthy reviews and interviews and was familiar with his charges. The juxtaposition of Black’s story and Rand’s work is fascinating. It seems a short span—fifteen years or so—between the two, bringing to mind a host of questions about IBM employees’ attitudes toward Jews in Germany and conquered territories and the subsequent hiring of Paul Rand to help define their image. It’s not like there was a shortage of gentile graphic designers in the mid fifties. It’s not just a matter of extreme irony but stories that each call into question a simple reading of the other. There’s another book there for anyone with a few years to spare.

I was listening to David Orr. I had a lot of arguments with him (although at this late/early hour I cannot recall specifically what they were.) My arguments with him were not about Sta Clara County v. Southern Pacific. (For anyone who didn’t follow David’s link and is not a student of legal history, the decision is summed up nicely by Ronald Reagan’s famous statement that “corporations are people, too.”) It’s my belief that the logic of that decision should be extended and the extension of the ruling is my one exception to my opposition to the death penalty. Had one or two car companies been disbanded and their assets seized after a murder conviction I can guarantee that nobody in Detroit would even consider letting a vehicle with an exploding gas tank out on the road. Hell, I might even support a public organizational hanging. As an old girlfriend of mine used to say, sometimes the old ways are best.

But the existence of criminal organizations does not lead me to believe that all similarly-structured organizations are irretrievably corrupt. I can name criminal acts by universities yet you and I have each taken paychecks from schools. Many corporations have committed acts that we might agree deserve punishment and social, political, and legal structures need to evolve to deal with large multinationals. But churches, schools, governments, and fraternal organizations have significant and ongoing histories of repugnant and destructive activities. If we are to throw out classes of organizations in the manner you seem to suggest then we need to get ready for subsistence farming and trapping wild rats to get by.

On Oct.28.2004 at 04:14 AM
Rob ’s comment is:

I seem to have read this almost the same way Gunnar did and I feel that David, you are taking the IBM thing and using it to support a position that is at best, incidental. Certainly we hear more about the negative things corporations do, but I find IBM no more responsible for the Holocaust than President Roosevelt who 'heard' of the atrocities going on in Europe and did nothing to stop them.

Could we not then, by your argument, say the same thing about all politicians that you seem to be purporting about corporations? I will paraphrase, that they can't be trusted, they destroy lives, communities and so on. And this based on the actions of IBM during WW II?

I am Jewish and I work for a German company. This company spends literlly millions of dollars in helping to support the communities in which it does business in the US. Through my employment I have had the opportunity to volunteer and tutor children in inner city schools, I have helped a local arts organization get $5000 in grants from the bank for their work teaching art in women's shelters, boy's homes and other places where art seldoms gets the time of day. Is there something here I shouldn't trust? Are we destroying the community?

Your declaration that all corporations are in some way complicit in the evils of the world is way-off base and I'm sure there are plenty of examples of corporations that work to make the world a better place. And certainly, in this specific case, it is not fair to hold the current management and employees of IBM responsible for something that they had no control over. And as a designer, who's looking to feed my family and pay my bills, if IBM knocked on my door tomorrow with a job, I'd take it in a heart beat.

Because the reality to me is that the sins or bad decisions or just pure ignorance or refusal to believe the unbelievable lies in the past. There's no justice in laying the blame on the people who make up IBM today. The truth is you can't blame the past on the now. The world really can't work that way.

On Oct.28.2004 at 03:48 PM
david stairs’s comment is:

Gunnar, I like your idea of extending the death penalty to corporate malfeasance. But this isn't what David Orr is talking about when he calls for "a higher order of competence in the making, use, and eventual reuse of materials than that evident in industrial economies."

Will this mean, as you suggest, that we'll be remaindered to a subsistence lifestyle? Well, could that be any worse than the destructive track we're currently upon? Orr argues for a change in the structure of our system, from a model of waste to a model of resilient sustainability, citing the Amish as example. That this will require lifestyle changes goes without saying, and changes in the ways we feed ourselves and the rate at which we reproduce also. But maybe one day we won't be saying, like Orr does (I believe inacurately), "Our children, consumers in training, can identify over a thousand corporate logos but only a dozen or so plants and animals native to their region."

Sure, we've both worked for universities (competed for the same jobs even, at both UMD and CMU). But if teaching at a publicly-funded land-grant university is the closest I ever get to "working for the man" I'll always be a piker in the annals of institutional corruption.

Rob— First off, we're no longer talking about Germans and Jews here, except metaphorically. Today it would be Muslims and Jews. My article does not accuse IBM of causing the Holocaust, merely of profiteering from it. This is a matter of historical fact, whether you like it or not.

Roosevelt could do very little in the beginning phases of the war; Hitler owned "Fortress Europe." The USAAF's first attacks on Germany did not occur until January 27, 1943, well after The Final Solution had been implemented.

Your volunteer work in your community through work release, or however your company arranges it, is great. But have you checked your company's environmental record, its policy on outsourcing, whether it demands tax breaks, or subcontracts foreign slave labor? As the artist Hans Haacke demonstrated in his seminal 70s work, Upstairs at Mobil, the enlightened self-interest of major corporations, in this case Mobil's sponsorship of Public Broadcasting and the arts, is often just a highly visible public relations diversion from corporate predation.

It's very hard to get people, especially designers, so-called creatives, to consider alternate paradigms. The level of denial is tremendously high, cataracts socially educed from an early age and terminally reinforced in art school. But that's what I hoped to have people think about with this piece.

On Nov.02.2004 at 11:57 AM
Kevin McGuire’s comment is:

The harder question is, knowing this, would it be possible to say no to IBM if it came knocking on our doors?

Even harder than that: would it be possible to say no to IBM if they weren't going to pay you?

What if no one knew who did the work, so you couldn't add it to your portfolio?

In other words, would you do work for IBM just because you think they're swell?

On Nov.04.2004 at 01:15 AM
rasya’s comment is:

Hi David,

It is an interesting one...:)

______________________
Rasya.P

Did you know there is a new cool and intimate new sushi place in Rome which offers high quality Japanese foods for eating or take-away, and offers great hand-made cakes and free wifi to all customers? http://naoko-sushi-roma.blogspot.com/

On Mar.29.2008 at 05:20 AM