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Graphic Design in Search of Conscience
By David Stairs

The recent spate of “cross-cultural” activity in U.S. design circles would be a breath of fresh air under most circumstances. International seminars and conventions are not new to design organizations from other parts, but here in America the experience seems to be novel.

When it reformatted its online design forum, the AIGA saw fit to include a category for cross cultural design issues. The initiative’s first chair and website moderator, Christopher Liechty, and its current moderator, Carolyn McCarron, both have articles posted and, to judge from their comments, cross-cultural design has come into its own as a hot topic worthy of greater attention by American designers.

Liechty’s piece, an enthusiastic essay entitled “It’s Springtime for Cross-Cultural Design in the U.S.” also recently appeared on the ICOGRADA website’s weekly essay page. Liechty describes how designers from Seattle joined with their Canadian counterparts to sponsor an ICOGRADA regional meeting in Vancouver that led to the formation of the AIGA Cross-Cultural initiative. He goes on to say that the AIGA National Conference was held in Vancouver B.C. in October 2003 “…to emphasize the need to consider international issues in design.”

McCarron, who writes a regular column for Communication Art’s Design Issues page, multiply posts one of her CA articles at the AIGA site. Entitled “America The Greedy: Changing world perception through corporate branding,” the piece cites attempts by branding gurus Mark Gobé and Chris Riley to navigate the shoals of responsible branding, and documents the Landor project to resurrect BP’s image as an environmentally conscientious corporation (Beyond Petroleum).

In a rather tart response to her piece on the AIGA website, I criticized McCarron for saying “Terrorism is the dark side of globalization and our new world economy.” However, the more I reflect on it the more I think she is inadvertantly right. As allegations surface about Bush family connections to Osama bin Laden’s family, and we further scrutinize the ways in which the U.S. armed both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in the ’80s, the terrible irony begins to seep in. Globalization begets terrorism.

The problem with these cross-cultural articles arises, in my mind, at the juncture of conflicted professional self-interest. Both of these authors are invested in the success of globalization, in spite of its obvious shortcomings. In fact, in another lengthy article at the CA site entitled “Expanding Our Field of Vision” McCarron quotes Liechty on how a return to relevancy equates with expanding world market share for clients. In a world of overwhelming shortages of basic human necessities, I fear design writing that focuses on such discussions reinforces a perception of professional insularity.

More appropriate to the task at hand is design historian Victor Margolin’s recently published essay, “Healing the World: A Challenge for Designers.”1 Delivered at Archeworks Chicago in October 2003, at about the same time AIGA members were waxing more international in one of North America’s most desirable vacation spots, Margolin brilliantly vindicates his earlier hesitations about socially-driven design initiatives. In lengthy descriptions of the concept of civil society, and citing exemplary organizations like the World Social Forum, he outlines an agenda for design without mincing words. He criticizes design as “…essentially a middle class profession that has delivered a comfortable life for middle class people, while also indulging the wealthy.” This echoes William Morris’ comments about catering to “the swinish luxury of the rich,” in the last century. And Margolin absolutely nails the complicity between designers and industry where he says: “Governments have been diverted instead by designers who push for federally funded design councils to enhance market performance rather than provide social services.”

Elsewhere I have written about economist David Korten’s characterization of the difference between shareholders and stakeholders. Shareholders are investors in for-profit corporations who expect and generally receive a return on their investment. Stakeholders are those of us who are dependent upon the commons for clean food, air and water, or security from danger, and believe in the efficacy of strong social institutions, like healthy farming methods, or universal healthcare. Traditionally, designers have worked for shareholders at the expense of the rest of society. Margolin says, “Historically, the public has not understood design to be a socially conscious practice. Design has been closely allied with the market and has developed in collaboration with organizations that offer products and services for sale.”

Of course, that is changing, or so we are led to believe by the moderators of the AIGA Cross-Cultural forum. I, for one, would like them to be correct in this observation. But I don’t believe that groups of middle class American designers traveling abroad to meet with groups of middle class foreign designers will accomplish much other than tame resolutions. For instance, few people in the world will be qualitatively affected by the strategic alliance of ICOGRADA and the AIGA, in spite of what this might mean for those organizations.

Now, there is nothing wrong with good intentions. Building bridges of cultural exchange is one small means of reducing tension in the world. And I agree with Liechty’s rallying cry that “…there is no way any one person from any country or culture can know everything about all the others.” This is self-evident. What goes unspoken here is that some people, like Victor Papanek was, will always be more effective than others at inducing change.

Margolin 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.” He refers to the example of architect Jaime Lerner, mayor of Curitiba, Brazil in the 70s and 80s, who became famous for his efforts in transportation and recycling. As with other innovators, Lerner created his own initiative, then found the means to implement it.

It will not be as apologists for international branding, or as participants at cross-cultural colloquia that designers will have a lasting impact on their world. As Margolin says, “Those who already live comfortably are easily lulled into complacency by a new Palm Pilot…” And complacency in the face of worldwide corporate expansion is not the thing designers need to be remembered for.

In an earlier era Victor Papanek wrote, “Design fails to satisfy people to the degree to which it is professionalized and it can satisfy people only to the extent to which it can again be made participatory.”2 Let us designers, in Margolin’s turn of phrase, “build social capital.” Let us travel abroad, not just read foreign papers. Let us live among our fellows not merely to work with foreign designers to “localize globalization”, but to know others better. Let us, in the words of diplomats, build capacitance, not by improving corporate market share, but by assisting our fellows at an interpersonal level. In so doing we build the only acceptable world of tomorrow, a society of stakeholders mutually interrelated by our common humanity, that great granddaddy of all brands.

1. The lecture was recently published in a small book entitled “Archeworks Papers 1” by Archeworks in Chicago. To order visit: www.archeworks.org/new/index.html
2. V. Papanek, “Edugraphology—The Myths of Design and the Design of Myths” in Looking Closer Three. New York: Allworth, 1999, pp. 251-255.

David Stairs is a designer and educator who believes that design for commerce is only one aspect of design. In 2000 Mr. Stairs founded Designers Without Borders (www.designerswithoutborders.org), the world’s first non-profit exclusively devoted to assisting developing nations through communication design.

His latest essay, “Altruism as Design Methodology”, is scheduled for fall publication in DesignIssues. Mr. Stairs teaches at Central Michigan University.
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PUBLISHED ON Jun.11.2004 BY Speak Up
Matt Waggner’s comment is:

That's an impressive survey, David -- maybe now that Reagan has passed on, we can finally get along with the business of multiculturalism (in a manner of speaking).

More and more, I'm hearing about the "stakeholder" model, "Socially Responsible Investing", and a general acknowlegement that our system doesn't protect our cultural values as well as our economic ones. I wonder if in the next big boom, we designers will just grab the tail of the tiger and let it take us for a ride (again), or if we'll finally decide to start steering the market -- advertising and planned obsolecense -- that we helped raise up from a kitten to a beast.

Where else have you written about the stakeholder model and design? I'd love to read more, it seems like a topic that's really ripe for discussion.

On Jun.12.2004 at 02:37 AM
David Stairs’s comment is:


The essay mentioned at the foot of my credits is due out in the autumn issue of Design Issues, a little MIT Press journal published quarterly.

On Jun.14.2004 at 08:43 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Excellent essay David. It's a very fair assessment of the cross-cultural design initiative.

I've been marginally involved with the group since its inception, and will, in fact, be working more with the group and ICOGRADA to organize a Cross-cultural design conference in Seattle in 2005.

But unlike Liechty, I still have reserved judgement and doubts regarding the ultimate efficacy of the group's actions — mainly because of the reasons you've outline. I agree with your assessment that there is indeed, a conflict of professional self-interest. Even with the best intentions, we will accomplish nothing by just interacting with international designers who work in the same world of commerce that we do. Yes, we must be careful that this cross-cultural design effort is nothing more than a bunch of designers traveling internationally to brown-nose each other, all under the guise of global concern. Even worse, if the ultimate goal of the group is to propagate the lasting impact of 'international branding', then I'll be the first to denounce its hypocrisy and futility.

But I don't believe that's the case — which is why I am still involved.

I believe that it's possible for the cross-cultural group to get past the idealistic tone that Chris Liechty seemed to exude (in his defense, that's how he is — always very positive and optimistic). The group is more than capable of real-world thinking. Secondly, I think it's possible for designers in the group who benefit from global commerce to think and act in ways beyond their professional self-interest. I work for Landor, and am a perfect testament to that attempt. And thirdly, I think it's possible for designers to remember that they are people first, global citizens second, and designers third.

In your definitions — I think it's possible for designers to serve shareholder clients, yet at the same time, live and empower themselves as stakeholders in their community. To "Heal the World" as designers. It's a worthwhile attempt that I think might affect more global change than holding events to celebrate protest posters amongst ourselves or pat each other on the back about how outspoken and politically brave we are.

>Few people in the world will be qualitatively affected by the strategic alliance of ICOGRADA and the AIGA, in spite of what this might mean for those organizations.

For the record, AIGA is not a member of ICOGRADA. The main reason is because that AIGA believes that few of its members would benefit from the union of the two organizations. As a result, Cross-cultural Design was formed by a dedicated group of AIGA leaders in an effort to prove otherwise. I think they have a good chance.


Again, great essay. I'll see if I can get Chris Liechty or a few others from the group to join the discussion and give their own take on the matter.

On Jun.14.2004 at 01:34 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Btw, I think this is a great topic that would be better categorized under 'discussion', instead of buried in the essay section.

On Jun.14.2004 at 01:43 PM
Armin’s comment is:

You got it babe.

I have brought the essays section to the "front". For some reason I originally thought it would be a good idea to have them "separate". Anyhow, they are now on the main page.

On Jun.14.2004 at 01:57 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Thanks hun.

On Jun.14.2004 at 02:44 PM
Robert L. Peters’s comment is:

Good essay, David. You have a real way with words. I fully concur with (most of) your comments and I commend you for invoking Papanek and Margolin (though your ongoing criticism of the folks within AIGA that are actually trying to make a difference on the ''Search of Conscience'' front strikes me as odd). Your call to "build social capital..." and to "... assist our fellows at an interpersonal level" sounds exactly like the focus of Icograda. (Icograda sees one of its key aims as being ''to extend design's contribution to understanding among people everywhere,'' as outlined in its statement of purpose).

I first met Victor Papanek in Glasgow in 1983 (he was one of the keynote speakers at the Icograda/ICSID/IFI World Design Congress there). I still often quote the first lines (from the Preface) of his book Design for the Real World: ''There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don't need, with money they don't have, in order to impress others who don't care, is probably the phoniest field in existance today.'' Ouch.

David, I do take exception to one of your assertions, however... and would like to add a few comments.

For instance, few people in the world will be qualitatively affected by the strategic alliance of ICOGRADA and the AIGA...

The above statement is incorrect. The International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda) does not have a strategic alliance with AIGA. Icograda was founded in 1963 as the world body for professional graphic design and visual communication and it is the representative international non-governmental organisation for graphic design. Icograda has 79 Members (associations) in 45 countries worldwide, and holds consultative status with UNESCO, UNIDO, ISO, and WIPO. AIGA's stated purpose is ''to set the national (i.e. U.S.) agenda for the role of design...'' and AIGA is not a Member of Icograda, as Tan already indicated. There is a core group of outward-looking graphic designers in the U.S. that has established open dialogue with the Icograda board and secretariat in the past few years - and through that connection has started fruitful interaction with designer colleagues in organizations in several different countries (e.g. Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, the Phillipines, India). Christopher Liechty et al formed a 'community of interest' called the 'AIGA Center for Cross-cultural Design' following an Icograda Regional Meeting in Vancouver in February 2002. (For more information about Icograda, visit the website).

As allegations surface about Bush family connections to Osama bin Laden’s family, and we further scrutinize the ways in which the U.S. armed both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in the ’80s...

Hmmm, coincidence? I live in Canada (that's north of the U.S. and the world's longest undefended border). Late one evening last week I was driving home from work while listening to the CBC Radio's 'Fifth Estate,' an internationally respected investigative journalism program that tackles sensitive issues. I was amazed to hear about the close, well-documented ties between the Bush and bin Laden families. Today I looked up the Fifth Estate's online transcripts of the program... Very Interesting!

Finally, at the risk of receiving more hate-mail (no, for the record, I'm not a Marxist and I'm not a conspiracy theorist) here's my favorite (design) quote by Karl Marx, underlining what I consider to be a core principle of responsible, human-centered design practice: ''If human beings are molded by circumstances, it ensues that circumstances should be humanely molded.'' There is much to do.

Thanks, David.

On Jun.14.2004 at 07:26 PM
David Stairs’s comment is:


Thanks for your support of this piece. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.


We've got to stop meeting like this.

You are a great and good defender of design diplomacy (and never miss an opportunity to plug ICOGRADA), but I believe it takes more than diplomacy to right the wrongs in our world.

It may interest you to know that this piece was once scheduled for the June 14th ICOGRADA Weekly webFeature, but then it was held back as "confrontational" and finally rejected as "inappropriate for the feature page." This is a good example of the reasons why I continue to write essays that criticize "the folks within AIGA (and ICOGRADA) that are actually trying to make a difference."

When I say that 99.99% of the people in the world will not be touched in any way by the liason of professional organizations I can't literally back up my stats. But, beside the rhetorical device, my gut tells me I'm near the truth. That and a few years on-the-ground field experience.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to discourage any heartfelt efforts. Each individual must make a donation in her/his best manner. Just don't try to fob off ceremonial initiatives as effective undertakings and expect me to be idle. The AIGA's Cross Cultural Design community of interest did a clever thing with its English/Arabic manifesto, but, given the world's condition, it feels culturally naive to assume we can leave it at that.

I've mentioned before that much of the mail I receive comes from both concerned young people, often students, and young designers actually at work in the trenches of Africa or Latin America. I'm seriously thinking of starting a Socially Committed Young Designers Consortium branch of DWB. To those who find their way into the bush I usually can offer little more than encouragement. But I also lift my hat to them.

Otherwise, to date the discussion emanating from both ICOGRADA and the AIGA, with the exception of Rob's slide show in Vancouver, has been blissfully optimistic. Its time a few skeptics, like Tan, entered the fray and struck a balance.

Me, I'm tired of this now. I'm gonna go paint my house.

On Jun.17.2004 at 10:27 AM
Robert L. Peters’s comment is:

We've got to stop meeting like this.

Hmmm... I thought that was what these forums are for. Am I really that annoying in my ''diplomacy''?

...don't try to fob off ceremonial initiatives as effective undertakings...

You seem to imply (or maybe that's just how I read it) that Icograda is concerned with shallow, ineffective undertakings... I would suggest to you that this is far from the truth. It's too bad that you and other of your American colleagues could not join in the recent Icograda Design Weeks in Istanbul and Sao Paulo. Those who made it to Brazil (Ellen Shapiro, Bennett Peiji and a handful of others) universally commented on how vitally important they felt the inter-cultural exchanges they experienced were to their own understanding of "the other." (Caution, I'm going to plug Icograda here again). You can read what Max Bruinsma (former editor of Eye magazine) had to say in his presentation entitled Crossing Frontiers of Understanding and his full article here on his own website. Max even posted some of his pictures of the Frontieras event. Incidentally, I'd be interested in your (or others') opinion on what Max has to say about design and cultural agency.

David, I have to ask this - are you a malcontent? (That's my sceptical side speaking). While I fully respect your call for more criticism and skepticism, I can't help but wonder why you seem to have it in for organizatons such as Icograda - organizations that are taking real actions to bring about equitable change in the world. It's one thing to fuss and rant, it's another to take action.

Me, I'm tired of this now. I'm gonna go paint my house.

Wow, you have a house? How bourgeois! (kidding, kidding) My friend, I wish you truly fine weather for your painting and may the sun shine warmly on you and your endeavours.

On Jun.17.2004 at 04:19 PM
david stairs’s comment is:


I meant that the web seems like the only place I ever get to talk to you. I'd like to make it to conferences in the far-flung corners of the world, but there's house painting to do (as well as a non-profit to budget for), and it's been a rainy spring.

Actually, given the choice to go somewhere to meet the regular people, or go to a conference to hobnob with foreign peers, there's no question what I'd do. I believe we are cheerleaders for much the same things, just serving different social classes. And you're right. It IS bourgeois to own an old house. But I don't have a stock portfolio, and need a place to sleep so...

Thanks for the Bruinsma link. What little I read reminded me of a recent essay by Michael Beirut on Design Observer. The dichotomy of sedation/activation parallels Beirut's dichotomy of co-optation/marginalization. If we can't find a middleground, I fear, things will not change.

As for malcontentedness, let's just say I can't really keep company with famous dead guys (Morris, Papanek, Wright), but I do agree with them about the popluar conceptions of "expertism" and "professionalism." Such things are illusory.

On Jun.21.2004 at 10:56 AM
Robert L. Peters’s comment is:

...but I do agree with them about the popluar conceptions of "expertism" and "professionalism."

David, don't get me wrong... much of value comes from malcontents and those willing to buck the Polyanna mainstream. You're in good company... For example, here's a lovely indictment of graphic designers by a friend of Dietmar R. Winkler (Director, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne) on being asked for a statement on the value of graphic designers and their contribution to the quality of life.

“Most of you are content with ephemera. In itself that is not negative, but when ephemera are inflated and over-designed beyond the proportions of need and function, then this trivialization is a crime. You have broken the promise to make design responsive and designers responsible. Instead you have become a modish group of stylists, adorning corporate emperors with expensive and unnecessary clothing. You don’t mind being make-up specialists, providing paint jobs over old concepts. While you are rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic you are drifting unaware from the task you originally set out to perform.

In that task, one important mandate was to help a continuously stressed society secure its rights and freedoms, its opportunities for free and unencumbered choice, its accessibility to information, and its opportunity to speak and to express itself freely. Instead you have helped to weaken it by introducing narrow design languages and mechanistic standardization. You lack a social conscience, yet you are arrogantly absorbed in your own delusion of primary importance to society. You perpetuate visual pollution and the generation of waste, which stress the environment, the consumer price structure and our information overload. Your ideals are of a corporate nature: power, influence and profit.

from Icograda: Graphic Design - World Views, 1990

On Jun.21.2004 at 07:33 PM
david stairs’s comment is:

Thanks Rob,

I have a good videotape of Dietmar deconstructing the Bauhaus. Kind of refreshing, really.

On Jun.22.2004 at 08:55 AM