Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility

Can a designer effect political and/or social change? What does it mean to be a responsible designer? What does it mean to be design conscious? Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne don’t really answer these questions, but they do provide some clues in Citizen Designer.

Through essays by: Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Julie Baugnet, Leslie Becker, Roy R. Behrens, Nancy Bernard, J.D. Biersdorfer, Anne Bush, Robbie Conal, Michael Dooley, Stuart Ewen, Thomas Frank, Ken Garland, Peter Hall, Mr. Keedy, Maud Lavin, Victor Margolin, Carolyn McCarron, Katherine McCoy, David Reinfurt, Chris Riley, Chase A. Rogers, Michael Schmidt, Judith Schwartz, Matt Soar, Gunnar Swanson, Susan S. Szenasy, Teal Triggs, Tucker Viemeister, David Vogler, and Cheryl Towler Weese. And interviews with Fabrizio Gilardino, Milton Glaser, Kalle Lasn, Robert Menard, Don Norman, Mark Randall, David Sterling, Stanley Tigerman, and Shawn Wolfe. (That’s a lot of people!).

Graphic designers have the power to influence people — by designing the products they buy, the magazines they read, the information they receive to vote, what they shop for, and in many more ways than most are aware of. What they design has a strong social repercussion in the every-day world of hundreds, thousands or even millions of people (think I [heart] NY by Milton Glaser). What they do for a living every day, can and will impact at least one life.

What does it mean to be a designer in this corporate-driven, over-branded, global consumer culture? Who are designers responsible to? Who do these designers work for? Are they researching clients, making sure these are not fraudulent, polluting or abusing? Do they still work for them? Do they take a stand? Or figure bills need to be paid? What is responsible design?

This book is full of questions aimed at designers across all disciplines and ages of our profession, from branding, to video games, from school violence to improving the environment or plagiarism. The book is broken up in the following manner:

Part I: Social Responsibility
Part II: Professional Responsibility
Part III: Artistic Responsibility
Part IV: Raves and Rants

In every section we find dissatisfied designers, or individuals in the design profession who are questioning the way things are done, or who have found a better way of doing things, and they have a good reason to expect change from you and their peers. Katherine McCoy finds that many designers practice self-censorship and do not address or communicate in public issues or controversial content, either by fear or disinterest. In an interview by Heller, Milton Glaser talks about his update to the I•NY logo following September 11th. Judith Shwartz questions the growing form of corporate sponsorship, while Maud Lavin addresses design criticism.

While the subjects are many, they seem to overlap in several occasions (First Things First Manifesto) and seem to be primarily focused to the US. I wish more debate and information regarding public service, by which I mean signage, consumer labels or emergency communications was covered.

Designers are usually predisposed to produce good-looking work, but after reading this book you might think that good design is in actuality, responsible design. Unfortunately this book is not a spring-board towards action for designers.

Book Information
Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility Edited by Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne
Paperback: 259 pages
Publisher: Watson-Guptill Publications (August 2003)
ISBN: 1581152655
Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Dec.15.2004 BY bryony
Jason T.’s comment is:

I'm pleased to see this book reviewed. Citizen Designer demonstrates how we can work differently. Design can be so many things, and it's beneficial that tomorrow's designer know this. As Sagmeister said in a recent interview, …it would be good if graphic designers would concentrate more on projects whose sole purpose is not to sell. page 30, Metropolis’ January 2005 issue

On Dec.15.2004 at 05:35 PM
Mike Ziegenhagen’s comment is:

We are always selling something whether it be a product, an idea or even ourselves. Unless of course you are designing art posters that no one sees and then hiding them in the bottom of your closet. In which case, not selling.

On Dec.16.2004 at 09:23 AM
Feluxe Socksmell’s comment is:

this is a great book. especially liked the rant section where David Vogel goes off on Verizon logo.

ironically, someone came in here and stole my only copy; probably Sam (we havent heard from him in a while).

On Dec.16.2004 at 09:55 AM
Don Julio’s comment is:

ironically, someone came in here and stole my only copy

What?! First your work, now your book. You may be the most ripped off designer I know.

It's a cruel world. Happy Holidays Feluxe.

PS I've ripped off - well, borrowed anyway, your philosophy about doing logos where they are needed, or when you are inspired to do them, whether they are for paying clients or not. Now I just need a little more time.

PPS Hats off on the red, white and blue elephant book. If only it had mailed a few months earlier. At least now you can get for more years out of the work.

On Dec.16.2004 at 04:29 PM
John Athayde’s comment is:

The AIGA put out a postcard four years ago. It was a close up of the controversial butterfly ballot from Florida.

Overtop were two words in sans serif:


On Dec.17.2004 at 05:24 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

The AIGA put out a postcard four years ago. It was a close up of the controversial butterfly ballot from Florida.

But just before that, USA Today asked several noted graphic designers to show their versions of the ballot. Most didn’t follow the legal and fiscal restrictions. Most added other problems to the ballot. Most didn’t solve the problem given. On the whole, the famous and well-thought-of designers were worse than the county registrar. Graphic design counts but hiring Milton Glaser to do the graphic design wouldn’t make it count any higher.

On Dec.17.2004 at 07:45 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

Gunnar Swanson wrote:

"Most didn’t follow the legal and fiscal restrictions... the famous and well-thought-of designers were worse than the county registrar."

Tan Le wrote:

"[it's] the intangibles that makes a design succeed or fail — irrelevant of goals and clients — or you depend on the minutia of a design's process and production to define success. The latter, I believe, most often leads to just mediocrity... No client/project restrictions can suitably justify poor design. None."

No comment from me. Just placing a juxtaposition.

On Dec.18.2004 at 11:10 AM
John Athayde’s comment is:

I would argue that they, as designers, didn't do their job. Restrictions are challeneges. Not excuses. If an architect ignores building codes (the legal) and client needs (fiscal) then they're in for one hell of a legal battle.

Design is providing a solution within the boundaries given. Why is it that "brand name designers" think themselves better than everyone and that the client needs somehow don't apply to them?

On Dec.18.2004 at 02:07 PM
Eric deRuiter’s comment is:

This is not a comment so much as a question...

Does anyone have any advice on how to get involved election reform as a designer? I feel that part of the problem that has allowed for corruption to take place in elections is poor design of ballots, registration forms, instructions, etc. and I would like to be involved in correcting this and/or drawing attention to it as a problem.

Before the last election I wrote my city's voter registration office and offered my services as a poll worker and as someone who could assess potential problems. They did not take me up on either of my offers.

If not locally is there a way to get involved on a state (I'm in Pa.) or national level?

On Dec.19.2004 at 08:07 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Eric, you should get in touch with AIGA's Design for Democracy group. They have done a lot of work on Illinois' voting system — with many of their recommendations actually getting implemented — and are planning to take on other states.

On Dec.19.2004 at 09:11 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>Just placing a juxtaposition...

...that's completely out of context.

Producing a fire safety sign or functional, legible voting ballot based on voting machine function and fit is not about the intangibilities of "good" design. It's about creating design that serves a function, and serves it competently.

I believe that was Gunnar's point.

On Dec.20.2004 at 10:41 AM
Michael A’s comment is:

I am thrilled to discover your log. And I just ordered the book "Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility." Yes I should read it first then comment, but I couldn't resist. Why? I will tell you if you haven't moved on yet.

I worked at at a social marketing media agency specializing in advocacy campaigns and strategies for nonprofit organizations committed to social issues like women’s rights and reproductive health, AIDS stigma and homophobia, the environment, and many other public interest concerns for ten years. We operated like a commercial agency, but our campaigns communicated messages that sold ideas, informed or changed opinions, and influenced behaviors that related to these issues.

Design is about communication. What you choose to communicate is not always up to you (ever?) in a work environment, but in our spare time...look at the number of Blogs growing and growing, within our profession as well. It seems we have a urgent need to speak up, express ourselves, debate, and so on. I think this is a positive trend. I can't wait to read the book.

By the way, I am launching my Weblog in a couple of weeks. I can't believe it, but I actually reserved the domain names:

www.thehumanweb.net and www.thesocialweb.org

either would do. Preference? I love input.

On Dec.20.2004 at 08:39 PM
aizan’s comment is:

Responsibility? I thought this was about goals!

On Dec.21.2004 at 02:15 AM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

"Just placing a juxtaposition..."

"...that's completely out of context."

Yes it was a juxtaposition that shifted the context. I am guilty as charged. But I couldn't resist putting the two quotes together within the context of this book review. The two comments make a statement about the responsibilities of good design. Let's shift that to "great" design.

Great design achieves intangible success without forsaking the tangible goals, regardless of whether it's a logo, an exit sign, or a toilet brush. But because the intangibles are subjective, it's nearly impossible to achieve both.

But there are design heros out there worthy of emulating. Here's a link to a classic example of an "extraordinary graphic solution" for citizens and the inherent problems. A detailed accounting is reviewable in this article by Michael Bierut on the DesignObserver.

On Dec.21.2004 at 09:50 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

I’m curious if anyone has read any of the book and has specific comments. I don’t see how anyone could agree with all of it. John Emerson’s Social Design Notes objects to my essay and I have problems with many of them (but, of course, think that mine is perfect.)

On Dec.22.2004 at 01:11 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> Here's a link to a classic example of an "extraordinary graphic solution" for citizens and the inherent problems.

Actually… Having recently moved to NY and trying to understand the subway system I would have extraordinarily cursed Vignelli's graphic solution. As a citizen, my inherent problem would be trying to figure out on which street to catch the F train and on which stop to get off so that I could get home in Brooklyn. Vignelli's map would have left me stranded somewhere in Kensington… a few dozen blocks away from my house. Great looking design is not great design, nor responsible design.

> I’m curious if anyone has read any of the book and has specific comments.

I have piece-read it. And, honestly, I can't remember any specifics although I remember I enjoyed it. I think there was something with Adbusters' Kalle Lasn and it made me angry — obviously. I'll flip through it again soon.

On Dec.22.2004 at 02:01 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

"As a citizen, my inherent problem is... Great looking design is not great design, nor responsible design."

I think the ultimate inherent problem with creating great design for the public, or the common good, is that it is impossible to please everyone and contrarians line up to snipe before the process even begins. Armin, you've joined an association of critics for a project more than 35 years old. I would agree with you more, except that I think the revised map is just an evolution of Vignelli's/Beck's idea and effort— which brings up context.

Since this topic started I've seen parallels with the "15 Minutes at 300 Degrees" discussion. On the surface it may not seem related at all. Actually, it may not be related at all. But It seems to me that so much of how we pursue our work, and how others view, use and judge our work— the worthiness of our design— depends on context. Too much work is judged and valued simply by how it looks. And that circles back to the LV/branding topic too. You are right, " great looking design is not great design, nor responsible design."

"I’m curious if anyone has read any of the book and has specific comments."

I've only read excerpts, but now feel obligated to read the entire book. I hope it's not the healthy substitute for Ambien that it appears to be.

On Dec.23.2004 at 01:57 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

I hope it's not the healthy substitute for Ambien that it appears to be

Like most graphic design anthologies, you’ll find Citizen Designer mixed. I suspect everyone would agree that some of the essays are silly, obtuse, or misunderstand the obvious. I also suspect that we’d have nothing close to universal agreement on which ones. The quality of writing also ranges. You are likely to find some of it strained and some of it boring.

You will also find that some of us produced writing that is marvelously entertaining, deeply insightful, well-crafted, and vitally important to your thinking. I’m sure there will be no disagreement on which ones.

On Dec.24.2004 at 05:22 PM
Allan’s comment is:

If you haven't already seen it, check out this review of Citizen Designer. It really is very through.

On Dec.30.2004 at 05:18 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

The theme of the Citizen Designer gains steam in the current issue of Communication Arts. (January/Februrary 2005)

Design Issues by John Emerson,

Guns, Butter and Ballots

Citizens take charge by designing for better government


My design blog hero Armin Vit, and Speak Up, get some column space on page 80.

On Jan.11.2005 at 11:22 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Oh, that's out already? Cool. I'll have to pick it up!

On Jan.11.2005 at 10:37 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

>I’m curious if anyone has read any of the book and has specific comments.

I fulfilled my obligation and finished the whole book. Bryony's initial review is a very objective description. The review Allan posted is a brutally accurate subjective description. And Gunnar Swanson's comments are not so brutal, but just as accurate.

The only specific new comment that I could add is that the book seemed not just too USA centric, but too NYC and SVA/Sphere centric. It also seems to reflect heavily on the immediate emotions of 9/11.

I also noticed a couple of attempts to reflect trends which were actually attempts to project trends instead — most notably the Chris Riley essay. He states "if the Clinton presidency taught this generation anything it was surely this: Leadership is about acknowledging uncertainty rather than manufacturing certainty." The Bush re-election team obviously didn't get that memo.

On Jan.21.2005 at 01:10 PM