Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
Designing for Deception
By Marissa Kraxberger

I never knew I was being manipulated, deceived, and controlled. I was brainwashed. I believe what I see. I believe what I hear. Is there truth? Is it all spectacle? Who is in control? How can a thirty-minute news brief on the world completely change my opinions and beliefs? How can reading a certain newspaper every day control my political views.

I am twenty-four years old, and I’m ashamed to say that the newspaper I read and the news channel I watch have controlled my worldviews. For some reason I was naive enough to believe what they were telling me was true. I never realized that the media were telling different stories for different reasons, not merely informing me but manipulating me.

As I examine these issues, I realize that, as designers, we play a large part in this game of deception. We create in order to influence opinions, attitudes, and behavior. Our power to communicate is then strategically used by the government and the media to control society’s thoughts and opinions. In essence, the United States government is constantly running an enormous advertising campaign.

Since the War on Iraq began in 2001, my opinion on the war has changed countless times. If I read an article about how the war is affecting the Iraqi people—all the death and destruction—I am automatically inclined to be anti-war; however, if I read a story about the attacks on 9/11, it obviously has the reverse effect. These stories manipulate my beliefs, and they are just minor examples of what can be seen or heard through the media every day. We are constantly fed stories that change our trains of thought and what we believe to be true.

At what point does the media decide to promote the misrepresentations and deception of the government? The war is glorified on television, with powerful theme music and close-ups of brave soldiers fighting for our country. I recently saw a report about an ad campaign for Bush where he makes a speech in front of what appears to be a crowd of dedicated soldiers but is in fact cloned Photoshop images. Is that considered news? The war has been covered like a huge sporting event, with the most brilliant advertising campaign in history. Why do most forms of media allow themselves to be puppets of the government? Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are our rights as United States citizens; unfortunately, there is no clause for government manipulation of those freedoms. Everything is filtered and controlled by the government.

In the 2004 presidential campaign over a billion dollars were spent on advertising. The ads are filled with paid actors and stock footage to glorify the candidates and to attack them as well. In efforts to reach all audiences, the Bush team made national cable buys on Fox News, CNN, ESPN, and others. So, in actuality, the Bush organization used its power and money to buy support from media that is supposed to give us real news, not a pro-Bush or pro-war campaign.

It seems to me that our society is almost more receptive to exaggerated stories than actually hearing the facts. We want the evocative images and drama, truth doesn’t seem to sell as well. Why is that? Before we know it the news channels are just going to be another version of Entertainment Tonight.

As a designer, I have a hard time understanding when and where it is ok to create false truths for the public. Why don’t we demand truth? Why do designers become tools for the government’s propaganda? Why do we become followers and not leaders? If society’s beliefs stem from what they read every day in the newspaper, what they watch on the news, or listen to on the radio, then we as creatives—designers, writers, art directors, and photographers—are essentially creating what their beliefs are based on.

Marissa Kraxberger is a student at Portfolio Center. This essay is the third in a series by PC students who took part in Bryony’s long-distance Design Thinking class during the quarter of winter 2005.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Apr.05.2005 BY Speak Up
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Maintaining the free flow of information is one of the extremely difficult, yet critically important tasks of citizens in a democratic republic. It’s not easy being diligent in scrutinizing the information you receive. It’s much easier to just accept what’s fed to you.

However, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that everything you don’t agree with is a “false truth”. Nor do I know of any designers who willingly or knowingly create “false truths”. In my circle of friends, all of whom I respect a great deal, there is a wide array of strongly held positions on matters ranging from politics to religion. On one hand, I can’t accept some of the things they hold to be true. On the other hand, they do so from a point of view that is sincere, based in their own experiences and understanding of the truth.

In a vital society, you shouldn’t have to agree with everything that is being said. You do have to be able to monitor what is being said, however, and to have the conviction to continue the discussion. While it may seem that a certain media “controls” the information we receive, there are outlets for free speech that previous societies could have never imagined.

Designers do have a great responsibility in this matter, and it’s great that you recognize that. But not everyone involved with it is playing a game of deception.

On Apr.05.2005 at 09:10 AM
Frank McClung’s comment is:

"My quandary was that designers have been taught to be liars. They have been taught to use their skills--just like lawyers and accountants--to distort information."

- Tibor Kalman

Marissa, I'm encouraged by the questions you're asking about design's role in society. I do see design as a servant in the highest sense of the word...like a doctor is a servant. Sometimes servants are mistreated, manipulated and even enslaved. Unfortunately, designers have been in the clutches of the big bad wolf (and I'm not talking about political parties) for so long, we have almost lost our voice. I'm very grateful for forums like ::Speak Up:: that are helping us find our voice again. Thanks for the thoughtful article. Tibor would be proud.

On Apr.05.2005 at 12:04 PM
Chris Rugen’s comment is:

I'm definitely an ardent anti-Bush voter, but this essay really seems to be more about Republican actions during the elections and the war than about designers' actions generally. There are plenty of Republican designers out there who would gladly do those things, viewing them as right or true.

Also, let's not remove the viewing public (including ourselves) from the equation. Viewers are drawn by sensational news shows. A subtle example of this tweaking is demonstrated when CNN puts 'LIVE' in the upper corner pretty much 24/7 now to give a sense of urgency to everthing, including their news anchors in the studio.

Perhaps the best response I can give is this: "Asking a designer for a measure of commitment to the truth is like asking a baseball player, 'Yes, but how well can you *kick* the ball?'" -David Barringer, Emigre no. 68

On Apr.05.2005 at 12:06 PM
Alison Ashe’s comment is:

I applaud Daniel's comment.

I value the fact that I can't trust any single source of information completely, because I don't think that kind of comfort is a good thing for anybody. Each of us might feel outraged that we wasted a chunk of time invested in just one type of source, but there's really no avoiding that at some point in our lives. It doesn't mean there's a government conspiracy.

Each source of information, which is inherently filtered, is biased in multiple ways and represents itself visually or otherwise, effectively or not, as what it would like to be. This includes "neutral" or "truthful." I think we respond based on who we would like to be. (Or who we wouldn't.) There's really no way around that (no utopian am I), so we have to make the best of it by using good judgment and encouraging it in others.

Also, I don't think you can just feed people "the truth" and have them eat it with relish. They have to participate in their own revelations; they have to fight for them. Another subject perhaps, but that's why symbolism is such a powerful way to convey meaning.

Now, how to encourage good judgment through design...

On Apr.05.2005 at 02:16 PM
Greg’s comment is:

I think it may be dangerous to make blanket assumptions about people. We're not all sheep; in fact, there are many who I would have never assumed would question authority, who routinely cast off what seems improbable to them, and search for the kernels of truth inside news, inside marketing and branding campaigns, inside themselves. The American people are not as simple-minded as many would have us believe, on either the left or right. It may be fun to think of yourself as the lone hero screaming from the mass, but the fact is that there are many of you, and you're all saying, "Don't listen to them, listen to us!" The point is, there are a lot more people listening to themselves.

Design itself is about persuasion, not outright deception. No one sits mesmerized in front of a poster, awed by its message, and unable to break it's hold. You walk by, admire (or hate) its design, and go your way pulled a bit in one direction or another. "Hey, maybe fizzy cola IS a good soft drink," or "You know, George might truly make a better president than John." Designers use emotions that are already there; they don't make them up and stick them into you.

The fact that you quote several articles that swayed you one way or another is proof that our society is capable of thinking for itself. It's that constant pull from both sides that asks everyone to ask who's telling which truths.

On Apr.05.2005 at 02:45 PM
Sam Royama’s comment is:

"As a designer, I have a hard time understanding when and where it is ok to create false truths for the public."

I'm still a fairly fresh working designer, so this thought has popped into my head as well. I believe this kind of dilemma sorts itself out as you gain experience and perspective on the purpose of design, your work in the field, and the audience you serve.

It's not a matter of deciding when a deception is ok, it's a matter of developing an opinion. Keeping in mind that not all designers of the world share the same beliefs, or even moral and ethical values. What is a deception to me, might very well be the honest gospel to someone else. At least, so it seems to me.

As your knowledge of your community/society and it's critical issues grows and matures, you begin to take a side in those issues. You then use your design skills to bolster that opinion.

At what point does the media decide to promote the misrepresentations and deception of the government? The war is glorified on television, with powerful theme music and close-ups of brave soldiers fighting for our country.

I think this is a slightly different issue. Turning the war into a movie may not be a direct misrepresentation, but it might very well be in bad taste. I was disgusted with CNN's coverage of the Columbine shooting, a few years back. When the story began, I had the urge to go make some popcorn to enjoy the "show" - complete with throaty voice-over, slow-mo action, and dramatic music. It did a diservice to the families that had to endure that event. Their suffering is not my entertainment.

On Apr.05.2005 at 03:39 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

"Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities also has the power to make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire (1694-1778)

"They're so tasty."

-Krisy Kreme Donuts

Maybe it's only me, but the comparison between advertising and politics doesn't hold up on close examination...

On Apr.05.2005 at 04:53 PM
Mahalie’s comment is:
I realize the point of your essay the role of the designer in the mass deception of America…but I tripped on the statement:
"If I read an article about how the war is affecting the Iraqi people—all the death and destruction—I am automatically inclined to be anti-war; however, if I read a story about the attacks on 9/11, it obviously has the reverse effect."

This points out to me the larger issue of the ability of the average person to apply fact-finding and logic to their information processing practices. That is to say, the Al Qaeda were hiding out in Afghanistan, and though supportive of them (like many other countries in the region including our 'allies'), Iraq, a country crippled by sanctions, had no detectable role in the 9/11 terrorist attack. In other words, while people can argue that Hussein was an evil dictator and we are at war to spread democracy...the 9/11 equals war in Iraq thing is ludicrous no matter which wing you identify with. That said, people believe what they want to. There are media outlets for all perspectives. If you are not literally lying as part of your design role, you have no reason to be mired in a quandary. If you are proliferating untruths, you should feel bad. If you are insinuating ideas, creating tenuous associations, etc., you're probably just doing your job well. This is the reality we live in: buyer beware!

On Apr.05.2005 at 05:14 PM
Marissa’s comment is:

I appreciate all the responses. When confronting these issues, it helps to see all sides...to see where I am wrong...what I need to learn...and where I may be right.

Having just begun design I realized how powerful what we do is, and I think it is easy to want to become a "super hero" and make a stand...however I realize I could be a "super hero" for one person and "the enemy" for another.

Although these issues do frustrate me, I also see that the "constant pull from both sides" is how our society functions.

On Apr.06.2005 at 09:04 AM
matt s.’s comment is:

Marissa, do you have any links regarding Bush's speech in front of psd-cloned soldiers? I have to admit I'm surprised I never heard about that...

On Apr.06.2005 at 09:18 AM
Chris Rugen’s comment is:

Matt, here you go.

On Apr.06.2005 at 03:14 PM
Brian Collins’s comment is:

Manipulating imagery and message happens on all sides of an issue. Here's a Los Angeles Times (considered liberal in conservaive circles) doctored image of a British soldier fighting in Iraq. When a person is politically motivated to make a point, sometimes good judgement goes out the window. Let's just keep it honest.

On Apr.07.2005 at 03:09 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

There seems to be an underlying (no pun intended) assumption that graphic designers have a set of ethical problems that others don’t. Maybe, but what are they?

Is the problem some people are having one of a generalized moral clarity? If you were not a designer would you say something that was a lie if it served your personal interest? Your employer’s interest? Your ideology or religion’s interests? How about something that is not a blatant lie but isn’t altogether accurate?

How about remaining silent when someone you agree with lies? If you are liberal do you vocally object to Michael Moore’s indifference to factual reality? If you are conservative to you vocally object to Ann Coulter’s apparent contempt for the truth? If you are for animal rights do you object loudly when animal rights advocates make false statements about the scientific and medical value of tests using animal subjects? If you are an environmentalist do you decry the misrepresentation of science used to argue for environmental protection? If you are religious do you stand by while people make specious arguments about the role of religion in the pubic sphere? (Or, for that matter, if you are anti-religious?)

Are you generally skeptical about the “facts” put forth by people you agree with? Do you repeat them without consideration or verification?

I would argue that graphic design and visual techniques are widely used in developing a culture of untruth but I’m not sure that they have a unique role. As a group, human beings do not seem to be very interested in truth or honesty. I suspect that some of the dilemmas of graphic designers would exist if the same people were doing something else for a living.

On Apr.07.2005 at 09:00 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

Voices of the kind we are speaking of require more than a designer. They require a citizen, a humble individual, a vision, a sociologist and psychologist and project manager, and… the list goes on. We need to be more than designers and open up to the world that surrounds us in order to successfully communicate our truths.

I have met non-designers who tend to be more vocal and do more in search of “_______” (be it what you want) than designers. Individuals who stand in the street handing out flyers they put together in a PC using word, or people distributing small posters for people to hang in windows. Others call in to various radio shows or write letters to editors. Some even go further and build/construct/develop/etc projects and structures that will help others find that “_______”.

On Apr.08.2005 at 10:41 AM
kevin steele’s comment is:

Everyone who works in corporate communications or media has similar issues to confront, not just designers. Truth has become extremely devalued in our current culture. Facts bring people down, and it is much better to give them something to aspire to.

Whether it is advertising, which presents a world where brands complete us, or politics where lies are repeated until they are accepted as true, the role of modern communicators is much more akin to magic or alchemy than truth-telling. Why tell the truth when you can make it?

In a post-Photoshop world it's hard to know what to believe. As human beings, not just designers, we always have to ask ourselves if we are contributing our efforts to things we don't believe in.

The truth to fantasy ratio out there is horrific. Right now, truth hardly stands a chance. Take every opportunity that you can to be involved with projects where truth is valued. Distance yourself from people who dismiss your commitment to truth as naive.

On Apr.11.2005 at 09:35 AM
Mediashaman’s comment is:

Great comments y'all...

As creative people, we can choose to use the visual medium to make a positive impact on society as well... Working for a corporate client doesn't prevent you from creating your own work.

Try creating posters! Use them to educate, raise questions, or demolish the propaganda we're all being fed.

More importantly!, listen to/watch alternative media...

If you're currently on the Republican side of things, then do yourself a favor and sample media like: Air America (esp. Randi Rhodes and Al Franken), Keith Oberman (MSNBC), John Stewart, NPR, etc.

If you're Democrat or Independent, try Wolf Blitzer, Scarborough Country, almost anyone on Fox, most of the commentators on CNN, etc.

Yes, they'll piss you off -- but if you want to really understand both sides and be able to speak intelligently about the issues -- then try considering what the "other" guys are saying.

If you want a decent middle of the road report -- what the news USED to be before the PR and marketing folks sold us out -- then try the BBC News, Lehrer Report, Hardball (MSNBC), or Left Right & Center (NPR).

Of course, if you aren't really up on the issues -- I'd pick Air America and NPR since they seem to explore the issues in greater depth than their Republican counterparts who tend to favor an emotional or sensationalist approach to the issues, rather than presenting the unvarnished truth.

THEN CREATE YOUR POSTERS! HAVE YOUR SAY! Hopefully, you'll start a dialog -- maybe you'll help get more folks to actively participate in our democracy.

Don't beat yourself up if your opinion changes -- that's a good sign -- it means that your mind is still open to new ideas. Could we truly be creative if we didn't have open minds? Hmmmm.

I disagree with the person who said that we've been taught to be liars -- I don't, I won't, and I've always been able to find a way to make the client happy without having to lie...I don't think I could create a piece that was a lie, it would have no "life" to it and I don't think I could sell it to the client.

Of course, I'm not working in broadcast, nor am I working with clients that I don't respect. That may not be true for everyone else...

On Apr.18.2005 at 09:06 PM