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Crouching Towards Bethlehem

I recently conducted a google search for the term “nappy-headed ho’s” and to my dismay, the phrase garnered 2,530,000 hits including a sponsored link from a site that is now selling t-shirts extolling the statement “I am a nappy-headed ho.” Other top-rated links included a Yahoo site responding to the reader question, “What is a nappy-headed ho?” and at least 400 YouTube videos either in support or calling for the resignation of Don Imus for saying the term “nappy-headed hos.” I think you get my point. Suddenly “nappy-headed ho” is part of our verbal vernacular and it seems that every news article, every television report, every blog and every video site deems it entirely appropriate to keep repeating, ad nauseum, this phrase that has outraged the nation and most of the talk-shows advertisers.

As offensive and repugnant as Imus’ comments were, I find I can’t help but wonder where both the listening public and the show’s advertisers have been for the last twenty years during his previous broadcasts. While this particular phrase is a first for Imus, this type of communication is not. As noble as Don’s reported extracurricular activities might be, this is not Imus’ first foray in using terminology that is racist, sexist, misogynistic, and language that is rude, crude, mean, spiteful and nasty. Whether this is schtick or whether it is genuine makes no difference to this non-listener.

Used to be, in the not so distant past, the news media either bleeped out provocative and offensive language; for example, the word “fuck” was always spelled out “f*@k.” Even the MTV video awards had a short time delay when broadcasting in an effort to avoid the embarrassment of airing celebrities cursing or embarrasing their sponsors. Mel Gibson’s anti-semetic diatribe was censored. Michael Richard’s racist nervous breakdown was edited for national television and even Janet Jackson’s so-called “wardrobe malfunction” was called as such, rather than “nipple alert” or “booby trap.” Further, the pesky breast at hand was always covered up in the subsequent mainstream media coverage.

So why is the phrase “nappy-headed ho’s” acceptable language to repeat? Why is this exact terminology the most repeated part of the discussion? Is this supposed to engage us? Is this supposed to outrage us further? Are we now, as a culture, addicted to shtick or to shock, or to both?

What is the responsibility of the media in reporting and commenting accurately and explicitly? In the last few days, amid the grief and the agony of the massacre at Virginia Tech, I came upon an article in the L.A. Times with this title: “Amid controversy, NBC ratings rise by showing Virginia Tech gunman images.” The article goes on to report that “While many viewers were repulsed by NBC’s decision to broadcast videos and photos from the Virginia Tech gunman, the scoop translated into a ratings bonanza for the network, and further relates how “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams,” which led its Wednesday broadcast with rambling diatribes the killer recorded and mailed to the network, easily bested the competing newscasts on ABC and CBS.

Does the general public really need to be continually assaulted with the images and verbal “manifesto” (so to speak) of a madman preparing to go on a homicidal rampage? And is it possible that anyone with a heart really cares to know that NBC’s ratings are up this week? NBC News said in a statement issued late last week that it gave “careful consideration” to distributing the material and that it would limit the usage of the videos. In the meantime, there seems to be widespread circulation of the photos and videos all over the mainstream media and over 7,000 videos on YouTube. 7,000 videos!

And yet, among all of this virulent frothing of offensiveness, the government still wants to limit how many coffins we see of dead soldiers in an effort to protect the public from morbid imagery and unfortunate spectacle. It is a sobering time in this nation of ours. The images before us and the decisions being made—the state of our collective soul is at stake in a race for ratings in the guise of information and entertainment, power and control. Those that refute this suggest that the images and messages being thrust upon us now are actually helping prevent horrors like this from happening again. But I, for one, find it hard to believe that the relentless repetition of offensive messages and repugnant behavior is in any way prescriptive. I can’t imagine how this could possibly assist in efforts to rise above our penchant for brutal violence and mass propaganda. That the killer referenced the brutal murders at Columbine quashes this rationale instantly.

One year after 9/11, artist Eric Fischl created a bronze sculpture in Rockefeller Center that was meant to commemorate those who jumped or fell to their deaths from the World Trade Center. Titled “Tumbling Woman,” it depicted a naked woman with her arms and legs flailing above her head, as if in a backward somersault.

Eric Fishl's "Tumbling Woman"

As soon as it went on view, it drew complaints, and after only a few days on display, it was abruptly draped in cloth and subsequently surrounded by a curtain wall.

“The sculpture was not meant to hurt anybody,” Fischl said in a statement. “It was a sincere expression of deepest sympathy for the vulnerability of the human condition. Both specifically towards the victims of Sept. 11 and towards humanity in general.”

Nevertheless, the sculpture was removed, and to this day it has never been displayed again. All that remains publicly available is a poem by Fischl, which appeared on a plaque near the sculpture, and read:

We watched,
disbelieving and helpless,
on that savage day.
People we love
began falling,
helpless and in disbelief

Five and a half years later, we are still watching and disbelieving. The difference now is that we are not helpless. But what are designers doing to communicate the worlds injustices? Last week I saw Mirko Ilic give a presentation wherein he questioned the audience as to why there wasn’t any major art and design representing what is going on now in our culture. Where is this generations Guernica? Where is our Desert Storm memorial?

As designers and communicators, we can make a difference. We must. If not, what else can we do? If not now, when?

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 3300 FILED UNDER Discussion
PUBLISHED ON Apr.22.2007 BY debbie millman
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Diana Wynne’s comment is:

Yes, I can't help but feel that violence begets violence. It whets the blood lusts of the vicious and spectators, and leaves the aesthetes among us cringing and ducking for cover.

There is a huge difference between a Guernica and a (tasteful) memorial. Suspect we will see more of the latter, although the film "Children of Men" struck me as a statement about the near-apocalyptic world we're living in and our inability to respond to it.

On Apr.22.2007 at 02:38 PM
ed mckim’s comment is:

I don't think Imus shoulda got canned when the rap music that hip hop stations play is exponentially worse, much more derogatory, and just plain vile. Oh, and it's pretty much where Don Imus got his inspiration for his comments. I fail to see how the NAACP missed that one.

On Apr.22.2007 at 10:16 PM
Nicholas Ceron’s comment is:

What a great question at the end about today's Guernicas. To be fair I think that, sadly, blinding talent and virtue in art, as a thing that can be universally perceived clearly, is a thing of -the past- [pun intended]. It took time for a Van Gogh to be prized as a vision. The almighty Rodchenkos remained obscure for decades on life and decades after death because they didn't fit the Soviet bill. So yes, the difference between elegant and brilliant might be still years away. Today?
Well, there's Bill Viola's video staging for Wagner's Tristan. But who knows, videoart might already be too much of a thing of the late 20th century, right?
LOL

On Apr.22.2007 at 10:59 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Ed:

We're talking about ho's that's in the 'hood that ain't doing sh--, that's trying to get a n---a for his money. These are two separate things.Snoop Dogg on Don Imus

On Apr.23.2007 at 08:20 AM
ed mckim’s comment is:

when did snoop dogg become the moral authority on any matter ;-)?

On Apr.23.2007 at 10:16 AM
Jason L.’s comment is:

1. Snoop is a prophet

2. NBC became a part of the story when he sent them the material. Not showing the material seems to me to withhold information. I don't know how useful the information ends up being, but witholding it would be counterproductive.

3. I'm glad, Debbie, that you used the Imus debacle to bring up the more important queston of just a general mean spiritedness in the culture. The racial aspects were simply abused by all parties. The Sharpton's, the talking heads, even the press conference turned recruiting bonanza of the Rutger's basketball program made me just want to run for the hills. But a discussion on general civility would be a good one.

4. Where is our Guernica is an equally good question. Is our culture so fractured and our artistic and media outlets so diverse that something that powerful can even be done? I don't know. The understanding of Guernica was universal, can we reach such a consensus today? When everything is mostly a popularity contest?

love to the dawgs

On Apr.23.2007 at 11:55 AM
felix’s comment is:

Jason Jason Jason.. I kinda liked that, dawg.

Debbie, that was hot. You're definately workin it. Seriously, great write up... I actually wrote in to NBC last week unnerved by the lack of Gonzales attention. From NPR: This morning the president endorsed more support. Also buried in Times: Sheryl Crow and Larry David's wife acost Karl Rove at saturdays' press core dinner. Watching Rich Little acost "stupid liberals" as master of ceremonies was quite telling... so far no coverage on that...

On Apr.23.2007 at 12:32 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Debbie, quite a thoughtful piece. I think the general descent into vulgarity and brutality in media and images is a reflection on a culture heading into Fall-of-the-Roman-Empire collapse. Only Caligula never had instantaneous global mass media.

I'm disgusted by all of it. Imus and Rap both are just a fragment of the wider mainstreaming of this vulgar world. Those women athletes certainly didn't deserve denigration. And they handled their response with grace and dignity.

Whoever controls the media controls the direction of culture. It spans all countries and borders. But the larger question is: who is profiting by all this? Someone makes a lot of money on all this slime. To this I would recommend the book "Thieves World" by Clair Sterling. A little off-topic but the magnitude of the corruption ought to be addressed. It's not some artist making a statue of a nude falling woman who's bringing us down. Sterling called it "the Octopus". Imus is a blip on the screen.

There will never be another "Guernica" because that requires a consensus of decency and outrage. I think the absence of both is a sign of a death culture in progress. As a post-Katrina survivor I don't put much stock in an about-face this now-global culture - which has an insatiable thirst for violence, it seems. If the number of Google hits after the Virgina Tech massacre are any indication.... Of course, there are decent people everywhere, I'm not saying Americans invented this exclusively, but they are just silent, cooperative or indifferent to the daily onslaught. They willingly put their money down for every Gangster World playstation game and movie.

In the days after 9/11/01 I remember people talking about a new realism and kindness taking over. That cynicism was dead in light of tragedy. That was so short-lived, wasn't it?

On Apr.23.2007 at 01:36 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> As designers and communicators, we can make a difference. We must. If not, what else can we do? If not now, when?

<devil's advocate>

"If not, what else can we do?"
Do the work that our clients pay us to do? Which, you know, usually has nothing to do with making a difference on much other than allowing them to run a succesful business or initiative, whether it's selling shaving cream or marketing a new condo development somewhere. It's not like people are twiddling their thumbs waiting for stuff to do.

"If not now, when?"
After we are done with the above? But most likely there will be more of the above to keep us busy, so the answer to this question keeps getting postponed.

And lastly...

"As designers and communicators, we can make a difference."

How so? What can a designer and communicator do? Other than a poster or a pin or some clever web site? What can a designer or communicator do that an architect or plumber or newscaster can't do? What it takes to really make a difference is not any given professional inclination. It takes determination, balls, time and full investment into a cause. As designers and communicators we need to be human beings first and decide whether we want to make a difference. How that difference will be made to happen has a minimal percentage to do with what we do day to day.

On Apr.23.2007 at 04:52 PM
John Mindiola III’s comment is:

i agree with armin 100%. when did designers become the web's social activists? i'm not saying we don't have responsibilities as citizens and humans, but it's going to take a lot more than good typography to change the direction of the world's value systems. if it was that easy, the swiss design movement would have solved all of the world's problems 30 years ago. on live JMB!

On Apr.23.2007 at 07:58 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Because so many have said it better than me:

From 'The Design of Dissent, by Mirko Ilic and Milton Glaser:'

"With the world's economy in a slump and the ongoing war on terrorism, there is a heightened awareness in the world community of the numerous issues that both directly and indirectly affect our lives. Increasingly, people are feeling powerless and excluded because they have no voice. Designers, however, do have a voice. They are among the most influential bystanders because their skills enable them to communicate a message easily through the internet or through posters and print. A picture is worth a thousand words, and designers have used this adage to their advantage for years by creating simple, yet powerful designs that immediately convey the message to the viewer."

From 'Citizen Designer,' by Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne

"So, what is the responsibility of a designer when design is impeccable but the client is tainted? Being accountable to some moral standard is the key. A designer must be professionally, culturally, and socially responsible for the impact his or her design has on the citizenry. Indeed, every good citizen must understand that his or her respective actions will have reactions. All individual acts, including the creation and manufacture of design for a client, exert impact on others. But Rand could not foresee Enron's gross betrayal. And even if large corporations are sometimes suspect, why should he or any designer refuse to work for Enron or any similar establishment? A designer cannot afford to hire investigators to compile dossiers about whether a business is savory or not. Yet certain benchmarks must apply, such as knowing what, in fact, a company does and how it does it. And if a designer has any doubts, plenty of public records exist that provide for informed decisions. However, each designer must address this aspect of good citizenship as he or she sees fit."

From 'Not Just Another Social Movement, Poster Art and the Movimiento Chicano,' by George Lipsitz

“Posters lead people toward affiliations and alliances that can augment their power.... Movements have to create spaces for social change—figuratively by using memory and imagination to expand the realities and possibilities of the present, but also literally by creating physical places, institutions, and events where the hope for future makes itself felt in the present.”

“To see the practice of design as having social meaning is not a new idea; it dates back to the advent of modernism. What’s different today is that the focus is about changing the face of society.” — Milton Glaser

Hope this helps answer your questions.

On Apr.23.2007 at 11:15 PM
Nic Ceron’s comment is:

Back to "ho", (yeah, I don't think I'll loose my job or your reading over writing that word without self censorship)
It looks like we are headed towards more uncertain times, like a sort of mini "middle ages". Looks like, in the meantime we should better "hold on to craft" and/or to "my truth". If you return to that last sentence the distance between that, and extreme nationalism, radical whateverreligionism, or etc. is... not that very distant (on today's media world). If you end up at O'Reilly's talking about helvetica, [what a day] the only way you'll be heard is by yelling -HELVETICA- like crazy. Hence you become a loony helvetican liberal. If you don't yell like crazy, well... the message will be: "and this one also conforms to the status quo, and the good norm of our -Arial- sponsors. good, good!".
I guess and hope that as we transition, IF we do, from traditional media to wherever we are headed to, and as old monopolies die of sponsor hunger, the talk will grow calm again. And designers will be able to communicate more and yell less.

On Apr.23.2007 at 11:44 PM
vibranium’s comment is:

Imus should not be fired for what he said. It was stupid, it was insulting. But an apology should sufice.

Now that said, Imus should be fired because HE IS A RACIST. THAT is a reason for someone to lose their vocation, that is a reason to be removed from the air-waves. Right?

On Apr.24.2007 at 07:56 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Hope this helps answer your questions.

Debbie. It doesn't.
It's great prose and lovely moral innuendo. Mirko Ilic and Milton Glaser – George Lois would come in handy here too – are great examples to parade simply because they are some of the rare few that follow-through their beliefs with graphic design and achieve a relative amount of success and recognition. Most designers don't have the conviction, time and resources to affect change – and even under these parameters I doubt Glaser or Ilic qualify as change-makers.

> "They are among the most influential bystanders because their skills enable them to communicate a message easily through the internet or through posters and print."

It would be great if that were true. But the most influential bystanders are those that have something to say and are willing to do something about it.

> "Yet certain benchmarks must apply, such as knowing what, in fact, a company does and how it does it. And if a designer has any doubts, plenty of public records exist that provide for informed decisions. However, each designer must address this aspect of good citizenship as he or she sees fit."

The Citizen Designer example only talks about not doing work for douchebags. It says nothing about why or how designers can affect change in a situation like Imus or to correct the larger maladies of the media world.

> “To see the practice of design as having social meaning is not a new idea; it dates back to the advent of modernism. What’s different today is that the focus is about changing the face of society.” — Milton Glaser

I have no idea what that means or what any designer should do after reading that.

On Apr.24.2007 at 08:18 AM
ed mckim’s comment is:

They are among the most influential bystanders because their skills enable them to communicate a message easily through the internet or through posters and print.

communicating a message is extremely important, but it only works if it leads to some kind of action. I can put up posters all over Greenville, NC about how important it is to recycle paper products, but if the infrastructure isn't there to make the process convienant, then my message isn't going to make a difference no matter how well I communicate it. In the same light, if I were to try to communicate my distaste for the wars going on in the middle east, then it would only be effective if I had a reasonable plan to fix the situation through my local representative, et cetera... Just wildly communicating messages without the proper follow through is, in my opinion, irresponsible.

On Apr.24.2007 at 08:44 AM
felix’s comment is:

Thanks for posting all that Debbie. Armin, stop being a defeatist. I think the cruxt of the liability rests in a wee bit of research.

But Rand could not foresee Enron's gross betrayal. —Heller's "Citizen"

Anyone witness to The Smartest Guys in the Room is aware that Ken Lay's deviant past precedes Enron (he championed deregulation throughout the 80's). But should Rand have known? Can we learn from this example? And has Rand's legacy been tainted? Sure, though nowhere near this designer of Joe Camel:

Mike Salisbury, the creator, once said in an interview, "I was just trying to make this stupid head have some kind of expression I could change from ad to ad, and I remembered how Sean Connery as James Bond could move his eyebrows so expressively. So I ripped off his eyes and eyebrows and Don Johnson's hair...how I personally feel about being known for this piece of crap that people think is great advertising. It's a pretty shitty piece of art."

from:
http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1226842

Until your damage is done, sleep well "100% Armin" campers...

On Apr.24.2007 at 10:07 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

It's great prose and lovely moral innuendo. Mirko Ilic and Milton Glaser – George Lois would come in handy here too – are great examples to parade simply because they are some of the rare few that follow-through their beliefs with graphic design and achieve a relative amount of success and recognition.

Armin, I think you are making my point for me. There are designers that do it, and do it well. They are good examples and good role models. Just because something is difficult doesn't mean that it can't be achieved or aspired to. Fear of failure is not a good excuse for not doing something meaningful.

Most designers don't have the conviction, time and resources to affect change – and even under these parameters I doubt Glaser or Ilic qualify as change-makers.

Then don't do it. But to suggest that because you or "most designers" don't have the time is simply saying it is not a priority. We make the time to do the things we feel are important and necessary. We don't make the time to do the things we don't want to do. Period. Sleep less if you don't have the time during the day and you "really" want to do something that will effect change.

Change is a subjective concept. I would argue that even something as relatively mundane as "I heart NY" effected change by creating a sense of comraderie and inclusion in NYC at a time when the city was nearly bankrupt and crime-ridden. On a far larger scale, I also think that the efforts of Design For Democracy is and will continue to qualify as impactful change via design through the redesign of election ballot forms, medicare forms, immigration forms and so forth. If you don't have the aspirations to start an initiative of your own, volunteer there.

On Apr.24.2007 at 10:27 AM
Jason L.’s comment is:

Individuals don't effect change – groups do. Communities do. And I think designers can put themselves in a unique position to build communities. When we do it for clients it's called branding. So while Armin is absolutely correct about the fact that a plumber or an architect can do the same, designers are in a position of having backgrounds and education in informing, building relationships/communities and in turn getting those communities to act in a certain way. But Armin is also correct in that the big difference in effecting change is passion. And designers may just need more of it. Me for instance.

On Apr.24.2007 at 10:42 AM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

I can put up posters all over Greenville, NC about how important it is to recycle paper products, but if the infrastructure isn't there to make the process convienant, then my message isn't going to make a difference no matter how well I communicate it.

I'm kind of in the Millman Camp on this one; you do what you make time for. Personally, I can't find time to update my own portfolio site, let alone effect moral change or comment on society as a whole. So I see Armin's point. But, I think it's dangerous to say that designers shouldn't do anything just because a lot of us are busier paying rent, or looking for work, or watching tv. A lot of people might take that to heart. To respond to the above example of a designer trying to effect change by doing posters, of course it's making a difference. Someone, somewhere, saw that poster and believed in it. Maybe the change isn't immediate. Maybe it's just part of a grander scheme, in which several different campaigns ran at various and unconnected times, but all those things really impacted one person who grew up to truly make a difference. Sure, posters don't recycle paper themselves (in fact, quite the opposite), but people do, and people are convincable. Designers convince.

On Apr.24.2007 at 12:17 PM
diane witman’s comment is:

debbie,

This is a great post and a great point. I think everyone has taken something different away from your article and I would like to share what I got from reading it.

You mentioned the tapes sent by the Virgina Tech murderer and also a statue by Fischl. Perhaps the reasoning behind both of these actions is because of being either temporary or permanent. When NBC displays these images, they can argue that they are temporary. Sure, they will forever be on tape or DVD somewhere but most people will only see it a few times and then they will (hopefully) forget about it.

A statue, is seen as something permanent and the site where it is placed is held responsible for it and it's meaning (or how it's interpreted). Of course you can only see the statue if you know where it is and can visit it, but it's still permanent.

NBC puts out the images and video which snowballs out on to other networks, the front of newspapers, magazines, online on YouTube, blogs, and who knows where else. This then makes it available to everyone, not just NBC, so they are no longer responsible for where it ends up.

We are in a disposable society and everyone has been marching towards the short-lived. I think this may be where some of the problem lies. Everyone seems to want the temporary, they don't want the effect of something permanent.

Am I making any sense???

On Apr.24.2007 at 12:36 PM
Kevin’s comment is:

Thanks very much for this post Debbie. It comes at a much needed time both generally and personally. I've recently taken on a job in advertising and though I don't at all regret my decision, it has given rise to many ethical and disciplinary questions.

As designers, more specifically as a community of designers (art directors/illustrators/filmmakers/copywriters etc.), we act as mediators between private (corporate or individual) interests and public interests. We can make choices in what we do (political posters/awareness campaigns etc.), but I think even more importantly, in HOW we do it.

I don't mean specing recycled paper but in critically examining and practicing the ways in which we communicate. I think one of the central ideas behind Debbie's post is that public "language" is becoming increasingly violent, apathetic, cynical, contrived, controlled etc. and that as a community of language makers (or at least users) we need to take responsibility for it, and its interactions with the social world.

I could say a lot more on this subject, but i have to return to working on a campaign to sell more cars to more people...

Thanks again debbie. And not to overintellectualise, but I just received Jan Van Toorn's Design's Delights in the mail and have begun going through it. It is incredibly ugly in the most amazing and thought-provoking way. Relevant to the discussion I believe.

On Apr.24.2007 at 02:24 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> Then don't do it. But to suggest that because you or "most designers" don't have the time is simply saying it is not a priority.

This is not about me. It's about the implication – that you made, as have so many others, and is the one that I question – that designers, as designers, must do something. It may be a matter of semantics and tone, but no one "must" do anything they don't believe in. I prefer leaving the possibility for change open:

"As designers and communicators, we can make a difference. We must. If not, what else can we do? If not now, when?"

On Apr.25.2007 at 09:59 AM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

Imus was fired because his sponsors ditched him. Follow the money--you can be as racist or any -ist you want, so long as you make money. As reprehensible as racism is, its not against the law.

As far as designers "making a difference."

Hmmmmmmmmmm. I just got my Stop Being Sheep in the mail and I read my the comment I wrote months ago that was so graciously published in the book. It had a lot to do with this matter, not 100% but enough to get me thinking again.

Its extremely easy, inviting and unavoidable at times, to look at our society and call it vapid, vacuous, self-absorbed, narcissistic, lazy, and indifferent. We like our thrills, we like our laughs, and we are frequently not too concerned with how we get either one. Numerous TV shows celebrate being a jerk (Entourage, which I enjoy), magazine articles and myspace blogs all champion disdain and irony, cruelty has become a tool to protect the self and to amuse the masses or your group of friends. I see very little compassion on a daily basis. I see a lot of sardonic witticisms disguised as humor and profound insight.

This is unfortunate, but clearly, its no excuse to indulge in the same behavior. "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean," wrote Raymond Chandler of Philip Marlowe. Our milieu, or reality, and the counter to so much of it has absolutely nothing to do with art direction and graphic design and absolutely everything to do with how you behave as an individual. It might sound trite, but the way you talk to your waitress or cab driver or react to the person who bumps into you at the grocery store, cumulatively, will have more impact than a poster that urges kindness. Because those little, seemingly innocuous interactions are real and genuine and they happen so frequently that they determine the fabric of much of our lives.

The alternative is the same old clap-trap that has doomed the well-intentioned and morally astute throughout history: the tendency to treat people and "humanity" as a cause, as an abstraction, something to be talked about in bold and loving terms but not to be the recipient of anything real. I've known too many people who talk about a better world but whose behavior is rotten and fraudulent on an interpersonal level. I loathe them unabashedly.

But here's the tricky thing: rotten and fraudulent and petty behavior is your choice. There's nothing inherently wrong with being that way. Its a personal decision--an aimless one in my mind, but an aspect of our great personal freedom, and much more tolerable than any sort of "enforced decency" authoritarian hell. Hell, one of the great things about living in this country is that you can complain about it and be negative. We all know that complaints and rants and whiny diatribes and insults and gossip are pointless and useless but we engage in these things regardless. Because its easy. Because its so...automatic.

Design can do all sorts of things. Rarely, if ever, can it alter someone's ethos or values. Its not up for any of us to claim the authority to tell anyone else "how things should be." I'll live and die for design that champions thoughtfulness and analysis and deeper examination...but those traits aren't reserved for "special" projects, a la "First Things First" or whatever. They can be applied anywhere, anytime, for anything. It all starts internally. With you. With the choices you make. It's gonna take more than paintings and posters to make people aware of that.

All is not lost in this culture. I see good things happen everyday, I see and hear small acts of kindness, I see enough earnest thought, I see enough joyful struggle to know that not everything is smarmy and awful. People are strong. There is much they can do still.

On Apr.25.2007 at 11:08 AM
kevin’s comment is:

well put Brad, but I think, and maybe I'm alone here, that design as a discipline (if not always as a profession) intrinsicaly has cultural relevance and does in at least some small way shape our culture - what we see out there is what we put in "in here". So I'm not talking about creating a campaign for "humanity" or anything in paticular as a cause, I'm talking about design that is humane. design that is aspirational and inclusive and empowering rather than shallow, hedonistic and ... dialogic and reflective on our culture rather than hermetic or overly populist.... I dunno really what I'm saying here, I just think the questions are certainly worth asking.

I'm not sure if this is what debbie is addressing, but it's what I'm taking out of it...

On Apr.25.2007 at 12:00 PM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

Kevin,

I know what you're saying and I totally agree with it. The call, if there is one, is to be conscious -- always -- of what you're doing and what you're saying and how it all comes across. That's a choice though. A tough one.

On Apr.25.2007 at 12:53 PM
felix’s comment is:

Understood, that well intentioned designer causes ala designism don't really forward design per se.

This new social design thing via Good Magazine comes to mind as something newly propped up. Sounds OK but unless the design is good, it's words. And words, try as they may, are like committees of designers; they often fail.

On Apr.25.2007 at 01:58 PM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

Design can do all sorts of things. Rarely, if ever, can it alter someone's ethos or values. (...) It all starts internally. With you. With the choices you make. It's gonna take more than paintings and posters to make people aware of that.

Let me first say that I agree with some of what you're saying about how people just being nicer can have a snowballing effect. But I disagree with the characterization of design as a whole being unable to change a person's beliefs. A single poster or website? Probably not. Not impossible, but not likely. But design can have a snowballing effect, too. Is it more or less effective than nicer interpersonal behavior? I'm not sure that something you can quantify, but my guess is no, simply because the poster doesn't start out with underlying motives. We could get into a whole different discussion about psychology, but suffice it to say that on the whole, in the abstract, people are nice to other people because they want or need something, even if it's just social acceptance. Design says what it says, and means what it says. That is to say, that design as a whole, in the abstract, doesn't lie (It may give non-factual information, but that's not the same thing as lying, lying is telling mistruth with a goal, and the lie is with the designer in that case, not the designed object). People trust words and images far more in print or on screen than they trust the spoken word and the imagination. When a person sees a poster that says "Stop Global Warming" (and assuming their interest is sparked) they instinctually have to let that in and process it, even if to reject it. Not to say that people don't disregard even a well-designed poster, but if it's a good design and well placed then someone will notice. I'm not advocating a magic bullet, there's no way to create something that will convince 100% of people. But one poster can start a snowball down the hill, and really, isn't that all you need?

On Apr.25.2007 at 02:27 PM
diane witman’s comment is:

Kevin, I agree with you. And Armin, on some level I can agree with you as well.

What we see out there is what we put in "in here" In a sense our designs are karma. What we put out there in front of the public eye will influence the culture as a whole but it won't influence their actions on a daily basis. I think this is what Debbie might be trying to promote, rather than trying to set the latest trend let's try to get people to do things that really matter.

Do the work that our clients pay us to do? Which, you know, usually has nothing to do with making a difference on much other than allowing them to run a successful business or initiative, whether it's selling shaving cream or marketing a new condo development somewhere. It's not like people are twiddling their thumbs waiting for stuff to do. This is part of the problem. Designers would have to take the little time that they have to push their own objectives rather than their clients who pay decent money for their time and expertise. We can't really use our clients mediums to push our own initiatives, although I've heard some designers try to do this. I think in that case they are doing their client a disservice.

I agree with both sides, but as designers who sometimes label ourselves as problems-solvers...what is a solution to this?

Do we form a group and take on a single cause?
Do we individually take on a cause and try to do a little bit at a time?

Last week I saw Mirko Ilic give a presentation wherein he questioned the audience as to why there wasn't any major art and design representing what is going on now in our culture. Where is this generations Guernica? Where is our Desert Storm memorial? I think society is in a bit of a numb state right now, with a war going on due to a stubborn president who refuses to help his own country, massacre style shootings, insane weather patterns and more. Maybe society would rather ignore the problems and go upon their merry way rather than acknowledge and solve them. On another level I think everyone now has their own forums (myspace, and the likes) where they can express themselves incrementally rather than in one fell swoop.

On Apr.25.2007 at 02:39 PM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

I had forgotten how much I hated GOOD Magazine...

Greg,

Yeah, you're probably right. I guess I'm just trying to figure out what the "motives" are. So frequently, much "conscious design" or whatever you want to call it has more to do with some desperate search for moral security than it does with actually doing the "right thing."

Or maybe everything I say is tainted by too many experiences with so-called do-good designers who are just yucky backstabbers interested more in their own ambition and reputation.

On Apr.25.2007 at 02:55 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

It is too bad that designers-doing-good conversations balloon into all manners of doing good. If what people in general or designers in particular should do re: course or offensive language and conduct, racism, war, and global warming have anything in common then that should be addressed analytically and, I believe, at least somewhat skeptically.

Let me just deal with Imus and Snoop and such. I can't say that I have no sympathy for their language choices: I deplore euphemism and probably manage to offend some people with my language choices. I hope I am not guilty of the sort of pandering that the two of them represent but it is sometimes hard to separate honesty and straightforward description of our world from a nasty game of cheap reflection of the worst of society under the guise of social commentary.

Which brings me to Brad Gutting’s comments. He is right that personal conduct is key. I do believe, however, that designers and other overt manufacturers of culture have a particular opportunity. We can do compelling work that does not pander, thus providing examples of success in a broad sense of the term.

On Apr.25.2007 at 05:11 PM
felix’s comment is:

Good Magazine is actually incredibly Great, as is Open- the team who designs it.

I don't know of any "yucky do-goody back stabbers" there in North Carolina, though I'm sure my brother-in-law (who covers that area) for Stora Enso could name a few.

On Apr.25.2007 at 05:11 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

It is too bad that designers-doing-good conversations balloon into all manners of doing good. If what people in general or designers in particular should do re: course or offensive language and conduct, racism, war, and global warming have anything in common then that should be addressed analytically and, I believe, at least somewhat skeptically.

Let me just deal with Imus and Snoop and such. I can't say that I have no sympathy for their language choices: I deplore euphemism and probably manage to offend some people with my language choices. I hope I am not guilty of the sort of pandering that the two of them represent but it is sometimes hard to separate honesty and straightforward description of our world from a nasty game of cheap reflection of the worst of society under the guise of social commentary.

Which brings me to Brad Gutting’s comments. He is right that personal conduct is key. I do believe, however, that designers and other overt manufacturers of culture have a particular opportunity. We can do compelling work that does not pander, thus providing examples of success in a broad sense of the term.

On Apr.25.2007 at 05:13 PM
Nic Ceron’s comment is:

Agreed. Still I think that Armin's position about the Designer as a productive machine continues to have life. In the end the surface is exactly that place where "compromised design" stops... to become a designed object of, or on, them. I don't think that the achievements of the Nazi aesthetical agenda would had been less or more had Leni Reinfenstahl "decided" to be a little bit less great herself as a professional...

On Apr.26.2007 at 12:14 AM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

Good Magazine is incredibly well-designed. For whatever reasons, the content leaves me shrugging my shoulders.

Objectively, its done well. Subjectively, it irks me. Whatever. One dude's fairly irrelevant opinion.

On Apr.26.2007 at 10:55 AM
Jon Walker’s comment is:

How did you happen to choose the title? It immediately reminded me of a Yeats poem that, though written nearly a century, is quite relevent to today's world. I am not a doomsday believer, but the imagery is startling when you relate it to the current wars we are involved in. It does, however, remind us that there is a limit to our actions before the center no longer holds and civility is washed away. The great question, as we are reminded by these comments, is tha we don't know where that point lis.

The Second Coming
W.B Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On Apr.26.2007 at 06:53 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Hi Jon--yes, the title of this discussion was most definitely inspired by the Yeats poem. It's an incredible poem, isn't it?

On Apr.26.2007 at 08:03 PM
Joe Moran’s comment is:

Your only limitation is your imagination.

For better or worse?

Very Respectfully,

On Apr.27.2007 at 12:42 AM
unnikrishna menon’s comment is:

As designers and communicators, we can make a difference. We must. If not, what else can we do? If not now, when?

designer or non-designer every one can make a difference.

i think it is only a matter of priority.
designers are running for money and some of us running for daily bread. and making a difference for ourselves is prime priority in that sense.

but the difference is only through design?
i am not sure.
if you know "Sappi Ideas That Matters" doing a good job in these terms.
if design is human it must make a difference.
being creative is ultimately being nothing more than human.
debbie, a thought provoking post. very human.

On Apr.27.2007 at 07:14 AM
Christina W’s comment is:

For me, Debbie and Armin's debate comes down to this:

"... and of course communications design is not about expressing your own point of view. Communications design is for others and to others. There was a movement though… I remember a couple of years ago the idea of the graphic designer as author or as originator was quite prominent…

"Then actually, you realize that you’re not then a graphic designer. you are either a writer, or an artist or a philosopher. And actually, the graphic aspect of it is just a necessary part of the process of communicating it... Most graphic designers when given free space so often default to sort of rather dumb things like alphabets rather than actually having anything to say."

peter saville, interviewed by neil mcguire.

On Apr.27.2007 at 01:51 PM
felix’s comment is:

Good Magazine is incredibly well-designed. For whatever reasons, the content leaves me shrugging my shoulders.

You like text more than design- fair enough. Good Magazine is the only magazine I have seen lately that perfectly marries the design and text. Content is not text. Theres such an inspiring give and take with the editor (Ben Something) and Scott Stowell, former captain of M&Co's Colors. It may well be the best designed content I have ever seen.

On Apr.30.2007 at 09:50 AM