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The Graphic Manipulator
Guest Editorial by Jim Schachterle

As graphic designers, we have to think about meaning on multiple levels, a skill for which we are often not given credit. Conceptually, we have to construct a messaging framework for our work, a larger umbrella that imparts meaning. (This is the part of design with which people often struggle.) Then, we must realize our concept aesthetically, creating balance, alignment and continuity through the interplay of multiple elements, like form, image, color and typography. For many of us, we are students of these disciplines for life, since the elements can be mingled in an endless array of combinations.

Good designers impart meaning at every level, and they recognize that opportunity exists at every level, whether it is the shape of letterforms or the colors that we select. However, designers often cringe when the idea of willful manipulation is introduced into the design equation. Yet, I wonder, “Isn’t that our job?” As I was perusing What Happens behind the Scenes, I asked myself that very question, and as usual, the answer was easy: Yes, we are fully devoted to the art of manipulation.

I’ll give you a simple example. When you design a poster, you have a list of goals, but the first goal is always the same, you want the poster to be noticed. In other words, you want the poster to capture the attention of any person that comes within its line of sight. Then, you want to pull them into the poster, conveying the smaller details. Isn’t that the very basis of manipulation, getting someone to do something that they would not have done without your influence? Good posters play on emotion to attract attention; they reach right into our stored memories and force the significance of their subject matter upon us.

If you design packaging, you want the packaging to successfully attract customers, and you want those customers to buy the product around which the packaging is wrapped. You want to encourage action, which is another way to look at manipulation. Most designers would agree that the packaging for Altoids is exceptional. I believe that it is more than exceptional; it is a perfect example of manipulation through design. Taste aside, Altoids are cheap, chalky white mints, which perform a pretty basic function, but the packaging paints an entirely different picture of them, a story of nostalgia, elegance and value. Get a box of Altoids, dump the mints into a plastic bag and place them on a shelf. Inherited memory aside, who is going to buy them?

However, I wouldn’t despair. Every person in the corporate world, whether they will admit it or not, is involved in the art of manipulation. (Everyone is selling something, whether they are a salesman or a designer. Ouch, you didn’t see that coming.) Salesmen, however, have fewer tools at their disposal. Designers have more power than they often recognize. We can give meaning to the meaningless. We can endow ugly or mediocre ideas with beauty. The salesman might have an expense account, but as designers, we hold the real keys to the kingdom.

Ethically, manipulation is a slippery slope. Producing beautiful, engaging work is meaningful, and it positively impacts the world in which we live. The rub lives in our decision to produce beautiful work for clients who have less than admirable ends in mind, and that is a personal choice with which every designer must struggle.

Why, then, do we cringe at the mention of manipulation? I could spend weeks hypothesizing about that very idea, but I think that there are two easy explanations. Designers are artists, who balance fact and opinion. Though our work might be commercial in nature, we truly want it to be beautiful, and the idea of manipulation, whether aesthetic or scientific, demeans the beauty that we seek. Moreover, as students of design history, we know the lengths to which manipulation can be taken, and as a group of socially conscious human beings, we understand that it is a fine line to walk.

Marlon Brando, in fits of self-recrimination, would often call actors liars. He was right; no good actor portrays himself or herself on stage or screen. I never understood the self-recrimination, though. Everyone knows that actors are immersed in the art of manipulation. I, for one, love to be convinced that Denzel Washington is a sinister criminal, because it is entertaining. Yet, actors are rarely involved in the decision to sell you something. I think that you can see where this slope ends.

The art of manipulation might not seem appealing, but more and more, it is in high demand. I am not at odds with it, because I note that manipulation is a significant ingredient in human interaction, and like many of you, I am not willing to do it blindly. I am a fan of doing everything with my eyes wide open. I don’t have any delusions about the ends to which my means are applied. I just want to make sure that those ends sync up with my moral compass.

Jim Schachterle is a student at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, GA. Before returning to school, he worked in publishing for eight years. His work can be viewed at unstrungstudio.com.

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PUBLISHED ON Dec.05.2007 BY Speak Up
Jon Dascola’s comment is:

Well said Jim.

I hope most designers are aware of their manipulation, if not, what would their motives for designing be? That manipulation "or trickery" is what makes what we do so great. The small pleasantries afforded to us by those "ah ha" moments.

I believe Milton Glaser said "ambiguity is what makes the mind move." Whether that ambiguity moves the mind towards listening to Bob Dylan or saving Darfur and how that sits with our conscience is a different story.

and to digress....the slippery slope comment is great. i remember ari saying it on entourage in a great scene from one of my favorite episodes. in case anyone cares....

On Dec.05.2007 at 10:36 AM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

Very interesting observations. As I read, my thoughts returned to my own frame of reference. "Is this accurate? Is that true?"

While I'm not reluctant to accept the more Machiavellian (though that's probably not the most accurate term) aspect of my design duties, I found exception in one way.

A lot of my work is in product design. There is manipulation happening in spades. How is the product used? What does this part do? What is that function there? All of these things are mitigated through design. The more intuitive and invisible the machinations are (provided they are essentially intuitive, common, useful functions), the more immediate that function's interface should be. One should not need to search for the switch that performs the primary function of a device.

I am allowing the user needs to influence MY design. So is, in this case, the manipulation mutual? And doesn't the term "manipulation" suggest a one-sided relationship?

With interior design, the designer is manipulating mood and movement. With branding the designer is giving form and character to something which does not exist. With marketing the designer is manipulating audience reaction to -- or associate that reaction with -- a particular product.

Manipulation? Yes. Diabolical? Sometimes. Is it wise for designers to accept the moral responsibility that comes with this territory? Yes, I think so.

On Dec.05.2007 at 10:41 AM
Doug Bartow’s comment is:

The art of manipulation might not seem appealing, but more and more, it is in high demand.

Jim, I don't think ulterior motives are any more prevalent in advertising today than they have been in the past. If anything, today's technology (this blog is a good example) allows more oversight on advertisers. Vance Packard's seminal book, The Hidden Persuaders, is now 50 years in print.

As a working designer, who has multiple project windows open behind the web browser that I am currently typing into, manipulation (not trickery) is part of my everyday process. I neither loathe it, nor cringe at the mention of it. It's a powerful tool, indeed, but can do as much good in our industry as it can do bad. The (ethical) fine line exists in one's intentions and objectives. Successful designers are successful 'cultural chameleons.' You don't need to *prefer* a particular product/event/institution in order to do a good job designing for it, but you had better believe in it (believing includes knowing it and its competition intimately.) This gray area is very close to the slippery slope you describe, and serves as a good litmus test when evaluating potential clients and work.

I don't believe that designers are "artists, who must balance fact and opinion." For me, art is about solving one's own communication problem. As a designer, I spend most of my time solving my client's communication problems. (Hey, the kids need to eat...) I'll use any method I see fit to do the above.

Manipulate? Hell yes.

Trickery? No.

I wouldn't be able to sleep at night...

On Dec.05.2007 at 10:48 AM
Chase Langdon’s comment is:

This was absolutly great. Thank you.

On Dec.05.2007 at 11:45 AM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Isn't that the very basis of manipulation, getting someone to do something that they would not have done without your influence?

No. I would call that persuasion.

Manipulation implies an added dishonesty or exploitation that goes beyond mere persuasion. One can persuade without illicit manipulation.

While it’s tempting to exploit a weakness in another when trying to persuade, manipulation and persuasion should not be considered synonymous. We have to take the responsibility to know the difference

On Dec.05.2007 at 01:02 PM
Jon Dascola’s comment is:

but how can you imply dishonestly in advertising when everything is subjective? who is to say that coke really does taste better? advertising is so emotional that i find it difficult to label it dishonest. bullshit maybe, but not dishonest.

speaking of bullshit, anyone read On Bullshit

Good book.

On Dec.05.2007 at 01:35 PM
ed mckim’s comment is:

About a year ago, I would have agrued that manipulation was a bad thing, as I was trying to unearth absolute honesty in a corporate annual report... While with the exception of one student in my class, I could easily guess exactly what kind of cheesy graphic image or photograph each student was going to use for their project, I was trying to differentiate myself by taking all the design fluff out of the publication. I can't say this wasn't half due to me getting ranted on about designers and their statistical manipulation by Edward Tufte, at one of his one day courses... if i remember all this correctly, i had asked him a question about breathing life into annual reports (without lying) in his office hours, and he tore off his glasses, vehemently refused to comment, then ranted on the evilness, corruption, and dishonesty of corporate annual reports. if i remember correctly he suggested that, "if i wanted to do a successful annual report, it should just be the numbers" and that "i should just present the statistics of the year's finances" and leave it at that. The way he said it was much more inspiring, and more vehement, but I can't remember the exact words.

my point is that he seemed outrageously appalled at the way designers were taught to distort the facts and put a happy face on the year's fiscal happening. I was glad to hear it, because it reinforced some of the notions I had alread acquired watching some of the lazier and more expected images and concepts that were sure to get A's.

ultimately, i neither removed the fluff, nor left the facts un-manipulated (sorry mr. tufte).

These days, I would be more willing to side with Doug's post. Advertising is what it is, and if you're not OK with doing a little bit of manipulation, or seeing a little manipulation, then maybe you don't have much of a chance in advertising.

On Dec.05.2007 at 02:23 PM
Andrew J Klein’s comment is:

I think of what we do in a much more optimistic way.

The word 'Manipulation' seems to have a inherent negative connotation, but what we do does fit the definition.

People have too many choices, too little time, and might want the product you are designing, so why not make them REALLY REALLY want it with spot on, perfectly executed design? I don't think any of it is unfair to the consumer unless the intent was to lie or deceive.

If taken literally, just about every aspect of human interaction can be viewed as some form of manipulation. It's how humans do things, thats what we are. The best we can do is be nice and try no to hurt anyone.

On Dec.05.2007 at 04:28 PM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

I have trouble viewing effective communication as "manipulation." If I choose to use a certain typeface, or type of graphic, or style of photo, to convey the sense of an emotion that one might feel in using a product, or visiting a destination, or choosing a dentist, or any of a myriad of possibilities, how is that manipulation? I'm not forcing anyone do to anything. I'm adding a new line of communication to the monologue (or dialogue, depending on your medium), that's all. Using the art of communication to full advantage is all we can do, as designers. The convincing happens in the minds of consumers, in a thousand ways that we don't really have any control over. You simply have to make your message as clear as possible using all the tools at your disposal, and the consumer will convince themselves.

On Dec.05.2007 at 05:50 PM
gordon’s comment is:

I stand along side with the fact that designers are capable of causing manipulation. Pay a little careful observation and see how people react towards design.
We unknowingly have the power to create comfort and discomfort on people who engage themselves with our designs.

I sure do hope we are well aware about this and like Andrew said, don't hurt or offend anyone.

On Dec.05.2007 at 09:48 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

I'm not sure if it's communication or manipulation; though I'll lean towards communication most of the time; in a comercial setting who could deny the manipulative part? You are trying to coax or manipulate people into doing what you - or someone else- wants. Buy me, try me, whatever.

Humans are manipulative creatures.
Designers & Artists are human.
The things we create are part of our communication with others; manipulation and all.

On Dec.06.2007 at 02:41 PM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

This is a good essay, Jim, but I think you could be a lot more confrontational about this issue. You're on the brink of something that we all kind of dance around but never really, y'know, SAY. I'm not sure what's missing, but its not that big a deal. It's a great thought starter.


"Clients who have less than admirable ends in mind."
What exactly do you mean by this? My primary client is Anheuser-Busch, who makes beer (much of which I like, by the way), and well...beer is a vice. Gyro does some damn fine work for Camel cigarettes, which are *really* bad for you. Both products respond to things that people--for better or for worse--want. Both products if used in excess will do amazingly bad things to the mind and body.

And so it goes. Every time I write a spot or design an ad for Budweiser or Bud Light, it crosses my mind. It has to. I'm glad it does. But it doesn't prevent me from doing my work, because no matter how hard I try, I'll never convince anyone that Bud Light is a superior lager, and the decision to drink till you collapse is a decision well beyond my control.

So as most everyone here has concluded time and again, people make their own choices. Does any ad or gorgeous package rob someone of that power?

What I find really insidious are the people who think they've achieved moral superiority because of a socially conscious poster they designed. Or that stupid Product (Red) campaign that's managed to raise $18 million at the cost of $100 million.

I'm not sold on boiling everything we do down to manipulation--manipulation, to me, implies something more subversive, something done without people knowing what's happening. Nearly all advertising is pretty obviously trying to sell you something. You see the ads, the outdoor boards, the TV spots and you know what's happening.

On Dec.06.2007 at 02:42 PM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

I was reading this Asimov book on the train this morning. The author was manipulating me into envisioning how the character was moving through the scene...which the author had also manipulated me into envisioning. It was really starting to piss me off. After awhile I realized that it was all fiction! So...add LYING and DECEIT to the heap!

Here are a few of my daily manipulations:
Translated the term "warmer"
Interpreted abstract identity in graphic terms
Lied about design rationale to mask laziness
Specced display face using subjective factors
Corrected color
Styled a photo and found model citizen
Selected portion of product to emphasize
Chose red

Guilty as charged.

On Dec.07.2007 at 01:01 PM
John Mindiola III’s comment is:

manipulate, persuade, whatever. to me, design is communication. is that broad? maybe the better question to ask: is that wrong?

On Dec.07.2007 at 01:11 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

So if I stop painting/drawing/designing is it the same as saying I'm Not Talking To You? ;) (Shush, I'm not painting at youuuuu). Also, when will I be able to paint/draw/design/manipulate y'all into making me rich?

On Dec.07.2007 at 02:02 PM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

I was reading this Asimov book on the train this morning. The author was manipulating me into envisioning how the character was moving through the scene...which the author had also manipulated me into envisioning. It was really starting to piss me off. After awhile I realized that it was all fiction! So...add LYING and DECEIT to the heap!

Here are a few of my daily manipulations:
Translated the term "warmer"
Interpreted abstract identity in graphic terms
Lied about design rationale to mask laziness
Specced display face using subjective factors
Corrected color
Styled a photo and found model citizen
Selected portion of product to emphasize
Chose red

Guilty as charged.

On Dec.07.2007 at 02:38 PM
Karly Barrett’s comment is:

I cannot decide whether I agree with Daniel Green's comment or not. I think I lean more in that direction. I took the time to look them both up in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

1 : to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action
2 : to plead with : urge

1: to treat or operate with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner
2 a: to manage or utilize skillfully b: to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage
3: to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one's purpose

When I design, I admit that I manipulate text, photos, etc., but what I do to people sounds more like persuasion to me. That doesn't change the fact that morally I wish I wasn't persuading people to do what I am persuading them to do. I question what I design when I know I'd never use the product or service myself or encourage my friends or family to use it either.

On Dec.07.2007 at 04:55 PM
Steven’s comment is:

The term "manipulate" is inherently pernicious or devious. Manipulation implies that, as designers, we are coercing or exploiting the hapless audience or customer toward some involuntary thought or action.

While there may be a small minority of people who have that sort of relationship with practicing design, I think most of us don't. And certainly, I do not.

Rather, I would also use the term persuade, as well as influence, because these terms imply a certain amount of predisposition or inclination.

Brad Gutting may be doing some very clever work for Anheuser-Busch, but it will have absolutely zero affect on my beer purchasing because I only drink microbrews. So Brad is not manipulating me in any way, shape, or form, (no offense, Brad). However his work probably does have a very influencial affect on those who do, or are inclined to, drink Bud and Bud Light because they are already predisposed toward it.

I remember reading a designer interview (the name escapes me) a few years back in CA where the designer said that he liked being a designer because it enabled him to "f*ck with people." I was totally put-off by that comment, not only because of the above definitions and reasoning that we're discussing, but also because that statement clearly indicated to me that this person had some real self-esteem issues. The question that immediately came to me was "Why does your fragile eggshell mind need to be f*cking with people, in the first place? Why do you have those control issues? And yeah, like, doing some trendy poster is really subverting the dominant paradigm in my mind. Whatever, dude."

So, the term manipulate also has this connotation of being in control of an economic or social situation, of being a power center. I scoff at that notion. Primarily, we act as an efficacious catalyst between the economic and social interactions of our clients and thier customers or audience. And at the very best, we are able to freely present a personal visual/verbal statement that connects and resonates within a larger social context, i.e. we do cool stuff that people dig.

Of course, cynically, stupid people will always be manipulated because they're stoopid. ;-)

Regarding Edward Tufte's railing against the evil manipulations perpetrated by designers in designing annual reports--as much as I respect and admire his work--he needs to wake up and smell the coffee. If you really want to get to the heart of the matter, from a critical perspective, there are vast numbers of people guilty of perpetrating lies in the creation of an annual report. Sales people stretching the amount, terms, and dates of deals; large numbers of finance people massaging the numbers; executive staff members who are dictating the targets to the finance team, and then spinning these numbers back to the financial analysts; board members who too often give rubber-stamp approval without taking a more critical eye, because it's what Wall Street is expecting; and market analysts who are too cozy with the investment arms of financial institutions. So if you're inclined to wag The Finger of Blame at people, designers really play a very small, secondary part in the whole charade. Besides, I think the norm now is to just lay out "10K" docs in Word and then cheaply print them in one or two colors on newsprint. (And we can all thank goddamn Microsoft for starting this trend back in '98 or so.)

On Dec.07.2007 at 10:55 PM
Unnikrishna Menon Damodaran’s comment is:

{Great Manipulators!}

Jim, very thought provoking post. Good.

The word "manipulation" connotes a negative impression to me. For me it is something i am doing to get things in my custody, whatever it's consequences are.

Manipulation for materialistic pursuits.
Are we manipulating people spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically?
Then we are great manipulators of our time!

Designers manipulate thought pixels and and colors for the client to persuade people to experience their product or service.

I would like to think designers do not directly involved in manipulating people's mind. They are only part of it. Sharing "manipulative" ideas with clients and getting paid for it.

Because designers do not produce any products or services(well, designing is a service, i agree). So the main manipulator is our client.

They decide on what tooth paste, soap, shaving cream, to shoes-then car to condom- people should buy. And we designers help their "ideas of manipulation"(buying habits) work better.

Feeling guilty?

Unless i do not know, what i am doing.


On Dec.09.2007 at 02:41 AM
JasonP ’s comment is:

Manipulation is a way of life. Everything we do from the time we wake up from the time we fall asleep involves certain levels of manipulation.

For a graphic designer this manipulation is in full gear all of the time. Our duties are to take pieces of already formed art and create entirely new versions.

If manipulation was frowned upon the human condition would be no fun at all.

Speaking of manipulation check this out http://24-7designheaven.com/24-7dh/2007/12/luke-i-am-your-deer.php

On Dec.19.2007 at 12:55 PM
erica frye’s comment is:

IMO, there are two big ideological splits in the industry -- 1) type of designer (strategists v. stylists), and 2) ethics. This issue is at the heart of the second set.

Some designers are mercenary, believe their only ethical responsibility is to do what a client is paying them to do. On the other hand, I believe I have a duty not to add to the noise. I try to produce work that is honest and only for clients that operate ethically and products that offer a real benefit. As a result, I don't work with most of our biggest companies and industries. There are good companies and products, of course, but selling fast food or Bratz dolls to kids is not something I can live with because selling unnecessary and unhealthy junk is almost necessarily manipulative. Being so picky with clients can be challenging, but it's the only way I can combine my politics and ethics with a career I love. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, unable to, say, work for big oil or tobacco, but not making finer distinctions than that. Fair enough.

I don't think my way is right for everyone, but whatever position you take, it's important that it's one you choose actively and are conscious of. We are the gatekeepers (and creators) of communication and we should not take this role lightly.

On Dec.26.2007 at 08:12 PM