Tim Rich: Buying the big issues

When design journals try to tackle social, ethical, environmental or political subjects they often alienate readers rather than stimulate them, according to Tim Rich

When it comes to discussing anything more taxing than “clients” or “creativity” the design industry turns into a lethargic blob. Many find the lack of debate about the ethical, social, environmental or political issues facing designers frustrating. They aren’t necessarily donkey-jacketed political activists; most are simply intelligent individuals who want to understand the effects of what they do, and could do, more clearly. I believe some even vote Conservative.

I sense that in some consultancies, thinking about such issues is considered disruptive and unhelpful. Maybe it’s because the directors are not interested in, or are incapable of, discussing such things.

So, where can younger designers turn for help in exploring the many issues surrounding their work? The weighty design journals that lie in reception? Unfortunately, what’s written in these publications often serves to alienate rather than stimulate. I’m not arguing for dumbed-down discussion, but there is a need for more inclusive and practical critiques.

An example of this is Design beyond commodification, a recent article by Andrew Howard in Eye magazine. Howard notes that designers have the opportunity to “smuggle” their own personal concerns into their work, but believes that the real objective should be the open “politicisation of design”. “We are surrounded by images that are crafted by designers,” he says. These images “impel us to participate in the creation of lifestyles that demand the acquisition of goods as a measure of progress and status”. According to Howard, this “dominant culture” of commodification suppresses any views to the contrary and leaves no room for designers to express their own views or way of life.

This is exactly the ground many young designers wish to explore, with all sorts of questions to consider. How many designers really appreciate the full social impact of their commercial work? How many truly know how their clients make money (treat their employees, affect the environment, and so on)?

From another angle; if a client is paying, should it not be their organisation’s political view that influences the work, rather than the designer’s? Is the undeclared “smuggling in” of personal comment by a designer professional malpractice? What “smuggling” is unacceptable (racist? sexist?) and who is the arbiter of this? And how might an openly “politicised” designer work in partnership with a client?

Other questions emerge: designers are playing a valuable role within most of the world’s most powerful businesses and organisations – is there an effective and acceptable way for a designer to create positive change within a client? The UN’s recent Global Compact (www.unglobalcompact.org) is an important development in the discussion and understanding of business ethics – is this a cue for motivated designers to press clients for positive change? How have designers who feel suppressed by a dominant culture responded in the past?

But Howard does not engage in such questions, he simply assembles quotes from other design writers, dismisses negative response to the First Things First manifesto (available at www.adbusters.org), then waddles to a confused end by declaring a vague wish for more open, accessible communication channels. Young readers in search of a spark get timid, outdated, Marxist self-obsession, offering no suggestions for how we might engage with these issues. Where does that get us?

Fine pieces can be found in these design journals, but those looking for inspiration or provocation might find livelier, more grounded and inclusive writers if they look beyond the boundaries of “design”. For example, those people wanting to know more about existing or potential clients will find a guide at www.corporatewatch.org. Fresh perspectives on corporate identity and branding can be found at leftist magazine www.redpepper.org.uk. And www.head-space.org (blending design into super-juice) is an energetic forum for expression set up by a designer and a writer.

As I have written here before, Naomi Klein’s book No Logo demands your attention, too. It brings the ugly side of brands out into the light and contains positive suggestions for change. The book has been number one in the Sunday Times business books best-seller list for weeks, so perhaps some of those complacent creative directors have bought copies. It will be of little interest to quasi-Marxist design critics though; it is far too grounded in the real world.

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