In tune with reality

The ability to sex things up is an essential part of a designer’s repertoire, says Adrian Shaughnessy, but there are dangers in straying too far from the truth – just look at the world of PR

The discovery that singers on X Factor use auto-tune software gave the tabloids an excuse to indulge in faux indignation. However, not everyone was outraged. The BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz defended the practice on his blog, saying, ’A singer’s voice is just another instrument that has already been enhanced by the use of technology over the years. Almost nobody minds when a microphone is used to capture a singer’s sound and then regurgitate it through a set of speakers, an amplification process that interferes with the purity of the natural voice.’

Complaining about the use of technology in pop music is like complaining about the use of water in showering, but Gompertz is wrong to equate amplification with digital enhancement. This is a singing contest, and how anyone can judge singing ability if the singer’s voice has been artificially modified is a mystery.

The use of auto-tune is symptomatic of a wider problem faced by everyone involved in communication. The need to add gloss and spin is now obligatory. For many designers, it’s what we do. We transform dull, ordinary and downright boring things into exciting and sexy things. In other words, we use design as camouflage.

There’s nothing wrong with this, you might say. Why shouldn’t everything look and sound its best? But the mania for glossing, spinning and prettification has gone too far, and carries with it the risk that designers are only ever thought of by their clients – and the public – as part of the world of embellishment and falsity.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the PR industry. PR has never been more powerful. Big PR groups have usurped ad agencies as the main custodians of corporate and, increasingly, national image. PR is now the big beast in the media jungle/ it dictates the content of the press and news bulletins; it controls who appears on chat shows and magazine covers. And while few deny that in a complex, always-on, media world there’s a need for well-managed public relations, the PR industry has also shown that the higher it flies, the more likely it is to be exposed as pedalling bogusness and sham. In the era of blogging, tweeting and social networking, lies and half-truths always get found out.

Take the ill-judged remarks by Neil Wallis of The Outside Organisation, the PR firm handling Naomi Campbell’s recent court appearance. In an article for PR Week, Wallis wrote that as a result of his company’s hard work, the majority of the media coverage on the day after Campbell’s court appearance was ’dominated by broadly neutral court reporting’. Broadly neutral? What remote galaxy is this man visiting from?

He goes on to say, ’We wanted the event to be low-key, respectful and unfussy.’ In fact, Campbell’s performance was the opposite: she turned up late, banned photographers (despite the internal proceedings being broadcast on TV), and called her appearance an ’inconvenience.’ If this had been a dispute about modelling fees it wouldn’t have mattered. But it was about genocide. So it mattered very much.

For those of us who work in the communication, branding and media industries, the delusional side-effects of PR offer a timely warning. It is easy to be sucked into believing in what we are asked to use our skills and talents to support and promote. It’s called being professional. But these skills and talents are too valuable to be wasted on half-truths and misinformation. If we want to stop the Max Cliffordisation of design, then the unvarnished truth is always best.
Adrian Shaughnessy is an independent designer, writer and broadcaster, and co-founder of publishing company Unit Editions

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