Quentin Newark: Minding your language

Quentin Newark searches for the real paragon and believes you need to find a more balanced way of talking about ethics, the purpose and effects of your work

There was a very awkward and telling moment at the British Design & Art Direction’s SuperHumanism conference. Naomi Klein, vocal apologist for the Seattle rioters, was asked which she thought was more important in the companies she “worked with”, efficiency or intelligence. It was a clever and therefore silly question, but it was her answer that was chilling. “I don’t work with companies,” she said.

Really? So Flamingo, publisher of her best-seller No Logo, is not a company? Of course it is, an imprint of the gigantic, forest-pulping HarperCollins Publishers no less. Or take the Toronto Star for which she writes a column, a column syndicated and copyright protected? Or Channel 4, for which she makes documentaries? She may prefer to think they are not, but they are, every one of them, companies red in tooth and claw, and profiting mightily from her involvement.

This denial is a crushing disappointment. She clearly wants to elevate herself above the rest of us, who are all tainted in that we “work with” companies. This point is important, because without being totally crystal clear and George Washington honest about who and what you are, you can’t hope to lead others to make sacrifices and rewire themselves. If even the paragon of the Starbucks generation is in such denial, then it’s so easy to take that to its logical conclusion: “we are all prostitutes”. If she’s no better than the rest of us, what does any of it matter?

I think the First Things First manifesto – the one signed by a handful of “prominent designers around the world” that asks us to create “a new kind of meaning” – suffers from exactly the same flaw. I can count among the 33 signatories, designers who have worked and still do work to promote nuclear power: Charles Saatchi, car manufacturers, Rupert Murdoch, dozens of the world’s biggest ad agencies and the people who brought us Thalidomide. Just how they are helping the world be a better place by working for these clients is a question they prefer not to answer in any concrete or exacting detail.

Which is exactly what those of us not so “prominent” need as a guide to help us reverse our priorities and join them in creating “a new kind of meaning”. (I need help to understand what that phrase means.) Nor has careful and frank re-evaluation of who they work for and how, in the harsh redemptive light of the manifesto, been forthcoming. Any perceived slight against the manifesto and the integrity of those who got such good publicity from its appearance is responded to with defensive blasts of sour, hot air. It seems that in an era suffering from a “reductive” discourse, good works, integrity and sacrifice don’t need to happen. They can consist entirely of unsubstantiated assertions in a press release.

The SuperHumanism conference was jokingly sub-titled “You have one day to save humanity”, a line borrowed from the movie Flash Gordon: He has one hour to save the Earth. But this single glib line illustrates the way forward. If this big debate about the effects of commercialisation is about anything, it is first and foremost about language, a way of describing what is happening and why, and what to do. We can readily believe that commercialisation is an ideology which sees no limits, and No Logo is a horrifying catalogue of some of its worst effects. And this degradation does merit a fierce and extreme vocabulary.

But the overclaim and the hyperbolic raise the game. When we use the same vocabulary to describe the world at all levels, expectations become so high for the standard of virtue for each individual that there is bound to be a break between what they claim to stand for, and how they behave. This is setting everyone up to fail – selling the whole project short.

We need a fuller and more balanced way of talking when it comes to ethics, the purpose and effects of our work. We need to accept that we are all implicated and involved. Even Klein. We need to understand that those who get to issue a press release, or a manifesto, first do not necessarily have any greater claim to purity. Nor does agreeing with a sentiment, and being seen to agree with it, mean that your actions don’t count. Bruce Mau identifies this complicated collusion very well, “On the one hand, I attack it; but at the same time, I embrace it”.

We need to look for actual, honest stories where designers have found a way to match their way of seeing the world to the way they work. Where their blend of belief and practice is showing a way forwards. And, above all, we need to keep it real.

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