Red hot responsibility

Graphic communication is no longer a question of clear typography and aesthetics. Conveying a responsible social message means hitting the right mark, often easier said than done. Peter Hall looks at the Red Hot Organisation, whose design work skilfully t

A few weeks back, I met Wolfgang Weingart, the pioneering graphic designer of the Basel School in Switzerland, whose work and teaching methods helped launch a generation of design renegades (partly to his disdain). To Weingart, the word responsibility meant a “responsibility to bring good typography into the environment”. I suspect many other designers who rose to prominence in the Sixties – from Margaret Calvert, who with Jock Kinneir designed UK road signs, to Paul Rand – would agree.

But in the Nineties, the word responsibility has a different meaning. Value systems have become so fragmented that few see graphic design as meaning something along the lines of clear, legible communication, balanced and harmonious aesthetics. And mass media has been tribalised to the extent that even unclear, imbalanced graphics and communication have a place in the focused marketing toolbox, and responsible messages are now often conveyed with “irresponsible” graphics.

Responsibility as a designer in the Nineties seems to connote morals, politics and world views. It means thinking about the messages you are conveying for your client, thinking about content as well as form.

It is a big issue in the US at the moment, dominating this year’s design conferences and producing some memorable sound-bites. “Design conferences can no longer afford to survive on just portfolio presentations,” reads the blurb to the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ brochure for its national conference in Seattle. “Good design can release humankind from its neurotic relationship to absurd acts of destruction,” trumpets ecologist Paul Hawken on the cover of the same literature.

A generally more tangible execution of these grand statements is in the form of a new record called Red Hot & Bothered, to be launched in the UK this winter. A compilation of indie rock tracks initially released as two 10in EPs on vinyl (each incorporating a 36-page fanzine entitled The Indie Rock Guide to Dating), Red Hot & Bothered is the fifth album to be produced by the Red Hot Organisation, a New York-based not-for-profit production company founded in 1989 to spread information about AIDS through popular music. The organisation sprang up with the familiar Red Hot and Blue, a million-selling compilation album and video of Cole Porter songs performed by the likes of U2, Annie Lennox, Neneh Cherry and Tom Waits.

Here’s an organisation that seems to have a clear idea of who it is talking to. AIDS education is a tricky subject and AIDS educators have difficulty determining their approaches to divulging information. A finger-wagging, moralistic tone provokes rebellion, and efforts at speaking to the various at-risk groups in “their own language” can end up missing the mark quite horribly.

Red Hot’s tactic is to recruit enthusiastic creative people closely connected to the groups being targeted, including the directors Jim Jarmusch and Derek Jarman and the graphic designers Bureau and Helene Silverman – and provide consumable goodies along with the messages. For the current project, Jennifer Levin, a 23-year-old graphic designer and fanzine impresario, was hired to pull in the comic book, “Zine Talent”, and art direct the whole package. Finding contributors willing to work at cost was not difficult, she says, because of the nature of the project: “We also get better work from people if they’re enthusiastic about it.” The resulting graphics and language are fresh and doused in Generation-X irony: the zines, spoofing teenage magazines, include coverlines such as “Dump your boyfriend,” and, “Do you know your breath stinks?” Responsible irresponsibility.

Design responsibility raises many problems. Since graphic design is a profession that grew up with late capitalism, it has become entwined with industry to the extent that it is virtually impossible for a graphic designer to make money without being a “handmaiden for corporations”, as Tibor Kalman once put it. This is why talk about design’s supposed humanitarian outlook sometimes sounds a little vacuous. The Red Hot designers, however, in linking up with a pleasingly parasitic organisation to feed off the excess wealth of a boom industry, successfully divert the money to an area that needs it.

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