In praise of dissent

The 2012 logo debate highlighted the way designers close ranks when faced with honest criticism. Adrian Shaughnessy is amazed they still get away with it

I once sat on a music industry design awards panel along with half a dozen music designers. We all knew each other and regularly competed openly for the same jobs.

In front of us were album covers by many of the people sitting around the table. In other words, we were judging our own work. The outcome of this was predictable; no one said what they really thought, and there was a lot of evasive politeness.

The atmosphere of diplomacy was too much for one of the jurors. Manchester-based Rick Myers – an unsung hero of British graphic design (check out his website, www. footprintsinthesnow.com) – pointed out that everyone was being far too nice, and said that he’d prefer people to say what they thought about his work. He insisted that he was happy to have it criticised.

I remembered Myers’ big-spirited remark when reading some of the recent comments in the Design Week letters page concerning the 2012 logo. A letter from Landor’s Peter Knapp struck me as especially illuminating. Knapp ticks off critics from among the ranks of professional designers for disloyalty. ‘This was a moment,’ he wrote, ‘where our industry should have stood together to value the contribution, or kept a dignified silence, even if it was not to everyone’s taste. The small-minded backstabbing has done us all no service at all.’

Michael Wolff took a different tack and welcomed dissent. He observed that the 2012 logo can be viewed as a ‘disaster or a creative high point’, but ‘either way, thank God, we woke up, reacted and expressed ourselves’. Wolff went on to criticise some of the logos that had appeared in the pages of this magazine.

His comments drew a prickly response from the creator of one of the logos. ‘I view this as not only an insult to our organisation, but also to my clients, their investors and my business partners,’ Ben Marston wrote, adding, ‘I imagine that the other recipients of his blunt and very public attack feel the same way, too.’

I’m writing this a few days after the new Home Secretary Jacqui Smith fessed-up to smoking cannabis at university. It was refreshing to find such candour in place of the usual hypocritical subterfuge. She, and the other Cabinet members who admitted to a sly puff, probably did more than any other Gordon Brown initiative to re-establish the tarnished Labour Party image as one of integrity and openness.

There’s a lesson here for all us over-sensitive designers. I’m sorry, Peter and Ben, but an unwillingness to allow criticism, and a reluctance to accept it, is a sign of the design industry’s immaturity. There is nothing to be gained by designers closing ranks and pretending everything is rosy. In the case of Wolff Olins, it took £400 000 of public funds and therefore must be prepared to accept criticism from all quarters. If that consultancy believes in what it has done, then it must defend it vigorously.

It’s only through intelligent argument – and counter-argument – that design will come to be regarded as a grown-up profession. In this era of consumer-driven media, no business sector can escape scrutiny. The customer is in charge, and most sectors know and accept this. Is design to remain locked in a little bubble of denial? Or should we follow Smith and go for openness and frankness? I know which option I prefer.

Adrian Shaughnessy

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  • Guy Duncan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    An interesting parallel would be the advertising industry, whose weekly bible Campaign has for decades printed “Private View” : a column in which an expert insider takes an honest and invariably ruthless view of other agencies’ work.
    If the ad industry can be grown-up about taking criticism on the chin, why can’t the design industry?

  • Graeme Bell November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Of course designers need to be careful in commenting on others’ work – we know more than most just how much the best proposed design can be compromised (or indeed completely ruined!) by a capricious or timid client, a brief which is altered part-way through the process, or technical constraints introduced after the initial design is accepted.

    However Adrian Shaughnessy is absolutely correct to say that a grown-up profession shouldn’t flinch from robust debate, and where necessary, well-considered criticism. Is the 2012 logo any good? – well, in my opinion it’s a poor-quality response to a brief which the designers seem to have formulated for themselves, and which to me is fundamentally flawed.

    Whether you like the design or not, I have to admit to being utterly dispirited by the concept of creating a logo which corporate sponsors can render in their own colour scheme and cut’n’paste their marketing message into. Am I alone in thinking that the Olympic spirit should be slightly above this contamination by corporatism? We all know the grubby reality of professional sport, but surely the Olympic movement should at least PRETEND to aspire to a higher plane?

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