Here in America, we have entered the home stretch of the campaign season. With a critical Presidential election only weeks away, the country is awash in partisan controversies, testy editorials and even testier debates, all of it fueled by the kind of rant and hyperbole that seem unavoidable as the political drama persists.
It never fails to amaze me that in a territory as heated as politics, graphic design does so little to make a difference. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
Sure, we make posters
and participate in the odd rally, celebrating our citizenship and congratulating ourselves for our bravery, our activism.
But to the degree that design has proven itself a compelling agent of change, isn't this all rather weak and dispassionate?
Let me qualify. In the remote part of New England where we live, civilians pierce their lawns with red, white and blue posters advocating their candidate of choice. Like billboards, they are angled so that motorists can see them and hard to imagine be duly swayed once they enter the voting booth in November. And swayed by what, exactly? How about the fact that the Bush/Cheney posters offer the same patriotic color palette as the Kerry/Edwards posters? Why has no smart graphic designer come along to remedy this?
What's additionally troubling is the notion that design participation so often positions itself as art (bear with me, here) which further removes it from its more critical role as a catalyst for change. A current exhibition
in New York offers "visionary" solutions for the actual voting apparatus: perhaps, because it was reviewed in yesterday's New York Times
the newspaper of record such prototypes will be taken seriously. Then again, perhaps they're not meant
to be taken seriously. And what, at the end of the day, does this say about designers? Does this exhibit's esteemed roster of participants including Milton Glaser and our own Michael Bierut take such initiatives seriously?
An editorial several weeks ago in The Guardian
suggested that this is "a world election, in which the world has no vote." And indeed, an election of such international consequence and scope is everyone's business: it has become everyone's
war. (By way of disclaimer, we are keenly aware of our international readership here on Design Observer, and while I initially hedged about writing this piece, the Guardian
essay convinced me otherwise.) Similarly, the seriousness with which graphic design perceives itself connecting to a broader world lies at the core of the problem: I call this The Rodneydangerfieldization of Graphic Design. Dangerfield,
the American sad-sack comic who died this week at the age of 82, will long be remembered for his trademark lament, "I don't get no respect." That he parlayed such self-deprecation into a bankable standup act is laudable, if laughable and indeed, Dangerfield's shtick was clown-like in the sense that people laughed at
rather than with
I am often reminded of Dangerfield's signature line when I hear students apologizing for their opinions; when I see advertising sloganeers restricting the conceptual reach of a design idea; and when I look at those goofy little cheerleading posters planted in peoples' lawns. And I think to myself: designers get no respect. And why? Do we position ourselves as followers, instead of as leaders? Do we assume that our role begins with a client's phone call, and ends at the studio door? Does design play a role in the genesis of ideas, or merely in its dissemination? To the extent that the majority of Americans receive their information televisually, why make posters at all?
Dangerfield had a sense of humor about himself, and it would be wise to take note. (To those readers infuriated by my critique, I fully intend to lighten up in Part II of this post.) On the other hand, it would be easy to surmise that our politicians have a tendency to take themselves too
seriously. Yet surely there is something in the middle: something between our blind acceptance of design's legacy and our inflated notions of design's future a future which is unlikely to result in any demonstrative change so long as we refuse to submit ourselves to a more ruthless evaluation of who we are and what we do and how our real participation can make a difference. We need to listen to people besides designers. We need to get in those boardrooms, those war rooms, those bastions of decision-making where no designer has ever been before. We need new legacies, better policies, richer histories for the next generation of graphic designers.
Maybe then we'll get the respect we crave. And even deserve.