Invitation, designer unknown, 2006
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum began the National Design Awards
in 2000 to honor the best in American design. In the museum's words, the program "celebrates design in various disciplines as a vital humanistic tool in shaping the world, and seeks to increase national awareness of design by educating the public and promoting excellence, innovation, and lasting achievement."
If design has an Oscar, the National Design Award is it. The honor is taken seriously. Nominations are solicited from advisors in every state of the union. The submissions of entrants are reviewed with great care over a two-day period by a panel of judges (which included me this year). Three individuals or firms are announced as finalists in each of six categories: architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, product design, fashion design, and communication design. Finally, the winners
in those categories are announced, along with special awards that include honors for "Design Mind" and Lifetime Achievement.
Because the Awards program was originally conceived as an official project of the White House Millennium Council, the First Lady serves as the honorary chair of the gala at which the winners are celebrated. She also traditionally hosts a breakfast at the White House to which all the nominees and winners are invited. That breakfast was today.
This year, however, five Communication Design honorees decided to decline the invitation. They wrote a letter to Laura Bush explaining why.
Here is the letter that Michael Rock, Susan Sellers and Georgie Stout, from this year's winning firm, 2x4
, and Paula Scher
and Stefan Sagmeister
, respectively finalist and winner for 2005, sent to the White House: Dear Mrs. Bush:As American designers, we strongly believe our government should support the design profession and applaud the White House sponsorship of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. And as finalists and recipients of the National Design Award in Communication Design we are deeply honored to be selected for this recognition. However, we find ourselves compelled to respectfully decline your invitation to visit the White House on July 10th.Graphic designers are intimately engaged in the construction of language, both visual and verbal. And while our work often dissects, rearranges, rethinks, questions and plays with language, it is our fundamental belief, and a central tenet of "good" design, that words and images must be used responsibly, especially when the matters articulated are of vital importance to the life of our nation.We understand that politics often involves high rhetoric and the shading of language for political ends. However it is our belief that the current administration of George W. Bush has used the mass communication of words and images in ways that have seriously harmed the political discourse in America. We therefore feel it would be inconsistent with those values previously stated to accept an award celebrating language and communication, from a representative of an administration that has engaged in a prolonged assault on meaning.While we have diverse political beliefs, we are united in our rejection of these policies. Through the wide-scale distortion of words (from "Healthy Forests" to "Mission Accomplished") and both the manipulation of media (the photo op) and its suppression (the hidden war casualties), the Bush administration has demonstrated disdain for the responsible use of mass media, language and the intelligence of the American people.While it may be an insignificant gesture, we stand against these distortions and for the restoration of a civil political dialogue.
The letter was signed by Michael Rock, Susan Sellers, Georgie Stout, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister.
2006 finalist Chip Kidd
was also asked to sign. But Kidd questioned the appropriateness of the gesture, said so in an email to the group. "The real issue here is that we were not invited to a rally in support of the war in Iraq. We were invited to recognize the National Design Awards, in our nation's capitol, in an extraordinary building that is a cornerstone of our history." He added that, like them, he was opposed to the Bush administration's policies, and pointed out that, also like them, he had created and published work that had expressed those views in no uncertain terms. But, he added, "it is that ability (hey, the freedom!) to make and send meaningful messages that we are supposed to be celebrating."
Kidd concluded, "Of course I respect your decisions, as I hope you all know how much I respect you and your extraordinary talents. But as graphic designers, we rightly complain that those talents are too often uncredited and taken for granted. Personally, in this case, I think it accomplishes more to stand up and be counted than to stay away."
Accomplishment, as defined here, is nothing if not relative. Hosting a breakfast to honor the National Design Awards is hardly a public relations coup for the White House, and the attention that design gets from such a gesture is pleasant but not exactly transformative. Likewise, the erosion of the George Bush's approval ratings are unlikely to accelerate just because a handful of graphic designers take a stand, no matter how principled. What we have here, then, is a symbolic protest to a symbolic event.
The commitment of the Bush administration to design has been negligible, unless one considers made-for-television stagecraft
and obsessive typographic sloganeering
worthy additions to the design canon. Mrs. Bush's remarks
at the 2002 White House brunch are gracious and polite, but don't go much beyond saying that, well, design is nice. Speaking of the grandeur of the White House itself, she said, "Thanks to the dedicated work of design experts, we have landmarks like this one, places that are so well loved, lived-in, and preserved that many generations are able to experience its stories and offerings. Design, in all its disciplines, is the world's greatest facilitator it allows us to enjoy life and all of its pursuits."
To find real commitment to design, you have to go back: not to the Clintons, who helped initiate the Awards, but nearly 30 years earlier, to a time when that commitment was clear and unequivocal. Here's a quote from the President of the United States, circa 1973: "There should be no doubt that the federal government has an appropriate role to play in encouraging better design."
That was none other than Richard Nixon
, launching the first Federal Design Assembly in 1973. Under the theme "The Design Necessity," it was the first of four conferences to bring together over 1,000 architects, product designers, interior designers and graphic designers and public sector managers to discuss how design could be used more effectively by government on every level. Part of the NEA-sponsored Federal Design Improvement Program
, it remains a high water mark in government commitment to design in this country, creating legacies that include the conversion of the Pensioners Building into the National Building Museum
and the enduring graphic program for the National Parks Service
. What does it mean that we gained a design advocate in the man who many considered until recently at least the worst president
in the last 100 years?
In the days leading up to the breakfast, emails flew and tempers were raised. Interestingly, the controversy appeared to be confined to those of us who practice what the Cooper-Hewitt calls communication design; if any architects, product designers, interior designer or landscape architects had any qualms about attending this event, they've remained silent. This may be our collective professional guilt: after all, George W. Bush owes his election, at least in part, to one inept amateur graphic designer
in Palm Beach County, Florida
. But there may be something more.
At their best, architects create buildings that outlive the patrons that commissioned them: the grandeur of the White House, invoked by both Chip Kidd and Laura Bush, can be experienced by contemporary visitors who need not know or care about George Washington or James Hoban.
Similarly, the creations of fashion and product designers are perceived on their own terms once they're out in the world. But a piece of graphic design is more than an arrangement of lettering and images. It's also a message. And graphic designers, "intimately engaged in the construction of language, both visual and verbal," cannot escape the fact that no matter how slippery language, in the end, means something, or at least it's supposed to.
The Cooper-Hewitt is an extraordinary institution, and every designer in this country should be grateful to the role it plays as an advocate for design. And although it's part of the Washington-based Smithsonian
, its future is never as secure as it ought to be. But isn't it appropriate that the museum be, as it has been here, a focal point for dissent as well as celebration?
Laura Bush was right about one thing, and no one knows it better than graphic designers: design is
a facilitator. Now, more than ever, we should be aware of what we choose to facilitate.