Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Give what public what it wants

Living Contradictions

AIGA National Design Conference<br>Miami, Florida, 14-7 October 1993

It is 2 am on Miami’s South Beach and the rain has at last subsided. Out on the ocean, a lightning storm flashes across the horizon. The smooth, dark expanse of water and its offshore lightshow read like a symbolic metaphor for those of us on the beach attending the fifth biennial American Institute of Graphic Arts conference. While the range of topics is like the ocean air, cool and stimulating, the real issues, like the storm are off in the distance, visible yet out of reach.

Chaired by Mike Hicks and Jerry Herring, the conference was conceived with the intention of exploring the ironies that beset the design profession in a complex, technological society. It brought together, among others, communications theorist Neil Postman; Oliviero Toscani, the maverick photographer responsible for the Benetton advertising campaign; and Javier Mariscal, a designer of the Spanish Olympics ’92 graphics. For this critic, the event highlighted the difficulty of gauging how shifting attitudes to the designer’s role are shaping the profession’s values. Among its featured speakers, at least two individuals represented extreme and opposite positions.

At one end of the spectrum was keynote speaker Neil Postman, Chair of the Department of Culture and Communications at New York University. Postman argued that the health of our symbolic environment is wearing thin and warned that the trivialisation of tradition symbols diminishes not only the design profession but the narratives that allow a culture to flourish. Heedless repetition, he warned, empties a symbol of its emotional force, destroying its capacity to move us. The proliferation of meaningless symbols is a function not only of the frequency with which they are invoked, but also of the indiscriminate context within which they are used. When a symbol is used irrespective of its emotional context, it is deprived of its meaning and indeed its entire effect. Since no culture can flourish without symbols of transcendent origin and power, the alternative is to live without meaning. When designers apply their talents with prudence and responsibility, they help preserve those symbols that give meaning to culture and command the powerful narratives that shape the world we live in and our response to it.

At the other end of the scale was Oliviero Toscani, “I believe in symbols too,” he said, “but I am an archaeologist. I study what society has left behind. I don’t differentiate between editorial, advertising, or television. They all belong to modern culture.” Toscani believes he is producing art, not advertising. But what he fails to acknowledge is that when you take an image out of context and put a logo on it, it is perceived as advertising, pure and simple. The problem isn’t entirely the image, although there are many who feel offended by the use of AIDS victims and Haitian boat people to sell jeans. But as Paul Scher of Pentagram pointed out, the campaign is dangerous because “by putting the Benetton logo on reportage photographs you trivialise current events. We have enough trouble believing what goes on in the world because we so often see events from the news media trivialised anyway. To go one step further by showing a current event and sticking a corporate logo on it is terrifying because our world begins to mean nothing to us.” Benetton wants to be seen as humanitarian. But it seems to forget that there are other, more effective ways of achieving social good than posting messages. It is not that Benetton is irresponsible; it is simply not responsible enough. It offers no model for behaviour or solutions to the problems it is exploiting.

Postman and Toscani set the scene for a dialogue that continued throughout the conference. But however divergent their attitudes may appear, they are just two sides of the same coin: one preaches reverence for the “power” of cultural symbols as essential to a life imbued with meaning; the other preaches a courageous use of the “power” only advertising can provide through a manipulation of cultural symbols. Or, as Postman put it, “The blasphemer takes symbols as seriously as the idolater.” One thing, however, is certain. With such tactics, the dimension of the relationship between designer and audience, audience and cultural symbol, has been distorted. It may be open to discussion whether the cultural value of the image has been heightened or lowered in the process, but that it has been altered is beyond dispute.

The issue of commerce versus conscience extended beyond the use of imagery to include how designers interact with their clients. One debate questioned the extent to which designers are responsible for the work they produce. While Scott Mednick of the Mednick Group adamantly refuses to take on work by clients who pollute or desecrate the environment, he maintains a highly profitable Los Angeles practice. Mike Salisbury of Salisbury Communications, creator of the Camel cigarette mascot, will take on any job as long as the price is right. “It’s flattering to think our work has any impact on human choice. [But] we are all in business to be in business,” says Salisbury as he flicks past slides of America’s worst crime headlines. “If the whole world is on a course of self-destruction, then there is not much I can do about it. I don’t sell cigarettes, I only give the public what they want.” Salisbury wears his candour like a protective shield. When you hear a designer belittle his own work and come just short of calling himself a whore, then where is the fun – much less the point – in taking him down a notch or two?

Debate within and criticism about the profession is needed. Yet while divergent opinions were aired, there was a conspicuous lack of core issues under discussion, whether environmentalism, the value of design in a climate of change, or the technical challenges the profession faces in the information age. In many ways, the conference ended where it should have begun. While the words “role” and “responsibility” were often heard, it was only on the last day that Stephen Doyle of Drenttel Doyle Partners addressed what was on most people’s minds. Pointing out the sea of contradictions that surrounded the conference, he suggested we had fallen prey to moral duplicity and expressed his outrage as much at what was there as at was what omitted. “We are supposed to be a leadership organisation and we have subjected our membership not to leadership but to followship. We make presentations about recycling, but we come to this hotel and drink coffee from this [flicks a Styrofoam cup off the stage]. Is it our fault or the hotel’s fault? It’s our fault because we didn’t tell them what we want. Everybody jumped on Mike Salisbury, but what he said was ‘We are just giving people what they want.’ We have a responsibility as the organisation that we are to start telling people what we do want. We are supposed to be the great communicators. We need to talk less about products and more about ideas. We need to talk about the power that we have as designers and what morals that holds us to; first, as an organisation and then to other people. We need to practice what we preach. We need to change our behaviour.” Suddenly that lightening storm out on the horizon looked positively tame.

First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3, 1994.