Autumn 2002


A list of four ‘don’ts’ for young designers

1 Don’t use women or sex to sell objects and hopes to lonely people.

It’s a sad reflection on our society today that this topic is my number one ‘Don’t’. But today, particularly in the United States, the media constantly bombard us with images and false promises of physical and mental sexual gratification. Why must it be this way?

Simply put, Capitalism is a matter of ‘Supply and Demand’ – and a manifestation of the adage ‘Scarcity = Value’. The more scarce something is the more valuable it is. Carbon is one of the most plentiful substances on earth. So coal, being comprised mostly of carbon, is very cheap. And yet super-pressurised carbon forced into diamond form is relatively rare and thus more valuable. A large diamond with few impurities and imperfections is astonishingly rare and valued accordingly.

Today, rewarding inter-personal relationships are becoming increasingly scarce. An unintentional side-effect of our myriad technical advances in the field of communications has been the paradox of more and more people becoming more and more alone.

With the Internet I am able to communicate in real time with thousands of different people from every corner of the globe. All the while sitting in my bedroom in my dirty underwear eating potato chips and getting fat. I can communicate to anyone instantly with my two-way pager. I can type 30 words per minute with just my thumbs, but I stutter uncontrollably when I’m alone with a real woman.

The corporate media are all too aware of this chasm. As far as ‘the bloodsuckers of the poor’ are concerned, this ‘meaningful emotional scarcity’ is no different from any other economic scarcity – and deserves to exploited as such. Because of the dearth of rewarding personal relationships among today’s young people, corporate media have started manufacturing ‘Placebo Meaning’. False idols and friends, who can provide the intimacy lacking in young people’s family and social structures, become infinitely valuable. They are more valuable even than the family and social structures they seek to replace. The executives of corporate media have become fat and rich from providing young people with what they want, not what they need. Yet in an ideal society these needs and wants wouldn’t be so disparate. They would be identical.

Today, what we want is not what we need, because the same corporate media who fulfil our wants are simultaneously creating them. Who among us really needs an eight-cylinder SUV [Sports Utility Vehicle] or 5.1 channel Dolby digital surround sound? Nobody needs a four-ton pile of steel to get closer to nature. And nobody should need digital technology to imitate something as natural and abundant as sound!

Yet for some reason, many people spend a great deal of money on these cars and sound systems. Someone, somewhere planted the idea in your head that such a self-conscious car and masturbatory stereo was a good thing. Corporate media exploited the basic human want for safety, strength and clarity into a way to feed itself. Mutated your natural emotions into a way to make money.

But they haven’t stopped at cars. Years ago, the heartless goblins of corporate media moved on to bigger game, the human female. Within the past five years the degradation of women has reached astronomical levels, while the ages of these denigrated women has become lower and lower. Corporate media’s manipulation of women takes many different forms, but the best (or worst) example, (depending on your perspective) is, in my opinion, the case of Miss Britney Spears.

Maybe you couldn’t care less about Britney. But I can’t ignore the Britney Spears phenomenon. Some day I plan to be the father of a daughter, and for this reason alone I must refuse to accept or ignore the ‘pimping’ of a child by the media. While Britney is technically no longer a child, she was sixteen when she was first introduced to us in tight Catholic school garb and sexy knee-highs. A Lolita Spears to a nation of Humbert Humberts.

Let’s face it. Britney is one degree away from a blow-up sex doll. She is human, but just barely. She has been reduced to a set of curves upon which the sexual fantasies of a nation are projected. And Britney is an equal opportunity offender – of both men and women, of girls and boys. Corporate media use her to profit from the misogynist and paedophiliac fantasies of men, young and old alike, while at the same time selling the dogma of nymphet to younger and younger girls. Last year I saw a five-year-old girl lip-synching and dancing to ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time!’ on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

I almost threw up.

Corporate media project to young women that the best way to be, i.e. the ‘Britney Way’, is to be constantly in love, or constantly scolding a boy for cheating on you, or constantly begging a boy to come back to you because you didn’t really mean to break up with him.

Either this, or Britney is reassuring her male audience that she is absolutely ‘Not that Innocent’ and that even though she’s twenty years old now, the dirty paedophiles shouldn’t worry, because, as she insists, she is, ‘Not yet a woman . . .’ But the most obvious sin Britney lives isn’t so much intellectual as painfully visual. More than any-thing, Britney insists on demonstrating to young girls that true empowerment can be derived from not only removing your clothes, but by viscerally tearing them off; as she so proudly demonstrated at the eMpTyV Music Awards a few years ago.

Britney is not only a vacuous shell of what a real woman can be, but her music is empty and worthless. Once upon a time, talent was required to be a performer, to be part of your nation’s (and now the world’s) culture. Today the entire entertainment industry is backward. A ‘character’ framework is dreamed up and then casting agents and corporate executives find someone to fit into that character.

The TV programme American Idol (similar to Pop Idol in the UK) manifests this fact. Jurors sift through talentless pseudo Britneys and their male equivalents and carefully whittle the group down to the least offensive and most appealing performer. Corporate media then takes this juvenile figurehead and pumps money into them to create an ‘idol’. As a result of raising talentless shells to the level of worship, western culture ends up with ‘idols’ who possess only physical and visual talents. Britney Spears becomes the Mahatma Gandhi of tits and ass.

Why should you care? Well, as artists and designers we package, and increasingly, create our culture. Our work and thoughts define the world.

Big companies know that people are empty inside, but they need designers to package their CDs, and to lay out the pages of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. They need us to direct their videos and create the special effects for them. Corporate media are the Nazis and we are the spineless tools of a truly evil empire.

But only if we choose to be.

Today, I beg you all to revolt! Don’t simply avoid aiding the enemy. Make the conscious effort to reclaim our culture, to reclaim our sisters, to reclaim our mothers and to save our daughters. Please!

Never use women or sex to sell objects.

2 Don’t underestimate your audience.

Sure, Britney Spears is evil, but we as consumers of this tripe have to bear some of the responsibility for her career. Nobody held a gun to our heads and demanded we buy her CDs. We should be controlling our media and demanding better. Sony and Arista work for us. US! Or, at least they should be. Sadly, we aren’t demanding any better from our culture-providers. We’re swallowing the crap they feed us and hungrily begging for more. As artists and designers it is our duty to hold the public and ourselves in a higher regard. We are the service-providers and content-creators. We have not been rising to the responsibility laid before us. At home I have over 60 channels of cable television. I watch about six of them because the other 90 per cent insult me. They take no risks and pander to the lowest common denominator. The Lowest, Common, Denominator. You need to ask yourself, ‘Is this me?’

If it is, and you are, then why? You deserve better. We deserve more.

Elijah Muhammed, founder of the Nation of Islam in the United States, once presented an audience with the following equation: ‘In any system of people, 85 per cent will be aimless and will wish to be led blindly by whoever is in power. Ten per cent will take advantage of the 85 and seek to profit from their abuse and denigration. And so it then becomes the duty of a righteous 5 per cent to work to save the 85-ers and defeat the evil 10 per cent.’

You can apply these proportions to very nearly any system and I promise you will be amazed by its truthfulness. Eighty-five per cent of the population watches television and listens to music and knows nothing about the considerations behind its creation and marketing. Ten per cent work in the media and sells us garbage like Maury [a daytime TV show in the United States] and Jerry Springer. Five per cent work to create quality entertainment that is educational and enlightening. (And then the Rupert per cent works to own it all!)

My question to you is this: ‘Where do you fall?’ Will you make paintings to sell at decorative galleries to be displayed in doctors’ offices and the waiting rooms of insurance companies? Will you industrial design the next Glade Plug-in that so conveniently blocks the electrical outlet above the one it uses so that in six months you can charge more for the ‘new and improved’ version that doesn’t? Will you graphic design more Photoshop cleavage on to the photo of an unsuspecting actress so that your derivative men’s magazine will sell more copies? How very ten per cent of you. Or will you realise that you control your audience and that if you raise your standards they will raise theirs?!

Are you sick of packaging the same lies for your clients? THEN STOP! ‘Rebrand’ and ‘Recontextualise’ your client into something truthful and yet appealing. If this is impossible, drop the client! There are many soup kitchens in the Western world. You will survive. You will not starve to death! The question is, will you be able to live with yourself? I think so, as long as you refuse to underestimate the intelligence of your audience.

3 Don’t lie to anyone, especially yourself.

If your client or the product you are selling sucks, don’t lie about it. Advertising is rife with examples of lying and truth-stretching. Anyone seriously involved in advertising design needs to realise this simply to function. But when does it become too much? It’s okay to call your new laundry detergent ‘the absolute best’ and ‘number one’, right? Sure it is. But what about medicine? Most scientists say that your company’s new arthritis medication is no better than aspirin. What do you do, make a commercial with fourteen octogenarians performing Tai Chi in the park? Great. You should be really proud of yourself.

You might think, ‘Well, if I don’t compromise myself and work for Sony or Pfizer or Disney, someone else will and the lies won’t be stopped or even challenged and I’ll pass up a great opportunity’.

I have to disagree.

The key to subverting big business and the monoculture that it sells the world is one simple word: ‘originality’. When you are good and do good work you become the pheno-menon instead of just leeching off it.

Another good example are Gap ads. I, personally, would love to work on an ad campaign for the Gap. The ads are always very hip and so ‘New York cool’ that it’s impossible not to love them. If you don’t, you feel like you’re missing out on something. This is one of advertising’s most insidious powers.

But the Gap ads have never been original. They have simply sucked off of the ideas and concepts of ‘kitsch’ and ‘counter-culture’, and repackaged them with modern aesthetics, and television and music stars, but with none of the actual meaning of the original. These shallow images are then resold to us something new and as evidence of a venerable creativity at work. A creative culture that we should rush to drape ourselves in.

When an underground style exists, by its nature few people know anything about it. That’s why it’s so easy for someone to rip off something underground and then sell it back to general populace. And this is why we, if we are to be true, original and beautiful, have to keep working so hard to create actual culture. Not just reasonable facsimiles thereof.

But again, you may ask yourself, ‘Why is it worth it to make something so cool if I’m only doomed to get ripped off in the end?’ This is a very good question. The only answer I can offer you is this: ‘Can you wake up happy in the morning knowing you are nothing more than a style-monger?’

What if instead you woke up and smiled knowing that today you were going to make something brand new. Something not just flashy and trite, but something actually beautiful and useful to millions of people.

Not some slick new Flash trick that’s based on the sum of the quadratic theory multiplied by the gravitational pulls of orbiting stars.

Not some new faux-finish colour scheme for the guest room of some overly wealthy ethical troglodyte!

Not some ugly, in-your-face, fish-eye lens airbrushed illustration selling a brand new, totally awesome and EXTREME flavour of Doritos to ten-year-olds!

And definitely not some atrocious new SUV that magically converts from a pick-up to a Winnebago, to an entire mobile home trailer court in three easy steps – all the while getting nine miles to the gallon.

Instead of making those terrible things, take the time to learn to distinguish the real needs of humanity from the manufactured wants created by corporate media. And while you are at it, tell the ‘Captains of Industry’ to go straight to hell and to take their ‘planned obsolescence’ with them!

Make products that sell well, because they work! Products that you buy once, because they last!

I know we can do this. And when we do, don’t let anyone lie to you and tell you that what you made isn’t good enough because it isn’t hip enough or loud enough or ‘in-your-face’ enough! Don’t let anyone lie to you or for you.

Never lie to anyone, especially yourself.

If you can’t handle this simple responsibility then the years you spent in education have been a mistake and you need to get out.


YOU NEED TO GET OUT NOW, before you do any irreparable damage to yourself or to the unsuspecting public that you are supposed to be serving!

One more don’t.

4 Don’t ever give up.

This piece is based on an Undergraduate Commencement Address to the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, given on 11 May 2002.