David Brooks, cultural observer and author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, proposed an alternative analysis of the American political scene in his New York Times column recently.
"There are two sorts of people in the information-age elite, spreadsheet people and paragraph people," wrote Brooks. "Spreadsheet people work with numbers, wear loafers and support Republicans. Paragraph people work with prose, don't shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats." He went on to point out that "C.E.O.'s are classic spreadsheet people," five times more likely to donate to Bush than Kerry, and "Professors, on the other hand, are classic paragraph people," with Kerry donors outnumbering Bush donors eleven to one.
Are graphic designers spreadsheet people, paragraph people, or something else altogether? Where do we fall on the political spectrum? Do we even have to ask?
Paragraph people or number people, most of the designers I know lean left. My perspective may be skewed: I practice, after all, in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans five to one. Yet judged by their poster projects , manifestos and t-shirt contests , there is plenty of evidence that this is more than a local anomaly. Brooks posits an "intellectual affiliation theory." Number people, reassured by the "false clarity that numbers imply," respond to Bush's simple (minded?) decisiveness; paragraph people like the "postmodern, post-Cartesian, deconstructionist, co-directional ambiguity of Kerry's Iraq policy."
This makes sense. Graphic designers largely operate in a world of ambiguity, and with their antipathy to focus group testing and double-entry bookkeeping, most are definitely not number people.
This left-wing bias has deep historic roots. So much modern graphic design traces its roots back to the typographic innovations of the avant-garde work of early Soviet designers like Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Stepanova and the Stenberg Brothers. Pioneering American graphic designers like Paul Rand, Charles Coiner and Lester Beall were nurtured in the crucible of FDR's New Deal and the anti-Fascist fervor of the late thirties.
On the other hand, the most devastatingly effective design program of the twentieth century was commissioned by Adolf Hitler. A rigorously applied graphic identity, potent event planning, single minded architectural design: no design detail was too petty for the Third Reich, even (in a weird echo of this moment's obsession with the political uses of vintage office equipment) the customization of typewriters, each one of which was fitted out with a key that would render the twin lightning bolt logo of the SS. Based on the historical record, might Brooks be tempted to further sort out corporate identity designers on the right, and poster designers on the left?
Some professionals feel that design and politics shouldn't mix. After Bill Drenttel posted his unashamedly partisan article on the Bush National Guard documents controversy, Adrian Hanft wrote, "Time after time this blog pushes its political agenda and I am tired of it...I am baffled as to why you can't stick to the issue that you are good at: observing design." On the blog he runs with a group of writers including Bennett Holzworth, Hanft makes their own position clear: "Politics is not off limits, but when the topic comes up, you can be sure we are talking about design, and not pushing an agenda or endorsing a candidate. Doing so can only lessen the impact of our design discussion. We are professional graphic designers who have dedicated our lives to design, not politics. You don't care what our political views are, do you?"
Well, actually, I do. Many subsequent writers seemed to assume that Hanft and Holzworth were writing from a pro-Bush position but, true to form, they never disclosed their own leanings. I for one would like to hear from more conservative designers, if they truly exist. One of the few is Christian Robertson, who described himself as "one of the few registered Republican typoholics" while posting on Typographica. "The one thing I take from this," he wrote about the Bush documents controversy, "is that you can't underestimate the power of political/cultural identity in shaping thought. In all of the blogs, news stories, newspaper articles, and cable 'shout shows' I've seen in the past couple days (and believe me, I've seen a lot of them), almost never did anyone support a view that crossed their team affiliation. People will sometimes grudgingly change their view, but it takes a true preponderance of evidence."
I would add that you can't underestimate the power of political and cultural identity in shaping design as well. As much you might like to separate your political beliefs from your professional life, in the end it's folly. Satirist Tom Lehrer put it best in his song about mid-century America's most notorious non-ideological specialist, Werner von Braun, the Nazi weapons expert who joined the postwar space race as a designer for NASA:
Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department, says Werner von Braun.
We can try to departmentalize our lives, but it's impossible. Graphic designers work with messages, and the messages mean something. We may think we're responsible only for launching those messages, and certainly there's some comfort (and profit) in thinking that. But if you care about your work, you have to care not only about how it goes up, but where you come down.