At a symposium several weeks ago at the Annenberg School for Public Policy in Philadelphia, we gave a presentation in which we discussed some of the more vexing consequences of graphic design and what we've come to call faux science: namely, that making facts pretty and palatable, while a conscientious thing to do, often minimizes a kind of intellectual engagement that should be equally essential to design practice. This position irked at least one of the symposium's participants, the architect and design theorist Laura Kurgan, who later confessed to me that we had hit a nerve: in her work, she explained, aestheticizing factual information was an intrinsic part of making that information more available to the public. Was this wrong?
I don't think it is. But I found myself thinking about Laura's comment long after the symposium ended, and was reminded of it again on Sunday when I read Max Frankel's editorial in The New York Times, "Seeing is Always Believing." In it, he describes the irresponsible nature of dramatization where the innocent public is concerned. Just how innocent the public is might be considered somewhat debatable, of course, but my point here is a simple one: isn't this the same public that we, as designers, are speaking to in our work every day? And assuming this is so, at what point does the designer's interpretation threaten to skew or misrepresent or implausibly amplify information in a manner that might be considered, well, irresponsible?
I can think of many examples of design in which such "irresponsibility" is, in fact, the very component that makes something all the more memorable. (Think Tibor, for one.) And clearly, while design as a visual discipline and arguably, an art of display and communication shares something in common with television, it is not television. But television's reach is broad, its allure somewhat hypnotically linked to everyday consumption patterns, and we would be ill-advised to ignore it's power with regard to wooing audiences. Ultimately, Frankel posits that television is a major culprit in the delivery of fact and fiction, citing the major US networks, whose dramatizations (Ronald Reagan, Jessica Lynch) skew reality with a kind of reckless abandon ... at the same time that reality TV asks us to believe the plausibility of dating stunts or survivalist derring-do.
So how different is design? And aren't weblogs like this one merely tame variants of our own kind of Reality TV? I'd like to believe that we're rescued by the allegedly democratic nature of this medium witness the richness and originality of thinking in so many of the comments we read here every day. But I'm no fool: democracy alone will not save us, and audiences everywhere are likely to place the power and authority of network television over the true reality of Reaganomics or the real details of Jessica Lynch's capture.
As for me, I continue to wrestle with the precarious relationship between factual abberation and visual drama, and find myself wondering about the moral responsibility that accompanies those of us capable of wielding it's enormous power. Laura Kurgan's comment haunts me still.