"Elite designer" Van den Puup from Ikea's UK advertising campaign.
I recently attended a publisher's party. In a room above a smart London restaurant I spent a pleasant couple of hours drinking lukewarm Chardonnay and chatting about books and book reviews with a bunch of literary types publishers, editors, writers, journalists and book-world movers and shakers. I am a keen reader and try to keep up with the latest reviews and publishing-world news. During a conversation with a reasonably well-known English novelist I was asked if I "reviewed much fiction?" I said: no, I'm a graphic designer. I might just as well have tipped my drink over her. She recoiled in mild disgust, made an excuse and vanished into the canapés-guzzling throng.
What was this simple literary snobbery or confirmation of the pariah status of designers? My guess is that it was an example of the low esteem in which designers are held by the educated and the not so educated. This phenomenon can be seen in two big-budget, prime-time advertising campaigns currently showing on British television. Both Ford and Ikea are promoting their respective products by offering us pumped-up caricatures of designers and inviting us to guffaw at them.
Ford use a fictitious fashion designer to endorse the Ford Focus, an inexpensive and surprisingly well designed mass-market car. In a sharp bit of casting, our designer-hero is ruggedly handsome with a stubble-etched face and a shaved head. He semaphores his designerlyness by wearing flouncy shirts and exuding a faint whiff of camp. His "otherness" is further accentuated by a bumbling, sycophantic "straight man" a sort of butler-cum-business manager who fails repeatedly to meet our hero's exacting standards. In a series of unlikely vignettes the designer is revealed as a finicky fusspot obsessed with the look of everyday objects, whose behaviour verges on the unhinged.
Ikea offer us an even more ludicrous figure. There is no subtle casting here. Ikea's man is the designer from hell. He is some sort of European design fascist; a buffoon who appears to live in the house and garden you might imagine Elton John owns. He wears a beret and looks as if he is about to explode in a fit of designer pique. He even has a name and a manifesto: this is Van den Puup, and he represents "Elite Designers Against Ikea". His role is to make Ikea look sensible, practical and democratic, a feat he achieves by espousing elitism and behaving hysterically.
What do these unflattering portraits tell us about the current status of designers? The message is ambivalent. By using designers as central motifs in their campaigns, these two global brands appear to want it both ways. They want us to laugh at the designers we can't possibly like or admire these preening monsters yet they also want something that these two men have: they want to extract the cool quotient of design and inject it into their own products. And it's worth remembering that there are no accidents in the world of international advertising. Global brands and their advertising agencies don't do guesswork. The decision to place designers and design at the centre of two top-flight TV commercials is undoubtedly the product of vast amounts of "strategic thinking" and consumer marketing research.
In a further twist, the depiction of both characters carries an undercurrent of sexual stereotyping. Both designers appear to be pandering to residual anti-gay prejudice. But yet again, there is ambivalence at work here. In Britain, over recent decades, the effeminate gay man has been a staple of TV comedy shows and sitcoms; but today, the notion of the gay man as a paradigm of stylishness and superior taste has become embedded in popular culture. Modern sitcoms occasionally have gay characters who are allowed to behave with an enviable élan; TV makeover shows have gay men instructing clumsy heterosexual men on how to dress, cook and decorate. In the popular imagination, gayness and designer fastidiousness are likely to be two sides of the same coin.
Ford and Ikea want to harness (or, as Orwellian brand-speak would have it, "own") the undoubted coolness of both design and gayness. Yet at the same time, they want to distance themselves from the fundamental reality of both. In other words, they want a bit of design fascism, but not too much; the merest hint of design-lite will do. They achieve this by offering us ludicrous caricatures of designers, while calculating that just enough design stardust will simultaneously adhere to their products to make the connection worthwhile. So why not use a real designer? A "real" designer wouldn't have the dramatic impact of an overblown caricature; the audience would be turned off by the seriousness of the real thing.
You might think that to have design occupying a central position in mass-culture advertising is good for the image of design. Both advertisers might just as easily have chosen some other attribute of their products affordability, practicality or green credentials with which to promote themselves. And there may well be some cumulative benefit to design through its use as a component in advertising.Yet my guess is that when Ford and Ikea move on to other campaigns, and other messages, they will leave behind a global-village folk memory that depicts designers as preening egomaniacs drowning in their own hauteur.
How galling this must be for designers from the "design-as-business-tool" school. They work tirelessly to promote design as the ultimate edge-giving device for the corporate world, and yet this is what big business thinks about designers. It is no less galling for those of us who view design as primarily an aesthetic and cultural activity. No one benefits when designers are treated as figures of derision. Yet perhaps we deserve to be lampooned? Perhaps we are guilty of such excessive self-absorption that we haven't noticed that we are despised by those who can help us most? Perhaps our unspoken determination to be regarded as artists has resulted in our elevation to global laughing stock? Ironically, it used to be the case that if advertisers needed to conjure up an instant laughing stock, they would use a pouting, beret-wearing artist. Today, artists are heroes. Jackson Pollock, once a byword for absurdity ("my five-year-old could do that!") is now canonised by Hollywood and admired as a 20th-century creative powerhouse. You wouldn't make fun of him in a TV commercial; much better to make use of a designer a far easier barn door to hit.
Adrian Shaughnessy is an art director, writer and consultant based in London. He contributes to Eye, Design Week, Creative Review, Grafik and the AIGA's Voice website, and is editor of the Sampler series of books about music graphics. He is creative director of This is Real Art.