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Steven Heller | Essays

It's Easy to Criticize. . . Not

Convention was disrupted last Thursday night in New York City at Designism 2:0 when the sometimes "self-congratulatory" nature of the Art Director Club's social conscience-raising event was upended by Vanity Fair media critic Michael Wolff's unforgiving critique of design's do-goodery. The convention in question might be called "critical etiquette": When is it appropriate to publicly attack design and designers for work that is largely intended for social good? Usually acerbic commentary about design is left (often anonymously) to blog posts, while well-meaning public forums, such as Designism 2:0, are comparatively free of critical jabs and barbs out of respect for their socially redeemable intentions. Yet after observing presentations by educator Elizabeth Resnik about "The Graphic Imperative: International Posters for Peace, Social Justice & The Enivronment 1965-2005," ad person Jane Kestin on her "Dove Campaign for Real Beauty," and designer Milton Glaser on his Darfur and Iraq awareness initiatives, Wolff was asked (by me as moderator) to comment on the efficacy of the work.

Michael Wolff responded by branding everything as "banal," "trite" and "unoriginal."

Then Wolff railed that design (and designers) were incapable of challenging issues or changing minds because their collective arsenal of alternative clichés, which has not changed in decades, is the same as mainstream ones which they sought to subvert. He further admonished the audience against doing anything if the result was not extraordinary. Instead, he said, just "read books, lots of books." The thud of 200-plus jaws dropping was audible throughout the audience.

Known for a sharp tongue and strident critiques of media and media-makers, Wolff was relatively unknown to the design audience who came to Designism 2:0 to be, at least in part, inspired into action. Indeed this was an evening devoted to individual and collective activities that marshalled design to aid rural communities, voice political frustration, challenge common stereotypes, and attack the outcome of the current war. (Other coverage of the event is here and here.) Rather than play along, however, Wolff sprayed buckshot, hitting various targets. He also voiced dismay that designers have not moved very far in their socio-political discourse. Yet with the notable exception of praising the 60s and 70s (the anti-Vietnam, pro-civil rights and feminist eras) as the wellsprings of design acuity, he provided no alternatives, prompting one audience member to exclaim: "Its easy to criticize!"

This statement had validity, given Wolff's wholesale indictment of designer pieties without an iota of what might be called "constructive criticism." But in fact, it is not easy to criticize at an event like Designism 2:0 or other such venues where designers gather to, well, feel good about their intentions and accomplishments — or where, in this case, the goal was to motivate greater action in the public sector. Wolff had the temerity to ignore all virtuous motivations and brazenly attacked a few of the more iconic, if not heroic, results.

For Wolff it was easy to criticize — he had nothing to lose — he is not part of the design community. Yet it is doubtful anyone within the field (or in the audience that night) would have had the nerve to level such a public critique without issuing the requisite caveats and apologies for possibly stepping on colleagues' toes. Although Wolff opened the door for a few audience snipes at the Dove beauty initiative (including the main one, that the girls in the commercial were "not ugly enough" to really change deep-seated attitudes about self-esteem), the rebuttals were mostly impassioned defenses of design. Nonetheless, a number of post-event bloggers welcomed the opportunity to address the elephant in the room (how effective designers can be in the world of social concern) and were grateful for unfiltered criticism. Even Milton Glaser, who eloquently and convincingly addressed (rather than defend) his rationale for his long history of using design as a frame for communicating social concerns (he said he acts almost solely on a personal need to do so), agreed with the more pragmatic aspects of Wolff's analysis.

Wolff's provocative warnings about the danger of resting entirely on self-satisfaction if the end products are ordinary had resonance for some in the audience, while others clearly took umbrage. But the fact that he said it at all was, frankly, rejuvenating. The organizers may not have known at what level of intensity Wolff was going to engage these issues (and as moderator I was surprised by his initial barrage), but they understood it was necessary to trigger debate and knew that only an outsider, free from any intimacy with the design community, could accomplish the task.

The question raised by this is not whether or not design with social and political intent — or any design or advertising projects — should be critiqued and analyzed, but who at this stage is capable of raising such criticism free from seeming to be self-serving. Even "design critics" generally do not want to run afoul of designers lest they lose access to them. Valid and needed criticism from within the field is often seen as tainted by overt prejudices, which often results in vituperative argument on blogs and elsewhere. So the most "constructive" aspect of this public critique was the fact that despite Wolff's acerbic, take no prisoners tone, issues were raised, myths were challenged, and, most important, civility reigned on the panel and throughout the audience. Criticism did not kill the discourse, instead it gave it new life.

Comments [48]

It's difficult to know how to respond to Wolff's criticism regarding designers only having so many tricks up their sleeves, especially in regards to social commentary. Granted, it is true that these days we see a lot of designs that knock off other designs, but to lambaste them all and suggest that people should merely 'read books instead' borders on ridiculous, in my mind.
Ryan Eanes

Great article!!

I have added you to my technorati & delicous favorites.
My technorati:


Go Wolff!
Theodore Rosendorf

it's an interesting notion to suggest that designers once survived by "alternative clichés" and it's even more interesting to consider that now the alternative clichés are so mainstream they are useless to designers...

the question i sometimes ponder is:

are designers motivated to design what they feel is right?

or are they motivated to design what they feel other designers feel is right?

the point i am trying to get at is that maybe the biggest hurdle for designers doing socially conscious work isn't a wall of now mainstream alternative cliches, but, doing work that is socially conscious, that won't get them eaten alive by some of the most radical and, sadly, most influential voices in the business.
ed mckim

Thinking about Ed McKim's comment about how designers worry about what critics within the design community will say regarding their socially-driven projects, I thought it relevant to share a related experience:

I was recently inspired by a local tragedy (and much music) to design a three poster series on police brutality. After finishing the designs in one afternoon, the most natural thing for me was to release the files to the public with no credit whatsoever. But what's more, it was released as a completely unlocked vector PDF file for all to use, manipulate, print, etc.

The reason for that was that, to me, the message, the cause and yes: the designs themselves were all better served by a fresh dose of anonymity. By removing authorship completely, it drew on the strength of the people's voice, and its anonymity somehow gave it credibility. And thus the designs were very effective in sending a message. And the message was really all that mattered to me, and still does. Some people even took the files to a local print shop to be reproduced on t-shirts, let alone posters.

In the end, I feel very good about it. I think that removing myself from the pieces after they were finished was the right thing to do. And not because it allows me to not take responsability for the pieces, what they say and how they say it, but -on the contrary- because they allow the message and the form a truly clean slate once they're out the door. And it helps that any possible claim of the designs being the product of an opportunistic, self-serving excercise in design snobbery go out the door. For what is the point of design snobbery if one cannot call it one's own?

The posters will never make it to a design contest or exhibition with a name on them. They will not be reprinted in a book about "socially conscious design" with an author's credit. And that's exactly how it should be, at least for these posters, at least for me.

Does anybody have a transcript of Wolff's tirade? Because I have the sinking suspicion that these kinds of panels, and Wolff's criticisms, are both plagued by the design tradition of anti-intellectualism.

It's unfortunate that high-profile designers can't offer very complex critiques, or approach their subject matter from a nuanced perspective. In this, I guess I agree with Wolff, to some degree... I want to see some great design that provides the visual equivalent to a powerful, probing critique.

But there are reasons that social issues, addressed via design, can come across as banal. One of the explicit goals of design is simplicity and direct engagement, not opaque unfolding of an issue's hermeneutics, and for that reason, cliche has been a tool in the designer's arsenal for a long time.

Further, even as I say design is often anti-intellectual, it's even more anti-intellectual to attack a whole discipline without discussing it in any complex way, and for Wolff to write off all design since the 60's and 70's? That's the most ill-informed, anti-intellectual ranting I can imagine having to endure.

And frankly, I can excuse some intellectual clumsiness from elite corporate visual artists. I can't excuse it from a supposed world-class media critic.

I wish I could have been there. While Wolff may be right that most visual strategies with persausive intent have become banal or cliche, one of the bigger problems I have is that format of the poster as a vehicle for effective communication of this kind in this day and age is anachronistic. The poster is a convenient neutral container for a designer's expression, not of form but of concern. Like a message in a bottle. Cathartic perhaps, effective unlikely.

PS: "Read more books," sounds like a lazy answer to me.
Andrew Blauvelt

The question raised by this is not whether or not design with social and political intent — or any design or advertising projects — should be critiqued and analyzed, but who at this stage is capable of raising such criticism free from seeming to be self-serving.

Another question raised is: to what extent are designers any different from creative folks in other fields?

When any artist -- painter, musician, writer, designer, etc -- chooses to venture into the social/political arena he or she is taking a particular risk, and staking a particular niche.

The risk is in removing ambiguity. There's a lot of power in leaving interpretation up to the consumer, and so by becoming overtly political you are sure to alienate. The flip side is that people who happen to agree with your point of view are now that much more inclined to consume your work.

That's as true for designers as it is for anyone else. If you come out and say "I just refused to do a logo for the National Dairy Council because I'm a vegan who doesn't believe in industrial farming" you're now trafficking as much in a point of view as in the power or quality of your work. The same thing happens if you do a logo for PETA, or Planned Parenthood, or the NRA.

That's not to say that the power and quality of the work suddenly don't matter, it's simply to say that they matter in a different way.

This isn't a bad thing. Anyone who is moved to speak should do so, and there are few instances where that's a net negative. But that decision should be made with awareness that speaking out has a definite effect on the way the work is perceived.

All of which goes to say that working for "social good" is not an absolute value. It's really just working for ideas, and doing so opens one up to criticism. There's nothing wrong with that on either end. The creator and the critic are both, to some extent, self-serving. But the whole point should be to further a healthy debate.
neal s

I'm not sure the poster is "over," but I want to pick up an Andrew Blauvelt's comment.

Doesn't the next generation of engagement have to pick up on the learning from Service Design or whatever we want to call more integrated, expansive design? AIGA ran a wonderful series of VOTE posters a couple of years ago. With proper dissemination, I'm sure these were effective on some level. (If I'd been asked to participate, I'd gladly have created a poster.) But isn't the AIGA Design for Democracy project, with its deeper engagement in research, participants, providers and the nitty details of voting more likely to have an impact? Marcia Lausen's Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design seems more likely to lead to change than any poster. Anyway, I send my Congressman a copy!
William Drenttel

I once did a board game design and my professor didn't like it. I told him it looks just like all the other board game interface in the market.

When he told me that making it look like those in the market is not good enough, I got upset. Isn't it enough to make something that looks professional? Why do I have to go and add deeper meaning to something like a board game interface just to get A?

He then told me, what's in the market are broken and it's his job to turn me into a good designer so that I can go out there and fix it.

These works didn't fix anything, I guess that's what the critic was saying.

Compare these campaigns to say... the winner of AIGA young designer competition the "Except You" campaign, and it is obvious that they are in a different league... in reverse direction.

Panasit Ch

"Read more books" is a very polite way of saying that these are complicated issues that, before they're reduced to slogans and graphics, might deserve mastering in some detail. It may feel good to design something catchy, but it won't persuade decision makers if it's fundamentally ignorant or dodges the basic questions. What's happening in Darfur is horrible, but what exactly is Milton Glaser's policy prescription? Invasion?
Virginia Postrel


Wow, and I just ranted on the phone that the only ones who can change anything in this world are ranting old ladies with canes and walkers.

I later corrected myself as those older women who've always only been housewives because they have the least space to fall from their high thrones or is it thowns --about a squat about the ground. Do they have pensions? Do they have proper retirement funds? I mean what have they to lose but their dignity, integrity, position in front of their kids. And maybe their kids will love them anyway. So that's like only a few people anyway, HUH? That's all.

Other men and women have to fall from much higher ladders in front of everyone like a whole corporation, professional community, or university,

Yea, we don't have to turn the sound up, they just want us from the ground up. That's the world to me.

United workers of the house and home keepers. No membership. Who gives a Diddly squat?


I often feel that the most challenging parts of being a design student is not throwing up listening to liberal design students enamored with their supposed power to change the world. So many believe that a few callow rants in the form of a poster, animation, Adbusters, or using recycled paper now and then really will reshape the world. But I never talk to any capable of having even the most rudimentary dialogue about anything beyond the basic ideas. I can have a better conversation about ethics and social responsibility with Mormon missionaries than I can with the average moralizing design student, who can prattle on endlessly about responsibility but has no clue about Immanuel Kant.

A poster above said: "What's happening in Darfur is horrible, but what exactly is Milton Glaser's policy prescription? Invasion?" That sentiment echoes my feelings about designers and their so called activism. They're quick to offer up a callow visual rant, often combined with a clever image and maybe a (barely) witty slogan. In most cases I really don't see how that stuff separates designers from the countless hack printmakers who tried to pass off degraded versions of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs as fine art. Neither one is worth listening two, and both would do the world a great favor by shutting up until they have something especially useful to say.
james puckett

What's happening in Darfur is horrible, but what exactly is Milton Glaser's policy prescription? Invasion?

Isn't simply raising awareness via graphic design, and encouraging the public (other designers included) to become more proactive in learning about a political issue (ie. to "read more books") a valid enough goal on its own?
Hilary Greenbaum

Isn't simply raising awareness via graphic design...a valid enough goal on its own?

Valid on what grounds? Anybody can complain about problems, designers are supposed to be solving them. Complaining about the latest cause celebre is not valid activism, it's self-promotion.
james puckett

The "Read more books," comment is taken slightly out of context. In its full iteration, Wolff says, in spirit, that rather than constructing piety, you should instead go home and read a book. And if after that you still feel like you need to do "something" then it will be obvious. The inference being that the world needs less glad-handing and more authenticity.

Steve, the second and equally important event that evening was when you called Glaser on his own hinted doubts about his vanity and shoring up his legacy.

To any that care to follow up, should be uploading either audio or video of that section of the q and a in early January.
E. Tage Larsen

I am always happy to be told to read more books, as if any of us need an excuse.
Remember after 9/11? How there was a rush to actually "brand" it? How graphic designers actually tried to do posters and logos and things about it? And while it's true that Milton Glaser did a good one ("I [heart] NY more than ever" with bruising on the heart) the response of most designers to use anything to make yet more design was kind of pathetic. It turns out that the event was "branded" through rhetoric, not snappy typography, and we've had to listen to the Bush administration and the Guliani campaign to witness the real experts at work, to demonstrate that turning to our computers might not have been the best use of our time. (As usual that great political philospher, Steven Colbert, put it most cuttingly: something like "Make the man annoyed that he ever opened your website"). Unless your poster or your website is actually enviting people to take to the streets (or maybe, just maybe telling us something we do not already know in a form we've never yet seen), then what's the point? There is always a more directly engaged activity that will yield more satisfactory results than advertising for its possibility, and chances are a greater degree of education on the issues will help one think of an alternative. I cannot believe I'm agreeing with Virginia Postrel on this. And I'm glad to see that "nancy" got her meds back.

Hard to tell from hearsay, but it sounds like Wolff was right on, except in one respect: confusing advertising with "design."

To Andrew's point above, no longer is the word + image equation a particularly powerful device on its own. It's like saying a coelocanth is the best exemplar of a fish. Yes, it's still around, works on similar principles, but it hardly represents the current state of evolution.

PS: I'm glad someone finally called out Milton Glaser rather than heaping more laurels on lazy, self-congratulatory work. His "We are All African" poster is not only "trite," its dated attitudes toward race are embarrassing and offensive. Not to mention just plain bad Photoshop.
jay harlow

This is a really interesting post: particularly the issue of design criticism. I am reminded of the common and idiotic sentiment that someone like Rick Poynor cannot or should not critique design because he is not a practitioner, when in fact it is completely necessary for a critic to operate outside of the field. Much has been said on this site about the need for design criticism, but it has always been said by designers, and the vast majority of design criticism currently is by designers. And Steve is right, they must at very least pull their punches. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible to properly critique a community of which you are a part.

So, at a time when design has reached mass media attention, and designers are feeling pretty good about the fact that we exist, and are noticed, I think it's a huge advancement that a media critic has turned his sights on the profession. If design is ever to truly advance beyond myopic behaviour, it needs a wealth of intelligent outside criticism. Ouch, it hurts, but it's something that this profession desperately needs.
marian bantjes

All professions gather for self-congratulatory events and can be criticized on the basis of validity. On the spectrum of profession and morality, I'd say design, though wasteful, isn't entirely at the evil end. Few professions are morally uncorrupt (Wolff, will reading books pay our rent? Will the knowledge in my brain from these books raise money to alleviate hunger?). His intentions in advocating reading may have been good, but not if he's suggesting reading as an alternative to our means of living.

Many, many professions are equally or more wasteful and questionable ethics-wise than design. To say we shouldn't design anything unless it is ecceptional is great, if you're independently wealthy. As for the lack of intellectuals in the field, we should all get used to it - all designers are not going to just suddenly become smart, literary and curious. It will always be a mix, and if you dislike diversity then you might want to stop and think about how elitist and unrealistic that sounds. Philosophical academics or critics may be well-read, but as far as I can tell they aren't Doing much of anything.

If you want to sleep soundly, maybe consider becoming a doctor, a social worker, a monk, etc.

I see Mr. Wolff's point, but as Andrew pointed out, he is perhaps balking more at the medium and format than the methodology. Let's face it: the posters are only potentially effective if people see them. Posters are certainly to be one of the least efficient methods to spread a message. Most of the posters look destined for a limited printing and a short life on someone's bedroom or basement wall.

Which is a sad outcome, because the visual communication seems striking, well crafted and clear. They'd just all be more useful and effective taking the money that was spent on printing and spending it on running banner ads or starting a grassroots campaign with them on myspace/facebook.
Justin Heideman

Isn't simply raising awareness via graphic design...a valid enough goal on its own?
Valid on what grounds? Anybody can complain about problems, designers are supposed to be solving them. Complaining about the latest cause celebre is not valid activism, it's self-promotion.

So, you're saying that if you can't be a part of the grand solution, if you can't personally hand food to those starving children in Wherever, don't do anything at all because it's not "valid activisim?"

I disagree with your generalization that creating posters or collateral materials about sociopolitical topics is nothing but a trite "complaint." Maybe you didn't intend to comment so broadly, so I apologize if I misinterpreted it.

If there's difficulty getting people to pay attention to a certain subject, that's a problem in itself that can be solved by designers. If someone creates an effective awareness poster, I don't consider that "complaining" and I don't consider it "invalid activism." It solved a problem: lack of awareness.

We've always got the opportunity to be PART of the solution, but I have a hard time imagining a situation where we will ever single-handedly be THE solution, because obviously THE solution for so many of these issues are complex and involve so many people from so many different cultures and walks of life.

And dismissing someone's attempt to be involved in a cause because you consider their dialogue to be shallow or trite is wasting a great opportunity. Why not engage them, educate them and help them become part of the grand solution? Giving up on the willfully ignorant is one thing, but educating the people who care (but haven't done their homework) is another thing entirely.

His "We are All African" poster is not only "trite," its dated attitudes toward race are embarrassing and offensive.

Ugh, agreed.

Agreed that the majority of designs should include more thought behind them, yet there are many good consequences in having someone like Milton Glaser tackle these issues. A main one is simply being a good role model for other designers, which in turn exposes new designers to social issues that are usually overshadowed by commercial design/media.
Noam Almosnino

The poster is a convenient neutral container for a designer's expression [...] Cathartic perhaps, effective unlikely.

I agree, but catharsis is a powerful thing. There is great value in posters where the intent is not to educate or to bring awareness, but to provide a release of frustration, a moment for the viewer to bond with the designer in railing against the idiocies of the world. I'm thinking of James Victore's work.
Ahrum Hong

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
Martin Luther King Jr.

From what you wrote, Wolff did not seek to actually add to the collective dialogue. He sought to silence it through harsh discouragement. This is the most disturbing thing his actions seem to indicate to me.

Sure, he got some feathers ruffled, so kudos to him. However, he still attacked the messengers.

If the whole event was self serving or that somehow the parties involved were not altruistically speaking out, then they were at least DOING something. Whether or not that "something" is a derivative cliche should be tolerated as it's the act of attempting to do good that should be applauded.

Why? It's a significant part of many religions. If God isn't your thing, then reason alone can account for the benefit to us all for encouraging the people who dare to make a difference in the face of overwhelming odds to the contrary. I believe that altruism has evolutionary benefits. Silencing those who seek to promote an altruistic agenda is like killing the sperm and ova of every living human.
Andy Haris

In my research methods class this semester, a student did her project on "Propaganda and the Role of Graphic Design in the Culture of Fear". She set up a propaganda poster in different areas to observe peoples reactions to it. She was dismayed to find that most people did not notice it. Note: this is different from ignoring the poster (which requires some recognition of its existence). Perhaps, design is not so powerful after all she concluded.

I've always distinguished between between design spectacles (with small-d) and Design transformations (with big-D). You can be critical of both, but for different reasons.

Being a big-D kind of person, I am critical of design spectacles because they often have no grounded intentions to, in the words of Herbert Simon,"change existing conditions to preferred ones." So they end up being hollow, self-congratulatory statements about how wonderful and powerful designers are, but do not even "raise consciousness" among those who make the decisions that cause human misery. Even Design for Democracy had its design spectacle moments, before deciding to really engage in the hard work of getting election officials to understand and adopt the design standards as a means of improving their processes of election administration.

Design transformations can be criticized for not pushing the boundaries enough. To get in the room with power to affect decisions, one adapts oneself to the systems of power and are equally transformed. The result is often enabling more benevolent conditions but still not changing the overall power structures that allow for human misery. So you become more pragmatic, less idealistic. So while Design for Democracy can make your ballot choices clearer, it cannot do anything to guarantee that you will have better choices. And that's where the true transformations lie is in having better choices. So the critical question is whether this designing for the social good actually (not speculatively) enables better choices.

So I think it is important to have a critical stance on all design practices, because the even for the good requires stating "for whom".

Designers can not end the conflict in the Sudan, eliminate world hunger or make the world safe for children just by "marketing the problem." But we can change lives by applying design to where the pain is locally. We can design forms that are easy to fill out, making it easier for hungry people to get assistance. We can create brochures that give women in abusive relationships information they need, designed small to be discrete and easily hidden. We can create posters for college campuses that encourage those with drug addiction to seek help.

Each of the above examples are real solutions that students in our community college created this past semester when challenged to use graphic design to "change the world." Each one has created real, measurable change, because we defined changing the world to mean making a positive difference in the life of at least one person. These, and ten other students did that by engaging the world at a level that is real to them--their community, their college, their family.

Despite the brouhaha created by Mr. Wolfe last week, let us not loose sight of the fact that design can be more than making a big splash in a national spotlight. A real difference can occur when we meet the need next door, using the tools of graphic design as an agent of change.

Yeah, we need need to really come up with more challenging, innovative design if we want to sway the political and social leanings of Americans:
The most aesthetically and intellectually demanding middle-class on the face of the earth.

The American public's Vanity-Fair-critic-like erudition in the fine arts causes them to become quickly jaded with anything jejune or trite; their standards are overly-refined to the point of virtually imploding in on themselves.

God, kick it up a notch.

Nice article, well-written. (Except the article title should read "It's" as in "It is." You've got the possessive version stuck up there.)

Design in the service of social or political awareness becomes a confusing matter when it is conflated with projects like the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. To my eyes, this campaign was clearly and unequivocally a (possibly brilliant) marketing campaign designed to sell more product. It was utterly transparent and superficial. Social awareness is borrowed as a strategy to promote the sale of soap--and beauty products. So, the women who are promoted as "real" beauties need more beauty products? Hmm....

I think designers are complicit in a muddying of the waters. When we adopt social awareness (along with its visual and verbal languages) as a marketing strategy to sell products, how are our audiences supposed to recognize the work that is, in fact, sincerely and faithfully intended for the public good?
Rob Henning

Maybe the social awareness posters/ads get little attention because it's as simple as "i agree, nothing new here (but glad to see it)" or "i disagree, nothing new here (i really don't like to see it)." beyond that it is just self-congratulatory design.

is it any coincidence that most people's favorite posters are show posters for music, art, and events?

i know my favorites are.
ed mckim

If someone creates an effective awareness poster, I don't consider that "complaining" and I don't consider it "invalid activism." It solved a problem: lack of awareness.

The Silence=Death Aids awareness project is a good case in point.

"There was also the SILENCE=DEATH Project, which was a group of men who had started meeting a year and half before [ACT UP was started], including Avram Finklestein, Oliver Smith, and Chris Lione. They were a whole group of men who needed to talk to each other and others about what the fuck were they going to do, being gay men in the age of AIDS?! Several of them were designers of various sorts—graphic designers—and they ended up deciding that they had to start doing wheat-pasting on the streets, to get the message out to people: 'Why aren't you doing something?' So they created the SILENCE=DEATH logo well before ACT UP ever existed, and they made posters before ACT UP ever existed, and the posters at the bottom said something like, 'What's really happening in Washington? What's happening with Reagan and Bush and the Food and Drug Administration?' It ended with this statement: 'Turn anger, fear, grief into action.' Several of these graphic designers were at that first evening that Larry spoke."

Granted that was twenty years ago and the media landscape has evolved considerably since. But that was a direct response to personal anger and frustration and very effective, giving a focus to Aids awareness groups across the US and Europe. Alfonso's comment above shows a contemporary equivalent of this. Maybe designers today aren't angry enough, whatever their politics?
John Coulthart

Maybe designers today aren't angry enough, whatever their politics?

Or maybe we're angry about so many things (thanks to the internet and a more accessible variety of news sources) that it's difficult to focus on a particular issue.

There's a big difference between inaction and ineffectiveness.

I think the core question is: can socially conscious designers invent more effective means to affect the change they are clearly motivated to seek?

Some people were questioning whether posters can have an affect any more. The MPAA evidently thinks so:

And I notice that story made the Observed list as well.
John Coulthart

Design must often portray complicated issues in direct enough fashion to prevent viewers from walking away without 'getting' the message. Western audiences are renowned for their lack of patience in deciphering messages. An attempt to simplify the inherent complexities of an issue so that the AUDIENCE does not dismiss it for being 'too much' should not be misconstrued as an act that has resulted from some lack of 'book reading.' While the best design attempts to pack complexities into digestible offerings, it sounds like Wolff's comments were ironically reductionist, and a result of his own lack of reading on the subject at hand.

i, too, am sorry I wasn't at this event to witness this thunking. more on this on my blog -

I agree with the poster above that the "Silence =Death" campaign (if that's what you'd call it?) was an superior example of why you might want to respond to a crisis with a poster, but I still think it fills my criteria of telling the audience something they did not already know (or hadn't quite thought of in that way) which also added up to something they hadn't seen before. And maybe yes it was anger that fueled that brilliance - though given what's going on the abscence of real anger is a peculiar.
Where things get really slippery, and where the current media landscape IS different, is with stuff like the Dove campaign. I mean, it's a clever, heartfelt (maybe) and smartly strategic campaign to sell soap. Not that that's bad, but it gets confusing to call it political action. And that's where so much of the work going on now that the creators like to cite to feel good about themselves feels dubious. Like all the "green" advertising. ..hard not to be suspicious of it in its sudden proliferation.

Designers make the biggest difference when they stop designing.

'Design' is so self-referential. Who gives a shit but us? No poster, ad or Tshirt made that big of a difference in any social issue, because it's a substitution for direct action. For real advocacy.

Instead, get your ass out of the studio and into the street-to the next city council or county commission meeting, to the homless shelter, to the church of your choice, to the recycle landfill, to the neighborhood revitalization meeting and to the art classes for folks with disabilties.

Good grief!

Leave the posters already...


Thus Spoke Wolff at the Art Director's Club.
Designism 2.0.

"The problem with using design as a disruptive force is that everyone uses design as a disruptive force. So how do you break through the clutter? Someone figures it out, everyone copies, and you have to reinvent again. Using design to disrupt design. On an economic value its inflated and therefore devalued."
"Design is dead."
- Michael Wolff

Don't be seduced by Michael Wolff's words. Instead, if we want design to be an instrument for social change, we need more designers that can write and more writers that can design. Design is alive and well and is more important than ever. In fact, it is the printed word that is dead not design. The Media elite as Wolff is well aware controls the printed word. Design is kinetic and will forever break through the clutter of words with new interactive media formats.
Carl W. Smith

Thanks Carl, for an exact quote from the event. If Wolff believes that such a hackneyed observation hasn't been muttered 1,000 times before—by designers themselves, no less—then he's the fella that needs to do some reading.

If he had taken the time to read up on the design literature—by critics AND designers themselves—he'd have realized that even those designers who are determined to use their skills to speak out about causes they believe in will often consider such a thought—yet still plow forward (with that nagging thought providing an impetous to do everything in their power to make a difference with their work).

I don't have a problem with anyone criticizing the design discipline (it needs more of it, in fact, and I love a healthy debate), unless they approach it from an ill-informed point of view. As Virginia Postrel put it earlier (to make a decidedly different point), "It may feel good to design (say) something catchy, but it won't persuade decision makers (anyone) if it's fundamentally ignorant or dodges (raises) the basic (same old) questions (we are already wrestling with).'

I applaud Mr. Wolff for raising the debate, though much of his commentary seems to stem from his understanding of design.

Not being there, I assume that his examples and understanding are based loosely around graphic design-as-marketing (as so many other comments have pointed out). Graphic design, especially with advertising or marketing orientation, is effective for creating awareness or even influence, but generally falls short of changing behavior directly. (Not that it doesn't have its role.) In most of these "do-good" applications it does tend to feel trite and self-congratulatory. It shows the hope of influencing others to make change based on the designer's point of view. "I want to tell everyone that this is right, now will someone else do something about it?"

But I can think of so many examples of design thinking that have made great change in the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of these examples don't start with a marketing medium. The true problem here is design thinking that presupposes the answer is a particular medium (logo, poster, website, etc.). How many student design projects start with "Design a logo that..." or "Design a poster that..." rather than "Design the most effective way to..."

I think it was George Lois who, in the first Designism event, said something implying Karl Rove as a very influential designer. Politics aside, Rove did employ design thinking to cause change, and did so very effectively.

On my 12 hour drive to my in-laws for the holidays, three times I saw tractor-trailers slowly creep off of the road, only to have their drivers awakened as they drive over the rumble-strips on the roadside. Thank goodness the person responsible for these employed design thinking rather than designing a "Stay Awake" logo or poster.

There is a role for all types of design. Designing awareness is important, as is designing change itself. We need to do a better job educating young designers not to presuppose the answer is the former, as well as educating the public, like Mr. Wolff, that the extent of our abilities goes far beyond logos and posters.

More designers who can write...bravo. More writers who can design...erm, I'm not so sure. Just as it was suggested above that outside criticism is essential, I think maybe it's a good idea that academics (like myself) keep their hands off the creative side of things (& I'm not talking about dual threats like Ellen Lupton...I'm talking about people like myself who took a whole lot of art history and no art studio courses).

I don't mean to open a can of worms, but I trust that a really good designer of any ilk has a bagful of tools at his or her disposal that I lack. "Seek professional advice" has been my motto, and whenever I deferred to designers' expertise (while rigorously defending my own "content" contribution) I think the result has been a whole lot stronger than if I had tried to be more involved in the "creative" side. Likewise, I can't recall ever having a conversation with a designer who didn't appreciate my academic fascination with the details I still somewhat nostalgically refer to as "facts."

While I really enjoy hearing designers talk about their work, especially when they can be articulate about "process," listening to academics talk about their own "process" can rank as one of the most stultifying experiences I can describe. It's bad enough these people have access to PowerPoint. Let's not encourage them to start drawing.

Reading about Wolff's rant reminds me of hearing secondhand about Donald Norman's rant at graphic designers at a Cooper-Hewitt symposium some 15 or more years ago. Maybe y'all are just too good-natured and need to put up your dukes!

heppi xmas!

Russell Flinchum

As a participant in the now infamous panel chided by Michael Wolff, I have followed the thread of responses to Steven Heller's post with great relish. This discussion raises our collective "awareness" of the issues and responsibilities that we all face as visual communicators in today's media saturated world. In the same vein The Graphic Imperative poster exhibition, which was conceived and organized by 3 designers/design educators for the sole purpose of creating "awareness" and encouraging dialogue. The exhibition has been very successful in touching people on every campus it has visited so far (7 and still traveling). The collection of work that is "the voice" of the exhibition, has a life of its own and continues to inspire, raise awareness and encourage dialogue within the design and academic communities, its intended audience.

Elizabeth Resnick

A seminar on poster design self-congratulatory? Shocking!

Michael Wolff is a master of stating the obvious. But if him getting up in a room at the ADC and providing a 'contrary' position is enough to generate a post like this, well, things are probably a lot worse than he knows.
miss representation

I'm glad someone's saying it. Though I haven't heard Wolff's statements in their entirety (I hope to), what I'm reading here sounds like a good dose of medicine and reality for designers (of which I'm one).

I wonder if the poster-as-social-consience is moving in the direction that fine art has: culturally isolated, socially ineffectual, self-referential, and having the greatest impact when it's commercial.
Chris Rugen

12/14/2007: ADC DESIGNISM 2.0
Does anyone have an unedited podcast of this event?

Carl W. Smith

i was there, i spoke out about the dove campaign. it's a puzzlement. on the one hand, for sure the girls and women in the dove campaign for real beauty aren't ugly enough. they're just not models! it should be called the the dove campaign for slightly realer beauty. there are no pictures in their ads of really ugly girls, saying "you too are beautiful" . i feel they are being disingenuous. after all, unilever owns dove, and among their vast product line is AXE. have you seen that campaign? but then again, even if it is a drop in the ocean i guess it's better than doing nothing. after a lifetimes barrage of hopelessly ideal super-retouched images can a return self-esteem be created in workshops (which dove hosts) ? i wonder. for me it comes from a hard-won education, and my creative accomplishments. also i worked at conde nast. retouching? the example they give in the ad is amateurish and horrid. why not show the perfect, tasteful and subtle retouching in a sophisticated ad, like their own?
laurie rosenwald

It's simple really; the medium has moved on. Designers who are
working in print are like novelists writing Victorian serials. What's
what is simply not where they are anymore. If you want to see real
proactive design in action you need to look to motion graphics and
upwards. Print is dead. It has been since the day the first
laserprinter made "desktop publishing" a household phrase.
Russell W.

Jobs | July 19