Jessica Helfand | Essays

On Citizenship and Humanity: An Appeal for Design Reform

It has been a hectic month here in the United States: a month of unspeakable hurricane devastation, two Supreme Court nominations and just this morning, a national address by our President reinforcing the White House's steadfast support of our nation's continuing involvement in Iraq. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible to locate design issues of critical consequence at a time like this. And as someone who spends a considerable amount of time driving and listening to the radio with young children who require further clarification ("Mommy, what's a referendum?") I am hard put to understand where — and if — design plays a role in this larger maelstrom of political, social, judicial and economic activity.

Enter the Citizen Designer — the person who sees design as more than just a problem solving activity, who acknowledges and uses design as a persuasive tool for the public good and who, to quote Milton Glaser in a recent lecture, responds by becoming more active in civic life. Simply put, this means being a human being first, a designer second. And it seems to me that if enough of us do this, we become a critical mass — an entire civilization of engaged citizens.

So how many citizen designers will it take to enact Design Reform?

The notion of Design Reform — like education reform, tax reform and welfare reform — suggests a reconsideration of the purpose as well as the practice of something essential to our well-being: in this case, design. Design Reform is less about the nomenclature definining sub-genres within our professions and more a function of the totality, the sum of our multiple parts. Design Reform is about optimism, not terrorism; about engagement, not elitism; and about the communicative strengths — the clarity and sense of purpose — that lie at the core of every peace treaty ever enacted.

Clearly, designers have long engaged in acts of political activism: indeed, ours is a rich paper trail of dissent, from broadsides to posters to Tshirts to video installations to public art projects to Class Action to Gran Fury — the list is a long one. But Design Reform is not only characterized by visual displays of civic expression, but by empathy and compassion, humor and ingenuity, and perhaps most of all, the ability to recognize and respond to basic need. The cumulative efforts of a number of designers helping other designers displaced by Hurricane Katrina had less to do with making cool posters and more to do with making phone calls to help these people get resettled. It was — and is —a compelling testament to the power of citizenship, otherwise known as strength in numbers.

There are many factors contributing to Design Reform, beginning with the economics framing the design professions. Statistically, there is every reason to expect that design will become more democratized — and certainly more decentralized — by mid-century, with advances in telecommunications and technology enabling citizen non-designers (read "civillians") to produce designed things without designers. It is perhaps worth remembering that we are not now, nor have we ever been, licensed to practice. (An Amazon search on the term "non-designers" resulted in 97, 208 books addressing precisely this apparently sizeable demographic.) There are questions of method and medium, of authorship, leadership, even sponsorship. These are topics of considerable importance to everyone, not only visual practitioners: but to the degree that society is changing, it seems fair to suggest that our role in society must change, too.

Issues relating to education in the context of Design Reform are perhaps deserving of their own post, and while the history, principles and discipline of design remain worthy of our vigilance as educators, what value do we place on teaching emerging designers about philosophy, psychology, or ethics? What about political science and sociology, or economics? Advocates of the role of design in business no doubt see a direct link between design thinking, strategy and implementation, but why shouldn't the citizen designer consider such notions as well? To simply make a poster — arguably the designer's single most powerful and persuasive visual tool — can, in the absence of true understanding and engagement, also be viewed as a rhetorical gesture, a hermetically sealed activity.

In recent years, design has proven to be critically connected to certain public behaviors — voting, for example — thereby raising the awareness and appreciation of the value of good design in the public realm. But this remains tricky territory, as likely to yield elitism as our political system is capable of yielding bipartisanship. Identifying good — like the perfect paper stock or building material — is a virtual impossibility, subject to indecision and, not surprisingly, often doomed to failure. Quality control notwithstanding, it's not so critical that we agree on the details: but when it comes to the big picture, the important and lasting things, we are finding that many of us do, infact, agree. In a profession often dominated by images, by the way things look and perform and sell, let's remember that citizenship is at its core, a function of the heart. And for that we need no referendum: we just need each other.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, Politics

Comments [19]

Great post Jessica! Finally someone is cutting right to the quick of a very important subject that's all too often ignored. Bravo!

Whether we like it or not, graphic design is still just a trade...in the realm of public opinion, anyway. Many of us are working hard to elevate our work to the level of "profession" but the fact remains that the "trade" misperception still exists.

Go ahead and look up profession or professional in the dictionary, you'll find a reference to extensive training and extensive education. Extensive training and education...check! (Imagine a pencil marking off the education/training box on a clipboard list) It's true that some designers have different education levels than others, but in order to find renown or even mediocre success in design, one must have extensive experience (training.)

The only other prevailing reoccurrence I find in defining "profession" has to do with being paid a certain wage for a certain level of expertise. Check again! I dare anyone to show me another group of people who know more about typography or how to make a website beautiful, witty and easier to use all while streamlining the content to just the essentials. And no matter what these cheap bastards (who keep calling me and asking if some of my students would like some "real-life experience") think, our services are rarely performed for free.

So why does the perception exist? Go ahead and try to deny it if you wish, but it's still there, like an enormous, sweaty, incontinent gorilla in the corner of the room. But why is it there? Where is that metaphorical can of "Gorilla-be-Gone"?

Perhaps part of the problem stems from trying to explain what the hell it is we do exactly. What is the definition of graphic design? I can't find one I like. Hell, I can't even write one I like. I've read Jessica Helfand's essay as well as the work of the countless others who have made strides toward defining graphic design—but I feel like I need something much more concise and caustic to sway public perception. Like say, James Victore's opinion on the subject: "Graphic design is a big fucking club with spikes in it and I want to wield it."—well, maybe not that caustic, but I need something quick and clear and easy to explain that I don't yet have.

Or perhaps what we do is somehow less socially significant than the work of the clearly recognized professionals like a dentist or an architect. I don't know about you, but I can't even eat a candy bar or drive to work without encountering graphic design and yet I haven't been to the dentist in over a year and my teeth are fine.

Or maybe quite a bit of the blame lies on our own shoulders. How many of us have "out-grown" the title of Graphic Designer only to trade it in for monikers like Art Director or Creative Director? What's so damn wrong with being a Graphic Designer? And if you think it's difficult to explain to your mother-in-law what it is you do as a designer, try to explain to her what it means to be a Creative Director. That's a long uncomfortable batch of dinner conversation that no one wants.

Public perception changes through public action. WE still need to define our profession's reputation. It's become too easy to make fast graphic design. Many of us have gotten a bit too comfortable, digitally speaking. When designing that next poster maybe we should create our own typefaces instead of using existing ones, or instead of hiring some illustrator to create images for us—perhaps we should make our own. These are the kinds of actions which will make us seem impressive again in the eyes of the general public. I can't count the number of times during a classroom I critque I hear my students say: "yeah, but that would take forever" or "I don't have that kind of time to do all of that."

Our historical graphic design heros are impressive because they worked hard.
Tobias Brauer

Designers Unite!
Nathan Philpot

The way we perceive our environment affects how we act upon it. Because of its extent (in terms of outreach), design can be a powerful tool for social change, transforming views and attitudes with its universal language. As 'citizens' who specialize in re-viewing perceptions, it is time to focus on civic life concerns.
Sylvia Vaquer

What I learned from the last election cycle:

- Most grassroots activists aren't professionals, so they have no clue about the difference between a professional graphic designer and a kid who knows how format a MS Word document.

- Organized political campaigns don't want to encourage designers on the grassroots level because they are very concerned about "staying on message".

- Politicians love the easy-to-digest sound bite, so they like their communications "dumbed down" and this includes design.

- Political professionals also tend to look down at people outside of their immediate field. These people don't take chances, and their bosses (politicians and fundraisers) don't value design. They want to play it safe, so every poster, website and button looks alike no matter who the candidate is or what party they represent.

- Paid political professionals tend to not value the contributions of people who work for free. They really want volunteers for non-creative work (like phone calls) so they aren't interested in your "ideas". But to be fair many volunteers can flake out after the first meeting, so you need to keep them focused.

- Campaigns tend to move quickly. So even if you design something well it will be changed a million times or may not be produced because an event is canceled or something changes.

- Smaller non-profits with a specific issue focus will sometimes value design, but even these organizations focus on PR and fundrasing first, so design is an after thought.

In our current political system money is valued above all else, so ideas are secondary. And even ideas are packaged as a commodity by think tanks. In terms of debate things have become very dumbed down - so outside of a few small cause oriented projects there isn't much opportunity for good design.

Michael Pinto

I agree Tobias

I think the reason it is so hard to see the role and purpose of design lies in sad fact, that design is so easily, especially in our over-loaded media landscape, confused with decoration or superficial 'window dressing'. Isn't the essence of design planning, development, a process like a dialogue between a solution and its context?

I would like to define 'Graphic Design' as 'Perception Engineering', and or, for a bit more punch, maybe add the subtext 'We are the Sensation Smiths'.

Hmmm that sounds like a half decent paper :- ) , or perhaps a palatable introduction to Graphic Design for first-year students.


Hmmm... after a good while in the industry now I'm beginning to like what I once spent a lot of time trying to fix... and then (recently, I think?) I found out it wasn't broken. Defining 'design' is always going to be problematic (why it is so easily hijacked by Creationists!), design is many things to many people. It's not a 'real' discipline... it's a fragmented one, a monstrous body - difficult to locate and pin down. It's not just about making pretty pictures... but sometimes it is. Most designing is superficial. That's why its interesting right now (I reckon!). Popular culture may be defined through its orientation to surface, but surfaces can, in many ways, contain more complexity than structures. I have to admit to being a designer who really isn't very interested in saving the world from itself though. Is it me or is there something distinctly 'American' in the air here?
El Wood

It isn't a stretch to think of designers primarily as (world-) citizens. Those who think hard enough about the nature of and relations between design, reason, and communication usually come to this conclusion. Design clearly needs to be theorized as an Enlightenment ideal, moving beyond democratization of just government and into all aspects of our life and experience.

Design, ideally, is a process and a result of intersubjective reason, not merely subjective.

That implies democratization.

Democracy is impossible, though, as we conceive of it. If we as individuals can't figure out how to open our hearts and minds to the needs and desires of others in the world, a single election will destroy "democracy". Rather, in the mind of every citizen: everyone must have a say.

What flows from a person with this openness, this "democratic reason" is "design" in the fullest sense. He can gain it through interaction and experience with others, but otherwise, "democratizing" design through outward means isn't really possible anyway, for the same reason it's not possible to really democratize America.

It will dawn on us, eventually, that design and democracy can only be realized by the manipulation of our own minds.

As designers who would like to be truly designers, we must use creative methods, much more inwardly-directed, to rid ourselves of any so called "reasons" that do not take into account, with deep respect, what everyone else in the world would think. Everyone.

[interesting...I had a conversation the other day about how the sphere of practical reason (morality, politics) is "normative"--based on what we can all agree upon--rather than either factual or merely subjective. I was given the common example:

Well, 200 years ago everyone thought it was ok to own slaves, and now they don't. So just because it's a norm doesn't mean it's "right".

Interesting how quick we are to accept this as a relatively sane argument without realizing that...wait, not everyone thought it was ok. This has nothing to do with what "we all agree on", because black people had no say at all. Tell me they had a chance to say something with their fists, tell me they could have negotiated as equals if they were smart enough, tell me white power had some kind of legitimacy; I don't care.--All "outer" conceptions and theories of democratization ultimately lead us away from the goal. Democracy can only come from democratized individual minds.]

Design Reform is already happening, it's just below the mainstream design radar. There are a growing number of folks calling themselves socially conscious graphic designers who are working on this process. While it is laudable to talk about the potential for change and the circumstances that surround it, what's lacking here are specific actions to help foment it. To call for change is one thing to make it is another. So in the interest of being proactive, here are a few things individual designers can do to help bring this change about:
•Join (and participate in) the Graphic Alliance (http://www.graphicalliance.org) - This recently formed group is dedicated to connecting and helping designers interested in positive social change. The group is currently finalizing its structure and will be looking for people to be on its board of directors soon. Membership is free and the site contains a modest, but growing database of folks that are interested in just these issues and want to work together to manifest them.
•Teach. If you have the opportunity to speak at a school or public event, use the opportunity to discuss these ideas with designers and non-designers alike. If you aren't offered a speaking engagement, make one happen. For example, while teaching basic a computer course at a local university I proposed a course on socially conscious design for the undergrad design program. It was accepted and now I teach a two-semester course called Design Rebels. Not only are the students in the class exposed to these ideas, but because they are required to create a community based project that reaches outside the school (and not in the form of posters), last year over 1000 high school students in the area got to learn about the power of design as well.
•Do It Yourself. Don't just make a nod to the idea of being a "citizen designer" enact them with your own work. If you work for yourself it is infinitely easier to begin implementing things like making a conscious choice about whom you work for (do they benefit the community in which they are located?) and how you do that work (am I creating unnecessary waste?). Take the time to teach the clients you do have, about while these things are important. Even those who don't have the opportunity to make those choices at their jobs can begin tithing (donating not only 10% of your profits, but 10% of your time to social causes).
One last thing to consider about making Design Reform happen: While pro-bono work is generally seen as a panacea for those who want to do good it may ultimately undermine the progress towards a new design paradigm. As long as people assume that good work will be done for free people will feel obliged to do non-good work to make a living. The key is to find your own way to make a living doing good works and show others it is possible.
Noah Scalin

"Whether we like it or not, graphic design is still just a trade...in the realm of public opinion, anyway. Many of us are working hard to elevate our work to the level of "profession" but the fact remains that the "trade" misperception still exists."

Maybe if we understood "trade" better, we would value it just as equally as "profession".

I'm sure plumbers, electricians and carpenters also wish people understood their value and treated them on an equal footing as architects and dentists.
Steven K.

Hear hear! Been trying to figure out why this post leaves such a bad taste in my mouth, and Steven K. I think you make a really good point. So Noah's bit, "There are a growing number of folks calling themselves socially conscious graphic designers" begs the question, are there any socially conscious plumbers out there?

Also I'm wondering what the "reform" here is exactly? In my experience this kind of save-the-world conversation has a long tradition in design (especially graphic design)... I was reading an article recently from an old Penrose annual (late 50s/early 60s) in which Herbert Spencer was essentially proposing the same idea/practice... but in a more English kind of way (no need for words like 'citizenship', 'humanity', or 'reform'.

How about a 'Coalition of the Willing'?
L Wood

There's no reason for there not to be socially conscious plumbers (and there probably are a few). If I knew where they were, I'd hire one!
Noah Scalin

I kid of agree with Noah but i still dont know what Design Reform is.
" Design Reform is less about the nomenclature definining sub-genres within our professions and more a function of the totality, the sum of our multiple parts. Design Reform is about optimism, not terrorism; about engagement, not elitism; and about the communicative strengths — the clarity and sense of purpose — that lie at the core of every peace treaty ever enacted."
what? sounds like some bad art movement manifesto from the early fifties. directionless, unfocused, meaningless, psuedo-intellectual drivell. what do you want to achieve? world peace? equality? how do you think design can help? a few posters? a talk about how helvetica can heal? sure give 10% of your time to good causes, 10% of your money to less well off, but do it because you want to, not because you want to wear it as badge of moral purpose and expect others to do the same.
there is a stange kind of arrogance that suggests somehow designers have some kind of social holy grail, that you have some hidden insight that can shape others opinions just because you've done a couple of big ad jobs for coke and have help them shift a few more cans of drink.
that and a guilt that comes from staring out of your loft apartment window, sitting on your eames lounger in your prada sneakers sipping your skinny de-caff latte made on your brand new Francis Francis machine while some poor guy throws bags fulls of garbage into a truck from the street below, garbage with beautiful packaging that you and you're company have designed and therefore helped sell.
but hey! you say. I only do that stuff so i can do the occassional book for an architect that will only sit on rich idiots book shelf's unread for years but that gets me in all the design magazines because I used a really rare cut of Optima which like, NO-ONE has seen for like 30 years which is like WAY COOL.
its all rubbish.
and all the commitees, boards, organisations that you talk about is just glorifed pen-pushing that just equates to yet more wasted effort, wasted resources, wasted paper, wasted trees, wasted energy, yet more wasted time.
if you want to help someone less well off than you do then thats great, but dont hector others to follow you. get up off your ass and help someone for the joy it brings to your polluted soul.
that and dont work for ad agency's.

"are there any socially conscious plumbers out there?"

I'm sure there are socially conscious people out there who are plumbers, but they don't need to use their plumbing skills in every social activity they undertake. Although I'm sure the occasional plumber and electrician volunteers his or her services for organizations like Habitat for Humanity.

Unlike graphic designers, however, plumbers and electricians are licensed (for good reason), so I guess they don't feel their jobs are as threatened by the eager do-it-yourselfer and weekend warrior as graphic designers do by -- as Jessica puts it -- civillians.
Steven K.

In a profession often dominated by images, by the way things look and perform and sell, let's remember that citizenship is at its core, a function of the heart. And for that we need no referendum: we just need each other.

How do you reconcile the two?

Millions of people in their own individual ways are saying 'I want my M-TV' - and I think, for better or for worse, we are all about to get it. Probably a whole lot more of it, and in more ways than anyone has imagined. M-TV rules the world, and I am not referring to the Brand or its channel. We are talking about hyper-media, about entering the next fulcrum of complexity, and with a bit of luck, even sophistication.

Take Copyright, it has its place, and probably always will, even if only, once again with a bit of luck, somewhere in the pages of a history book or two. And if they were really good histories, they would also tell of the conclusion of the anal-retentive archaic phenomena of patents and branding. If for arguments sake, this is what they might say, what might they say of 'design' and 'designers'?

Just a late night pondering from the other side of the planet.

I like your blog Tom.
Andre S C

Steven K has it right, I think. Having worked in construction (and being related to people who work in construction still), my experience is that plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and laborers can be socially conscious people, but that doesn't tend to be related to the job beyond a pro-union political stance. Licensing probably has something to do with it, but I think it goes beyond that -- some of these professions require licenses because it's assumed that everybody needs the products of their labor, and that people's lives depend on these products being safe and up to certain standards.

Most people are not convinced that they need good design in their communication materials, and many people probably don't (even if it would be helpful to have it). Frankly, it's hard to talk about truly basic needs and working standards when design is largely taught in departments of art, a pursuit which has arguably been historically cultivated as a luxury. I think that socially conscious designers can and should make a difference in our society, but I also think that it's not a career path that would appeal to or even be appropriate for all designers.
Jason T

Having made that cynical remark about socially conscious tradespeople, I actually met one last night! A builder. What I found interesting about this though was that he never referred to himself as "socially conscious"... he referred to himself as "green". An eco-friendly builder obviously, commited to sustainable building practices. I know it's just semantics, but I liked that he never referred to himself as a 'citizen', and didn't seem to need to wax on about 'humanity'.
L Wood

Has anyone heard about the upcoming MOMA exhibit: SAFE: Design Takes On Risk?

While information about the exhibit states that it will include all areas of design, graphic design does not seem to be featured at all (or at least not prominently).

CNN Design 360 Article
Info about the MOMA Exhibit

You know, I think the reason designers are more worried about being socially conscious as opposed to plumbers, electricians, etc. can be summed in one word: guilt. It's something we feel we need to do at least part of the time since the bulk of our working lives is spent promoting rabid consumerism. A simple act of appeasement, if you ask me....

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