Article A green economy manifesto

Dangerous games: are communication designers gambling with our future?

The legacy that communication designers will leave behind will depend on their understanding of the roles and responsibilities they carry to protect our planet and their honest assessment of the games they might be playing to the detriment, or not, of the planet and its inhabitants.

This article is co-authored by Madi Hanekom and Jacques Lange.

We would all like to imagine a better world, won’t we? Well, maybe not. There are entities which seem hell-bent on destroying our planet with their greed for more and more profits, more and more power, more and more gratuitous consumption, and arguably taking less accountability for their actions.

The role that communication designers play in this game of roulette is significant. Their extensive sphere of influence is such that it can have either a positive or negative impact on our world.

Design has positive impact when its practitioners accept their professional obligations to further the social and aesthetic standards of society, and accept professional responsibility to act in the best interest of the ecology and of the natural environment.

Where it has a negative impact, we are faced with an insidious kind of war; a war created by visual and written messages to further the aims of the entities who pay for their services, and which can lead to intended and unintended consequences. And it is a war that is already manifesting in its disastrous impact through, for example, contributing to adverse global climate change and influencing a broad spectrum of human behaviour and activities which might be detrimental to the health and survival of our planet. It is redolent of the ravages caused to the earth and our ecology through cataclysmic wars fought by people over the centuries.

Picasso, one of the best known visual communicators of all time, already represented this in his iconic painting, Guernica (1937) depicting raging bulls and horses battling one another, and which is believed to be a response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque village, by German and Italian warplanes during WWII, causing the death of hundreds of civilians and devastating the immediate environment. And the painter’s alleged acerbic response to a Gestapo officer, who stormed into his apartment, gestured at the painting and demanded: “Did you do that?” still today stands as an indictment against all of us whose actions cause harm to the planet. Picasso’s reply was short and to the point: “No, you did.” It was clear that the “visceral horrors of war are not just an affront to human civilisation, but to life.” []

But who are the main stakeholders/perpetrators playing the game of sustainable human and ecological roulette in our world today?

Oh, the games people play

The main culprits in the game are commonly regarded as being big business with their focus on profit-taking and power-mongering. But governments are also key purveyors of power and requiring their messages to their constituencies to be carefully crafted for maximum effect. And then there are other industries, such as people invested in providing communications services to these entities in one form of another (for example, advertising agencies, spin doctors, strategy consultants, designers and other communication practitioners) who do not challenge the impact that these messages, that powerful parties want them to convey, will have on the minds and in the wallets of society at large and the sustainability of our planet.

Consumers are also by no means innocent bystanders in the game. Most consumers seem to be on an ever-increasing buying spree of products, services and political ideologies and are complicit in activities harmful to our planet. Image a day in the life of a regular middle-class global citizen from the point of waking up, using multiple chemicals to clean and beautify themselves, driving or commuting to a fast-food franchise to pick up breakfast (packaged in non-biodegradable materials such as polystyrene) at a drive-through restaurant to sustain them on their highly congested, often long distance trip to the office. This does not auger well for the planet in so many ways. Do they ensure that they are well-informed about their ecological footprints and act to reduce these? Do they even care about their impact on the planet?

And let’s not forget about the powerful role that the media plays in punting products, services and ideas, and the companies and institutions which produce them, irrespective of the impact these commodities might have on our world.

Taking responsibility for conveying messages.

It is recognised that, where these key stakeholders do succeed in managing their messages in a sustainable manner so that there is no harmful fallout for the planet, and where the messages do, in fact, contribute towards a positive contribution to save our world, powerful healing energies are released to the good of all. Unfortunately, however, this is very often not the case.

Milton Glaser, international design guru and co-author of the book Design of Dissent that documents the graphic resistance to institutional power, says: “Many of us have been troubled by the passivity of … people towards the events of our time. Part of this condition must be attributed to the cynical use of fear our government[s] ha[ve] employed to control peoples’ judgement[s]… This was made possible in part by television … the most persuasive means of indoctrination in human history … Perhaps the most obvious loss is what we call our sense of reality. Television combines news about … war, Paris Hilton’s career, global warming and Geico commercials into events of equal importance. The result is an enormous population that believes nothing matters …” [].

With the tremendous growth in the use of social media, messages in various formats are also flying around cyberspace at a speed that is astounding and is a key area where restraint should be brought to bear by participants but nobody polices social media.

The various participants playing their respective games of peddling a specific brand of political rhetoric, producing and marketing more and more products, and rampant consumerism, are playing a game which they cannot win and the earth and our descendants will pay the terrible price for their bad decisions.

No wonder then that authors such as Naomi Klein felt duty bound to write in her international bestsellers, No Logo: Taking aim at the brand bullies (1999), The Shock Doctrine (2007) and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), that corporate capitalism and its obsession with brands are at war with life on earth, “[o]r, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”

While acknowledging the huge commercial and political interests that drive economic production and consumption and the resultant negative impact on the planet of ubiquitous and potentially harmful goods, services and ideologies, this article specifically focuses on the political dimensions and its participating entities. It also investigates what drives the actions of the communication designers who conceptualise the messages these entities wish to send out into the world. Some examples include the proliferation of ‘brand cults’, ‘green-washing’ (a form of commercial spin which deceptively positions products or policies as being environmentally friendly when they are not), spin-doctoring, over-packaging, unsustainable production processes and outsourced ‘slave’ and child labour, among a long list of questionable activities.

Meet the communication designers

Because these are ubiquitous and wicked issues, it is not possible to address all of the players and stakeholders involved. Therefore this article focuses on the role that communication designers play in this game of sustainable human and ecological roulette.

They are graphic, information, editorial, and interface designers, art directors, branding experts, broadcast, animation and motion designers, illustrators, photographers, copywriters and practitioners of a multitude of visual and written communication sub-disciplines. As professionals they are either employed or commissioned to provide visual, material, spatial, digital and experiential solutions to the briefs provided by their employers or clients – governments, public and private institutions and enterprises, as well as non-profits (which are sometimes thinly masked as propaganda agents for dubious causes).

Essentially, the ideal role of designers is to use ideas, culture, technology, systems, information, spaces and resources to improve the human and ecological condition, no matter what the current condition entails.

The design economy is substantial in numbers and impact. Global statistics are not readily available but, as an example, the Creative Industries Economic Estimates – January 2015 report published by the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport states that the design sector contributed £3.1 billion to the UK economy in 2014 – a massive rise of nearly 25 per cent from the previous year. The report classifies the design sector as product, graphic and fashion design. “The figures value the UK creative industries as a whole at £76.9 billion a year. The design sector is growing at more than double the rate of the creative sector as a whole… The creative sector is growing at three times the rate of the wider UK economy and the design sector now accounts for 177,000 jobs.” []

Are designers gambling with our future?

Where do the communication designers find themselves in this mix of profit gain? One would expect that, imagining a better world, and striving to contribute towards achieving this, would be a key and non-negotiable stance for these designers to take. But are they in fact playing an enabling game to by contributing to the destruction of our living planet OR are they gatekeepers of its health and survival?

Do designers play a lying game?

Glaser states: “Our discussion on the ethics of designers always gets impaled on the issue of whether a client’s desire for profit can be reconciled with our ethical desire to do no harm. Or, put another way, can we serve a client and the public at the same time? The difficulty of these questions explains why the … design-based organizations have found it so difficult to define a designer’s obligations to the public.” []

In a 2002 interview [] with DTG Magazine on the co-edited book, Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, Steven Heller, shared Glaser’s concept of ‘tests the designers’, in terms of their willingness to lie.

Heller explains: “Two years ago, when Milton Glaser was illustrating Dante’s Purgatory, he become interested in the Road to Hell and developed a little questionnaire to see where he stood in terms of his own willingness to lie. Beginning with fairly minor misdemeanors, the following twelve steps increase to some major indiscretions:

  1. Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
  2. Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a light-hearted comedy.
  3. Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
  4. Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
  5. Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
  6. Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
  7. Designing a package for children whose contents you know are low in nutrition value and high in sugar content.
  8. Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
  9. Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
  10. Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
  11. Designing a brochure for an SUV that turned over frequently in emergency conditions and was known to have killed 150 people.
  12. Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.”

Heller says that “[a] dozen additional steps of varied consequence could be added, but Glaser’s list addresses a significant range of contentious issues. Designers are called upon to make routine decisions regarding scale, color, image, etc. – things that may seem insignificant but will inevitably affect behavior in some way – … an elegant logo can legitimize the illegitimate; a beautiful package can spike up the sales of an inferior product; and an appealing trade character can convince kids that something dangerous is essential. The … designer is as accountable as the marketing and publicity departments for the propagation of a message or idea.”

Otto von Busch, in an article titled ’The purgatory of design’ (2014) adds: “Whereas hell is the punishment for those who willfully commit to sin, and thus lasts forever, purgatory is an unpleasant purging of sins for those who produced evil deeds by ignorance. Purgatory is then the place where sinners can come to terms with their ignorance and atone their sins.” Von Busch continues: “What Glaser’s test highlights is the sliding scale of interference or even distortion of ethics involved in a typical design practice … Design is a tool for persuasion, and thus pushes the user in a certain direction – and is this direction a good one?”

Von Busch believes that all design is a form of manipulation of systems, energies and matter and says that “In Glaser’s example, it is the manipulation of graphics, but also of attention, memory, labour, well-being and ultimately; life and death. Every design act does change or add to the existing order in some way, but we will need to ask, if there can be ‘good’ design, there must surely also be some ‘evil’ design. … If Glaser is right, we are in purgatory right now, and we have the opportunity to critically examine our work before we set yet another stone of ‘good intentions’ on the well-paved road to hell.” []

Designers have for decades reflected on their roles and responsibilities.

A definitive moment came with the adoption of the First Things First Manifesto – created in 1963 and revisited in 1999/2000 – which a group of creatives, led by Ken Garland, proposed as reflecting “a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning.”

The Manifesto [] was “a reaction to the staunch society of 1960s Britain and called for a return to a humanist aspect of design. It lashed out against the fast-paced and often trivial productions of mainstream advertising, calling them trivial and time-consuming. Its solution was to focus efforts of design on education and public service tasks that promoted the betterment of society. The influence of the Manifesto was quick to reach a wide audience and was picked up by The Guardian, which led to a TV appearance by Garland on a BBC news program and its subsequent publication in a variety of journals, magazines and newspapers. … Garland’s challenge to designers shifted the way that the design community approached many aspects of their profession.”

The 1963-Manifesto was subsequently revisited, updated and republished by a group of new authors, led by the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, and presented as the First Things First Manifesto 2000. Its aim was to generate discussion about the design profession’s priorities in the design press and at design schools.

Key argumentation of the First Things First Manifesto 2000.

The revised Manifesto states: “Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many [communication] designers have now let it become, in large measure, what … designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design… Many of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this view of design. Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.”

The Manifesto 2000 concludes: “There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. … Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.” []

Rick Poynor, acclaimed designer, author and scholar, supported the Manifesto 2000 by stating: “It is no exaggeration to say that designers are engaged in nothing less than the manufacture of contemporary reality. … We have absorbed design so deeply into ourselves that we no longer recognise the myriad ways in which it prompts, cajoles, disturbs, and excites us. It’s completely natural. It’s just the way things are. … A sense of glamour and excitement surrounded this well-paid line of work. From the late 1950s onwards, a few skeptical designers began to ask publicly what this non-stop tide of froth had to do with the wider needs and problems of society.”

Poynor continues: “The critical distinction drawn by the manifesto was between design as communication (giving people necessary information) and design as persuasion (trying to get them to buy things). In the signatories’ view, a disproportionate amount of designers’ talents and effort was being expended on advertising trivial items, from fizzy water to slimming diets, while more ‘useful and lasting’ tasks took second place: street signs, books and periodicals, catalogues, instruction manuals, educational aids, and so on. … The vast majority of design projects – and certainly the most lavishly funded and widely disseminated – address corporate needs, a massive over-emphasis on the commercial sector of society, which consumes most of graphic designers’ time, skills and creativity.” Poynor quotes Katherine McCoy who believes that “…this is a decisive vote for economic considerations over other potential concerns, including society’s social, educational, cultural, spiritual, and political needs. In other words, it’s a political statement in support of the status quo.”

Poynor says: “Design’s love affair with form to the exclusion of almost everything else lies at the heart of the problem. … Obsessed with how cool an ad looks, rather than with what it is really saying, or the meaning of the context in which it says it, these designers seriously seem to believe that formal innovations alone are somehow able to effect progressive change in the nature and content of the message communicated.”

Poynor, furthermore, says that “[t]he enthusiastic support for Adbusters’ updated First Things First Manifesto reasserts its continuing validity, and provides a much needed opportunity to debate these issues before it is too late. … [A]rtist and critic Johanna Drucker argues … “that the process of unlocking and exposing the underlying ideological basis of commercial culture boils down to a simple question that we need to ask, and keep on asking: ’In whose interest and to what ends? Who gains by this construction of reality, by this representation of this condition as ‘natural’? … At root, it’s about democracy. The escalating commercial take-over of everyday life makes democratic resistance more vital than ever.” ([]

Where do these reflections lead us?

So, after all this reflection and development of the First Things First Manifestos, are communication designers gambling with our future? Or are they asserting their responsibilities as active, concerned, engaged and responsible citizens of the world?

There is no consensus on this matter.

Although there are a number of designers who follow ethical approaches and are responsible and committed to progressive change, the majority still tend to perpetuate commercial priorities.

It is, therefore, a matter of grave concern that the messages that many institutions want communicated, and which designers give effect to, still largely feed the already rampant consumerism (commercial, experiential and ideological) in our society. This blatantly encourages consumers in their preoccupation with increasingly acquiring further goods, services and ideology with the resultant tidy profit spin-offs (i.e. sales, support and votes) for institutions producing these goods, services and ideologies. There is scant regard for the potential detrimental effects on society and the world at large. It therefore appears to be again a case of choosing profits over people and the ecology.

Some of the leading design bodies do, however, believe that designers understand their roles and responsibilities to be ethical and authentic to the humanistic values of the design fraternity. In this respect, the International Council of Design (Ico-D), states: “They understand the cultural, ethical, social, economic and ecological impact of their endeavors and their ultimate responsibility towards people and the planet across both commercial and non-commercial spheres.” ([].

But what do communication designers do to defend their own good and bad practices?

Another example is the Designers Accord, founded in 2007 with the goal of changing the way the creative community does business based on a particular ethos and behavior around sustainable design. “The underlying philosophy was that by collectively building our intelligence around issues of climate change and humanitarian issues, designers could catalyze innovative and sustainable problem solving throughout the creative community.” Today, the Designers Accord is a global network of designers, educators and business leaders who share best practices and proactively advocate for the adoption and implementation of sustainable alternatives in their work. []

However, the communication design profession is not a legally regulated profession, such as engineering, medicine, accounting or law. Therefore, membership to a professional organisation or regulating council is voluntary and the ethical conduct of members cannot be enforced.

In an article written for the Design Council (UK) James Pallister, furthermore suggests: “…designers are working together to reimagine what it means to be a citizen in the twenty-first century. While some are trying to fix what we have, others believe the time is right for a complete overhaul.” []

As to who should take responsibility for ensuring that ethical messages are communicated via the various design platforms, the answer is quite simple: Designers, clients and consumers.

An issue of legacy

Quo vadis for communication designers and the legacy they want to leave the planet and its inhabitants? What kind of a better world can, and should, they help us imagine?

It is a complex issue for which there are no easy answers. It is well recognised that communication designers grapple with the dichotomies inherent in their professional practice of being spin doctor, mediator, imaginer, and to what extent they should be agents of social and environmental profit rather than commercial profit.

Legislated institutionalisation of ethical guidelines of practice is an obvious answer here. However, design is part of the disciplines of the humanities. It is a sector which can only thrive if it is allowed freedom of expression – many in this sector would argue for this ‘at all cost’ because freedom of expression is the essence of the humanities.

How can quality work standing in support of the protection of our planet therefore be encouraged while allowing for optimal freedom of expression?

The questions, perhaps, boil down to: “What should design do?”

Globally, there are various initiatives under way to try and answer this pertinent question. Some of these deliberations include investigations towards creating a universally recognised mark of quality to ensure ethical design practices sensitive to protecting our planet and producing guidelines for design practitioners and educators.

In an article titled ’Does Britain need a quality mark?’ – John Mathers, chief executive, Design Council (UK) states: “The Quality by Design white paper has prompted a debate on how we can uphold standards for the benefit of the UK and the design industry. It is important that we protect the reputation that our design industry has built up, but is a quality mark the answer?” []

Mathers explains that London-based MBC Group developed a white paper which claims that the design industry needs a universally recognised mark of quality awarded to organisations and individuals that meet a specific grade of design excellence. “…It’s an interesting proposition. On the one hand it could be argued that a sign of quality symbolising a stamp of approval could be a highly valuable asset to the industry, maintaining or even increasing standards. If this standardised quality assurance mechanism could demonstrate to clients that good design is important, adds value, and also demonstrates the role they have to play in the process, then it should be considered.”

However, Mathers says that challenging questions immediately arise: “Who exactly would be awarding individuals and agencies this mark of quality? What would be measured? Who is this overarching arbiter of good design? What field do they work in? How are they funded? …The process of implementing an industry standard across something as multifaceted as the design sector would be extremely complex.”

These are, however, not new ideas. As far back as 1957, Japan instituted the Good Design Selection System (or G Mark System), known today as the Good Design Award. It is a comprehensive design-promotion system hosted by the Japan Institute for Design Promotion (JDP) “that picks good design out of a variety of unfolding phenomena, and aims to enrich our lives, industries, and society as a whole by highlighting and celebrating these works.” JDP explains that: “When you look at design as an act or activity, it needs a guiding idea or principle, and the resulting creation can be understood as one solution to the question posed by that idea. We ask if that solution is a suitable answer to that question, but also place emphasis on the ideas or principles themselves, and the thinking and methodology that led the designer to that particular outcome. We also ask if it will contribute to a chain of creation in the future.” []

Another example is the INDEX: Design to Improve Life®, a Danish NPO which rewards sustainable design that provides solutions to global challenges. The Good Design and INDEX: awards are however commendation systems rather than practical quality standards rating tools that design practitioners and their clients can use on a daily basis to measure their work’s impact on society and the natural ecology.

In 2009, responding to a strong membership directive, Ico-D launched an initiative to provide a sustainability guidance tool for design practitioners and educators. Ico-D explains that “[e]xperts were invited to join a ’Sustainability Juryand participate in what became a multi-year effort to develop criteria which can be used to plan for, measure, compare and report the sustainability performance of product service systems. The resulting Ico-D Sustainability Standard tool consists of thresholds and best practice criteria that support environmental, social, cultural and financial pillars of sustainability.” According to Ico-D, “a final draft and test of the tool has been completed and a select group of designers across five continents has been invited to test this final draft by self-assessing a project[s] of their choice. The result is the operational, tested and vetted Ico-D Sustainability Standard tool that will soon be made available to the international design community.” []

Into the future.

The future should not include the rampant commercialisation which regrettably seemed to have seduced a lot of designers for a very long time. It is recognised that there are designers who are true to their calling to deliver responsible communication solutions but they are in the minority.

With the international community of designers actively reassessing and reframing their roles in society and the environment, there might however just be hope that at least some of them will continuously focus on the constructive legacy they want to leave to our world while they are going about making money to sustain their businesses.

The challenge to us all is clear: Let’s change the mantra which John Sauven, director of Greenpeace, recently referred to (A Greenpeace Manifesto for Change, 1 May 2015) as “we seem to have accepted a simplistic and beguiling mantra: more growth, more profits, more stuff,” into a mantra of caring for our environment and accepting full accountability for our actions, especially those that can have an impact on the health of our planet. As Sauven also wrote, we do not want “more climate change, more chaos, more extinction, more inequality.”

An interesting concept, accredited to Glaser, is that of ‘citizen designer’. He says, “…the world seems more fragile and imperiled …. Perhaps the world always seems at risk. In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a world war, the Holocaust, McCarthyism, Vietnam, Korea, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the Cold War—and in these times, AIDS, genocide in Africa and Bosnia, 9/11, global warming, the war on Iraq, the acceptance of torture, the Patriot Act, the tsunami, the devastation of New Orleans and the gulf coast and overshadowing everything else in our minds—the emergence of international terrorism. … It has caused me to examine my role as a citizen and to think about whether designers as a group have a dog in this fight, to use a pungent, down-home cliche. Our dog in this fight may be human survival.”

Glaser says: “My personal response to this condition has led me to become more active in civic life. As designers, we’ve been concerned about our role in society for a very long time. It’s important to remember that even modernism had social reform as its basic principal, but the need to act seems more imperative than ever.”

And when asked recently what she saw as the single greatest driver of social change, Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation succinctly replied: “Design.” Canadian designer, Robert L. Peters explains: “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future. Design is therefore responsible for the world our children will live in.”

Photo credit: Jacques Lange

This article is a response to the topic idea; Profits shouldn't matter more than people.

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