Jessica Helfand | Essays

Implausible Fictions

At a symposium several weeks ago at the Annenberg School for Public Policy in Philadelphia, we gave a presentation in which we discussed some of the more vexing consequences of graphic design and what we've come to call faux science: namely, that making facts pretty and palatable, while a conscientious thing to do, often minimizes a kind of intellectual engagement that should be equally essential to design practice. This position irked at least one of the symposium's participants, the architect and design theorist Laura Kurgan, who later confessed to me that we had hit a nerve: in her work, she explained, aestheticizing factual information was an intrinsic part of making that information more available to the public. Was this wrong?

I don't think it is. But I found myself thinking about Laura's comment long after the symposium ended, and was reminded of it again on Sunday when I read Max Frankel's editorial in The New York Times, "Seeing is Always Believing." In it, he describes the irresponsible nature of dramatization where the innocent public is concerned. Just how innocent the public is might be considered somewhat debatable, of course, but my point here is a simple one: isn't this the same public that we, as designers, are speaking to in our work every day? And assuming this is so, at what point does the designer's interpretation threaten to skew or misrepresent or implausibly amplify information in a manner that might be considered, well, irresponsible?

I can think of many examples of design in which such "irresponsibility" is, in fact, the very component that makes something all the more memorable. (Think Tibor, for one.) And clearly, while design — as a visual discipline and arguably, an art of display and communication — shares something in common with television, it is not television. But television's reach is broad, its allure somewhat hypnotically linked to everyday consumption patterns, and we would be ill-advised to ignore it's power with regard to wooing audiences. Ultimately, Frankel posits that television is a major culprit in the delivery of fact and fiction, citing the major US networks, whose dramatizations (Ronald Reagan, Jessica Lynch) skew reality with a kind of reckless abandon ... at the same time that reality TV asks us to believe the plausibility of dating stunts or survivalist derring-do.

So how different is design? And aren't weblogs like this one merely tame variants of our own kind of Reality TV? I'd like to believe that we're rescued by the allegedly democratic nature of this medium — witness the richness and originality of thinking in so many of the comments we read here every day. But I'm no fool: democracy alone will not save us, and audiences everywhere are likely to place the power and authority of network television over the true reality of Reaganomics or the real details of Jessica Lynch's capture.

As for me, I continue to wrestle with the precarious relationship between factual abberation and visual drama, and find myself wondering about the moral responsibility that accompanies those of us capable of wielding it's enormous power. Laura Kurgan's comment haunts me still.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media, Technology

Comments [8]

This is an interesting topic. More so than the skewing of 'reality' on television, I liken it to the debate that is always discussed in documentary filmmaking theory. It is always debated that even the greatest attempt to provide an objective documentary can never really be objective. Once the filmmaker makes that first cut, or picks a particular angle, he or she is imbuing it whis his or her own subjectivity. Obviously the degree to which this occurs varies and the result of how 'subjective' the piece is will vary.

I think it applies to this topic, because once you start to 'design' objective facts - even with the goal of making them more accessible, have you instantly started to skew how they will be received by the viewer/receiver? Obviously this is only important depending on how critical it is that these facts, or the data, is received in a certain way and whether the manner it is presented has an effect on how it is perceived.

I think readers and writers of this site are in the small minority and think more about these things than the general public. How an artifact is viewed, I believe, is tied directly to it's shape, size, color, style, availability, scarcity and other more subtle characterizations. It may not be a conscious thought by many, but people subconsciously follow patterns in society (for better or worse, but it seems to be more for worse).

Some will say that marketing has no effect on society, but there is a lot of research that says otherwise. Why else would marketing depts. all over the world continue to carpet bomb us with their messages, visual and otherwise and pay millions to do so.

There is no such thing as objective reality. There is no way to communicate qualitative data in an objective fashion because objects don't collect data, subjects do. Hence, any discussion of objective reality must immediately be relegated to quantitative data, which we believe to be abstract enough that there isn't any subjectivity getting in the way of 'the facts'. The purpose of collecting qualitative data is to find some sort of pattern inherent in the numbers that will point out some trend that is meaningful to the collector.

Right there, you're back at the problem of personal interpretation. Everything in our world that contains any meaning is that way because a person has imbued meaning into it. Objectivity is a myth.

Also: 'democracy alone will not save us'? By this, I can only assume you mean the elite from the unwashed masses?

    In my opinion it is impossible to present something without putting a spin on it. When pure data is presented, it is transformed into a message. The message is created by a person, and that person has a unique background and view on what parts of the data are fit to ignore or augment. People do this not only consciously but also subconciously.

    This "influenced data" is not a bad thing.

    What is a bad thing is when people believe that what they see and hear from a presenter is fact. It is that type of intellectual laziness and apathy towards making their own opinion that is dangerous.
    A designer should feel free to augment whatever part of the data he is presenting with whatever technique he sees fit. His message, after all, is a mechanism for persuasion. However, it is the viewer's responsibility to decide what to believe.
    Much of the lemming-like behavior that the public exhibits is related to a lack of education related to communication outside of what "normal" people consider communication — I can tell someone something and if it's even the least bit unbelievable that person will call me on it, many times just to make conversation. If I use primary colors on a box of cereal and draw smiley faces all over it I'll bet you I can get that same person to eat the contents without him thinking twice.
    In the latter case, yes, I am being "irresponsible" because I am taking advantage of a form of persuasion of which my audience is not aware, but the fault does not rely entirely with me. As designers, we all have a responsibility to educate.

I like this site's type.

On topic, I was just watching a documentary on the telly about the history of US war correspondants and was thinking of how the presenters completely missed the point about the nature of propoganda and how the difference between Vietnam and Gulf II was essentially that of the administration getting ahead of the media for the first time. I do believe that blogs do represent a shift in both the way information is distrbuted and represented.

It is interesting that you are talking about faux science. I believe that this is more persuasive than forst imagined. Witness the slow spread of scientific metaphor within the art world - from Damien Hirst's Pharmacy to the recent collection of writings about Olafur Eliason - an artist I actually like - Surroundings Surrounded. This type of supposed "cross diciplinarity" has been infecting architecture as well - as you note in your interaction with Laura Kurgan. Jorge Silvetti, in his final lecture as chair of the department of architecture at Harvard entitled "the Muses are not amused," calls this type of statistic, superficially empirical data "programism." In architecture, this means that the graphic depiction of information gathered about the project becomes the image of the building. I don't think that this could be irresponsible in the way that you are talking about it, but rather in the more literal sense of the world. Architects are notoriously bad graphic designers, and to think that they could describe their buildings in this way is insomnia-inducing. (prime culprits are the dutch firm MVRDV.)

A little rambly, I know, but I wanted to post as I like the idea of this site and the interactivity of it.
Chris Grimley

I was just writing about a similar topic, although more as it pertains to news reporting. Ironic, since I am a designer, not a writer.

I think anyone interested in theory and practice of presenting information should read Edward Tufte www.edwardtufte.com

He is a great 'informaiton designer' and strongly holds the policy that good information design does not dumb down the information, and should not hold a particular bias. Visual displays of informaiton are there to empower the reader, and doing anything else is just a falacy.

- Kevin
Kevin Cannon

William Shakespeare wrote an unusually large collection of stories that despite their original contexts persisted through the ages and remain as relevant today as they ever were. Perhaps the main difference isn't in how his stories are told or who reads them, but the assumptions we make about who takes an interest in them. Once baudy performances for the working class, they're now typically enjoyed by a sliver of modern society, the so-called "cultural elite." Or so we assume. Never underestimate the ability of "the innocent public" to sniff out bullshit when they see it or revel in the glory of the few things that are truly, utterly beautiful.

The point is, the nature of these plays is that they revealed a simple yet profound truth through entertaining, engaging stories. And that people were capable of seeing it, prizing it, and shoving aside what didn't cut it. It happened then, and it happens today. We don't have the luxury of retroactively looking at our present reality just yet so sometimes, we miss it.

It's an American thing to simultaneously celebrate and deride stupidity. Whether its "Jay Walking" with Leno three nights a week or USA Today statistics about the obviousisms that only 17% of the population know, to the study researchers did last year on the funniest jokes that told us how Americans gravitate towards humor that leads to someone getting hurt or doing something dumb, we love to point out stupidity. In a day and age where we tend to judge someone's intelligence based on their hairstyle, clothing, car, house, and profession, I'd have to say, stupid is as stupid does. It's amazing to me how quickly people are to look at the population, spend little to no time with a representative portion, and assume ANYTHING--good or bad.

I have no idea why reality TV took off in the way that it did, but I do know that I personally contributed whatever shred I constitute in the Nielsen Ratings by watching For Love or Money (1 AND 2), American Idol, Fear Factor, and probably something else too.

I also know that people aren't as simple as we frequently think them to be, and despite what political campaign managers, advertising research experts, and marketing departments tell you, its pretty much impossible to predict how people will react. It's hard to know what they really believe, what they'll do, or when they'll change their minds.

I don't think designers--or anyone else for that matter, save mad scientists perhaps--hold the power to change reality. Everyone determins their own reality. Human beings are individuals, they're not a big giant mass waiting to be swayed in one direction or another like so many shafts of wheat. I think that what designers CAN do is deliver interesting, compelling messages that get people to think about a specific idea. Few people ever act on things they don't think about.

I'd speculate that people don't necessarily
believe the Jessica Lynch movie, nor do they necessarily idolize Jerry Springer. The forces at FOX News who distribute the memos everyday on HOW they should talk about the day's events have approximately the same level of respect for people as do the folks who assume that the masses need to be "saved" from that garbage. I think the problem starts in how we LOOK at other human beings--and too frequently, we don't really look at them at all. Because its just more convenient for everyone if we address people as members of a group and not as individuals, because then its easier to assume that human beings can't think for themselves and that always makes things so much simpler.
Bradley Gutting

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