Erik Spiekermann | Essays

The Essence of the Matter

Despite the contradiction, being revolutionary doesn’t mean having to be noncommercial. Designers have the capacity to affect social change beyond their written remit, and also earn a living.

When architects were bored with functionalism, they turned Louis Sullivan’s dictum "form follows function" into form follows fun; they added arbitrary elements to their buildings—towers, concrete sails, ziggurats, arches, architraves, and all sorts of embellishments that served no purpose except embellishment. When graphic designers got bored with the perfection offered by the newly arrived computers that could render artwork to within a tiny pixel, they rebelled by writing programs that randomized individual letters and whole pages every time a printer processed them. One designer who didn’t like what a copywriter had delivered set the text in illegible pictograms and icons. That act of incredibly courageous defiance made him famous, at least within the circles of students who were destined for lives as layout slaves in advertising agencies. I even had a design professor call me a traitor for driving my employees to work in the service of sinister capitalist enterprises; he, meanwhile, praised his own fight on the barricades of the profession against such exploitation, a fight that consisted of making posters protesting the spread of AIDS or world hunger. He thought those were incredibly risky anti-establishment messages. (It should not be necessary to say that he now enjoys a state pension after thirty years of safe employment while I still crack the whip over my poor dependents in the studio.) It has always been easy to protest within the safe environment of art magazines or galleries with their audiences of designers who would be artists if there were safe prospects of money in it. 

It is, indeed, hard to live with the contradiction of designing messages to get people to spend money they do not have on things they do not need. When they leave design school, young women still want to make children’s books and young men posters against the world’s evils. Months later they are glad to be able to sit in front of a computer, churning out endless variations of diagonally striped labels for yet another “light” product variety. Meanwhile, our world is in a pretty sad state. Our public services are broken, traffic is a nightmare, the air not fit to breathe, politicians corrupt and high unemployment the rule, not the exception. Shouldn’t we turn our considerable skills as strategists, communicators and problem solvers to those issues? Fix public transport? Design efficient and sustainable energy systems, affordable housing and inhabitable neighborhoods? 

When the First Things First manifesto from 1964, signed by twenty-two visual communicators from Britain, was republished in 2000, it was underwritten by a long list of designers from several countries. Most of those worked and still work in an environment that the manifesto describes thus: “designers... apply their skill and imagination to sell dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents, hair gel, cigarettes, credit cards, sneakers, butt toners, light beer, and heavy-duty recreational vehicles. Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design.

The profession’s time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best. I also signed this manifesto because I do believe that we could apply our skills more effectively to solve more pressing issues than the ones described above. But who would pay our bills? Governments and other institutions are notorious as bad clients, constantly underestimating and undervaluing what we do. Being perceived as what we mainly are—people who apply make-up to the ugly face of capitalism—we are not seen as worthy contributors beyond the confines of the commercial world. 

This discussion took another fourteen years to come up again. First Things First 2014 is more concerned with us designers selling data rather than dog biscuits, but it nicely brings our issues into the digital age. Rather fittingly, the undersigned this time around call themselves designers, developers, creative technologists, and multi-disciplinary communicators. New job descriptions, same old issues. 

This vicious circle will not be broken by protesting its viciousness. Neither will we make new friends outside our own world by pretending to bite the hand that feeds us. Protesting against the world of overconsumption and overdesign by displaying our “noncommercial” work in art galleries in the evening and then going back to work for The Man in the morning may ease our conscience, but it doesn’t solve the dichotomy of our situation. Not that I have an answer. 

When my son accuses me of shoring up this sick system, I can reply only that I at least provide a decent environment for our designers. We have central heating, an espresso machine, fast computers, and good lighting. We pay regular wages, grant thirty vacation days and provide maternity and paternity leave, and nobody gets hired without his future peers’ agreement. We won’t work for really evil purposes like cigarette brands or banks. While we wouldn’t kill or let ourselves get killed for our clients, we respect them, and they treat us as well as we treat them. We provide an environment with as little alienation as possible. It is not through what we do but how we do it that we can truly influence. I cannot think of a more honest answer. 

This essay was originally published in Blueprint in October 2010 

Comments [2]

"This vicious circle will not be broken by protesting its viciousness. Neither will we make new friends outside our own world by pretending to bite the hand that feeds us. Protesting against the world of overconsumption and overdesign by displaying our “noncommercial” work in art galleries in the evening and then going back to work for The Man in the morning may ease our conscience, but it doesn’t solve the dichotomy of our situation. Not that I have an answer. " The answer is to be politically engaged Erik to be active in trying to begin the work of replacing Capitalism with a system that will not destroy our planet and realise the full potential of Design freed from the imperatives of profit. We live, should we need reminding, in a world where life for your son and everyone else is going to be made a lot worse, and maybe even not possible if current predictions of Climate Change are true. We will lose our habitable environment this century and this is to say nothing of the rampant inequality and violence contemporary Capitalism is visiting on the working poor of the Earth. By every indication industrial fossil fuel driven Capitalism is destroying life on Earth. The problem with First Things First is that it has remained as a manifesto, sure it gets wheeled out a lot, Ken gets to say his bit about how he did it, but nothing really has come of it, because there was no attempt to put those values into some kind of organisation. Similarly like Ken (see Eye: http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/last-things-last) you have some chip on your shoulder about people who work in 'safe' jobs or who 'protest' in galleries as opposed to run commercial studios, this too is a red herring, what matters, now, at this point in history, when we face such huge crisis is whether artists and designers, alongside everyone else, begin to work with and be part of, the social and political movements working for a better world. And we can do that within the profession too, we can make choices about what to say and what ideas to promote, Im pleased you run a studio that is nice to it's Designer employees, but that isn't enough is it? One example of what we I mean is this. Two years ago we talked, as Occupy Design, at Typolondon, our theme was design for the common good addressing these very points–the most important issues we face–we could have had a large audience but instead were put in a small room while the large hall was given over the Art Director from Wallpaper talking about fancy invites he's got from various Fashion private views, so even in professional events these issues are sidelined while the Designed tat of consumption is lauded. And you wonder why people don't take Designers seriously? This is something we can do something about in the here and now. Finally what's brilliant about the recent waves of protest is that they are so visual and graphic, people are getting on with the struggle and using images and text to forward their ideas and hopes and amplify the audience via the social networks, we will all need to move to save this planet we share, instead of navel gazing articles like this, that say nothing take some time to be inspired by what is actually going on, on the ground and let's build some hope for the future and for design in the future. To see some of the movement graphics I talk about we are archiving them here: http://graphics.occupydesign.org.uk Noel
noel douglas

I should add, there were some paragraphs space in that text, but your system takes them out maybe something to address?
noel douglas

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