Who's responsible?

by Michael Rock
1992

Responsibility is the ultimate design buzzword; there's no escaping it. Pick up a design magazine and you're sure to find it pop up somewhere. Big-shots, settling back after weeding through the morass of entries from some design fashion contest, find time to lament the lack of social commitment in the work they just finished awarding. Professors scramble to inject some political content into their typography assignments. The AIGA even devoted an entire conference to the theme, giving all the regulars a chance to gather and explain how their work has been pro-active all along.

Somehow it seems to be about 90 percent spin. With all the talk about social responsibility, do we really understand the complexity of the problem as it pertains to design? The issue of responsibility in a profession involved in the modulation of information is daunting. There is a implicit power involved in graphic design that is derived from an involvement with image production, and all power carries with it responsibility. But to date, we have not sufficiently addressed this aspect of the question. Is social responsibility a function of the content, the form, the audience, the client and/or the designer?

According to conventional wisdom, it comes down to two basic issues: 1.) Don't work for cigarette manufacturers or for companies that produce neutron bombs and nerve gas, and 2.) be sensitive to the impact of the materials you specify for your clients. Eight color metallic ink on coated paper is a bad; soy pigment on recycled stock is good. But this elementary reading of the surface problem tends to obscure the more important issues underneath.

In the era of the mega-corporation, the delineation between companies is increasingly vague. If you refuse work the bomb company, will you work for the bank that finances it? What about the art museum it funds? Or the cable TV station it owns? If the designer is an advocate for the client, whose will and message is paramount? There is a confusion here between social and personal responsibility. The designer, like any professional, must examine the implication of any activity or client relationship in light of his/her own position. These are points of individual conscience and integrity rather than social responsibility.

As for the ecological issue, no one comes out against the environment. And as the "printed on recycled paper" tag becomes ever more fashionable, convincing clients to go the green or environment-friendly route becomes progressively easier. Of course, the end result of a liberal environmental plan is positive, whatever the corporate motivation to adopt it may have been. While specifying less noxious materials may be the start (although the exact composition of recycled products is shrouded in controversy, and often the term is pure marketing hype) the connection between design and waste may not be so easily remedied.

Perhaps the most significant environmental impact designers could instigate would be convincing their clients not to produce half the useless printed materials they are being commissioned to create; or to propose solutions that are significantly reduced in size and complexity. As this is tantamount to encouraging real estate developers to promote open-space legislation, there's not much chance of it happening to any great extent. The profit-minded practitioner is not going to argue to eliminate a project that will lead to a big fee. Enlightened self-interest aside, the laws of capitalist consumption insure this will not be a wide-spread phenomenon. To really address this issue, designers will have to redefine how they bill for projects – to break the correlation between the bulk of the final product and the design fee.

The designer's social responsibility is a responsibility for creating meaningful forms. Designers may control the conduit through which information passes; yet often s/he is unaware of the basic function of the very images being transmitted. The socially responsible designer should be conscious of the cultural effect of all products that pass through the studio, not all of which have great significance. Designers have their hand in such a wide array of projects — from maps to clothing catalogues — that it would be absurd to say that there was a single identifiable social position in the work. Projects may range from the absolutely essential to the downright deceitful. Without evoking some preassigned, politically correct standards, is a working definition of socially responsible content possible?

Dilemmas of personal conscience and environmental sensitivity aside, our preoccupation should be with the facets of graphic design that are directly related to society and our function within it. While we may have abandoned a purely pragmatic description of design, the basic social role – that of mediating, organizing, translating, and creating access to information – remains intact. So is responsibility a function of the form, the content, the materials or the client? The idea of acceptable form is dubious; ecologically sensitive materials go without saying; content is too broad as to be definable; and the client situation is murky.

It seems that, forgoing some standard acceptable content, the issue will be judged on a case by case basis. Most designers are able to juggle several seemingly contradictory accounts at the same time, each having specific value. Some see certain projects as means to fund other, more vital, and less lucrative, activities. Professional design expertise is expensive; only the most profitable companies are able to afford access to sophisticated communication consultation (and we should be concerned about this nexus of money, power and communication.) Yet interestingly, many designers do their most effective, evocative work for their non-paying accounts. The point of taking on political work or pro bono projects is to use the tools of graphic design to help an organization fully access the the audience that needs the services or information it offers. Pro bono work most often supports groups that service the segments of society that could benefit from – and are routinely excluded from – the information culture. The unfortunate reality is that many designers see the donation of service as an opportunity for a creative liberty they never realize with their paying clients. Perhaps their charity inspires a sense of empowerment and self-righteousness, which actually clouds their ability to focus on solving the real communication problems at hand.

A clear definition of social responsibility may elude us. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a recognition of the complex issues involved in communication. At a time when access to real information for the disadvantaged seems in increasingly in peril, and where power and money control most of the means of producing and dispersing it, the goal of developing simple and effective mass audience communication seems especially relevant. Clarity may once again become an important social concern, not by fiat but because the content is too vital and important to obscure. Message may indeed rise up over style, but style will be recognized for the important cultural values it transmits.

In the end, perhaps the dark truth is that the most socially irresponsible work is closer at hand than we suspected. Before we cast about for other culprits, perhaps we should consider the over-designed, over-produced, typographic stunts that serve no real function, speak only to other designers and the cultural elite, and – through opulence and uselessness – revel in a level of conspicuous consumption that glorifies financial excess. Perhaps, to quote Walt Kelly's immortal philosopher, Pogo, we have met the enemy, and he is us.