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In Search of Design’s Soul


When we come to believe that our main reason for existence is to make money for corporations, our profession will be morally bankrupt.  Stephan Macdonald

The only battle still worth fighting and winning, the only one that can set us free, is The People v. The Corporate Cool Machine.  Kalle Lasn

Most designers would prefer not to examine their personal relationships to society too closely, particularly if doing so might mean they have to modify or even abandon their line of work. Rick Poynor

If there is an ethical or moral basis for design practice – and the point must be argued – it ultimately lies in our responsibility to our audiences, which include both specific individuals and society as a whole. When our consumer society hit its stride in the middle of the now-concluding century, that ethic was replaced by the orthodoxy of consumption.

The idea that graphic design is manageable strategic resource that can play a critical role in business success has become dogma, codified in the mission statements of our professional organizations, honored by design competitions, advocated by our luminaries, and institutionalized in design school curricula. The largest and most prominent design firms now focus on understanding client business issues and demonstrating how graphic design can address them, describing design services and outcomes in terms of sales, market share, and return on investment.

The proliferation of media channels and tools and ability of marketers to influence if not control consciousness has exceeded even the gravest warnings of such prophets as Guy Debord, Aldous Huxley, William S. Burroughs, Daniel Boorstin, Jean Baudrillard, and Noam Chomsky. This has led designers of conscience and other cultural guerillas to challenge and subvert the assumptions of “professional” design practice.

As designers, we make moral judgments every day when we choose who to work for, what to do for them, and how. The question of who we look to for inspiration is central to this debate. Rather than a limited focus on design heroes, whether ancient or modern, many seek more reliable, human resources of inspiration: our mentors, parents, children, and communities.

Given the limited forums for discourse within the professional culture of graphic design, more and more designers are taking it upon themselves to initiate projects to address critical issues. These project s are occasionally endorsed by professional organizations, paper companies, printers, or educational institutions, although many of the most influential have been initiated and executed by a single author/editor/curator who takes responsibility for both content and presentation. The author typically builds a community of support to both bring fresh perspectives into the development process and help ensure the project’s completion. The goal is rarely to make a definitive statement; instead, these projects seek to create awareness and provoke debate.

Unfortunately, the fragmented nature of our discipline means that only a small audience ever sees such work. The critical mass necessary to foment change rarely is achieved. Those who obtain access to a significant audience through our largest professional associations or most widely-read magazines often find the content watered down by board members or editors. (This has happened to me personally more times then I can remember.) By settling for the lowest common denominator, our leading institutions actively discourage debate and ultimately diminish our field. This makes personal projects, for all their limitations and flaws, all the more important to the vitality of graphic design.
We encourage all designers to reflect on their humanity, acknowledge their duty to the larger community, and inform their work with humble respect for the real, human beings that receive, interpret, and respond to our work.

Published in the catalog for the exhibition Soul Design, conceived and curated by Kali Nikitas , 1999

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