Yes We Can: Designing a better world. . . again

Nick Dewar for ReadyMade

Something incredibly exciting is happening right now in the world of design. The current economic climate is reinvigorating an idealism that hasn’t been seen in design since the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. At those times, designers saw themselves not only as artists or craftsmen, but also as proponents for change and progress. It was this idealism that came to define what we now refer to as Modernism, a movement whose fundamental ideas are prevalent in a vast majority of contemporary design disciplines. Early modernist designers like typographer, Jan Tschichold, pioneered systematic approaches to typography and design as a means of effectively solving everyday problems. The primary objective of the Bauhaus school was the linking of art and industry in order to improve life in a modern society. These ideals carried over to post-world war II graphic designers who adapted the Swiss modern style because of its rational approach to design, as well as designers like Herb Lubalin who took a decidedly active role in social change through his work on magazines like Eros and the anti-establishment publication Fact.

While many designers still hold themselves accountable for the kind of work they produce, much of design today revolves around selling products and not ideas. Much of it is also about the exploration of technology, self, and the relationship between technology and the self. The exploration of technology was a major a part of the early modernist sentiment, however, there was a sense of duty that, apart from the occasional self-initiated design project, is all but lost in today’s design culture. I don’t mean to discount designers who make a point of doing work with non-profit organizations, or work with the sole purpose of bettering society. Rather, I’m discussing what I see as the overall motivation of graphic designers in general. We aren’t so much thinking about making a better world, as we are thinking about making ourselves better designers.

Lately, however, things are changing. Graphic designers and designers in general are once again embracing their role as proponents of social progress. I first noticed this with the much-lauded Obama campaign. Designers from all over the country were inspired, as well as commissioned, to create work to support his campaign. The most notable, and what essentially became the prevailing image of Obama, was Shepard Fairey’s ‘Progress’ and ‘Hope’ posters. Obama’s website was also praised by the mainstream media as being well-designed, and for the first time in all my years of reading GQ magazine, they did a feature on a typeface. Somewhat related to Obama, though not directly, is the recently held U.S. National Design Policy Summit. Held on November 11-12 in Washington D.C, the summit brought together leaders from various design disciplines to discuss how the design community and the U.S. Government can work together to drive: “innovation that supports (the) American entrepreneurial spirit and economic vitality, better performance in government communications and effectiveness, sustainable practices for the environment, and design thinking that advances the educational goals of all areas of knowledge.” I’m a bit wary of the standardization of design practices, especially from a federal level. It brings to mind images of Fascism and Nazi Germany. Still, that designers were even compelled to assemble themselves under such a noble cause is truly exciting.

The blogosphere has also been vibrating with references to the WPA and FAP, federal programs created by FDR’s New Deal. On Design Observer, William Dentral, writes An Open Letter to the Obama Administration, aiming to garner support for design from The National Endowment For The Arts. In it he mentions the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Artists Program that employed many artists and designers during the depression. Dentral points out how design is “uniquely situated to evaluate problems; look at citizen needs. . .and quickly move towards solutions.” This is certainly the design as a proponent for social progress point-of-view. Concurrently, recently published Poster Children, a feature in which they asked five artists to ‘reimagine’ the populist poster art created during the great depression. With an introduction by Steven Heller, it is a great example of the newly heightened social awareness among designers. Heller, as always, gives great incite into the history of the posters, as well as a bit of background on why they looked the way they did.

Every designer occasionally asks the question, “Is what I’m doing making a difference in the world?” For most designers of my generation, I’d say it was purely an ontological exercise, rather than an acute study of how design can be employed to affect social change. Design over the last decade has become, much like society as a whole, considerably self-indulgent. Design, while still functioning to solve problems, has given a second seat to the much loftier ideal of solving the problems of the world. However, the current global economic crisis, as well as what appears to be a shift in the world of government and politics, has led to a renewed sense of duty in designers, graphic designers, and artists. I’m looking forward to seeing what innovations and movements come out of my generation.


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