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Why commercials can’t spark change.


In 1999, Adbusters drafted First Things First 2000, a manifesto calling for the exploration and development of new meaning in the world of design. Commercial work, once a means of supplementing a designer’s existence, had become the designer’s primary purpose. In turn, the world began to perceive design as little more than the language through which marketers communicated product. The manifesto challenged designers to turn the tide against this perception. It urged them to reconsider their place in the world, to regain their footing as artists and visual communicators. They were encouraged to begin a new dialogue, one that focused less on the production of consumer need and more on the creation of awareness and action. Designers were asked to temper their commercial pursuits with efforts on behalf of the larger social good. They were called upon to be activists. In all, 33 members of the international design community signed their names. Now, nearly a decade after its conception, we revisit the manifesto and take stock of progress.

Michael Wolff sent shockwaves though the crowd at a design conference in December when he called all design “banal, trite and unoriginal.”

Camus once wrote that at any street corner, absurdity can strike in the face of any man. Positioned at a busy intersection, Gwyneth Paltrow was striking in the face of multitudes. Eyes solemn, long blonde hair caught in a gentle breeze, her graceful black and white visage could have been an ad for any one of the number of products we have come to associate with her through the years – jewelry, perfume, glossy high-end fashion magazines. But then there was the face paint. Two large stripes, one purple, one blue, running the length of her chiseled cheekbone. I AM AFRICAN declared the lavender script beneath her. Far from selling earrings orVogue, Gwyneth was raising awareness for HIV/AIDS in Africa. And as the multitudes filed past, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one laughing.

On its surface, the design’s premise is ridiculous. Gwyneth Paltrow, the face of Estée Lauder and Damiani diamonds and possibly the whitest actress imaginable, is African. But at its core, the message is really fairly clear. We’re all one people. Despite oceans – physical and cultural – between us, we are all fundamentally the same. It’s an effort to prevent us from categorizing what are essentially global crises as either ours ortheirs. So though it may initially strike us as a little absurd, the fact that the design’s heart is in the right place should be enough to redeem it… right?

Maybe it should be – but it isn’t. Among visual art forms, design is unique. It circumvents filter, bypasses analysis and impacts us directly. It’s not chewed, swallowed and then digested – design is injected directly into our collective stream of consciousness. The effects are immediate. That’s why advertisers, having only seconds to make a connection with consumers, value it so highly. But it’s also why the first reaction a design inspires in us is so important – our first impression will shape our entire understanding of what the design represents. So if you show me the face Gwyneth Paltrow, an image that’s been selling inessential luxury items for years, some brightly colored tribal stripes just aren’t going to do the trick. I already know what her image stands for – and it isn’t Africa.

Michael Wolff, media critic for Vanity Fair, sent shockwaves though the crowd at a design conference in December when he called all design “banal, trite and unoriginal.” Claiming that designers hadn’t managed to produce anything worth noting since the sixties, he concluded that “design is officially over.” Wolff was speaking at a conference to celebrate achievements in activist design.

After listening to Wolff’s scathing critique, Milton Glaser, creator of the “I Love New York” logo and among those who signed First Things First, gave what was widely described as a rousing and eloquent response in defense of design. Speaking by phone from his New York office, Glaser explains why he believes that Wolff, in delivering his diatribe, missed the mark. “Michael confused design with style,” he says. “We’re drowning in style.” But style, Glaser maintains, is just the way something looks. Design is far more comprehensive. “When considering a design, you have to look at the message in terms of its intention.”

But given the immediate nature of our relationship with design – one cultivated in a world where billboards, logos and 15-second ad spots scream incessantly for our attention – who has time to think about intention? Design is everywhere. If there’s nothing in the style of the well-intentioned design to differentiate it from all the other banal, trite and unoriginal corporate bullshit we’re exposed to every day, then the message is lost. AIDS in Africa gets swept to the side of our consciousness right along with Coke and CoverGirl.

Clearly, the heart of designers is in the right place, but Wolff has a point. Designers such as Glaser routinely donate their efforts on behalf of humanitarian causes and entire conferences are held for the purpose of furthering activism in design. The problem is, in answering the call of activism, design continues to speak to us in the language of product.

Consider the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty – one of the projects that set Wolff off at the conference in December. Billed as a “global effort that is intended to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty,” the campaign involves some truly brilliant short films that deconstruct the myth of beauty in advertising and features women with “real curves” in its print ads. In this case the message is right on – it’s time to end the propagation of unrealistic ideals. But the intention – to somehow bolster women’s self-esteem while selling them firming lotion – is the problem. This is advertising in the guise of activism. Cue the cynical laugh.

In 2006, cities throughout the Netherlands hosted festivals to celebrate the Islamic holiday of Ramadan. It was an opportunity for two cultures to come together in the spirit of understanding. The design used to advertise the festivals features no celebrities and no product – it’s just a universal symbol tweaked slightly so as to be more truly universal. It is simple, honest and powerful. It’s what design that hopes to inspire a change in our thinking should be.

If design is going to truly answer the call of First Things First, the language that has evolved out of its partnership with product has to be abandoned. Messages of crucial social importance can’t be delivered in the same packages as Nike and Ford. We’re too jaded to accept them. To truly develop new meaning, design will have to develop new methods. It will have to move away from the language of product toward the creation of a language of understanding and action.

Download Michael Wolff and Milton Glaser’s speeches from ADC Designism 2.0 conference.