Can do-gooder design withstand big bad Michael Wolff?
That was the theme that dominated the discussion following what had been a mind-numbing display of self-congratulation at the keynote panel of Designism 2.0, a conference at NYC's Art Directors Club on design and social change. Details after the jump:
BONUS UPDATE: The always enlightening Core77 has a more comprehensive summary from a design professional. One of the pics shows me in the audience looking cranky, which is only appropriate.
I'd actually been looking forward to the event, since it provided a chance to see
- Tony Hendra (perhaps best known for National Lampoon, Spy Magazine, Spinal Tap and Father Joe)
- Milton Glaser (Dylan! DC! I heart NY!)
- Steven Heller (who has written a book or two)
- Janet Kestin (co-creator of the famous Dove Evolution campaign), and
- Michael Wolff (ex-New York Magazine and current Vanity Fair media critic)
and to get free drinks from Sapporo, the event's sponsor. So, undeterred by the swirling rain and biting cold, I trudged on up Broadway to the ADC, downed the requisite alcohol and took a look around the Club's social design exhibit to get a sense of what lay in store.
That was when it hit me: I wasn't going to like this.
Not that the pictures in the exhibit displayed bad technique--in fact, from a technical perspective they were pretty darn good. But the messages were obvious--Peace is good! Save Darfur! Condoms for everyone! Don't cut down trees!--and the transgressive images were stock cliches. The only people who would find these designs convincing would be people who were already convinced. Anyone else would be pretty put off, what with being visually linked to Nazis and rapists and killers and lumberjacks.
Surely the panel itself would be more nuanced, I thought . . . until it started with Tony Hendra ridiculing Karl Rove. Hendra led the crowd in applauding themselves (!) for voting for Democrats in 2006, then explained why they needed to vote for better Democrats in 2008. After that, the design professor who curated the social change exhibit gave a Powerpo-- sorry, Keynote presentation filled with posters against Darfur, pedophile priests and global warming.
People applauded their own insight again. Truth to tell, if it weren't for the fact that I really wanted to see Glaser I would have left. Not because I was offended by the points of view, but because they were so uninteresting.
But I didn't, which meant I got to hear & see Glaser go over his new charity campaigns . . .
Can you guess?
. . . against Darfur and America's failure to take responsibility in Iraq.
Frankly, when Janet Kestin took the stage, I found myself relieved that the overt nonprofiteering was done. At last, someone from the commercial sector was going to talk about creative ways of selling soap!
Which is where Michael Wolff comes in. After Kestin finished her nifty video show on branding and social change, Wolff dared to say what, it turned out, more than a few of us were thinking but weren't going to say without a bit of cover from the dais:
All this $#!% about design and social change was banal. Simplistic messages, mundane imagery, "perceptual imperialism shoved down our throats"--this isn't about changing the world; it's all about making the designers and their audience feel good about themselves. And if it's truly the movement's cutting edge, then the movement deserves to die.
As Wolff no doubt intended, a heated debate broke out during the audience Q&A, with one side clucking at Wolff and applauding themselves (what's with that?) and the other expressing its exasperation at having to go to events on social *change* where people keep saying the same things. The seemingly untouchable Kestin herself was the target of sharp critique over the fact that her films about unhealthy body image are filled with conventionally pretty girls. True courage, some insisted, would be to make the normals in the Dove vids obese with bad teeth.
Beyond the alternative to the Dove campaign, tho, the soft spot in Wolff's armor was the lack of a specific alternative to the imagery that now dominates do-gooder design. This post has gone long enough so I'll hold back on my own recs for now, except to say that a good starting point for truly effective world-changing design would be to empathize with the people you hope to persuade. If design is a language, activists must become fluent in Red State.
Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Can do-gooder design withstand big bad Michael Wolff?.
TrackBack URL for this entry: