August 26, 2018

Citizen Designer

What does it mean to be a designer in today's corporate-driven, over-branded global consumer culture? The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne’s Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility.

So, what is the responsibility of a designer when the design is impeccable but the client is tainted? Being accountable to some moral standard is the key. A designer must be professionally, culturally, and socially responsible for the impact his or her design has on the citizenry. Indeed, every good citizen must understand that his or her respective actions will have reactions. All individual acts, including the creation and manufacture of design for a client, exert impact on others. But Rand could not foresee Enron’s gross betrayal. And even if large corporations are sometimes suspect, why should he or any designer refuse to work for Enron or any similar establishment? A designer cannot afford to hire investigators to compile dossiers about whether a business is savory or not. Yet certain benchmarks must apply, such as knowing what, in fact, a company does and how it does it. And if a designer has any doubts, plenty of public records exist that provide for informed decisions. However, each designer must address this aspect of good citizenship as he or she sees fit.

Two years ago, when Milton Glaser was illustrating Dante’s Purgatory, he become interested in the “Road to Hell” and developed a little questionnaire to see where he stood in terms of his own willingness to lie. Beginning with fairly minor misdemeanors, the following twelve steps increase to some major indiscretions.

  1. Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
  2. Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy.
  3. Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
  4. Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
  5. Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
  6. Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
  7. Designing a package for children’s snacks that you know are low in nutrition value and high in sugar content.
  8. Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
  9. Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
  10. Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
  11. Designing a brochure for an SUV that turned over frequently in emergency conditions and was known to have killed 150 people.
  12. Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.

A dozen additional steps of varied consequence could be added, but Glaser’s list addresses a significant range of contentious issues. Designers are called upon to make routine decisions regarding scale, color, image, etc. — things that may seem insignificant but will inevitably affect behavior in some way. An elegant logo can legitimize the illegitimate; a beautiful package can spike up the sales of an inferior product; an appealing trade character can convince kids that something dangerous is essential. The graphic designer is as accountable as the marketing and publicity departments for the propagation of a message or idea.

Talented designers are predisposed to create good-looking work. We are taught to marry type and image into pleasing and effective compositions that attract the eye and excite the senses. Do this well, we’re told, and good jobs are plentiful; do it poorly and we’ll produce junk mail for the rest of our lives. However, to be what in this book we call a “citizen designer” requires more than talent. As Glaser notes, the key is to ask questions, for the answers will result in responsible decisions. Without responsibility, talent is too easily wasted on waste.

This book examines and critiques through essays and interviews three areas in which designers practice and in which responsibility to oneself and society is essential. Sections on social responsibility, professional responsibility, and artistic responsibility offer insight into how our peers view their practices as dependent on moral codes. The final part, raves and rants, is a soapbox, pure and simple. Our goal in editing this book is not to offer dogmatic decrees or sanctimonious screeds but to address the concern that the design field, like society as a whole, is built on the foundation of... well, you fill in the blank.

The second edition (June 2018) of Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne, is now available from Skyhorse Publishing, Amazon, and other good booksellers.

November 29, 2016

Swim the other way

Don’t Get a Job... Make a Job, by Gem Barton, is a book that’ll help recent design graduates find work.

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September 10, 2016

The Drinkable Book

According to Unicef, in 2015 there were 663 million people using unsafe drinking water. To combat the problem and to help educate about the dangers of unsafe water, WATERisLIFE teamed up with Dr Teri Dankovich from Carnegie Mellon to create the Drinkable Book.

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August 7, 2016

The Typography Idea Book

Steven Heller and Gail Anderson have released The Typography Idea Book, geared toward helping you evolve different typographic characters or styles.

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July 22, 2016

Ogilvy on meeting clients and prospects

In 1962, Time magazine called David Ogilvy (1911-1999) “the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry.”

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March 29, 2016

Things Organized Neatly, the book

Things Organized Neatly capitalises on our current obsession with photographing and cataloguing all the objects that we interact with on a daily basis.

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March 11, 2016

MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design

This tasty-looking new book by Stuart Tolley focuses on a “rebirth of simplicity in graphic design.”

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October 1, 2015

Trade Marks & Symbols, 1973

“A comprehensive, profusely illustrated guide to more than 1,500 trademarks from all over the world.”

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April 3, 2015

Renoir, My Father

A passage I enjoyed from Renoir, My Father (Collins, 1962) about what life was like in 1845 when Pierre-Auguste Renoir arrived in Paris at the age of four.

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October 21, 2014

Remember those great Volkswagen ads?

“...if you simply appreciate wit and style, you'll enjoy this book.”

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March 7, 2014

On negotiating your design salary

A chapter from Ted Leonhardt’s new book Nail It: Stories for Designers on Negotiating with Confidence — a collection of true stories about designers getting the salaries they deserve.

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September 20, 2013

Blank Slate: A Comprehensive Library of Photographic Templates

I've talked before about how showing identity work using Photoshop mockups can really bring an idea to life. So it was interesting to get Blank Slate in the post, courtesy of Gestalten.

Blank Slate

You know the idea...

Blank Slate

Blank Slate

The book is a hardback reference catalogue that might make it a little easier to find the exact "blank slate" you're looking for. More than 1,000 images are labelled with codes that correspond to the TIFF files on the included DVD.

Blank Slate

All images are available on white and on black backgrounds, except for the few in the sadly lacking "environment" section — it's a shame there isn't a wider variety here.

Blank Slate

Blank Slate

Blank Slate

Blank Slate

Blank Slate

I've built a decent library of these images, but this is a nice alternative to signing up to a stock photography website, and I'm sure I'll make use of it at some point soon.

Get a copy of Blank Slate from Gestalten or on /

September 11, 2013

The Design Method

The Design Method is a new book by Eric Karjaluoto, creative director and founding partner of smashLAB. He kindly took time to answer a few of my questions on his latest work.

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June 4, 2013

15 Years, 115 Projects

15/115 (15 Years, 115 Projects) is the second book from designer Mark Bloom of Mash Creative.

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David Airey
Brand identity design

Independent since 2005
Website hosted by Fused

13 Gransha Park, Bangor
Northern Ireland
BT20 4XT