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Design for life?

Design is now at the centre of the debate about the 'rebranding' of New Britain's identity. So do designers have a responsibility to bring their ethics to the drawing board?

YES - Sophie Thomas
Designing in an ethical way can be a daunting task. People now want to define themselves through design. Graphic design has become a vital element in the marketing of new lifestyles, giving an aura of desire and necessity to the objects that it packages. Design is being simultaneously promoted and stifled by the consumerism it so profitably serves.

Do designers care? Can they afford to argue themselves out of a career? It could be argued that ethical standards are all very well only if you can afford to turn down clients who use child labour or cut down rainforests.

Do designers have a role to educate? No designer is an island. We cannot insulate ourselves from the social and environmental impact of the products and services we promote. Designers should at least acknowledge the visual and persuasive power which we hold.

Design has become a fashion-driven subject which slips easily into promoting negative lifestyles. We are being bombarded with thousands of advertising messages a day, breaking down our ability to filter and resist. They invite us to identify with the objects of desire and the cults of consumption. Every one of our senses will soon be exposed to branding and persuasion.

Will we become so absorbed in the 'brandscape' that we let the real public space around us fall into disrepair? Will our environment become a polluted land of adverts and subliminal messages built into the city on stairs and walls, while we perform as human billboards conned into brand naming? The designer is an active agent in all this.

Whether your design is 'ethical' or whether it does anything to inform, educate or offer any social or political alternative to the consumer - these are the uncomfortable questions which must at least be asked. Taking responsibility is not just about specifying recycled paper for a print job. It can mean accepting that we can hold somebody's attention through the power of our media - a great opportunity to pose questions and inspire 'idea-formation'. Design does not have to have an absolute aim but could make the viewer reflect.

It is important for designers to have an idea of the whole lifecycle of the work, taking into account the environmental as well as the social impact. Your message may be sound but is the method of production? The ideal is to give the best design answer that fulfils the brief in the soundest way. Designers should not necessarily sit back and be told what to design. It may be necessary to challenge the brief, or even to turn down a project on ethical grounds. Designers should take responsibility for the work they produce, the way they produce it and the impact it has on the lives of their audience.

Sophie Thomas is part of the thomas.matthews partnership


NO - Alex Cameron
Entertained at Number 10 and consulted about 'rebranding Britain', designers are at last receiving the recognition they deserve. Perhaps it has all gone to our heads. It certainly seems that some designers now have an exaggerated idea of their significance, especially when they exhort the rest of us to take care lest the public is bamboozled by the secret powers of our profession. This overweaning arrogance not only overestimates the power of design, but also underestimates the faculties of all those who consume our work.

At any gathering of designers you will hear talk about the need to 'take responsibility' for the messages with which consumers are being bombarded. It reminds me of the pleas for filmmakers to 'take responsibility' for the effects of their movies on an unwitting audience. In both instances the insistence that the professionals should take responsibility is another way of saying that the people in the audience are incapable of doing so. Not only do people believe what they see in the movies, apparently they are so gullible they also believe what they are told in the adverts.

Ethical rectitude is now so much a part of the design profession that some practitioners are building it into their campaigns. For example, recent roadside advertising for Zanussi comes in two parts: an image of an atomic blast captioned 'the misappliance of science', and another billboard showing a woolly cardigan being taken out of the tumble drier, captioned with the 'appliance of science' slogan. The juxtaposition of ethics and nostalgia makes me wonder whether both might be rooted in the same fear of the future.

I would not mind so much if ethical designers were really thinking for themselves about moral questions. But their hitlist of undesirable themes and inappropriate products betrays an uncritical acceptance of what have become the new taboos - smoking, men, genetic engineering, animal experimentation, to name but a few. Why not take responsibility for thinking afresh rather than simply conforming to contemporary prejudice?

We are just the mediators between the client and the consumer. Whether the client is the government, a charity or a tobacco company is of no concern to us as professionals. They are responsible for producing ideas and commodities, just as consumers are responsible for deciding whether to buy them. We do not need to concern ourselves about the merits of a particular product any more than a defence lawyer need worry about whether a client is in fact guilty.

Believe it or not we are not the creators of national and personal identities. Britain will not be remade just because it has been rebranded. We should stop believing our own publicity and recognise that, when we are successful, it is because we have managed to package the fears - and aspirations - which others already have.

Alex Cameron organised the New Design conference at the Institute of Contemporary Arts

Signs of the times

'It is nice to see so many people sucking Hooch rather than their false teeth. Usually when I address people we have to exhume someone'
Dr Liam Fox, addressing the new Conservative Future organisation

Labour MPs' bleepers are reported to have gone off en masse through Jack Straw's conference speech, delivering the message: 'Pls stand and call "More" at the end of Jack's speech'

Newsreader Martyn Lewis, the famous exponent of 'good news', has emerged as a surprise critic of the News at Ten 'And finally...' slot. No need to worry, though; his objection is entirely consistent. 'I'm against it', he explains, 'because by running one "good news" story at the end of their show, they have a perfect excuse for the rest of their news agenda containing the kind of salacity and doom and gloom I really don't like'

'I hadn't cried since my dad whacked me, so I'd forgotten how to. I was cold and unemotional'
SAS man-turned-author Chris Ryan

'Public media should not contain explicit or implied descriptions of sex acts. Our society should be purged of the perverts who provide the media with pornographic material while pretending it has some redeeming social value under the public's "right to know"'
Kenneth Starr (1987)

'I put some emotion into the game. On the rink I might run after the wood and shout and swear sometimes. I also like to have a laugh. The game has got to change, this is the 1990s and bowls is a young person's sport now. A 10-year ban is ludicrous'
Griff Saunders comments on his punishment from the Devon County Bowls Association, for swearing, spitting and writing 'John Smerdon [tournament referee] is a tosser' on a scorecard


The not-so-fast show

Launched in association with another exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery and accompanied by a glossy book, the Speed exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery pulls together artworks which the organisers say reflect 'the revolutions in transport, media, communications or politics, as part of one revolution, the Speed Revolution'.

Well, I am a speed freak and I could not see much sense in this. Why is Marcel Breuer's design watershed, the Wassily chair (the first in tubular steel), in the same exhibition as a John Minton's painting 'The death of James Dean' (which should not be in any exhibition)? What is Marcel Duchamp's 'In advance of a broken arm' (a snow shovel) doing here? The blurb says that because it was ready-made an acceleration of production has been introduced to art. That is pushing it - I don't think Duchamp was trying to knock off early. Also showing is Warhol's film Empire, eight hours and five minutes of an almost static view of the Empire State building. It takes much longer to watch than it took to make because the camera was run fast. The blurb says this makes the film a poetic reminder that speed can be slow as well as quick, but that too is pushing it. Warhol probably was just trying to finish early and get home to his beloved TV.

The show's handout states that 'speed' does not necessarily mean 'fast' and declares an intention to 'challenge this assumption and to consider different rates of movement and change, from the accelerated visions of the machine age to the slower shifts of natural process'. So all speeds are equally valid. All except high speeds, apparently. The curators say that the exhibition 'was meant to encourage slowness': they are worried that the ubiquity of high speed means we no longer see where we are going.

My own experience tells me that high speed makes you look ahead. On a motorbike at 150mph your eyes are glued to the vanishing point of the road. At mach 2 on Concorde, you can sip a gin and tonic and map out your day. And when you arrive, there is more time to see the sights. High speeds expand the amount of time available to us, which in turn makes for an extended range of vision. whereas low speed really is synonymous with wearing blinkers. Just think of the levels of religious bigotry in peasant communities and ask yourself whether you want a slower pace of life.

Sean Burns

Speed is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1 until 22 November

Speed killers

As a student I rode motorbikes. A car was transport, but a bike was excitement. Heightened by youthful hormones, my incarnation as a biker was frustrated by an equally youthful lack of money. Then last year I discovered that I could afford to become a 'born-again biker'. But now I find I am all powered-up with no place to go.

Northumbria police have moved in on the bikers who traditionally gathered to show off their machines in the remote rural roads near Helmsley, north Yorkshire. CCTV-equipped police bikes continue to patrol the area. Why the crackdown? After all, over the past 12 years motorcycling fatalities have fallen by 60 per cent, despite the fact that registrations have soared. While I was away from the biking scene a bewildering array of new legislation has been introduced - speed and noise limits, helmet law, and measures to prevent customisation. To an old timer like myself it seems that the moral panics of yesteryear (Mods and Rockers, for example) have been replaced by new-style panics over safety; and as a grown-up family man on a Yamaha XS650B, I get treated more like a child than I did as a reckless teenager on a Honda.

Dave O'Toole

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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