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Painting by morals

Alex Cameron thinks that designers should concentrate less on saving the world, and more on...well...designing

Can designers save the world through 'ethical' advertising? The signatories to a design manifesto launched in August clearly think so.

First Things First 2000 (FTF2000) is a rewrite of the First Things First manifesto penned by British designer Ken Garland in the 1960s. While many of the themes remain true to the original, FTF2000 is imbued with a palpable sense of millenarian apocalyptic angst. Its core argument is that the consumer is unable to decode and resist the bombardment of messages emanating from an all-powerful media. The manifesto's signatories consequently prescribe 'ethical design' as a counter to the established attitude that the designer is a neutral agent in the communication process.

Throughout the 1990s, the idea of the 'ethical designer' has gathered pace. No longer is the designer a visual mediator of the ideas of others. First Things First 2000 demands that designers choose between content and client. If the designer disagrees with the content of the client's brief, he should reject the project on moral and ethical grounds. FTF2000, signed by some of graphic design's leading figures, is a sign of the mainstreaming of this idea.

The organisation behind FTF2000 is the Media Foundation - the visually armed wing of the North American anti-consumerist/environmentalist movement which produces a quarterly magazine, Adbusters (now celebrating its tenth year). The Media Foundation's mission is, simply put, for a 'sustainable future'; and the medium to achieve this is visual polemic. As the foundation's website states, 'We feel that our planet cannot survive the existing onslaught of mass media that constantly urges us to consume ever more. We want to create a new media culture, one that does not have commercialism as its heart and soul'.

The man behind the Media Foundation is founding editor Kalle Lasn, a Vancouver-based advertising creative who was 'shown the door' at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1989. Lasn's politics were in stark contrast to the priorities of his employer and so ended that relationship, and he moved on to launch the Media Foundation later that year. A decade on, the foundation's vision of the future, based on its perception of the past, remains gloomy. 'Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact.' The manifesto sees the medium of advertising as a monolithic power that determines the defenceless (or stupid?) consumers' thoughts and actions.

Here the problem begins. Even if you endorse FTF2000's premonitions of eco-doom, its manifesto is based on questionable assumptions both about the importance of designers and the capabilities of consumers.

While no doubt most designers would like to work on projects for the 'greater good', the idea that designers need agree with the client's message is a direct challenge to the essence of the role played by the graphic designer. Both the practising designer and the potential client have, by and large, always understood that the designer is a mediator in the process of communication. As a graphic designer you are situated between the originator's message and the audience at which that message is aimed.

The responsibility of the designer, such as it exists, is to represent the content of the message in such a way, and employing all the necessary skill and technique, that it is understood by the intended recipients. It is this relationship that is challenged by the manifesto. Designers are not responsible for the ideas of others, nor should they be held responsible for the products made by others.

Consumers, meanwhile, should be seen as capable of going beyond a product's design - however sexy that might be. If a consumer is repelled by, say, a company that sells fur coats, no amount of wonderful design will seduce them to buy one. They will make that decision themselves. Yet FTF2000's endorsement of the 'ethical designer' ignores the consumer's active role in this process, by promoting the notion that the designer must decide which products or issues are morally right and wrong, before the publicity even reaches the consumer. The leap from artist to arbitrator in this scenario is a huge one - and based on the most patronising assumptions.

As designers we should take responsibility for the most effective ways to communicate to whomever about whatever. We should trust that the 'citizen-consumer' is a discerning individual who is able to make decisions for him or herself. Otherwise we can just get on with producing any old rubbish: after all, what do they know?

Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999



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