graphic design saves the world

Cap’n P. points from somewhere in the well-designed future to the inadequate user experiences of the early 21st century.

You might think that by now we would be getting to grips with the information age and that with endless data literally at our fingertips that certainty and progress would follow. The reverse seems more true. The combination of sheer data volume and vested interests make it harder than ever before for us to separate signal from noise.

The human mammal, supposedly superior to corvids, cetaceans, cephalopods (and other smartarse earth life forms not beginning with ‘c’) has built its success so far on exceptional pattern recognition skills and an aptitude for making sense of complexity. But more often the widespread response to our self-inflicted Infogeddon is a toxic combination of ignorant denial and rampant egomania, most obviously illustrated by (though far from limited to) rightwing US politicians and widespread fundamentalist religious groups. It often works: state your case firmly, loudly and often enough and like rust or some fungus, the maddest ideas take hold. Add power to such posturing and you can take any barking notion and Make It So (as I understand slaphead space commanders of the future will be fond of saying).

Art, with representation firmly behind it, has been at this for decades. ‘It is Art if I say it is’ say fine artists. Self-belief is essential for intellectual explorers but at least few are hurt by ideas and installations. Science on the other hand deals in fact, though offering only degrees of certainty—scientific proofs are conditional on available data (an age-old tradition distressingly lost on the Judge in the recent Aquila earthquake trial) but corporations hide behind the white coat disguise of pseudoscience. Laboratoire Garnier (hilariously) and GSK (less amusingly) bend reality to their shareholders’ will, joining the above Ayn Rand fans and extreme believers in Make It So madness.

This is awkward for graphic designers who edit, filter, direct and present messages on behalf of commercial interests. New brand launches in particular often adopt the Make It So strategy: spend big, shout loud and long and people will buy a cheese & onion latte in a can, won’t they?. Maybe. If a product / service is really poor, design speeds the message but no amount of creative genius guarantees success. The ‘authority’ of good design can help legitimise Bad Stuff—a beautifully-designed annual report for an unethical mining corporation, say—but good also design enables access, not concealment. BP’s symbol and Enron’s logo can’t help them now. The bin of design history is full of great visual identities (like HGV’s Bulldog Broadband logo) lost to ill-conceived business ventures that the designers failed to make so.

But all graphic designers have opportunities to influence and shape information and opinion, if not always to the extent of high profile specialist info-ghurkas like Journalist-designer David MacCandless and Doctor-journalist Ben Goldacre. All graphics has an information design component—we convert raw data into information—filtering, distilling, structuring, prioritising and presenting, creating easily-digested communications that promote knowledge, not noise. We have at least some small influence on our clients and by and large are not evil / insane*. We don’t always have to accept every commission and as ‘outsiders’ in business may have opportunities to shape content, widen a brief, highlight a possibility / perspective, to exercise a little bit of social responsibility. Designers with time on their hands develop self-initiated projects that can be directly effective (Fixperts is not info-centric, but is a great example of ‘design for good’). Even tiny projects—say a doctors’ waiting room leaflet—can if well-designed be small victories for common sense.

The recent US election result may have averted a global commonsense crisis for the moment but vested interests denying reality and forcing their wishful thinking on the rest of us remain a clear and present danger. We can’t just sit around waiting for superheroes or space captains to sort it out. We can do this. Graphic design can save the world! (cue wild applause, dancing in street, ticker-tape parades, Nobel prize for graphic design etc., etc.).

*Full disclosure: no scientific data whatsoever to back this theory up, but any good designer needs to be thoughtful / analytical / creative—and is anyway far too busy for serial killing.




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