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It’s late afternoon at a sunlit café on a high-traffic street. Young faces stare intently at their laptops while the smell of roasted coffee and the beat of a downtempo groove fills the air. Cups clatter on white modernist tables amid laughter and the buzz of machines grinding beans. The coffee menu reads much like the day’s headlines: East Timor, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Colombia.

Bells on the door jingle as Robin walks in. Sam looks up from a bright orange couch.

Sam: Hey! How’s it going? How are you?

Robin: Excellent. You? How’s business?

Sam: Really good, actually. An identity design we did just got a big award. So that’s nice. What’s new with you?

Robin: Things are good. Let’s see... A poster we did helped turn out nearly a hundred thousand people to that protest last week.

Sam: Whoa! How’d you get involved with that?

Robin: I just heard about the march and got in touch. It was a chance to do something for a cause, something the studio believes in. And, honestly, it was an interesting design challenge.

Sam: Sounds great. But do you ever feel conflicted? I mean, look at those posters about the genocide in Darfur. I’m all for rising to the challenge, but don’t these things just take advantage of the cause by exploiting some tragedy as an excuse to make a clever design?

Robin: Well, if I care about a cause, why shouldn’t I respond and communicate that? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with clever, as long as it helps you get your point across.

Sam: Fair enough, but seriously, don’t you think it’s more effective to support a candidate or donate money to a cause, instead of spending your time making T-shirts and bumper stickers?

Robin: Is that what you tell your business clients?, “Just skip the design, marketing doesn’t make sense. Just wait for your customers to pony up.”

Sam: Well, designing for business is different. I don’t want my studio to be seen as too political.

Robin: C’mon, from a certain point of view, everything’s political, including representing the views and interests of businesses. It’s all about reading a situation and communicating an idea. Politics are made up of ideas.

Sam: That’s a pretty broad definition of politics. And these days politics seem more about money and security.

Robin: So true. And, of course, votes. Really though, what is security if not an emotional response to information? An interpretation of risk or a measure of fears and dreams? Design seems to fit in there.

Sam: Well, I’m not one for didactic, grandstanding work. I like a touch of elegance and grace to my design.

Robin: Why is speaking out and expressing a point of view grandstanding?

Sam: Right, but design never stopped a war.

Robin: Except when it did. Remember that kid in Ohio who dropped a banner at that Clinton event? It made the news and was seen around the world. The response stopped President Clinton from invading Iraq.

Sam: So Bush invaded instead. And the people reelected him.

Robin: And all the anti-war protest helped tip the House and Senate into Democratic hands.

Sam: I’m not convinced. It’s all pretty ephemeral.

Robin: I think it’s all about building momentum. It can take a long time to bring about change. It sometimes takes years of protest. It takes lots of people convincing their friends and neighbors and speaking out. Lots of people work on situations for years. Sometimes it comes to a head, sometimes not. Big social changes look a lot clearer in retrospect.

Sam: I just don’t see the responsibility of designers here.

Robin: Of course people change things, not posters and T-shirts. But you can’t ignore the fact that it’s design that informs, persuades and brings people together. Design makes ideas tangible by shaping reality and society’s sense of what’s normal. And we, in turn, shape design.

Sam: Look, it takes more than a poster to change someone’s mind.

Robin: Well, you’re assuming that all posters are trying to change the mind of the viewer.

I think it’s a lot more like advertising. You can take a narrow view and say advertising is just about selling an idea, a brand or a product to a passive consumer. Or, you can see it as a chance to influence and play off of people’s existing desires and fears, their ideas about themselves and world.

That’s what political graphics can do. Posters don’t just communicate a message, they make an event, image or idea publicly visible. They reinforce myths and narratives and interpretations of ideas. They let people know someone out there shares their views. Posters notify and provoke more than convince. This is powerful stuff.

Sam: Sure enough. I’m just leery of all the self-congratulation. A self-indulgent, self-reinforcing love-in doesn’t move the masses.

Robin: Perhaps it is indulgent. A lot of design is self-indulgent. But I can think of a lot worse ways be indulgent. Creating a sense of unity and cohesion among like-minded people doesn’t sound like a waste of time to me. It sounds like a good start. The intent here isn’t to indulge—it’s to communicate.

Posters publicly assert a community’s voice, put forward its images and narratives, promote collective action, push for social change and gain access to political power players. When there’s no dissent visible in the corporate, or mainstream media, posters and other public graphics are one alternative venue for expression. Who knows? Showing cracks in the “consensus” may convince others to speak out. Next thing you know, you have a movement.

Sam: OK, sure. Graphics publicize events, and I’ll concede that political graphics reinforce people’s views, but if these things don’t change the minds of people who disagree with you, what good are they really? How do you reach the undecided swing voters in other states?

Robin: The point is that the messages get out there. I suspect changing minds is often an indirect result. Take talk radio as an example: Talk shows literally talk through the issues, making point-by-point arguments. It all goes into one’s rhetorical toolbox and when ideas click, we talk about them with other people.

In a way, design is the same; it’s not just a one-way broadcast. The viewers bring their own interpretation and have their own relationship to the message, absorbing and altering it. It’s a conversation. We read and interpret an image, talk about it with friends, comment on it privately or publicly, even riffing and remixing, online or offline.

Ideas are transmitted through conversation. And it’s through conversation with peers and people we trust that radical ideas become familiar and “normal.” Eventually, they seep into the “mainstream,” occasionally tilting “conventional wisdom.”

Sam: Well, that sounds great. I really do wish there were more analysis and intelligent conversation. But slogans and sound-bites hardly count and T-shirts and posters are still pretty feeble tools for fixing the world.

Robin: Look, it takes time for ideas to spread. What’s unthinkable or radical one day can, over time, become acceptable, even inevitable. It takes time to move people, but the first step is getting the idea out there and visible and talked about—and raising its profile.

Sam: Sure, but the kind of political graphics you’re talking about are simply “preaching to the choir.” Why waste limited time and energy on mutual admiration?

Robin: Because there’s value in bringing people together around an issue, rallying the base and reinvigorating exhausted campaigners. And what’s wrong with preaching to the converted? I read somewhere that Ghandi didn’t go on hunger strikes to change the minds of his opponents—they couldn’t have cared less. He fasted to impact those closest to him, his loved ones and his community.

Sam: I don’t know, this is all a bit too heavy for me. What’s wrong with trying to bring a little beauty into an ugly world? I want to bring order, clarity and delight into the lives of others. Our lives are all already filled with so much noise and hardship. Why not, instead, bring a touch of elegance, a little humor, a little moment of contemplation or discovery? Those seem like pretty righteous acts to me.

Robin: Nothing wrong with that! But while you’re at it why not throw in a little clarity and delight on behalf of the causes you believe in? It doesn’t all have to be for mega corporations selling luxury goods to wealthy people.

Sam: Well isn’t your activism quite the luxury? I mean, I have to earn a living.

Robin: Right, I’m not asking you to fire all your clients. You can start by making a little space for other things. For all the millions of hours of design work out there, if we all carved out a little more time for causes we believed in, the impact, I think, would be huge.

Sam: It’s not the designer’s job to change the world.

Robin: Well, the world is changing with or without you. If the world is going to hell and you do nothing to try and change things, you’re pretty much aligned with those in power. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Sam: Frankly, I’d rather work for a client I like. I have enough cranky clients in my day-to-day practice and enough design-by-committee. Good design depends on working with a client who has the power to make a decision, and who’s not afraid to take a leap of faith. I want to work with clients who trust and respect me. I want to make great design that I feel strongly about. I don’t want to pander to some bureaucratic, nonprofit board of directors. I want to pursue work of the highest quality. I want balance and harmony. I want to make great design.

Robin: So what makes great design? A culture of contests and awards based on the passing fancies of your peers? Where’s the client in this equation? Or, for that matter, the context of the work and its impact on its audience? And the world?

Sam: Sometimes it takes a designer to recognize good design.

Robin: But how can you judge the success of the work without an account of its purpose and context? Without that, it sounds more like art for art’s sake than successful design.

So you like design that’s personal expression, but are afraid to lose clients who might not agree with a political point of view? I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. Doing political design can have unexpected rewards.

Whenever I do something public of my own initiative, it often comes back to me in unexpected ways. It’s never really my intention to promote myself, but groups are often inspired by what they’ve already seen.

For instance, I had one idea and sent it to a few anti-war organizations to see if they wanted to use it. None did. I ended up printing it myself. Months later, one of those groups got back to me again to see if I could do some design work for them.

In 2002, I organized a panel discussion about design and the war. Numbskull that I am, I scheduled it for the first night of a religious holiday. Turnout was poor, but it put me in touch with a contributing editor at Communication Arts who saw my announcement and my blog, who has since published a couple of my articles. Including one on this topic.

Sam: Well, to be effective, to make political change you really need a concentrated effort and a unified plan. You need a party with vision. This hasn’t been the case since the sixties when being anti-war was fashionable. There are no equally popular movements today.

Robin: I think the history of the 1960s is pretty compressed in retrospect: “Protest became cool and the youth stood up and then they stopped the war.”

The reality is that blacks and whites in the south had been organizing and struggling for civil rights for a long, long time before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. And mass protest against the Vietnam War didn’t really pick up steam until some eight years after the U.S. invasion. That’s eight years of war, eight long years of individuals speaking out and convincing friends to do the same.

It often seems like a movement in retrospect. But at the time, it was just a lot of people doing their own thing.

Sam: Well, protest was cool in the sixties, but it’s a hard sell today. Most everyone I know is busy either trying to get ahead or struggling to get-by. Where are the movements today? An e-mail list is hardly a social movement.

Robin: Well, I’m not sure that’s true, but even if it is, there are plenty of great groups that need design help.

Find a group that you like and approach them. And, if that doesn’t work, find something that moves you, and do it. Everyone has something unique and concrete to contribute.

What do you care about? What will be your legacy? CA

Editor’s note: Many of the most popular Design Issues essays are available in the book of the same name, compiled and edited by me and co-published by Communication Arts and Allworth Press.—DK Holland
John Emerson is a designer, writer, programmer and activist in New York City. His writing on activism and design has been featured in Communication Arts, Metropolis, Print and the Wall Street Journal and is collected at http://backspace.com/notes.

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