Response and Responsibility
Introduction for zed3: design + morality
by Gunnar Swanson

This title seemed to sum up the major questions of design and morality. Now it haunts me. Not because it seems to pander to the Jane Austen revival, but because it reminds me of all we left out of this issue of zed. The question of the use and abuse of ambiguity is one.

During my recent move I found a business card. Maybe “business card” isn’t the right phrase. It was a 2" x 3 1/2" piece of white cover stock. It was part of a series of purple and chartreuse cards 1 that CalArts grad students did for the AIGA conference in San Antonio in 1989. While other cards aesthetisized statements of the obvious (“design affects society”) or silly sloganeering (“seize the power and dismiss the client”), one played a “deconstruction” game. It isn’t clear to me whether the “BET” in “Designer BETween client and public” was meant to evoke chance in design, but the “Ability to respond sibility” part is a clear attempt at setting up an equation—responsibility = ability to respond.

What the card’s authors would have us believe about that equation is less clear. Do they claim truth in the equation’s arithmetic sense—either is replaceable with the other? Or was response being highlighted as an aspect of a larger set of responsibilities? Was the placement of the “Designer BETween client and public” between “Ability” and “to respond sibility” a formal decision or an important part of the message? Leaving aside the issue of the meaning of a numeral, a drawing of an eye, several seemingly random letters, and what may be either a squashed gear or a geometric amoeba, was the whole card intended to mean something in particular or was it the old Oracle at Delphi dodge?

It is clearly true that no human communication works like the little charts in text books with the message encoded, transmitted, and decoded to become exactly what it always was. Even if designers and writers were the “perfect” encoders and transmitters of such a model, our viewers are never the “perfect” receivers and decoders. A range of interpretations is inevitable, but if we leave room for the viewers’ interpretations do we absolve ourselves of responsibility for the statements we make? If we embrace ambiguity are we allowing diversity or are we robbing the world of a diversity of clear voices?

Anyway, we don’t have an article on the use and abuse of ambiguity. Nor do we, for sake of fairness, have one on whether the hegemony of clarity is some sort of Cartesian conspiracy. Although my article [zed.3 p. 61] touches on the issue, we didn’t come up with anything meaningful regarding the collective ownership of form. Tucker Viemeister [zed.3 p. 84] speaks of the problems of a one-size-fits-all design mentality but what is a designer’s responsibility toward inclusion? (Certainly Viemeister and Smart Design’s product design is an example for favoring a broad franchise.) If designers help create the culture, what can we do to allow broad partnership in that culture?

This issue of zed started with my musing on the notion of design as a moral act in and of itself. I wrote about my musings on the graphics email list 2 and Katie Salen replied with an offer to co-edit an issue of zed on the subject. The subtitle of Jan Tschichold’s The Form of the Book 3 reads “The Morality of Good Design.” The notion that walnut grained plastic was not just a cheesy rendition of real wood but an (immoral) lie permeated my early design training. In modernist architectural philosophy, notions of honesty in form and materials were somewhat clear. How would that apply to graphic design? Is the two-dimensionality of this page an important part of its nature, thus making the illusions of photography unacceptable lies? What are the materials to be used honestly? Ink? White paper? Kraft paper (bleach as lie)?

Can the “good” of “good design” be a moral state or merely an indication of quality of craft? While I think many would agree that form and materials make a statement, how much agreement there is about what is being said remains to be seen. If we cannot agree what an object says, it makes it difficult to agree whether it has told a lie. Is honesty the only plausible criterion for a moral nature of an object?

Steve Skaggs [zed.3 p. 71] deals with some of these questions, as does Robert Bringhurst [zed.3 p. 19]. Skaggs notes a modernist animosity toward the purely semiotic in design, but some historical analysis is needed to fully understand why. (Katie—perhaps zed needs a design history issue?) It was only after Robert Bringhurst responded to my request for an article that we learned that he was responsible for coining Tschichold’s subtitle in the English language translation.

In the end, I can construct rational arguments that point out the absurdity of the modernist “object as moral thing” claim but I still cling emotionally to a notion that some objects are good by their nature. Bringhurst’s animist approach is the best defense of that position I have found. Katie’s choice of the body metaphor to organize these articles works well on its own but it particularly resonates for me in light of the bizarre ravings by Adolph Loos. Loos’ article “Ornament and Crime” 4 sets up an extension of Social Darwinist thought based on the early 20th century biological notion of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny—the development of an individual organism reflecting the historical development of that organism’s species. The biological theory has long since been discounted and the notion that the personal development of a modern Northern European child mirrors the levels of development of various (contemporary and historical) cultures would strike most of us as both racist and absurd. (Does Loos’ argument of shedding decoration as one advances on the design evolutionary scale taint all notions of “good design” as ethnocentrism?) Since Loos is one of the writers that sent me down this path, Katie Salen’s distinction between the marks formed by our actions—scars or tattoos—brings a smile. Loos claimed any modern European with a tattoo is either a murderer or insane.

The firmest moral ground for a discussion of design is the issue of scars and tattoos—the effects of the action of design and designing—and the moral context of design. It would be easy to let this devolve to design as neutral vehicle; design, then, could only be considered in terms of the message it carries. Michael Lindsay [zed.3 p. 115] offers an approach to both the message and the context through an ecospiritual philosophy. Lisa Waltuch [zed.3 p. 94] deals with a specific context of a (somewhat) collaborative project but her call for mutual respect is valid in any working environment. This might beg the question of why “morality and design” might be a different issue from, say, “morality and drywall contracting.” Robert Brinkerhoff answers with a look at the nature and effect of design [zed.3 p. 94].

Even with a seemingly narrow consideration of content, Teal Triggs [zed.3 p. 29] does deal with the response to design and responsibility of designers. Russell Bestley [zed.3 p. 41], on the other hand, attacks the very notion of design as a neutral vehicle, finding the notion neither possible nor desirable. While Edward Triggs [zed.3 p. 97] generally seems to agree with Brinkerhoff and Bestley, his emphasis is on the role of the designer as guide through a cultural thicket. Karen Cole [zed.3 p. 106], on the other hand, looks at VR design technology and wonders how much is just fertilizer for another such thicket.

Although Karen Cole questions the virtual meeting place, Robert Abbott and Brendan DiBona [zed.3 p. 87] meet in a plain text virtual space to some good end. The joy we derive from their communication leaves me positive about communication and thus graphic design but does most graphic design empower its users the way the email conversation about heroes did Abbott and DiBona? Moral discussions of graphic design do usually devolve to a discussion of “content.” We need more serious discussion of whether the effects of “form” can be as destructive or beneficial as the products and services our work hawks.

Where does this leave a designer seeking a moral road map through actual or virtual terrain? In the end, our control over our work is incomplete. While we have responsibility for our deeds, the response to our work is often surprising. While we should keep the effects of our craft in mind, often the magic of design is that it has a life of its own. At its best, to paraphrase Bringhurst, design can be saintlier than designers.

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©1997 Gunnar Swanson. All rights reserved.

Published as the introduction to zed.3: design + morality published by Virginia Commonwealth University

1) I had known little about these cards other than that Tibor Kalman had asked Lorraine Wild to have CalArs students do something for the AIGA national conference. Since writing this I tracked down the card’s author, Johanna Jacob. The answers to some of the mysteries are as follows: The “A” and the gear are part of “CalArts,” which was spelled out through sets of four of the twelve cards. “BET” is part of the message woven through the entire series of cards; the message reads “Let yourself have a better time going.” Jacob says she was attracted to using the word "bet in the sense of “put your money down” or make a commitment but that its placement was a stylistic choice. The image of the eye was partly stylistic but also was meant to represent the self and responsibility to the profession. As to my question about ambiguity absolving designers of the responsibility for the message Jacobs (seven years after designing the card in question) says she doesn’t think so “but part of our responsibility is to force the audience to question things.” return to text

2) For information on the graphics list see return to text

3) Jan Tschichold, The Form of the Book, Essays on the Morality of Good Design (Hartley & Marks 1991) return to text

4) Adolph Loos, “Ornament and Crime“ in Adolph Loos: Pioneer of Modern Architecture by Ludwig Münz and Gustave Künstler (Thames and Hudson 1996) pp 226–231 return to text

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