Daniel Van Der Velden — Research and Destroy: Graphic Design as Investigation, 2006

‘Since the production of services results in no material and durable good, we define the labor involved in this production immaterial labor – that is, labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication.’
– Toni Negri & Michael Hardt, Empire, 2000.
Does your desire for Dior shoes, Comme des Garçons clothes, an Apple iPod and a Nespresso machine come from need? Is design necessary? Is it credible when a designer starts talking about need, the moment he arrives home from a weekend of shopping in Paris? Can you survive without lifestyle magazines? Can you live without a fax machine that sends an ‘sms’ to the supplier whenever the toner needs replacing? Is it necessary to drive a car in which, for safety, nearly all the driver’s bodily functions have been taken over by the computer – while the driver, at a cruising speed of 170 kilometres per hour, is lulled to sleep by the artificial atmosphere in his control cabin with tilting keyboard, gesture-driven navigation, television and internet service?

We no longer have any desire for design that is driven by need. Something less prestigious than a ‘designed’ object can do the same thing for less money . The Porsche Cayenne brings you home, but any car will do the same thing, certainly less expensively and probably just as quickly. But who remembers the first book, the first table, the first house, the first airplane? All these inventions went through a prototype phase, to a more or less fully developed model, which subsequently became design. Invention and a design represent different stages of a technological development, but unfortunately, these concepts are being confused with one another. If the design is in fact the aesthetic refinement of an invention, then there is room for debate about what the ‘design problem’ is. Many designers still use the term ‘problem solving’ as a non defined description of their task. But what is in fact the problem? Is it scientific? Is it social? Is it aesthetic? Is the problem the list of prerequisites? Or is the problem the fact that there is no problem? Design is added value. En masse, designers throw themselves into desires instead of needs. There is nothing wrong with admitting as much. Konstantin Grcic, Rodolfo Dordoni and Philippe Starck are found in Wallpaper boutiques, not in Aldi supermarkets. Unvaryingly, the poorest families – for they are always around – are still living with second hand settees in grey, post war neighbourhoods, in a total absence of design. Orchestration of ‘third world’ design assembled for the cameras cannot escape the image of the world in poverty having to make do without the luxury gadgets that are so typical of contemporary design. The hope that some designers still cherish, of being commissioned to work from the perspective of objective need, is in vain. Design only generates longing. The problem is the problem of luxury.

Graphic design

There is one discipline in which, less than ever before, the definition of the problem and the solution are bound to a scientific, technical, or even just a factual state of affairs. That discipline is graphic design – or visual communications. Even Paul Mijksenaar cannot deny the fact that passengers still manage to find their flights in airports where he did not design the airport signposting. Meanwhile, the letter type that he developed for Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is also the airport’s logo. In graphic design, every ‘problem’ is coloured by the desire for identity on the part of the client. They are the problems and the solutions of the game of rhetoric, expectations and opinions. The graphic designer, therefore, has to be good at political manoeuvring. The effect of this depends, among other things, on his position in regard to his client. What has historically come to be referred to as ‘important graphic design’ was often produced by designers whose clients considered them as equals. See, for example, Piet Zwart, Herbert Bayer, Paul Rand, Wim Crouweland Massimo Vignelli, all designers who worked for cultural organisations as well as for commercial enterprises. Today, an ‘important graphic design’ is one generated by the designer himself, a commentary in the margins of visual culture. Sometimes the design represents a generous client. More often, it is a completely isolated, individual act, for which the designer mobilized the facilities at his disposal, as Wim Crouwel once did with his studio. It always concerns designs that have removed themselves from the usual commission structure and its fixed role definitions. The designer does not solve the other person’s problems, but becomes his own author.1 As a parallel to this, innovating designers pull away from the world of companies and corporations, logos and house styles. Their place is taken over by communications managers, marketing experts and, for some ten years now, design managers, engaged on behalf of the client to direct the design process. The design manager does what the designers also want to do – determine the overall line. In contrast to the ‘total design’ of the past is now the dispirited mandate of the ‘look and feel’ – a term that catches designers in the web of endless manipulating of the dimensions of form, colour and feeling. It is not so strange that a branch of graphic design has evolved that no longer hangs around waiting for an assignment, but instead takes action on its own accord. It has polarized into the ‘willing to work’, who often have little or no control over their own positions, and the ‘out of work’, who, with little economic support beyond re-channelled subsidies or grants, work on innovation for the sake of innovation.

Designing as factory work

In the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, Annette Nijs, cultural spokesperson for the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), wrote, ‘We are making a turn, away from the assembly line to the laboratory and the design studios, from the working class to the creative class’ (estimates vary from 30% to 45% of the professional population)2.According to a study by the TNO, the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, the major portion of economic worth derived from design (about 2.6 billion Euros in 2001) is from visual communications.3 Can a designer, if he is in fact seen by the VVD politicianas the successor to the factory worker, still encompass the strategic distinction that Alvin Lustig, Milton Glaser, Gert Dumbar, Peter Saville and Paula Scher made in the meeting rooms of their respective clients? Is a designer someone who thinks up ideas, designs, produces and sells, or someone who holds a mouse and drags objects across a computer screen? If designers are labourers, then their labour can be purchased at the lowest possible price. The real designer then becomes his own client. Emancipation works two ways. Why should designers have the arrogance to call themselves author, editor in chief, client and initiator, if the client is not allowed to do the same? Only the price remains to be settled, and that happens wherever it is at its lowest. Parallel developments here find their logical end: the retreat of the innovative designer away from corporate culture and the client’s increasing control over the design.

Designing and negativity

In recent years, the graphic designer has shown himself as – what has he not shown himself to be? Artist, editor, author, initiator, skilful rhetorician, architect4. The designer is his own client, who, like Narcissus, admires himself in the mirror of the design books and magazines, but he is also the designer who does things besides designing, and consequently further advances his profession. The ambition of the designer always leads beyond his discipline and his official mandate, without this above-and-beyond having a diploma or even a name of its own. Still, it is remarkable that design, as an intrinsic activity, as an objective in itself, enjoys far less respect than the combination of design and one or more other specialisms. A pioneering designer does more than just design – and it is precisely this that gives design meaning. Willem Sandberg was a graphic designer, but he was also the director of the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum (for which he did his most famous work, in the combined role of designer and his own client). Wim Crouwel was a graphic designer, but also a model, a politician, stylist and later, also a museum director. Is the title of ‘designer’ so specific that every escape from it becomes world headlines? No, it is not that. The title is not even regulated: anyone can call himself a designer. It is something else. The title of ‘designer’ is not specifically defined, but negatively defined. The title of designer exists by way of what it excludes. Designers have an enormous vocabulary at their disposal, all to describe what they are not, what they do not do and what they cannot do. Beatrice Warde, who worked in-house for the Monotype Corporation when she wrote her famous epistle, The Crystal Goblet impressed on designers the fact that their work is not art, even though today it is exhibited in almost every museum.5 Many a designer’s tale for a client or the public begins with a description of what has not been made. In the Dutch design magazine, Items, critic Ewan Lentjes wrote that designers are not thinkers, even though their primary task is thorough reflection on the work they do6.  Making art without making art, doing by not doing, contemplating without thinking: less is more in die Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister; kill your darlings. Add to this, the long-term obsession with invisibility and absence. Sometimes it is self-censorship, sometimes disinterest, but it is always negative. The cause is undoubtedly deference or modesty. Designers often consider themselves very noble in their through-thick-and-thin work ethic, their noblesse oblige. Graphic design is still not developing a vocabulary, and hence has not begun developing an itinerary to deepen a profession that has indeed now been around for a while. This became very clear in October of 2005, when the book presentation for Dutch Resource took place in Paris, at an evening devoted to Dutch design, organized by the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, who published the book. The French designers who attended praised ‘typography at this level’, as though it were an exhibition of flower arrangements, whereas the entire textual content of the book had been compiled by the designers at Werkplaats Typografie, and there was more to speak about than just the beautiful letter type. At the presentation, it was this search for depth and substance for which there was no interest and most of all, no vocabulary. One attending master among the Parisian designers, who rose to fame in the 1970s and 1980s, did not have a good word to say about the design climate and the ever-increasing commercialization. He dismissed out of hand a suggestion that this could be referred to as a ‘European’ situation. Although commercialization is a worldwide phenomenon, for him, the fight against it was specifically French.

Design as knowledge

Despite the interesting depth in graphic design, its vocabulary is made up of negative terms. This frequently turns meetings of more than three practitioners of this noble profession into soporific testimonies of professional frustration. The dialectic between client and designer, the tension between giving and taking and negotiating is threatened with extinction, because both designer and client avoid the confrontation. The former becomes an autonomous genius and the latter an autocratic ‘initiator’ for freelancers offering their services. We have already talked about need. Instead of giving the wrong answers, design should instead begin asking interesting questions. In the future, design might have to assume the role of ‘developer’if it wants to be taken seriously. The Netherlands still enjoys a grants system. Internationally, things are not so rosy. Denying this fact would be the same as saying, ‘I have enough money , so poverty does not exist’. The market conditions that are beginning to seep into the Netherlands, France and the rest of Europe are already the norm for the rest of the world. Consequently, the knowledge economy – the competitive advantage, according to Annette Nijs, the VVD politician – will quickly become a thing of the past, if holding a mouse proves cheaper in Beijing than in the west of Holland .
The true investment is the investment in design itself, as a discipline that conducts research and generates knowledge – knowledge that makes it possible to seriously participate in discussions that are not about design. Let this be knowledge that no one has asked for, in which the designer is without the handhold of an assignment, a framework of conditions, his deference, without anyone to pat him on the shoulder or upbraid him. Let the designer take on the debate with the institutions, the brand names or the political parties, without it all being about getting the job or having the job fail. Let designers do some serious reading and writing of their own. Let designers offer the surplus value, the uselessness and the authorship of their profession to the world, to politics, to society.

But do not let designers just become walking encyclopaedias, adorned with such titles as ‘master’, ‘doctor’ or ‘professor’, their qualifications dependent on a framed certificate hanging on the wall. Let there be a design practice in which the hypothesis – the proposal – has higher esteem than need and justification. In 1972, for the catalogue for the exhibition, Italy : The New Domestic Landscape, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Emilio Ambasz wrote about two contradictory directions in architecture: ‘The first attitude involves a commitment to design as a problem-solving activity, capable of formulating, in physical terms, solutions to problems encountered in the natural and socio-cultural milieu. The opposite attitude, which we may call one of counter-design, chooses instead to emphasize the need for a renewal of philosophical discourse and for social and political involvement as a way of bringing about structural changes in our society’7. With the removal of need and the commissioned assignment as an inseparable duo, the door is open to new paths. The designer must use this freedom, for once, not to design something else, but to redesign himself.

1. See also Camiel van Winkel, Het primaat van de zichtbaarheid, NAi Publishers, 2005, p. 177.
2. NRC Handelsblad, 9 February, 2006
3. The TNO report, Vormgeving in de Creatieve Economie, January, 2005, can be found at www.premsela.org.
4. From the jury report for the 2003 Rotterdam Design Award: ‘More or less all the positions that designers have taken in recent years have passed revue: the designer as artist, the designer as technocrat, the designer as editor, as director, as a servant for the public cause, as comedian, as critic and as theorist.’
5. Beatrice Warde, The Crystal Goblet or Printing Should be Invisible, 1955.
6. Ewan Lentjes, ‘Ontwerpers zijn geen denkers’, in Items 6, 2003.
7. Lang, Peter, ‘Superstudio’s Last Stand, 1972-1978’, in Valentijn Byvanck, (ed.), Superstudio: The Middelburg Lectures, Zeeuws Museum, 2005, p. 46.

Mad Dutch Disease: Ten Proposals for a Lecture on Dutch Design — Michael Rock

  Maybe we just got bored somewhere along the way. Maybe we just started to believe in our own irrelevance. Or maybe, after years of to get people to like what we do, we just gave up our attempts to win friends and influence people and retreated into our little private club where we know everyone and everyone knows us. But, whatever the reason, somewhere along the line we just stopped trying to really change anything and we settled for simply changing DESIGN itself. The convoluted, challenging, intelligent, difficult, self-reflexive, coy, clever, often staggeringly beautiful work that results from this exhaustion, I call Dutch Design. I don’t consider Dutch Design to be design generated in the Netherlands. I consider Dutch Design a kind of work, or an attitude about work, or even a brand of work that could theoretically occur anywhere at any time.

Because of special conditions in the Netherlands, Dutch Design seems to flourish: primarily due to the fact that that there exists a culture that understands design, that so many study design, and so much money is injected into the system to support “design experiments.” (In America the period during the high-tech bubble created a brief moment conducive to such work.) But any work that demonstrates the peculiar combination of irony, self-deprecation, and thinly veiled egoism can earn the title of Dutch Design.

The Greenhouse Effect

My first visit to Holland , as an American adult, was in 1984. I distinctly remember thinking that this is what my design professors were talking about. Good, modern design was everywhere. Signs had real typography. Bright colors—yellow, orange, and green—were employed by serious companies. Public buildings were “interesting.” To plan and build a country using design as a key instrument is unfathomable for us. For whatever reason—maybe our country is just too big or our culture too eclectic—we have never believed in the notion of a “makeable society.” In America , individualism and raw power always pummel consensus. “Action is typical of American style,” wrote Daniel Bell, “thought and planning are not.” (I realize the Dutch themselves may see this consensus culture as problematic, but in America it is cited, continuously, as an unattainable utopia.)

Our commitment to the private over public represents a vast difference between the ways we view the issue of “design.” To understand that difference, one must realize that in America , design is always considered suspect: effete, luxurious, intellectual. America tends to be a deeply anti-intellectual, antiaesthetic place. So if our government builds something, it must look as awful and as cheap as possible, thus signifying (1) that no precious tax dollars were wasted on it; and (2) that no high flatulent “concepts” were passed off on an unwitting public. We have no tradition of aesthetic functionalism. We are suspicious of modernity. Modern smells expensive. Modern seems liberal, vaguely socialist. Modern is for wine swilling Northeastern and Hollywood Democrats.

When I scan a Dutch cityscape, or a poster kiosk or magazine rack, the array of “designed” infrastructure is staggering: stations, government buildings, museums, urban planning, conferences, institutes, festivals, etc. But, I wonder, what is the function of all these elaborate or exotic designs to the state that promotes them? I suppose when something is so obviously “designed” it suggests a social democratic commitment to culture, to the life of the nation. A challenging building or an unconventional book or a loco logo says: We’re a good government! We invest in culture! We’re daring and creative! We care about our people! So now after twenty years of frequent visits, the Dutch landscape seems littered with fragments of contemporary design, indexical signs of an engaged, thoughtful, benevolent state and corporate governance. (To paraphrase an adage: Designers have crazy ideas everywhere; in Holland, they actually build them.) This fragmentation may be exacerbated by the current tendency to break up big projects into small commissions, encouraging young designers to make a name for themselves through some especially innovative design. Strange structures either crash-land in empty fields or get crammed together in conglomerations of urban renewal. So much Design in one place creates an aggregation of exacerbated difference. I wonder now, after a twenty-year ejaculation of making, if individual design doesn’t need to signify anything anymore; it simply needs to look different from other designs. In that way design shifts from ideology to a kind of branding strategy and enters its fully linguistic state. The Dutch City becomes a Vegas version of a Dutch City with its myriad contemporary “attractions.” It’s Holland as an international design theme park.

Poor Little Rich Country

So all that government incentive, corporate investment, and cheap design education paid off. Over the past two decades, Dutch Design has become simultaneously hot and cool. (Hot in that it’s popular, cool in that it doesn’t seem to try very hard or care too much.) What was once a local take on modernism has grown into a global brand. But how did design become so central to the image of Holland? There is a famous group portrait that I like a lot: a cluster of earnest, hardworking young men — Ben Bos, Wim Crouwel, Benno Wissing, et al.—planning the overthrow of the Dutch aesthetic landscape. Their generation would take on all the major efforts of visual reconstruction: the airport, the telephone and postal systems, the rail and highway systems, etc. With that much money , time, effort, and talent thrown into the design of the nation, is it any wonder so much was done? Their name speaks volumes: Total Design. It could be a philosophy for the nation. That first wave of Dutch corporate identity in the fifties and sixties may have been simply a knock-off of the work being developed in Germany and Switzerland at that time. Total Design loved Gerslter and Mueller-Brockman’s hyper Swiss German rationalism. But an increasingly Dutch form of identity found its way into all sorts of designed objects: stamps, posters, trains, money , buildings, ships, highways, airports, etc. And in Holland, more than anywhere else—and much to our envy—corporate and government commissioners seemed to actually choose good design over bad.

The branding of Holland appeared to be overlaid with other, unassailable values: efficiency, legibility, economy, beauty, etc. At least in the sixties these values were still discussed seriously; there appeared to exist an honest belief that the injection of design into the built environment would make it a better place. So like the Social Democratic politician demanding that the building be a “good” building, public information work demanded good design—which was usually interpreted to mean more or less Total Design modernism. Somehow the heads of Dutch corporations and Dutch government agencies embraced the notion of not only the value of modern design but also promotion of Dutch talent through commissions. Certain things are possible in a state where the money looks the way it did in Holland back then. If the most staid organization of any state, the central bank, is sponsoring design like that, what is there left to rebel against? In America we still feel it’s our duty to try to inject good design into the fabric of a culture generally resistant to it. In Holland that cultural fabric is saturated, and it’s a small country. But are all big projects done? Is Holland a country where everything is already designed?

Clash of the Titans

The answer of course is yes and no, and, at least in the late sixties, the thing to rebel against was Total Design’s totalizing effect. In trying to understand the Dutch work I find interesting now, I keep going back to the oft-cited debate between Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn in November 1972. Crouwel seemed to argue for a seam-less, rational rendering of information, the designer as information channel, the perfect expression of the “new objectivity.” Van Toorn argued the position of the designer as editorial shaper, the one who adds content to content. Van Toorn saw (and sees) the designer’s role as political commentator, even preaching “hindrance” rather than clarity. But what we have learned in the meantime is that (1) neutrality is a myth or at least neutrality is a brand message in itself; and (2) hindrance and dissent as a method can also become a brand device. Despite their aesthetic, methodological, and political differences, both Crouwel and van Toorn are working at the “makeable society,” one from the position of efficiency, modernization, and objectification; the other from the position of agitation, dialectic, and the enlightenment of the masses. Jan and Wim end up as two sides of the same Dutch coin. Both assume a patriarchal position, that is, as guardians of culture. (You rarely miss an underlying rhetoric of social value, no matter where you scratch the surface of Dutch Design.)

The ideology of a dominant culture consumes all discourse contained within it, including the discourse of resistance. So their difference now, in the age of what Max Kisman has dubbed the “style of styles,” seems to be primarily formal. This disintegration of distinction does not in any way lessen the real ideological differences between the two men in 1972 but instead demonstrates the way in which the visual expressions of ideology have been absorbed into one master system that strips the meaning of all aesthetic gestures and reduces them to easily exchanged visual clichés.

Dumbar for Dummies

For Americans , the ideological debates of the sixties and seventies were more or less invisible. We had our own conflicted relationship with Switzerland to work out. True Dutchification crept into our consciousness much later, and this “tagging” of official agencies was profoundly affected by one figure: Gert Dumbar . While we were following Jan van Toorn, Karel Martens , Anton Beeke, and later studios like Wild Plaka and Hard Werken, throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties, it was this one designer—through his burgeoning studio stocked with legions of stagaires—who seemed to impress his subjectivity on every aspect of Dutch culture. For most of the rest of the world, Dutch graphic design—and remember I use that term as a category, not as a national description—in the eighties became synonymous with Dumbar Design. For us, Dumbar seemed to impose a kind of irrational exuberance on the staid institutions of Dutch culture: the post office, the railway, the police, etc. Dumbar neatly synthesized the two competing strains of Dutchness: the systematic and the wonky. And he seemed to be able to sell his institutionalized wonkiness to even the most conservative commissioners.

By 1995 Chris Vermaas, capturing the sensibility, warned that the continued application of Dumbarism to the organs of the state threatened to turn Holland into a LegoLand: “the Dutch policeman seems attached to his motorbike sit-ting on one big plastic peg and has a head that can spin around 360 degrees and come off in one piece.” Working from a palette of tried and true elements—brightness, off-kilteredness, geometric abstraction, angularity—Dumbarism became a kind of brand in itself that could be applied to anything, anywhere. Rather than an expression of a client’s values, Dumbarism became a value in itself. To associate with Studio Dumbar meant adopting certain values suggested by Dumbar’s own mythmaking apparatus, basically a systematic modernist approach to corporate identity peppered with a sprinkling of playful design elements.This approach allowed conservative, often privatizing clients to have it both ways: It promised efficiency and seeming individuality or freedom.

The effect of Dumbarism and the frenzy of identity designing over the eighties and nineties seemed to be that Holland became one continuous sea of logos. Everything was done. Everything was styled. The country took on a quality of a Gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art and design. Every surface of the country was fondled. It recalls Loos’ description—by way of Hal Foster—of the bourgeois gentleman subjected to the all-consuming design of his art nouveau environment: The happy man suddenly felt deeply, deeply unhappy—He was precluded from all future living and striving, developing and desiring. His thought: this is what it means to learn to go about life with one’s own corpse. Yes indeed, he is finished. He is complete. Are the young graphic designers living with the corpse of their parents’ Dutch Design? Did Dumbar finish it off with terminal, nationwide overdesign? If not, what is left? Is there any room left for the Dutch Design imagination?

Designing the Real World — Al Robertson

At a mundane level, what practitioners usually mean by the “real” of the “real world” is money . Time is money and there isn’t any of it for “pussyfooting around”, for empty talk, for fancy idealism. “A job in industry,” “making a living,” and paying off a student loan or a mortgage—these are real, in the “real world.” In the “real world” your ideals will turn to custard before the might of money and even you, the original talent, the precocious rebel, the cool designer, will be corrupted. Dollar ranks big time, and no one, it seems, can stand up to it. Yet there must be more; surely there must be a “real” meaning for the “real world” which is at once representative of something deeper and yet also accommodates the glib certainty of economic determinism. If one view of the “real world” is that it is the place where “reality” is the black and red of profit and loss, then such an unbalanced and limited vision itself represents an implicit failure of the dominant reductionist outlook of the past two hundred years. Life, even in the real world, cannot be that simple. In fact, is not life so complex in reality that the reductionist tendency must be viewed with the suspicion that it actually serves more as a tool for concealment and denial than of understanding? Yet typographic design serves to reduce the complexity of visual communication into accessibility by way of an apparent simplicity, to eliminate conceptual confusion and visual “noise” from a focused clarity of intent. But the character of that simplicity is deceptive. Not only does it belie all the effort and process—complexity of research, conceptualization, synthesis, and realization—but it reduces all the complexity of the cultural landscape of the everyday (which it plunders for the purpose) to a self-serving and instrumentally simplistic “message.” This process also purports to deliver meaning (albeit as the graphic hegemony of the commonplace) to a “target audience” in the “real world.”

Hitherto the “real world” was implied to be where self-interest dominates because “survival” depends on it. In the “real world” (of commerce, business, and self-interest) it is suggested that there is no room for ideals or for ethics. In the “real world” there is no room for anything except the relentlessly amoral drive to profit. This apparently is why the “real world” is so tough. An unmitigated, mono-directional drive to self-interest is a hard row to hoe. It’s risky in the real world because you might “lose your shirt” unless you’re “realistic”, “pragmatic” and “hard-nosed”; unless, in other words, you take more than you give, on a “me-first” basis. This is curiously narrow and conveniently indulgent because one critical paradox of “reality” is that, as a social construct, it is contingent on other-interest as well as self-interest.1 Relationship is all. But admittedly it is tough working at relationship. Listening is hard work; as is integrating your needs and wants (ambition and greed) with others. It is a struggle reconciling with others the ambiguity, uncertainty, and indeterminacy of real world contradiction and confusion. So it follows that if the real world is contingent upon relationship, then self-interest is bound to seem an easier option over the short-term. A handy ideology indeed!

“Praxis” means practicing critically and responsibly within the public sphere . The personal process of designing involves all the conceptual, reflexive, visual, and technical activities of doing, making, and knowing. In the public sphere , however (all visual design performs in the public sphere ), praxis necessarily involves others. “Praxis may not even exist without others for it is fundamentally exoteric, other-seeking, dialogic2.” Praxis is the transformation of practice into a more responsible form of cultural production. Through their capacity to reflect on their actions in/on the public sphere , and through the purposefulness of their reason, intellectual professionals like designers become free to intervene in their own reality3. Design praxis means making oneself accountable to others in the public sphere . But is this place called the public sphere the same place as the “real world”?

The “real world” is not just private, it is public too; and as such, it cannot be a place governed by self-interest. Rather, the public sphere is where “disinterest” must be exercised with critical responsibility for the good of all. “Disinterest” is not lack of interest, or indifference, or apathy. “Disinterest” means an absence of self-interest, an impartiality in which one is not influenced by one’s own advantage—as in “the shared disinterest known as the public good4.” If we remember Victor Papanek’s version of the “real world” in Design for the Real World, it was diametrically different from what we have described above. We have here an interesting contradiction. The implicit meaning of the phrase “real world” seems to have shifted from a place where real (ordinary, poor, powerless) people live to a place where money and self-interest govern everything. In his seminal book, Papanek points out the iniquities of useless, low-quality, unsafe, expensive design as it impacts society. For him, most designers — especially graphic designers—were more committed to designing for other designers than for ordinary people (the “audience”). The real world is poor, uninformed, exploited, disadvantaged, unwired, and home to 5 of the 6 billion inhabitants of spaceship earth. Thus only 5 percent of the world’s population owns a phone, only 4 percent owns a personal computer, and only 2 percent is connected to the Internet5.

The real world, then, is about six times larger than the “real world” of design practitioners. The latter is an almost wholly owned corporatist subsidiary, concerned more with squeezing maximum profit out of its one billion overconsumers by selling them things they don’t need, they can’t afford, and from which globalized manufacture and branding further damages both the natural and cultural environments on which the majority of planetary citizens, who are not able to “participate,” depends for their sustenance. As Eric Hoffer puts it,You can never get enough of what you don’t really want6. And this money roller coaster is called success! It seems that the real world is very badly
designed indeed.

Clearly then, there is plenty of opportunity for design praxis in the real world. There is an enormous “market” for the design of communication ecology and an emancipatory visuality of social change. In fact, it would seem that the real world not only needs design praxis, but also itself needs designing from the garden up! But Papanek’s critique of graphic design focuses on the social products of design and the social role of designers, not on the processes of designing. He was quite correct to criticize “the profession” because the profession pursues profit with every bit as much single-minded zeal as the next businessperson. The profession is reluctant to engage in real world praxis and to examine critically its central role in the perpetuation of an ideology of corporatist domination and consumerism, which is antithetical to democracy and planetary life. Notwithstanding that, surely the process and practice of designing is a fundamental human activity worth preserving, even if the “profession” as it stands is not. As Papanek puts it so appositely: “Design is a basic human ability to help autonomous self-realization7”. This is why I believe more in the real world of design education than the unreal world of professional design. It is way past time for the design profession to get real. Design might well be too important to leave to designers.

1. See Berger, P. and Luckmann,T., The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Penguin, 1971
2. Taylor, P., The Texts of Paulo Freire (Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1993), p. 46.
3. Freire, P., Cultural Action for Freedom (London: Penguin, 1972), p. 52; and Goulet, D., “Introduction,” in Freire,
P., Education: The Practice of Freedom (London:Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1976), p. ix. 4. Saul, J.R.,
The Unconscious Civilization, (Ringwood Victoria: Penguin, 1997), p. 76.
5. This article was first published in 2000, before the proliferation of cell phones as we know it today, and when Internet take-up was still in the
low hundreds of millions (perhaps 2–3 percent of global population).
6. Hoffer, E., quoted in Saul, J.R., The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (Toronto: Penguin, 1995), p. 71.
7. Papanek,V., quoted in Poynor, R., “Disobey the Giant: A Kind of Manifesto” (Transcript of a talk given to U.K. design educators, 2003).