Questioning the role of design

Can good graphic design make the world a better place?

That’s something design critic Rick Poynor is thinking about, and is the basis behind a talk he’ll be giving tomorrow night at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Poynor contends that however positive its intentions, design will always reflect the nature of the society it serves, and without a systemic change, it will remain an embodiment of wider failings at a time when the economic, social and environmental shortcomings of our system are increasingly clear. Given the inescapable political reality of being a designer, Poynor asks, are there some positive, progressive and achievable social goals on which most designers could agree?

In a recent article for Print magazine, Poynor wrote of “Design as Dictator.” Here’s a juicy excerpt:

Design has become much too closely aligned with interests that seek to neuter and control it for purely money-making purposes. Designers, by temperament obsessed with control, have been much too ready to comply. Within graphic design, there has always been a tension between its commercial applications and its cultural possibilities. Many designers have felt uneasy about the uses to which their work is put. The desire to resist, to configure design in alternative ways, can be seen in Tibor Kalman’s subversive notion of “undesign”; in Adbusters’ proclamations of “design anarchy”; in the Dutch design team Metahaven’s concept of “uncorporate identity”; and in the periodic invocation of the term “anti-design”–first used in Italy in the late 1960s and most recently revived by Neville Brody, a designer prone to expressions of public ambivalence, for an “Anti Design Festival” in London, in September 2010.

Technology is turning us into switchboard operators in the communication networks of our own lives. Far from encouraging a sense of freedom, graphic design is implicated every step of the way. Why does everything have to arrive through a screen? Does it really make life richer and more interesting? Why not try rejecting the templated experiences, the social media, and the patronizing attempts to involve us in prescribed interactions? Unplug, disconnect, wander at random for a while, submit to app-free chance, rely on your own unmediated instincts and non-digital perceptions, and see what comes along.

Poynor will speak tomorrow night at 6:30pm in Auditorium 150 on the MCAD campus.