Joshua Blackburn, published 2010

Designers and communicators have long debated the ethics of their craft. In 1964, the seminal First Things First manifesto appealed for designers to pursue ‘more useful and lasting forms of communication’. 34 years later, Adbusters updated the manifesto and called for the ‘exploration and production of a new kind of meaning’ in what they saw as a battle for the ‘mental environment’ against the uncontested rise of consumerism. Even more recently, champions of ‘sustainable design’ have unveiled manifestos for a greener industry and disciples of Designism have made declarations for a more caring one.

But is anybody listening? First Things First still comes last; Adbusters is still angry; Designism isn’t; and most visual communicators are continuing down Milton Glaser’s ‘Road to Hell’ (not that Mr Glaser is on a road to Hell, he merely wrote about one). ‘Socially conscious design’ (what a drab concept that sounds) seems so often to be either self righteous smuggery or an amusing diversion.

Getting right to the heart of this is a cheeky poster by illustrator Frank Chimero. In big bold caps it declares: “Design Won’t Save The World”, with the postscript, “Go volunteer at a soup kitchen you pretentious fuck.” Delicious.

Is this the repressed id of graphic design today, more interested in the rewards of immaculate kerning than social change? Or is there an uncomfortable truth here that, really, graphic design shouldn’t get ideas above its station?

The notion of design having a social role to play is far from new – and hardly a conceit. Artists and designers have long served as messengers, missionaries, revolutionaries, agitators, and propagandists. Centuries before the holy Brand Guidelines, visual communication was being sharpened as a tool of religion, war and politics.

First Things First might bemoan the commercialisation of graphic design, but 44 years earlier it was taken to its greatest and darkest heights in Nazi Germany in a terrible exemplar of the true power of design.

The point might be uncomfortable, but it’s an important one. Visual communication has always been a tool of social and political change – its role in selling consumerism only came later. It’s significant that the father of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, was first a master of propaganda at the US War Department in 1917; only when the war ended did corporations begin to covet the power he had harnessed.

The irony is that today, political and social concerns are seen as either extraneous or inappropriate to the craft of visual communication. We’ve become so absorbed in selling trainers and toothpaste that we imagine it’s improper to do anything else. The idea that ‘design won’t save the world’ has become a pervading ethos within an industry that apparently celebrates its own indifference.

The co-option of visual communication by business has convinced its practitioners that it was ever thus. Schools of design train students to handle their tools like jobbing carpenters and off they go, eager logo monkeys hungry for business. This is the reality of visual communication, or the reality we’ve come to accept. There might be a government awareness campaign or a pro bono charity job, but our real business is selling.

Those writing their manifestos for a new theory of design talk about ‘responsibility’ and ‘citizenship’ and certainly that’s an ethos Provokateur shares. But those notions miss an important point. The creative industry has downgraded from an understanding of ideas to an enchantment with things. We’ve taken the most powerful tool for social change and committed it to the most mundane of tasks.

It hasn’t been fashionable to use the word ‘propaganda’ for a good seventy years – instead, we refashioned it ‘social marketing’ and ‘public affairs’ (apparently a sweeter pill to swallow). But it is time for those who craft visual communications to look again at what they do.

Let us be propagandists in the true sense of the word; not, as we imagine, a disseminator of lies but a propagator of ideas, and let those ideas be driven by more than product. Let us be propagandists that understand how visual communication has always connected with politics and society, and that being a lever for change is greater by far than being a tool of business

Instead of imagining politics and ethics have no place in design, we must realise they’ve always been there, we just forgot about it. Design can save the world – if we want it to.