Twenty years ago, when there were few places for the discussion of ideas within design from a critical perspective, a number of us set up a discussion group called the 032 Group. The first meeting was held in June 1986 in the boardroom of the St Bride Institute, and over the next couple of years, debates ranged from ‘what is an ethical design practice?’ to a packed meeting about the Pentagram redesign of The Guardian (above the Betsey Trotwood pub opposite the newspaper’s offices). The 032 events were informal, and chairs were positioned in as much of a circle as circumstances permitted. There was never a raised podium, neither slide shows nor microphones, and chairing was minimal, but at their best they were heated and provided real illumination.
So maybe I’d raised my hopes too high for the Eye Forum no. 1. Since it was run by one of the few graphics journals that has consistently differentiated itself from others by its intelligence, I had hoped that this would carry through into contributions from speakers and audience. The promise was to debate and discuss four ‘burning issues’ that affect graphic design today, promising something refreshingly different from the usual thin, self-congratulatory quasi-PR exercises that frequently pass for conference content.
So what did we get? Mark Thomson, art director of HarperCollins, rejected the idea of design as a problem-solving activity, invoking notions about pleasure, regarding design more loosely as an expression of ideas and an existential activity in itself. It was a bravura performance, but it amounted to a kind of nihilistic ‘do what thou wilt’ and to hell with anything else.
Nick Bell, elaborating on his Eye articles about branding, talked about the way that marketing and advertising are moving away from ‘selling to’, towards ‘selling with’ the consumer. As examples, he cited the Innocent drink company’s annual Fruitstock festival and the Humvee company’s HOPE (Hummer Owners Prepared for Emergencies) initiative. The companies sell lifestyle by appearing ‘good’. Interesting, but nowhere did Bell let on what he actually thought about these developments.
Lucienne Roberts talked about social and ethical design that for her entailed a struggle ‘to be good’ and more pertinently to be a ‘good’ designer. Speaking about Melvyn Bragg’s radio programme that morning on the theme of altruism, she agreed with the belief expressed by a contributor that people were – by and large – innately good. This gave her ground for hope.
Daniel Eatock, moved away from the microphone and lectern to deliver a shouty list: the small, the serious and the humorous: ‘No leaving the washing up after dinner’, ‘No serifs’, ‘No urban 4x4s’, ‘No dropping litter’ (ostentatious dropping of one of the sheets being read from). When Aaron Seymour, from the audience, asked him about his Big Brother graphics (why not ‘No reality TV?’), he prevaricated. Later, when quizzed further by Rick Poynor, Eatock said that he believed the work had integrity in its own right, whatever the merits of the TV programme.
So it would seem the upshot of all this is it’s all down to the individual. The S-word (society) was conspicuous by its absence, as were ‘politics’, ‘analysis’ or ‘ideology’. All the talk was about choice, ethics and personal morality. When graphic design course leader Noel Douglas (also a card-carrying member of a Marxist party) made a vociferous, anti-capitalist interjection, he was followed by a comment from a non-designer who worked in marketing, who also questioned the panellists’ emphasis on individualism. Neither point – from different extremes of the political spectrum – was taken up by the panel or other audience members. It may be deeply unfashionable to hear the word ‘capitalism’ as used by Douglas, but has anyone come up with a better, more succinct term that expresses so much about power, economics, and social relations? And if I hear one more naive platitude about ‘putting food on the table’, ‘behaving professionally’ and ‘brand guardian’ – all used by contributors from the floor to justify maintaining the status quo – I think I’ll scream.
You don’t need to be a party member to have a political understanding about the world and our place within it, both as consumers and (graphic design) producers. Though the old excuse of being a ‘young’ profession is frequently trotted out, we should have moved on from the tired and simplistic ‘who will, who won’t you work for’ argument to something more sophisticated. What about an examination of the structures within and without design companies? How are these companies run? What is a designer-client relationship? What does it imply? Should it change and if so, how? There was no examination or expression of these sorts of issues at the forum.
The ’design’ of the forum itself meant that such debate would inevitably be difficult: not enough time was allocated to discussion; there was an overly formal and hierarchical structure with discussion left unsatisfactorily till last; a roving microphone passed from the aisles impeded spontaneity; and the questions asked by the chair, Ken Garland, of each of the four speakers seemed superfluous. The promised discussion and debate – such as it was – seemed stuck in an immature phase.