Designs for a Different Future

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Norman Solomon’s Column

What we see is what we get, or so the adage goes. But when we see the designs of mass media, what do we truly get? That’s a troubling question for those who wonder what the constant barrages of media-generated images are doing to our lives.

Journalists who use words on the job are not the only media professionals who have cause to doubt the merits of their labors. The visual images that surround us — whether on screens, printed pages, billboards, T-shirts or store shelves — are the products of highly skilled designers, enormous amounts of money and state-of-the-art technology. Behind the images, some of the talent is growing vocally restless.

For a couple of years now, many designers and art directors have hotly debated “First Things First 2000,” a global manifesto urging “a
reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication — a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning.” The original signers, 33 prominent design professionals, have been joined as endorsers by hundreds of colleagues.

“Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising,  marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact,” the statement says.

While assessing the arguments sparked by “First Things First,” the latest issue of Adbusters magazine (www.adbusters.org) offers observations that are directly relevant to various aspects of the media industry. Today, we face “the desperate need to preserve a space for other forms of thinking and ways of being — a protected zone free of the commercial inferno.”

When dissident designers lament the impacts of prevalent visual images, their comments also apply to routine journalistic output. Rick Poynor, founding editor of the international journal Eye, puts it this way:  “What we are rapidly losing sight of, in the rush to add seductive stylistic value to commercial goods and services and to transform life into a brand- and status-obsessed shopping spree, is the idea that design, as a way of thinking about systems, structures and relationships — large and small, conceptual and visual — could have uses other than commercial promotion.”

Visual design, Poynor suggests, “might also be an imaginative tool for solving non-commercial problems; for shaping a sustainable environment and an equitable public realm; for encouraging democratic participation and new kinds of social interaction; for expressing ideas, values and ways of feeling that originate down below, among ordinary people — us! — in our own neighborhoods, from our own concerns.” Creative design could be used “in service to our collectively determined community needs, not just to deliver top-down fashion diktats and purchasing imperatives from megacorp boardrooms and conquer-the-world marketing teams.”

Privatization of public space — from sports stadiums and museums to buses, classrooms and “public broadcasting” — has been on an insidious bender for decades. We become accustomed to what was once unthinkable, and the trend moves in only one direction. Public reclamation of corporately privatized space is rare. Big money commonly rolls over other concerns.

Reversing such momentum would mean reclaiming truly public areas while banishing the endless panoplies of logos, branded concessions and investor-driven joint ventures. But even when no commercial interests seem to be involved, the heavy hand of capital often provides a strong tilt, with key media outlets continuously inflicting their relentless priorities on the public.

So, simultaneously, on one afternoon in late June, the hosts of programs airing on CNN and MSNBC were talking about the by-now-famous incident in San Jose when a man flung a dog named Leo into oncoming traffic. Ostensibly about a murdered pooch, the coverage reflected the ability of profit-fixated networks — owned by companies like AOL Time Warner, Microsoft and General Electric — to focus national attention on psychodramas like the gruesome demise of a doggie.

This enormous power to subject the American public to serial triviality is far from trivial. It has everything to do with the leverage exerted by multibillion-dollar media conglomerates as they skew the words and images undergoing mass distribution.

We’re told that the public’s appetite for human interest stories about crime and punishment is insatiable. But most of all, the latest breathless news sagas are cases of force-feeding. Crammed down the throats of the public, the scoops and scandals of the day seldom tell us anything about dominant power structures and ongoing inequities while we consume the latest frothy media sensations.

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