13 November 2006
Max Bruinsma
Max Bruinsma

The economical, social and political conditions of people are rarely within direct reach of design. But the cultural conditions are, and they are an important factor in preparing for and fostering change in the other areas. Thus, indirectly, design can work as an 'agent', much as a catalyst does in chemistry. I like what Webster's says under 'catalyst':

1. a substance (as an enzyme) that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions (as at a lower temperature) than otherwise possible

2. an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action

Especially the second definition reads as what would be my definition of a designer who chooses to work as a 'cultural agent'. Besides serving outright propaganda for a cause (which might be quite necessary in some cases), visual communication can help in crossing borders by trying to bridge the gaps between social, cultural, economical and political sections of different societies, or within societies. Helping people to cross borders, in terms of communication, principally means enabling them to better understand the cultural and social contexts enveloping their reality, to connect their reality to other realities, to broaden their view and deepen their insight. By assisting open and honest information exchange, visual communication ultimately supports social and economical development.

Structuring information in ways that make it accessible to others is an important way to establish a culture of sharing, a culture of exchange. Facilitating access by structuring information in ways that connect it to its social and cultural contexts is like giving out a passport: if designers help their users to cross frontiers of cultural knowledge and experience, and facilitate them to exchange and share information and experiences with others, then design has answered its first and most important brief: to build interfaces.

Cultural Agency

In today's visual communication this is not always so obvious. Bluntly speaking, of the two operative strategies open to designers - to sedate consumers or to activate citizens - the first is paramount in professional practice.

In that first strategy, the designer is the instrument of 'classic' commercialism, which seeks to lull potential customers into questionless acceptance of their propositions. Even when pretending to merely provide objective information on behalf of the client while saying "we know you have a choice", the message's main goal is to influence that choice in only one direction: that of the client's proposition. The design is a sedative, insofar it aims at suppressing any thought of an alternative to it.

In the second strategy, the designer is the instrument of civil discourse, which seeks to provide citizens with the means of information and communication allowing them to make argued choices and responsible decisions, whatever their point of view. Even when offering a biased position, supporting the client's message, the design does not pretend to be the ultimate answer to the problem at hand. Instead, it activates the recipient's or user's awareness of the design's social and cultural contexts, in which it is embedded.

I have no principle objections against the first approach, as long as it is openly exercised as seduction and not based on falsity. I even find it amusing, when done well and with a sense of irony.

However, when it comes to working in a socially and culturally responsible way, I prefer the latter method, which I call 'cultural agency'.

A design which acts out its cultural agency, in essence, offers a criticism of the contexts for which it has been produced: it 'activates' those contexts by offering an understanding of, a comment on, or an alternative to them. Design as cultural agency surpasses the one-dimensional messages of advertising and the false claims to objectivity of "problem solving", by enriching which ever message or product it touches with a wealth of cultural and social connotations. This is where the design becomes agency and the designer an agent: a catalyst in the cultural processes in which both designer and the public at large are taking part.

About this article
This Feature is an excerpt from Max Bruinsma's presentation at the Icograda 'Fronteiras' Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 2004, and related texts. Click here to read the full transcript of Max Bruinsma's presentation and related texts.

About Max Bruinsma
Max Bruinsma is an editorial designer, independent design critic and
former editor of Eye magazine in London. His writings have featured
in art- and design journals worldwide. Presently, Max teaches (a.o.)
online courses at North Carolina State University and Minneapolis
College of Art and Design. A lecturer on contemporary graphic and new
media design and visual culture, he has presented at art schools and
congresses throughout the world. His latest book is 'Deep Sites -
intelligent innovation in contemporary webdesign', (Thames & Hudson,
2003). Max views designers as critical cultural agents, rather than
neutral problem solvers.