08 November 2006
Sanja Bachrach Kristofic and FedaVukic
Sanja Bachrach Kristofic and FedaVukic

On April 11, Ulupuh organized a round table on "Design and Morality". This debate came to reinforce an exhibition on the same theme. The following essays are abstracts from the exhibition catalogue and offer some interesting perspectives on the responsibilities designers have to embrace and include in their professional work.

Design and Morality.
Sanja Bachrach Kristofic

(...) Today we suffer from the consequences of the actions we were not aware of, of the informations we were deprived of, products which were offered to us without responsibility and proper warning. Up until yesterday, the advertisements graced by an unusually coloured cow seemed to us rather cute, whereas today we are repulsed by a single thought of an animal species which has become a media star in its own right without ever having chosen such a career.

I do my best to adjust and to become an "aware" consummate - before making a purchase I carefully read the label, but even that is not sufficient to make me feel secure. The fact that the label lists all the ingredients does not automatically imply that either the manufacturer or myself are aware of all the possible consequences, the ones that will be discovered in the next decade or at some blurry point in the future.

Often enough part of the technical data printed on the package falls into a category of "manufacturing secrets". A striking image or an appealing slogan in an advertising campaign present therefore a substitution for all the real information, they speak to us in a language easily understood: a language universally accepted through its use of symbolic iconography of the global society. In our case it is a world of business suits, expensive cars, easily recognizable heraldic or the stereotypical misconceptions of sexuality, power and technology. However, I am not trying to imply that we should stop having sex, buying stylish outfits or cars if that makes us feel good. There are loads of utterly useless products that make us happy, be it even for five minutes. Theoretician and design critic Reyner Banham once wrote that "The designer of the post-modern differs from the designer of the modern in the extent that the latter does not pay attention to the popular taste and shuts himself up in an academic world. The post-modern designer, however, must understand and embrace the popular culture and 'hereditary tradition' of the relevant products, which means that he has to immerse himself completely in it. If a designer constructs a product from the 'symbolic iconography', the critics role is then to deconstruct it. Both designer and critic have to speak in the language of symbols."

The crucial question actually concerns something we might call "design information" or "design awareness". Since "a consumer capable of differentiating between the styles and reading the symbolic meanings is by no means necessarily the one capable of understanding the background of economical and social conditions, or the political role of design in a society." (Nigel Whiteley, "Olymp and tracks"), ... "an individual can start controlling the circumstances around him only through a thorough understanding of what is done by whom, where it is done and why." (The Ethical Consumer, 1989.) "Life quality" is not synonymous to "life standard", and the confusion surrounding these concepts is the key for the future of both the consumers and us, the designers.

With the 20th century behind us and the 21st just happening - the world we inhabit has become altered (Bruce Sterling) to the point that the nature itself cannot be considered natural anymore. Each and every one of us has been vaccinated to prevent disease, the air filled with pesticides, genetical engineering applied not only on plants or animals, but on humans as well.

The Responsibilities in Design

There is no doubt that one of the topics "Design and Morality" is more than actual in the countries in transition and even broader. Personally I would like to consider this topic as "the responsibility in design", actually is it not a design above all, the production of symbolic messages which effects the social space. These messages have influence on a consumer, precisely, a large number of consumers, so it is not logical that the authors of such messages, and those who broadcast them, and those who articulate them graphically are not aware of their impact - consequently responsible. Some of these messages will lead the consumers to put at risk their health; some messages will mislead them to develop negative feelings towards the other members of their community, or at least the consumer will be convinced for the purpose of the commercial interest itself.

This is the consequence of the epoch of highly organised capitalism, which in its focus puts only one dimension of a man: the consumer's dimension, whatever it costs.

The consequences are not only the profit but there are the side effects as well - millions of people ill with cancer, millions of alcohol edicts, numerous socially unconscious people who nourish national, racist and sexual hostility, to put it gently - a man who thinks: "I buy therefore I exist".

Such treatment of the people consuming the symbolic messages or the products of graphic design slowly becomes history in the developed countries of the West, which Guy Julier in his recently published book "The Culture of Design" calls "the conditions of disorganised capitalism" and the condition of the "post-Fordian economy". Very good statement of such new condition of conscious responsibility is the balance slowly established on the global level between the general trend of converting the World into the unique market and the local resistance to this trend.

The resistance is manifested as an anti-global or as a new type of regional organisation of the economic properties in the sense of "city - region" as a new exponent of the social organisation instead of the former national state.

Unfortunately in the countries in transition as well in Croatia what is actual is the reality - the initial phase of capital accumulation. This is a very unmerciful phase in its materialism and irresponsible in transmitting and articulation of the symbolic messages. In such situation the consumers' benefit takes the last place, in such circumstances the designers act uncritically and irresponsible not having in mind the consequences for the communication they created the symbolic prerequisites.

Let's observe the visual communication in Croatia during the last decade. We can point out three ways of communication.

There is an absolute domination of the political messages set up on the traditional symbolism and upon the images understandable to a majority, than various commercial messages with the alcohol and cigarette advertisements, very sophisticated and on the high quality in the graphic design.

At last there are seldom attempts of the visual communication that aims to rise the social consciousness. Such attempts usually happen inside the different activist artistic conceptions but in such actions the professional designers almost never take part!

The symbolic communication in the sphere of development of the ecological consciousness or improvement of the quality of life, during the last ten years was very rare and mostly of the low quality design. Regarding such situation the consequences could be focused on few facts: Croatia is tormented by the crisis of identity, the conditions are not for decent living, and the politics established itself as a supreme paradigm, which will solve all the problems, number of alcohol and drug addicts is higher than ever. There is no vision of the development.

How great is the designers' responsibility in such situation?

Personally - the designers' responsibility is tremendous. I believe that neither the marketing experts nor those who strategically sell cigarettes or the politicians (as far as they are primarily interested in the material aspect of life = money) could set up different criteria of the responsibility in the public symbolic communication. The designers, as they stand for culture, should establish the criteria of responsibility to a higher level for the benefit of the community.

If they are interested only in money then my construction fails. Of course, at that point professional associations and designers' schools take very important part, because there is established the attitude and the sense of responsibility in creating the symbolic messages.