Design is Not Neutral

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All people require creative expression in order to live a full life and to connect with ourselves and each other. Creativity is an inherent human right and need. People who are disposed to create do so in myriad ways, with both positive and negative results. But in the twenty-first century  we celebrate  “creativity” AS a neutral, wholesome value separate from any contingent context or actions that may determine its shape.  We also uncritically accept the notion that this value, like so many others, is bestowed upon the talented (wealthy, white) few. What does it really mean to take faceless tech companies, complicit in the destruction of public goods and services, fair wages, neighborhoods, and design them to look friendly and simple? What does it mean to create something beautiful, that is then sold by a company that pollutes the environment, and thereby accelerates the promise of our collective demise?  Capitalism makes us all complicit in its horror in order to survive, “creatives” included. We may become guilty and uncomfortable if we probe the idea of creativity and the folklore surrounding it too hard. But we must examine the myths that enable us to suppress our guilt and ignore what we are complicit in. The idea of an individual creative Instagram celebrity changing the world will never produce anything--except perhaps a well designed tote bag that will just be more flotsam as the oceans rise. The only thing that will change the world is a mass, organized movement.   Creativity is not something that can be packaged and sold at $500 a course to the willing wealthy few. It’s something that belongs to all of us. It can be used for the collective good--once we accept that the act of creating doesn’t occur in some neutral, separate space, and that the creative industry we have invented is complicit in the horrors of our age.

[Card One, “The Client” depicting a Mark Zuckerberg looking man sitting in a swivel chair with spooky dark creatures popping up behind him, and a wolf with its teeth bared drawn behind the card]  Companies hire us (”creatives”) to give value to their products. As Wolfgang Fritz Haug says in his book Commodity Aesthetics, “ Appearance becomes just as important - and practically more so - than the commodity’s being itself. Something that is simply useful but does not appear to be so, will not sell, while something that seems to be useful, will sell [..] The commodity’s aesthetic promise of use value thus becomes an instrument in accumulating money.”   We are used to put a softer, more beautiful face on vampiric tendencies, and to hide the manipulation behind corporate schemes. Google owns more and more information on us every day, and has unprecedented control over our communication, our private lives. But who doesn’t like Google doodles? They know it’s difficult to attach anger and fear to a company when it seems so simple and friendly. [Card two, “The Wall” depicting on one side a man painting a mural on a wall, and on the other side a woman and her child leaving a building with a “For Rent” sign in the window]  We are used to put a softer face on violence. Take a project proposed for the southern border wall, that does not call for its abolition and the abolition of all borders, but rather to create a beautiful, eco-friendly, well designed “neutral zone” that ignores the violence inherent in a border’s existence. Or companies like Target, commissioning illustrators to create murals for their location in the East Village that depicts the landmarks, culture and residents they are displacing, and the trend of murals being pasted onto gentrifying buildings in places like Austin and New York to attract buyers. The way artists themselves, broke, moving into poor neighborhoods, end up contributing to the overall aesthetic desirability of a neighborhood, and help price themselves and everyone else out. [Card three, “The Mask” depicting a skeleton pulling down a hanging face, surrounded by creepy hanging faces]  We often discuss the Nazi’s use of design and branding in the history of design, with a mix of revulsion and fascination (and perhaps frankly to some, admiration) but rarely do we discuss anything beyond the aesthetics. Not spoken of as often are places like  the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which had many artists, poets, musicians, actors, filmmakers in it. The Nazis utilized their prisoner’s skills in order to create propaganda films about the camp, providing enough of an aesthetic smokescreen that it didn’t seem outrightly evil. The Red Cross toured the camp, viewed the shallow illusion created by the talents of the prisoners, and declared that what they were doing was not inhumane, because it did not look inhumane. [Card four, “The Organizer” depicting a woman being gently pulled out of her seat by three organizers holding signs that say “Rent Control]  When we accept art is not neutral we can use it towards other means. We can look at the art of cooperatives after the Zapatista uprising, the poster making collectives of the Spanish Civil War, of the students in Paris, 1963, the art of the Black Panthers, the Soviets. Art always follows a revolution.  But there is more we can do beyond art. As Ben Davis says in his book 9.5 Theses of Art and Class,  “Not even the most committed art practice can, on its own, be a substitute for the simple act of being politically involved as an organizer and activist."   Life always trumps art. We can use our skills, but we must go outside. [Card five, “The People” depicting a person sewing a quilt, on the quilt are people depicted dancing, hanging out, gardening, playing]  Creativity is a human right and necessary to life. Art is communal. It has always been for communication, with other people, with the sublime, with ourselves. Creativity does not belong to Google, AdWeek, to graphic design, to capitalism.   When we raise children in new, loving, creative ways, when we cook a  communal meal, when we teach a skill, when we build communities where there were none before, when we dance with our friends, when we write in the dark, hoping someone will understand us, we are reclaiming what is ours.  Art is for the people.

Colleen Tighe is an illustrator, cartoonist, and usually the very loud, grumpy person in the back of the room.

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