August 20, 2001
Magazine-wise, last week should have been amazing. Waiting for me at the door were the latest issues of WIRED, Shift, COLORS, Harper's, Frank and Adbusters. And Adbusters was a double-issue no less! At last I could throw away the shackles of summer sluggishness and get back again to the revolution at hand.
What a disappointment.
Today I will write about the "Design Anarchy" double issue of Adbusters. This task will take me longer than the time it took me to actually read all of the magazine. This has nothing to do with any speed reading acumen. Of 146 pages of glossiness, there is only 18 pages of text; 6 of these are dedicated to the "Letters" section. This leaves a scant 12 pages of which X makes up actual signed articles.
The articles are written by and large by individuals who signed the "First Things First" manifesto...
The response evidently was "tremendous" and now, one year later Adbusters couldn't resist stoking the fading embers of the debate. Well Adbusters doesn't say that. They say they are doing it as a memorial to Tibor Kalman - the late designer and provocateur who was the catalyst for the FTF 2000.
Now this is when things get tricky. I have concerns about this issue of Adbusters and I also have serious issues with the First Things First manifesto. These issues and concerns tend to bleed into each other.
First the magazine itself. Essentially I think this issue: 1) ignores the reader (unless that reader happens to be a designer, and in that case, the reader will feel very special) 2) makes its best points through its articles but gives the written-word short shrift in terms of pages 3) makes the case that today's design is vapid and indulgent by presenting page after page of vapid and indulgent design.
As for the First Things First manifesto, well, it just doesn't make sense. As "Mr. Keedy" puts it his explanatory piece called "Hysteria"
To get a sort of rough idea how much Adbusters has embraced the half-baked premise that designers control the world, in an unsigned article called "True-Cost Design" a writer recommends that each designer perform an environmental assessment before he or she takes on a project. Its so easy!
Many of the writers of the (coincidently) unsigned articles in Adbusters seem to make the same fundamental error: they believe that the designer determines what products are made available on the shelves of retailers. That's just not true: you can design as many leaf composters as your heart desires. But unless you have right capital, equipment, labour, and distribution channels - you can't make it materialize. Otherwise, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
So what's the solution?
Unlike Adbusters, I don't believe that we can seek out products with "no design" or expect designers to shy away from the very activities such as product promotion that make them designers.
No, I have humbler aspirations. As citizens, we can campaign for government legislation to regulate what products and what quality of products are allowed. We can also seek out legislation to determine where and how products are advertised.
As consumers, we can employ something called discretion. We can choose which technologies are appropriate for our homes. Do you think the Mennonites and the Shakers petition designers to stop creating products they don't need. No, they just don't buy what they don't want.
Or we can try to write for Adbusters once they get over themselves and the notion that a magazine of pretty pictures can change the world.