Pink Bits and the AK47: Design’s Apathy and a Call for Change
The following is my 7 minute acceptance speech for the Design Educator of the Year Award, presented by the Registered Graphic Designers (of Canada) at the Design Thinkers 2019 Conference.
I have spent the last twenty years studying design. After three degrees, 16 plus years as a design professor, over a decade as a design consultant and design researcher, I’ve come to the following conclusion.
Designed things hold these three characteristics:
First, every designed object is a position, making every design decision a political act.
Second, design is significant — designed objects are far from frivolous because they contribute to and constitute human knowledge.
And, third, every design decision has consequences.
A design is an argument.
In 2014, The Susan G. Komen Foundation accepted $100,000 from an oil and fracking company that, in turn, designed and produced 1,000 pink drill bits. The pink bits were distributed by the company to drilling sites worldwide “as a reminder of the importance of supporting research, treatment, screening, and education to help find the cures” for breast cancer.
Since fracking has been scientifically linked to breast cancer, both the Komen Foundation and the fracking company received immediate public criticism: they were called hypocritical, and the decision (among other things) ludicrous and preposterous.
I wonder who designed the pink bits strategy?
Design is significant.
Last week, American Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that the redesign of the $20 bill to feature Harriet Tubman — an abolitionist hero — would not be ready in time for a planned 2020 release, citing “counterfeiting issues” that would result in a delay that’s projected to last 8 years.
This news brought new attention to Dano Wall’s design: an ink stamp that can replace Andrew Jackson’s face on a $20 bill with Tubman’s likeness. Embedded in the stamp’s design is an attempt to correct a significant error and omission within our human record. And this example — like the Chinese invention of the printing press or Twitter — demonstrates the momentous role design can play in contributing to and recording human knowledge.
Design has consequences.
The AK-47 is often cited as a well-designed object — it is easy to use, easy to maintain, take-apart, modify, and manufacture. It’s a model of simplicity. And the original design by Mikhail Kalashnikov and introduced in 1948, is still in use, even as the AK family has continued evolving.
I imagine that many of us would be proud to design something with that kind of legacy and reputation. In fact, its defining characteristics — ease of use, manufacturing, and adaptability, along with brand recognition, effectiveness, and affordability — as Mike Monteiro so aptly observes, are the cornerstones of good design.
As an unfortunate and horrifying side note, the AK-47’s simplicity, compact size and gentle recoil combine to make it well-suited for a particular user group: the child soldier.
So, is the AK 47 part of our design history? Does design take credit for it? Are we proud of its attributes? Or do we define good design as holding certain other qualities? If so, do we actively call out the AK 47 for its bad design, according to some other criteria? What is that criteria? And can we even start this discussion if we’re not calling certain designed objects, design?
What is design history?
Nathaniel Hepburn, the director of the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, tells the following story in a 2017 article by Rachel Cooke:
there was an envelope in the Ditchling archives, on the back of which, in two columns, Eric Gill had listed, in some detail, the measurements of various parts of the bodies of his daughters, Elizabeth (Betty) and Petra. Adjacent to those numbers are his own measurements and then, at the bottom, he writes his penis size, erect and flaccid. It’s a powerful object. It very quickly tells a story about Gill. You can’t look at it and say: ‘He was a sculptor, of course he was interested in measurements and form.’
Hepburn goes on to say that it’s his complete obsession and libido that have drawn us to Gill, whether we like it or not.
After three design degrees, I didn’t know that Eric Gill was a sexual predator until a recent article on Typographica. The day I learned of this fact, I mentioned this “completely new information” to one of my colleagues, a long-time GDC member and typographer. Know what he said? “Yeah? Everyone knows that about Gill.”
Design history has always been written by those with the most power and privilege. In light of the new Canadian Typography Website Proposal (so, exciting by the way), I ask you these questions: Are we finally ready to change what we consider design history? Can we finally demolish design’s white boys’ club?
You’re the “Man”
I call upon all of you today to consider every instance of design — whether created 100 years ago, launched last week, or in process — as an iteration. As an iteration, designed things that may have previously been considered “done and over with”, can be subject to interpretation, questioning, and rigorous critique.
Models for serious, expert-led but public critique abound in philosophy, film, literature, architecture, even culinary studies. Graphic design, however, has tended to shy away from public critique not because, according to Steven Heller, “it is inherently uncriticizable, but because designers have neither a critical vocabulary, nor the means to address work in a public forum” Heller has called for both practical and theoretical criticism of design, so that we can better understand what it means to be good design, what it means to have failed, and why either has taken place.
I would like to end the time I have with you today to ask you to set a higher bar for our profession and discipline. Not only should the things we participate in creating be made available for public, ongoing, and rigorous critique, but we should as well.
Too often designers become invisible, hiding behind the companies who employ us, or the clients who pay for our work. And as much as I fully acknowledge that designers seldom hold the sole responsibility for a design, that should not be a valid excuse for apathy.
Moreover, those of you (and I include myself in this group) who have reached the position of The Man — one who has power through position, privilege, or physiology — I ask you to do better. This starts with transparency, accountability, and ongoing effort to challenge the status quo beyond what is familiar or safe, or what serves to maintain our positions of power.
We were incredibly fortunate yesterday to witness Jessica Bellamy’s generous and inspiring talk on, among many other things, how we can be more accountable to the power dynamics in design.
Let’s commit to amplifying her words to our partners, students, clients, and each other.
There are many potential benefits to such accountability — yesterday we saw beautiful examples of what can be accomplished when we stop thinking of people as “a problem to be solved”.
I’ll will add that it’s through ongoing rigorous critique that we’ll have the opportunity to add much needed credibility to our profession by justifiably celebrating the good, calling out the harmful and, most importantly, in discussing the difference.
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