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Designers and Despotism

ministry of science and culture

A number of designers have recently posted their thoughts about how we should respond to the potential emergence of autocracy. Mike Monteiro’s piece is particularly ranty and, as expected, simply great. My colleague, Spark Poster, wrote a Canadian-focused and thoughtful response.

As the founder of a design and communications firm and someone who is active in the design community, I put together a few ground rules for protecting ourselves and advancing movements. In the mid-1990s, I lived in Poland for a year and came to understand how traumatic Soviet and National Socialist domination was for that country. It had only been a short while since Poland had emerged from 55 years of totalitarian rule and the scars and stories were still very real. And designers and artists throughout Eastern Europe bore some of the brunt of the state. Many went to jail. (Sadly, Poland and parts of Europe are again undergoing a shift toward authoritarianism.)

Some of the ground rules may be helpful when and if despotism and its political corollary, autocracy, emerge in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Here are a few rules for designers (with thanks to all of those before me).

Don’t give in. You don’t have to take on any design work that’s offered to you. If someone says, “I need you to do a logo for this cool gun shop that opened in the suburbs”, say no and thanks. Let someone else do it—and hopefully, the result will be a crappy logo that will help the gun company sell fewer guns. Work for people and organizations that give a damn, who are kind, and who want to make a positive difference in the world. At the very least, work for clients that are doing no harm from the start.

Don’t give up. It’s not up to you to stop. You can only stop when there is nothing left to do, which is pretty much never. We need you around. We need your critical thinking skills to get around whatever might be thrown at us. The next four years might be a bit like being trapped in one of those puzzle rooms with people who cannot do math. You need to be the leader in that room and help us all get out.

Develop a thick skin. We are already under assault by social media and the 30-second news cycle. Try to turn it off. Read a book that you’ve been meaning to read for years. Go deep. Or get a book of poetry and spend even a half hour just reading verse, slowly. Fiction will inspire—and if you want to fight authoritarian culture, read the classics like 1984 or Brave New World. They’re amusing and instructive, in their own dark way. Most importantly, don’t let the media define your every move. You’re a human being first. Then, a son or daughter or parent or friend. Then a designer. You are not just a consumer or worse yet, a creative.

Help folks out. Most graphic designers that I know prefer to be alone. It’s okay. We totally get it. But there are a lot of organizations that need your help—sometimes for pay and sometime not. Pick an organization that you love and offer your services at a discounted rate or maybe even free. And if you do it for free, don’t let them push you around too much. Social and political movements need all the help they can get, probably now more than ever.

Join a movement. If you’re anything like me, you need something bigger in which to belong. Maybe it’s a graphic design association. Maybe it’s a croquet team. Don’t hide in the latest video game environment. Get out there and make sure that you’re seen. This will ensure that you are ready to tackle bigger challenges when and if they arise. They might arise.

Defy expectations. You’re a graphic designer. But you’re also a citizen of your country and the world. Your voice is important. As a designer, you have the ability to create nearly anything. Even though I live in Canada, I’m also working on finding ways to live up to the responsibilities of being an American citizen.

Study the greats. Designers and artists have always been key to building successful social and environmental movements. You don’t have to look far. From women’s suffrage to the March on Washington to AIDS activism, designers played an invaluable role in boiling down ideas and messages. There are endless examples of great design in the service of social change. I also recommend reading or re-reading mid-century cultural critics like Theodore Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, who provide the historical and theoretical background for so many progressive designers, artists, and writers.

Consume wisely. If you are shopping for stuff, buy things that are made in your own country and are made responsibly. You can very much rely on business certifications like B Corp or on companies that have become Benefit Corporations. These companies care not only about their products but how they treat their employees, the environment, their community and the planet. Hundreds of companies indicate heir products are made humanely and sustainably. And if you don’t need anything, don’t buy anything.

Work out. Most of us designers are not very buff. We’re too busy catching up on sleep or completing the Narcos series. You need to take care of your health. Period. Full stop. No one else is going to do this for you. And if the world becomes much more complicated, we’re going to need you to be in good health and in good spirits. Working out can suck but it is better than getting sick or worse.

Be kind to yourself. We’re pretty tough on ourselves, us designers. We know what flawless looks like and most of the time, it’s hard to get there. The voices in our heads are pretty harsh about this even though we know that perfection is the enemy of the good. You can’t beat up on yourself if something doesn’t go right. We all need you to be strong and part of being strong is having a good self-image. Figure out what is best for you and don’t push yourself around.

Travel around. Just because you live in one place, doesn’t mean you have to stay there. Go to a neighbouring city. Take some photos. Talk with others. Take the temperature of the city and maybe become friends with someone there. If you ever need or want to move, you’ll have a colleague who will be around for you. And if that person has to up and go, they may have a place to crash.

All of this is to say that I truly hope the world will not move into a full-on techno-authoritarian political economy where the very few corral and set out to harm the very vulnerable. I don’t think it will come to that. But it can. In the last century, we’ve seen non-democratic and kleptocratic regimes emerge throughout eastern Europe, Argentina, Chile, and the Middle East. More recently, it’s happened in Venezuela, Brazil, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Rwanda, and the Philippines.

It can happen here. As a designer, you have the exact set of skills needed to protect free speech, support movements, and connect communities.

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