America TM, Prejudice by Design: A Lecture on the Design Manifesto

Before First Things

Before we talk about anything, let’s make one point clear: design has a strangely subconscious power to transform anything. Take this chart for example:

This is a mind map that I did as an exercise for this blog post. It’s messily written, very unorganised, unappealing and generally incomprehensible to anyone but the person who wrote it.

Now take this:

This is the digitalized version of the same mind map, using characters, symbolism, type, and colour to create a point.

This is the power of graphic design, advertising, and presentation. We can take data and transform it from a mess of raw statistics into something people want to see. However, in doing so, we also have the ability to change the way the information is viewed and how statistics are perceived. In fact, we can even choose and influence who sees what and how they see it, a kind of subconscious design censorship that distils and encodes a message to create what we want the world to see – or what others would like us to portray.

This is the main issue represented in the manifesto at the bottom of this piece. We as designers are agents, interpreters, and creators of change, and as subconscious as it may be, that change can be just as good as it is bad.

First Things First

First things first, what was the lecture about?

In the First Things First Lecture, we discussed the advent of social and human-centred design as a response to rapid industrialisation and the creation of modern consumerism.

The class centred largely around advertising and its manipulative effects, how designers reacted to the prospect of being, essentially, used for corporate gain, and the modern shift in design practice. This includes everything from the anti-logo, anti-corporation movement, as described in the book No Logo by Naomi Klein, to the increasing awareness for sustainable practice and co-design in our own university.

We also analysed the text and merits of the First Things First design manifesto of 1964 and how it transitioned into the much later Design Justice movement.

The First Things First Manifesto

The first manifesto deals primarily with the clarification of the designer’s role as not just an advertiser, but a skilled worker with the power to achieve change. While still relevant in some cases, especially regarding advertising, this manifesto merely suggests clarification, and not immediate change. In the later Design Justice manifesto, there is a visible push for change in both theory and application, no longer just a clarification.

The designer is now the visual translator in a larger web combining co-design, problem-solving, and human-friendly ideals. This, unlike the previous manifesto, is a living document, so it highly encourages involvement and sharing; a sentiment which is also relayed through its explicit lack of copyright.

To conclude, we discussed the designer’s responsibility in their work and modern culture-jamming, like the work of Adbusters, which uses semiotic relay to give a new meaning to advertising by major corporations.

An Adbusters piece demonstrating the hold consumerism has on the world.
A submission for the Greenpeace BP competition, which focused on rebranding BP from its company persona of being environmentally friendly to the truth that is incredibly destructive.

Second Things Second

Second things second, so what? Why is it like this? What does it mean? To talk about this bit, let’s take it back to the United States at around the time of the first world war.

In the modern era, since the great wars, America took off as the world’s key cultural influence, pushing a culture of consumerism, capitalism, and colonialism, appropriately ‘conquering’ the world’s markets and developing strong prejudice towards anyone who did not meet a particular class standard. This stood in stark contrast to the carnage and ruin in Europe at the time, which led to a very reserved culture interested in conservation and durability, and not extensive symbols of lavish living.

What made these exact things possible in the United States was the mass implementation of factory labour and mass production; the very thing that had made the great wars possible was now aiding the consumer culture which followed. During the period after the first world war, the United States dealt with a significant economic high, leading to intense consumerism, and this same cycle repeated itself in the post-world war two era, which saw consumerist products being marketed to women especially, promoting the return to the home after an era of factory work.

Criticism of the factory and its effects is very evident in comedy sketches like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern World factory segment, and clearly shows this process of dehumanization.

As you can see in the video itself, Chaplin is working on a factory line as an individual, but as he continues work, it is clear that the process becomes more like muscle memory than anything else, and the time which he sneaks for himself is cut short by the voice of production: his time is no longer his.

On a larger scale, this mirrors the increasingly lost connection to handicraft and cottage industries, and therefore the intimate connection the maker has with the object and therefore the audience. So in this sense, dehumanization occurs on three levels: maker, marketer, and consumer.

This process takes both the consumer and the marketer out of the making process, and creates an almost inhuman, artificial feel, away from connection and quality and towards pro-productizing, if you will. This sentiment is expressed in the Gary Hustwit Film Objectified; the film argues that you are what you keep, i.e., you keep only what is most sentimental to you and what really matters, not a pile of consumerist junk.

That’s what particularly bothers me today, the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness with which many things are produced and brought to market.  Not only in the sector of consumer goods, but also in architecture, in advertising.  We have too many unnecessary things everywhere.

Dieter Rams, Former Design Director of Braun

I mean, think about it, if I told you that you had ten minutes to you’re your things and run, you wouldn’t bring your brand new state-of-the-art Tupperware from Waitrose, would you?

Throughout all of this, the factory and its mass-production remains a constant, driving force, and so does the advertising that inevitably accompanies it. Therefore, production and its promotion are inextricably linked; as one side, the production, became more and more mechanical and more and more dehumanizing, so did the advertisement and thus its creators: the designers.

Everything is designed, both psychologically and physically. Especially in regards to advertising, the game is more about the brand than it is about the product, a hallmark of the age of consumerism. As Naomi Klein discusses in her book No Logo, especially in large corporate advertising, you are not selling a product, you are selling an experience. What does the brand make you feel like? How? What could you do with this product? What kind of life could you lead?

The interior and exterior of a Starbucks coffee shop; a branded space which sells an experience over its product.

This is nothing new; even in Chip Kidd’s fictional book The Learners, a main character describes this phenomenon in a world where amazingly talented designers and illustrators sold their creativity to the prospect of selling things.

This becomes split into two parts: the portrayal of the products themselves and the application of branding beyond the corporation.

First, the product. While we can all imagine the key examples of this tactic, for example, that Nike shoes give us the feeling of being fast and powerful, the product is often overlooked.

A Nike advertisement

Nike shoes are produced in third-world countries like the Philippines and Malaysia, in factories that the U.S., for example, incessantly complains about lacking. But the actual creators of these shoes, the people who work in these factories, not just for Nike, but for other companies as well, often work in horrendous conditions far from any standards of American human and worker’s rights.

But do we care?

No. We don’t.

Why? Because we are locked in the marketing. We want to believe the image of speed and success and not the reality of immoral or unethical practices. The Nike swoosh equates to success, wealth, and speed for us. It inspires us and makes us feel powerful. We do not care if that same symbol means oppression or hideous days in a sweatshop for anyone else. The point is, the persona we are presented with works.

And it works because a team of designers makes goddamn sure it does.

Now to part two: branding beyond the corporation. Branding itself goes far beyond any product, or even any billboard. It hides in the crevices of movements like the CDC nuclear disarmament campaign and in counter-movements like the sleek modern designs of the Bauhaus. It drenches propaganda and music videos, YouTube and Facebook, Instagram and the very idea of war as it changed from an act of glory to a method of mass murder.

Now to be clear, designers are not only on the negative side of this (though even that is relative, depending on your position); designers are also responsible for the branding of social movements like the American Women’s March, pro-acceptance and respect campaigns, and the Black Lives Movement. But no matter on whose side they are on, they are still manipulative.

Photo by MediaPunch/REX/Shutterstock (9219416d) Atmosphere #MeToo women’s march, Los Angeles, USA – 12 Nov 2017

That’s the point, isn’t it?

We as designers function on the basis that we can make people look, make people listen, make people think the way we want them to.

That goes for anything, from the Romanticist counter-movement to the industrial revolution, which tried to push society back to nature, to the pro- and anti-abortion campaigns launched by individuals and political groups.

Branding is about making people think about the world in a specific way, however warped that perspective is. And this exact point is what the America TM Manifesto will look at.

America TM. Prejudice By Design.

A new design manifesto to battle subconscious segregation in American society.

In the United States, there is a culture of prejudice which started at its very conception and has been carried through to this very day through advertisements, societal values, schools, and others.

In the modern world, we keep these scars not only because of our history and leadership, but because prejudice is designed.

We understand that the United States is by far not the only country or region in which this is occurring, but as United States citizens, we feel we must speak out and take an active stand against it.

We are using this as an informal statement for a formal purpose, drawing in the design and co-design philosophies of the Design Justice movement and the strong communal clarifications and boundaries set by the First things First manifesto to create a statement and an action plan of change.

As designers, we are aware that we can seriously injure a cause, hide it, forget it, and erase it from anyone’s mind. We are aware that people are the most important thing in design and that we have a serious commitment to make sure our work does not speak for something we do not believe in – especially in branding.

In any branding, there is an element of a social mirror, the state of a society which guides the branded world. For example, if a society takes an active stand against animal cruelty, this will be transmitted through their advertising, branding, and beliefs. We understand this to be inevitable and also necessary to connect to any audience.

However, while some aspects of this social mirror are good, it is within our power to change those that are horrid.

To clarify this now: this is a living and changing document. It can be amended, and it can progress, but for the state of the current world, we will focus on three key designed prejudices in American society.

One: Gender Roles

Society’s view of gender is still weighted very heavily towards traditionalism: men work and women stay home with the kids, cook, and sacrifice their lives for their spouse.

An ad created by Bosch washing machines which exclusively shows women doing laundry.

While there is some change to reflect a different mindset in current advertising, there must be more done to level the power of men and women and create a climate of equality.

Two: Rape Culture

There is a strong culture of sexual violence in the United States; a cycle which is perpetuated by the idea that rape is a rare crime, that victims will be shamed for speaking out, that women like to be coerced into sex, and the absolute objectification of females.

This is transmitted everywhere: through advertising, music videos, pornographic material, and a culture which does not speak, nor condemns offenders.

A still from the music video of Timber, by Kesha featuring Pitbull. Women are unnecessarily sexualized in this and many other contexts.

There must be a shift in design, in advertisement, in music video production, and in schools to promote a societal mindset that does not support rape culture.

Three: Subconscious Segregation

There is a subconscious racism that runs deeply through America. Racism towards immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and others. This racism and xenophobia is portrayed through the news, through target-specific advertisements, voting and school districts, and segregated advertising.

The news harps on the constant comments of racist individuals instead of downright condemning them, advertisements are specifically targeted by race and culture, voting and school districts are segregated by class and race, and advertising is segregated depending on areas and on what TV channel you are watching (i.e. there are very few white people in advertisements between NBA games and nearly no African-Americans in advertisements between ice hockey games, which is, in itself, a segregation as people are targeted based on the fact that they feel more comfortable when not exposed to people who aren’t exactly like them).

These lead to an unintegrated, closed off, and dangerously prejudiced society, and through visual media, the rift must be healed.

Through visual media and design, we believe that real change is possible. By using the manipulative power that has created this situation to right the wrongs inflicted, we will create a society which does not stand for prejudice. Our mission is to unbrand America and bring a collective, unbiased society back into the public domain.

Comment below to add societal issues to the manifesto


Timber Music Video

Charlie Chaplin Modern Times

Objectified by Gary Hustwit

Cover Image:

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