Mural by Josh Stover + Jeffrey Sincich in downtown St. Petersburg, FL
“Responsibility: Buzz Word of the ’90s” originally ran in a 1992 issue of AIGA’s The Journal (vol. 10, no. 1). It’s part of a series in which we seek out and republish the best yet-to-be-digitized articles from our vast print archives.

Responsibility is a design buzzword of the ’90s. There’s no escaping it. Pick up a design magazine and you’re sure to find it pop up somewhere. Big shots settling back after weeding through the morass of entries from some design fashion contest find time to lament the lack of social commitment and the work they’ve just finished awarding. Professors scramble to inject some political content into their typography assignments. AIGA even devoted an entire conference to the theme giving all the regulars a chance to gather and explain how their work has been proactive all along. Somehow it seems about 90% pure spin.

With all the talk about social responsibility, do we really understand the complexity of the problem as it pertains to design?

The issue of responsibility in a profession involved in the modulation of information is daunting. There’s an implicit power involved in graphic design that’s derived from an involvement with image production, and all power carries with it responsibility, but to date, we have not sufficiently addressed this aspect of the question. Is social responsibility a function of the content, the form, the audience, the client, and/or the designer? According to conventional wisdom it comes down to two basic issues:

  1. Don’t work for cigarette manufacturers or for companies that produce neuron bombs and nerve gas.
  2. Be sensitive to the impact of the materials you specify for your clients. Eight-color metallic ink on coded paper is bad. Soy pigment on recycled stock is good, but this elementary reading of the surface problem tends to obscure the more important issues underneath.

In the era of the mega corporations, the delineation between companies is increasingly vague. If you refuse work for the bomb company, will you work for the bank that finances it? What about the art museum it funds? Or the cable TV station it owns? If the designer is an advocate for the client, whose will and message is paramount? There’s confusion here between social and personal responsibility.

The designer, like any professional, must examine the implication of any activity or client relationship in light of his or her own position. These are points of individual conscious and integrity rather than social responsibility.

As for the ecological issue, no one comes out against the environment and as the “printed on recycled paper tag” becomes ever more fashionable, convincing clients to go the “green” or “environmentally friendly” route becomes progressively easier. Of course, the end result of a liberal environmental plan is positive whatever the corporate motivation to adopt it may have been. While specifying less noxious materials may be the start (although the exact composition of recycled products is clouded and controversial often determines pure marking rhetoric), the connection between design and waste may not be so easily remedied.

Perhaps the most significant environmental impact designers could instigate would be convincing their clients not to produce half the useless printed materials they’re being commissioned to create or to propose solutions that are significantly reduced in size and complexity.

This is paramount to encouraging developers to promote open space legislation (i.e. there’s not much chance of it happening to any great extent). The profit-minded practitioner isn’t going to argue to eliminate a project that will lead to a big check.

Enlightened self-interest aside, the natural laws of capitalist consumption almost ensure this will not be a widespread phenomenon. To really address the issue, designers will have to redefine how they bill for projects to break the correlation between the bulk of the final project and the design fee. The designer’s social responsibility is a responsibility for creating meaningful forms. Designers may control the conduit through which information passes, yet often he or she is unaware of the basic function of the very images being transmitted. The socially responsible designer should be conscious of the cultural effect of all products that pass through the studio, not all of which have any great significance. Designers have their hand in such a wide array of projects, from maps to clothing catalogs, that it would be absurd to say that there was a single identifiable social position in the work. Projects may range from the essential to the downright deceitful.

Without invoking some politically correct standard, is a working definition of socially responsible content possible?

The limits of personal conscience and environmental sensitivity are common to many professions. Our preoccupation should be with the facets of graphic design that are directly related to society and our function within it. While we may have abandoned a fairly pragmatic description of design, the basic social rule—that of organizing, translating, and creating access to information—remains intact. So is responsibility of function, of the form, the content, the materials, or the client.

Definitive social responsibility may elude us. Perhaps the best we can hope for is the recognition of the complex issues involved in communication. In a time when the access to real information among the disadvantaged seems an increasingly peril and where power and money control most of the means of producing and dispersing it, the goal of developing simple and effective mass audience communication seems especially relevant.

Clarity may once again become an important social concern, not by fiat, but because the content is too vital and important to obscure. Message may indeed rise up over style, but style will be recognized for the important cultural values it transmits. Perhaps the most socially irresponsible work are the over-designed, over-produced typographic stunts that serve no real function, speak only to other designers in the cultural leads, and which through opulence and uselessness revel in a level of conspicuous consumption that glorifies financial excess.

Michael Rock is the founding partner and creative director at design consultancy 2×4 and director of the Graphic Architecture Project at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.