“If the Truth be Known” by AIGA Medalist Ralph Caplan originally ran in a 2000 issue of AIGA’s The Journal (vol. 18, no. 2). It’s part of a series in which we painstakingly page through and republish the best yet-to-be-digitized articles from our vast print archives.
For an AIGA conference long ago, I was asked to moderate a panel of designers talking openly and candidly about their careers. “I’m not sure they’re ready to replace show and tell with kiss and tell,” I objected.
The program chairman was indignant. “You don’t think designers can tell the truth?”
“Oh, designers can tell the truth,” I said. “There just isn’t much call for it in their line of work.”
That mock cynicism reflected a perfectly reasonable skepticism of graphic design being so closely allied to enterprises historically grounded in a calculated indifference to verity. The oxymoronic call for “truth in advertising” acknowledges the scarcity of the former and the latter where designers are regularly charged with communicating the wholesomeness of unsavory foods, the reliability of unreliable products, and the uniqueness of brands that are indistinguishable from competing ones except for the branding itself.
The nation of Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels have no word for lying because they cannot conceive of conditions under which anyone would do it. What possible reason, they ask, could there be for saying, “That which is not?” We could give them both reasons and words for our own vocabularies loaded with synonyms and euphemisms for that which is not and we need every last one of them. The magazine PR Week reports that one out of every four PR persons says he or she lies professionally. This is a truly astonishing statistic for it implies that three out of four PR persons say they don’t lie professionally, a position curiously archaic in an age when so many of us have become truthful about our lies.
When I was involved in the redesign of facilities for a large state university, I recommended converting one wing of the operation from private offices to an open space and open office configuration. There were sound design reasons for doing this: the people using the offices were not expected to be in them much of the time and needed easy access to each other when they were. The head of the department rejected the plan, arguing that an open office was incompatible with university administration. “I could never work in an office that doesn’t have a door I can close,” he explained frankly. “I tell too many lies.”
Well so do I, if the truth be known. I came by the habit honestly. My father lived a “Mark Twain: when, in doubt lie.” He (my father, not Mark Twain) intended the advice for circumstances in which no one could be hurt. But are there any such circumstances?
Socrates said that a lie is always harmful because it always hurts the liar.
Of course compulsive liars do it even when they’re not in doubt. Some callings appear to favor that compulsion, but design is not among them. The beleaguered heroine of Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn lives in a dysfunctional house stuck in the eternal hell of renovation. When she demands that her husband call the contractor at home he reports that the contractor cannot come to the phone because he has cancer. She doesn’t believe it.
“Nobody lies about cancer,” her husband points out.
“Contractors do,” she replies. “Contractors lie about everything.”
Designers are more selective, but summon the boost to credibility of corporations that are blatantly incredible. Designers have wondered aloud to what extent they’re responsible for the truth of the messages they carry. Well, at least to whatever extent they are involved in content. That would be an easy out. But not everyone is willing to take it; for unlike a bicycle messenger the designer not only carries the message but claims as a responsible professional to have had a hand in shaping it. While Marshall Mcluhan’s most famous victim is demonstrably untrue, certainly the medium influences the message. Designers are responsible for the font and sizes of letters on a page or screen, the placement of words in various positions of emphasis and degrees of legibility, the creation of manipulation of illustrations and photographs.
The designer’s involvement with message is by no means limited to graphics. Unwilling to let a product perform and speak for itself, products designers at some point begin talking about “statements.” And before long it seems as if what a car or a chair said was more important than whether you could drive it safely or sit in it comfortably. But if products are judged by the statements they make, it’s inevitable that the statements be inspected for veracity.
The period of earnest probes into the honesty of artifacts reached a climax in the ’50s with the Great Formica Debate. As a structural surface, Formica had a number of highly desirable qualities. It resisted stains and other surface assaults. It could be made to look almost any way you wanted it to. For practical reasons, many designers wanted it to look like the very wood that it covered. The more effectively this was done, the nastier the sense of betrayal when you laid a hand on it. And the technique was thought to be dishonest in light of the design principle that a material ought to look like what it is and to its own self be true. But what, in all honesty, was Formica? What should it look like? Unlike wood, stone, leather, and artificial materials, it had no particular self to be faithful to. Essentially it was, as a poetic chemist explained to me, a blob of glup. So is much of the raw material for graphic design and so are many of the messages made from it.
When in doubt, don’t lie.
Instead, take expedient refuge in a blob of glup like the corporate mission statement or a perfume ad where truth or falsity are not applicable for the very reason that there is no meaning to which they can be attached.
When photography was new, folk wisdom unwisely held that “the camera doesn’t lie,” a proposition most recently refuted in a new book called Photo Fakery written by the former director of the fake photo division of the CIA. It advertises being “for anyone who wants to be a savvy media observer.” But even non-savvy media observers know that the camera lies when someone with the requisite skills wants it to. If camera lovers in this country have a counterpart to the National Rifle Association they can produce bumper stickers and lobbyists arguing “cameras don’t lie, people do.” True, but some of the most dangerous of them do it with cameras just as some of the most dangerous of them kill with guns.
The late poet John Ciardi insisted that “the camera always lies by lending data to illusion.” Well maybe not always, but he had a point, for the camera doesn’t normally record how things are but how things seem. And a more reliable piece of folk wisdom instructs us that things are rarely how they seem. Ironically, the more various in art the less fidelity in life, which explains how Norman Rockwell, whose sentimental paintings were universally appraised for their photographic detail could so convincingly capture in recognizable particularity the very family that none of us, including him, ever belonged to or knew.
Art is an instrument of deception. As an instrument of deception, it’s not necessarily sentimental. It has strategic uses. The judicious application of fact can work wonders in the support of misrepresentation. Instead of the luscious recital of prescription drug side effects, television commercials advertisers have very little slack where drugs are concerned, in addition to the inconvenience of not being permitted to lie about product benefits. They’re required to state possible product hazards. Unable to hide the horrendous prospects, they bring them forward in sexy voice-overs crooning seizures, spasms, suicidal impulses, and heart failure in the same tones used to sell sports cars.
During the presidential primaries this technique was labeled “candor pander,” with candidate John McCain accused of telling the truth as a ploy. In fact, the McCain phenomenon does have something to teach us about truth. The senator’s popularity was not based on his voting record, or on his self-proclaimed honesty, or even on his heroics in Hanoi. Rather, he represented a kind of truth increasingly rare in our political and corporate culture: he was true to a lie, and was erratic, quirky, inconsistent, and false when it suited him.
McCain was the only candidate remotely like people we actually know. In a series of debates in which the other candidates were programmed almost beyond parody, he stood out as a pillar of honesty. The media were accused of favoring McCain because he was accessible to them, a condition that for some reason was viewed as unfair. As far as I could tell the attraction was not accessibility—all candidates make themselves accessible on their own terms— but accessibility directly to a person’s mind, however flawed.
Information coming straight from the horse’s mouth is of no use if it has been put there by some other part of some other horse.
An election year is a good time to consider truth and design. It is also becoming the only time. Now that political campaigns— like professional sports and pledge week and public broadcasting— are constant rather than seasonal, every year is an election year, which makes it all the more interesting to ask what it must mean to designers if the least designed candidate is the one perceived as most closely identified with the truth.