I make a three-hour car journey each week from Dorset to London. I use it as my thinking space. My phone is off and no one can get at me. Sometimes I seem to disappear into a trance-like state and become oblivious to the motorway signs that flash by until – hey presto – I have arrived. But, more often than not, I solve design problems or think about getting older, what may lie ahead or what I have been doing for the past half century in this funny old business called graphic design. Under normal circumstances, I am very much a ‘here and now in the moment’ sort of person, but when cosseted alone in a car on an open road, my mind seems to want to open up in sympathy. This is what was going on in my head during a recent M3 journey back to Dorset, why not join me...
A decade ago, I gave a speech at the Royal Society of Arts. It was called From Caveman to Spray Can. It was 40 minutes long and I’d thought about it deeply (if you’ve got the time to spare, click on the link at the foot of this post and it will take you to it, but make a coffee first).
Why am I thinking about this? Well, last week you might have heard about the new advice given by the World Health Organization on the hidden sugar levels in everyday food and drinks. They have advised that we should halve our intake – talk about bolting the stable door… We all know that, with the rapid increase in obesity, especially in children, we are on a collision course for many unpleasant medical issues down the line, the key one being diabetes.
So where does graphic design fit into all this?
All will become clear after you read this extract from my speech back in 2004…
“The abundance of alcohol, dressed up in fun, funky packaging, has also been targeted directly at the young, inexperienced drinker. Before you can turn around, it could be your own son or daughter who has transformed into one of the many marauding late-night drinkers who are making so many of our town centres no-go areas after 10 pm. And scenes like this are commonplace...
And here we are during the very month that the licensing laws are being extended, which will – I have no doubt – contribute to making matters even worse.
It is the same designers who make attractive to innocent eyes products filled with sugar, fat, salt and artificial additives that can heighten a child’s activity to such an extent that some have to be prescribed tranquilisers. A far better use of the graphic designers’ talents would be to devise a universal, clear labelling policy imposed on all food retailers so that concerned parents can see at a glance what these products really contain and the harm they can cause.
It is the same designers who decorate the packaging of McDonald’s and Burger King with free promotional merchandising gifts, in order to lure our children to the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the local multiplex cinemas, where they will be fed yet more sugar, fat and salt in vast buckets while watching movies that mostly dull the mind.
And it is the same designers who create staggeringly complex interactive software games, but many so unbelievably violent that they are given an 18 certificate. But still they fall into the hands of eight-year-olds, with their parents often oblivious to what their young are viewing on their computers or what it is doing to their impressionable minds.
All of the areas that I have mentioned come into direct contact with the graphic designer.They are ‘designed’ but, in my view, without any or very little sense of social responsibility.”
Well, that was ten years ago, and I think you’ll agree that little has changed.
We may all be in love with our profession as graphic designers, obsessing over kerning, the quality of paper, the craft of letterpress or some new-fangled form of digital printing or binding. We may be happy awarding each other prizes for our work in a back-slapping, mutual admiration society. But, let’s face it: in the overall scheme of things, we don’t amount to much when compared to a doctor, a policeman/woman, a nurse, care worker, a teacher, an overseas aid worker or a research scientist. No, we can’t measure up to that group.
But what we can do with what skill we have is put it to good use. Use that can benefit society rather that harm it, as described in the quote from my speech above. If you are a designer, ask yourself: am I colluding with a food or drinks manufacture in minimising the bad points of a product though a designed subterfuge to make the product look enticing to children? If the answer is yes, you have some serious thinking to do. A design ‘strategy’ is often little more than a plan of action to hoodwink customers into thinking that a product is good and safe for them and their children when it is not. Or you might be colluding on promotional material to divert attention from the many levels (with still more coming out of the woodwork) of criminal activities of the banking fraternity. There have been a plethora of insultingly patronising promotions in recent months attempting to paint a ‘caring’ banking picture when we all know that they don’t give a shit and all that matters are their profit margins and the ever-increasing ‘compensation’ for the very people who plotted and planned the criminal strategy in the first place but never ended up in prison. They are still there briefing their advertising agencies to come up with yet more condescending white wash like this...
Just one on the many ads spewed out of the bank to deflect our attention from their wrong doings.
As you can tell, being with me here in the car, I’m on a bit of a rant. But, to be serious for a moment, I have been fortunate during my 50 years as a designer in attaching myself to things I love and have a passion for: literature, cinema, theatre, dance and music. All of these are areas that best reflect and comment on our existence; they make us think and they inspire us. When it comes to work, I have always believed that if you exude enthusiasm about something you love, it communicates powerfully to a client and they know you will give so much more to a project.
The truth is that the graphic design community can do so much in bringing beauty, intelligence and integrity to our society. But it can also collaborate in helping to degrade life to an increasingly depressing level. So please use your talent wisely.
Here's something that might suprise you: every designer’s favourite, an Innocent smoothie. We all love their witty, charming, conversationally crafted copy and their unconventional style. But what they never tell you is...
that some of their smoothies contain the equivalent of 3.5 Krispy Kreme sugar-glazed donuts.
The other designer favourite is Vitaminwater, with its pseudo-pharmaceutical packaging looking brimming with health benefits. Not a bit of it.
Every time you down a bottle, 13 tablespoons of sugar go down with it.
Interestingly, both of these companies were bought by Coca Cola – now we’re talking sugar. For more surprises, look here.
And to read the full From Caveman to Spray Can speech from 2004, click here.