David Stairs

The editors of MIT Press and Design Observer have compiled a collection of essays to celebrate that weblog’s 15th anniversary. Culture Is Not Always Popular sports the same title as the presentation Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel made at the 2003 AIGA Power of Design conference in Vancouver B.C., which was delivered the very week the Design Observer website launched, at the time a marketing slam dunk that quickly garnered a captive audience for the new site. Yet, despite the title’s heady aspirations, this anthology reveals DO not for what it has aspired to be— avant garde, but what it actually is: largely bourgeois.

I was in Vancouver that day in October 2003, and heard Helfand and Drenttel’s talk, although I didn’t know about DO at the time. Their thesis seemed a little unusual for a roomful of designers, focusing as it did on the problem of “fake science” imagery and the abuse of scientific icons like the periodic table, but their central idea of a less crassly commercial design practice was intriguing. After the conference I wrote a long-forgotten piece entitled “The Power of Affluence” in HOW Magazine online where I criticized the aspirational callowness of middle-class designers who spend thousands of dollars every year attending such events. It seemed to me then, as it still does now, that the question of Design’s “power” was more wish fulfillment than self-fulfilling prophecy.

The first piece I have my students read in design issues class is Disabling Professions by Ivan Illich. It is always something of a culture shock for these twenty-year-old Americans to encounter the socialist Croatian priest who moved to Mexico and developed a philosophical practice critical of Western society. It is especially disheartening for them to encounter someone criticizing professionalism. Most of my young middle-western students hold that word sacred, and have been raised to believe becoming a professional is the ultimate goal of their expensive education.

In his essay Illich, not for the first time, criticizes professions as self-aggrandizing elites that prey on citizens by making them dependent on professional services. In the industrialized world today people are generally barred from building their own homes, tending to their sick, winning squatter’s rights for property, or burying their dead, privileges that have been usurped by a variety of professions. The claim that professionals “infantilize” citizens does not seem to me as powerful an argument as that, by stealing personal agency, they deny people a necessary sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Illich railed against the medical profession, which he felt created a sinecure for itself without improving the overall health of the masses. Surgical delivery, at an all-time high in the US, not only bumps up the cost of childbirth, but disenfranchises midwives while convincing women they cannot be responsible for their own pregnancies. Illich also took aim at mass education, and at what he considered neo-colonialism masquerading as altruism in the foreign aid sector.

Illich’s description of professional elites pretty aptly limns the graphic designers who complain that the public’s general knowledge of design software has damaged their professional standing while filling the world with “bad design.” Design itself does not have aspirations to high culture; it exists in all corners of the world and at all levels of society as one of the most demotic human activities. But the professionalization of design, design “expertism” in a neo-liberal sense, certainly aspires to the upper echelons of society with all their associations, awards, museums, publishing houses, and socially-connected universities and academies, and the swag they carry, a coveted goal for many designers.

One of the questions Bill Drenttel asked during his Vancouver presentation was, Whose culture are we talking about?, and, given design’s history, it’s an important question. From 2009 to 2013 Design Observer attempted to cover things other than high culture (and here I’m not equating “low” with “pop”). Rather, for this brief period, under Julie Lasky’s guiding hand at Change Observer, DO actually grappled with matters outside the East Coast designerati’s wheelhouse, albeit with a benevolent grant from the gatekeepers at the Rockefeller Foundation, even publishing my criticism of the Cooper-Hewitt’s ham-fisted attempts to take into account the world’s “other 90%.”

A hipster doofus can’t resist criticizing anything establishmentarian. It’s in the genes.

Unfortunately, since Drenttel died in 2013, and especially since becoming an appendage of the AIGA (the professional organization for Design) in 2016, Design Observer has pivoted away from such activities and resumed the role of arbiter of taste in matters of Design with a capital D. This shouldn’t be surprising. The two editors of Culture is Not Always Popular, Jessica Helfand and Michael Beirut, are both AIGA medalists and run a podcast entitled “The Design of Business and the Business of Design.”

Helfand and Beirut explain in the frontispiece to their book that they had to necessarily be selective— Design Observer has published the work of over 900 writers since 2003— and that their former architectural blog, Places, as well as Change Observer, both deserve books of their own. Unfortunately, given the state of a majority of the seven billion people in the world today, this is a less than satisfying declaration, but it does give an idea of the priorities of the DO editorial staff.

For one thing, as just stated, design is a universal human activity. Despite NASAD accreditation for design schools and licensure requirements for architects, despite prizes and competitions for corporate promotion, in much of the world design serves human need first and foremost. Here I think of the jugaad movement in India. The elitism of people who see themselves as handmaids of “culture” does not register on the streets of Kampala or Nairobi or even Ames Iowa, and the notion of design criticism is of small concern there. For example, Beirut, who designed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 H→ logo, has had to concede it was simply not up to the task of outperforming Trump’s low-brow MAGA hats.

Second, Design with a cap D has made some halting progress toward recognizing its role as a social undertaking over the last twenty years. By purposely avoiding the other 90% Culture is Not Always Popular reverses this trend. The history of professional design, especially of the Euro-American kind, has always been whiter-than-white and primarily male, despite some minority associations, and DO, for all its boasted breadth, has always situated itself close to the wellsprings of power (just recall the many articles about Aspen, or Bellagio, or Vignelli). In today’s world this is a travesty. If design can’t ameliorate the standard of living for the world’s poorest peoples I honestly can’t think of a fitting purpose for it. That this might dis-empower professional elites is unfortunate for them, but generally to the common good.

Because of its phenomenal popularity, Ivy League pedigree, and AIGA affiliation, DO’s fifteen-year anthology will be taken as gospel by many, just as the weblog has also been uncritically accepted by many. I’m not saying that there aren’t good writers at Design Observer (some have even been my friends), or that their insights aren’t occasionally interesting or provocative, merely that their purview is far more conventional than the weblog’s original banner of “design : culture : change” would lead one to believe. The irony is that while the original talk was a call for intellectual catholicity, here, where 18 of 67 essays are by the founders of DO, one can only give a wink and a nod to the cheek of running thousands of article titles on the book’s end papers in the name of inclusiveness. Whose culture indeed.

Victor Margolin once wrote that designers, and here I paraphrase, are “primarily focused on delivering comforts to middle-class consumers.” Design Observer and its podcasts suffer much the same fate— easy reading/listening for middle-class professionals by middle-class critics and essayists. While Culture is Not Always Popular the talk was a cry for more breadth in design, this book— and I’ve been through it from cover to cover— feels like a middlebrow placement exercise by a friendly academic press editor for an aspirational brand in a publishing world of intense competition and diminishing returns.

In the end Observer Omnimedia LLC will continue to publish whatever it damn well pleases, just as it always has. Funny thing is, I agree that culture is not always popular, obviously, and also agree with that statement’s accompanying critique of the insipid influences of pop culture in general. But I will never fall in line with the suggestion that design is also free to be elitist— not anytime, anywhere, or anyplace. Those who do feel such confidence, whatever their disposition, race, or proximity to New Haven, can strike their poses on the Design Red Carpet while suffering the consequences of being considered silly by anyone with a gram of political acumen.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project. He wrote a few articles for Design Observer during its middle period, from 2006 to 2013.

Comments are closed.