ICA Talk on Social Agency and Design

Last Saturday, the Institute of Contemporary Art presented “Design as Social Agent,” a series of talks and discussions led by notable graphic designers that identified this profession as being at the crossroads of art, society, politics, and the law. Inspired by the work of artist Shepard Fairey—best known for his “Hope” poster featuring President Obama—the day-long lecture series provided historical, theoretical, and practical insights into the relationship between design and society. The lectures ranged in subject matter, from the ways in which the Obama campaign used design to the controversy surrounding intellectual property that was sparked by Fairey’s use of an Associated Press photograph in his “Hope” poster.

Steven Heller, who has acted as an art director at the New York Times for 33 years, provided a historical view of the role of propaganda in dictatorships in “Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State.” Heller pointed to Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin as examples of the first politicians whose photographs were airbrushed extensively by graphic designers. “Mao never brushed his teeth, but in photos his black teeth were always pearly white,” Heller said.

Heller also described how Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini both used graphic designers to promote “the cult of the kid.” In Fascist Italy, youth was idealized: posters which depicted virile young men and women were the cultural advertisements that championed this ideology. In his research for a book on the subject, Heller even came across the Nazi “branding manual,” a handbook with instructions including how to appropriately use the swastika and represent the Jewish people. “Without graphic designers, the Holocaust would not have happened,” Heller said. “I guarantee you that.”

The concluding panel for the series was a discussion in which four speakers addressed a topic with great import for the future of graphic design: the politics and aesthetics of appropriation and the exact definition of “fair use.” Heller was joined by Nicholas Blechman, his successor at The New York Times Book Review and creator of the acclaimed fanzine, Nozone; Elliott Earls, an avant-garde graphic designer and professor at the Cranbrook Academy of Art; and the panel’s moderator, Kevin Grady, editor of the award-winning pop culture magazine Lemon.

The panelists expressed contrary views on the subject, which sprung from generational as well as political differences. Heller, after a 35-year career in graphic design, argued for a pragmatic approach. “Designers have always had influences and inspirations,” he said. “As long as you alter or add to the source work in some fundamental way, it isn’t stealing.” Nicholas Blechman diverged in his stance, presenting his reasoning from the point of view of Mannie Garcia, the AP photographer whose photo Fairey used, without giving Garcia credit. “If I’m Mannie Garcia,” Blechman said, “and I wait all day to take the perfect picture of Obama, and then see it all over the place in this poster, I think that’s not right.” Earls offered another opinion, which framed the debate in near-Marxist terms. “If you’re someone who is disempowered, who has less cultural status, then I think appropriation is alright,” he said. “But if you are in a position of greater power, exploiting someone with less cultural status, it isn’t.”

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that, at the very least, Fairey’s “Hope” poster has had a significant positive impact on American society. The debate on this frequently overlooked aspect of graphic design illustrated the often thorny nature of design as social agent, and the tension that can arise when the morality of society comes into conflict with the morality of art.