How can visual communication involve users in the design and promotion of social change

Ken Garland’s 1964 manifesto First Things First (1) and the renewed version in 2000 (2) both provide strong arguments for the need to design for social good. They argue that graphic design has become too focused on communicating commercial messages, and that it must instead be put to use to advance more ‘worthy’ social aims.  The original openly states that its aim is not to abolish consumer advertising; whereas the revised version offers graphic design as a means of providing a stronger challenge to the predominance of capitalism.

If modernism set out socially utopian ideas for graphic design, then post-modernism, in its belief of meaning being co-produced between the designer and audience could provide the answer. In The Practice of Everyday Life (3), de Certeau sets out to understand the tactics by which individuals use products and services, which may be different – either intentionally subversive or not – from the intended strategies of use imposed on them by producers or institutions of power. Socially responsible designers have to be aware of how these tactics are used by audiences to adapt or remake messages.

Papanek’s basic premise in Design for the Real World, (4) is that everybody is a designer and that good design needs to be participatory with users being more involved in designing their own services and products. Doing so would allow them to control their needs, rather than a ferocious advertising market that advances capitalist need, rebalancing the power between the consumer and producer or the user and provider of public services.

Bourriaud’s theory on Relational Aesthetics (5) agrees with the principle of co-production of meaning, but sees this not necessarily as a physical representation which an individual can interpret, but rather the formation of interactions between individuals within an audience community. In this way, the designer is seen as a catalyst bringing people together to form meaning. Bruinsma (6) applies this notion to an age of information overload and fragmentation of sub-cultures, and calls for designers to pick out and structure activist messages and then link together these peripheral groups to create a larger mass of citizens pressing for social change.

1. Garland, K. (1964) First Things First. London: Gordon Press Ltd

2. Barnbrooke, J. et al. First Things First 2000 (1999). AIGA Journal of Graphic Design vol. 17, no 2

3. de Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press

4. Papanek, V. (1984) Design for the Real World. London: Thames & Hudson

5. Bourriaud, N. (2000) Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Presses du Rel

6. Bruinsma, M. (2001) Culture Agents. Adbusters no. 37

Screen shot 2014-03-01 at 14.38.41

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