This is a research essay to support my manifesto. The title of my essay is The Designer's Role In Society. It looks at a bit of the history of Graphic Design then graphic design today, and then looks to the future. For bibliography information and more links please view the links page

The Designers Role in Society

“Graphic design is a powerful tool, capable of informing, publicizing, and propagandizing social, environmental, and political messages as well as commercial ones.”

Katherine McCoy

The role of the designer in society has altered over the past century, from the functionalism of the Bauhaus in the 1930s to the emphasis of branding and advertising in the 1970s (Hollis, 1994). The design process today can normally include the designer working with some kind of client and an audience, where the designer’s role is to not only to consider aesthetical issues of the work but also how other influences such as politics, ethics and cultures. (Shaughnessy, 2010) This brings into consideration how personal views on these issues affect how the designer wants to work within society. Graphic design has always been about people communicating with people. For example mass production printing began in the 1440s with the first movable type used in the west for printing the Gutenberg Bible. This development would have had important social implications at the time and one effect might have been reducing the cost of books and making them more affordable. (Garfield, 2011)

At the beginning of the 20th century in the Arts & Crafts movement the artist and the designer were still thought of as having separate roles: the artist to decorate and designer to work with industry. It wasn’t until 1922 when William Addison Dwiggins first used the term Graphic Design. The Bauhaus design School in Weimar, established in 1919, encouraged artists and designers to work together, this included the building of links from the Bauhaus with new architecture projects, new art forms and new developments in design. (Potter, 1989) The Bauhaus introduced ideas that fulfilled people’s needs of design to build a new society from the rubble of war across Europe. The role of Art and Design was beginning to be seen as something not just to make things look good, but as something which could be used as a tool to build up industry and change society.

Into the 1960s to 80s, design evolved into a tool for branding and advertising. Corporate business began to develop brands for their products as tools for growth, which started the progress of consumerism and persuasive advertising where consumers are told which products they need to improve their lives, and are made to feel emotional connections to these brands. (Klein, 2000) Even though there have been these changes in how graphic design is used along side art, innovation and business, the social implications of the design are still there and the designers choices will always have effect on the audience.

The description of a graphic designer can include many attributes. In the AIGA Professional Practices of Graphic Design Milton Glaser suggests what a designer should be:

Let the designer be bold in all sure things, and fearful in dangerous things; let him avoid all faulty treatments and practices. He ought to be gracious to the client, considerate to his associates, cautious in his prognostications. Let him be modest, dignified, gentle, pitiful, and merciful; not covetous nor an extortionist of money; but rather let his reward be according to his work, to the means of the client, to the quality of the issue, and to his own dignity.

This he says, is a good guideline for the designer - the one who makes things – putting human beings needs and achieving social influence as a couple of the main aim of ‘good’ design. Whereas the First Things First Manifesto 1964 creates a more assertive response to the issue of the designer’s role in society. The manifesto calls for a change in priorities stating, “The effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on these trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.” This was promoting the idea that the designer can work on more “worthwhile” projects than advertising for arguably unnecessary consumer goods.

The Clients are often the main people to give briefs to designers and they also have a lot of influence in the final outcome of a project, so their part in the deign process has influence on how the design might affect the audience. In Misha Black’s essay ‘The Designer and the Client’ (1956) he discusses the needs of different client, they might be someone who wants ‘good’ design, or they might be focused on purely making a profit. Either way, how the designer treats the client will have large implications on how the client treats them, and so affecting the freedom the designer might have to produce work which is the best solution to the brief.

The audience can be discussed as the people that the design will effect, whether that is a specific audience for a commercial, a website or a typeface, or the audience as the general public. Since the First Things First manifesto (1964) and the rise of commercial advertising, the affect on the audience has become largely more important in the clients mind. This is for reasons such as ‘Culture Jamming’ that is discussed in Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’ (2000) as the creation of passive consumers who are receiving one-way information. However, the audience can also be bought into the design process and specific audience groups can be more directly affected. For example the work of thinkpublic, a social design agency that work with services and community projects linked to councils and government. They use information from users to inform research and solve problems in areas such as healthcare. []

Considering the design structure of the designer, client and audience I will discuss the role the designer could choose of how they want to work within society as Disconnected, Connected or Interconnected.

THE DESIGNER: Disconnected

By being disconnected the designer becomes a kind of go-between of the client and the audience, where the designer is disconnected from their own personal views. Katherine McCoy highlights this in her essay ‘Good Citizenship’ (2003) where she says in design education design students are often taught to become the “passive arbitrator of the message between the client and the audience”. She states this is a challenge for designers who want to keep their work professional yet in balance their own convictions. The designer being disconnected from personal views could result in the project loosing the creative inspiration that the design may have when the designer is working on a project that they enjoy and can relate too, which would mean the client or audience benefit less from an uninteresting outcome. (Grayling, 2006) However, it could have some affect on the aesthetics of the work if the designers is less concerned about visual appeal to colleagues or clients, and instead focus more on achieving a refined solution to the brief, and there could be more room for innovation. (Spencer, 1999)


On the other hand the designer could choose to connect, and let their personal views affect how they choose to work. The updated First Things First manifesto (2000) expresses again how some designers “have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this view of design” in which designers help sell consumer products and become only concerned with paying the bills. Financial pressures may come from the client or the audience not just the designer, so there are many influencing factors for the designer to consider. In Victor Papanek’s book ‘Design for the Real World’ he discusses his first design job after finishing school, which was to design a radio. Papanek recalls how he and his client discussed the depth of responsibility he was taking on: from the building of a large factory providing many new jobs, to the radio he was about to design that could potentially not sell, and the rebounding affects which might result from this. In reflection on this he says:

“…the designer bears a responsibility for the way the products he designs are received… The designer’s responsibility must go far beyond these considerations. His social and moral judgement must be bought into play long before he begins to design, since he has to make a judgement… as to weather the product he is asked to design or redesign merit his attention at all.” (Papanek, 1984)

Being disconnected means the designer focuses on client and/or audience needs; being connected means doing this as well as letting personal views affect the choices the designer makes. This might make decisions harder or easier to make. The links formed between the client, designer and audience aren’t really a simple chain at all. Influencing views and values become a network of ethical, cultural, financial and political influences that somehow fall onto individuals, and the individual designer to consider.

THE DESIGNER: Interconnected

Interconnectivity, hyper-connectivity and globalisation are all words used to explain the view of the world that we are gaining with the help of new technology. Today technology is having a massive impact on people’s everyday lives; our view of the world is becoming wider, digital communication is quicker and information about many things can be easily accessed and shared. Since the 1980s and 1990s technology has changed rapidly to help accommodate forms of mass communications such at TV, wireless communication and the Internet. Today mass communication has evolved into mass self-communication, where the individual now has the ability to communicate with the masses. Within the idea of mass self-communication there is a contrast in the idea of the world being viewed as one big, global network and the need for individuals to take their own place and be a part of the network. (Castells 2009) This change has created a shift in the hierarchy where consumers have taken the power from corporate business & traditional consumer brands, and become empowered as consumers who want to pick what they need, rather than being sold products that they are made to think they need. Chris Riley discusses this idea and its implications for brands in his essay Sustainable Consumerism (2001) He says the consumers being the empowered individuals means they are taking responsibility of how they live, and how their actions will affect other people.
In Stephen Heller’s interview with David Sterling and Mark Randall (Heller 2003) they discuss the ideas around what this changing responsibility means for the designer:

“We think that it is our responsibility, not only as designers, but as individuals living together on this planet, to be more socially aware, to understand that the decisions that we make in our daily lives may have a negative impact on another life.”

This is the idea of choosing to be interconnected through a global view of the world, where the individual is empowered to connect and take their own responsibility of how they live. This means not only the designers role, but also the client’s role is to hear what individuals are saying and considering the more humanistic need that consumers are often now choosing to place their value in. It also means finding innovative and sustainable solutions to global problems consumers are concerned about, such as environmental issues or infringement of human rights. []

Technology has also given the designer more ways to collaborate within the design structure, and the change in hierarchy means the designer has to reconsider their role. From my primary research I interviewed a designer and their client during their work on a project. They were communicating and updating each other through an online project management tool [] this enabled the designer to not only to run passed work with the client but also keep in contact with other collaborators involved e.g. photographers.

Deborah Szebeko, the founder of thinkpublic [] talks about her experience of change in role of the designer as leaning towards the idea of ‘co-design’ where the designer takes a leadership role in a project to head up research and builds solutions for clients projects. She says – “A purist Co-design approach is great if you want to make improvements, but to radically innovate the designer needs to take more of a leadership role.” In an example of working with the NHS she states she could see the use of people working in healthcare using a ‘design toolkit’ to help solve problems they are facing. Therefore maybe the future of design collaboration in society will not only be working with trained designers but also with unqualified ‘designers’ who need these skills to help fix problems they are facing. Furthermore, the increased accessibility of technology and software that aids design means more people are already using these tools for their own needs. In the book Design Transitions, Paul Rodgers a Professor in Design Issues, comments on how the changing role of the consumer to have more power in the design process with technology such as 3D printing and hacker communities, this means the designer will need to repurpose using their core design skills and design thinking. (2013)

The designer’s role Interconnected means the designer working with clients, audience and other collaborative people in new ways. The individual must take responsibility for how they want to live in a global view of the world and how they can use technology to become more aware of the society the ever-changing global environment. Most of all, the Interconnected designer needs to look at the implication of their role in society and keep in mind their work will have affect on people; design can be used as a tool which the designer must choose how it may affect others.