BA Yr 3 Dissertation

Word Count: 5170

Leading Consumption:

Design’s Relation to Consumerism, and The Financial Crisis of The Early Twenty-First Century

Part 1: An Introduction to Design and Consumption

To answer the question ‘what is graphic design?’ one must first explore the role of the designer.  To help examine their role, one should draw attention to the writings of Alvin Lustig, and his essay of the same title ‘What Is a Designer?’ His paper aids in the enquiry of the treatise question by stating that to begin with, design is related in some way to the world, and the society that creates it. Whether one is talking about architecture, furniture, clothing, homes, public buildings, utensils, equipment, etc. Each period of design is an expression of the respective society. People will respond most warmly and directly to those designs, which express their feeling and their tastes (Lustig, 1954). Along with this description, Lustig mentions that the designer must blaze their own trails, and that their greatness is dependent on being able to recognise ahead of time, the trends that will contribute most to the proper expression of the society they live in. Society creates design by establishing a need for visual communication and differentiation; concurrently, design has the ability to influence and lead the very society that created it to begin with. The use of propaganda is but one way that design can manipulate behaviour and decisions within a targeted population.

The book appropriately entitled ‘Manufacturing Consent’ discusses this in the form of a propaganda model, along with the influential and multilevel effects of the mass media; based on an inequality of wealth and power. The authors outline a number of ingredients in their proposal of a propaganda model, two of which being; advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; and anticommunism as a national religion and control mechanism, explaining how these elements interact and reinforce one another (Chomsky, Herman, 1988). Advertising is but one area that comes under the field of graphic design, closely followed by its relations industrial and packaging design; the purpose of both being the creation of desire for a product or commodity by bestowing it with a more arousing appearance, or purpose of functionality, making it appear more interesting, exciting, and useful. This action helps to create a metaphorical social value, and fetishism for the commodity itself.

Chomsky and Herman’s model is described as “the process whereby they [the media] mobilise bias, and the patterns of news choices that ensue” (Chomsky, Herman, 1988, page xii). The powerful [leaders of the media] are able to define the landscape of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear, and think about, and to ‘manage’ public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns. (Chomsky, Herman, 1988). The use of propaganda in mass media (engineering decisions, behaviour, and ideals) presents the theory of a link between design and consumerism in modern Western society. “A design discipline that relates directly to our consumer society is corporate identity. The identification of objects, brands and corporate entities is a significant communication strategy in a consumer society” (Poggenpohl, 1998, page 145).

Graphic design itself is a form of visual communication, using type and images in inventive and visually exciting new ways to inspire a desired reaction within a target audience. In terms of mass production, propaganda creates a demand for design through spreading capitalist ideals, and encouraging consumerism in Western culture, and design actively creates the need for propaganda, by encouraging the fetishism of goods and the consumption of them. There is competition between industries for a share of ‘the consumers dollar’. For example, Bernays puts forward the observation that “when the metal furniture industry seeks to convince the public that it is more desirable to spend it’s money for metal furniture than for wood furniture, it is clearly seeking to alter the taste and standards of a whole generation” (Bernays, 1928, page 63-64). Visual communication (i.e. graphic design) is used in this way for the manipulation of the mass consciousness within the populace, for the sake of the political and financial economy.

Part 2: Manipulation Leading Consumption

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” (Bernays, 1928, page 1). The mass media serve as a structure for communicating information, news, ideas, and symbols to the general populace. Its objective is to entertain, inform and instil individuals with “values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour” with the intention of integrating them into the social structure of Western society. “In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda” (Chomsky Herman, 1988, page 1).

The opening quotes of Bernays, Chomsky, and Herman provide a solid foundation for the beginning of this section with regards to the habits of human behaviour within a capitalist, and predominantly media influenced consumer economy. Western society is composed of creatures that act upon influence, and operate instinctively, no more different than animals of the wild. Referring, of course, to human beings. “Jerry Seinfeld has a sketch about how men go and just watch other men when they’re doing DIY, because they have a magnetic attraction to the machismo of tools. Sure, it looks functional, but it’s also an aesthetic attraction, an irrational impulse deep within a certain kind of man” (Currie, 2004) [Online].

Individuals within this social structure are driven by the need for a feeling of acceptance, and of practicality; as all creatures that travel through their lives in groups, pacts, herds, flocks, etc., that the collective groups of the population allow themselves (subconsciously by course of natural instinctive behaviour and the influence of propaganda) to be motivated towards particular ideas. Bernays describes society as being dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses, stating, “it is they who pull the wires which control the public mind” (Bernays, 1928, page 10).

One could assume that the general populace has become a victim of cultural hegemony; the system of values amongst the social classes manipulated, along with views, ideas, or needs. This stems as far as having a specific product: for example a make of computer, sports shoe, or cigarette. Although Bernays argues that “if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything” (Bernays, 1928, page 10-11), it can not be ignored that society surrenders itself to be almost overly-influenced by corporations and their brands, products, or devices; so much so that Western civilization has become; through the process of natural social and instinctive development, ‘thing-orientated’.

Dugald Stermer explains the definition of Propaganda in the article Propaganda And Persuasion, where he makes reference to Webster’s Unabridged definition of Propaganda as ”the spreading of ideas, information, or rumour for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, cause or a person,” relating this explanation to the designer’s role by suggesting the insertion of the words “products or services” in the place of “a cause or person” (D. Stermer, 1990, page 179). This would suggest that one of the persona’s graphic design adopts is the systematic creation of desire for an idea, product or device for the benefit of a cause, individual or company. Engineering an emotional response within an audience through the use of aesthetic persuasion (i.e. visual propaganda). “People translate an idea into action suggested by the idea itself… They may vote a New Deal into office; or they may organise a consumers’ buying strike” (Bernays, 1946, page 120). The idea could also, inspire a consumers buying streak.

Lionni states that it is possible to fill the form of things made with the feelings and the minds of their creators or audiences. The best proof that this is indeed practiced can be seen when one endows “inanimate objects with human qualities or faults:  an honest structure, a straightforward design, a frivolous detail, a humorous façade, a vulgar painting, a generous plan” (Lionni, 1991, page 170). It must be remembered that construction of artistic and creative ways to manufacture desired reactions within an audience is not the only purpose for the use of graphic design. As mentioned in the proposal for this thesis, graphic design is the art of problem solving through type and image, and creating a visual representation of ideas and messages. Informing and influencing various audiences on an aesthetic and emotional level, with an armada of different communication vehicles: such as posters, books, animations, websites, logos, typography, and much more (Poggenpohl, 1993) [Online]. As Bernays would suggest, It is a tool that can be used for educational and informative purposes, equally as much as those for the manipulative and influential;

“We must recognise the significance of modern communications not only as a highly organized mechanical web but as a potent force for social good or possible evil… [The engineering of consent] when used for social purposes, is among one of our most valuable contributions to the efficient functioning of modern society”

(Bernays, 1946, page 113): The Engineering of Consent.

If commodities [things] can become fetishized through the process of becoming incorporated into Western culture (through the processes of Propaganda and the engineering of consent, leading cognitive development and direction in terms of decision making, and the value of objects and ideas) then there is a great power and responsibility that rests on the shoulders of the designer, and even the profession as a whole. Communication, and the variety of different forms it adopts, is a fundamental element of to-days social structure. The designer can be seen in this context as a type of civil sculpture, or engineer. Constructing the hypothetical clay of information at their disposal, and shaping a specific desired outcome; the desired outcome in relation to the subject of this thesis being the consumption of consumer goods, or ‘things’.

Part 3: With Great Manipulation, Comes Great Responsibility

The use of the word fetishism in relation to commodities was first coined by the German philosopher and economist Karl Marx; (father of Marxism) stating that “man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him” (K. Marx, 1867, page 44). Marx further elaborates on his definition of commodity fetishism by touching briefly on the religious world, saying that the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life. A similar process can be seen in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This is where Marx coins the term describing the act of fetishism that attaches itself to the products of labour (K. Marx, 1967).

Marx’s term helps to illuminate the debate of responsibilities with regards to the designer’s duty and how much potential lies within their field for essentially leading the populace with ideas and values. Designers; engineers of consent; invisible figure heads, posses the skill of influence, and the ability to convey information in a variety of creative and functionally effective forms. One can see this as positive in terms of contributing to the economy, but the responsibility the designer has to the society that gave birth to; and created demand for their craft, that continues to live within the values and ideals which they give voice to with aesthetic vehicles of imagery, and the imaginative delivery of layout, pattern, picture, and form must not be over looked.

“Just like an addict creates a lust for drugs or alcohol, the designer develops a craving for the new, the visually compelling, and the beautiful… The profession of graphic design is principally about engineering a connection between a message, and an audience.’’ (Bielenberg, 1995, page 183). In the article ‘The Responsibilities Of The Design Profession’, editor Herbert Spencer brings light to the logic that there is no such thing as an un-designed product or piece of print. Somebody has to decide the size, the shape, the colour, the materials, and all the other visual details. Consciously or unconsciously considerations of taste, fashion, tradition, convention, convenience, efficiency, and expediency shape the final result (Spencer, 1964). Commodities are given life, and character by the designer, allowing them (as Marx states) to become independent beings endowed with life; adopting a social hierarchy, leading to their mass consumption; becoming worshiped and fetishized by the commodity’s congregation. An emotional response is engineered, and a connection is made with the designer and the product’s audience, delivering an unequivocal message, manipulating and shaping their innate desires; the collection of ‘things’; objects of value, functionality, and metaphorical excitement. Exploiting their deep-seated hominization.

Spencer also raises a moral dilemma in relation to subject matter of this treatise; which is that the designers’ contribution should not only be to the economy, but also more directly to the health and happiness of their society, elaborating on this expression by briefing his audience on how “each year in Africa far more money is paid to artists and designers to boost the sales of Coca-Cola than is spent on designing and devising the weapons that will defeat illiteracy” (H. Spencer, 1964, page 160).

“All communication happens through codified systems, or languages. Design by nature, is a language about choosing.” However, this choice between images, symbols, or photographs; of choosing what information should be used in any piece of design, “puts the designer in the position of leaving something in and something out” (Ilyin, 1994, page 38). To further cite Ilyin, graphic designers have the opportunity to influence the way the general populace is informed. This persuasion affects people, and implicates real responsibility. “Playing with the forms of graphic design language is intriguing, but languages are created to carry a meaning, and to deny responsibility for that meaning is to be ironic, elitist, and chicken” (Ilyin, 1994, page 39).

Michael Rock raises the question of social responsibility in relation to design as being a function of the content and form, along with the audience which is targeted, the client, and the designer who is commissioned by the client. He explains that in the era of the mega-corporation the delineation between companies is increasingly vague. If a designer refuses to work for a bomb company, or any other company/corporation deemed as being socially unacceptable or culturally unsound, they can end up working for the bank that finances it. “The issue of responsibility in a profession involved in the modulation of information is daunting. There is an implicit power involved in graphic design that is derived from an involvement with image production, and all power carries with it responsibility” (Rock, 1992, page 191). 

Part 4: The Thing-Orientated-Being

The idea of ‘thing-orientated-beings’ is discussed in Leo Lionni’s essay ‘The Urge To Make Things’. It begins with a reference to Jacob Bronowski; who theorized that hominization (a term that refers to the process of becoming human) occurred “when, for the first time, Pithecanthropus erectus picked up a stone and kept it for future use.” The literature goes on to discuss how materialistic beings “are more conscious of things than others.” And how “some are obsessed by them to the point of mania.” (Lionni, 1991, page 170). Lionni even confesses that he himself would collect any object which he judged to be “aesthetically, functionally, and metaphorically exciting” if he had infinite space to store them (Lionni, 1991, page 171).

This is, after all, the main objective of marketing and advertising in modern culture. Spreading ideas and information to help sell a ‘thing’ to a target audience. Persuading them that the item or idea in question is exciting, essential, and serves a new utilitarian purpose of functionality whether or not it even be necessary, in terms of ‘fundamental consumption’; i.e. food, water, shelter and medicine. “The engineering of consent should be based theoretically and practically on the complete understanding of those whom it attempts to win over” (Bernays, 1946, page 114), constructing a new thought process within an audience through market research, and an analysis of human behaviour to encourage the consumption of a particular ‘thing’. Bronowski’s theory, is fundamental in interpreting Homo sapiens as creatures of consumption; using tools to a much higher degree for everyday activities than any other animal. This venture into collecting ‘things’ for practical uses serves as a catalyst towards more materialistic behaviour, raising the question ‘is most of what Western culture consumes actually necessary?’ in respect to practicality and necessity.

In the documentary ‘Objectified’ by Gary Hustwit, designers express how they believe that it is the role of their profession to understand what people want, or need, perhaps even better than they do themselves; especially on matters regarding questions to do with ergonomics and how to organise space (Bouroullec, 2009) [Documentary]. This would suggest that a part of the designer’s task could be to instruct society, leading their choices of consumption as to their future wants and needs.

“It’s all about wanting to have new things…” (Newson, 2009) [Documentary], The preceding quote from Newson is later elaborated on by the designer himself in the documentary; with the example that the public could ultimately still be using the same mobile phones that they had three years ago, but they have all possibly had five or more over that period of time. 10% of the world own too much, and are marketed at to consume more [things], while 90% do not even own basic products or services (Rawsthorn, 2009) [Documentary].

“A commodity is a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (Marx, 1867, page 25). The utility of a thing is what gives it a use value, although, this value only exists, and is limited to the physical properties of the commodity that holds it. This use value only becomes a reality by the use or consumption of a commodity; thus social actions adopt the form of objects and their functions (Marx, 1867). An example used by Marx is that the religious world is a reflex of the real world, and one finds that the conversion of products into commodities is similar to the views, ideas, or stories of a collective evolving into something more than a thing: a religion, a lifestyle choice, or belief system. Something endowed with life, value, and fetishized (Marx, 1867). The same can be said for commodities, becoming a symbol of social hierarchy, leading the populace to believe that they serve a new utilitarian purpose that was previously unknown to its audience as ever needing; for example one being able to brush their teeth quite successfully with a normal toothbrush, without the need for a ‘multi-directional’ electronic substitute. “One man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king” (Marx, 1867, page 52).

Part 5: Design and the Economy

The increase in disposable income within Western society over the past few decades, along with the introduction of credit in the nineteen twenties (as stated in ‘The Flaw’, a Documentary by David Sington (2011)), has allowed Western civilization to indulge in products and services that would normally be considered a rare luxury; having other priorities to be concerned with in regards to far too distant pay checks.

“[The businessman’s] responsibility is to the Corporation and not to society… the successful corporation provides more employment, more products and services, and higher tax payments which pay for still more social services” (Golden, 1959, page 131). Finance in the early part of the twentieth century was becoming readily available, and people could instantly own a commodity or asset (emphasising a loose definition and use of the term) and pay it back at a later date in instalments, piece-by-piece, under an agreement, similar to a mortgage on a house. The brand new car, refrigerator, television set, and kitchen that Mr. and Mrs. X had been lusting after finally came within reach. The seed of economic growth and consumerism had been planted. Unfortunately, it was not long before the delicate and freshly sprouting sapling of cultural and industrial prosperity was trampled, little more than a decade later, by the calamity of World War Two. A social, cultural, and economic disaster that would leave the foundations of these systems virtually reduced to rubble. The logical next step for recovery would be to encourage activity within markets.

A general rule of economics is that if one were to generate demand one would generate supply. “Mass production is only profitable if its rhythm can be maintained – that is, if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity… Demand created the supply, to-day supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand” (Bernays, 1928, page 63). The need for supply can generate more jobs, allowing the working class to earn more money and generate more disposable income of their own, which can then in turn be injected back into the economy by being spent on the very goods and services that it was earned developing. A circle would be a poor metaphor to describe this exercise. The process is more reflexive, or elastic: similar in character to a rubber band. The economic circle (or band) of activity continues to go around, but expands and contracts to its active surrounding environment.

“Today’s leaders have become more remote physically from the public; yet, at the same time, the public has much greater familiarity with these leaders through the system of modern communications…” (Bernays, 1947, page 114). With an ever expanding and contracting economy (natural behaviour for a system that can be easily impacted and changed by the smallest of decisions and behavioural repercussions) it seems that invisible figureheads will inevitably influence society. Leading the masses of consumers to believe (with the persuasive power of propaganda and persuasion) that there are things, products, even brands that they could, and should have in their lives to help stimulate positive economic behaviour, and produce corporate profit and growth?

This process is described best in ‘No Logo’, where the author challenges that “if brands are not products, but ideas, attitudes, values and experiences, why can’t they be culture too?” (Klein, 2000, page 30). They suggest that the transforming of culture into a collective of brand-extensions-in-waiting would not have been possible without the deregulation and privatisation policies of the past few decades, In the U.S. under Ronald Reagan, and in Britain, under Margaret Thatcher. Corporate taxes where lowered, eroding the tax base and eventually starving the public sector. With government spending dwindling, schools, museums, broadcasters, and so forth became desperate to make up budget shortfalls and primed for partnerships with private corporations (Klein, 2000). Klein’s argument is focused principally on the corruption and commercialisation of culture, through brands and the corporations that own them, as they attempt to become a part of the social structure of the populace. Turning their commodities into something considered as being culturally important, dominant, and ultimately fetishized.

“Corporations have grown so big they have superseded government. That unlike governments, they are accountable only to their shareholders…” (Klein, 2000, page xxi). One can assume that the ‘thing’ (i.e. products, brands, commodities, etc.) have become the new leader; an almost God like figure, worshiped by many for it’s functional, practical, and metaphorical excitement. Corporations and designers study the consumers every move, next step and cognitive process of decision making via market and customer analysis. Acting as an invisible consciousness to mass groups of shoppers, constantly pushing what they have to offer upon almost cognitively defenceless and impressionable consumers, subliminally selling products, by incorporating them into everyday culture. It can therefore be seen that the manipulation of the mass consciousness in society serves as a catalyst for consumption, along with the behavioural patterns that advocate it.

 Part 6: Constructing a Crisis

“The real economy was stimulated by credit expansion. Why should it not be negatively affected by credit contraction?” (Soros, 2008, page xxiv). To narrow down a long description of the origins of the 2008 financial crisis, George Soros’ book on the subject, published in the same year (along with Singtons ‘The Flaw’ (2011)) illustrates its origins as starting with the public being able to extract more equity from their property for various reasons, later to be described. This granted the population play with more disposable income, stimulating the property market, and subsequently encouraging activity within the consumer goods market, allowing for purchases of a more leisurely and entertaining nature.

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as – an immense accumulation of commodities” (K. Marx, 1867, page 25). To help with the explanation of the financial crisis, an asset (such as a house) should be considered as a commodity; which in retrospect it is, as it serves as an item of use, advantage, or value. Singtons documentary on the credit crisis of the early twenty-first century explains how interest rates were cut to boost economic activity, encouraging people to borrow more, and promoting the prices of assets (such as houses) to keep inflating. In asset markets, when prices rise, this increases demand. The increase in price leads to the belief that the product has a higher value. “Value does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic” (K. Marx, 1867, page 46). The same can be said for assets (which similar to commodities have become fetishized in their own way, as owning property holds a sense of cultural symbolism and status of hierarchy in Western society) most of which are bought and financed with debt; one buys a house, and obtains a mortgage. George Cooper, fund manager for Blue Crest Capital delineates the cause of the crisis, drawing attention to the assumption, or misconception that the economic system in play was self-stabilizing. Cooper expresses the notion that stimulating the economy is merely a euphemism for encouraging people to borrow more, creating a credit boom, or bubble. “We are in this crisis in large part because our central banks have for the last two or three decades encouraged us to borrow more, and more, and more. And eventually got us into this unsustainable state” (G. Cooper, 2011).

In 2007, the top 10% in the U.S. earned 50% of all domestic income; the top 1% earned 24%; and the top 0.01% earned 6% of all U.S. income (The Flaw, 2011). Those at the top were not willing to pay the people at the bottom higher wages, but they were willing to lend them money. The populace was encouraged to take money out of their homes (their built up equity) and invested it into further real estate. This built up equity could moreover, also be spent of other things and not just property, such as goods [things].

A more relaxed approach to giving and receiving credit encouraged more spending on items that people would usually not purchase due to the priority of other expenditure. With more spend, and gain, comes more want, and more greed. Individuals buy more and borrow more, and borrow more to buy more with money that technically does not exist but can be paid back at a later date; although what happens when too much is borrowed and everyone owes the world and his neighbour? The system fails; a system based on consumption; of commodities, assets, ideas, services, and things.

Distress had spread from residential real estate, to credit card debt, auto debt, commercial real estate, and on towards other market areas. The 2008 crisis was of an entirely different character to previous major financial crises. It had effected the normal functioning of the financial system, having far reaching consequences for the real economy (Soros, 2008).

Part 7: The Pros and Cons of Leading Consumption

To bring attention back to Marx’s theory of ‘commodity fetishism’, one can only view this system as failed because the powerful; leaders of the media; engineers of consent; and designers have allowed it to be driven by the instinctive behavioural patterns of the populace; the encouragement of fetishizm towards items of utility, and the collection of them. This could be viewed as systematic cultural propaganda, and the manufacturing of emotional responses, spiralled out of control. With this in mind, one must analyse the positives and the negatives of design leading consumption to truly understand if there is any benefit to this process, along with its relation to the 2008 financial crisis.

A positive of design leading consumption is the environmental impact that designers themselves can have. They have the ability to directly influence and convince their clients to not produce half of the unnecessary printed materials that they are hired to create. They can even use these situations with their clients to “propose solutions that are significantly reduced in size and complexity” (Rock, 1992, page 192). In these situations, the benefit of design leading consumption is sustainability. Encouraging the use of recycled and sustainable materials by clients and consumers, even reducing the need for many ‘disposable’ items, thus reducing piles of municipal waste. In relation to this, the question of sustainability can be raised, asking ‘how much of a disposable item needs to be disposable?’ Hustwit’s documentary ‘Objectified’ follows one design company as they design a toothbrush with a ‘re-usable’ handle, where the tip of the brush containing the bristles is changeable, and the only disposable part of the item, thus reducing unnecessary waste.

The meaning of an object is an almost direct result of its form: for example the shape of ones shadow is the result of the form ones body boasts. The same can be said for the function of an object. It may have meaning in terms of what a person can do with it, the social attitudes surrounding it, and its creative and visual appeal (Rheinfrank, Welker, 1990). As with a toothbrush, the meaning of the object is to serve a purpose of oral hygiene, to allow an individual to brush their teeth. The only necessary and disposable element of the object in question is the brush itself; the handle is an aesthetic by-product (though not without its own function). The handle, therefore, is sustainable, and can be designed in a way to be re-usable. This would be design leading fundamental consumption. Design with priorities, recognizing and accepting its power and responsibility.

“The most interesting design work will consider the design of the essential situation first… For example, think about designing a flower-viewing situation rather than a vase.” (Rheinfrank, Welker, 1990, page 167). When considering objects as carriers of information about the external world, one can see their value as creators of meaningful situations. (Rheinfrank, Welker, 1990). To this degree, the designer can create useful and practical design solutions, and deliver these to the mass populace, encouraging a new social hierarchy for objects from which the human race can benefit from; objects of utility, functionality, and sustainability. This can undoubtedly be viewed as a positive aspect of leading consumption.

A negative of this leadership is experimentation, which, in terms of industrial design, can lead to the creation of things for the sake of consumption or profit: objects that serve no real function or utility for the user or audience. “Experimentation is the engine of progress, its fuel a mixture of instinct, intelligence, and discipline. But the engine floods when too much instinct and not enough intelligence or discipline is in the mix” (Heller, 1993, page 155). Corporations, and industries are now more than ever creating new objects (commodities) on a mass production scale, for the sake of creating something new, and exciting, and appealing to deep-seated instinctive desires of the mass populace. This is tern leads to the unnecessary consumption of an item serving no real purpose of genuine functionality or utility for the user, but help generate corporate profit; “products whose physical essence has been shaped by engineering expediency rather than by a thoughtful response to human need” (Rheinfrank, Welker, 1990, page 165). Along with being able to lead the consumption of useful and functional products, services, and ideas, subversively “Design is about mass production… using industry to produce serialised goods” (Rashid, 2009) [Documentary]. Design and mass production not only allow effective, practical, and socially beneficial design to reach the mass of the general populace. It also allows ineffective, unproductive, and fruitless design to pass through the grid easily into society.

The designer Karrie Jacobs expresses how amazed she is at how little thought has been given to the form or function of objects, including everyday household goods. One of the worst offenders she believes is the squeezable Heinz ketchup bottle. The bottle itself is made from a mixture of different plastics, creating a material that is tough to recycle and more unattractive in comparison to its glass counterpart, and will never biodegrade. She voices that recycling, in consumer culture, is a very radical idea, affirming, “It’s inherently anti-consumption. It’s about not buying” (Jacobs, 1990, page 187). This is an evident negative to design leading consumption. Discouraging recycling, and re-usability. Experimenting with synthetic materials that are un-recyclable, and far from environmentally friendly: quick, cheap, and un-inspired design, for the purposes of mass production and profit. With these issues in mind, what are the next steps for design, and how can design play a role in preventing another financial crisis?

 Part 8: The Use of Design, And How To Move Forward

“The internationalisation and increased scale of the economy alone ensure that the classic model of public domain cannot be retained” (Boekraad, 1992, page 225). As further advancements in technology lead to greater mass production, and greater mass communication, the economy only continues to develop further. Industry has the possibility to become further incorporated into everyday culture, encouraging the fetishizm of consumer goods, and creating a demand for supply. Technological advances can thus allow corporations to meet increased consumer demand, creating more jobs in factories, mines, and shops? The development of new communication technologies, also allows corporations to communicate the news of such new products, commodities, views, ideas, and things creating further jobs within areas such as industrial design or advertising. Leading consumption with systematic propaganda, manipulating the thoughts and cognitive processes of the mass populace, engineering the desired response of a capitalist consumer society to buy things. The only ethical question is how much utility and function these products [things] have in society, and do they benefit it in any way? “Horkheimer and Adorno outlined the working methods of a culture industry that constantly and professionally manipulates the behaviour of the masses… Desire for the non-present object keeps the line to the future open” (Boekraad, 1992, page 226 – 229).

Graphic design is a young discipline, and is linked to the ascension of modern mass culture, and likewise opposed to it; as the profession came to exist as a by-product of the development of mass communication, graphic design tends to sit on the fence of social responsibility (Boekraad, 1992). To cite Chomsky and Herman, with the powerful (leaders of the media) applying the use of systematic propaganda, and using strategically selected information to engineer emotional responses with the use of aesthetics, one must ask the additional question, “Can design be more than it now is: the streamlining of communication controlled by the system of power and money?” (Boekraad, 1992, page 229). Can design be more than the tool of propaganda or the engineering of consent? Used predominantly for communicating capitalist and consumerist ideals with aid of designed images, products and campaigns in Western society.

With the aforementioned advancements in mass production and propaganda, society has a newfound obsession for speed and quantity, one that has profoundly influenced the ways in which the general populace thinks and feels (Kepes, 1949). In the essay ‘Function’, Kepes exemplifies that the individual will tend to “mistake the slogan for truth, the formula for the living form, repetition of habit for cultural continuity” (Kepes, 1949, page 98). The term ‘form follows function’ is still relevant to many contemporary designers, and the design community, although one cannot help but think that the fundamental idea has lost its strength. After all, what is the purpose of man-made design? The purpose of a building is to provide shelter and security; the purpose of a chair to support ones body and provide comfort; the purpose of a book is to read, to educate, inform, entertain, and amuse. Human needs are the roots of these thoughts, and function is given to the object by the labour of the human hand. The function of an object thus gives direction, meaning, and measure to what the creator is trying to achieve. Man is the focus, and the aim is to satisfy his needs for comfort, functionality, and utility (Kepes, 1949).

Before one proceeds to design any object for a given purpose, one should question the purpose itself, and whether or not society’s concern for the efficiency of detail will lead to the neglect of the efficiency of the most important design solutions (Kepes, 1949). “Industrial production introduced new objects, machines, and machine-made objects. They were made with utmost precision and control dictated by clearly recognised and respected functional needs, utility, and economy” (Kepes, 1949, page 102). With Kepes quote in mind, Western society exists with an ever-increasing wealth of products, and it has become incapable of benefiting from its labours (Kepes, 1949). Men, women, and children are limited to a conveyor belt of mass produced items, constructed more for their form and social hierarchy than for any purpose of functionality, utility, or sustainability that society, the economy, or even the environment can actually benefit from.

Moving forward, design must recognize that the mass production and disposability of superfluous design styles, materials, and information is not the only way it can benefit the economy in which it exists. Sustaining these elements however, is possibly the best way for design to help improve the economy, and prevent another crisis, whether it is financial, political, cultural, or environmental. After all, form follows function, and “Design like this breaths fresh air into the polluted and blocked lungs of the body of society” (Boekraad, 1992, page 230).

Part 9: Conclusion

Propaganda, and the conscious organized manufacturing of consent within the mass populace are the theoretical ammunitions that have been weaponized by corporations and applied through the medium of visual communication, i.e. graphic design. When used without due care as to the potential of its capabilities, graphic design can cause disorder and disarray with the systematic control of information, and the engineering of behaviour within targeted audiences. This is evident in illustrating the design profession playing a role in the 2008 financial crisis, specifically in relation to consumer goods markets and mass production, as investigated within this essay. Marx may have fathered the term of commodity fetishism, but one could assume that over the past century; along with the increased dominance of capitalism in Western society, that graphic design has raised it, and has brought it to the forefront of modern consumer culture.

In conclusion, it can be clearly seen that design holds a significant influence over the functioning of the economy. Production and consumption are two of its leading elements, and design is associated with both. The unfortunate truth is that design has become a means for many companies to add value to objects or commodities, selling them under the label of designed products (Newson, 2009) [Documentary]. However, the abilities of the profession do not only serve the purpose of creating value for profit. They can be used to create two of the most fundamental components of its field: utility and functionality. To cite Rams, former design director at Braun, Germany; good design should make a product useful and understandable. It is honest, unobtrusive, and long-lived. It is consistent, environmentally friendly, and innovative; and last but not least, good design is as little design as possible (Rams, 2009) [Documentary].


Literature sources:

Bernays, E. L. (1928) Propaganda, New York: H. Liveright.

Bernays, E. L. (1946) ‘The Engineering of Consent’ in Annals Of The American Academy of Political and Social Science, London: SAGE Publications.

Bielenberg, J. (1995) ‘Thinking About Communication’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1997) Looking Closer Two: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Boekraad, H. C. (1992) ‘Norm and Form: The Role of Graphic Design in the Public Domain’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1997) Looking Closer Two: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Chomsky, N. and Herman, E. S. (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of The Mass Media, London: Random House.

Golden, W. (1959) ‘Visual Environment of Advertising’ in Bierut, M., Helfand, J., Heller, S., and Poyner, R. (ed.) (1999) Looking Closer Three: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Heller, S. (1993) ‘Cult of The Ugly’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1994) Looking Closer: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Ilyin, N. (1994) ‘Fabulous Us: Speaking The Language of Exclusion’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1997) Looking Closer Two: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Jacobs, K. (1990) ‘Disposability, Graphic Design, Style, and Waste’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1994) Looking Closer: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Kepes, G. (1949) ‘Function In Modern Design’ in Bierut, M., Helfand, J., Heller, S., and Poyner, R. (ed.) (1999) Looking Closer Three: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Klein, N. (2000) No Logo, London: Flamingo.

Lionni, L. (1991) ‘The Urge To Make Things’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1994) Looking Closer: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Lustig, A. (1954) ‘What Is a Designer?’ in Bierut, M., Helfand, J., Heller, S., and Poyner, R. (ed.) (1999) Looking Closer Three: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Poggenpohl, S. H. (1988) ‘Secondhand Culture’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1994) Looking Closer: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Rheinfrank, J. J., Welker, K. A. (1990) ‘Meaning’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1994) Looking Closer: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Rock, M. (1992) ‘Can Design Be Socially Responsible’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1994) Looking Closer: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Soros, G. (2008) The New Paradigm For Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means, London: PublicAffairs.

Stermer, D. (1990) ‘Propaganda And Persuasion’ in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S., and Holland D. K. (ed.) (1994) Looking Closer: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Spencer, H. (1965) ‘The Responsibilities Of The Design Profession’ in Bierut, M., Helfand, J., Heller, S., and Poyner, R. (ed.) (1999) Looking Closer Three: Critical Writings On Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Film sources:

The Flaw (2011) Directed by David Sington. UK, Studio Lambert. [Documentary]

Cooper, C. (2011) in The Flaw (2011) Directed by David Sington. UK, Studio Lambert. [Documentary]

Objectified (2009) Directed by Gary Hustwit. USA, Plexifilm. [Documentary]

Bouroullec, E. (2009) in Objectified (2009) Directed by Gary Hustwit. USA, Plexifilm. [Documentary]

Newson, M. (2009) in Objectified (2009) Directed by Gary Hustwit. USA, Plexifilm. [Documentary]

Rams, D. (2009) in Objectified (2009) Directed by Gary Hustwit. USA, Plexifilm. [Documentary]

Rashid, K. (2009) in Objectified (2009) Directed by Gary Hustwit. USA, Plexifilm. [Documentary]

Rawsthorn, A. (2009) in Objectified (2009) Directed by Gary Hustwit. USA, Plexifilm. [Documentary]

 Online sources:

Currie, N. (2004) Design Rockism, [Online], Available: [28 Nov 2013].

Marx, K. (1867) Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen  Oekonomie (Capital: Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1), Hamburg: Verlag von Otto Meissner. [Online], Available: [28 Nov 2013].

Poggenpohl, S. H. (1993) Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory, [Online], Available: [28 Nov 2013].


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