Graphic Crimes

The moment you say, you are creating a brand for a high-end commercial product, eyebrows are raised and in an instant you are the lone ranger in a party. I have also been the part of that crown before. And sometimes still look at the person with a suspicion. And, the suspicion grew when I read Adrian Shaughnessy’s article in his book, Scratching the Surface, which talks about the catastrophic riots that ripped through English cities during four days in August, 2011 :

One group has so far escaped the blame : designers. Hardly surprising — who could possible think that we mild-mannered individuals are somehow reponsible for murder, theft, arson and civil disobedience on an apocalyptic scale ? And yet, a salient feature of these riots has been the fact that the main target of the attacks has been the shops of the major retail brands of British commercial life.

In India, the recent debacle surrounding Nestle’s Maggi didn’t just last for 2 minutes. The product which had gathered a permanent position in every household’s monthly shopping, garnered feelings similar to the betrayal of the political party (AAP in India) towards it’s voter. The only difference, you didn’t have to be above 18yrs to feel sorry about Maggi. What got my interest was the blame on the brand ambassadors who endorsed Maggi. Well, yes, again, the branding agencies escaped the blame. But this was a critical situation, nonetheless.

Very recently, I went to buy some frozen food products and since I was in a different country, I was completely unaware of the brands existing there. I picked up some products, largely based on how they looked on the packaging. Now, I am aware of lot of production houses who do food photography and I myself have enjoyed the making as well as the end results of the videos. The process, the technology that is involved, that makes it mouth watering. But, to my dismay, when I opened it, it was nothing close to what was on the packaging. Well, this is not a rant or a hungry man’s tragic story. But, it just made me think about what Adrian Shaughnessy was saying in his article. Although Ofcourse, the gravity of the issue is absolutely different, but scratching the similar surface. Does this mean, graphic designers are to be blamed here ?

When Ken Garland published his First Things First manifesto in 1963 in London, with 20 other designers, photographers and students, the manifesto was a reaction to the staunch society of 1960s Britain and called for a return to a humanist aspect of design. It lashed out against the fast-paced and often trivial productions of mainstream advertising, calling them trivial and time-consuming. It’s solution was to focus efforts of design on education and public service tasks that promoted the betterment of society. At that time, it gained a lot of popularity as well as approval. People took upon themselves the ‘creative revolution’.

So, when Adrian Shaughnessy adressed this topic in his book, it wasn’t the first clarion call. Then why inspite of so many years and some progress in the field, we are still talking about the urgency of it ? Why are we still lacking the pace ? Talking about the overly lavish and the ‘commercial design’, Rick Poynor writes : ‘Design’s love affair with form to the exclusion of almost everything else lies at the heart of the problem.’

I am a complete supporter of ‘First Things First’. But, inspite of that, I do not take a radical approach towards the commercial design. I don’t think there is anything wrong in designing a brand experience for, let’s say a fashion brand. Since years, people have been talking about the urgency of social design and convincing designers the need for it. And designers are humans who don’t wake up with a thought, that they want to design something which is going to make people’s lives full of envy ! I believe the missing part is ‘what’ ? What is expected out of social design ?

C.K Prahlad in his book ‘Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’ talks about the opportunities that lay in social design at the below poverty line markets. A clear example is the distribution of the various cellular service to the rural areas of the country. The main goal was to make technology available to everyone and of course, it created a lot of business for the companies. But what is interesting, the people living in the rural areas weren’t just the consumers, they were the providers as well. They were not just the end product, but very much the part of the whole process. I don’t remember who said this, but I believe in this : Don’t give charity, give ideas. Social design in it’s most crude form means doing good for people. And there is no definition for doing good.

Well, what I am trying to say is, let’s not shy away from selling stuff. If there are products, we need to sell them and we need to sell them damn well. And there is no but. Because lot of them are already changing the definition of ‘sell’.