Cultural Catalysts,
Cultural Agency

Do (graphic) designers have a role in the creation of symbols for a culture, an ideology, a mentality? Are they, in short, co-authors of the ‘visual text’ in which a culture expresses itself? And if they are, does that make them co-responsible, as co-authors, for what is conveyed in that ‘text’?

John Langdon, Turn the Tide, 1999

In today's visual communication there are, bluntly speaking, two operative strategies for a designer: to sedate consumers, or to activate citizens.

In the first, the designer is the instrument of commercialism, which seeks to lull potential customers into questionless accepting their propositions. Even when pretending to merely provide objective information on behalf of the client while saying "we know you have a choice", the message’s main goal is to influence that choice in only one direction: that of the client’s proposition. The design is a sedative, insofar it aims at suppressing any thought of an alternative to it.

In the second, the designer is the instrument of civil discourse, which seeks to provide citizens with the means of information and communication allowing them to make argued choices and responsible decisions, whatever their point of view. Even when offering a biased position, supporting the client’s message, the design does not pretend to be the ultimate answer to the problem at hand. Instead, it activates the recipient’s or user’s awareness of the design’s social and cultural contexts, in which it is embedded.

I have no principle objections against the first approach – generally speaking that of advertising –, as long as it is openly exercised as seduction and not based on falsity. I even find it amusing, when done well and with a sense of irony.

However, when it comes to working in a socially and culturally responsible way, I find the latter method, which I call ‘cultural agency’, more interesting.

A design which acts out its cultural agency, in essence, offers a criticism of the context for which it has been produced: it ‘activates’ those contexts by offering an understanding of, a comment on, or an alternative to them. Design as cultural agency surpasses the one-dimensional messages of advertising and the false claims to objectivity of "problem solving", by enriching which ever message or product it touches with a wealth of cultural and social connotations. This is where the design becomes agency and the designer a catalyst in the cultural processes in which both are taking part.

Being a ‘catalyst’, here, means that the designer activates and accelerates the recipient’s process of observing, understanding and assessing his message. The content of the design facilitates making connections between the message’s essence (what is said or asked?), its background (who’s behind it), and the world around it (for whom it is meant, and what does it refer to?). As said, this is almost by definition a critical process, because it also (implicitly or explicitly) asks: why? In other words, a design which is made from a catalysing mentality needs to argue its contents, not simply state it. The design should want to convince, but also show that this can only be done in a culturally satisfying manner if it allows the recipient to ‘talk back’ to the message, to ask critical questions, even to disagree with it.

That – seeing the message’s recipient as an equal partner in a conversation, who is allowed to answer back – is an essence of democratic culture. Which brings us back to our initial question, about the designer as co-author of the ‘visual text’ in which a culture expresses itself. The democratic character of a culture shows in the way in which it communicates visually. Perhaps the most important criterion in this context is the tolerance of a visual culture for diversity, room for interpretation and debate, within and around the symbolic languages used.

It is the designer’s task, then, to contextualize these connotations in such a way it results in a visually and intrinsically interesting tension. The designer’s role here is not so much giving form to the symbols themselves, as designing the space around them, in which they become meaningful. There lies the actual cultural responsibility of designers; not so much in the form itself, but in what it can mean. In shaping this space for interpretation, in a culture in which interpretation is amongst the key communication values, designers are catalysts – and co-authors of the visual text in which a culture writes itself.

maxb, march 2004 / august 2006

Variations of this text have been published in:
Annelys de Vet [Ed.], 'The Public Role of the Graphic Designer', Amsterdam, Eindhoven, 2006
Andrew Howard [Ed.], 'Personal Views 2', Porto, 2006

resources and articles related to the theme of cultural agency:
Website accompanying the exhibition
'Catalysts! The cutural force of communication design',
at the ExperimentaDesign biennale in Lisbon,
Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon
September 15th / November 27th 2005

Crossing Frontiers of Understanding
Lecture at the ICOGRADA / FRONTEIRAS congress,
Sao Paulo, April 29th and 30th, 2004

Culture Agents
(Adbusters, #37, September/October 2001)

Designers are authors
(lecture, September 2001)

An ideal design is not yet
The world must change - graphic design and idealism
Leonie ten Duis, Annelies Haase,
with contributions by Henk Oosterling and Max Bruinsma
Sandberg uitgave no.18, Sandberg Instituut / De Balie, 1999
isbn 90 6617 208 8)

First Things First 2000 - a design manifesto
(manifesto published jointly by 33 signatories in:
Adbusters, the AIGA journal, Blueprint, Emigre, Eye, Form,
fall 1999 / spring 2000)

max bruinsma