culture agents
by max bruinsma

Back in that mythical year of rebellion, 1968, a German student leader in Paris named Rudy Dutschke developed an idea that sounded blasphemous to his French counterparts, the young revolutionaries who were about to storm the next Bastille. Dutschke argued that trying to seize the strongholds of bourgeois power by force would amount to romantic heroism of the most ineffective kind. Instead, he proposed a rather less sexy strategy: go in, behave — and take over. He called it "the long march through the institutions." 

"return to normal",
anonymous poster, Paris, 1968

Dutschke's idea of slowly infiltrating the centers of power and engender change from within had a fatal flaw: it didn't take into account an age-old reflex of youthful activism — they want the world, and they want it now. To work patiently in the lair of the enemy until you've reached the point where you can stand tall and say, "We're going to make some changes around here," is a tough act to follow. Even today, when youth often seems a prerequisite for power, it is hard to withstand the lure of the status quo once you are a part of it.

On the other hand, there has probably been no time in history when Dutschke's strategy could be employed more successfully. Today's institutions are hardly the buttressed retreats of the powerful they once were. And power itself has been considerably democratized, by the joint forces of flattening social hierarchies and the empowering effects of the media. The average individual in western society has more tools, more platforms and more opportunity to fight for what they think is right than the Paris revolutionaries could have ever dreamed of. Everybody can have their 15 minutes of fame now. The question has become: how to use them? And why? 

Design is an essential factor in answering this question. A famous Paris '68 slogan was, "l'Imagination au pouvoir!" It was a slap in the face of those who tried to keep things as they were, unquestioned. Design played a pivotal role in the Paris uprising that year, not only in getting the message across that things could be different, but, more importantly, getting people to read it with a broad smile of recognition, which any marketeer will confirm is the first stage of action. The power of imagination has since proven to be immense — and totally unattached to ideology. Some of the Paris activists' poster designs and slogans can compete with the best art direction and copywriting ever — "Under the Pavement, the Beach!" — but the design lessons implicit in activism have been embraced most effectively by that old stooge of Big Capital, advertising. And not just since 1968. With only slight exaggeration, one can hold that any innovation in mass propaganda has started with the powers that be slashing the opposition and taking over their PR approach. The techniques of mass communication are as 'value-free' as elementary math. What counts is the reason for using them: is it to sedate consumers or to activate citizens?

This distinction cannot be made so clearly anymore. What if Benetton proves to be a serious factor in raising AIDS awareness? What if Greenpeace starts selling branded pullovers through a worldwide network of franchises? Well, then those who think that commercialism and good causes are incompatibly opposed have a problem. Which they do. 

I'm convinced that one can do both: earn a good living by working for companies that are not obviously out to poison the world (although they may have their tacky sides), and at the same time work with those whose critical view on the bigger picture you share. Although it is hard to imagine that an anti-tobacco billboard could be made by the same designer who creates Marlboro ads, allegiance and critique are not incompatible — should not be incompatible. The idea that one should be completely and utterly faithful to those who pay you strikes me as rather medieval. As does the idea of total and utter opposition to anything that doesn't comply with your own standards. The absolute antithesis between an ideologically purist periphery and the corrupted centers of power seems to me to be as obsolete as that between Utopia and Babylon. They both have become suburbs of the global village, with a lot of traffic between them.

One great potential of the mediated society, with its open access to the infrastructures of mass communication, is that if you care enough, you can make a difference right in the center of the discourse. Although you may not be in a position to forge radical change now, you could be part of the public debate and help change the perspective. Showing the other side of issues that are being highjacked by single-interest lobby groups and compensating for simplistic views on complex problems, are activities for which graphic designers are very well placed. As communicators in a world which hinges on communication, they share a large part of the responsibility for the quality of the public debate.

Culturally speaking, in spite of the growing forces of corporate convergence and globalization, the world has become a network of peripheries. These peripheries may be called life-styles, subcultures, pressure organizations, lobby groups, themed communities, special interests, activists, or what have you, but regardless of their tag, they interlink, communicate, interact, and overlap. Linking these peripheries with each other and with what remains of the centers of cultural identity and power is a design commission of the greatest importance. In my view, it’s a commission that is central to any design activity — it is here, that designers actively become cultural agents. 

Maybe this is the designers’ version of the "long march through the institutions:" Designers can make a huge difference, not just because they know how to make things look appealing — although that helps — but more importantly because they are, or ought to be, experts in imaginative communication and in structuring messages to be understood by a broad audience. Since design has become not just a problem-solving tool, but a visual language, designers are in a perfect position to channel critical notions and alternative views into even the most prosaic commissions. When working from this mentality, designers could take the imagination to the next level, activating a critical sensibility instead of merely triggering buying impulses. This view on design will not accept that design's visual language be used as a "hidden persuader." Quite the contrary: it aims at being openly provocative, directed at a critical and visually literate audience. 

Commercial culture today pays lipservice to an increasingly critical public, adopting slogans like "Sometimes you gotta break the rules" (Burger King), "Innovate don't imitate" (Hugo Boss), or "Be an original" (Chesterfield cigarettes). In his exemplary article on advertising as "the whispering intruder", in Eye, autumn 1998, Rick Poynor pointed out that "this rhetoric, exhilarating as it might sound, is nonsense — there is nothing remotely radical about upholding the status quo, however stylishly you do it — it is part of a larger tendency, particularly in American advertising, to claim for the consumer the language and ‘attitude’ of uncompromising rebellion."

When ‘rebellion’ becomes a life-style option promoted by major commodity brands, it's time to regain some of the territory lost to advertising and hark back to the lessons of Paris '68. True, they were designers of their own messages. They had not yet begun the "long march." But quite a few of them, in Paris and elsewhere, have subsequently shown that commercial success and social responsibility are not incompatible. Their design mentality is a modus operandi that judges form in terms of content, and sees content in terms of action. Since the core of design, for any medium, is to connect information with actions by readers or users in a social and cultural context, it follows that designers should be aware of their ethical and social responsibilities. From this mindset the world of communication is regarded not as the abstract result of information theory, nor as a neutral field of ‘problem-solving’ expertise, but as a very real environment in which real people interact on the basis of real needs and real information. Beyond formal virtuosity, the designer has a responsibility, as Dutch designer Jan van Toorn put it in the 1970s, to "visualize the origins and manipulative character of a message" — a necessity that grows all the more urgent as the information society shifts towards an information deluge. This mentality of engagement with the contexts of design, and with the people and causes which it serves, can be the basis for engendering change in a society and culture which are not yet perfect. 

Even if a studio's main work is ‘mainstream,’ a periphery of experimental and communitarian work can still be central to its development and innovation. Imagine that every design studio donated a small percentage of its time and resources to ‘the public cause,’ however they perceive it — this single act would help take back some of the public domain that is now so dominated by advertising in its blandest form. It could give an effective quality impulse to the public debate on matters that are now discussed mainly along the distant edges of power. Design can be a potent tool to channel these peripheries back to the center of the civil discourse of democracy, the agora, the marketplace of ideas and opinions which is the public domain. That, ultimately, is what responsible designers, as cultural agents, should aim at: keeping the eyes and minds of their fellow citizens wide open.

This article is a shortened version of the essay "The Long March", published in American Center for Design’s 23rd 100 annual show of excellence catalogue, 2001, and can be read as an extension of my essay "An ideal design is not yet", in: "The World Must Change – Graphic Design And Idealism", Amsterdam, 1999. 

max bruinsma