Book cover: Sharpie crosses out the word ‘design’ The library delivered to me the book Do Good Design, one of those rare titles that require actual markup. The author is David Berman, who I guess I should have known about already, but the feeling is mutual. I understand the purpose of the book: It exists to promote the concept of professional ethics in the field of graphic design. Something else it promotes is the specific set of ethics rules published by the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, which have been adapted by Icograda and Norway.

I have been a tireless proponent of Ontario’s graphic-designer registry, the only one on the continent, since before it existed. I sat in on some of the planning kaffeeklatschen at Paul Arthur’s house. Somebody told me I could get grandfathered into the system, which was a bit crazy given that I am not a designer. (It didn’t happen. I didn’t try and I’m not going to try.)

Nonetheless, I ask every graphic designer I meet in this town “Are you a registered graphic designer?” and of course they never are. I then subject them to a minute of so of hard-sell propaganda for the cause, which in one case resulted in a frankly ridiculous blog post claiming I thought the designer was no good just because he wasn’t certified. (I didn’t say that or even suggest it. But he really was no good and would probably flunk the tests.)

Hence I heartily endorse the soft theme of the book – the advancement of the cause of certification. But I think Berman overstates the case and kind of blows it.

First of all, graphic design is not architecture or engineering. Save for edge cases (Berman dutifully notes the 1994 Düsseldorf airport fire, where lousy signage caused deaths), graphic design, whether well or poorly executed, poses few health and safety risks. Fundamentally he disputes this truth, devoting about half the book to an avalanche of examples of the design of tobacco, bottled water, McDonald’s, and billboards and logos in general, all of which are, or are claimed to be, harmful. Most of this “design” is advertising.

The emphasis on Coca-Cola is excessive and serves mainly to show that no matter how far and wide Berman travels, he’s always got a camera at hand to indict a multinational once he gets back home. We already know Coke’s got its fingers in everything. I can find citations for the term Coca-Colonialism going back 20 years. But few, if any, graphic designers will peddle Coke. (Or anything like it – the days of landing a job at the Watt Group and designing President’s Choice six-packs for Dave Nichol are long past.)

Berman really stretches the definition of “design,” almost the way shelter mags do. Suddenly it is (graphic?) designers’ fault that McDonald’s is popular, that petrochemicals are used to mould Fiji water bottles, that tobacco companies made half the food in your cupboard and sell “matchbooks” that resemble packs of cigarettes. I thought designers were just using type and images, not shattering worlds. Berman is not very good at paying attention to scale, I don’t think.

If this book is intended for future or practising graphic designers, it is covering ground they already know. I am pretty sure many designers could muster an even more coherent critique of bottled water than Berman does. The new information for this group (the book’s intended audience) is that there are ready-made ethical pledges you can take. While that’s valuable, it isn’t a book, it’s a blog post.

Some early suspicions I had came to be borne out. I saw Do Good Design as another case of a left-wing activist insistently grouping together unrelated causes.

  • How come Gitmo isn’t in there? (Tibet is!) How ’bout Burma, Berman?

  • The endless diatribe against “sexist” advertising may have a limited point in the case of using sexy bodies to advertise products and services that don’t actually use the body, like cars. But his blanket condemnation only makes sense to 1970s liberal feminists. They’re still living in the ’70s and I expect Berman is in their demographic. (He rails against the use of the word “girl” for any adult female, and devotes an entire endnote to apologizing for the phrase “hot feminist girlfriend.” Surely womanfriend, David?)

    I’m like a lot of people: I’ve had it up to here with straight guys apologizing for themselves. I’m unlike a lot of people in that I’m willing to say so. Berman doesn’t get a pass for dedicating half a page to “objectification” of men, either. The claim “The solution is not to introduce false balance by exploiting men to an equal degree” is easy to dispute at all levels, especially if you’re queer, which barely anybody in graphic design is.

And to top it all off, Berman doesn’t quite have the courage of his convictions to actually argue that the Danes should not have published the Mohammed cartoons. All he actually says is “they certainly did” have the right to publish them. He doesn’t mean it, though: “[J]ust because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. And that is where professional judgement is needed. ‘Do no harm’ is an excellent signpost,” except where it involves offending Islamofascists or defending free speech. Ask some working graphic designers in Holland, France, or Sweden (or Denmark) how they think their professional ethics intersect with the Danish cartoons. Or how it will thus intersect in 20 years.

Plus the book is a bit of a mess.

  • I love how “Pantone” always gets an ® (but Coke® is such a bully!).

  • The province to the east of us is always “Québec” (also “Montréal”); they’re classic appeasements embodied in a single diacritic. It’s just bad English. In fact, it isn’t even English.

  • I see now that Meta Serif is not ready for prime time. Maybe it’s just the too-thin paper, a design flaw that marred another book (the one by that bald theorist with the virus tattoo). I kept worrying that the “newsprint” from the many halftone images would rub off on my fingers.

Cynthia Hoffos is the designer, who surely dealt with a lot of stage-mothering from Berman. But it isn’t their fault. It’s the publisher’s fault. Who’s the publisher? You shouldn’t need more than one guess. That’s right: It’s New Riders (and AIGA).

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.07.17 11:54. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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