Editor’s Letter: The Consumption Issue

Not since the belt-tightening years of World War II—or the recessive ’70s—have we been so inundated with messages about the effects of personal and collective consumption. We’re deluged with media treatments of the subject, from documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Super Size Me to books and reports on the greenhouse effect, childhood obesity, the collapsing real estate market, and growing consumer debt. Graphic designers play a dual role in this phenomenon: As they intensify the desire for the stuff we need (and don’t need), they’re increasingly called on to promote strategies for reducing, reusing, and saving. As consumers become more knowledgeable about the crucial need for responsible living—and also about the methods used to persuade them to buy more—how will designers continue to connect with them?

In this issue of PRINT, our contributors document the ways that marketers and designers past and present have answered the populace, molded their perceptions, and spurred them to action. On one end of the spectrum, tools of seductive persuasion have been refined to a new level of high-concept precision. In her fascinating dissection of luxury real estate marketing campaigns, Caitlin Dover spells out some of the techniques for branding high-end condos long before the buildings’ foundations are laid—and how malleable those identities can become when buyers grow scarce.

Though selling urgent solutions to imaginary needs is as old as snake oil, it reached a high pitch of hysteria in the late ’40s and ’50s. As Steven Heller observes, the crafters of postwar ads for deodorant and toothpaste equated benign conditions like B.O. and halitosis with moral and social crime. These days, plenty of consumer advocates are challenging the blindly accepted belief systems that fill our grocery carts. Here’s a new kind of subversion of conventional marketing: Jude Stewart introduces us to Germany’s Schein Berlin, who devise faux packaging for beer, potato chips, laundry detergent, and other products for movies and television shows. The design commissions taste great; selling clever concepts rather than products is less filling.

Other creative thinkers are making it their mission to subvert the subverters by exploring the ways marketing muscle can be leveraged for the greater good. In a thought-provoking interview with Heller, social historian Stephen Duncombe argues that the language of advertising—which speaks to people’s dreams and desires—should be applied to a necessary and potentially exciting engagement with politics and community.

Happily, some visual communicators are making ideals like these their daily practice. Edward Lovett profiles Dexter Sinister, a minimalist design studio, publisher, and bookstore that occupies a nearly empty basement space on New York City’s Lower East Side; the partners maintain control over both the creative and the resource sides of the business by printing on demand and selling their own titles.

Meanwhile, amid the web’s staggering cornucopia, a diverse set of artists and designers are documenting their individual purchasing and collecting habits. The projects have a personal flavor, but the process also serves as a conscious reminder of their—and our—spending and, by extension, global impact. To that end, witness what a week’s worth of consumption looks like for four very different artists whose work intrigued us. And as Rhonda Rubinstein, a number of magazines launched this year—including Benefit, GOOD, and Contribute—reinforce the rising urgency for social responsibility and philanthropy.

In addition to celebrating altruism and conservation, this issue addresses some people’s ambivalence about participating in the commercial world. James Gaddy recounts the poignant story of James Harvey, an abstract expressionist painter and contemporary of Andy Warhol. Harvey, who was uneasy about the artistic impurity of his day job as a graphic artist, designed the Brillo box that helped make Warhol famous, but Harvey himself remains essentially unknown. And in an essay that examines our relationship with the material and natural worlds, Akiko Busch observes how many of us avoid confronting our gut feelings about walking the line between the comfort and the guilt of acquisition.

Somewhere between parsimony and greed, there must be an achievable state of fulfillment. We thought the lollipop on our cover was an apt symbol for the promise of a state of utter satisfaction. Thanks to the nutrition information printed on the wrapper, however, we see that the lollipop provides not one daily serving, but 11. With the right information, can we find a way to extract our own 1/11th and feel we have enough? How can design help us get there?

Joyce Rutter Kaye is PRINT’s editor in chief.

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