Massaging the Mass-Age

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In 1967, Marshall McLuhan published “The Medium Is The Message,” his thesis on how mass media was and would have an impact on the world (as a global village). I’ve written a bit about McLuhan’s work, most recently this. And also about designer and co-author Quentin Fiore here. Now, on the fifty-plus anniversary of the publication, Chris Riley, who founded Studioriley in 2010 as a collaborative strategic insights and planning practice, and was head of strategic planning at Wieden+Kennedy, has begun “a new conversation,” according to his new book After The Mass-Age, which seeks to define a new way forward. “Where media was once a top-down endeavor, dominated by Western values and corporations, it is now a flat network, one in which all can participate.” His book, a collection of essays, attempts to examine how leaders in social, business and political worlds can best communicate after the Mass-Age. I asked Riley to give us a little insight into his ideas.

Your new book is partially an homage to Marshall McLuhan—at least in name. On the back cover, however, you call this a “new conversation.” What is this conversation about?
The way I have been thinking of this is that there are the old conversations we have had—the ones that define our view of the world—and there are the new conversations we will have. In order to open our minds to the new conversations, many of which have yet to manifest, we have to willfully expunge the old conversations.This is not a new idea. In fact, it is quite ancient. David Whyte, the poet, talks about this extensively when he considers the challenges facing us as people, and as businesses. For my own work, I wanted to understand the conversation we can call “The Mass-Age”. By accepting that the Mass-Age conversation is over, we can be open to new conversations that help us innovate and be creative as we tackle the challenges we face in business and society.

The new conversations I see opening up are ones that enable people to work together. If we fail to accept that our world view is out of date and actually believe there is a clash of civilizations rather than an engagement, or that the web is about connectivity rather than entanglement, for example, then we will fail to have the most productive conversations.

It is not one conversation but many, all of them about how to be generative rather than destructive. This is where designers are critical. The design community has awesome power to frame visual narratives. What kind of narratives will emerge? To plagiarize an old tagline: Where do you want to go today? These conversations, shaped by designers and writers, are about recreating trust.

No trust, no future.

Theodore Sorenson and Paul Rand were creative professionals who understood the ethics, the values and the role of their craft in creating trust. They knew that what they were creating had to represent facts and realities not simply image. As the Mass-Age progressed, the marketing / branding industry lost its connection to reality and traded instead in spin and image. I know, I was part of it!

Theodore Sorenson and Paul Rand traded in written and visual rhetoric grounded in a profoundly professional and dedicated understanding of symbolism, myth and meaning. This is what we need after the Mass-Age. We suppressed history in the Mass-Age. We repressed culture. Now it is re-emerging.

You note that there is a distinction between “learning from” and “learning about” cultures. What have you learned?
I have learned that my capacity for academic abstraction, my professional distancing from the subject, the dispassionate nature of analysis, is deeply flawed. Fundamentally, I wanted to learn from the people and places I had to study. That means not only listening but creating a conversation within which the subject was free to be who they really were. Market research defines the conversation in terms that reflect both prejudice and a specific perspective. Psychology and sociology offer useful constructs but cultural conversations operate outside of those constructs. If we let people simply be, and share who they are willingly, and in a mode they find comfortable, then we can learn from them. That is why Studioriley uses local and indigenous photographers, people living the stories they are telling. This changes you. When you learn from someone you allow it to change you at a personal and soulful level. It ceases to be an intellectual pursuit, it becomes personal and creative.

I have learned that the Western narrative, the one in which I grew up and spent most of my career, has failed. It fails the Majority World by ignoring the continued meaning of colonization, subjugation and the horror of worldwide slavery, to name a few threads. I was just told that “Penny Lane”, the street in Liverpool, inspiration for The Beatles song, was named after a man who traded in slaves. This is real. These stories echo down the generations.

The role we have cast women in as western societies has been terrible. It is taking massive efforts to upturn old patriarchal entrenchments to simply change the narrative to one that is fair to all genders. Gender complexity is a fact that has been with us for millennia, yet the mass media treats it as a new phenomenon.

This means I have learned to listen to the poets, the designers, the writers, the artists—the creative people observing and trying to make rhetoric that is real, narrative that is meaningful and representative of the truth of who we are.

I have learned to only listen to data when it measures facts.

Are the marketers, business people and communicators that you speak about in your introduction, the cause or effect of our fragmented, and frankly increasingly greedy world?
I am not sure the world is more fragmented or more greedy. I think the complexity of our cultures and our flaws are being revealed more clearly. Greed has always been with us, in the so called great religions, in any power structure, in an aristocracy and a corporate elite. Carnegie was greedy. Rockefeller was greedy. Popes are greedy. The men who ran the slave industry were greedy. The c-suite at General Motors was greedy. The Native Americans, who had lived on these lands for thousands of years, saw the white colonists as greedy.

The challenge we have now is that greed is damaging our economies and societies again. The only way to balance the innate greed of hierarchal societies is to empower the non-greedy person to influence the narrative. This is where designers and writers have a huge opportunity. In the past we have been collaborators in change. It is possible to be so again.

I am thinking of Jamie Reid’s  design of the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” record and the poster that featured the monarch with a safety pin through her lip. The abandonment of type in favor of hand written lettering or photocopied newsprint was perfectly subversive. It was design that empowered a whole class of young people. It dared them to be profane. Not everything has to be that subversive but it illustrates the power of design.

This is a conversation we need to have.

Have designers more (and if so, how much more) responsibility for this after the Mass-Age?
There is more opportunity now for designers to influence than ever before. Design is a visual language at a time when visual language is growing, not diminishing, as a tool for communication across the many cultures now tangled up in the web. The Mass-Age was about a few powerful cultural monopolies. A massive complexity is opening up within which clear voices will have a huge influence. Design that clarifies. Design that acts as a node around which we can gather, design that coheres people into communities of trust. All of these things are important and present rich opportunity. But we must also remember that, as you have shown in your book Iron Fists, great design does not always work for a morally superior client. Religions and autocracies have produced great design that has enslaved people.

You have a chapter on the role of creative collaboration in the Mass-Age. Does this mean the individual genius is dead or dying. Can one person make a difference?
Yes, one person can make a difference. The skill now is to do so as part of a well led and disciplined collaboration. The myth is that collaborations are consensus and poor leadership disguised as workshops and brainstorms. Well led, disciplined collaborations produce brilliant work. The task of the leader is to create the context for individual contributions to be seen, welcomed and understood.

I am not sure there was ever an artist who conjured up culturally powerful work from nowhere. My interest is not in creative voices submitting to the crushing power of consensus. I am interested in how well-run, well-led and creative collaboration can be an amazingly powerful tool for innovation, creative thinking and problem solving. I am interested in empowering the creative voice not suppressing it.

David Bowie is a hero of mine. I have worked with him and Brian Eno. Miles Davis. Tinker Hatfield who designed the Air Jordan with Michael Jordan. Lee Clow who created the Apple brand with Steve Jobs. These are all examples of collaborative “solo” genius. I have spent a lot of time studying creative success and invariably there is a partner, a supporter, a financier, a champion, or a team or an organization of people who enable successful creative work.

This book is narrowly speaking about graphic design, but it is much much more. What does the designer (whether graphic or otherwise) have the responsibility to do in this new world? Can we meet the challenge?
Lots and yes. I was watching an interview on the BBC and the interviewer asked Brian Eno if the death of the music industry had made music less interesting. His answer was perfect: “No!” There is more original music than ever before, more people from more backgrounds, more collaborations, more genres, more cross-genres, more recordings … more really new music and more really great versions of old music. Eno sees what I see: that this is a golden age for creativity. Data is not crushing creativity but it is creating a new context and offers us new tools and new enemies. The web is tangled, designers can untangle it, help us see clearly, inspire us, entertain us, promote new ethics, introduce new ideas, remove barriers, and do all the things design has always done.

I was a teenager in Joy Division’s Manchester, when Peter Saville opened our young minds to the power of graphic narrative. I presented in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a few years ago to students who were in the same mode: open-minded and excited about new influences from far away, yet grounded in their own culture and heritage. I saw that my own journey was from “Unknown Pleasures”, Saville’s incredibly rich album cover for Joy Division, to the Apple logo. Each steeped in meaning, each linking two disparate concepts. Design is one of the most powerful of the creative disciplines. This is an incredible moment for design.

The designer has a responsibility to help us understand the world. This has always been a responsibility. In today’s world where media is more complex, ideas less hegemonic, and assumptions often wrong, the designer has a responsibility to go deeper into the meaning of the work, be open to broader and maybe conflicting influences, challenge orthodoxy (as usual), and as always avoid the seductive power of new technologies in the pursuit of “cool”.

Can we meet the challenge? Yes. A thousand times yes. But every line, every pixel, every layout, every little bit of design counts. There is and never has been an easy way to do influential work that contributes to our cultures.

Design is a profoundly human activity. I am not afraid of algorithms. I am afraid of conformity. Machines conform. Designers don’t.


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