Publishing a picture of George W. Bush with blood oozing from his eyes was not the most opportune image to emblazon a magazine cover immediately following 9/11, especially when the nation’s patriotism was on high alert. Yet ten years ago that was the cover of Worldstudio‘s Fall 2001 SPHERE magazine, devoted to dissent and advocacy, subtitled “Wish You Were Here.” The contents included commentary on recycling, AIDS, the environment, war and, George W. Bush’s contentious election. SPHERE was partly comprised of perforated postcards (below) illustrating these issues, created by designers and addressed to Mr. Bush as a means of expressing dissent.
The magazine was printed and delivered to the post office over a month prior to 9/11, but was sent out through the bulk mail service, which meant subscribers received it shortly after.
The timing couldn’t be worse.
Dissent was on indefinite hiatus in the wake of 9/11. And Mark Randall, co-founder of Worldstudio, a New York design firm specializing in social activism, received some vituperative complaints from SPHERE’s recipients (mostly designers).
I have been assembling a collection of design magazines for a history of the genre and recently asked Randall if, in retrospect, he erred and should have done anything different?
“This project underscores the importance of timing when making a political statement,” he told me. “But timing – especially when it comes to dramatic events like 9/11 – is often out of your control. So we feel we did not err. Granted we were making a bold partisan political statement on the cover against Bush by using a very provocative image of the president (by Seattle designer Shawn Wolfe) with the headline ‘Wish You Weren’t Here,’ but the topics in the magazine ranged from support for education and ending homelessness to equal housing for all, issues I am sure that most Americans would agree on. The tragic events of September 11th did not eradicate these fundamental problems, and ten years later every single one of them are still with us.”
Worldstudio was then, and is still known for initiating social action. SPHERE was funded by a Sappi “Ideas That Matter” grant for not-for-profit causes. The funds covered production and free distribution to 15,000 designers across the country. However, after 9/11 “we came to the mutual decision with Sappi to stop distributing additional copies,” Randall admits. “It was a message that was not going to be heard over the events of 9/11 and rightly so.” About a year later Worldstudio spoke to Sappi about distributing the publication at a design conference and they agreed. “In the intervening year the furor had died down and we had received a lot of positive support.”
The following issue of SPHERE was supported by Adobe Systems and Mohawk Fine Papers and featured articles about artists and designers who addressed tolerance through their work. “The events post 9/11 towards Muslims revealed just how intolerant we can be,” Randall adds. “For the centerpiece of this issue we created a unique mentoring program where professional designers working with talented college students created posters dealing issues of tolerance. Full-sized copies of the posters were bound into the magazine, which was again mailed free to 15,000 designers.”
Writing in Eye magazine, design critic Rick Poynor said that the need for graphic commentary had not diminished because of the events of 9/11. “As we head into an alarming and uncertain future, it has increased.” Randall concurred, “the incident around SPHERE clearly demonstrated the benefits of design. The fact that it was met with such vitriolic response indicates the power it had to elicit a strong emotion and foster debate, which was evident on Internet forums at the time. That is exactly what social commentary should do. Indifference would have been far worse – death by ennui.”
Poynor also noted that some people were conflating terrorism with dissent. And Randall recalled “Many readers told us to move to Afghanistan if we hated America so much. One reader likened the magazine to ‘shit produced by faggot-loving Nazis,’ which of course is an amusing oxymoron. So often – especially in politics – attack of the opposition is re-framed in the extreme no matter how ridiculous it is. We did realize that this was misplaced anger. At that time any hint of a different viewpoint or perceived opposition was roundly confronted.”
Nonetheless in 2001, the concept of designers engaged in social issues was not de rigeur. Randall recalls that Worldstudio was often dismissed as “do-gooders.” Now in 2011 the idea of design as a tool for positive social change has caught like wildfire through out the industry. “A project like SPHERE’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ had its place in history,” says Randall, who in 2010 co-founded (with me) the School of Visual Arts’ IMPACT! Design for Social Good Summer residency program, “But I feel that in 2011 a project like this would be naïve. The need for social commentary will always be important but going beyond commentary into the realm of ‘doing’ is much more important. We need to push the boundaries of what design can do.”
Randall fears that this current thrust toward activism may turn into passing trend “as designers realize how hard the work really is, tire and give up. Therefore,” he insists “it is vital that we create sustainable models for socially minded work so that it is ongoing and can grow.”