Weekend Heller: A Bad Call for Design Freedom

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This is a chilling period in our history and a dangerous time for the future of liberty and freedom of speech. Evils that have been dormant are publicly on the rise. The ultra right-wingers and nationalist hate mongers of the world are taking the opportunity of a free and open internet to spread racism and ethno-cleansing. What once stood in the shadows is now standing in the bright sunlight. Sadly, the desire to fight these tendencies has also compromised certain freedoms. The concept of a free society is based on the presumption of relatively unrestrained expression, a notion that is not always easy to swallow but must be maintained within reason. Most people are appalled by the current rash of hate speech and will do whatever is necessary to squelch it. But sometimes this can create moral and ethical dilemmas.

Design by Mirko Ilic, lettering by Nicky Lindeman.

Recently, Mirko Ilic (a friend of The Daily Heller) attempted to post a poster that he designed for a play about Anne Frank (Ana Frank), the most iconic human symbol of the Nazi holocaust, on Typo/graphic Posters, a social media website devoted to showcasing posters by designers from around the world. Ilic already placed 20 posters on the site and wanted to upload his work for Anne Frank. He was proud of it because the design drew attention to the tragedy of human beings caught in the Holocaust. Over the years he has curated exhibits and produced books that address all kinds of political protest, popular dissent and human tolerance. This poster fit his criteria of a worthy statement. See for yourself. Here it is seen on street hoardings in Zagreb:

The email response from the website’s managers was not what he expected to read:

Hi Mirko Ilić,Sorry, we won’t be able to accept posters with Nazi or racist themes. It is a signal that demotes our project recognition and may raise an issue with other members and sponsors.Hope you understand.

Ilic responded with indignation and incredulity:

You must be kidding me. This is a poster for a play about Anne Frank. It was used by the theater and was posted all over streets in Croatia.This is not a Nazi racist theme, it’s against Nazis and racists. If you can’t recognize the difference, I’m going to pull out all of my posters from the site.Btw, I quickly googled “Anne Frank theater play poster” and this is [some of] what I got.

Of course, there must have been some failure of communication. Yet then he received this response to his email:

Sorry Mirko for the misunderstanding. Of course we know it is against nazi. There is not a chance we believed it was pro-nazi.Still it’s about the image itself, not what it means. The image is recognized as a nazi symbol, and goes through Google. We won’t risk each member of the project because of that.Again, please understand it is the image itself, there is a nazi symbol there. This is not about your poster or Anne Frank play.Sorry for the tone you answered, I believe you still understand our side.

The miscommunication, as such, represents a larger issue than diligence of Google to filter out threatening material. What’s more, there are plenty of swastikas of all kinds on Google image pages. The problem is that the swastika is such a charged symbol of venality and criminality that using it to attack that criminal behavior is viewed as potential provocation. Instead of using it as a weapon against evil, the evil it represents now controls the discourse. This preemptive censorship on the part of Typo/graphic posters is not protecting its users, it is justifying repression. Also, given the overall formalist typographic content of the site, this poster had real emotional power.

I felt compelled to write the Typo/graphic posters crew the following email:

I was forwarded this correspondence between you and Mirko Ilic (who is a colleague and friend but who is also an important designer in NYC).I write the blog for PRINT magazine called The Daily Heller http://www.printmag.com/daily-heller/ which covers the world of design and culture in all its wonderful and strange forms.This incident is grist for my column and I would like for you to have the opportunity to tell me why this policy to reject a bonafide poster representing one of the most famous diaries (as literature, play and movie) to emerge from the Nazi holocaust.I realize we are in awkward times. I wrote two books on fascist imagery and the swastika, so I am aware of the danger it poses and the hate it represents. But Ilic’s poster is within the bounds of acceptable narrative and appropriate content.I am going to write this up as a case of being overly cautious in light of the resurgence of right radicalism and racism, and I don’t want to take total aim at your site. But you have to admit this demands discussion. Please feel free to state your position as you did to Ilic. Or, if preferred I will simply republish parts of this correspondence.

Within an hour I received the following response, which I will let speak for itself (unedited) and hope that it prompts more conversation about the thin line that separates rational thought from over-wrought paternalism and potential harm to free discourse. I am of the belief that in the admirable spirit of doing the right thing, Typo/graphic posters made a mistake. Read the explanation and judge for yourself.

Hi Steven,Even though it is a delicate subject, I am open to discuss and come clear to any misunderstanding or to have my project the most transparent position possible.It is also clear to me this is an open letter, it is free to be published and comes in accordance to the reason we brought up this website 8 years ago, and k
eep it online since then, to give back, to provide a means for inspiration, to connect different cultures through posters, to do good and only good, nothing opposite. Typo/graphic posters is honored for the privilege every designer grants us to publish and promote their work online.The policy for approvals is that we host only typographical and graphical posters — by graphical we mean posters with strong aesthetical properties, like shapes, colors, symbols and expressiveness in composition — and the approval process happens first in a non-verbal analysis, by acknowledging first those two qualities. Being symbol our discussion, Mirko’s poster do have a primary and clear presentation of the swastika. It is of our decision in respect to the negative message it delivers to not host it alongside our other 400 authors. It is admittedly a subject for discussion and undoubtedly Mirko’s poster have great value and its rightful place in representing Anne Frank play and the subject.To bring a public project demands care, especially in these awkward times, and we honestly prefer to make a decision to not offend, raise flags, or be in any political position even though it would not be the case. That is an excessive care and, like you meant, should not have to be. In general, there is nothing to hide regarding the nazi existence and us and our children deserves to learn from their mistakes. But typo/graphic posters is just not there, at that level, we do not exist to aid or support social causes, we exist to inspire graphic designers in the subject of typographical and graphical explorations through the posters medium.I also understand we are not in a battle (me against you), as fascism and racism are a subject we both reprove and I believe you and Mirko will understand my side as a maintainer of a public project. This overly cautions decision is right for us, specially in a search based project where his poster may be seen without all contextual support of what Anne Frank is or the theater play. Quite contrary to having an exhibition where the audience would have plenty of contextual support, from curatorial essays, to printed matter and presentations, in our case, the poster may just be simply found on Google, shared on Pinterest, or through any other means, and will not have all the context necessary (even though we have a description text alongside the poster). It is a risk we decide to not have. Although we know it is a loss we have, for not hosting his poster and other posters in that subject.Steven, I do remain open for any further discussion, we do not loose by taking this subject further. It was a professional decision for you to have reached us, and we respect that, we are open to contribute to your case if you see fit.Best regards,André Felipe

The job of an informed designer is to make these kinds of judgement calls. Yet the underlying rationales are important if we are to preserve freedom. Designers have a responsibility to do no harm. But defining the parameters of that responsibility must be carefully considered.