Rick Griffith: A Love Letter to Design, a List of Demands, and a Stern Look

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Processing (,.,.,.,.,.,.,) is a new column by new PRINT Artist-in-Residence Rick Griffith. Check back every week throughout the next month for more from Griffith’s world, and check back every month for a new installment of Processing (,.,.,.,.,.,.,).

You may also listen to this piece in audio form, read by the author:

I have been in a love affair with design for 35 years.

I love design so much and still, I have never wanted (needed) design to decouple from so many things simultaneously, urgently and permanently.

At one point I set my sights on being the best graphic designer ever—not that I knew what that meant—but I promised myself I’d find out. For over 30 years I have put myself in the path of design wherever I knew it was. I gladly accepted the programming chair position for the Colorado chapter of AIGA, curated several exhibitions and organized symposia just so I could program my design education and invite the type of dialogue which would bring my big question into focus: “What is good design?”

I believed the answer I would find was mine—to own and perform with—and in the 20 years that followed I planned (like many do) to make that answer the arc of a successful design(ing) career. It was a good plan—but what I found was that design itself (with great gratitude to all the people who have written about it for the last 30 years) became my teacher, asking me to see The World through its lens. Critically, thoughtfully, with beauty and purpose, in a highly improvisational dance with attention, impact, intent and power. Design became everywhere and everything.

Observing design, practicing design, while simultaneously becoming radicalized and politicized, —here in the U.S.—has made for some interesting observations, and my making has always included the creation of philosophies, manifestos, musings, definitions, posters and thousands of scraps of writing around the studio where I work. This year, with no travel, the papers have been less organized, strewn everywhere, and it’s been hard to know who wakes up in the morning, the Black man or the designer. Each day can bring new disgust, new compassion, new rage, and on the good days, some clarity or understanding.

This year I have grown and become more clear about my participation in various types of action, in various systems. This first installment—episode—of Processing (,.,.,.,.) is about making design bigger, and possibly about drawing out a different type of designer in me, the reluctant futurist, planner, observer and critic. “Reluctant” because it’s easy to be a critic, reluctant because I’m afraid to screw it up. So I’m mixing in things that I’m good (well-rehearsed) at: printmaking, type, recommending books and talking. Each episode will have a few minutes of reading and talking, a limited-edition print from my letterpress studio, and some recommended reading. Thanks for your attention.

At the center of this episode is Control. And Empathy.

It would become natural for us to grow together moving forward, so this episode is a way for me to set the stage for how damn large I have found the dialogue on design and how inspired I have been by the participants in this conversation at every level.

The systems which govern/manage/maintain our complex modern lives have been designed—and are currently being designed by the Zuckerbergs and the Jack Dorseys of our world, and the judges and legislators in our various geographies, and also the Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to name only a few. For the purpose of identifying the systems which we have inherited, we should consider looking at the names and identities of designers of systems in American finance, education and justice from the last 50 or 100 years. We aren’t designing these systems. But someone is.

If we accept this, then we can also agree that these systems are currently serving a select few people, discriminate frequently, and when examined they often reflect the theft or misdirection of resources. If these systems were designed and maintained by people interested in equity, some of us—all of us—would be living differently; if the interconnected systems which “run” this country were designed with diverse imaginations, these systems would almost certainly make more opportunities for MORE people to thrive. Some say that “the system is in need of repair,” and while that may be true, it’s more likely that the systems are not broken—the systems are working exactly as they were designed, by people whose hopes, beliefs and fears are present in the policy they create. So to that end, I’d like to offer the hypothesis that design is, in fact, Control.

It cannot be offensive to say this—and this does not disallow design to be many (all the) things, but as it relates to control, two things are at least true:

  1. Design is authoritative, instructive and very interested in rhetoric.

  2. Design has evolved from small actions to large—profoundly influential—actions
    (2a) and is not automatically democratic in its expression.

One of the reasons we can be drawn towards design is because we are taught, raised, inspired and trained to think of design (control) as a creative and inclusive act. Because it should be, and because it sounds right, and because we want it to be.

But it isn’t.

It (control) is an objectively strategic act. With many other strategic questions—as actors—in the construct. Who to control, why, for what purpose, and how.

And because it always feels so shiny and new every time we do it—“the how,” the graphic design—the actions rely on some (many) creative hypotheses and will continue to explore (i.e., measure and test) the various effects of prolonged exposure (and some literacy) with style and form on consumers, other designers, laypersons in every profession and class, and—for the purpose of expressing a complete idea—citizens.

And in the larger sense, design does the same thing in the way of setting policy, creating cars, houses and products for consumption.

We are attracted to the potency of this creative act for the possibility of invention and that our inventions will bring the world we want into focus. Having a positive effect on others—our egos and imaginations are engaged and satiated, and it’s also still entirely possible that while we do this, we don’t yet know ourselves and our world.

So instead of becoming the best graphic designer, I decided (after meeting hundreds of talented people, peers, students and educators) to be the person who would love design the most. To that end, I might occasionally sound like its critic.

And so if we are going to love design, make design useful, give design power, authority and focus on its service to others—well, we are also going to have
to know more. Firstly, know ourselves more. Know our planet more. Know our price more. Know more geography, know more physics, know more about loss and grief, know more about love and joy. Not just care about—but know more about—the impact of our actions on others.

Empathy has been expressed as a powerful and important action in the professional atmosphere of design for many years now. Particularly in telling UX/UI designers that their work is practicing empathy for the users of various digital products. Empathy has also been used in the atmosphere of design education (and the design of education) as a touchstone for White leadership in classrooms that contain Black and BIPOC students. “Checking privilege” and “holding space” for awkward moments that still have little or no equity for the “othered.” Moments which we can create (as designers) and moments we experience, created by the action, policy, design and control of others.

Empathy is an expert maneuver. Not for novices, not for people who do not yet know themselves, not for the casual thinker. Empathy, when done poorly, is sympathy, and sympathy done poorly is received as pity. We should be more careful about this. We should not teach it, we should not profess to own it. We should replace it with “good” design. We should replace it with lived experience and more diverse leadership and leave plenty of work in the world of empathy to professionals who know how to make empathy work. Indigenous, Black, Brown, Queer people are not concepts to design for (or to) “empathetically”; we are people ready to participate in the design of our modern, complex lives—if you allow us.

Empathy in design operates much the same way charity works in government. It’s a fine impulse but I wouldn’t want to run a town or country with a strong reliance on it. Good policy is the ideal antidote to the need for charity, and people having control of their lives is an excellent way to unburden the designer from empathy.

What else do I want design to decouple itself from? Any quantity of bad things.

But I’ll start with what I know: masculinity, binary thinking, self-service and self-interest, closed systems (interfaces), rightness, privilege, sympathy, pity and materialism. Colonizing attitudes, infinite growth and bullying towards winning, and competition.

Is this a critique? No. It’s a love letter, a list of demands, and a stern look.

Can it be done? I don’t know. Design, like many constructs, is a human invention full of human action. We have to be willing to do it for each other—if we do this work at all.

I love design so much. I believe good design should have no victims.

Here’s the beginning of a reading list for people who are interested in books, for young people starting a library, or for designers who are interested in reaching further into the void. Because we learn from each other—and if you have a recommendation, I would love to hear from you.

  • By the People: Building a Better America by Cynthia E. Smith

  • Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

  • Areopagitica (and of Education) by John Milton

Welcome to Processing (.,.,.,.,.,)

—Rick Griffith