Power by Design

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What kind of influence do designers actually have?

Illustration by Oliver Munday

The issue of power goes to the very heart of the graphic designer’s self-image. Graphic designers never feel as though they have enough power. They believe that their multidisciplinary skills equip them to make a wider range of decisions than they are ever actually called on to make. They think that things would run better if they occupied a more elevated position. Yet the world never seems to see it that way (no one is handing out power), and designers’ authority relative to other groups doesn’t increase; it might even be lower today than it has been at favorable moments in the past. Even within the pecking order of design, where architecture is immovably ensconced at the top, graphic design falls below other disciplines.

Of course, the powerless resent their own impotence and envy those in positions of strength. The ultimate kind of power is the ability to control organizations, environments, and the lives of others; to determine questions of policy; to decide what will be made and what will get done. This is the power possessed by politicians and civic leaders, business supremos and plutocrats, as well as crime bosses. Power is one of the fundamental problems of life: For better or worse, someone always ends up wielding it. We are rightly suspicious of the powerful, since even at their most idealistic they are primarily out for themselves. But if we stand by (as most of us do) and let others seize power without contesting it, we cannot be surprised when they use it for their own ends.

If you’re strongly motivated to seek this kind of worldly power—let’s call it hard power—then graphic design is a curious line of work to pick. Most graphic designers are not driven to grasp the reins of power. Their first motive is to design, and they are highly focused on the craft of the work. Historically, they have often been solo operators or happiest working in small teams focused on a common goal. They might be perfectly sociable (though many are insular), but they are unlikely to be compulsive mixers, social networkers, and glad-handers constantly maneuvering to extend their influence into fresh territory. Most designers are far removed from the labyrinthine intrigues of politics and policy-making. They don’t often count people in high places among their friends and acquaintances, and they show little desire to involve themselves in design organizations, let alone other kinds of groups where worldly power and influence reside. (This is why associations like the AIGA have such a vital part to play: There can be no wider public influence for graphic designers without them.)

Perhaps this seems a little harsh or dismissive. Naturally, there are always exceptions, and possibly you are one of them—a born Machiavelli who had no trouble scheming your way into a position of influence working alongside politicians, CEOs, media owners, and other entrepreneurs. For readers who have never given the question of getting power much thought, I would recommend The Concise 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene. If attaining power is your goal, here is your handbook. If it isn’t, treat this fascinating guide as a warning bell alerting you to all the ploys those determined to gain influence will use to try to manipulate you. And if you discover that you already practice a lot of Greene’s ruthlessly self-serving precepts (“Court attention at all costs”; “Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once,” and so on) without having been fully conscious that you were doing so, then you are probably a natural power-seeker, somewhat miscast as a graphic designer. Embrace your true nature and go for it!

While designers lack—and, as a profession, will probably always lack—hard power, what they possess instead as public communicators is a great deal of soft power. By this I mean the ability, through their work, to influence, mold opinion, persuade, change behavior, initiate and spread visual trends, shape the aesthetic environment, and help to inform the public. Truck drivers, mail carriers, nurses, construction workers, hotel clerks, and accountants, to name only a few ordinary workers, have no such influence on the public sphere. Graphic designers are in the highly privileged position of using their creative talents to devise messages viewed and read by thousands or even millions of people around the world. This puts them in the company of other public communicators such as journalists, writers, broadcasters, filmmakers, photographers, web designers, and those in advertising and PR, though the association with this last group also underlines some of the problems inherent in design’s soft power.

The extent to which graphic designers perceive themselves as having power is likely to depend on how their skills are routinely used. Designers who see graphic design mainly as a commercial service undertaken for clients do still exercise power. Their power isn’t personal, however, but derives from a client that has power in the world—this client might be, for instance, a big brand. Those who argue that design is “just a job,” to be done with the same impersonal “professionalism” as driving a truck or delivering the mail, ask designers to suspend personal judgment and voluntarily set aside their soft power. But these forms of work are fundamentally different. The mailman has no control over the messages he carries, and there is no creative agency involved in performing his task. If the mailman has concerns about the nature of the invisible content he is required to deliver, then his only recourse is to stop being a mailman. In practice, this isn’t a dilemma that anyone expects postal workers to ponder.

Designers, on the other hand, can examine the nature of each project in personal, contextual, and ethical terms and choose what kinds of message they want to create. Even if they take a purely pragmatic, business-led view in their choice of clients, they are still responsible for the messages they bring into the world at their clients’ behest. The message travels outward, seeking to persuade those who receive it and perhaps encourage them to act. Collectively, these messages constitute the profoundly influential visual culture and mental environment in which we spend our lives. Once graphic designers fully accept their responsibility to the public realm—the same responsibility held by journalists and broadcasters—there is every reason to embrace their soft power with full consciousness (and a clean conscience).

Instead of using their abilities in a disempowered way—purely at the service of their clients—designers can apply their talents and skills to projects they believe in. This is how many designers prefer to work, even in a tough economic climate. My intention here is not to restate a possibility that has always existed but rather to set this possibility in a less familiar frame, as a privileged form of soft power to be actively engaged. Some kinds of hard power will remain inaccessible to designers, as they are to most citizens within the social and political structures that exist today. But the special nature of designers’ work means they have access to a type of public influence available to only a few other professional groups. This can become the basis of a rewarding practice. A degree of networking and alliance-building with those who possess hard power remains essential, but shrewd graphic designers have always accepted this. The key thing is to recognize the reality of soft power and make good social use of it.< /p>

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of Print.


Rick Poynor is a British writer, editor, lecturer, curator, and founder of Eye magazine.