Design vs conflict in Print
By Monica Racic
“The campaign broke rules: In big headlines it told voters not to vote for a Negro; it told voters in one ad to vote for Stokes’ opponent, Seth Taft; and it changed themes in midstream.” —“Advertising and Politics: The Cleveland Mayoral Campaign,” page 17.
Print: In 1967 Carl Stokes was elected as mayor in Cleveland, Ohio, making him the first black mayor of a major U.S. city. His unconventional political campaign focused on the interaction between the headline and the copy. For example, one ad stated in large, bold letters to “Vote for Seth Taft,” Stokes’ opponent. However, it’s not until you read the copy that you realize it’s questioning Taft’s abilities as a leader and is promoting Stokes, in a rather subtle, yet arresting way. These tactics seem so striking because they defy the tenets of a carefully crafted political campaign, which would try to avoid alienating any potential voters at all costs. But in actuality, the reaction and publicity it incited is the ultimate objective of a political campaign. I think it’s that audaciousness which catches my attention even 40 years later. How did this approach fit in the social landscape and become such an influential ploy in the political playing field?
FOX: The late ’60s were a fiery time, a very difficult time, in particular for the Midwest. A lot of people who saw the campaign didn’t read the copy, and so the campaign got a lot of publicity. Many people felt that Stokes won because of the campaign. There’s really never been advertising like that before, and these ads really touched a lot of nerves. They were innovative for the times. The reason we did this story was because you can’t imagine the effect they had, not only in Cleveland, but on the entire country. The campaign extended the borders of political advertising. There were things you did and things you didn’t do. Advertising people put so much stock in headlines because most people don’t read the copy, but the people who run the campaigns know nothing about good advertising or graphic design. They only know what was done before. So to come up with a campaign that broke all the rules was very daring—it opened up the possibility in political advertising to take chances. It has to do with getting noticed: If you get their attention, you just hope that they’ll also get the message. It showed that political advertising could be different and could be successful because it was different.
Sept/Oct 1969 “The graphic designer is three things simultaneously: a recorder, an innovator, and a gangster.” —David Coleman, quoted in “Designers of the ’70s: Student Design Issue,” page 17
“I wanted to combine my skills with my anger. Issue advertising looks like a good answer.” —John A. Ziegler, quoted in “Design Education Today: Turmoil and Transition,” page 19.
Print: These quotations from the Student Design Issue combine genuine concern with humor and playfulness that make them quite attractive and in accord with a sense of exuberance that’s often associated with youth culture. What was your perception of the social activism of design students?
FOX: The general contention was that students were considered to be kind of passive and interested in their own particular needs. And suddenly what sparked American students to be more engaged was the student riots in Paris. Not only were they students, but they were design students that were rioting in Paris. It really sparked what turned out to be this revolutionary fervor. And of course it had to do with Vietnam, because a lot of students didn’t want to go and fight the war in Vietnam. What was kind of touching about this issue was that issues of design were placed in that context. These periods of revolutionary fervor exist and then they burn because there are so many pressures to dampen these fervors. The design education issue was valuable because it pointed out that graphic designers can’t avoid getting engaged in the issues around them. They’re not just designing for themselves or for their colleagues—they’re right out on the street. You could go through life and never go to see a Picasso, but you can’t avoid seeing graphic design; and the kids were becoming aware of that. Design education shifted from then on. It had usually been a question of design skills and never a question of the context. And suddenly design education became more than just how to best express your talent. It became about being engaged in issues, because you couldn’t avoid it. You were producing communication from everything around you. Some schools introduced courses on such matters, like issue advertising, that was more than technical skills. The article was called “Turmoil and Transition,” and I think that sums it up.
Sept/Oct 1970 “I met a girl at a party a while ago who writes dirty books. ... I told her I was in advertising and she sneered at me. That is the people’s view of advertising in 1970—one step down from dirty books.” —Joel Siegel, quoted in “The Crisis of Advertising,” page 23.
Print: Advertising is generally thought to hold that guilty-conscience stigma. And that’s what seemed so interesting about this quotation. In a rather humorous juxtaposition, it unveils the negative perception that advertisers face. Can you elaborate on this mentality towards advertisers in the 1970s and on their attempt to work on issues more than sales?
FOX: Advertising has its own needs and necessities. You are working for a client and you have to make that client happy. Usually the smaller agencies who took on political issues wouldn’t be paid much, but they would have their freedom. One of the biggest agencies, Young & Rubicam, was a progressive major advertising agency and kind of led the way in bringing to the floor the issues of the day. In advertising, your freedom to do or say what you want is very limited. And advertising people were the people who felt guilty. It’s not that they were ashamed of what they were doing, but the people who observed advertising always looked down their noses on it, like they were just a bunch of whores. So, unlike designers in other areas who could indulge their desire to get on this revolutionary bandwagon, advertising designers were hampered. And even when they did a campaign that was a non-profit for them, people tended to sneer at it saying, “Oh, they’re so goddamn guilty.” Advertising had this kind of dual identity. On the one hand people recognize it fuels our capitalistic economy, but on the other hand, it persuades people to do something or buy something that they don’t need. It’s like a rich person taking a week off to go slumming—they basically can’t be taken too seriously. The crisis of advertising was a bit of an overstatement, but the turmoil was definitely there.
May/Jun 1973 “While purveyors of radical chic are lionizing the spray paint crowd and most legitimate artists think the subways have never looked better, many New Yorkers find the current wave of graffiti an assault on their sensibilities and a threat to the last vestiges of social order in that beleaguered city.” —“Subway Graffiti: The Message From Underground,” page 27.
PRINT: Looking back, it seems so odd that graffiti, which many people today admire and even study, caused this type of agitation. When graffiti was unleashed in New York, how was the movement received in the art community? And what was its effect on New Yorkers?
FOX: There were these young kids who, I guess as a form of protest, decided to express themselves on subway cars and public property. What was interesting about this was that for the first few months, when people took the subway, they were confronted with graffiti. Some of these works were quite beautiful in a very raw way, and some of these kids were pretty talented. At first, people tried to ignore it, but then it was taken up by the art world. And the kids were smart: Since you can’t sell a subway car, they started to sell their art and became part of the New York culture scene. Professional artists would incorporate this raw graffiti quality into their work. It was graphic design produced by non-graphic designers, making a statement that affected virtually everybody. And what more can you say than what I do affects everybody, whether people love or hate it. So this was a great movement for the art world. I remember there was one party by some big art gallery for very influential New Yorkers, and they invited some of these kids to the party. We ran an article once and we quoted people who referred to it as dirty and filthy art. These kids weren’t writing dirty words at all, but people who were angry at it saw what they wanted to see. The perception was very different from what they actually were doing. Every time you picked up the newspaper it talked about the decline of New York and this seemed to be the finishing touch. People may not have welcomed it or valued it, but it certainly affected them.
Jan/Feb 1991 “Advertising has an excellent opportunity to devote its notorious use of sexual propaganda to positive effect ... Informing the public about AIDS demands a redefinition of morality.” —“The Rhetoric of Risk: Ads, Aids, and Condoms,” page 148.
PRINT: The discussion of sex in advertising marked an interesting transition in the standards of our society. From the standpoint of our sexually saturated media and the allusions to sex in advertising, it’s striking to think it ever was an issue of concern. How did the AIDS crisis contribute to this openness in advertising?
FOX: Before the AIDS crisis began, you wouldn’t see, in any type of ad, the word “condom” or any phrase that really alluded to the act of sex because it wasn’t considered appropriate. But the AIDS crisis changed all that. Sex was up for discussion not only in articles, but in advertising. It was very difficult to deal with, obviously, but advertisers tried to make people aware of the danger and how to protect themselves without being preachy and taking some kind of moral stand. It wasn’t just the risk of unprotected sex, but the risk of talking about it. There were still people who didn’t think these touchy matters should be dealt with openly. Occasionally people would talk about syphilis, but it wasn’t in the forefront because it didn’t affect “decent” people. As we know, the AIDS crisis was very different.
Summary — Print’s February 2008 issue, “Design Under Pressure,” features 15 quotes from the magazine’s past coverage of conflict and design. We wanted to tell the story behind these articles, so we turned to the ultimate primary source, Print’s former editor-in-chief Martin Fox, to tell us about the context of the times in which these articles initially appeared. Out of this group, we’ve selected five quotations along with the cover of the issue in which each quote appeared. Fox’s account of the social climate in which these quotations first ran reinforces just how symbiotic design and culture really are, and each quotation in the magazine pinpoints a sensitive nerve on the social body, including politics, education, the economy, and justice. Clearly visible in these snippets of history is the potency with which design can rupture boundaries, whether it redirects attention from ethnicity to leadership abilities (Jan/Feb 1968), inspires students to reconsider the focus of their education (Sept/Oct 1969), challenges the role of advertising in an era of moral reevaluation (Sept/Oct 1970), amends the definition of art (May/Jun 1973), or educates the masses about protecting themselves from HIV infection (Jan/Feb 1991). Each of these highlights the significance of designers as integral members of society who possess a powerful responsibility that they should respect and of which they should feel proud. Without designers, Fox explains, “There is no one else to communicate information. It’s always a wonder to me how designers are a bit too humble about it. There are a few who are arrogant about it, but overall it’s a very humble profession.” — This article appears in the February 2008 issue of Print.
About the Author Monica Racic writes frequently for Print magazine.