Jessica Helfand | Essays

Fatal Grandeur

In one of the annotations to my design manifesto, "Me, The Undersigned," I wrote somewhat sarcastically of the seriousness with which some of us view our profession by noting, "Design is probably not going to kill you if it falls on your head." (Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture, page 22.) A recent story by Tad Friend in The New Yorker has made me want to reconsider this proposition.

Turns out one of the principal reasons why San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge remains one of the nation's premier suicide spots is due to the fact that no real barrier exists to prevent jumpers from carrying out a death wish. As Friend recounts, the controversy over erecting such a barrier has everything to do with nostalgia: "Matchless in its Art Deco splendor," he writes, "the Golden Gate is also unrivalled as a symbol: it is a threshold that presides over the end of the continent and a gangway to the void beyond." But it is also a design issue, with concerned members of a 19-member board citing reservations about the look of a fence against the legendary icon. "The most plausible reason for the board's resistance," notes Friend, "is aesthetics."

So maybe design isn't going to kill you if it falls on your head. But if YOU fall, design is not exactly going to save you, either.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media, Social Good, Theory + Criticism

Comments [18]

I walk a lot, and from time to time I'll cross one of the bridges that connects downtown to home. On one particular bridge you'll find a couple small signs that serve as a public service announcement to those on the wane. It has the phone number of a help line to talk things through. It's clear and very effective, I wonder how many lives were perhaps saved by that placement and design.

Amazing how something that powerful -- and that simple -- can do so much. Tad Friend writes of a victim who left a note behind that read, 'I'm going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.'" Different kind of public service -- but not dissimilar, in a way.

Great article. It made me think of how design is a part of commiting suicide. The process of composing a note, if any, where, when, how and how it will effect others. Death by design.

Remeber this?

Death by design, indeed... makes me think of a book I found a few years ago in South Carolina ...

Indeed. Jessica's point reminds me of a recent article in ID called 'Battle of the Bulge' (Sept/Oct 2003). In effect, it suggests that design is probably going to kill you if it fails on your head. The cover story actually prompted me to write a cranky letter to the editor, decrying the way the article waxes euphemistically about US military combat uniforms and helmets. It includes myopic gems like: "for most ground troops the real enemy is weight." Right. It's actually a vivid demonstration of the capacity of designers - and design journalists - to look no further than their briefs. Anyway, back to bridges: I found the Friend article absolutely engrossing.

At the risk of looking like a complete troll, an online version of Jessica's design manifesto, "Me, The Undersigned" may be found here:

And to Jessica and William, a big, warm welcome to the blogosphere!

Not a troll at all -- au contraire, I am glad you posted this link. There is a rather critical post over on the Tufte thread that might benefit from reading the manifesto also. Thanks for adding to the debate -- and for the blogisphere welcome.

For about 5 minutes, my essay in the Emigre Rant issue cited Jessica's "design can't kill you" statement so I could then joke about the danger of being concussed by Life Style or Maeda on Media or the Fletcher book. But it was even half-wittier (quarter-witty?) than my usual attempts so I cut it.

I just gave a presentation called "Professional Suicide" at the Design/Refine conference so this talk of design and death is rather bemusing to me. And I mention Tufte in it.

Not the most profound of postings but I just wanted to say Hello.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Kenneth: Can you post -- or email to me and I will be glad to -- a link to your talk? Perhaps readers of this thread would enjoy reading it. I know I would.

Jessica: I'm sorry to be a tease but I've submitted the essay to Rudy for Emigre 66 so I don't think I can share just yet. I swear I wasn't doing PR! I suppose I can tell you what it's about, which may dampen any enthusiasm:

Professional Suicide
What is the ultimate goal of graphic design education, criticism, and perhaps, design itself? As currently expressed, the objective is to create a class of expert professional practitioners with high social standing (architects being the archetype). However, while ostensibly desiring awareness of and recognition for its activity, design deliberately makes little real substantive effort to reach out to non-designers -- except to argue design professionals should be given more work. And while an elevated status would benefit practitioners, a coterie of design specialists may not be the best condition for culture or society. My presentation will propose that a broader and deeper appreciation of design can -- and should -- only lead to its demise as a specialist profession and outline the implications for education and criticism.

The lecture will reference design's fascination with and scorn for the vernacular; Gunnar Swanson's essay "Graphic Design as a Liberal Art"; the abortive movement for design certification; Michael Bierut's tongue-in-cheek (?) call to genetically-engineer ideal clients; Andrew Blauvelt's observation that "design authorship" was paradoxically promoted by citing "the death of the author"; and Richard Hollis concluding his new edition of "Graphic Design: A Concise History" by pointing toward a design without designers. And more.
Kenneth FG

It is not very often that a designer is presented with a problem to solve which might actually help beyond what is usually seen as the surface. Thank you for pointing this article out.

Aside from being moved by the article in its entirety as both a designer and fellow human, I was especially moved by the phrase, 'I'm going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.' I was reminded of the importance of being friendly.

Yeah - but it's a great line...

Thank you so much for sharing this powerful article. I have heard designers express, too many times and in too many ways, the idea that graphic design never killed anyone. The truth is, bad design can kill companies, it can kill important fund-raising initiatives, and it can kill some things that are much more important: civility, humanity, taste, order, etc. While we designers can decry the state of our profession relating to a certain disregard for design's value, we can also look to this example of a visual and cultural icon—and its overwhelming power—as an opportunity.

What if someone who believed in the importance of a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge was also a person who understood the aesthetic prerequisites that must be satisfied to make it a reality? I am certain that an open competition among leading architects, industrial designers, and graphic designers to design a barrier would generate a number of visually pleasing (perhaps even monumental) solutions acceptable to the Bridge Authority. How often do we have the chance to create a monument to beauty, to those lost, and to life, all at the same time?

Design CAN kill—by its absence. And it can save.
Lance Rutter

Wouldn't erecting a barrier just mean that you drive the suicides elsewhere? Might not a barrier drive a potential further into despair, assuring they kill themselves? Isn't all this more about not wanting to sully a monument with unsightly jumpers rather than addressing a problem? (Others would even question whether we should try and prevent such suicides.) Shouldn't the $ spent on the efforts described above be better put into public mental health programs to deal with the root causes? Why am I thinking about those designer band-aids that were given a prize in that idiotic competition Print magazine started last year?
Kenneth FG

Kenneth, before inferring that most intentions to add value by design are in the same category as useless "designer band-aids" and presenting a counterpoint, you may want to actually read the article which this thread references. In it, you would find this:

"A familiar argument against a barrier is that thwarted jumpers will simply go elsewhere. In 1953, a bridge supervisor named Mervin Lewis rejected an early proposal for a barrier by saying it was preferable that suicides jump into the Bay than dive off a building "and maybe kill somebody else." (It's a public-safety issue.) Although this belief makes intuitive sense, it is demonstrably untrue. Dr. Seiden's study, "Where Are They Now?," published in 1978, followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971. After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four per cent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes. "The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature," Seiden concluded; if you can get a suicidal person through his crisis—Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days—chances are extremely good that he won't kill himself later."

There's a good chance that ninety-four percent of the lives of would-be jumpers could be saved by a barrier. What's your point again?

Thanks Lance for the comment and the info--I deserve being embarrassed for spouting off. My computer/connection was refusing to give me the article everyone's sourcing and though I knew I was being rash, I went on anyway. So I guess I have a big "never mind." I'm unsurprised to read about the crisis nature of suicides and find an aesthetic resistance to a barrier misguided. Maybe I've found I'm a beauty=utility person as I couldn't help but see the barrier as beautiful because it prevented the needless deaths.
Kenneth FG

It is a fascinating article, Kenneth, so I hope you have better luck making the connection and giving it a read. After seeing what the design team in Chicago did with the Design for Democracy initiative (led by Marcia Lausen and Stephen Melamed) following the Florida general election fiasco, I believe that we should collectively take advantage of public opportunities like this to prove design's value whenever they arise.

If, indeed, the bottom line issue for those responsible for managing the bridge is finding a balance between public safety, budget, and aesthetics, good design thinking can address the latter two points. The issue of public safety should be a given, supported by scientific research. The results of a design-driven campaign to build the barrier could be overwhelmingly compelling evidence of design's power. And thousands would see the evidence as they cross the bridge every day.

Not a designer. But I've often wondered about the influence of those powerful graphic images so prevelent during the Communist revolution and by Hitler's Germany. Surely, some credit must be given to those designers for the deaths their propaganda campaigns fomented. Triumph of the Will comes to mind too.


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