Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

The Politics of Desire and Looting

Photo by Hozinja used under a Creative Commons licence

The riots that ripped through English cities during four days in August were more ferocious and catastrophic than similar outbursts in the recent past. They have caused a prolonged and unprecedented bout of soul searching amongst all strands of British society. How could this happen? What caused it? Who is to blame?

Blame has been heaped mainly on the cuts-obsessed, expenses-fiddling politicians; the Metropolitan Police who inadvertently triggered the rioting by shooting a man in the street; the nation’s under-funded education system; and city councils who rushed to close youth centres in the wake of the global economic crises.

Opprobrium has also been directed at the parents of rioters (special venom is reserved for single mothers — the great bogey figures of the British right wing press); role models in entertainment and sport; the despised and greedy bankers; even British rappers have had accusatory fingers pointed at them.

One group has so far escaped blame: designers. Hardly surprising — who could possibly think that we mild mannered individuals are somehow responsible for murder, theft, arson and civil disobedience on an apocalyptic scale? And yet, a salient feature of these riots has been the fact that the main target of the attacks has been the shops of the major retail brands of British commercial life.

In previous modern-day riots, the aim has been to expose grievances relating to social injustice. And although the young of multicultural urban Britain have many genuine social grievances, on this occasion they made their objective the acquisition of free stuff.

The principal target was a highly successful chain of shops called JD Sports. It sells fashionable street wear. Other popular targets included mobile phone shops, electrical goods stores, and outlets of leading UK fashion brands.

All these shops spend huge amounts of money on branding, on store layout, on window displays, and slick advertising. Their ads leap at us from newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and the Internet. Celebrities endorse their products. They are little shrines of desire.

Despite one or two gleefully publicised cases, the majority of the rioters came from poor homes in the least desirable, least well-resourced areas of England’s major cities. They come from places with low achievement rates in education, and where employment prospects are low.

These young people are not poor in the sense in which we understand poverty in the undeveloped world. They have Blackberrys (the encrypted Blackberry messaging system was used extensively to coordinate attacks), fashionable jeans, and cool footwear: but they are poor enough to have a sense of being excluded from the great orgy of consumer acquisitiveness that is flaunted in front of them daily.

Specifically, they are excluded from the world of desire and consumption created by the brand owners, advertising agencies, art directors, graphic designers, photographers, product designers, retail designers, architects, stylists, retouchers, and copywriters.

I’m not advocating a puritan revolution. I don't want to ban advertising, or return to the bad design that characterised British shops in the 1970s — they were brown, musty, and unwelcoming. Nor do I think a single designer has ever gone to work thinking “Today I must create something that drives the underprivileged youth of modern Britain mad with desire and envy.”

But for the past three or four decades the major role of graphic design has been to create the branding and collateral of desire. For those who can afford entry into this world — no harm is done. For those who can resist the blandishments of this world — no harm is done. But for those who have neither the education nor emotional maturity to deal with this, immense harm is done.

Some designers have been warning about the unwanted side-effects of the design revolution, most notably Ken Garland. As far back as 1964, he launched his First Things First manifesto; and more recently, designers such as Jonathan Barnbrook and the supporters of Adbusters have issued similar caveats.

These warnings are often mocked as  “idealistic” and “naive.” But from now on, it's going to be hard for critics to dismiss them. There really is a price to pay for creating the seductive tropes of modern commerce. We’ve seen what happens when you create a beautifully manicured world of desire, and then say to a big chunk of the population, no entry. Seductive design is emphatically not the main cause of the riots, but it is a contributing factor, and we’d be dishonest to deny our part in it.

What is to be done?

Interestingly, for some time now, I’ve watched the emergence of a generation of design students and young designers who don't want to become the agents of commercial seduction. They are looking for a new role — one where social value is the new capital, not the sales charts of brand owners. Suddenly, they seem like the only acceptable future for design.

This essay was originally published in August, 2011. It is included in our anothology Culture is Not Always Popular: Fifteen Years of Design Observer out this fall from MIT Press.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Social Good

Comments [102]

A very thoughtful and intelligent post. As a young designer I agree that many of my generation want to produce work that is of more value to society. There is no easy answer to how we go about this, however, and your 'what is to be done?' question I suspect has more than one answer that needs to be debated.

Alix Land

Do you have any actual evidence for your conclusion here Adrian?

Your two statements here 'they have blackberrys, designer clothes [etc]' and 'they have a sense of being excluded from ... consumer acquisitiveness' directly contradict each other.

Seeing as the bulk of this piece is devoted to discussing the ills of 'the branding of desire' (which, as far as I can tell, is a condemnation of good [consumer] design) as a contributing factor to the riots, I think you need to do more to reconcile the fact (many rioters own luxury goods) to your theory (they looted because they cant afford luxury goods).

@Alexander even though many of the rioters had luxury items like a blackberry (pretty cheap on contract compared to other smartphones) like any consumer it doesn't mean they wouldn't want more/newer luxury items which are coming out all the time. There's a pressure from advertising/design to keep up with trends and fashion so most of the time people can't afford what they want right now.

I wonder if any copies of Adbusters were looted? I always browse through it, but I always deem it too expensive....

I don't think that designers should worry too much about the reactions of the scummy few. This is the same "blame the victim" game that rapists often employ.

You wrote: 'One group has so far escaped blame: designers. Hardly surprising — who could possibly think that we mild mannered individuals are somehow responsible for murder, theft, arson and civil disobedience on an apocalyptic scale?' This morning, while commuting to my design job, I heard an NPR radio news update on the riots that mentioned three individuals from main stream society involved in the melee, the last being a graphic designer.

I don't know if I agree. I think the youth of Britain (in this case) have an education if they are motivated, a place to live, have food if they need it, have healthcare. They have been programmed their whole lives to have an attitude of ingratitude. The rest who have means are just plane bored. The riots might have started by a mistake but all have just looked for an excuse to create mayhem. They didn't just go after the rich. They went after regular folks as well. They smashed bookstore windows but didn't take the books. Rich youth were rioting as well, so it is not a case of haves and have-nots.

This has nothing to do with design and everything to do with self restraint, self reliance and respect for others. They have no sense of what accountability is in there world. The fact that these people will not be held accountable for their acts is unfortunate. How can you bring accountability with no understanding.

Society can only be self-governed by moral people. People who know no bounds are doomed to anarchy or the ruthlessness of tyranny.


I too heard the reference to a "graphics designer" a few times. Once on the BBC (British version via Roku channel). But, maybe it was an illustrator or a guy with a Mac or a graffiti artist making T-shirts. Who knows. The term/title is misused and misunderstood by the news media so many times.

I am not 100% sold that by making products well designed and visually interesting and innovative, it causes 11 to 55 year old people (but mostly 17-30 year old males) to riot like the barbarians sacking Rome.
It is a lack of empathy for people around you. A lack of the role of the citizen in society (in that regard, the comments out there about the British underclass not being part of society or left behind is very true) and a lot of simple human greed.
When you are poor. Don't understand the system. Don't have an investment in your community. Find yourself generations unemployed. Lack the education and discipline normally provided as much by your parents as by your teachers and mentors. Live in a class based society like Britain where the privileged take advantage of others on a regular basis, have a long history of it, and are proud of it.
Rioting is, sadly, a response.
If the U.S. does not wake up to the decline of the middle class and especially the growth in poverty in this county, there will be a reckoning here someday.

I wouldn't beat yourself up over this: there are many more things than just design that contribute to a society of material, consumerist desires. There's a whole machine behind it: technology, global distribution, cheap manufacture of components, peer pressure, political and economic definitions of 'growth' and so on all feed the beast. Design is perhaps the alluring component but not the real culprit.

The problem for designers and the design industry is establishing where and how they want to make their money. Ken Garland and First Things First called for a different application of designers skills and a rejection of the corporate dollar. Design isn't solely associated with slick consumer branding, but it is a major component of design work. Does the industry want to sever that reliance? And can it anyway?
Scott Billings

How could this happen? A certain number of opportunists and copycats chose the moment to perpetrate their crimes.

What caused it? In specific, one isolated event (the death of a criminal) which then became filtered through the questionable eye of the public as an extension of racism, class struggle et cetera.

Who is to blame? The lowlifes who started the riot and looted. Perhaps also to blame are their families, their friends and the system in general for not having laid down the laws earlier on these criminals.


To quote Owen Hatherley's piece on Verso:
"It would be infantile to cheer on rioters against corner shopkeepers trying to defend their already small livelihoods; but equally so to pretend that this had nothing to do with the demonisation of the young and poor, nothing to do with our brutally unequal society and our pathetic trickle-down attempts at amelioration. Then we line up with those who think that looting Foot Locker is worse than the looting of an entire economy."

I encourage those eager to demonize these people to read this piece and Nina Power's posted in the Gaurdian. http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/660-something-has-snapped-and-it-has-been-a-long-time-coming

Travis Stearns

A brand is a tricky thing, on one hand a some may view it as naught but a vehicle for profit... but on the other, a brand (or product) is an integral part of everyones life in a given culture. Brands have come so much farther than an 'extra' or an 'add on' to the 'meat and potatoes' that is life — brands are completely fused into the fabric of everyday life. The messaging that is imparted on us daily DOES have significant impact in the way we perceive our world. Of course people should (and always will) think for themselves, but the raw amount of media that the average person consumes is so much greater than it ever has been — it is folly to ignore this. Messages that communicate the value of hard work, environmental conservation or even simply good will towards your fellow man may have significant benefits to be reaped down the road. It is the social responsibility of large brands to reflect a healthy vision of desire to it's audience. If all a brand is concerned with is making money, and it's messaging reflects that (or something similar, such as 'you are only important if you make money') then so be it — but do not be shocked by the negative social ramifications of this sort of irresponsible money grubbing. If the question is 'when will brands take responsibility for their actions?' I believe after the events in London we can safely say the answer should be 'right now'.

As designers, we have the opportunity to choose who we work for. But as large brand owners, you have the opportunity to make the world a better place. Allow the tragic events that befell London to serve as a clarion call to large brands — wake up! Be aware of the impact you have on the world.

take it up with the royals and your government which is bollocking you if you really have a grudge with the class or race system and do it in a civilised manner. looting for trainers (sneakers) is not a sign of rebellion- it's flat out criminal behaviour and should not be recognised as anything but. a similar case was the L.A. riots- where supposed injustice was responded to by stealing sneakers, tv sets, and burning their own neighbourhood stores. a rather questionable way to respond to the inequities of society, no?

Interesting post, Adrian, though I'd say the idea you're describing doesn't solely rest at the feet of the designers.

Of course, designers are implicit in the creation of this “world of desire and consumption,” but what manifestos like First Things First (and its aforementioned successor) fail to address is that designers, while they might enable the creation of tangible references (advertising, etc.) to this world, are not in fact the creators of it. Additionally, I'd say that designers are rarely the ones creating the “filtration system” that allows only the ridiculously wealthy access to the wares in question.

I love the ideas behind the First Things First manifesto, and I appreciate the role we designers play in the creation of material desire, but I also believe the responsibility lies more with the marketers, shareholders and executives of such companies.

If a designer refuses to work for a corporation such as LVMH, for example, the company is not going to have trouble finding someone else to do the work. The impetus for excess luxury remains even if the designer does not.

So, perhaps the next logical point is… who is hiring the designers?

Interesting article, the tone of it reminds me of an old rap song from Ice-T "New Jack Hustler." Which I suppose could be considered prescient of the '92 LA Riots or the '11 London riots.

"The ends justifies the means, that's the system.
I learned that in school then I dropped out,
Hit the streets, checked a grip, and now I got clout.
I had nothing, and I wanted it.
You had everything, and you flaunted it.
Turned the needy into the greedy,
With cocaine, my success came speedy.
Got me twisted, jammed into a paradox."

Why do dose people need to this? Hurting one another, someone, and whom they don't ever know. Why they don't have peace and go home? Well, this is how their government do, do nothing? I suggest they can go down on their positions and go write some [url=http://www.trustedessays.net/service/essay.html]essays[/url].

Following the logic here, I conclude that the designers of the products are the real nemesis. They should stop designing things people want, and follow Mark Zuckerberg's lead in designing "social value".
Miles Newlyn

"The spectacle of consumable life ranks goods in order of their desirability. The fancy brands are so much better than generic knock-offs. But this is also an order that ranks its subjects. To be Black in the sixties is to be at the bottom of the visible order. Just as the ranking of which are the better brands changes over time, so too does the league table of desirable kinds of people. You have your Kate Middletons, and then you have your chavs.

The Watts riot was a moment when African Americans saw through this hierarchy of images. As Debord says: “they demand the egalitarian realization of the American spectacle of everyday life.” This is a constant of the modern riot. Those who are told, at one and the same time, that these and the things they should desire, but that they themselves are not desirable, will periodically get the message, and respond in kind. Like the Watts rioters, they see the swag on offer—and loot it.

Riots are neither irrational, spontaneous outbursts, nor the secret workings of some conspiracy or other.

They, are rather, the working out of an inner tension in commodified life. That tension is usually finessed through the fine idea that if everyone just knuckles under and does their best, all will be well. The yawning gap between the promise of the spectacle and its actuality can be narrowed with hard work and a bit of luck. When that carrot turns out to be a rotten promise, then there's nothing for it but the stick. The modern, spectacular society would prefer to be loved, but when push comes to shoved it will settle for being feared."


Yes huge increases in wealth disparities, poverty, continual police harrasment and killings, no jobs, no future and urban development that has seen palaces rise up among ghettos, are all part of the mix, but as Adrian says so is the huge, bloated marketing machines that continually stoke desire for more rubbish so Capitalism can keep eating the planet, any sane person can see this cannot continue-if everyone consumed as an American the world could sustain only a Billion people-the combined economic, climate and social crisis is our wake up call, we are at a defining moment in History, ALL of us, whatever we do, need to be part of shifting this away from Consumer based Capitalism, or there won't be a world to design anything for, how much more evidence do we need?
Noel Douglas

There are many strands in the hangman's rope. Huge disaffection, alienation and contempt erupted in Britain and I do think the viciousness aimed at branded high street shops is interesting and agree that what Adrian identifies is a strand in it. I highly recommend Thomas Frank's book the Conquest of Cool for it's outline of commodification of youth culture. Extrapolating from that and from what I see in day in day out these kids were stealing their own culture from the shop windows and (unconsciously) attacking the infrastructure of the high street that saturates people's lives with urgings to consume in order to frustrate people and extract every last cent in a world where the state and corporate capitalism has no interest in giving you a job. It's very very toxic and if I came up with that Levis ad that came out during the riots I'd be taking a very long hard look at what I'm using my skills for.

Major Alfonso

I'd just like to address Adrian's last point about an emergence of a generation of designers looking to follow in Ken garland's First things First foot steps.

I know Adrian has been a great advocate of the design for positive change community and salute him for that - But we have to stop underplaying the size or influence of the group! I work as a designer in a comms agency who work exclusively on positive change projects www.forster.co.uk and since starting work here the one thing that always astounds me is how big our discipline has got.

Of the 200 odd people I follow on twitter the vast majority of them are positive change designers working in the UK and I'm still finding new ones daily - what about the existence of this blog or the hundreds like it? I'd say the new generation isn't emerging it has emerged.

Then think about the response to the riots by the public, how much of that was formed by designers taking control of the media they work with everyday to produce a positive response - the riot wombles, catchalooter or even some of the reporting on the night with twitter maps etc (more of which I've listed here http://www.forster.co.uk/blog.105.0.html )

I think it's time we moved the debate on from needing design for good to just what is the best we can do with the energy of those involved in it's pursuit.

@Scott - pretty much perfect review of this article. Adrian just can't live with the fact that England has unappreciative, wild youth, both poor and well-off, so he blames design. WTF man?


I think Adrians article is as opportunistic as the rioting, however, like some small intangible element of the said riots, it has a point. I don't believe design to be directly responsible for the crack in the dam of societies own social disorder. I do however agree that as designer's we need to challenge ourselves to create socially responsible design, if not only to stretch a brands appeal as 'socially aware' and grow their revenue that way.
Michael Waddle

oh my! i was all ready to read an intelligent article on the root causes of the riots, but instead was subjected to post by a self-absorbed designer going to great lengths to tailor inject his own passions into an unrelated event – enjoy the attention!
matthew in nyc

There is more discussion in the comments about who or what is to blame rather than the role and impact of their professions. Adrian asks, “What is there to be done?” As an emerging designer, I am surrounded by claims of just how serious and powerful design can be. Is the community now suggesting that nothing can be done in response? Are we merely workers after all?

"But for those who have neither the education nor emotional maturity to deal with this, immense harm is done."

What condescending and elitism drivel.
Mike Monteiro

@paula Yes, we are "merely" workers. We have a skill and people pay us to enlist that skill in their service.


(That's all the response an article like this deserves.)

It’s a shame that we few—we brilliant and talented few—are so incredibly gifted that we accidentally made all those poor, stupid people riot. Heavy is the head that wears the fashionable thick-rimmed glasses.


So, are we excusing the rioters because designers have done their job well. There will likely always be advertising and brand design — someone will always take the job.

This is merely designer narcissism. We don't actually have the power to be responsible for everything. The people who rioted are responsible for their own actions, they made the choice to riot and cause harm to society.
Aaron [Psycho]Rowell

Correlation does not imply causation
Paul Armstrong

This is, without a doubt, the single most ill-informed, unnecessary and, honestly, stupid contribution to the issues surrounding the UK riots I've yet encountered. You may have well blamed civil engineers for their role in laying out the roads and sidewalks that rioters used.

Isn't the growth of a seemingly inescapable poverty reason enough? Long standing racism maybe?

The violence and unfocused destruction of these riots was largely inexcusable, but the combination of ignorance and self-importance displayed in this article is just so.

Perhaps, next time, you could write about the role that armchair Internet punditry plays in solving social issues?

I'm sure you could make your word count with that.

And what about those who are responsible for educational funding, moral footing and general teachings to those who looted the stores? As much as I believe that good social design can change the world, finger pointing at those who create the world around you seems very inappropriate. We design for people. To make lives easier. You clearly need more research into the root cause of the riots and what drives designers, even those hired by large corporations, to create goods.

And yes, I'm a graphic designer by profession.

Now, go read a book.

Oh for the love of pizza, please! You've written 808 words to incorrectly identify design as the source of greed and stupidity. Well done *clap*… *clap* … *clap*
Kev Hamm

This may be the dumbest thing I've read on the Internet this week. Congratulations.

Congratulations. You have written the dumbest article on the Internet in 2011, and the year isn't even over.
Alpesh Shah

Ah, excellent. "Design" is the culprit. Well, I guess it's just as informed as blaming video games, comic books, rock n' roll, novels, or television.

Because riots never happened without any of those things ever in all of history.

Who's at fault? How about the people who committed arson, assault and battery, theft and harmed or destroyed other people's livelihood? Are you nuts? Are you responsible for what you say or did "society make you do it"? Maybe the idiotic things you say in this article are your parents fault. Or, maybe it's the police who made you say these things. Clearly your parents and the police should be faulted for making you draw such incredibly stupid conclusions.

Actually, many of the rioters and looters come from well off families, so much of this idea is false.

I think the real issue is the underemployment of youth, which often comes about due to misguided minimum wage laws, amongst other social programs. If you leave a bunch of teenagers around with nothing to do,, you are inviting trouble......

Might as well blame "these modern times": the rabble are ill-equipped to deal with the day-to-day that includes the Internet, air conditioning, and democracy! Thank goodness I'm so well-educated so as not to rise up against my betters when my iPhone won't render a website properly. My book-learnin' taught me not to rage!
Kane Gruber


I find your views here puzzling, to say the least. With this logic, one would conclude that because designers create objects of desire they are therefore reinforcing classism and unintentionally forcing the disenfranchised (sometimes low-income) youth to riot over quite literally "stuff" and not for any of the reasons mentioned above: e.g., poverty, racism, etc.

Your attempt to shoehorn the notion that these riots are somehow design-related into your article is far fetched and frankly, trivializes the issues at hand.

If the intention of this article was to discuss the value of design for social change and how our roles as designers can and should impact society, I'm afraid you've missed the mark.

' those who have neither the education nor emotional maturity'

You mean 'children'

Absolutely offensive.

There are two forces at work here:

1. People protesting for civil justice.

2. People taking advantage of chaos to steal a bunch of crap for themselves and cause general mayhem. For "fun" and for profit.

What is the difference between the motivations of "poor uneducated" looters and the motivations of "rich educated" internet users stealing software & fonts?

We steal because we can get away with it.

We just have the supposed advantage of software being infinitely re-producible.

The circumstances have just simply revealed what is in our hearts.

And in YOUR heart - it seems - is a religious-like reverence for the supposed power of design.
So powerful that it forces people, against their will, to steal and destroy.
Drew Pickard

I am poor and dumb. Therefore I am compelled by these clever designers who tempt me to loot and riot.

What a childish assessment. Being a good citizen and social standing are autonomous attributes. These riots are representative of a mob mentality which believes that if enough people do something illegal, then the individual can get away with it.

Wow. Blatant, blatant link baiting.

You can't seriously be stupid enough to believe any of what you've written.

I hope not, at least.

If you are, that might be an overlooked reason why the riots occurred. If you're one of the literate "thinkers", god help the rest of the proletariat.

"Interestingly, for some time now, I’ve watched the emergence of a generation of design students and young designers who don't want to become the agents of commercial seduction. They are looking for a new role — one where social value is the new capital, not the sales charts of brand owners. Suddenly, they seem like the only acceptable future for design."

Well, how will these fellows earn a living then?

Okay, so let's see here: We've got politicians, the police, the education system, city councils, single mothers, athletes, entertainers, bankers, rappers, and now designers to blame.

Hmm, is there any way—and this is just a thought here—that the rioters might be to blame? Nah, that's just crazy talk. It's gotta be someone else.

There are few more frightening thoughts than a world where designers believe their main job is to dictate morality and ethics to the masses. It sounds nice when you say "social value is the new capital", but what the hell is this "social value" we designers should be seeking as we turn in disgust from peddling consumerism? Is "social value" campaigning for free health care? Protesting abortion? Designing funky posters encouraging kids not to shoot each other in the streets?

I'm not saying design can't work for the greater good. Beautifully designed products, ephemera and advertising are the art of the modern era-- engaging and accessible to the rich and poor alike in a way art never was in the past. I find that encouraging and humbling (and by the way, the majority of design is for everyday objects and services, not luxury goods).

However, the concept of a "social value" beyond this that we should all agree upon and work towards is a joke, and has lead to a design inner circle already so politically saturated it disgusts me. When did we come to believe it was our job to dictate right and wrong to the masses?

"Nor do I think a single designer has ever gone to work thinking 'Today I must create something that drives the underprivileged youth of modern Britain mad with desire and envy.'"
Delete the word "underprivileged" and we have the task of every commercial artist at an advertising agency.
Andre Friedmann

Mr. Shaughnessy:

This isn't about you. I know that's difficult for you to accept.

Actually, I think uneducated, immature people could actually take the lessons of branding and graphic design to heart instead of doing what Design Observer readers do – writing those lessons and reviewing them.

The Monteiro posse wants everyone to pile on Shaughnessy as being full of shit, but I think there’s a germ of truth to what Shaughnessy is saying. Now apply the same analysis to the financial crisis and bank and auto-industry bailouts and we’re getting somewhere.
Joe Clark

It's like blaming the kid who works in the mailroom at Goldman Sachs for the financial meltdown.

What a load of bs. Like ‘if a woman dresses sexy she is begging to get raped’.

Wow. This must surely be vying for the most out of touch Design Observer article, ever.
Not Important

I was excited about this article, the headline, the photo...then I read this rubbish. Just want to underscore what zwaanenvos said above. Couldn't state it any better myself.

You're right! Companies should do nothing to promote their products!
Doesn't matter

many commenters say that this article is nonsense. Some say there is a point in it. What is this small gem of truth hidden in the article?

I think the point that designers are somehow (also) responsible for this is very flawed if you see designers as a specific group that is part of a small evildoers clan of corrupt, greedy bankers, stock traders, filthy rich corporations and politicians that only want to be reelected, and this small group upsets the simple minded masses ( who were born as poor good people, but brought to evil by commerce and consumerism).

However: if you broaden and loosen the proposition a little bit, and say that many members of the higher educated classes devote their time and energy on consumerism, creating / selling worthless products and successfully seeding a lot of craving towards consuming inside society as a whole (both in upper and lower classes), and that there are not so many people who devote their intellectual skills in improving the design of the free public space, then indeed, you may have a point.

I think the rioters are poor in the sense that they live in a poorly designed public space, jobs for them have been outsourced/ mechanized, and there has never been serious attempts to help these people making their lives meaningful in a different way. Because society as a whole is more interested in creating ' profit' and forget about the quality of the public space by silently assuming that economic growth will somehow automatically benefit the public space and solve the problems of the lower classes.

But these rioters are NOT mindless, naive victims of designers and other evil doers. It's society as a whole that is focussing on the wrong things and the rioters are both part of that and victims of that.

This is definitely one of the most idiotic things I've ever read. It could be an Onion story if it only contained humor.

Interesting POV on the riots. There is indeed a sort of spiritual malady at the heart of Western society and its culture of desire, but I think that pointing the finger at designers is missing the point. Capitalism, as currently constituted, is unwinding according to its own logic, but I don't know of any better alternatives to capitalism.

I don't have any answers.

I do think that that the transactions of desire remove us from reality, especially the reality of other human beings. To the looters, whether the poor at Tottenham or the ultra-rich in the investment banks and in Wall Street, the existence of of other people as persons has lost its reality. Empathy has been lost and thus ethics and morality has been lost. Judging by our leadership (not just yours in the UK, but worldwide) we live in a criminally insane society and the poor are just following the leaders.

I don't think that other major societies/cultures/economic systems offer us any solutions either. For example under Sharia Law, desire must be suppressed and the State draws its power from what it supposes to be the will of Allah. The reality of individuals is equally lost.

I don't have any answers, but I'm not a nihilist. I think the only actions that can be taken are to choose not to participate in the culture of desire or to minimize ones participation to the greatest degree possible. To eschew acting politically, but to act individually, letting our actions be an example to those around us. Pointing the finger is hypocritical until our own house is in order.
Marcos El Malo

Yes, it's almost the same in many parts of the world - particularly with these kind of "intellectuals" - (what an undeserved title!): the blame is on anyone except the rioters ... as if every thug acted as a zombies without free will, faculty of choice or consciousness. Only a mentality devoid of the concept of responsibility could perform this kind of apologetic stunt on the article.

The blame is not on the socially resented imbeciles who chose to brake havoc, the blame is on "social exclusion"; the blame lies not on the immoral savage who has never grasped that you cannot consume more than you can produce, let alone consume that which is not your property, not by a long shot ... the blame is on those whose work is to persuade - I stress the word persuade not force you with the point of a gun - to buy something.

Throughout history there have been individuals devoid of everything material except the sense of responsibility to make the best out of their own lives. They don't live making excuses for themselves, let alone like this article, for others.

I have lived most of my life in various parts of the third world and tend to see the "civilized" first world as the future. But with these kind of articles - and hope this is not a major trend - I think the 1st should see the 3rd as its future.

"But for the past three or four decades the major role of graphic design has been to create the branding and collateral of desire. For those who can afford entry into this world — no harm is done. For those who can resist the blandishments of this world — no harm is done. But for those who have neither the education nor emotional maturity to deal with this, immense harm is done. "

wow, you really managed to get this so wrong from both ends of the spectrum. on the one hand, you are suggesting that we don't all suffer from the effects of rampant materialism and that the privileged are somehow shielded by being able to buy their way out of insecurity. on the other hand, you imply that the poor are defenseless against this wave of marketing and synthetic desire, or perhaps too stupid or too undeveloped to resist the pressures.

river brandon

Those people are violent criminals - that's it. They hurt a lot of people, caused mayhem, stole property, destroyed property, destroyed lives. What don't you understand about that?

argh. please add id's to your comment divs. i can't link to individual comments. very frustrating.
river brandon

Arghhh. This argument smacks of a blaming the victim "she was asking for it" mentality. If I design beautiful and desirable things, and then someone kills me and takes them, it is their shortcoming.
Wade Meredith

Marcos El Malo,
you said this beautifully, and i couldn't agree more. this will change by the power of individuals making choices based on the recognition of our common humanity and interdependence. we can not sustain this level of exploitation and conflict, and so we will continue to see more like the london riots and worse until we turn the tide by our actions.

i do have some ideas for what would serve us better, but it's not about a different political or economic system. capitalism is pretty good as an economic system, but right now is like a body without a soul. it functions without consideration for the purpose of what it does, without a sense of what is right, only with regard for what is possible.
river brandon

wade, you're right. it is the responsibility of those who do wrong, break the rules, steal and vandalize. what i think the author is trying to get at is that underneath the decisions of individuals we have a system, a shared culture or society, and we all participate in shaping the values and outcomes of that shared reality to some degree. so it's worth examining our role in that, and figuring out how our actions can contribute to a more positive, just, and healthy context.

i don't think the author is suggesting some kind of mind control power for designers, but i do think he did a pretty terrible job of getting the point across (assuming i'm understanding his point).
river brandon

I think you have made the classic mistake of conflating correlation and causation. If people are going to loot, it stands to reason that they will loot expensive and desirable objects. That doesn't mean that those objects caused the looting.
Mr Skills

This thesis is absurd.
s l aeris

A thoughtful and well-reasoned post, that addresses the inequality issue that inflamed the London riots. We'd all do well to consider it.
Tachyon Feathertail

Two observations:

1. Things do not need to be well-designed to be desirable. In fact, at a certain level of privation, it is more about the ostentatiousness of the object than about the quality of its design. Put otherwise, one needs to be able to have (or, at least, to be able to carefully consider) a lot of objects before design starts being relevant.

2. Is the problem not one of a grossly unequal ability of 16-22 year olds (i.e. a time in their life when none of them have really been in any position to contribute much to society) to access these desirable objects, as opposed to the mere existence of these objects?
Aidan Clarke

Two observations:

1. Things do not need to be well-designed to be desirable. In fact, at a certain level of privation, it is more about the ostentatiousness of the object than about the quality of its design. Put otherwise, one needs to be able to have (or, at least, to be able to carefully consider) a lot of objects before design starts being relevant.

2. Is the problem not one of a grossly unequal ability of 16-22 year olds (i.e. a time in their life when none of them have really been in any position to contribute much to society) to access these desirable objects, as opposed to the mere existence of these objects?
Aidan Clarke

Linkbait slut. What a pile of sensationalist guff. You don't believe this any more than anyone else does, and if you do, your designer ego seriously needs deflating.

If this article is the case then I guess I can expect JD and Foot Locker to be clearing up next year in the industry's design effectiveness awards. Maybe the design award winning Harvey Nichols and Selfridges weren't quite the "shrines of desire" we thought they were.
Phil Evans

Interesting but sensationalist lunacy. Designers don't need to pat themselves on the back for the London riots any more than programmers do for causing the Arab Spring.

There are real class and social issues in England (and the West) that need to be addressed very quickly. Designers can help with building aspirations around that address.
Andrew Boardman

We create things that appeal to consumerism, so kids go around and trash places, steal and burn stuff.

Spot on.
Rita Branco

Design and designers (lower-case "d") do have a role to play in addressing the conditions that contextualize the London riots. Many commenters have alluded to a vision of designers engaging the world guided by an ethics of empathy, social justice, and environmental sustainability (Otto Scharmer's charge to shift from ego-system awareness to ecosystem awareness is apropos). Working from this position, many designers do possess a powerful set of participatory methods, analytical tools, and problem solving processes that can contribute significantly to ongoing efforts to understand and co-design the conditions that might alleviate the pressures which may have contributed to this recent tragedy. The fact is that the root causes for the London riots are incredibly complex because people and societies are complex, because histories and cultures are complex, because we all are complex subjects trying to make sense of things that we can never fully comprehend from any single perspective. Rather than simplistically vilify (and ultimately dehumanize) the rioters or repeat ad nauseam well-rehearsed "critical" liberal platitudes, let us apply our collective knowledge and skills to co-create the world we wish to live in.
Jeremy Beaudry

Obviously what this discussion has shown is that there is an absolute mountain, an avalanche of information of all sorts coming down all around us. Such is the byproduct of the information age. I think for designers, particularly Graphic Designers, our challenge is to take all of this information and organize it in such a way that society isn't just consuming it/reblogging it, but actually made to think about it for themselves and their role within the info-sphere of this event. In a way, it is education, but it is ultimately the pursuit of the truth.

I think maybe we need to discuss the emancipation of designers from advertising? from deception?
Travis Stearns

This article is definitely thought provoking but I can't help but think that the idea of designer produced products and rioting are somehow related. Sure, there is room for theory in suggesting that beautiful things lead to lust and the quest for more, but I can't see how these two emotions would invoke a riot of some sort.

Whether or not you agree with the possibility put forward by Adrian Shaughnessy, it is important to get your facts right first—and in that respect many of especially the hawkish designer-commenters are completely inadequate. Someone writes here that the riots were triggered by “a mistake” (eh, sorry, that was police killing a civilian, while falsely claiming that they were being shot at first). Someone else says the riots began by “the death of a criminal,” bypassing that in a rule of law someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
One commenter, named “Will,” assumes that calling the author of the article a “dick” will help his argument come across better.
So, dear commenters, on what media diet were you living besides Design Observer before you began venting your equal share of courteous due diligence on the author and the flaming youth of the UK? Did you straddle the pages of Unbeige, Fffound, and Coroflot?
Were you in your right mind, and had you followed any credible political reporting from the United Kingdom in the past years, the “social policies” of the Cameron government would have been no secret to you and you could have spared everyone here your thinly veiled contempt for poor and marginalized people. Those people who we would love to think are so different from we the “brilliant and talented”—the designers. Those calling the rioters “barbarians,” “violent criminals” and “lowlifes” may then also approve of the Mubarak-style persecution which the British government and its judiciary have—unsurprisingly—unleashed on their citizens. The measures include 4-year prison sentences for inciting to non-existent riots on Facebook, eviction of rioters' families from council housing, a targeted social media ban without court order, and “extra powers” for the police, all to protect your local Footlocker. The police has extra-legally involved MI5 to help crack open Blackberry messages, as if Osama Bin Laden and his entourage had just been sighted in Birmingham with a thermonuclear suitcase. (In that city, Louis Vuitton came under attack of rioters—instead of the usual Tesco and McDonald's. We'll leave it up to you to decide whether that implicates “design” or “luxury”). On a sidenote, conservative MP Louise Mensch launched her endorsement of the “Shop-A-Looter” endeavor, stimulating people to hunt down rioters via social media, as she was herself shopping in New York. She tweeted, extatically: “And now if you'll excuse me I must hide these shopping bags from my husband :)” This is power, UK-style. This is the public official's example to the “thugs” who “plotted” the riots.
Then, look at the visual and physical side of things. The Flickr page of the Metropolitan Police has tons of surveillance portraits of the rioters, uploaded so that you, the public, identify them (participatory design via social media). Many look exhilarated, happy, and alert. As if they were living under Ceaucescu and the Iron Curtain had just been lifted. (They look quite different from the average design hipster trying to seem asymmetrically cool on a fixed gear bike and all that.)
With free sneakers, having one over the authorities and the alarm-protected chain stores, the riots became a moment of freedom in the neoliberal gulag of Cameron and Clegg. And of course designers are complicit in creating and maintaining that gulag. But mostly they are, like everyone else, employed in it.
The social projects and higher moral purposes advocated in the FTF Manifesto are a little abstract as an alternative to advertising jeans and other ways of making cash. The question how we all make a living is legitimate and the answer to that question is always concrete. In their bare-bones reasoning—designers sell their services to clients, we all work in the marketplace, etc.—some commenters inadvertently affirm the spirit of the looters, who did not advocate a political or social cause, but simply followed their instincts on what would make their life tangibly better immediately. Not a co-creation project for participatory social change, but food, drink (Monster and Armagnac), and clothes. That said, this post's most hawkish commenters about both the riots and the design profession warrant a prediction that may surprise them and surprises even us: designers, despite their self-proclaimed high standards, are not insensitive to the economic spirit of looting and may even, given certain circumstances, participate in it.


good arcticle!

But I am more cetic about the new paths of design. when I was a student in 2003, i also wanted to be a kind of "more social designer". students aways want that, but to make money 95% of the designers ends up accepting a purely comercial job.

It´s not today's students. It' students!

Thanks to everyone who responded - even the angry ones. Well, needless to say, I stand by everything I wrote in my original post. I would only add that brand people and designers can’t on the one hand crow about the ‘power of branding’ when claiming to play a part in commercial success, and then wash there hands of any responsibility when the same branding produces – or contributes to – an entirely different and unintended outcome. Sorry, we can't have it both ways.
Adrian Shaughnessy

Design as Propaganda?

Anyone who wants to read up on this subject


Paul Bailey

Everybody who has commented and might still do so should first read Metahaven’s comments. It puts things into perspective, especially for people not familiar with the UK politics these days.

Full disclosure: I lived there for 10 years in the 70s/80s, my son is English lives in Hackney and I go to stay with him often. We were in London during those events, about 5 minutes away from some scenes. I think that gives me a pretty good handle on the situation, certainly more so than a lot of the under-informed and over-opinionated contributors here.
erik spiekermann

Great article, I can only add that designers need to work closely with the social sciences to do this. For example it might be worth designers reading and then visually communicating Wilkinson and Picket's book "The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone".

It empirically charts how conspicuous consumption and vulgar displays of wealth are the drivers of inequality: creating social mistrust, poor mental and physical health, violent crime, obesity, teenage pregnancy and of course debt. It's central argument that countries with greater inequality have more social problems is hard not to resist - see the charts and stats.

As for the highstreet: in Helen Armstrong's "Graphic Design Theory" compendium there is an article which praises Muji's advertising because it aims not at "desire" but instead at "reason". This may be a way forward.

Also worried about some of the comments here. For those still disbelieving that the riots are related to inequality it might be worth taking a look here:

I've been a 'designer' all of my life I think just by recognising my talents and wanting to create visual clarity and narrative for people. I like to think that my most important job as designer – when working with clients and making friends along the way – is to understand and empathise with people.

One of the most refreshing write-ups I've seen on the subject is here: http://www.russellbrand.tv/2011/08/big-brother-isnt-watching-you/
Patricia Lewis

I've been a 'designer' all of my life I think just by recognising my talents and wanting to create visual clarity and narrative for people. I like to think that my most important job as designer – when working with clients and making friends along the way – is to understand and empathise with people.

One of the most refreshing write-ups I've seen on the subject is here: http://www.russellbrand.tv/2011/08/big-brother-isnt-watching-you/
Patricia Lewis

Design is often tangled in the unholy web of advertising. But certainly not all the time and maybe not even most of the time. But it is the most visible manifestation of our craft. Our impulse is to beautify, organize and clarify the world. Not bad at all. I sometimes question if Art Directors (those who work in advertising) should even be classified as designers. Design is a true formal appreciation for composition, form, typography and presentation of information. Art direction is really pulling art together with or without design to emotionally affect people (to buy things mostly). I think that's very different. Perhaps it's worth it to clarify the real evil here which is a society that exists to consume no matter what the cost. I wrote an essay awhile back about my impressions working in advertising. Thankfully I don't do too much ad work these days. http://jasonpaul.net/2010/12/impressions-of-a-designer-on-advertising/
Jason Paul

I suppose no one here took part in the rioting ? Why not ? Look, opportunist saw the window to get stuff for free so they did and it was probably fun for most of them too. But hold on, my guess is that most of the rioters were probably unemployed or earn little money, have lots of free time on their hands and subsequently lack the responsibilities that say, someone in a full-time job earning buckets of cash and does his or her looting in a more acceptable way.

It has nothing to do with designers, but the topic of this blog post does raise some interesting points and comments and probably has the desired affect of the author. There’s no need to be rude guys...(LOL)
Brian Francis

This has been a fascinating discussion to follow, with a great deal of misunderstanding of the other camp’s point of view on both sides. Any oversimplified or one-dimensional explanation of the riots and their causes must be inadequate. There is truth in both sides of the argument. Trashing, looting and burning local restaurants and shops — not just branded chain stores — is absolutely wrong, despicable even, and social causes don’t excuse it for a second. To inflict this destruction in your own neighbourhood on your own community reveals a particularly disturbing lack of decency, empathy and moral values.

At the same time, political, economic and social conditions have created feelings of hopelessness and disaffection, as well as a corrosive materialistic envy, where such explosions become possible. A sense of social cohesion and any broadly held, commonly shared social values or purpose disappeared in Britain years ago (“There is no such thing as society” — Margaret Thatcher). Anyone who doesn’t see this as fundamentally a political issue about power, money, ideology and the distorting effects they are having globally should see Inside Job straight away. The documentary shows very clearly what has gone wrong since the financial deregulation of the 1980s and it’s likely to leave you boiling over with anger at how things have come to this pass. But what to do with that anger?

I’m struck by two things in what Adrian says about designers’ role and response. He mentions Ken Garland’s First Things First (1964), which asked designers to consider the kind of work they did. The manifesto was renewed by Adbusters and others in 1999 and it has been widely debated ever since. These documents are calls for designers to take responsibility in design — communication is, after all, a social act — and it’s worth nothing that it’s a sense of responsibility (to others, to society) that many commentators on the riots believe has gone missing.

Adrian concludes by asking what is to be done, offering the path of abstinence from commercial seduction and a redirection of (graphic?) design into projects of “social value”. Since the 1960s, there has been a vast literature about advertising, consumerism and the “society of the spectacle”, which many designers and their teachers are familiar with. So the issues raised by commercial communication are far from new and it didn’t require the riots to bring them to our attention. The conclusion Adrian reaches in his last paragraph is the same one that many thoughtful designers reached a long time ago. These things are easy to say, especially when you are a student, but much tougher to put into practice as a working designer (as some commenters point out). But something like this is what real change will require. Marcos El Malo puts it most effectively: “I think the only actions that can be taken are to choose not to participate in the culture of desire or to minimize one’s participation to the greatest degree possible.” If only more of us could find a way of living like that.

Earlier, though, Adrian says that he is “not advocating a puritan revolution” and doesn’t want to ban advertising. This reluctance to follow the argument about advertising and commercial design’s effects to its potentially difficult and even devastating conclusion is the same reluctance we see in Garland’s original FTF and, more subtly, in the 1999 rewrite. (Marcos, too, imagines that we could eschew acting politically.) But again, as just one example, I point to Inside Job, which shows the massive abuse of power that can happen without active resistance within organized political structures, as well as on the outside.

This rhetorical pulling back from the brink avoids the larger political implications of making a call for less consumerist design and leaves the system that has created these desires fundamentally unchallenged and intact — in fact it has nothing to say about these wider social-political questions, the very issues that the riots should have us debating.

In his later comment, Adrian says we can’t have it both ways. But seeming to want it both ways, to challenge design while leaving its surrounding ideological and economic framework intact, is precisely the problem with the FTF position (and Adrian’s position) as stated here. The real challenge, the issue we should be talking about, is what kind of design lies beyond his final paragraph — in a comment, Adam makes an important point when he suggests that more socially useful design might already be happening than we acknowledge. (John Thackara might have a few things to say about that, too.)

Or we could just put up and shut up and carry on as usual.
Rick Poynor

Forgive this small addition, but I have tried to weigh in on similar global issues before as well. If interested, some of these views are captured here: http://geotypografika.com/2008/02/24/die-neue-geotypografika-redux/
Erik Brandt

I'm not sure I buy all of the supposed psychological analysis going on here. I agree with those who say that the statement "But for those who have neither the education nor emotional maturity to deal with this, immense harm is done," is problematic (or even insulting): it seems speculative and vague.

Similarly, regarding Metahaven's assertion that looters "simply followed their instincts on what would make their life tangibly better immediately": I question what makes life tangibly better about entering a violent situation where arson and police forces are a factor to steal goods that one is already physically surviving without.

I also take a couple of issues with Metahaven's "facts" comment. Regarding the Mubarak comment: Mubarak's charges include "unlawful killing of protesters"*; I hardly imagine UK government actions warrant a comparison. Regarding "... all to protect your local Footlocker": Rioters set people's cars on fire; I saw a report of police vehicles being assaulted**, and of an incident of stabbing*** during the riots. Yes, the government has acted unacceptably in the ways you mentioned, but the situation was not only about protecting shops and as yet doesn't compare to the actions of Hosni Mubarak.

Reagarding designers' responsibility not to contribute to consumerism and London riots, I fail to see the connection. I do agree that designers—and all people—have better, less destructive things they can do with their time, I don't see where exclusion from this world of owning things leads people to riot.

* — http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/08/2011837525919537.html
** — http://twitter.com/tomfinn2/status/100767617186406400
*** — http://twitter.com/muskhalili/status/100325402052014080
David Amrock

The article is composed of the most absolute basic and most surface level statements/positions one could have on the design/brand/power role and result, it's no wonder there are so many basic and surface level comments. Another example of why designers shouldn't write.
Additionally, designers chose which path they take regarding a career. Some follow the money and mold a cliched claim to be agents of this or that, and others follow the principals of their own life and make work that resembles their own beliefs, not the beliefs of a brand or a monkey or a cinderblock or anything else. The final paragraph is the vital one in this essay. There is more design that is challenging social behavior happening in America than in Europe or Asia. That's a fact. Spend less time making (unnecessary and contribute-less to social design) typefaces. And, honestly, five minutes away is pretty far away.

I live in central Brixton around the corner from a high street that was smashed up last week and have attended several post-riot public meetings. Non-Londoners might be surprised that most of my neighbours have more compassion for the young people who rioted last week than is demonstrated in some of the responses to this blog and certainly in the mainstream media riot panic. Understanding the causes of social unrest is different to condoning violence and central to solving the social problems that led to the riots.

The riots arise from a context: the politicians imposing austerity measures, the financial class with recent shameless record bonuses following the looting of the public purse in the 2007-2009 crash, the NoW/Murdoch scandal, two top policemen resign in disgrace and finally the police murder of a black man. Last week thousands of young people followed the example of their leaders’ reckless behaviour and looted our communities. Tragic but predictable.

Three quarters of a million people attempted to prevent this government from making the ordinary working people and the poor pay for the financial crimes of the rich when they hit the street in protest this spring. We were ignored. This government is quickly destroying any hope for most young people from my part of the city.

While I do not see designers as a primary cause of the riots, it is disingenuous for designers to deny our complicity in rise of rampant consumerism and the identity politics cultivated through design when it is used in advertising and marketing practices. Social exclusion is a result.

Design could function as a positive force but designers will need to expand their scope of engagement. The difficulty of earning a living as a designer is obvious in a market system that prioritizes profit over social priorities. While it is a very difficult problem to address, it is a problem that rises out of historical circumstance that we can also fix, just like other generations have fixed the problems they inherited. Otherwise we resign ourselves to ever increasing levels of social and ecological crisis.

Opening the space re-evaluation of the role design plays in either perpetuating or addressing problems is urgently needed. FTF was far too abstract to be meaningfully applied. Designers who are serious about social change need to engage with social movements who are not content to just reflect on problems but are actively engaged with making change happen.
J. Boehnert

I sit in the don't agree with the contents of this article camp. I think it's a slightly over simplified view which betrays a political standpoint of Adrian's. If we are pointing fingers at anyone regarding the role of brand I would argue the sportsmen and women and the musicians large brands pay have a much larger role. They are paid by brands to endorse a lifestyle of enrichment by associating with brands. They in some cases come from the same background as those the brands want to engage with. Music particularly focuses on the role of money in happiness, just listen to any Jay Z album or guest spot to see his obsession with showing off about how much money he has made.

I'm not sure how much you shop in JD Sports Adrian, but with due respect to their design team there is nothing compelling about their in-store POS or advertising. What is compelling is an artist driving a nice car head to toe in the latest Adidas. Designers are just another part of a capitalist machine and for me, your argument could be stretched to include those that manufacture these goods of desire.

As for young designers moving away from commercial messages. That has little to do with them being right on and more to do with their obsession with self expression. It's a lot easier to design for themselves and education seems to be full of tutors who think setting a logo project the antithesis of what they should be teaching. There seems to be just as many charity and non for profit messages as there were when I was at college 12 years ago. There's just more newspapers about some subject where the designer has gone to town, along with a lot of art like work. A lot of it produces good thinking, but it's not anti commercial, just young designers flexing their design brains in a non constrained way.

I also want to say to the other commenters, if someone replies with a short "I don't agree". That doesn't make their comment any less valid.
James Greenfield

There is a simple answer for designers, and that is to design for things you believe in. If you can't do that then definitely ensure that you don't design for something that you are opposed to, whether that be a specific company or the culture that company engenders.

This isn't a question for design as a community, there is no 'one size fits all answer'. It is a question for designers as individuals, it is up to each designer to decide what they feel is right and who/what they feel they can design for.

Of course designers are complicit in increasing the 'want' culture if they work for consumer brands, otherwise why would clients pay us?
Paul Bailey

This piece shows the naivety of those working in design.

1. All the ills listed where (apart from the sneering at family breakdown) the preferred causes of the Left. What about welfarism, the something-for-nothing ethos, the culture of unjustified self-esteem, a generation used to instant gratification?

2. The idea that there is a massive role for designers to play outside of a commercial framework is ludicrous. How are these designers to be paid a living? Surely not welfare for their unjustified self-esteem unsullied by crass commercial considerations?

There is an entire orthogonal class of people in our society that are so blinkered and narrow-minded that they think the rest of society should be set up to service their own petty desires. Artistic people that spit in the face of consumers are merely one example.
Kevin Spanded

I came down from a mountain to find that a political row has broken out in Design Observer. 'Chapeau', Adrian.

The way it looks to this ex-pat is that something was ready to blow in the UK - and it duly has. Just as things have blown in the banlieus of France, in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Spain.

What seems to be missing in UK apart is a narrative. Many of the slogans of Spain's 'indignados' are taken from the French best-selling book 'Indignez vous' ['Get Mad'] - but the only texts I've seen from the UK have been Blackberry messages.

In the absence of a compelling manifesto, I'm with Jody Boehnert [above]: designers who are serious about positive change should engage with social movements that are already out there, making change happen. They can surely use your input.

Oh, one more thing: I would absolutely ban advertising like a shot if I had the power to do so.


At the turn of this past century I was finishing my secondary studies beneath Designers J. Abbott Miller & Ellen Lupton. A married couple, they were as you know incendiaries behind the First Things First 2000 Manifesto. I remember picking up an AdBusters that year, enjoying the sense I'd been inculcated into their culture of intelligence & design responsibility.

Less than 6 months later Abbott became a Partner at Pentagram and designed the new Banana Republic logo -- a company notorious at the time for sweatshop labor. I remember the confusion and hurt that I felt. I approached Ellen one day and asked if Abbott was troubled by any sense of hypocrisy. She looked me dead in the eye and replied, "Sometimes, Kevin... we have to rob Peter to pay Paul."

It was an elegant lie, and I loved Ellen for it. I could appreciate it. The truth was that she and Abbott had just given birth to their first child, Jay. They'd just bought a nice big 6-bedroom brownstone. And Banana Republic pays. A lot. But they didn't pay Paul -- they paid J. Abbott Miller. And they in turn paid their mortgage, which is fine.

My point here is that if even J. Abbott Miller & Ellen Lupton -- two of our most accomplished, warm, wonderful & charming talents can't do it, then none of us can. Should we keep trying? Of course. But for ourselves, because we'll never congeal a lasting, meaningful force.

These are really, really good people we're talking about; but a decade later, nobody from the FTFM2000 manifesto kept their promise.

Kevin Landwehr

Adrian's very reasoned text and the comments that have ensued make fascinating reading. The nub of the piece isn't about the riots of course. It's about what graphic design is employed to do and and how much graphic designers themselves can/should engage with the repercussions of their work in the wider community. It's inarguable though that the activity of graphic design does have consequences.

As designers we are generally employed to help transmit other people's messages most effectively. What we do seems to work – no-one would employ us if it didn't. Yes, there's an argument that all we have control over is doing just that, so we have no responsibility to consider the bigger picture, but few would suggest that the 'i was just following orders' position is acceptable when it comes to inciting racial hatred, for example, or even selling cigarettes. So, putting aside that we don't all agree about what is harmful and what is not, there is a principle that is clear and, surely, it is this that has to inform all the thorny conversations about practice that inevitably result.

Lucienne Roberts/Rebecca Wright

and... a kindly meant addendum to the writer of the comment of 24/08 which ended 'a decade later, nobody from the FTF 2000 manifesto kept their promise'. I am a signatory of the FTF 2000 and I couldn't help wondering how carefully this comment was researched. I hold my hands up in recognizing that It's impossible not to be the inadvertent recipient of dirty money. Yes, I've been criticised for working for the charities set up by Tony Blair and yes, lots of the projects I'm involved in have been government funded, so who knows where that money has indirectly come from, but hand on heart the nearest I've got to the overtly commercial is working within publishing! I'm not saying that all that is commercial is bad I hasten to add. My former colleague Bob Wilkinson, who also signed the manifesto, has meanwhile been a volunteer designer in Nigeria and now works on a UK government funded project there... he's certainly trying to keep up the good work!

Lucienne Roberts
Lucienne Roberts

This article has raised, yet again, a subject that's been always of interest for me: design responsibility. As Lucienne Roberts, points out, I can't say that I'm just the messenger. I should take credit for the good and the bad of my work and for the things I communicate to the community.

That's a valid opinion that I've always believed in. The problem is that I only seldom followed it. The question here for me (might be off subject - or not) is how can I make a living out of working for charity and companies that have socially and environmentally moral businesses? How can I make a living out of moral design if I'm designing for not so moral companies?

The thing I've done so far, was to try to give those companies a better understanding of their actions and the effects they have on the communities (since most of them are not ill-intentioned but rather not conscious). I agree with Paul Bailey but that still doesn't seem enough. So what a modern designer needs to do (except for going as a design volunteer in Nigeria)?

What does make a design moral or not?

Andrei Pastuhov

If you design stuff for JD Sports all day every day, surely the gnawing desire to commit violent suicide will be more of an impetus to do something more worthwhile than any mediation on the affects of rampant consumerism on economically disadvantaged youths...

Lucienne (if I may call you that), thank you for your polite reply. All of your points are truly well taken & please let me reiterate my tremendous respect for this particular effort you've led. I'm sure you see the point of my story is that when an elegant idea proves unreasonable & unsustainable, you don't toss out the idea, you just do the best that you can. When a person of tremendous wealth gives half of their fortune to charity, you don't criticize them as uncharitable for keeping the other half.

But what you're saying is that you're living proof that it IS viable. F2F2K manifesto, however, compels us to adhere to the standards of AdBusters; that's the Devil to whom you all signed away your soul. And if Publisher Kalle Lasn were to research your post manifesto work history, I'd bet he'd find the lack of transparency suspicious -- at best. Neither sans+baum nor LucilleRoberts+ offers any clue to the work you've done through the past decade. Many examples of inspirational dogma; few examples of practice. And designing Tony Blair's letterhead -- let's not even go there. Okay, let us. It isn't the government money & it isn't the (oh brother) dead in Iraq; it's that you've KICKED, no... BOMBED open the door to criticism and cynicism. Again; what would Kalle Lasn say?

I'm saying it really does appear on its face that F2F2K isn't sustainable. If you're telling me it's viable in your heart then of course I take you at your word that you believe that. I don't care for cynicism & my message is a positive one.

Do you think that when we encourage people to live up to an impossible standard, we may ultimately be causing them to abandon standards entirely?

Is this a bad time to say I'm a big fan of yours?
Kevin Landwehr

*FTF2K, excuse me ;-)
Kevin Landwehr

I believe there is an unhealthy and, for many, unachievable system of consumer desire, which is contributed to (if only a little) by the involvement of some unscrupulous designers. This undoubtedly played a small part in the choice of loot sought after by rioters, simply for the financial benefit. But I don't think was really a contributing factor to the cause of the riots.

In regards to the social versus commercial design debate, I am a graphic design student and have made my mind up as to what type of work I would like to pursue professionally, but am yet to implement my skills in the real world. For me there seems to be a few choices - do I take on high paid work for brands to sell largely unnecessary, expensive and potentially damaging products? Or do I do low paid work for essential, affordable, necessary products/services, charities and social initiatives? There is no choice there.
Ed Tolkien

Jobs | July 16