Michael Bierut | Essays

Will the Real Ernst Bettler Please Stand Up?

Poster for Pfäfferli+Huber Pharmaceuticals, attributed to Ernst Bettler, 1959

Can graphic design provoke real social change? Consider the example of Ernst Bettler.

In the late 1950s, Bettler was asked to design a series of posters to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfäfferli+Huber. Aware of reports that P+H had been involved in testing prisoners in German concentration camps less than 15 years before, he hesitated, and then decided to accept the commission. "I had the feeling I could do some real damage," he said later.

And indeed he did. He created four posters featuring dramatic, angular black and white portraits juxtaposed with sans serif typography. Alone, each poster was an elegant example of international style design. Together, however, a different message emerged, for it turned out the abstract compositions in the posters contained hidden letters. (The one above, for example, displays the letter A.) Hung side by side on the streets, they spelled out N-A-Z-I. A public outcry followed, and within six weeks the company was ruined.

So if you're looking for evidence that graphic design has the potential to change the world, you need look no further than the story of Ernst Bettler. But if you look a little further, you'll discover something disturbing: Ernst Bettler never existed. The designer, the posters, the company are all entirely made up.

Ernst Bettler was introduced in 2000 in the second issue of Dot Dot Dot. Nothing about the article, titled "'I'm only a designer': The double life of Ernst Bettler" and attributed to the London-based writer and design Christopher Wilson, identified it as anything less than fact. On the contrary, it was filled with convincing touches, including descriptions of each of the posters (only the "A" was pictured), portraits of a young "Bettler" in 1954 and today, and vivid details throughout. Here, for example, is Wilson's account of the reaction to the scandalous posters:

The reaction of the usually passive local populace was immediate. The posters were torn down in the streets, the offices of the Sumisdorfer Nachrichten were buried beneath an avalanche of complaint letters, and demands were even made for the company's managers to stand trial. In under six weeks Pfäfferli+Huber were ruined forever. Even today, the sooty mark left on the front of the factory building by the long-gone metal logo is less visible than the ancient 'Nazi raus' spray-paint around the rusted gates. If World War II had in part been fought on the battlefield of design, then Bettler's involvement in the downfall of P+H stands and a testament to design's power to change things since then.

The design community knew an irresistible story when they saw it. Adbusters featured Bettler's feat in its September/October 2001 "Graphic Anarchy" issue: "It's one of the greatest design interventions on record," the magazine noted approvingly. Creativepro.com noted Bettler's "brilliantly subversive work." In Michael Johnson's admirable textbook Problem Solved, Bettler is saluted as one of the "founding fathers of the 'culture-jamming' form of protest," and to demonstrate his ingenuity his A poster is helpfully placed between typeset letters representing the never-seen others in the series.

I bought the whole thing too, although I think I remember feeling something was off. I was a student of postwar Swiss design; why had I never heard of Ernst Bettler? What happened to the N and the Z and I posters? And, while like many others I found the idea of the downfall of P+H at the hands of a designer awfully satisfying, why would a subtle poster series be more effective than, say, a journalist's expose? But it was Andy Crewdson, writing in his now defunct blog Lines and Splines, who finally did the research and discovered that there was no evidence of that Bettler, or Pfäfferli+Huber, or even Contrazipan — the medication advertised in the poster — had ever existed.

Rick Poynor summarized the whole saga on the Eye website in February 2003. "What, then, is the point of the hoax?" he asked. "If the aim was to fool credulous browsers into perpetuating the story, then this latest development is a triumph. It's now a permanent feature in thousands of copies of an internationally distributed book produced by a major publisher, Phaidon, and it's likely to be taken at face value for years to come. It reveals how skimpy standards of research, validation and basic knowledge can be in design book publishing." But it also reveals something else: how desperately we designers crave evidence that our work has the capacity to truly make a difference.

At last month's Designism 2.0 event, critic Michael Wolff infuriated many in the crowd by calling the work of some of today's most committed designers banal, trite and ineffective. "The problem with using design as a disruptive force," he said, "is that everyone uses design as a disruptive force. So how do you break through the clutter? Someone figures it out, everyone copies, and you have to reinvent again." Design's value, he says, has been "inflated, and therefore devalued." What more resounding rebuttal could be imagined than the example of Ernst Bettler, the lone designer cunningly using his quiet skill to turn the machinery of evil against itself to devastating effect?

Bettler lives on today — perhaps more than ever, as Poynor feared. Do a search and you'll find him invoked on MySpace pages, fansites, and scholarly bibliographies. The same week of Designism 2.0, Bettler's P+H posters were nominated in a SpeakUp discussion on the world's most iconic posters. Not bad for a designer than never existed.

We need heroes, and we'll make them up if we can't find them any other way. It's been noted that one of the most compelling fictional heroes of all time, Superman, was invented by two midwestern Jewish kids in the 1930s. In a world where Nazi evil was spreading unchecked, how satisfying it must have been to invent a powerful figure who could burst from nowhere to take action on behalf of the most threatened and helpless.

The design world is full of Clark Kents. Are any of us ready to be the next Ernst Bettler?

Posted in: Graphic Design, History, Media, Politics

Comments [72]

I'm reminded of Ern Malley, the fictional Australian poet, another hero of his art. See the enormous Malley section in Jacket 17.
Michael Leddy

Thanks for the insight. I was a committed believer, retold the story quite a few times. I must admit that hearing the story did bring a feeling of validation, as I continue to tell myself that one day I'll do it my way and change my little part of the universe for the better.

As for Michael Wolff's comment, I don't know what's more obvious: hyper-idealistic designers that crave revolution simply through their work (count me in), their detractors that, through a harsh crit, use the misplaced enthusiasm to cause a very obvious and calculated stir, or the members of the crowd that are clicked into the expected fury like a laugh-track recording.

Maybe the idea of design as tool for revolution has been "inflated, and therefore devalued," all the better. Lets move onto the more valuable approach of helping things evolve in a better way through our input, at a good pace.
Bradley Wajcman

I don't think you answered your question pertaining to Bettler's work as invoking real social change at all. Bettler was framed in such a way that people believed that he and his accomplishment were real, and as such his work has been given value were there is no value.
How is using Bettler as a rebuttal to Wolfe's comment about design a valid one? It can simply be countered with "that never happened" to which it's effectiveness is completely stripped away. I feel that that would be comparable to asking, for example, "will the united states win its war in iraq" and then answering with "well, the humans defeated sauron in lord of the rings" - as you can see, you cannot use a fictional event to answer a real world question, because the real world is quite different from fiction.
Dan Nanasi

Wow, I can't believe something like that would go unchecked for so long. It's disheartening, but if these posters had existed and been placed in public areas, I'm not entirely sure that everyone passing by would pick up on the relatively subtle letterforms. I know we should constantly be trying to elevate the public's visual literacy and have faith in them, but with all the visual inundation people receive everyday, would the message even register in their minds? Would it resonate and incite action, as in the false story of Ernst Bettler? It may seem cynical, but I think we need to realize that it's difficult to affect a big change solely through design. I'm not saying it's impossible; we should definitely persist in socially/environmentally proactive design. But if we want to make an impact we can see, we have to get our hands dirty. This means not only incorporating change into our daily lives (conserving, recycling, etc), but also complementing our cerebral and conceptual design solutions with action (volunteering, teaching, protesting, etc). We should be doing the same things we want to incite others to do--physically and mentally working towards the same goal. So maybe we can't be Supermen, but we can be a corps of active and dedicated designers who do more than just design.
Swathi Ghanta

I have to say, Swathi, you are very very wrong.
James Devogelear

Why is Swathi wrong, James?
Dan Nanasi

I only bothered to read the first paragraph until I found an error and stopped reading.

The one above displays

M=dark space
A=arms + type

but who am I to see words instead of letters.

HECk It's my enkelin's birthday and I can't get phone service out here nor email service. Seems like some Nazis have cut oma off anyways.

We need heroes, and we'll make them up if we can't find them any other way.

Superman, even as an entirely fictional character, has lessons to teach us about, among other things, good versus evil. Of course, everyone knows that Superman is fictional. Nobody's seriously trying to pass him off as real.

The Ernst Bettler hoax is very interesting. But, as an entirely fictitious story it has nothing to tell us about whether or not design can really effect social change. After all, even the social impact of this fictitious work is fake, made up. It is a big lie.

What it does tell us is that designers are desperate to believe that design can be a social change agent. So, when a story about design effecting social change comes out, designers will swallow it hook line and sinker. How embarrassing!

Dot Dot Dot intentionally perpetrated a huge hoax. They created Bettler and passed him off as a real person. They picked up on the general design zeitgeist around the need to believe design can effect social change and used that as fuel for their fiction. Designers, desperate to believe, spread the story and perpetuated the hoax. What we end up with is, in fact, a brilliant parody of design and its desire to effect social change. One wonders if this is what the author(s) meant to achieve from the get go.

I suppose we can imagine that, like Superman, Bettler has some real lessons to teach us. However, those are not lessons about design's ability to effect social change. Instead, he has lessons to teach us about how easy it is to perpetrate a hoax, about how easy it is for design to lie, about how gullible we all really are, and about how desperate we are to believe in design as social change. We don't have any real heroes so we make one up.
Rob Henning

I'm not entirely sure that everyone passing by would pick up on the relatively subtle letterforms.

...ignoring, of course, that you haven't even seen three of the four putative items.
Assuming the other posters "would" have constructed their letters with a similar level of obfuscation, the resulting word would probably not be very subtle at all once they ended up in the proper order. Do we really need to bring up the whole "people read words, not letters" discussion? Any single image of this kid in isolation wouldn't hold any particular meaning for you, either.

I have to amend my comment. If we are disposed to believe in design as social change agent, there are probably plenty of real heroes in that arena, so I am not sure why we need to believe in a fake one.
Rob Henning

We don't have any real heroes so we make one up.

I agree with this statement, the question is why?

I suggest you click on the current Paul Rand thread to witness people describing something close to praying to the dead Paul Rand for guidance in our cruel, cruel world.

Maybe it is because often the work that is socially significant is not always beautiful in that Modernist, Helvetica-y sort of way, and designers have such trouble getting around that. In the words of Roxy Music, "the one thing we share is an ideal of beauty." The faux-poster by Bettler is beautiful first and foremost and that is what was so critical in the snookering that followed. A brilliantly thought out hoax carrying a very cynical message about the deep conflicts inside the hearts of graphic designers.

I'll contemplate my oma comment with this funny video on safety design here.

See over at youtube:


I feel that that would be comparable to asking, for example, "will the united states win its war in iraq" and then answering with "well, the humans defeated sauron in lord of the rings" - as you can see, you cannot use a fictional event to answer a real world question, because the real world is quite different from fiction.

Dan, if J.R.R. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings as an article in Time Magazine and present it as an event that actually happened in southeastern Europe 49 years ago which led Americans to search for a ring to win it's war in Iraq as a reaction to the article, then your example would be an accurate one but at this point it fails to exemplify this situation and remains irrelevant.
Serifcan Ozcan

This was another example of 'creative nonfiction' winning the day (or at least winning a moment to some). While James Frey and Stephen Glass got lambasted for lies, exaggeration, or whatever you call them (see creative nonfiction for definition), Dot Dot Dot (art / design / communication magazine) pulled off one helluva stunt, and created a Faux Designer Hero. When I first read the piece, I felt bad for the client. Here was a man, who supposedly pulled the wool over the clients eyes. How unethical. What designer (that belings to AIGA), would do such a thing.
Jason Tselentis

wait, so what was the point of the dot dot dot piece? never was stated. did the author say if it was meant as fiction, hoax, satire..?

Read Looking Closer 4.

Social change happens every day.

"Everything isn't about design, but design is about everything."

Thanks Michael.
Greg Mihalko

Su, I agree that the word would be obvious to us (definitely when seen altogether), but I meant that busy people passing by see so many images throughout the day that they might not even pay enough attention to see the posters/word, and if they did, would they want to do anything about it? Or would they just think, "Oh, that's interesting," and walk along on their jolly way without knowing the underlying commentary behind spelling out this word? It would definitely be an excellent and poignant set of posters and a great example of socially aware design (if it was real), and I'm sure it would have raked in even more design awards and honors, but, ultimately, design awards don't affect the problem at hand. I'm just saying we need to do more if we want to create a direct and palpable change in society.
Swathi Ghanta

Swathi, considering that you have only one, maybe two projects in your portfolio that have anything to do with "direct and palpable change in society" maybe you should reconsider your own working practice before you decide to critique the strategies of others.

Note to Gavin: we are talking about something that never happened! Let's just "keep it real."

As a designer, even the most annoying clients I had, I thank them for trusting me with the project. Or may be I'm young, so I think this way?

I vividly remember the first time something I design was being used in public. And I thought... you know, I pay for things other people design all my life, and now, people are looking my design as part of the world they live in.

To betray that trust.. I don't know if that is heroic. Designer may not have to keep secrets of their client like a psychiatrist, lawyer, priest, or a doctor, but we are all here at Design Observer blog, knowing that design is something that is important, has great meaning, long lasting (longer than a human life) and can be used to define a generation, so you can ask yourself... is trust important in our line of work?

There's no design without client. Design is not about money, but it's about solving problem and communication. Who will trust you to design anything? You can hire yourself for the rest of your life, you will probably be more of a hero that way.

They will hail you as heroes for sabotage a design to bring down an evil corporation... but afterward no client will hire you. Can you sacrifice career for a greater good? If I can make a deal with god to bring world peace tomorrow if I would stop designing anything, ever... may be I will do it. But I will consider that a great sacrifice... because I love designing things very much.

But to give it all away to bring down one bad client?
I believe I can do more good doing good design for good clients who helps better the world.
Panasit Ch

"Can graphic design provoke real social change? Consider the example of Ernst Bettler." I guess it depends on what you think of when you think of the words society, and change. Although this story is fiction, it seems to me that the design in question did have an impact on a particular society, although not one that might be immediately obvious. The design community was changed as a result of the story.

Fiction purposed as reality has true power, pick a religion and look at its history. True power was the goal of this hoax, but it never developed enough dogma. Perhaps the designer should have chosen a real company, one whose detailed records would be untraceable. If this had been the case, and we all kept retelling the story, then it would have arguably capture social change in some form. This can't be the only example in graphic design history, fictitious or otherwise, that a designer imported a hidden meaning that caused social change. Can anyone give us some examples, Mr. Heller... any thoughts on this?
Joshua Winship Carpenter

One of the above commentators (PK) asks the right question, what was the point of the original DDD piece?

Painful though it is to remember this non-project, the tip-offs I got about it came too late to stop publication of my book, and as Rick pointed out so eloquently, the first run of Problem Solved then contained this early of early culture-jamming that had, er, never existed. Of course the subsequent runs of the book amended this (it's now in its fourth printing) but there will be enough copies in circulation to perpetuate Christopher Wilson's hoax (the writer of the story) for some time.

When I realised it was false I contacted Wilson and pointed out the facts and Michael Bierut's information from Lines and Splines.

He replied

"My Bettler piece was not a hoax, although I've heard this rumour before.
I'm flattered that Mr Bierut is talking about it".

And then later

"I did not set out to hoax Adbusters in any way. They asked for some material
and I passed on what I had. Likewise with yourself. I'm not sure what other
articles there are on Bettler, but I don't want anyone to "go public" on my
behalf - my article is already in the public domain by being in DotDotDot".

Wilson, incidentally, consistently hid behind his RCA and Eye credentials throughout the saga. Here are some examples

"If you need any further proof of my existence, you could read my other articles
in Eye, Graphics International and TypoGraphic. Not even DotDotDot would go
to such lengths".

Rick Poynor's digging on Eye's behalf revealed that Wilson's point was, actually, to poke fun at the generation of 'New-Modernists' that had sprung up throughout the nineties in the UK and to ridicule their love of post-war sans serif, Swiss-style graphic precedent. Whether he succeeded in this aim is to be debated.

What's clear to me from the whole affair is that, yes, one should triple check your sources, but that creating hoaxes out of the twentieth century's most horrific periods, and the Holocaust, leaves a truly unfortunate aftertaste.

Michael Johnson
johnson banks
Michael Johnson

Fiction purposed as reality has true power, pick a religion and look at its history. True power was the goal of this hoax, but it never developed enough dogma. Perhaps the designer should have chosen a real company, one whose detailed records would be untraceable. If this had been the case, and we all kept retelling the story, then it would have arguably capture social change in some form. This can't be the only example in graphic design history, fictitious or otherwise, that a designer imported a hidden meaning that caused social change. Can anyone give us some examples, Mr. Heller... any thoughts on this?
Joshua Winship Carpenter

Gavin, I'm not critiquing or saying anyone is wrong or right, I'm just expressing my opinion on some ways we could ALL improve ourselves as designers and people. Come on, even Tibor Kalman was constantly trying to improve himself as a designer and a proactive member of the global community, and he often felt at odds with himself in that pursuit since he was also a commercial designer. Don't get me wrong, I think we NEED work like this, it is NOT pointless, I'm just saying we should supplement it with actual physical volunteer work and not get too caught up in ourselves. That's what I mean when I say "direct and palpable change," completely not in a design sense. And actually, I'm quite a young designer just starting out, so I hope to add more to my portfolio in the future, which I'm sure you could understand.
Swathi Ghanta

Discourse about the value of design within society often falls foul early-on due to the airy-fairy nature of many of the viewpoints put forward. People use phrases like "craving revolution" and "culture-jamming", its all very schoolgirl-doodling-in-her-diary.

The recent article 'Why Design Won't Save The World' by David Stairs (http://www.designobserver.com/archives/027474.html) raises the important issue of relativity and knowledge of a specific problem in order to change it. Simply the desire to do good is not enough. There needs to be a vehement reason to do so (and furthermore a tangible problem to actually solve in the first place) as the trap of becoming a spectator shouting from the sidelines, believing your own press, is so great.

Secondly, the lack of focus on specific issues under the umbrella of 'socially responsible design' is vast, especially within blogging culture. Sitting at your computer, it's all too easy to throw your ore in and add to the pile, free of worry - Bloggers Diarrhoea. Theory on the subject outweighs actual design work perhaps 10:1, and not much of that is any good (crappy graphical puns photoshopping Bin Laden's beard onto Bush's face, turning Blair into Bliar, a plane crashing into a sans serif number 11 etc., or meaningless billboards with I LOVE YOU or YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL written on them). All with a good heart behind them but without any follow through. This airy-fairy attitude quickly turns valuable discussion into philosophical nonsense 99 times out of 100 (Bradley Wajcman's comment above) and results in mediocre, meaningless ideas that lack any true conviction or clear direction. Name-calling, graphic jokes and beautifully typeset facts about death rates in Iraq abound, and nothing is truly done.

This type of discourse is perhaps more damaging than the problems it claims to overthrow, as it breeds a type of apathy and loathing similar to that of a teenage rock band who get to their 30s and wonder why they never became the rockstars
they dreamed of becoming 10 years ago. 4 years of online discussion should have been enough to come to a general consensus by now, but we are still left in the dark.

WHAT TYPE of social change are we discussing? WHY IS THERE A NEED to change it? Am I close enough to the problem to understand it? etc.

Sandi Thom summed this up in her song when she said:
"I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair,
'77 and '69 revolution was in the air,
I was born too late, into a world that doesn't care,
I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair..."

Too often - rather than examining the modern tools at our disposal and using them to make sense in our own contemporary world - we choose to go down the utopian and meaningless route of Sandi Thom, copying what we read in history books and falling under the weight of history, all wandering around with flowers in our hair.

Swathi and plakaboy: Whilst I'm aware this article discusses a fictional project, the conversations that come out of it are inevitably about the ones that aren't. My comments are not so much based on the fake Bettler but the real-life design community and it's online network of debates about this subject and the material follow through that results from it.

Or maybe you guys are also fake?

We can trust no-one guys :)

When seeing this in my history of design class, my thought was also to question the ethics of designers undermining their client. Imagine if pharmacists, lawyers or engineers purposely undermined clients whose approach, background or beliefs they didn't believe in.

Regardless, I've always wondered about the logistics of selling the client on the need to post all 4 posters in the same location, in order... without ever showing them to the client this way.
Mike Williams

to Mike Willliams: did your design history teacher tell you that this poster was a fake?
to Gavin: read the comment of Mike Williams and ask yourself if it makes any sense at all that he is worrying about an ethical and logistical situation that never happened, instead of thinking about the stuff that really happens, or could happen!

Gavin, since I'm real, I'll respond to your post :) I completely agree with you, we can't be "airy-fairy" about it. That's why I think we should pick a cause or two that are close to our hearts and volunteer or petition or run or fundraise; do whatever we can whenever possible to make changes that we can actually see, however small. Now if you also design some posters or the like to raise public awareness and get more people interested in your chosen cause, then bravo. That's what I'm talking about!

Dan, if J.R.R. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings as an article in Time Magazine and present it as an event that actually happened in southeastern Europe 49 years ago which led Americans to search for a ring to win it's war in Iraq as a reaction to the article, then your example would be an accurate one but at this point it fails to exemplify this situation and remains irrelevant.

You have completely misinterpreted my statement, as well as disregarded the fact that I did not mention Frodo's journey in my analogy. I have posed a real world problem and then used a fictitious event in which to try to solve it with, much in a similar manner that the author of this article attempts to do the same with the problem with design and social change posed by Wolfe.

My only point is that you cannot turn to fiction for real answers and basis for argument. As the author mentioned Superman, such a figure is useful for inspiration, but cannot be considered an iconic figure in, say, the same way that Ghandi is for the peace movement, because Superman never existed, nor did Bettler exist.
Dan Nanasi

I'm glad to have inspired you to write this with my ill-informed speakup comment Michael!

Reading that dotdotdot article certainly leaves one feeling as if graphic design can change the world.

I remember the first few years of school when people were asking "why do you want to be a graphic designer" many of the student's answers pointed towards a designers ability to "influence the world" and create change through the work. And this certainly is an example that helps keep hope of such a possibility alive.

And maybe it also was so inspiring to readers because of those times people have to take on clients they don't want to work for, but need to. (how many people go out and say "man, I wish I could design something that helps make Microsoft more money" and how many would turn down a job from them) and that secret little wish that you could crush the company and still get paid for it.

wait, so what was the point of the dot dot dot piece? never was stated. did the author say if it was meant as fiction, hoax, satire..?

As far as I know, the author has never disclosed what his motivation was in writing this piece and inventing Ernst Bettler, nor have the editors of dot dot dot.

If you haven't seen the actual article, it's worth noting that the P+H episode is one of several subjects that are discussed in relation to Bettler's imaginary career, and might not even be considered the main point of the article.

According to Ric Poynor's article in Eye, "Dot Dot Dot, asked on its own website whether the story was a hoax, replied: 'as far as we are concerned it is true. DDD is based on true stories.' An editorial in issue two acknowledges that the journal resorts 'to fiction to make certain points'." I can't even say for sure what the main point of the Bettler article was meant to be.

Poynor also adds, "Talking to a source close to Dot Dot Dot about this latest development [the hoax's appearance in Michael Johnson's book], I sensed concern in their camp, as though Bettler's double life was starting to have consequences no one had fully thought through and predicted."
Michael Bierut

true story:

An unnmamed man in Dallas was fired one afternoon working as a junior designer for the ®Renuzit air fresher company. He was told to finish up the new can design, mark up the mechanical (this was years ago, around 1994) pack up his belongings and be on his way.

Ths unnamed man, upon recieving these orders, proceeded to unzip his pants, flop and plop down his junk onto the flatbed scanner. Over 2 million cans of ®Renuzit air freshener were printed and shipped before anyone noticed the faint penis floral pattern on the back of the can.

I saw the can. It happened. He is my hero.
felix sockwell

Ryan Rushing

Thats a lie too sorry felix.

As for Poyner's comment on Wilson's point about poking fun at the generation of 'New-Modernists' - he is absolutely correct. I don't have the Dot Dot Dot article to hand, but I remember one of the questions put to "Bettler" was - what was his opinion on the English design consultancies North and 8vo, two studios that (at the time) were synonymous with the use of grids, sans-serif typography and asymmetric layouts. Bettler's response was that this kind of work was now irrelevant and didn't meet the needs of today's society.

Several years prior to the article I clearly remember viewing Wilson's graduate portfolio (along with a colleague) when I was a designer working at North - he seemed very defensive at our opinions on his work and was at pains to try and debate the relevance of our working methods. Furthermore one of his projects at the Royal College of Art was also critical about the North RAC corporate identity (he was obviously on a mission).

I have no problem if Wilson didn't approve of our design approach, but it seems to me that he has used a fabricated interview with a fabricated designer as a means of self-gratification in order to reinforce his own opinions.

Mason Wells
mason wells

it really angers me to see anyone making the two simple questions

1) is this true?
2) why did you make this?

so difficult to answer. i can't see any honorable intention in making a gesture if the creator of the work refuses to answer those questions in any straightforward way.

>>Can graphic design provoke real social change? -- Michael Bierut

In the third grade, a newsprint Weekly Reader went to great pains to explain that wasting water could end the world in an calliope of violence and destruction from weirdly illustrated super villains. I've tried to conserve as much water as possible since.
Kevin M. Scarbrough

Personally, I think that we have always been willing to accept myth in the place of fact. This isn't due to the rise of universally accessible information; it is a result of limited intuition that fills in the gaps when contradictory information isn't available. In fact, quick access to information is the best way to address erroneous myths. The myth of Ernst Bettler is not unique, and in accepting it at face value, neither are we.
Jim Schachterle

What about the 2007 Ikea catalogue, where a designer photoshopped a human penis onto that poor dog on the inside flap? Some say it's a leg joint, other's say it's a penis.

"Designers, changing the world one dog penis at a time."

The myth of Ernst Bettler is not unique,

is that actually true? i find it pretty alarming that an entire discipline -- one which is vocal about its quality of thought -- is so easily duped by a single agenda'd practitioner combined with publication which clearly doesn't think through the results of its dissemination.

this particular example seems especially fractious in my mind because there are so many designers so eager to believe in our mythical prowess of social change with very little tangible evidence.

it reminds me of the j.t. leroy hoax which recently embarrassed the new york literary community.

The myth of Ernst Bettler is not unique,

is that actually true?

duh. i provided my own example.

Look at the major social movements and transformations in the West in the 20th century: the women's movement, the labour movement, and the civil rights movement. Did the design profession help out here? If a poster was well-designed rather than poorly designed, did it make a difference? Seymour Chwast did great posters for war resistance from a design standpoint, but did they bring about social change? You can say they helped, but let's not toot the horn too loudly.

Designing goods that are easier to use or cheaper doesn't change the fundamental social forces that structure our lives, they simply make entrenched social relations easier to bear. If that's the goal, ok, but don't call it revolutionary or transformative.

We have iPods and Eames chairs, but still have poverty, hate, and global warming. Let's design a solution, not just a poster that exhorts us to change, please.

Someone else who remembers the visuals of Weekly Readers so vividly?

Plus my school reader itself. I can't tell you how much those abstract stories did for me when I was singled out with about five or six other students in fourth grade to read from a text book reader named Horizons. Then the color system of the SRA reading box amazed me because there were so many levels. They had to add colors like aqua to the rainbow, but the brown actually bothered the look of the system to my eyes. Anyway, the competition to beat one other girl and those two other guys in class to be the first one to get to the final level made me overlook that design integrity issue. That and thank goodness we had baseball and four square, which for a girl I wasn't to shabby at, where I could work out my feelings toward these design concepts being thrown at me.

To think I was so motivated back then. Wonder what those people did with their lives and what color they are on now, as somebody just recently asked me what planet I thought I was on.

I'm listening to This American Life on IMTS, and thought of this article. Specifically, the following that was said of advertising Brand U.S. to middle eastern muslims.

"I realized that as naive as it might have been to think that advertising could solve century-old problems, a small part of me hoped that it could. That something--anything--might be said or filmed or edited into a 30-second TV commercial that would undo all that had already been horribly done and that would avoid all the bad that would certainly come in the future." -- Shalom Auslander, This American Life, 7 January 2008.
Nick Husher

"...Bettler's double life was starting to have consequences no one had fully thought through and predicted."

I bet Orson Welles would have found that amusing.
erica augustine

Dan, Your first comment:
How is using Bettler as a rebuttal to Wolfe's comment about design a valid one?

I think you misunderstood what Michael was saying. I took it to mean that people were already looking to this fictional character as a rebuttal. Michael then continues to say that maybe designers need a superhero like Bettler, and the Bettler saga shows this better than anything.

The article shows common problem in today's busy world: proper research. Writers and journalists are only googling. They do not check informations - who has time for this. Shame for all books that the project was published in.

"creating hoaxes out of the twentieth century's most horrific periods, and the Holocaust, leaves a truly unfortunate aftertaste."

Indeed it does... perhaps you should read this book, about a rather more serious one.
David Smith

Thomas Scott Beachamp. Jessie MacBeth. Ward Churchill. Dan Rather and the Bush "National Guard" papers.

I would argue that in a field dominated by the political Left, it should come as no surprise that a designer would follow the same pattern as other equally desperate liberals. If one's passionately held personal beliefs cannot be authenticated with fact, then make something up and present it as Truth. The "good intentions" of the perpetrator count for more than actual reality. "I believe it must be so, therefore I am right!"

It's unfortunate that no one else seems to view this masturbatory Bettler hoax as dangerous, if not potentially fatal, to our profession. For communication professionals who value "The Truth" so much, there seems to be not so much concern that calculated bald-faced lying does nothing but undermine the most crucial asset we have at our disposal: trust.

As a profession, we designers stink of desperation. So desperate are we to validate ourselves, professionally and personally, that we are apparently willing to construct whole fabricated realities for the purpose of soothing our own bruised egos and damaged self-esteem. There's a word for this: Pathetic.

A pox on the perpetrators of this hoax. Shame on those who so gullibly swallowed it whole. There should zero tolerance in our profession for this kind of crap.

Another hoax, more literary in nature, is William Boyd's wonderful Nat Tate, An American Artist: 1928-1960. A short biography of a peer of Frank O'Hara, Franz Kline, Georges Braque, Willem de Kooning, etc., this charming story is also illustrated with wonderful photographs of the these characters and the period. (Foreshadowing the work of W.G. Sebald?) Anyway, the work is a novel, a hoax of a biography.

A wonderful detail are the jacket blurbs with Gore Vidal and David Bowie playing along with the joke — Bowie in fact mentioning the lost Third Triptych painting by Nat Tate that he found on Prince Street in NYC's SoHo.
William Drenttel

My hope is to be able to add more to the conversation as to whether or not design can provoke positive social change or not after I have completed my Masters in Public Affairs, as well as the Certificate in Social Entrepreneurship program at Indiana University, Bloomington. This very question is part of what drove me to pursue this route in further education, rather than continuing to work professionally as a graphic designer, or pursuing a masters in graphic design. I do not mention my education to preemptively try to validate my comments, only to illustrate that I feel it necessary to look outside the field of design to answer these questions.

I think perhaps the more relevant question to this debate is not whether or not design can evoke social change, but how? It seems obvious to me that design can have an impact on society simply due to the fact that there is a global design profession. But perhaps that is only evidence that the general consensus of the global population is that design has an impact. Regardless, let me assume for the sake of this discussion that the general consensus is correct.

We are hired, are we not, by clients who desire our services? Those services are intended to change the way their customers interact or believe about them. Is that not a form of social change, even if tied to the ambitions of a for-profit, government, or non-profit organization?

Outside of working for a client, whether an impact is positive or negative is, of course, entirely subjective, and thus anyone wishing to 'impact' society ought to specifically define exactly what impact it is that they desire. I agree with the comments earlier regarding the rather 'fluffy' thinking behind social change. Even in the very basic, practitioner-focused book "Robin Hood Marketing," Katya Andresen lambasts activists who implore her to 'Stop the War' or 'Save the Whales' without a clear call-to-action telling her how. In contrast, a campaign like the EPA's "Change a light" program (regardless of what you may think of the design), at least asks people to take a specific course of action: switch at least one light in their house to a CFL (compact flourescent) to help curtail global warming. That is a specifically defined outcome that can be measured and quantified. (Causatively linking outputs, a project's activities, with outcomes is always a tricky business, and beyond the scope of my comment here).

Additionally, I see a pattern, even within this debate, for designers to attempt to isolate what effects graphic design has on the viewer from all the other elements that go into a project, things like marketing strategy, copy-writing, etc. Perhaps the Bettler story is so compelling to us because it is only the design that is subversive in the poster(s) (the copy actually promotes the client!). This may be an attractive and even useful course of thought for an academician to pursue, but as a practitioner the point seems fairly useless. Design never, or almost never, exists in isolation. Perhaps the more interesting question is how the campaign ambitions, graphic design, copy-writing, and the services of the 'client' (perhaps an abstract concept in some cases) all work together to create social change.

Again, these are questions for which I do not have answers, but perhaps by asking these questions we can come closer to answering the big question; can design effect positive social change not relative to the ambitions of a client?
Carolyn Dew

Unfortunately this hoax does more damage than good to the faith we have that graphic design can (and does) provoke social change, but instead shows you how powerful the written word is.

Headache Michael Johnson?

In Michael Johnson's admirable textbook Problem Solved, Bettler is saluted as one of the "founding fathers of the 'culture-jamming' form of protest," and to demonstrate his ingenuity his A poster is helpfully placed between typeset letters representing the never-seen others in the series.

Did Michael Johnson (who comments above) have a license agreement with Dot Dot Dot to use the poster attributed to Ernst Bettler in Problem Solved? If not, where and from whom did Michael get this poster artwork? I would love to read a comment by Steven Heller or Michael Johnson on the subject of research and license agreements for Design history books.
Carl W. Smith

to Carl W. Smith: so, you are worried that Johnson might get sued for unauthorized reproduction by a phantom? I question Beirut's use of the word "admirable" to describe Problem Solved, when the author fell for the scam: wouldn't a better word be "flawed"?

lots of questions and frustrations.

didn't stuart bailey once say he'd just as soon be a delivery truck driver than a graphic designer?

oh, the screeching of tires on the way to a burn out.

burn baby burn.

and yet, oh, let me continue to profit off of graphic designers by running a design bookstore, and publishing a design magazine!?

i think the itch he, and many other mfa designers for sure, can be, and has been, a wonderful source of provocation.

i respect stuart a lot, but can we get him in here on this?

his obfuscation (in dot dot dot's official response) rings of experimental jetset's 'non sequitur' dylanesque drivel, which sorry for them, doesn't get the todd haynes idealization. since, you know, it probably shouldn't, since a lot of the times dylan was just fucking with us.

in a sense too, i feel like we're missing a part to this puzzle - john heartfield!!
he DID go after the nazis! he didn't go after a client per se, but being german, he went so far as to CHANGE HIS NAME to show his disrespect.

i wonder why he was not mentioned as a progenitor to 'culture jamming'?

in fact i would argue the corporate co-option of 'culture jamming' (viral branding..) has damaged the viewer's ability to know left from right - what's the critique any more? if the crit becomes a style, it can get co-opted eventually, but rational, philosophical disagreement cannot be so stolen, because discourse is not an object.

peace movement posters can be beautiful, but israel-palestinian conflict negotiations do not exist by one side making a poster, then passing it to the other, and then back over!

non-coercive policy is not a single object, like a poster. it is a flawed negotiation, if one at all. groups that don't agree can find a middle ground, but as a politican, you're going to maybe have 51 percent of the people love you and 49 hate you, if you're lucky.

do you want people to stop talking about the other way of looking at things just because you can make wonderful graphic design pieces that present one point of view?

why is 'change' so valorized?
i worry of those who yield communication without logic.
do designers want to be the roman catholic church useth-no- condoms-o-overpopulating-planet or something?

is this why we needErnst Bettler?

isn't setting beautiful and proper typography for al gore's 'an assault on reason' as important in its own way to communication as was mgmt.'s beautiful design for the 'inconvenient truth' book?

how broad are we talking 'graphic design' here, and how 'graphic'?

how much can you really do but try to encourage logic and excellence of argument in discourse? and use graphic design, if you want, to do so.

playing with people's emotions can get you sales, but doing so at the expense of logic in trying to change policies is pushing it.

Nate Schulman


  1. No, I am not worried that a phantom would sue Michael Johnson. I was making a reference to Michael's comment about triple checking his sources and asking a question about how he did his research.

  2. My point is that if Michael Johnson had simply written to his sources to ask for permission to reproduce their artwork, he would not have to deal with this unfortunate headache. This letter of permission is called a license agreement and if you do it properly, you often get more information about the designers and their artwork than if you simply copied their artwork without their knowledge. It is a professional courtesy and it builds trust.

  3. Mr. Johnson still did a considerable amount of work and research in his textbook Problem Solved and that is admirable.

Carl W. Smith

I do not own a copy of Problem Solved to look up as to how the Bettler image is credited, but generally it is not up to the author or the publishers disgression as to whether or not they decide to get permission to reproduce an image. The image has to come from somewhere and if the only source for the Bettler was dot dot dot then that should have set off another round of questions, at least. So it seems to me that Problem Solved still has problems.

The technique of proposing fictional events to be non-fiction is used by many writers. Jorge Luis Borges (which the Bettler story, in light of this article, seems closest to in a literary sense) used it in his fiction, by introducing stories as though they were publicly documented. As someone mentioned Orson Welles earlier, War of the Worlds was proposed as fiction and happened within the context of an evening radio show, but because of the realism of the radio play, as well as the high level of national anxiety over a possible WW2 invasion, many listeners took the events as truth. More recently, and in a different manner, Sacha Baron Cohen's posing as Borat, a television reporter from Kazakstan, walked the thin line between farce and gonzo journalism.

What people here interpret as a hoax is actually a disagreement on whether they were properly informed of the fictional nature of the Bettler article. Fiction does not have the same standard as non-fiction, in that events related in works of fiction need not have occurred in time and space. One thing I think might be at the root of this question is that many take Dot Dot Dot to be something of a Design Journal, in the same grouping as Eye or Baseline, and is therefore held to the standards of non-fiction. While it does have journalistic pieces, it does exist in another realm, and has published works of fiction regularly.

Manuel, to my knowledge Borges' historical fabrications always existed within the context of fiction. I have never seen mention of it in regards to his sizable non-fiction output. Please feel free to correct me.

Whether Dot Dot Dot is externally considered to be a design journal or whatever is irrelevant to their, and the author's, apparent refusal to define whether the piece in question was fiction.
This, for example:
According to Ric Poynor's article in Eye, "Dot Dot Dot, asked on its own website whether the story was a hoax, replied: 'as far as we are concerned it is true. DDD is based on true stories.'
...when read closely is a very careful evasion of the actual question posed.

You also fail to mention whether the fiction they regularly publish is marked as such(If they label their content at all; I've never seen an issue.), and whether this piece was.

Just to clear up a few more points raised - if my memory serves me correctly - we contacted Dot Dot Dot who then put us on to Christopher Wilson directly re the story. Wilson himself dropped off digital artwork and then was at pains to get the CD back again - perhaps we should have smelt a rat then. By hand-delivering his hoax, did he implicate himself? I wonder.

This was just one of about 1,000 images that are contained in Problem Solved, so whilst there probably is a signed release form, it's one of many. I'm not sure that it would be legally binding about a project's actual existence or not, that would be an unusual clause.

The hardback run of the book wasn't vast, and in every run since it went to softback the image and idea is presented within a chapter about educative/informative design, BUT is clearly labelled in both main text and footnotes as a misleading fabrication.

It follows on from examples such as Libeskind's Jewish Museum, a Holocaust exhibit in London and Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial. I guess you could argue that it is well on the way to becoming a classic piece of dis-information in its own right, unfortunately in slightly more meaningful company.

As regards motive, well only Christopher Wilson can truly answer that, and I'm afraid I have no idea as to his whereabouts, and nor does Google.

Michael Johnson
johnson banks
Michael Johnson

I'm not an expert in photographic reproduction, though I've certainly dealt with it incessantly, and to just react to what Michael Johnson writes above, yes, he (or whoever was dealing with all those release forms) should have suspicious. The "rights of reproduction" should have ultimately been with Bettler, or the Bettler estate, an archive, or with whoever holds copyright, and not with a person who just happened to have written about him and posesses a few images on a disk. But if Wilson signed the release form then yes, he basically revealed his authorship (via retaining the rights) to those images. So it's easy to see how a simple oversight (easy to have happen in dealing with 1,000 release forms) could aid and abet the "fiction," even unintentionally. It does make one think of how the conventions and rules that clutter print are meant to establish fact from fallacy, and yet they can be scammed, just like everything else. I am not denigrating the Bettler fable here, but its mechanics are pretty fascinating.
lorraine wild

One of the very few delights of being a speaker at a design conference (or a writer for dotdotdot) especially when you are a mouse amidst the mighty is that for a few moments it places you in a position of great credibility. Given the company preceding and following your presentation, this presents the perfect chance misuse said cred to make a point.

Provided, that is, you know how to pull it off as well as Wilson did. This is about my comeuppance, and it didn't take several years to happen.

I was a speaker at Kyoorius Design Yatra earlier this year; this is India's only graphic design conference, and I was invited to be an "Indian" voice, the mouse in the company of the current greats: Sagmeister, Olins, Johnson among several others. The hoax was a part of the speech aimed at simultaneously acknowledging, deflating (and hopefully, right-sizing) the importance of "doing" strategy, a buzz word with a deafening presence in the country's growing design community. The gag: announcing our firm as a secret beta-tester for Adobe StrategyWise (SW/AI/PS), to Creative Suite 4, the soon-to-be successor to Adobe's CS3. I showed a splash screen, crafted to accompany the CS family (for the curious, the SW colour is red) The application would "do strategy" for novice, intermediate and advanced users, in a manner that, of course, I couldn't reveal.

Perhaps it was the versimilitude of the splash screen; or my leaden voiced delivery, or call it a first timer's inexperience (facing 2000 people sitting in the dark), but the effect was: most of the audience simply believed this to be the truth. The audience included the usual sales boffins and gnomes from Adobe India, I was told that they fell for it too. All this despite my moving on the next point after saying "if you believe that, you'll believe anything".

Naturally all hoaxes rely on the audience's desire to believe in certain narratives, and the ready acceptance of the gag made me think. Unlike the Bettler hoax, this was expressly a gag, fessed up to immediately. Unlike the Bettler, it has no element of ideological or emotional manipulation, so what was the need to believe focused on? Some thoughts: the audience's attitude to software tools as all-capable proxies for the mind? or the S-word's mystic-myth status as gleaming beacon, erected by the best and brightest, America's design and software industries?

Itu Chaudhuri

No, Itu, I doubt there was anything quite so complex behind the audience's need to believe: you were there, floodlit, with a microphone, laptop and yes, an audience of 2000 - so no one expected you to pull a fast one. Same with the Bettler article: if it's printed, it must be true, right? That's what most people assume. if it's on TV, even better.

well, it seems to me the poster feels so incredibly familiar because every designer or student has seen the source of its inspiration many times in various design history books already?
Josef Müller-Brockmann's 1960 poster "Weniger Lärm" (Less Noise), see for example:
http://www.thegiant.org/wiki/index.php/Josef_Müller-Brockmann (bottom)
http://www.posterconnection.com/history.htm (paragraph 'swiss design' toward bottom)

My question: Why are designers so prone to want to change, if not revolutionize, the world in a social-change kind of way?

Seriously, I find this aspect of the design scene really bizarre.

One, because the whole idea of social-change-via-design is absurd. I mean, isn't enough to want to make visual life a little more attractive and comprehensible than it'd otherwise be? You aim higher than that? Are you nuts?

Two, because I don't find this we-must-change-the-world thing to be a prominent feature of the other arts scenes I know. Novelists, for instance, generally hope to get a few good reviews, sell a few copies, and find day jobs that allow them enough time to finish their next books. Even the rock musicians I know generally just want to make people dance and do some good drugs.

So why are designers obsessed by this vision?
Michael Blowhard

M. Blowhard,

(Some) designers are obsessed by this vision of change because they want to shape the world in a more meaningful way than their client work allows them. And specifically put, in the designers' way, rather than the clients. It's a noble endeavor. And then again, so was chasing the Holy Grail, and look where that got some of those Knights: stranded without food, water, or shelter for days. Call it nuts, far reaching, ambitious, or absurd. They are entitled to it, for the same reason that graying eternal amateurs [can] discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations. Know of any demographers, recovering sociologists, arts buffs, College administrators, Architectural historians, Entrepreneurs, or Media flunkies that do this when they're not handling their 9-5 duties? Why do more than your 9-5 duties?
Jason Tselentis

I'm not the real Ernst Bettler, however, I am standing up.

Isn't it great to see a carefully crafted hoax provoking such lengthy discussion?

Anyone who has ever spent time crafting an elaborately constructed hoax or sown the seeds of an apocrypha can tell you that, if there's one thing it's not, it's not a one liner. A hoax like this takes time and very careful attention to detail. If it's to succeed it's certainly not rushed off the cuff.

I, for one, celebrate what this hoax has achieved. It has certainly provoked discussion, it has also (see above) forced us to question our blind acceptance that everything we take for granted as 'fact' in any media - be it website, magazine article or book - is worthy of healthy scepticism.

Bravo Bettler!
Christopher Murphy

One out of two ain't bad - The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were born in Cleveland and Toronto, respectively. I doubt that Torontonians would describe themselves as Midwesterners.

wow, this certainly has generated a great deal of talk. here's my two cents:

clearly, a real person in a real situation with a real client could never have gotten away with this. too much money is invested in a company's image for said company to put themselves at risk in such a devastating way. what makes this story strike home is not that it appeals to the designer in all of us, it appeals to the revolutionary, to the Banksy, in all of us. for those of you who don't know who Banksy is, read up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banksy
the Bettler story is subversive art at its best - it's graffiti with permission, in a sense. it's something that i think we all have, at some point, wished we had the nerve to do. i regard this story as an inspiration for all designers and artists to try what they have previously talked themselves out of. Bettler may be a fictional hero, but he remains an inspirational one.

Communication doesn't need to be a "true story" to be credible... Having the ability to capture attention, free the imagination and trigger real reaction - whether through a graphic or any other creatively communicative device, for that matter, is the point. There are countless fictions depicted everywhere, everyday. The reason this one generated/generates such emotion-filled reaction is that while we feel vilified at its ending, we hate being duped. On the other hand, where was Ernst Bettler when we needed him, in 2003? The 4-piece LIAR could have been a classic.
Elizabeth Rodman

Jobs | July 12