A War Overlong and Long Over

The announcement of this year’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards was qualified soon after by the news that one of them will be awarded posthumously. Bill Stumpf, winner of the award for product design, died in August at the age of 70. Like Niels Diffrient, an earlier winner, Stumpf pioneered the introduction of ergonomics research into furniture design and in the process changed the look and feel of the contemporary workplace. Bill’s prodigious design ideas were both matched and enhanced by his ability to describe them clearly. An original thinker, speaker and author, he was as much at home with language as with materials and things.

Other product designers have been distinguished by what they said and wrote, but facility of expression is more commonly associated with graphic designers. Nothing mysterious about that: graphic designers work largely with words. (Some editors feel that art directors work largely against words, but even that is a kind of working relationship.) Their purpose, after all, is to communicate.

In fact the National Design Award that includes graphic design carries the far roomier rubric, Communications Design. Which is precisely why five of last year’s finalists or winners declined one of the accompanying honors: an invitation from Laura Bush to breakfast at the White House. The ensuing controversy was the subject of an article by Michael Bierut in the online magazine Design Observer, triggering acres of blogged responses—some pro, some con, some marching to a different agenda entirely. (Full disclosure: two years ago, I attended the White House affair. I was neither a winner nor a finalist, but a judge, as Michael Bierut was this year.)

Michael’s article is entitled “Regrets Only,” and the designers who sent regrets are Michael Rock, Susan Stellars, Georgie Stout, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister. What interests me more than the diverse responses to their stand is their declared basis for the stand itself. This was not like Eartha Kitt’s famous dressing down of Lady Bird Johnson or Brando’s snubbing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for committing offenses that had nothing to do with singing or acting. There is no shortage of writers, poets and entertainers who have declined invitations from a White House representing what they view as despicable policies. But these designers based their protest on what they know and do best, and the lucidity and eloquence of their letter demonstrates how well they know and do it.

Here’s what they wrote:
Dear Mrs. Bush: As American designers, we strongly believe our government should support the design profession and applaud the White House sponsorship of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. And as finalists and recipients of the National Design Award in Communication Design we are deeply honored to be selected for this recognition. However, we find ourselves compelled to respectfully decline your invitation to visit the White House on July 10th.

Graphic designers are intimately engaged in the construction of language, both visual and verbal. And while our work often dissects, rearranges, rethinks, questions and plays with language, it is our fundamental belief, and a central tenet of "good" design, that words and images must be used responsibly, especially when the matters articulated are of vital importance to the life of our nation.

We understand that politics often involves high rhetoric and the shading of language for political ends. However it is our belief that the current administration of George W. Bush has used the mass communication of words and images in ways that have seriously harmed the political discourse in America. We therefore feel it would be inconsistent with those values previously stated to accept an award celebrating language and communication, from a representative of an administration that has engaged in a prolonged assault on meaning.

While we have diverse political beliefs, we are united in our rejection of these policies. Through the wide-scale distortion of words (from "Healthy Forests" to "Mission Accomplished") and both the manipulation of media (the photo op) and its suppression (the hidden war casualties), the Bush administration has demonstrated disdain for the responsible use of mass media, language and the intelligence of the American people.

While it may be an insignificant gesture, we stand against these distortions and for the restoration of a civil political dialogue.

Chip Kidd, himself an accomplished writer, was invited to sign, but argued that the letter missed the point, which was not about the Bush Administration or about the designers honored, but about celebrating their “ability ... and freedom to make and send meaningful messages.”

As the authors acknowledge, their letter is unlikely to change the course of human affairs or the Administration’s rhetoric, but it reflects a healthy shift in design emphasis. Ever since the London peace marches of the ‘60s, designers have spoken out against what were perceived as dishonest policies. In this case a comparable militancy is brought to the defense of honest language. For much of the past, the war between words and pictures has been fought with the grudgingly accepted inevitability of Thurber’s war between men and women. Designers persisted in the meaningless claim that “one picture is worth a thousand words,” as if the exchange rate were the same for all words and all pictures. Writers, for their part, protectively guarded against gratuitous illustration and the use of words as design elements, although poets had been doing exactly that for centuries.

We may all have grown up without noticing. When I learned that Maira Kalman was going to illustrate a new edition of E.B. White’s The Elements of Style, I thought it was a perfect example of illustrations for a work that needed none and could not possibly benefit from any. I found instead that she, and they, brought the book a new life and perhaps to a new audience. White’s words and Kalman’s drawings are in absolute sync. At a recent book signing, I marveled at the ease with which she could think up witty inscriptions to individual book buyers. Turns out that the wit was White’s. “I don’t write anything that’s not already in the book,” she explained.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.