Who Owns Intelligent Design?

While recently reviewing a designer’s portfolio, I was struck by the brilliance of a certain campaign and enthusiastically exclaimed, “Now, that’s intelligent design!” The designer looked at me with a knowing smile. Of course, I said what I meant and meant what I said, but given contemporary argot, that simple phrase triggered a moment of introspection, and a second later I self-consciously added, “It’s also smart and sophisticated.” But after uttering this caveat, I asked myself why I was compelled to do so. Is the phrase “intelligent design” so totally co-opted that it no longer means what it means?

As Bill Clinton made absurdly clear, even a word like “is” is subject to various interpretations. Words and phrases are routinely repurposed to evoke ideas that may alter their original meaning and provide new ones. Advertising copywriters and designers routinely manipulate common usages then graft them onto products or ideas to define or identify brands. Verbal puns and ironic twists are advertising’s raw meat; in fact, I remember how clever Fortune magazine was in the ’80s when they turned the Communist derisive “capitalist tool” into their own PR mantra. Calling the foremost American business magazine a capitalist tool neutralized the Marxist-Leninist criticism that workers are dupes of evil money-grubbers. And it became a positive identifier for the magazine in the bargain. I also recall when in the ’70s Wells, Rich and Green took a common vernacularism, “the city never sleeps,” and recast it as “The Citi never sleeps,” creating an indelible tag for Citibank. For the generation exposed to the slogan, the city never closing down will always be associated with the bank that is always open for its customers. Now, that was intelligent wordplay.

Like commerce, politics is terra firma for verbal and visual language manipulation. During World War II, Winston Churchill made the word “victory” and letter “V” (formed by his two cigar-gripping fingers) into the ineradicable symbol of British resolve against Nazi blitzkrieg. The V was also adopted in occupied countries as a sign of resistance. So by claiming ownership of “V for Victory,” the Allies effectively kept it out of the Nazi’s otherwise rich propaganda lexicon. In V for Vendetta, Natalie Portman rhetorically (and polemically) asks when innocuous words like “rendition” and “collateral” started taking on such nefarious meanings as they do in American foreign policy today. The answer is simple: It happened when the government realized it must make bad things palatable to good people, and made terminology such as “torture” and “civilian casualties” to sound more sterile. But surely co-option of words and phrases is as old as visual and verbal language. After all, turning the crucifix (the sign of the cross), a Roman method of execution, into a symbol of martyrdom and redemption was truly intelligent design.

During the 20th century, obfuscating meaning through transformed common words and phrases, or what George Orwell termed “newspeak,” became de rigeur in politics and media. And the trend continues. The Nazis were, of course, masters of turning venal acts into benign phrases: deportation to concentration camps was “resettlement;” gas chambers were “showers.” But they were not alone; the American military command in Vietnam referred to the torching of villages as “pacification.” During the Cultural Revolution the Communist Chinese used the term “rehabilitation” to describe the official humiliation (at times murder) of its internal enemies. Today’s term for mass murder, “ethnic cleansing,” is not as obscene as genocide (even though at times they are used in the same breath). “Regime change” is a polite way to indicate the overthrow of a government. “Surgical strike,” a devastating bombing raid or missile attack, suggests a clean medical procedure. Then there is “shock and awe,” which really means destruction on a grand scale designed to produce death and induce capitulation. Oh, by the way, not all wordplay is tied to war; tax cuts for the rich are now called “revenue enhancements.”

“Instead of language we have jargon,” wrote Eric Bentley, the playwright and translator of Bertolt Brecht, “instead of principles, slogans; and instead of genuine ideas, bright suggestions.” Maybe it’s all just semantics. Maybe institutions, organizations, businesses and individuals are free to nuance language and images all they want. Maybe one of our responsibilities as citizens is to learn how to discern, translate and interpret the multiple meanings. Maybe it is our job to be savvy enough about verbal and visual vocabulary so we are not fooled or flummoxed. Maybe.

Nonetheless, I am bothered that common words and phrases (some, such as “intelligent design,” I had taken for granted) have been turned into trademarks for certain agendas, and therefore owned by those people or groups. ”Patriotism” connotes everyone’s loyalty to nation–America for instance–but through a few clever slogans and jingles and ceaseless rhetoric, it is often used to signify those in power against those in opposition. In my mind, the true patriot is not simply a conformist but a nonconformist, but when the word is spun to mean a patriot is one who supports administration policies, it also must imply one who disagrees is unpatriotic. Whoever claims a word or phrase first—or uses it more persuasively—seems to own it. Using patriotism in this way establishes dichotomies, so in this particular scuffle the opposition has relinquished the word–and has not found a better one.

Intelligent design is a vivid description but a debatable concept. Regardless of whether one accepts Evolutionism or Creationism–two decidedly clear ways of labeling distinct views of how life developed on earth–the theory called “Intelligent Design” throws a monkey wrench into the linguistic works because it co-opts a phrase that should belong to all of us. When William A. Dembski, author of No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence and Philip Johnson, the pioneers of the Intelligent Design movement, coined this label they truly muddied the waters for all who would use the term in a benign but clear manner. “Intelligent Design, if separated from any right-wing agenda,” says branding expert Brian Collins, “could be a straightforward term for anyone who seeks proof that the unifying patterns of existence may be connected to a broader intelligence at work in the universe. Fair enough.” But in its current status the baggage weighs heavy.

Intelligent Design is based on an alternative scientific theory to Darwinism, arguing that life developed from deliberate natural design (perhaps from a higher being) rather than from random natural selection. It could have been called “Natural Design” or “Natural Forethought” but Intelligent Design has a better ring and is a brilliant branding method to drive Creationism (with its more biblical overlay) back into public classrooms. “It is not coincidental that its use appeared shortly after the United States Supreme Court rejected Creationism from American public schools,” Collins adds.

But this is not an argument for or against either of these hot-button issues, rather a rationale for retaking ownership of the term. A linguist once said, when you change your language you change your thoughts, so it is necessary that certain terms and phrases be freestanding. Words are empty vessels. But once a memorable word or phrase has entered a public dialog filled with a powerful emotional charge, its takes on that meaning until a stronger one replaces or dilutes it.

No one should own “intelligent design.” “For those who wish to reframe the debate,” continues Collins, “one way would be to make the term more emotionally charged as the search for scientific truth rather than a term for the assertion of religious faith.” Another use would be to celebrate what is truly extraordinary about what graphic, industrial, product, new media and all other designers do. Intelligent design is design that understands and serves the public, and that’s the best use of the term.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com