Friday, February 19, 2010

Can We Save The World By Shopping?

Guest Blogger: Nancy Shahani

Initially when contemplating what to write as a seemingly appropriate blog the topic of plagiarism in the graphic arts came to mind – it seemed academic in nature and somehow revealed if not validated what it is that one as a Professor of graphic arts does and what it is the students are pushed so hard to achieve; but then, with inspiration to think on a larger scale, another topic came to mind; one that will hopefully engage in a dialogue by touching on several issues. It was a book lecture on Cspan featuring authors Raj Patel (The Value of Nothing) and Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine) which fostered a rethinking of the role of graphics even though in these pre-mentioned writings there was no mention of graphics or advertising but more so of human need and consumption in relation to the current state of the world, they were, none-the-less thought provoking and inspiring - but let’s back track a little. Since the topic of plagiarism was something that would be deemed as important, here is how it was going to be addressed; plagiarism in graphics is a valid concern; graphic art is hard and entails a great deal of work; graphic design is the new art of today and is part of our everyday lives; graphics include the language of slogans, the colors of products and their logos, and of course the imagery which accompanies them; authenticity in graphics is essential since it is questioned more and it must be maintained with original imagery and a composite of sources; poor writing in other courses is as bad design is in graphic design courses.

The conclusion of this piece was to state how we take graphics and advertising for granted since the medium itself is so accessible as many think they can design since they do use a computer just as many think they take a photograph simply because they have held and can hold a camera; however graphics is a challenging and powerful art form which drives the economy. Since business today is the image business this medium should not be taken for granted; but now this serves as an introduction.

In this world of what can be deemed as one of moral depravity and a dying economy does graphic design still have a place? Does the spending power of the individual still exist? Can we save the world by shopping? Eventually everything and everyone becomes a commodity – we market ourselves the way we market products and if a person or thing does not exist in its marketing bubble its value ceases to exist – one becomes off the market. When we think of brands that had power ten years ago and how some are not heard of nor discussed today we realize that it was the advertising which ended – the graphics cease to be. When we as humans stop our job search, when we no longer update our resume when we no longer publish, create or exhibit, then in some way from a marketing stand point, we cease to exist. Basically when the marketing bubble deflates the exposure ended and when the bubble bursts, the exposure went into overload. The question is can someone or something become a branding threat? When is promotion too much? And how does graphics play its part?

Graphic design is advertising and advertising promotes the good, the bad and the ugly of today’s corporate world; and everything in the world can be viewed as a corporation. We advertise to raise awareness – we advertise so society will want; we advertise so society will need. Having said this, are graphic designers responsible for the mass consumption of the world today? Are graphics responsible for our living beyond our means? It may seem absurd to blame the creative thinker for the world’s economic crisis, but the mind behind some of the greatest campaigns has proved to be quite powerful, in fact never before has the creative mind been so valued. Companies today (and everything in the world can be viewed as a company) recognize more and more the increasing value of a creative mind so much that it has been noted by author Daniel Pink, the MFA is now the new MBA. The true creative mind understands not only design and necessity, but economics and psychology.

The statement ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is still one designer’s abide by today – however it is the term ‘necessity’ which has changed over time. Frankly when it comes down to what it is humans really need the list is very short – yet in today’s world one’s lists has now become a book. We buy into the fantasy of an image and to the power and self worth we think that fantasy will bring. The size of our home, the car we drive the labels we wear were all brought to our attention through skilful manipulative advertising – through well designed imagery and graphics. Now, we as humans are smart, we know we are being branded to – so then why buy? Well, to be frank, the opposite can lead to cynicism. The very idea of limited capitalism can seem peaceful and more humane it is then upon visiting other parts of the world and that one discovers this lack of free enterprise often lends to an unmotivated and almost depressed society; a cynical unhappy place because as humans – we want. For the majority of one’s life, the desire for material things seems innate and it is with clever advertising that this desire becomes enhanced. It is from childhood to adulthood that we are targeted; in fact advertising does not leave us alone until we are near death. Perhaps it is because as one enters into their senior years the desire for material things lessons; this lack of material desire can be explained by either a lack of interest in the world they know they will soon leave and / or an appreciation of what they deem as truly important in life; however, not all of society reaches seniority at the same time - perhaps why the creative mind rarely targets to this demographic but rather to the world’s increasing middleclass or flatness (as Thomas Friedman’s book Hot, Flat and Crowded addresses); the world’s increasing latte factor.

The creative mind convinced the consumer that Starbucks is worth the extra money since any product with a healthy green and mother earth branding cannot be all that bad for you. Target’s re-vamped logo brought a company back from the grave and suddenly represents products that are better designed and more in tune with a younger and hipper demographic than its competitors. Furthermore, the purity of Dove’s white soap is indeed the campaign for real beauty; one does in fact need to ask themselves if they “Got Milk?” as oppose to if they “Got Soy?”; it is the yellow arches of McDonald’s utopia which is the happiest and sunniest place for children to beg their parents to take them there; and those who drink Pepsi are indeed part of the new generation. The little girl innocent pink color of baby aspirin makes it okay to give a child; and one harmless white aspirin pill a day is good for the heart. Hershey’s chocolate will bring love into your life; and a MAC computer is more futuristic and humane than others; clearly noted by their everyman spokesperson Justin Long. Raj Patel’s book The Value of Nothing, begins with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” One can blame the creative mind for this.

Then we ask how happy are we broke? And how happy are we without? The happy medium would be the ideal – the problem is in knowing when enough is enough and when to stop buying and consuming. So do the graphic arts serve any good? Well, we can argue that people like things and they like to shop and we as humans need fantasy and luxury and more so desire to feed our drive, and as such, graphics help. But let’s talk about the accessibility of graphics since one cannot go without mentioning ‘the good’ that well designed graphics serve. Advertising can be used to raise awareness; from human issues, to world concerns, graphics can inform one of a non-profit organization, of health issues, and of political leaders. From the public art of billboards to the target marketing of direct mailers, graphics can help initiate change – and dare we say aid to saving the world.


  1. i think we will see a return to simplicity, you know, the golden age is over. but i think, where fashion and la luxe are concerned, we're going to see a huge spring cleaning. i just think it's interesting to think about?

  2. Any artist who wants to earn a living from his/her work has to produce something that others want to buy. This is just as true of the "fine artist" as the "graphic artist". Any artist whose personal creative output is not in demand and who refuses to compromise on his/her vision in order to meet the demands of the market will have to find another way to earn a living and simply create artwork on the side, as a hobby.

    My husband had an old school friend whom we visited in Portland a few years back -- an incredibly creative and talented guy. He made a living through his artwork -- painting murals on commission, on walls and on huge commercial tractor trailers. But his house was filled with the art that he truly put his heart into -- paintings that came from some inner personal vision -- work that had not sold, although he occasionally displayed it for sale in local galleries, etc.

    Graphic artists are hired to do a job -- to sell products. Because their job is to sell, they are not going to present fair and balanced information (unless required by law -- but that is usually done through text or audio rather than graphics, such as the warnings on all the pharmaceutical products advertised on TV). They are not hired and paid to be honest, only to sell. I imagine that only the very successful ones have the luxury of turning down work because they do not believe in the product.

    When I was young my parents refused to have a TV in the house -- for many reasons, I'm sure, but an important one was because of the high exposure to advertising that my siblings and I would have had. Of course we ended up watching a certain amount of TV at our friends' homes, and I remember being convinced that if I ate Kix breakfast cereal I would be able to fly like the kids in the commercial! I also remember that my father absolutely refused to buy me a 3-Musketeers candy bar because he knew I wanted it from having seen a TV ad....

    Final comment: it is a sad state of affairs when some of the best things on TV are commercials.... but I have to admit that this often seems to be the case!

  3. Thanks, Nancy, for making me stop and think about the power of the image. As a writing teacher, I tend to get hung up on words, so I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    If you're a Daily Show fan, John Oliver recently addressed the idea of the "good old days" and the power of advertising and graphics to capture--or shape--the times: "Even Better than the Real Thing." I thought of this as I was reading your blog.

  4. Very enjoyable to read! Different from the other posted blogs - this made me think a great deal - thank you for your insights.