Design Culture

The Design of (the wrong sort of) Dissent

October 19, 2008

I often read about and hear about how designers must have the courage to speak truth to power and how political dissent is one pillar of patriotism. These are tenets I firmly believe in, by the way. But I also find laughable the way many designers think they’re speaking truth to power by creating or showcasing design examples of Leftist political dissent, in books, in magazines, and on personal websites and blogs. I’m struck by the vacuity of how anyone in the design community can believe it takes courage to do these things when there is zero chance of suffering any negative consequences for doing so.

Not a single designer who expresses Leftist political dissent is in danger of anything more than trumpeted support from his peers because of it. No designer who expresses Leftist political dissent is in any danger of being ostracized by the members or administration of any design organization, or by fellow students, or by design school professors. In fact most designers I know work to ensure that they live with, work with, go to school with, and interact with no one but other Leftists. Social fetish and safety in numbers are principles that designers seem to learn before anything else.

So tell me again: in what way is Leftist design dissent courageous? And how is it in any way speaking truth to power? It’s not. It’s simply the cliché repetition of mantra to the in-crowd. Courage plays no part in it. A designer who creates a Left-centric, anti-conservative design message is doing nothing more than the requisite ritual of euphemistically “donning the uniform” to show the rest of the designers, “see, I’m just like all of you!” Courageous? Hardly.

What a designer must not do, apparently, is put forth dissent that runs counter to the majority opinion. Dissent, it seems, is only valid and admirable as such when it’s associated with what everyone else is doing. Today's courageous designer is the one who goes with the flow and follows the pack. Fall out of lock-step, however, and you’re no longer a courageous dissenter, you’re just an asshole (or worse).

Leftist designers have been “dissenting” in the safe cocoon of their monochrome clique for so long that they’ve apparently forgotten what dissent is.

Last month I and many others were treated to an interesting lesson about design dissent and about how designers offer-up and regard criticism. We learned that the idea that designers respect and value dissent is a false one. We learned that the idea of political dissent being the duty of a designer-citizen is a fallacy. The vast majority of designers apparently do not hold with these supposedly foundational ideals. No, in a striking example of hypocrisy, the majority of the design community apparently holds far more strongly to the idea that dissenting views must be squashed and criticized in the foulest manner possible.

Based on the unsolicited yet copious response to my design dissent effort last month, the clearest lesson I learned was that the vast majority of designers have no respect for political dissent; only for Leftist political dissent. Further, the vast majority of designers respect criticism only when we’re all criticizing the same thing in the same way. In other words, hypocrisy and jingoism are far more fundamental design values of our “community” than intellectual honesty or individual objective evaluation. Apparently, designers are required to either run with the pack or get run over by the pack.

How not to rock the boat

If you’ve attended any sort of student or so-called “professional” design organization conference in North America, you’ll notice that the topic of political dissent is a popular one at these functions, and that those who have offered up popular designs of dissent are lauded and widely listened to. Design organizations love them some dissent …until someone offers up any actual dissenting view.

For instance, a friend of mine recently related a story to me about attending a student design conference. She told me that during a large panel discussion the topic quickly landed on political criticism of Conservatives and stayed there for the remainder of the panel. During this time the students were encouraged to ask questions of the panel (made up of design nobility from large agencies). Eventually, my friend was offered the microphone and she prefaced her question by asking if any on the panel considered themselves to be conservative. This was met by almost everyone pretending not to hear or understand, with the result being that her real question was circumvented.

The next day during another large panel, the issue of her question came up in panel conversation, this time with an incredulous tone. One on the panel, a “rockstar” designer, noted that she remembered that question and she went on to say that most designers are liberal because [and I’m paraphrasing here] Conservatives are all about rules, and design is about new ideas and breaking rules. The eventual point was that great art must break the rules—something conservatives can’t do.

My friend told me that if she’d have had a mic at that moment she’d have asked, who exactly was breaking the rules yesterday; the bound-in-lock-step throng around her or she who asked such an unexpected and unwelcomed question?

Apparently, irony is lost on designers at conferences.

(warning: profanity follows)

As we all know, part of learning how to be a designer involves learning how to offer and receive criticism. Note that being a responsible Leftist designer requires that you learn how to offer appropriate political dissent in addition to design criticism. Oh, Conservatives can offer dissent, too, but we don’t call it dissent—we’re supposed to call it an attack or hate speech (see, context is everything in design). By the same token, we also don’t publish Conservative political dissent in our magazines or books, so it really doesn’t matter anyway. Conservative dissent is like that tree that falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it. The Left ensures that it makes no sound at all.

The Web sort of throws a wrench in the gears of this whole Leftist design community exclusionary plan. But apparently, the rules dictate that Conservative dissent is to be met with vitriolic and profane denouncements. And by way of illustration, the public criticism I received for my Redux effort provides instructive examples of both appropriate and inappropriate modes of personal criticism. In fact, almost the entirety of the criticism I received for the piece had nothing to do with the content and quality of the design or with the issues I raised, but was instead entirely concerned with me, personally. But although about me, not all of it was ad hominem in nature.

For instance, Andy Clarke wrote this:

Andy Rutledge: I'm sorry, your Obama post makes you sound like an ignorant cunt

For you kids scoring at home, notice that Mr. Clarke offered this criticism in the right way; he did not say that I was an ignorant cunt, he said that my post made me sound like an ignorant cunt. This is the right way to criticize. Criticize the behavior or the work or the tone, not the person directly. One wonders, however, if Mr. Clarke kisses his mother with that foul mouth.

Not all were so conscientious in their approach. For instance, in response to my article, Digital Web Magazine editor in-chief Matthew Pennell wrote this:

I'm sorry, but what a cock.

One assumes that Mr. Pennell was not offering me a compliment on the generous size of my package. So as his words are to be taken as criticism, he makes the mistake of getting personal. Even though he doesn’t know me and has never met me, he presumes to sum me up for those in his audience, targeting me rather than my design, words, or ideas.

So it seems that there is significant disagreement in the Leftist design community as to just what gender’s genitals best describes me. Surely, the debate rages on.

In any event, the takeaway here is that personally-directed criticism is a poor substitute for thinking. When someone criticizes you, they’re making it clear that they’ve not thought about you or anything else for that matter. Instead, they’re simply giving free rein to their emotions and showing their backside. In other words, those doing so are behaving childishly. Don’t make this mistake when offering criticism.

I have quite a few Liberal friends and it has never occurred to me to belittle them or exclude them from conversations or activities, or regard them as “less than” because of how their views differ from my own. That would be petty and childish. I judge them, as the saying rightly goes, according to the content of their character. I don’t judge them according to the designation on their voter registration card.

(As an aside, I note that the two articulate chaps cited above are both from the UK. Britain’s finest, no doubt. In fact, the vast majority of the vulgar and vitriolic responses I saw to my Redux piece came from UK designers. As to whether or not this is indicative of what Socialism does to the populace, I’ll leave for others to determine. But what is certain is that all non-US citizens should stay the hell out of my country’s democratic processes. If nothing else, the fact that legions of Socialists and Communists around the world seem to simply adore Barack Obama is reason enough to doubt the quality of the man, and seems to provide philosophical counterpoint to the criticism offered me.)

The content on my site

Based on some of the feedback, public comment, and private correspondence I’ve seen lately, it seems that some of my readers are laboring under a grave misapprehension with regard to what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate content on my website.

Allow me to clarify. is my personal website. It is not a design magazine or any other sort of formal publication. It is simply my website where I write about anything I care to. In the past, this site has been a bonsai art blog, a simple personal portfolio, and a freelance design business website. In the future, it may be something entirely different, but for now it is just a site where I publish my articles. Most of the articles are concerned with design, since I am a designer, but if you’ve followed my writing over the past few years you know that I write about a great deal more than design here.

I find it absurd that it is only when I present something that many disagree with that I’m admonished to leave politics out of the content I present here; as if anyone but me has any say in what I present on my site. I have no say in what other individuals present on their own sites, and rightly so. There seems to be no shortage of designers waxing poetical about Barack Obama or showing off and linking to other such examples (design-related or not) on their personal websites. And there’s nothing wrong with this; only with the instance of me offering up a dissenting example of design and ideas. Hypocrisy.

I also notice that some have thoughtlessly and illogically criticized me for presenting a political design dissent on my personal site when in the past I criticized Design Observer (a design/culture publication) and author William Drenttel for offering up a political infomercial, entitled “Al Gore for President,” as content in that publication (not a personal website). Anyone who thinks even for a moment knows that the contexts are vastly different. Equating these two instances requires a monumental non sequitur.

So as long as I’m preparing content for, folks must expect that the topics and contents will be about whatever I want them to be about. If you find value in something I present, I’m greatly pleased. If you disagree with something I present, I hope you’ll let me know why and I hope that you deign to think more deeply about that issue. But if you presume to tell me or anyone else what we must not write about on a personal website, you have forgotten yourself and are behaving foolishly.

Lessons for minorities

I realize that the majority of designers are left of center in their social and political ideals. I have no problem with this and don’t begrudge anyone his or her view. But for a group who has long (and, I submit, erroneously) been associated with the championing of minorities, it is odd that Leftists, Liberals, Marxists, Socialists, etc… in the design community cannot tolerate a minority view, even when presented in a design context, in a form long honored in the design community.

In my country, we have the freedoms of speech and free expression. We designers are known for our vast and creative utilization of these freedoms, especially in how we use the Web to communicate with one another—and we are stronger for it. Our articles and our dissent are part of a conversation. We should encourage this conversation, not work to censor it. But we should focus on the issues presented in the content of our conversation rather than resort to mindless and childish criticism of those involved when we disagree.

I received more than 100 correspondences regarding my Redux effort, and of the ones criticizing me only one challenged me on the issues raised in my political dissent. One. This is not a good batting average. What’s more, a couple of those whom I have regarded as friends wrote to disavow me, either in direct messages or in broadcast tweets or blog posts. This was disappointing, but likely for the best. Fair-weather friends are not friends at all.

Our conversations allow us to get to know one another and I can say with certainty that over the past month I have learned a great deal about many of my peers. As with any of my friends, I judge other designers according to the content of their character. Many designers revealed much about themselves in this episode and I’m sorry to say that very little character was revealed.