Misperceptions of a Citizen Designer

I would wager that the vast majority of the people reading this entry consider graphic design to be quite important. Just how important is the question. Most graphic designers acknowledge that with our profession comes an uncertain degree of social responsibility.

I would agree: we, as visual communicators, do carry some burden. It seems as though some designers have been looking for ways to explore the social necessity of design—how design can truly contribute to the quality of life—with little luck. This very fact leads me to question the actual importance (or perception thereof) of graphic design.

It is common knowledge what we need to survive. The essentials of life boil down to food, water, shelter and sleep. So where, in that limited schema, does graphic design fit? In a recent conversation with a designer friend we discussed a possible similarity between design and music. Music is not technically essential to our existence but who can imagine the void that would be left without music. Perhaps we can consider music a second tier essential: not essential to sustain life, but essential to truly appreciate and enjoy life. So perhaps design serves a similar role of augmentation and improvement. So, by attempting to force graphic design into that first essential tier, are we simply in a state of denial/defensiveness?

Perhaps we are simply unwilling to accept the fact that the profession we have chosen or the work we do is not as important as we let ourselves believe. How many of us have/had grand notions of how our work will/would make the world a better, safer, or more efficient place? It is a common human desire: to affect positive change within our world. So many of us long to be “citizen designers”—making our mark on the world through our profession contributions thereto. So many of us got caught up in our own professional self-importance that we forgot that there are other ways in which we could make positive contributions to society.

Allow me address the phrase “citizen designer”, as it has been a catch phrase in our field for at least the past few years. It is a badge that any self-respecting designer would be proud to wear. If we are working for the good of humankind this title is an official confirmation of our successes. The problem with the phrase is that it places these two words as an inseparable pair. We are not being encouraged to think as citizens and designers—we are being encouraged to practice good citizenship through design. I know many designers have a rather myopic view of the world outside of their work and thus spend far too much time wondering “what can I do as a designer to help” — time that could be much better spent simply volunteering for any number of traditional causes or organizations.

This entry is certainly not intended to be a holier-than-thou call to non-design-related social action. I write this because I only now realize that I too have been consumed by the desire to relate good citizenship to design. I am only now realizing that the two do not always have to overlap—when they do it is a beautiful opportunity, but when they don’t we need to be resourceful and apply our skills to finding other avenues for good citizenship.

Editor’s Note: Sometimes you read an article and realize that, like a tasty omelet, it’s cooked just right with the perfect ingredients. And although as an Alabama fan I sometimes have a difficult time saying LSU, I think that LSU faculty member Brad Dicharry’s article below on citizen designers provides a much needed dose of kryptonite for all of us superheros. Enjoy, and thanks for sharing Brad.

2 Responses to “Misperceptions of a Citizen Designer”

  1. Avatar Frank McClung

    Right on Rod. I’ve been attempting to redesign my company’s website, B L A N K and another site this week. Honestly, I’ve run into a bit of a creative block. What’s broken through that block has been living the Life out by helping someone move homes and visiting an Alzheimer’s unit. These ground me in the real world and help me connect my ideals to reality. I need more of this stuff.

  2. Avatar Rod Kesselring

    I love the connotation that this leads to as a citizen of “the kingdom” as well. I find that many times in my design that inspiration comes when I get off my duff and practically get involved with the world around me. When our preaching pastor introduces to us a new series or theme, it doesn’t take on a visual idea in my mind till I have tried to live it out in different way for a while. Then the visual cues begin to become clearer. At least it is that way for me. Any thoughts?


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