This weekend I attended and spoke at a Princeton conference about how graphic design can help shape society’s conscience and meaningfully address social and environmental problems. It was a fun premise to play with. Thought I’d share the speech (slides + transcript) with y’all considering I’ve been so lazy posting lately:
“As you might have read in my bio, I’m the only non-graphic designer speaking today. So I don’t have any cool objects to show you. I am however the director of strategy for COLLINS: a design firm in New York City. Now I’m sure many of you don’t have a clue what strategy is or has to do with graphic design. Well funny the thing is, if you ask 10 strategists what a strategist does, you’ll get 10 different answers. My take on it is that I’m a storyteller. My job is to find and tell the stories that I think my companies and my designers can become a part of and contribute to. This is a crucial function given that the stories we tell can change our orientation to the world, reframe our responsibilities and open opportunities we didn’t know existed. So, as you might guess, today I’d like to talk about a story I think graphic designers – really all people in the communication industries - could play an important role in.
The story starts in 1860’s London – a time period I’m constantly fascinate by. There is always something new to learn about this period. After all, so much was changing: how we thought about world, how we lived in the world and what we thought was important to society.
For instance, the steam engine. This is the Locomotion which opened for business in 1825 as the first public steam engine. People could now travel between London and Birmingham not in days but in a single day. And look at this picture, it looks almost liked a parade going down main street. It has a celebratory feel to it. See this man riding a horse carrying a flag? He looks like a grand marshal leading the procession – a procession into a newer and better future. This is a recognition that engineering was bringing us into a better, more exciting age.
I love this one. Not only am I sucker for old-school posters like this, I love they way they are celebrating the Transatlantic cable which was laid in 1865. Essentially it was a giant telephone connecting England to America. Thanks to this thing, people didn’t have to wait weeks to correspond. They could do it in moments. But I believe that this cable represented more than faster communication. To the people of this age, it was a symbol of how man not only could, but WAS overcoming his physical limitations and the natural obstacles presented to him. This is probably why the copy reads “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Oh yeah, and look at the heavily traffic ocean in between the countries. Each represents increases in commerce and national growth. All thanks to technology. The pursuits of industry, efficiency, productivity and scalability were the things that uplifted all of humanity. These were the most important pursuits of the day.
And it’s in this context that we find this man, Matthew Arnold. Now Mr. Arnold was an interesting man for his time. He wasn’t a man of science. Or engineering. Nor was he an inventor or a business owner. Instead he was a poet – an accomplished one too. He wrote many slim volumes that were highly respected among London’s highbrow coterie. But more than a writer of poetry, he was a teacher of poetry at Oxford. Which means that not only did he pursue the artistic activity in his own time, but he taught other people to pursue it as well. But more importantly, Matthew Arnold had this annoying habit – some might have called it a dangerous habit – of hinting in newspaper articles and public lectures that maybe industry wasn’t the most important of human pursuits – instead, it was art. Well you can imagine how a country which was called “The Workshop of the World,” felt about his ideas and activities…
Publications like The Daily Telegraph and Punch magazine mocked Arnold. They claimed he was trying to lure Britain’s hardworking and sensible citizens away from their shops and duties to play music, sing ballads, read poetry and paint pictures. Arnold took this ribbing with thick skin. But some of the criticism was much more caustic.
This man was particularly harsh. Frederic Harrison was a historian and teacher of religion who felt that an enthusiasm for art was one of the silliest enthusiasms. He felt that art was good for nothing other than small faultfinding, selfish ease and indecision in action. His exact words. He said that you could not entrust a man of art with any sort of responsibility. He would let you down every time. In fact, he went so far as to say that the man of art was one of the poorest mortals alive. With such an attack pointed at Matthew Arnold and his beliefs, Mr. Arnold was compelled to respond.
In 1869, Arnold penned this beautifully written, slim and system defense of art. Specifically he discussed what art did for people, what it did for society and why it should continue to be one of the most important pursuits in any civilization. One of my favorite passages is this one: “Art [can be] the great help out of our present difficulties: art turns a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits which we now follow mechanically imagining that there is a virtue in following in them.” In essence, artist, whether they knew it or not, are driven by the desire to resolve a society’s conflicts, misunderstandings and ills. That there is a cry to help the public see that the edge of what they think is they horizon, is actually the edge of their rut. We are always capable of more or doing better and moving to a closer the state of perfection. If only we could recognize the deficiencies and opportunities of our time.
To paraphrase, Arnold believed that “Art challenges our notions of who or what matters.” Now keep this in mind, because we are going to fast-forward almost 100 years…
…to post WWII America – another time period that continually interests me. You see, when the GIs came home after the war they needed homes to live in. Unfortunately, there was a run on housing. In the twenty years leading up to the end of the war, not a lot of houses were build. So to satisfy the new housing needs, the builders went to the open land surrounding cities. This is how we got suburbs. The interesting thing about this was that American were not moving to communities that were already established with their own ways of life and values. Instead they were moving to communities that sought definition. A move to the suburbs was an opportunity to help build a idyllic communities.
And because of this pro-civic attitude, the 1950s saw a boom in fraternal, social and civic groups. These groups blended people from across classes, ages, political affiliations and occupations in the common pursuit of building the community. Things like the AFL CIO in business, The Order of the Elks – which was a social, charitable and service organization, and the Boy Scouts saw increases in membership and activity.
You can see the dramatic rise in Boy Scout membership here. But then something happened - something well documented in books like Bowling Alone. All of a sudden, membership in these broad-based civic groups plummeted…
Membership in the Boy Scouts fell off a cliff.
Though I couldn’t find data going back to the 60’s, this data shows the Elks suffering the same trend.
The AFL-CIO too. So that’s been some of the stuff that’s gone down over the years. But if we look at what’s been going up – as discussed in the book The Big Sort, we get a better picture of the story line…
In less than 10 years, the number of home-schooled students has ballooned from almost 500,000 to almost 2 Million. Again, that is in less than 10 years. That is a big increase. These are parents choosing to shield their kids from community values, from community interaction and shelter them in an environment where the kids learn only what the parents approve of and show them.
Another way we are sorting ourselves has to do with our changing dating habits. Typically, when we date, we spend a few weeks, maybe a few months, learning about the other person’s background – do we care about the same stuff? do we want the same stuff in life? will we be happy together? Whether that is a “yes” or “no,” we are still learning about the other person. I think we can all remember a time when we dated someone out of our norm – but felt that it was a good experience because we learned something about them and about ourselves. Even if we ultimately couldn’t stand the person in the end. But now, why go through all that. Why not have all the people differ from us, filtered out before we meet them. Thanks to dating sites like JDate.com, we can make sure the people we date have the same background as us. We can make sure they vote the same way we do whether we vote republic – thanks to Democraticmatch.com – or democratic – thanks Conservative-match.com. Even if we have values that don’t conform to our larger society, we can still find people who support and reinforce our antisocial desires – thanks to affairmatch.com
I remember when I was younger most people would tuned into Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings. These men were part of organizations that were committed to delivering the news and events of the day in the most objective way possible so that we could interpret them as we saw fit. But now, it seems news and opinion have blurred.
Now we can get our worldviews played back and reinforced for us no matter what our views are.
Here’s another way we are sorting ourselves. This is the main street in my college town. It is an idyllic example of an all American main street filled with different shops, different restaurants, a courthouse, a post office and churches. This is an image of the ideal American life. But now, some people seem to think places like this less desirable. This next image is from a church north of my hometown. It shows that sometimes we would rather have a simulation of main street than the real thing. Because, in a simulation, we can edit out the parts and people we don’t like or agree with. This church has gone so far as to recreate main street inside the church complete with not only shops and restaurants, but fake traffic lights and street paint.
Here’s another church. It’s the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. It is one of the many mega churches all over the U.S. Despite having 10,000 members, it’s not even close to being the biggest. Joel Olstein’s church in Houston Texas has over 47,000 members. Oh and by the way, membership in megachurches has increased 50% in the last 5 years. But its not the remarkable membership of these places that interests me….
…it's the campuses. These are massive complexes offering not just simulations of main street but much more. The Crystal Cathedral campus has a family life center, art lounge, arboretum, gardens, family lounge and much more. This is one impressive way for members to go about many of their daily lives, doing their daily activities while never bumping into someone different than them.
And if we wander to the extremes of this activity, we find Ron Paul and his supporters. The ardent supporters they are, they have decided that this man’s ideas are so important and revolutionary that something radical needs to be done.
They bought a 50-acre plot of land outside Dell City, Texas with the intent of creating this…
You can go onto Paulville.org and read about how these supporters intend to create a city built by Ron Paul supporters and filled with 100% Ron Paul supporters.
While we are sorting ourselves into these ideological ghettos, we have to ask, what does this mean? What are the consequences? Two stories come to mind.
The first comes from the book The Big Sort and is about a man named Gerald Daugherty. Gerald was a conservative living in the Clarksville area of Austin, Texas. Clarksville, by the way, happens to be considered the liberal part of town. But Gerald loved his home and the area nonetheless. The political leanings of his neighbors didn’t bother him. At some point an issue came up in the Austin government. The city was considering a light rail system for the city. The issue was split down political lines. Conservatives were for it; liberals were against it.
Sharing his views with the city, Gerald put a “No Light Rail” bumper sticker on his Mercedes.
One day, he came out of the grocery store to find his car keyed. Oh yeah, his two taillights were kicked out too. Was this politically motivated? He wasn’t sure. Could’ve been anyone for any reason. But, a few mornings later, when he came out and saw his car soaked in a dozen eggs with several eggs clearly rubbed into the bumper sticker, he knew why. Gerald sold his house and moved across town to the more conservative part of town.
Or take this story I recently read in the Washington Post. A psychologist was talking with one of her clients. The man was a well-off computer executive who was bragging about his stable, happy family. The conversation meandered into many different topics. Eventually the man brought up climate change and how he couldn’t care less about it. I his words, “I’ll be long dead when New York is under water.” Surprised by this, the psychologist asked, “Well, what about your kids and your grandkids, aren’t you concerned about them?” What do you think he said?
In fact, the article mentioned that he said this with a grin. To him, if it wasn’t his problem, it wasn’t his problem - if you know what I mean. And while this may seem to be an extreme and personal example, it’s not.
Yankelovich is respected tracking and research company who has been following behavioral trends and attitudes in America for the last century. And these researchers do not see this man’s comments as an isolated issue, nor as one they expect to go away soon. It’s going to get worse.
While some people may listen to this and think this is a sociological issue, I actually see this as a communication issue. Because it reveals how we are communicating and how we are not communicating. In our hyper-connected world where access to people and information have never before – in the history of mankind - been so easy, we are choosing to communicate with only the people and consume only the information that reinforces our worldview, sense of self and ideas. We are not communicating with the parts of the world that are at odds us. The result is something we can call…
This is dangerous in a world that suffers from issues that are not the responsibility of one group of people, on government or one ideology. We face issues such as climate change, energy crises, health crises, water crises, and much more – issues that affects all of us. The man in the Washington Post was wrong. Their problem is our problem. And we will never be able to cooperatively act towards solutions until differing sides can reach compromises. And we can never compromise until we can empathize for people that may have different opinions, agendas and worldviews than ours. Empathy is the critical spark to overcoming the larger issues. Empathy leads to change. And sadly we are a world running low on empathy.
But remember what Matthew Arnold said, “Art challenges our notion of who or what matters.” Art looks around its contemporary world and asks, “What are people doing? What are they doing it? How is it hurting us? How can we do better?” It then shows us a way. Knowing this, I am fascinated by an form that began in France in the 1990s and continues to this day.
Relational Art is an art form that puts emphasis not on objects, but on relationships. Not on ideas but activities. Activities that release multiple ideas never planned by the artist. Which is why, anytime you ask a relational artist what they are trying to communicate, they’ll look at you like you have three heads and basically say, “I’m not trying to communicate anything.” But, whether they know it or not, I think these artists are offering an interesting prescription for our currents ills and misunderstandings of what is important.
In this example from Europe, we see 5 working pay phones. Drop a coin and call someone. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The twist is that on the other side, museum patrons can sit down and eavesdrop on the conversation. I think this exhibit talks about the important listening. So much of our society promotes self-expression and our individual voice. We are told that expressing ourselves is the right thing to do. But when we spend so much time talking about ourselves, we spend less time listening to others. I think this exhibit is about the need for our culture to put more emphasis on listening.
This is another interesting one from an exhibit in Spain – I think. Here the artists realized that above their gallery space was an apartment. Their idea was to drill a large hole through the gallery roof and through the apartment floor.
A museum patron would then climb a ladder, and through a glass bubble, watch another person’s life unfold before them. Again, no clear message on this one, but I think it speaks to us of seeking to understand how our lives are similar and different than someone else’s. It’s important to know both. I guarantee you this patron who attended this museum of contemporary art lives a much different life and with different views than the middle-class, middle-aged woman he is watching.
A relational artist named Rikrit is well known in the community for building these plywood rooms inside his gallery space and…
…shipping in cooking materials such as food, spices, pots, pans, dishes, utensils and stove tops and …
…prepping all the food and …
…letting people gather around and …
… cooking them a meal. There is quite a lot I liked about his work – basically because he is using food as a social glue. Throughout time, food has been a tool to build relationships and community. Cerainly friends bond over food, but more importantly, so to do strangers. Why do you think you people go on dinner dates? The ceremony creates a safe place for us to learn about each other. Here, Rikrit does just this, but on a large scale. He creates space where people, strangers, can mix, discuss and learn. The conversations revolve around no singular topic. No singular message is intended. Whoever people meet, they meet. Whatever they learn, they learn. Rikrit is emancipating people’s opinions rather than framing his own.
I think relational art is offering people in the communications industry a new pursuit for the 21st century. Think about it this way: In the 20th century, our efforts focused on understanding. We thought understanding was the most important value to amplify in the world. That’s why we laid the transatlantic cable, that’s why we created Morse code, the telephone, the internet, the fax, broadband, instant messaging, email and so one. For us, if we could connect more people to more people, in more ways, generate more information, and make that information and those people more accessible and digestible, then we could create greater understanding among more people. And frankly, we’ve done a kick ass job with this. Just look at our world today, never before has it been so easy to find and access all types of information. Never before in the history of humanity have more educated people been on this planet. Never before have people had more education opportunities presented to them. In many ways, we have saturated the world with understanding. But just as we can find information quickly so too can we sort it. So too can we cocoon ourselves in the information and people we want to see and read because they make us feel good about ourselves. But, as many of you know, in life nothing is perfect. Great deeds sometimes create great problems. In the pursuit of understanding, we have unintentionally created less empathy. While we may intellectually be aware of the world and the different people around us, we feel less emotionally connected to them. But I want to be very clear: the pursuit of understanding will always be an important activity. But maybe, now, it isn’t the most important thing anymore. Maybe it’s time to recognize that the edge of our rut isn’t the edge of our horizon. What relational art says to us is that listening, relationships and finding common ground with people of different traditions and styles is the most important pursuit in life right now. Without a commitment to empathizing, we won’t be able to grow as individuals. But more importantly, without a commitment to amplifying empathy in the world, we won’t be able to achieve the compromises necessary to the collaboration necessary to overcome the environmental and social issues that plaguing our world. If we continue to live without empathy, we will continue to key our opponents’ cars and see other peoples’ problems as not our problems. Empathy is critical to our communication future.
When I started this presentation, I spoke about a book written during the Industrial revolution. Now I’d like to end with another book written during that same time.
Alexis De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who was fascinated by the America and its democratic experiment. So in the 1830’s, he decided to tour the young nation. Eventually wrote a book about his discoveries in 1835 - a book called Democracy in America. In it he wrote of many things – it’s a huge book – but buried in it was a brief paragraph I loved. To paraphrase it, de Tocqueville wrote: Their habits of the heart have maintained its democracy. Despite its brief mention, I feel this says quite a bit about Americans. In a sense, de Tocqueville meant that America is not simply a nation of luxury cars, higher wages and all-you-can-eat buffets. America is a dynamic social order in which life can be better, richer and fuller for everyone. But the twist on this philosophical tenet is that just as our opportunity to move up in our standing exists, so too does our fall. And for that reason, this philosophical cornerstone also serves as our emotional bond. When we see another person struggle, we realize, it just as soon could be our own struggle. We are not just intellectually aware of their struggles, we are emotionally connected to them. De Tocqueville recognized that it wasn’t our growing industrial revolution, our technological innovations, constitutional laws, or military success that made America strong. Instead, what allowed us to move beyond our present conditions and conquer any challenge we faced began with our ability to see ourselves in another person.