Design, Power, New Media & Discourse
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If we think about what designers have been doing the last seventy years, one could say that the core task of their duty has been to manage discourses to obtain or maintain the power of something else over a specific group. Some examples of that could be the power of a political ideology over an ethnic group or nation, the power of a car brand over a specific group of people, the power of a rock band over a young generation, or even the power of an aesthetic vision in a culture. Most of the time, especially in the last three decades, designers have been cynical about their role in media, trying to be a neutral agent in the work-flow of mass communication. This has happened probably because many of us were taught in institutions based on the premise that design practice must not have its own discourse but rather it must be an instrument to convey the message of a client in an efficient and beautiful manner.
In my opinion that previous vision (which it is also a discourse) was influenced by a simplistic interpretation of some McLuhan’s sentences. In which case, one could understand that if the content of any message carried by a given medium, is also another medium1 then the message is a secondary factor, and our efforts should be put only in how to “play” with media rather than with its content. Obviously, as we know, not all the designers have followed that pattern, and and there are cases in which they have decided not only being the constructor of the carrier but also to be the manager of the content if not the creator.
Examples of this are well documented and we knew about them in classes of history of art and design during our undergraduate studies or maybe while we were visiting a museum of modern art. In this point, it is interesting how the word art is stated. Apparently while the designer becomes more independent in his practice, deciding to put on it some of his own thoughts and/or opinions, history and art classifications seem to be more comfortable treating him as an artist rather than as a designer. Then the topic of the designer as an author appears here as conflict. This issue is a common point of conversation among practitioners and theorists of this discipline, and many things have been said regarding this matter without reaching major consensus. However it might be interesting to remember the essay: What does it really mean to call for a graphic designer to be an author?, written by Michael Rock and published in the Eye Magazine. Here Rock presents an interesting approach to the meaning of authorship, discussing the theories of important intellectuals to set models to analyze the designer’s work. However he establishes the discussion In my opinion is there where designers can find the more fertile field for authorship. Considering this topic is important to understand the development of my paper, but is not fundamental. The political role of designers exists even if there is no authorship, however being an author implies the maximization of that social condition.
When I say that being a designer is a political act, I mean that once the designer makes the decision of working to deliver any sort of message which can have a potential influence on people, he is being part of the chain of responsibility in the action of executing that type of power over the society. This fact, if we are honest with ourselves, is something impossible to avoid no matter if we are about to design an interactive installation piece to promote a sport shoes’ brand or if we are about to design a Web campaign to invite people to compost. In both cases, and always, as designers we try to reach audiences and influence them. No matter if you are planning to contribute to the construction of a real unreality or if you are looking to directly politicize your art, the goal will always need spectators understanding the message and making it their own. On the other hand when I say that new media has the potential to be the best set of tools to play that role in a freely and conscious way, I want to make the point that any medium which is consider new, is distant enough from standardization to give us room for experimentation which as we all know, has been always a good place to act with a fair amount of freedom. These changes would create the conditions to execute our political role in society if that is our will.
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