The one MILLION dollar question. Photo by Core77.
A Wolff In Designer Clothing
In a city of thousands and thousands of designers, Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff might want to look at hiring some protection for the next few weeks. In his role as the “media critic” at last night’s Designism 2.0 event, Wolff told fellow panelists (including Milton Glaser) that “no design” was a better solution than the “banal” work they produce. While his comments elicited anger from the crowd–and more than one Dr. Evil comparison–he injected some much-needed debate to an otherwise self-congratulatory night. As Brian Collins told us later, “That’s why I brought him here.”
Let’s back up a bit though. ihaveanidea liveblogged the evening, opening with crappy weather and an earlier panel we moderated starring Ellen Sitkin, Andrew Sloat, and Ji Lee (who were amazing, by the way, and we wish they could have taken the stage with Wolff at the end to show him some “banal”). Tony Hendra, wearing his WGA strike shirt, gave the annual manifesto with searing wit (a portion of which can be found on the Huffington Post). Then, with Steven Heller moderating, Elizabeth Resnick presented posters from the Graphic Imperative, Janet Kestin presented the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, and Glaser presented his Darfur campaign and new work for Iraq refugees.
Then It Got Ugly
All the panelists joined Wolff onstage as he line-item lambasted design. The world is full of design, he argued, and everyone is trying so hard to be disruptive that everything disruptive is boring. What’s more, “everyone can do design,” he said. “So everyone should stop it.” While abrasive, it was effective, says Core77’s Robert Blinn says in his review: “Wolff asked the question that none of the designers in the audience truly cared to address: ‘Could anything truly new be said, or were we simply barraging a saturated audience with information they already had?'” Glaser, a gentleman to the end, began his first rebuttal, “I have to respectfully disagree with you.” The crowds roared. Glaser explained, that as he now tries to design campaigns to help causes, it’s less about what it looks like and more about how to get the word out. That’s still “design.”
But as the conversation shifted to the effectiveness of design for social change, the topic became Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty (ironically spearheaded by Designism ringmaster Collins at BIG) and Kestin took some serious grilling by audience members Laurie Rosenwald and Debbie Millman for not having “ugly” enough girls in the ads talking about poor body image perception. (Later we sat between Rosenwald and Kestin at dinner…awk-ward!) The whole issue about whether or not it was authentic, or just another ad, or even appropriately executed, was battled out on and off stage. Although not exactly the most provocative topic to dwell upon, it did give us the best quote of the night, courtesy Wolff: “Well, I know a lot of ugly people who think they’re really good-looking.”
The moment of irony that killed us, however, was when Heller asked Wolff what design was powerful to him. Wolff said that the only great moment for design were the posters of the 60’s and 70’s. This was as Glaser, creator of many of them, and founder of another design device during that period, a magazine, that has not only brought about real social change, but also pays at least some of Wolff’s salary, sat right beside him, having just explained work that was every bit as simple, driven and arresting as those posters, but used technology, storytelling and global partnerships. Great, it’s easy to say that “something” different needed to be done, but say that design has never been able to evolve past print work done 40 years ago? That’s ludicrous. We think Wolff should be commissioned to write a review of the upcoming MoMA show, Design and the Elastic Mind, which shows how cutting-edge design is used to bring abstract ideas into the public embrace.
However poorly he presented his case (“He was sloppy,” someone near us said) we can’t say we really disagreed with anything Wolff said (except, of course the “banal” part). Something different does need to happen. Afterwards, in the ACT portion, three groups commanded the mic to pitch their causes–Sappi Ideas that Matter, Corbis’s ADC Award and free images for pro bono projects, and idealist.org–and a new social networking site, Designism Social, will be launched. But were these pitches–sponsors, really–enough to launch anyone into action over the sushi and Sapporos afterwards? We weren’t sure. We guess we have to wait until Designism 3.0
But we did like Wolff’s alternative for blindly leaping into a cause. “Stay home, read a book. Read a lot of books. Then, when the urge becomes irresistible, then do something.” Even Dr. Evil was right sometimes.