Design and -isms at the ADC


“To see the practice of design as having social meaning,” Milton Glaser said, “is not a new idea; it dates back to the advent of modernism. What’s different today is that the focus is about changing the face of society.” So he coined a new word, Designism, to describe how designers use their careers to make the world a better place. Last night’s event at the ADC tied it all together, and Louise Ma was there to take it in.

Changing the World Through Design (in a few not so easy steps)

Just got back from the Designism event held at the Art Directors Club Gallery. On the panel were Milton Glaser, James Victore, Jessica Helfand, George Lois, and Kurt Andersen. Steve Heller moderated the discussion, which was elegantly opened and closed by Brian Collins and Tony Hendra. Each designer showed their own brilliant and relevant work. The panel’s discussion was hot but amicable. Don’t worry, though–James and George did say “fuck” a lot.

Designism means design for social change
Like James, I was doubtful of the “-ism” that was tacked onto this idea. But after hearing the designers’ presentations and debates, it became clear that this concept is fluid and transparent. The name still irks me, but the intention for social change through design is too critical and all-encompassing to ignore. What was largely emphasized was simply the will to act, interpreted differently by each of the four designers.

James Victore says “Don’t fucking wait”
Of the four panelists, James’ presentation was easily the most designed. Short and sweet, but still managed to be packed with a sharp intensity. Don’t organize, don’t wait for funding, “don’t fucking wait for anybody to ask.”

George Lois says “In a big, ass-kicking way”
George, the animated and angry grandpa type, is all for instigating change through shock, provocation, and manipulation–on a large scale. “Pissed off!” is the heartbeat of George’s process.

Milton Glaser says “Assimilate into the bloodstream”
The most eloquently spoken of the four panelists, Milton very gently and artfully prescribed diligence and sensitivity to response as an effective means to inspire social change. As the man behind the term Designism, Milton thinks of social change as “making the world a better place,” which actually glosses over why he does what he does.

Jessica Helfand says “There are more ways than one to skin a cat”
Jessica best articulates Milton’s concept of assimilation when she says to start small, and to use design as an instrument of collaboration and citizen authorship.

I say that this is the most effective approach, because even the panelists would agree: regardless of how instigation is carried out, any mark made by a single designer will never match one made by President Bush.

Otherwise, Designism probably would not need to exist.

Don’t do nothing
This event functions best if seen as an early entrypoint for the progress it wants to inspire. This doesn’t imply that the how’s or what’s were insufficiently addressed. Where it goes next simply rests in the hands of the designers in the audience. It’s particularly true in this situation because responsibility has been lifted away from the large corporate collectives and returned to individuals. The internet, as Kurt mentioned, has a lot to do with this shift in author and medium.

But Tony Hendra hit the nail on the head. Regardless of how designers instigate change, he said, they simply can’t do nothing.

Louise Ma is a fourth year design student at The Cooper Union.