Transparent calculator, or socially aware computing?

Posted on October 12, 2007


barnbrook.JPGThe Design Museum has Jonathon Barnbrook’s Friendly Fire exhibition. Other than the iconic images and great fonts (and the wonderful Olympukes), two things stood out for me. First, argument about the notion of the “transparent communicator”:

The idea of the designer ‘transparent communicator’ is redundant. It was formulated before the rise of corporate power, globilisation, and before cool brands that graphic designers love to work for exploited and abused cheap foreign labour

Second, the First Things First Manifesto (wiki, fulltext) is an update of Garland’s 1964 manifesto.

Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design. The profession’s time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best.

Whether we agree with sentiment about globilisation etc or not, this is something we should learn from. This approach is so different to computing. Most of our attempts at responsibility are in the realm of compost – we worry about about heat losses in data-centres. This is the equivalent of a design manifesto that concerned itself solely with the toxicity of lead pencils. Instead they argue that designers should concern themselves with the impact of their work.

The design manifesto suggests new avenues for designers’ energies:

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programs, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help.

We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.

Socially aware design is not accepted by all designers. Some argue that design should be value free – independent of political statements. Crucially though, this debate is happening. It isn’t in computing, we can’t seem to get past the energy rating of the cool new gadget we’ve bought.