In a perfect world Designers need to get their hands dirty if the system is going to be fixed

“In a perfect world” is a funny phrase. My parents used it as a way of encompassing all the things they couldn’t change (but probably wanted to) when I was growing up, “Well son, in a perfect world we wouldn’t have to…” is how they would begin a response to a question I would ask. I caught myself using this scapegoat the other day. I was trying to calm my frustration over trying to change a design decision by a client I was working for that was addressing nothing but business revenue. The social and environmental impacts of the decision were ignored completely and it made me mad.  It also got me thinking; should I give up on this organisation and try to find more satisfying work? Or, do I continue chipping away at this brick wall in the hope of tiny wins. I was at this impasse when I rode the 9:52am train from Huntingdale on Sunday. The obvious choice quickly became crystal clear.

As a designer, I try to influence the decisions businesses make about how to spend their revenue so there is a positive outcome for both the business and the human. But a lone voice in a sea of stakeholders is often drowned out. I’m a firm believer in corporate social responsibility and I’m a firm believer in design’s ability to change human behaviour – for better, or for worse. Ultimately, the decision about how a business is run lies with the business owners, except when that business is public service.

In 2009, Metro trains won the bid to provide Victoria with public transport and since then, services are slowly becoming more frequent and more reliable. However, improvements come at a cost and the cost to the Victorian public comes at the price of being exposed to advertising on a journey. It’s not an unusual model. In 2013, it’s a rare case that I board a train service that doesn’t have advertising in it or on it. Windows are plastered with one-way billboards that block incoming sunlight and remind all commuters that “Sportsbet is here to help us with the best odds”. If gambling is not your thing, as the doors open there’s a vast smorgasbord of products to select from when you’re inside; eye surgery to make your eyes look less Asian perhaps? An impulse-buy opportunity if I’ve ever seen one (and yes, these are both real examples). Sure, I wish this advertising wasn’t all over the place and I’m sure that there are better solutions to achieve the goal but I understand the needs that businesses have to find ways to raise money. They need to pay bills, to keep shareholders happy, or in a perfect world, to deliver better public services.

As a seasoned designer I could rationalise the existence of this advertising. I could easily imagine the meetings that go on within the Metro marketing department about bottom-lines and revenue generation; until I boarded the 9:52am service from Huntingdale last Sunday and saw the following advertisement.

Two scary made-up vampires on Melbourne's train doors

As I stepped on to the train I was greeted by the grotesque imagery of the latest Dracula’s advertising campaign. Dracula’s, as the name suggests, is a horror-themed theatre/restaurant in Melbourne where patrons can go to get the pants scared off them and, by all accounts, have a very pleasant night. This isn’t about Dracula’s though, it’s about public service. My experience on the train raised so many questions about the imagery I was confronted with and, in comical style, the first words that came to mind mirrored the catch-phrase of The Simpsons’ character Mrs Lovejoy – ‘won’t somebody please think of the children.’

Public service is literally a service for public. Regardless of the brief, or the people involved, or the complex chain of decision-making that goes on between Metro, its advertisers and the ‘designers’ tasked with creating the graphics, I struggle to understand their definition of the “General public” audience segment.  Is it not “all people aged between 0 and 65+”?

You don’t have to be a regular commuter to understand the wide range of ages that ride our public transport. From what I’ve observed, 14 year olds might well be the largest age group. They’re too young to drive but want to avoid the mum/dad drop-off at a social event whenever they can. They primarily gather at locations that are easily accessed by public transport (like the movies) where we have laws preventing them from watching movies rated M15+ and over. Why do we live in a topsy-turvy world where the images they are exposed to on their way to their PG movie are scarier and more damaging to their perception of the world than the movie itself?

This ‘design’ doesn’t just affect the tweens. The faces in the poster are placed at a perfect height so that a young bub inside a pram has no choice but to endure the company of these oversized grotesque caricatures for the length of their journey because the mother is forced to park her pram right in front of them on an overcrowded peak hour train. The only thought that comes to mind is reckless design, reckless on every single count.

What worries me is that ideas and images like this can be published at all. I can reel off a list of approximately 6 groups of people (from managers to designers) who would’ve been likely to see this ad and who would have approved it before it was plastered to the train carriage doors. Not one of them thought to challenge it? Every single person thought it was OK? Is it a case of designing in a vacuum? Did everyone fail to realise that the faces would be so much scarier when not encased in some ‘designer’s’ backlit high definition MacBook Air instead of lit by flickering sallow train lights on the last service leaving Flinders street station on a Saturday night? It really shook up my day and my week. My principles as a designer and the principles of the people I get to work with are so far removed from such visual tripe that it makes me realise the world’s problems are so much bigger than my little world; I won’t have enough time in this life to solve them all.

How does a designer with the best intentions get airplay or influence in these decisions in a system that’s not yet ready to listen? The social and economical systems that have been put in place are such difficult barriers to breakdown and they’ve been there well before I was born. Large ‘design’ agencies touting “years of experience” are perceived by blame-averse decision makers in large organisations as the ‘experts’. The experts in what? The experts who constructed the world of advertising and over-consumption as a result of the tools given to us by the industrial revolution? These legacy social & economical systems are now starting to rip at the seams as over-population puts strain on the pillars that these ideas were built upon.  Things change, they always will, so why haven’t we designed flexibility in to our systemic solutions to deal with our own evolution?

The Dracula’s ad in the public space is no doubt reckless but if designers aren’t willing to have these conversations with clients, who will? It’s tempting for a designer to gravitate towards clients that share the same values. If I want to work on sustainable solutions then I should approach companies who are doing it already, shouldn’t I? Perhaps this approach is a little self-serving rather than world-changing though; a little bit too comfortable? Sure, I’d feel better about my life when I come home after an exhilarating day of discussing how wrong everyone else is with an employer who ‘gets it’ – but how will this fix anything except maybe through example? Even then, are the right people in organisations who ‘don’t get it’ even watching or listening to those examples?

Perhaps a designer’s true calling is to work on projects with organisations that can’t yet “see the light”; those who need to be shown what good design is capable of. It’s more than just the visual aesthetic or designing horror ads for public service, good design is systemic. It considers the financial impact of a solution alongside the environmental and human ones. It can protect an organisation from a landslide of new technology or economic crises. Perhaps we need to climb down from our ivory towers and stop preaching from on-high (and to ourselves) about the way the world ‘should’ be and how no one understands us and what we’re trying to do. We need to dive in to the trenches of organisations that still believe that advertising Dracula’s on public service using reckless imagery is a good idea. We need to approach the system from the bottom up; show that this sort of reckless advertising is not OK and a better solution for generating revenue exists.

A designer’s value is in their ability to create culture change in organisations through creating and contributing to products and services that lead to better outcomes for humans, the environment and the bottom line of the business. Without the business facet, it won’t be long-term or sustainable. Taking this approach means there will be a lot of the things we designers hate; too many meetings, not enough action, a lot of ego and not enough collaboration but the potential for someone listening will be greater; the chances of being heard are immense. Large-scale & lasting systemic change can be enabled. There’s no doubt this is the hard way, but maybe it’s the only way.

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