h1

Citizen Designer, Perspectives On Design Responsibility: The Presence Of Ink In Hand Design Is Powerful & Responsible – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Véronique Vienne, Co-Editor/Author, Citizen Designer…

June 11, 2018

“I was writing about the fact that taking ink to paper and writing something by hand has so much more credibility than taking that same message and printing it and putting it on a wall. So, the presence of the ink and the hand, which is what the kids did in the anti-gun movement. Kids went out into the streets in the United States and wrote slogans on panels and pieces of cardboard. They weren’t very sophisticated slogans, but they were done by hand. And the kids were holding them. And there were pictures being taken of the kids holding the pieces of cardboard. And those pictures made it onto the Internet.” Véronique Vienne…

The second edition of “Citizen Designer” attempts to answer the question of what it means to be a designer in today’s corporate-driven, over branded global consumer culture, according to the powers-that-be behind this simplistic, yet powerfully-written book. Between the essays that are raw and informative to the glossary of terms and words used religiously in the design community written by former art director and co-author of the book, Véronique Vienne, this dynamic tool is far from a mere self-help guide to great design.

Recently, I spoke with Véronique, via Skype at her home in South France, one half of the team (along with Steven Heller) who put this book together and we talked about the social change and responsibilities that designers can affect and do have in our world. Véronique believes that design can and should be more than just a service to clients and can bring about political and social manifestations of importance within our society. This new edition of the book, the first having been written some 15 years ago, contains a collection of definitions and brief case studies on topics that today’s citizen designers must consider, including new essays on social innovation, individual advocacy, group strategies, and living as an ethical designer.

Véronique said she felt compelled to participate in this updated version due to the upheaval in the world today, with the American political front and many other important issues. And after having spoken with her, Mr. Magazine™ can certainly understand her dedication to her convictions and beliefs; the passion in her words came through loud and clear. And her faith in the power of design is inspiring.

So, without further ado, please enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Véronique Vienne, co-author, Citizen Designer.

But first the sound-bites:

On the book “Citizen Designer”: About a year ago, the publisher thought that it would be a good idea to bring back the book and update it. And we did. I wasn’t keen on doing it, but I thought that it was my duty to revisit the topic in light of the political situation in the United States and in the world, and all the things that had happened since the first edition. And I thought we needed to take a good look at the profession, not only because of the political situation, but because of the evolution of technology and social networking and all of that. It’s a totally different situation today.

On her belief that graphic designers have a social responsibility: Since I came back to Europe, I can say that in America I think design is miles apart from Europe. The American graphic design community is unfortunately held hostage to marketing. They think they’re apolitical, but you cannot be apolitical. If you’re apolitical, that’s a political stance. You have to stop thinking that you can be apolitical. You serve an economy based on different principles and if you serve that economy, you serve the principle of that economy. You have to stop being naïve.

On what she believes the role of ink on paper is in today’s digital world: I wrote about this very topic in a recent posting on a blog called “Common Edge,” about architecture and design. I was writing about the fact that taking ink to paper and writing something by hand has so much more credibility than taking that same message and printing it and putting it on a wall. So, the presence of the ink and the hand, which is what the kids did in the anti-gun movement. Kids went out into the streets in the United States and wrote slogans on panels and pieces of cardboard. They weren’t very sophisticated slogans, but they were done by hand. And the kids were holding them. And there were pictures being taken of the kids holding the pieces of cardboard. And those pictures made it onto the Internet.

On having worked in magazine media and media on both sides of the Atlantic and some differences that she still sees today: There are many differences, of course. When I came to the States in the early sixties, it was a different time. It was the Cold War; it was Camelot, the whole thing. And I was very gullible, in a way. I bought the bull. I loved America and I still love America. I am very proud of my American passport. I adore the country, I really do. It is my home. I think in English, I write in English and I love the country.

On why a book about design has no pictures: One of the realities is that publishers nowadays want the authors to get the pictures for free. Or do the research for the picture. And you spend half of your time doing the photo research. I’m not interested in that. The second thing is people go online all of the time to look at pictures. To have really good pictures and really good illustrations, it’s a job in itself. Steve and I did a book that does very well, which is going into its second edition called “100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design.” For that one we did a lot of research and we got designers to give us information for free and they signed paperwork and documents that we could publish it on the moon if we had to. And half of your time is spent chasing images, when actually readers go online and Google the image.

On where in the book she would like for readers to begin: Steve and I put the glossary in front, because I think it’s the first thing they should read. Second, one thing we did not do is make it a self-help book. It’s really a collection of essays, without us trying to have a theory behind it. At the very beginning what I think is there is going to be a change of mentality in the design community. We have to find our soul. We have to find that designer within ourselves. And everybody does it in a different way.

On why the book is dedicated to Michelle and Barack Obama: Yes. I think both Steve and I are sentimental and we thought they were two great people. We love them. And it came from the heart. I think one of the reasons that we did the book is because we’re under the shock of the Trump election, which did not reflect our convictions.

On anything else she’d like to add: Yes, I hope it’s a book that people can browse through and find essays here and there that resonate with them. I love the design; I think it’s very spartan. I think it’s readable. We wanted it to be easy to read, in terms of typography. The design is there in the typography; the choice of the designer. It’s a very humble book. We’re not proclaiming that we know anything. It’s a little grass roots; we wanted it to be that way, because I think that’s the way it’s going to be. I don’t believe we can change the world, but we can try to make sense of it.

On what she would have tattooed upon her brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about her: Smart, intelligent, provocative, and honest.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at her home: You’d find me cooking for my friends. I believe that around the table, around food, around a glass of wine, yes, but also around food which takes a longer time to enjoy, a dinner, a meal, lunch, people can get to know each other and can spend some time.

On what keeps her up at night: I don’t know. My daughter in Los Angeles. That’s a long way. And I hope she’s fine. It’s thinking about all of my friends in the United States and I’m in France. My heart is still with all my very dear friends on the West Coast and everywhere in the States.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Véronique Vienne, co-editor/author, Citizen Designer.

Samir Husni: Tell me about the book “Citizen Designer.”

Véronique Vienne: Steve (Heller – coeditor of the book) and I collaborated together, 15 years ago, on the book, at a more gentle time. We thought that there was already a sense in the graphic design community that there was more to design than just serving the clients; the designer maybe had another function. Another thing that they could do. Pro bono work or who knows what else.

The book was mildly successful in its first edition. It remained in print because I think universities and schools were interested in the topic. It’s a very hard-to-define topic because basically graphic designers are at the service of their clients. There’s an assignment and you try and deal with that assignment. But more and more there was a sense in the community that entrepreneurship and authorship is also a part of the profession.

So, recently, about a year ago, the publisher thought that it would be a good idea to bring back the book and update it. And we did. I wasn’t keen on doing it, but I thought that it was my duty to revisit the topic in light of the political situation in the United States and in the world, and all the things that had happened since the first edition. And I thought we needed to take a good look at the profession, not only because of the political situation, but because of the evolution of technology and social networking and all of that. It’s a totally different situation today.

And more and more graphic designers were questioning and wondering what they could do to “save the world.” You know we all want to save the world. So, we decided to tackle the topic again. We kept about a third of the articles; we reread what had been written 15 years ago, and actually they were quite a few articles that were almost premonitions; they were really good and we kept them at the back of the book.

And we generated more interviews and I did a job that I wanted to do, which was a glossary, that was my main contribution. I took all of those words that we know a little bit about and all of those terms that we have a fuzzy notion of what they are, and I thought it was important to, for myself first and then share it with designers, take a good look at what was behind the terms. I think in order to be effective politically and citizen-wise, you have to be informed. And informed with an opinion and not just informed Wikipedia-style. You need to learn more of a point of view. And that’s why I tackled this glossary.

Originally, I had wanted 100 terms, but after 60 terms, I was running out of time. I feel the first thing a graphic designer needs, or anyone for that matter who wants to make a difference, is information and trying to get some straight answers. You can’t just Google something and think you know what it’s all about. So, I dug a little deeper in those entries. And they were very brief entries, but I wanted to do them to clarify for myself some of the terms.

But with “Citizen Designer,” Steven and I had a discussion about that; what do designers actually do? And my conviction, which is partly shared with Steve, is that designers have incredible communication skills. That they can put into service a lot of good causes. But what’s depressing sometimes is to see good people with really good intentions or good causes have very poor communication skills. I compare designers in a way to scribes of the past. We transcribe, we design, but we transcribe other people’s convictions and ideas into a language that other people can appreciate and interact with.

As scribes, and I always wanted to be a scribe, this ability to make visible, to make readable, to transcribe and translate other people’s convictions into a language that is powerful is what designers can do. They’ve come to save the world by doing a campaign.

A citizen designer for me is someone who is well-educated, like a scribe, smart and savvy, but also chooses their causes and puts their talents at the service of organizations or communities, or something.

Samir Husni: What makes you connect that love of being a scribe, love of translating politics and citizens, and the social aspect with design? You rarely hear graphic designers or art directors talking about social responsibility, most talk about the font their using for this or that.

Véronique Vienne: Since I came back to Europe, I can say that in America I think design is miles apart from Europe. The American graphic design community is unfortunately held hostage to marketing. They think they’re apolitical, but you cannot be apolitical. If you’re apolitical, that’s a political stance. You have to stop thinking that you can be apolitical. You serve an economy based on different principles and if you serve that economy, you serve the principle of that economy. You have to stop being naïve.

I’m actually chagrined and upset sometimes when I look at some of the topics that are discussed in the graphic design community in the U.S. because it’s totally about a tight-fist or the vernacular or blah, blah, blah. It’s about what I call the “merch.” Recently, I was reading an article and it was talking about the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The journalist who wrote the article was saying that their marriage was all about love, it was all about the love of two people and it was so inspiring. And another person in the article was saying, no, it’s all about the merch. And by the merch, they mean the merchandise. The hats, the T-shirts; it’s about the merch.

And in a way I think, and I’m really sad to see it, that the American community in general, not everybody, of course, doesn’t think that they can remain on the sidelines. And that’s why I think the book is necessary, along with many more books, not just the one. This one is just the second edition. We could try to define what graphic designers could be. I know that in Europe, political statements start with a manifesto. You write it and you glue it on the wall. So, I think posturizing, writing something on a wall, writing something on a piece of paper, is really part of the DNA of graphic design.

Samir Husni: What role do you think ink on paper, print, plays in today’s digital age? And do you think that we can do the same things through the digital platforms, or there’s a big difference between ink on paper and pixels on a screen?

Véronique Vienne: I wrote about this very topic in a recent posting on a blog called “Common Edge,” about architecture and design. I was writing about the fact that taking ink to paper and writing something by hand has so much more credibility than taking that same message and printing it and putting it on a wall. So, the presence of the ink and the hand, which is what the kids did in the anti-gun movement. Kids went out into the streets in the United States and wrote slogans on panels and pieces of cardboard. They weren’t very sophisticated slogans, but they were done by hand. And the kids were holding them. And there were pictures being taken of the kids holding the pieces of cardboard. And those pictures made it onto the Internet.

It’s a little bit of what we learned with Je suis Charlie – I am Charlie – when people took to the streets. It was a viral panel that a designer had done, Je suis Charlie. And if they had printed it and took to the streets and held it…well, I think the ink and the paper and the handheld message, even in our digital age, still has a lot of power. And it’s still very much a part of how you can harness the strength of the graphic gesture, if you will.

Samir Husni: I’m very intrigued by your own story. You spent 40 years in the States, but you’re originally from France. During those 40 years you spent here in the U.S., you had a chance to work in magazine media and in media, so you’ve worked on both sides of the Atlantic. What are some of the differences that you still see today?

Véronique Vienne: There are many differences, of course. When I came to the States in the early sixties, it was a different time. It was the Cold War; it was Camelot, the whole thing. And I was very gullible, in a way. I bought the bull. I loved America and I still love America. I am very proud of my American passport. I adore the country, I really do. It is my home. I think in English, I write in English and I love the country.

But of course there was a shift after 9/11, even before. I became politicized little by little, like everybody else. With age you start to look at the situation and of course, I had been exposed in France at the Bozar. I had gone to the Bozar School in Paris, briefly in architecture, but I did finish. I had been exposed to something called the Situationists there. And so it was sort of hanging around in my consciousness.

I wrote a bestseller, believe it or not, in the States called “The Art of Doing Nothing.” And in my brain was a critique of the consumer culture. It sold a half million copies. And people completely misunderstood what it was about. They thought it was an adorable gift book. I almost invented the gift book category with it. (Laughs) It’s still in print. I had meant it to be a political gesture. And it turned out to be the opposite. It became a franchise. They wanted me to become a television guru and I refused, because that wasn’t what I wanted to do.

So it was always in the back of my mind, a critique of that consumer frenzy, if you will, but I was never able to do anything about it. And eventually, with the second Bush administration, even before we get to our time, there was an empty intellectualism in the United States. Anti-French intellectualism. And in order to survive, I suppressed in me the desire to be more honest; it was self-censorship, I guess that’s called. After a while, 40 years, I realized that self-censorship was becoming hard; I wanted to do something else. And I couldn’t do it.

I was writing for a women’s magazine at the time, I was no longer an art director, I was writing for an architecture magazine; I was writing for a lot of different things. But I somehow always had to push the merch. And I wanted to go back to a place where I didn’t have to be fabulous all of the time. It’s so tiring to be fabulous all of the time. In the States, in order to survive, we have to be fabulous. If not, you don’t count, you don’t make a difference. So, I wanted to try living in a place where being fabulous wasn’t part of the picture. That’s why I went back to France, and to take care of my mom, who is going to be 100-years-old in a few months. I split my time between Paris and the South of France, where I moved back into the family home.

Samir Husni: As I was reading some of the essays in the book and flipping through the pages, I noticed something. Here is a book about design from two graphic designers, but there isn’t a single picture in the book. Was that intentional?

Véronique Vienne: One of the realities is that publishers nowadays want the authors to get the pictures for free. Or do the research for the picture. And you spend half of your time doing the photo research. I’m not interested in that.

The second thing is people go online all of the time to look at pictures. To have really good pictures and really good illustrations, it’s a job in itself. Steve and I did a book that does very well, which is going into its second edition called “100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design.” For that one we did a lot of research and we got designers to give us information for free and they signed paperwork and documents that we could publish it on the moon if we had to. And half of your time is spent chasing images, when actually readers go online and Google the image.

So, we made a choice. And we decided it would be a bad idea, because the image we might find and be able to afford, there would be no budget for those images. And it was so insignificant compared to what could be done. So, we decided that we would hopefully write things that people would want to read. But we may be wrong. “100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design” is a lot of illustrations. And it’s doing well, very well.

Samir Husni: After buying the book, if someone asks you where in the book would you like for them to begin, what would you say?

Véronique Vienne: Steve and I put the glossary in front, because I think it’s the first thing they should read. Second, one thing we did not do is make it a self-help book. It’s really a collection of essays, without us trying to have a theory behind it. At the very beginning what I think is there is going to be a change of mentality in the design community. We have to find our soul. We have to find that designer within ourselves. And everybody does it in a different way.

And so this is not a prescription; we don’t say do this or do that. Everybody has a different approach. And some are a lot more theoretical and some are just gut feelings. And so we left the essays in a raw state, because as an engaged community we are not quite together yet. We’re still in the stage of trying to find ourselves, and I’m talking about the French as well as the Americans, which are the two communities I know well. I think it’s going to take time for us to figure out what on earth we’re doing. Are we already so incredibly obsolete that we’re just kidding ourselves? And I think the book is reflecting a lot of the different attempts by individuals to make sense of what they can do.

Samir Husni: You’ve dedicated the book to Michelle and Barack Obama, why?

Véronique Vienne: Yes. I think both Steve and I are sentimental and we thought they were two great people. We love them. And it came from the heart. I think one of the reasons that we did the book is because we’re under the shock of the Trump election, which did not reflect our convictions.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Véronique Vienne: Yes, I hope it’s a book that people can browse through and find essays here and there that resonate with them. I love the design; I think it’s very spartan. I think it’s readable. We wanted it to be easy to read, in terms of typography. The design is there in the typography; the choice of the designer. It’s a very humble book. We’re not proclaiming that we know anything. It’s a little grass roots; we wanted it to be that way, because I think that’s the way it’s going to be. I don’t believe we can change the world, but we can try to make sense of it.

I was reading recently about the first books, before the invention of the printing press, it was on scrolls, and it basically said that the very fact that we can go back to the book and leaf through it now, allows us to not scroll through a text like in the ancient times, but online we’re back to scrolling. When we go back and forth in print, our relationship, our mental relationship, the structure of our analysis of a text was changed because we were no longer following the linear narrative, we could go back or we could go forward. We could comprehend the whole thing and then choose where we wanted to go.

And that was a major change in our mental structures, because of that leafing and that ability to go back and forth. The mental structure of the text disassociated from speech, because when you scroll, it’s like when you speak, you have to listen to the end of the sentence. In a book you are free from that, you’re free from the speech and it’s a different thing.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Véronique Vienne: Smart, intelligent, provocative, and honest.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else? How do you unwind?

Véronique Vienne: You’d find me cooking for my friends. I believe that around the table, around food, around a glass of wine, yes, but also around food which takes a longer time to enjoy, a dinner, a meal, lunch, people can get to know each other and can spend some time.

One of the things that’s most interesting about what’s happening in the design community is the realization that, and you made a point when you mentioned a Skype interview before we talked, that we need to give it the time. Time is really part of design. You can’t design something because you’re smart and you’re doing it all electronically. I think you need to learn to listen to other people, to hear what they have to say, not be in a result mode. To me, that’s one of the most interesting things that is happening in the design community, the realization that you have to do field work. You have to go ask the people what they want. You can’t just have a brief and try to respond to that. So, you’d find me cooking.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Véronique Vienne: I don’t know. My daughter in Los Angeles. That’s a long way. And I hope she’s fine. It’s thinking about all of my friends in the United States and I’m in France. My heart is still with all my very dear friends on the West Coast and everywhere in the States.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: