January 29, 2002
5:22 AM   Subscribe

Eighties' design guru goes all Naomi Klein on us. Deeply impassioned screed from Neville Brody, original designer of the UK style'n'music magazine the Face, on the responsibility of designers (and creatives in general) in an age of extreme economic inequality. From a very interesting conference a few months ago called Superhumanism.
posted by theplayethic (15 comments total)

Mmm. We should recognise the whole human race as a brand? Methinks Master Brody, for all his political protestations, attributes too much importance to design, after all. [First link is a pdf file, folks]
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:22 AM on January 29, 2002

That's a bit unfair Miguel, he is talking after all to a group of designers and he uses the term metaphorically. Good, articulate speech, I thought.
Interesting link theplayethic, thanks.
posted by talos at 6:44 AM on January 29, 2002

Neville's been reading Adbusters again...
posted by greensweater at 6:45 AM on January 29, 2002

I think the point that Neville was making is that everybody has the chance to do something good for humanity, given that so many people in first world countries are influenced by the media and advertising, design etc.

As a creative, I found his speech very relevant.There is definitely a need to address these issues. But finding the opportunity in day to day life could prove to be quite difficult, especially if you're an employee and not in an opportunity to directly influence what clients you work for.
posted by Jubey at 7:37 AM on January 29, 2002

Brody's speech might appear heartfelt on the page, but at the time it was very low key and not terribly convincing. He was followed by Dan Wieden of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, who gave a slick presentation, stated baldly that "I believe that profit always wins" and finished off by showing a glossy Nike spot to enthusiastic applause. It felt as if he was equating technical and creative ability with good ethical practice, and that the former automatically ensured the latter. The conference did highlight the gulf between thought - Naomi Klein and Theodore Zeldin - and deed, but it wasn't taken any further. The creatives simply wanted to be told how to be more 'superhuman', i.e. ethical, in their field, rather than enter a debate about why ethics is important in the first place.
posted by jonathanbell at 8:01 AM on January 29, 2002

Ugh! What an incoherent piece of tripe. This guys clearly has no idea, whatever, about how wealth is constructed.

He calls intellectual property protection a culprit, when, in fact, the protection of property rights is the irreducible core to the development of wealth.

The surpluses that are enjoyed in the developed world are only possible because we developed complete legal schema to protect property of all sorts, which, in turn, makes investment and lending possible. The willingness of the Third World to violate property rights (for drugs, for example) is a clear signal of their willingness to violate property rights of other sorts, which directly discourages investment and encourages those with intelligence and education to move to the First World.

The ability to transform commodity (water, corn, industrial and transport capacity) into brand (Coca-Cola) is one of the most important moves for wealth creation. If designers really want to help, they should move to the Third World and help create brands, as well as the legal systems which protect all property and wealth creation.
posted by MattD at 8:09 AM on January 29, 2002

He calls intellectual property protection a culprit, when, in fact, the protection of property rights is the irreducible core to the development of wealth.

You slide so quickly from "intellectual property" to "property rights" in that sentence that one wonders whether you realize you've taken the question itself for granted. Treating information and ideas with the same laws that apply to physical objects has led to some absurd and inefficient practices. What's so radical about proposing that information (hard to create, easy to maintain, trivial to duplicate) acts according to different principles than material objects do (easy to create, difficult to maintain, difficult to duplicate) and should thus be manipulated with a completely different set of laws?

posted by Mars Saxman at 9:56 AM on January 29, 2002


You raise a good point, although I would contend that you reveal less a flaw in my argument than an misleading elision, viz:

For the purposes of considering how wealth is created, I define "property" to mean "the proceeds and/or security of investment." To the extent that investment can create a valuable good, intellectual property is clearly a subset of property, rather than a thing of a different sort.

Indeed, one could contend that the very point of intellectual property law is to synthetically confer upon an intangible good (certain ideas) the characteristics of physical property in order to encourage investment in them.

In my view, most of the "absurd and inefficient practices" to which you refer are the result of recent perversions of intellectual property precepts from their long-standing status quo. The most important of these traditional precepts is the reversion of intellectual property to the public domain after a period of time sufficient to enable the recovery of the initial investment in its creation.

The (effectively indefinite) extension of corporate copyrights and the extension by a variety of means of patents to beyond their economically useful lifetime is certainly problematic, and should be reversed. As should the retreat from traditional standards of patent denial, such as "obviousness".

The more conceptually difficult problem is the fact that the economically useful lifetime of most patentable property is rapidly diminishing. In the IT/IS industry, for example, anything invented 20 years ago is almost certain to be worthless 20 years hence, allowing the patent holder to make continual improvements (each extending the patent time).

In other words, under traditional patent thinking, part of the "price" that Intel was to have paid for the patent -protection premium it enjoyed on the 80xx chips was that anyone in the world could start to manufacture them in the late 1990s. However, the right to manufacture an 8088 chip -- or even use basic components of its architecture -- is now worthless, and Intel was able to roll its premium into the development of Pentium IV chips, which no one else can manufacture until 2019.

This suggests that some reform might be valuable in the reduction of patent life on rapidly obsolescing technology ... but I don't see that happening anytime soon.
posted by MattD at 10:35 AM on January 29, 2002

Can design feed people?
My father was a graphic designer, and he fed nine kids for thirty years by sticking to his business and giving his clients good value. Beware the breast-beating Brody and his rhetorical ilk: Their moralism is ultimately narcisstic.
An age of extreme economic inequality...
Compared to when? More people are materially better off today than at any time in human history. If you want to do something for humanity, start a business, keep accurate books, hire people, pay your bills, mow your lawn and love your spouse.
posted by Faze at 10:56 AM on January 29, 2002

Obviously Brody is a visual person and not a math person. Or a logic person. Or an econ person. Or...

Okay, I just violated my oath against making snarky comments. Sorry. But my point is that Brody is either trying unsuccessfully to be humorous, or he's actually using classic fallacies as if they were real arguments. Tokyo a ghost town? "This is mathematical certainty." Uh huh.

"...two billion people go hungry everyday due to a combination of inequitable land distribution, soil erosion, lack of infrastructure, grinding poverty in cities, and people unable to buy food from the world market."

This is like saying JFK didn't die from the gunshot, he died from the hole. Those 2B people go hungry because they're not free enough, not educated enough, and not capitalist enough. In short, not Western enough.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 1:03 PM on January 29, 2002

he spends lotsa energy decrying branding, then promptly turns around and proposes third-world communications training so that they can "link with the rest of society," never mind that "only 20% of the world has ever heard of a telephone."

yet somehow, in this utopian view, they'll be able to pick up a copy of InDesign or Photoshop and just go crazynuts making propaganda for their village (or whatever) with some training. never mind building infrastructures like power and communications, and never mind basic communications skills like reading and writing. nice topper for neville's fantasy.
posted by patricking at 3:56 PM on January 29, 2002

Okay, that's it. I just went to Brody's web site and found that he's not even a good designer. Okay, more precisely, his firm's web site forces me to download scads of Flash in exchange for a cryptic, gimmicky, and noninformative experience. In my book, that's a web site that sucks.

And he is lecturing me on capitalism? On anything?
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 6:09 PM on January 29, 2002

I agree that Brody's not the one to tell us about global economic inequities (and I'd really like to see his evidence that 20% of the world has never "heard of the telephone" -- that seems quite suspect to me). But designers should be talking about the loss of spontaneous local cultures, which does seem to be the direct result of global mass media. Americans generally do not feel themselves to be participants in local cultures but recipients of generalized culture -- that is, they don't learn songs by playing music with their neighbors on the porch; they receive songs selected by Arbitron. That, and all the other analagous erosions of spontaneous culture, is a horrendous loss.
posted by argybarg at 1:18 PM on January 30, 2002

Heironymous Coward:

The quality of Brody's website is, of course, irrelevant to the validity of his argument.
posted by argybarg at 1:19 PM on January 30, 2002

Argybarg: The quality of Brody's website is, of course, irrelevant to the validity of his argument.

We have already disposed of his argument, saying in essence "Good designer, lousy economist."

My observations on the quality of his web site are merely a coup de cruauté, evidence that "No, he's not even a very good designer."

When a putative expert in X lectures me about Y, I get skeptical; when it turns out he's not even very good at X, I get mad.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 11:46 PM on January 30, 2002

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