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Veronique Vienne: Citizen Designer

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday December 27, 2018


As President Obama said in his farewell address: “The Constitution is just a piece of parchment. We the people give the constitution power, with the choices that we make.” Above:  February 15, 2003, NYC Peace March; photo © Mario Tama/Getty Images #mario_tama

These are the words that made me pick up and read Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, edited by Steven Heller and VéroniqueVienne. With the government shut down for the sixth day by a ranting ideologue, making hundreds of thousands of its employees wondering where their next rent check will come from, I feel it is essential for all of us in the world of art and design to marshal the tools we need to take a stand—and to share in our responsibility as citizens. This book, a new edition of the 2003 classic, has the power to help us make changes in ways that can actually be sustained. So here to launch the new year is a Q & A with co-editor Véronique Vienne.

Q: As a designer/branding specialist, what galvanized you to revisit the collection of essays you and Steven Heller edited for the original edition of Citizen Designer?   

A: We first coined the term “Citizen Designer” in 2003 — more than 15 years ago, for the first edition of our book. Do you remember 2003? On February 15, millions of people all over the planet took part in a number of massive anti-war protests to prevent the United States and its allies from invading Iraq. In New York City, there were about 300,000 mostly-peaceful protesters clogging the avenues for miles around the United Nations. To no avail: on March 20th, the invasion of Iraq began.

It was in this context that Steve and I had asked writers and critics to contribute essays and articles in order to get some perspective on the political and social responsibilities of designers.

Back then, the design community had yet to come to terms with that it meant to be a “citizen.” Taking a stand didn’t have the urgency it has today. Later on, the Obama years gave us a false sense of security. The November 2016 election of Donald Trump flushed away our complacency.

For the second edition of Citizen Designer, Steve and I got to work in early 2017, collecting new material to update the content of the original edition. We were motivated. However, by the time the revised version of the book was out, things had gotten even worse. Today, the dissemination of fake news is undermining the credibility of communication design as a discipline — while threating the democratic process and democracy as we know it.

Q: How would you define the citizen designer?  

A: Being a “citizen”, for a designer, means putting one’s talent and savoir faire at the service of worthy causes. In my opinion, that’s how designers can make a real difference, and that’s how they can promote the values this country needs. Good design bolsters credibility, accuracy, and clear thinking. Good design is the antidote to fake news and shoddy journalism. Good design sends a signal that someone really cares.

That said, I admit that choosing a worthy cause is not easy. Scams are everywhere. Corruption is rampant. Populism advocates easy solutions to complex problems. That’s why Citizen Designer is a collection of essays and articles that document actual case studies and first-person experiences. We wanted to make political and social responsibility more approachable.     

Q: You speak of “doing well” [economically] as the power behind “doing good.” Could you expand on what it takes for that idea to occupy the intentions of busy designers who work so hard to keep all of their plates in the air?

A: Design responsibility is not a charity. It has to become a sustainable practice. It has to be economically viable. We have been brainwashed into thinking that in order to be successful we have to “sell out”. This perception is changing with new generations. Young designers are looking for less shameful ways to make a living. The recent revolt of Google employees over the company’s involvement in a controversial military pilot program is a sign of the times. 

As designers, the right choice can be lucrative, though, admittedly, it cannot make you truly wealthy. But that’s the right choice! Amassing large amounts of money is no longer a measure of success. 

Q: The roster of designers you and Steve Heller interviewed is outstanding. Could you speak a bit about your selection process?

A: Steve and I spoke to designers who are — or have always been — on the cutting edge of design responsibility.

I am particularly proud of the contribution of Mark Randall, principal of Worldstudio, a New York City marketing and design agency whose major clients are in the not-for-profit sector.

I highly recommend reading the inspiring essay by Thomas Frank, historian and political analyst for Harper’s magazine, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and co-founder of The Baffler.

And it’s a pleasure to re-read Katherine McCoy’s critical essay, a masterpiece of intelligence and integrity. She is one of the most celebrated voices in the design community.

And then there are scores of interviews with educators, activists and designers, some of them practicing abroad: Laetitia Wolff, Carol Overby, Vincent Perrottet, or Milton Glaser, just to name a few.

Q: what do you think will be the true value of your book, the second edition of Citizen Designer, Perspectives on Design Responsibility?   

A: Personally, I hope the book will demystify political engagement as a design practice. In the United States, designers tend to be apolitical. As a group, they believe that they are at the service of the economy, not at the service of ideologies. But that’s no longer a viable position. In our day and age, refusal to take a stand is a political statement of sorts, whether or not you know it. Passivity in this domain is an implicit support of the status quo.

However, in order to take a stand, you have to be informed. You have to educate yourself to try to make sense of it all.  That’s why I wrote a “glossary”, to help readers sort out wishful thinking from reality.

With entries like “Advocacy,” “Breaking Rules,” “Consumer Boycotts,” “Geopolitics,” or “Whistleblowing,” I decoded the jargon used in political discourse to expose the real meaning behind the coded language of propaganda. It involved some detective work in order to figure out what was really going on. But with specific case studies, I was able to show the many creative ways designers use their skills and talents to make a difference — and have fun in the process.  

Véronique Vienne has written extensively on design history, lifestyle trends, and business practices. She has edited, art-directed, and written essays for several design publications in the United States and Europe. Her books on graphic design, some of them co-authored with Steven Heller, have been translated in numerous languages. She lives in France where she conducts workshops on design criticism as a creative tool, and where she acts as a branding consultant for a number of corporate clients.

Ed. note: It must be stated that Véronique is a longtime friend and colleague. It was my privilege to work with her in the initial days of her writing career, which she launched using an IBM Selectric typewriter that somehow landed in my very small apartment, then migrated to her Brooklyn flat.

Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility(Allworth Press 2018), edited by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne is available here.
More information on design and social responsibility from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, here. MP031019  dart-interview

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