Reclaiming Media
Doing Culture Work in These Weird Times

Brenda Laurel
for AIGA Voice, 2002

It's a major challenge to find something new to say after so many mind-blowing people have already lifted their voices and shown us their work. As person with no graphic design background would be an IDIOT to try to create visuals. So here I am, media-free and naked under my clothes.

To begin with the mundane, let me tell you a little about my current work.

For the last two years I've been working at Art Center College of Design. Initially I was hired to help develop a new curriculum for the graduate Digital Media department, then asked to carry on as a faculty member. We've renamed the program Media Design and put a new curriculum in place to accomplish a new set of goals. I mean, what's new media? What's digital media? Like turbo and cyber, these terms no longer mean much.

As we look at the professional landscape that awaits new designers, we see a growing trend in both branding and in the design of products and services toward transmedia strategies. Increasingly, design involves many different media types that are integrated into a coherent whole, employing various combinations of web, wireless, print, video, audio, and objects. We want our students to become media strategists who understand how to orchestrate these various media in ways that take advantage of the unique powers of each, and to achieve coherence and relatedness among them. Tomorrow, it will not be enough to be a Flash cowboy. Our goal is to produce designers who can become thought leaders in the emerging discipline of transmedia design.

In keeping with this new mission, we have designed a new studio course, called Super Studio, that our first-year MFA students take for three terms. I teach the studio, with the help of a visual design faculty member - this year, Allison Goodman, who has just published a wonderful new book, The Seven Essentials of Graphic Design. When students first arrive, we give them themes to think about. Their job is to come up with a grand strategy, strategy, and tactics for addressing those themes. That includes articulating what their particular project will be and identifying the target audience. They must employ at least three media types, and at least one of those must be computer-based.

Last year, we gave students the theme of the Human Genome. After several weeks of research and field studies, they arrived at the grand strategy of helping young people become informed citizens who will be able to understand crucial issues regarding human genetics as they become first-time voters. The strategy was to create a suite of products directed towards the high school education market, to provide tools for understanding the science, policy, and ethics involved our growing mastery of human genetics. The project, named CODE23, utilized video, web, and print in the form of a wonderful hybrid between notebook and magazine formats.

This year we began by thinking about energy conservation. Then 9/11 happened and our topic suddenly screamed for rethinking. We changed our themes to energy, entitlement, and brand and asked students to look at the intersections among them. We felt that the petroleum economy and the global environment were more important issues than California blackouts following the attacks.

The students arrived at the grand strategy of improving the environment by reducing auto emissions and petroleum consumption. Searching for something practical and do-able in the near future, they arrived at the strategy of promoting the adoption of hybrid vehicles in the United States. We discovered that most people don't know anything about them - in fact, most people think you have to plug them in to charge. The ones that are currently available - the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight - strike many as, in the words of one interviewee, "butt-ugly." We learned that many new hybrids will soon enter the U.S. market - from a hybrid BMW motorcycle to a hybrid Honda Civic, a hybrid Ford Expedition, and eventually even a hybrid Humvee - enough variety to meet almost any customer's criteria.

The students have designed a business that offers value to manufacturers, dealers, potential customers, and drivers of hybrid cars. Their business strategy will migrate easily to fuel cell vehicles as soon as they become available.

So far the students have done field research, home visits, and research on the web. They have developed a business plan and media strategy for the program utilizing web, wireless, print, and video media. They've done all kinds of design explorations. They have just completed audience testing of visual branding, features, and positioning concepts. By the end of this term, they'll have nailed down the feature sets and design direction that are most appealing to their potential customers. By the end of the third term, they will have produced working prototypes that will allow us to present the program publicly. We have named the project "Upshift." If it were a real company, by the end of the third term we would be ready to pitch it to investors and partners. In fact, we may just do that.

You probably notice that we are addressing socially and politically charged issues in the Super Studio. Often, our students come from an undergraduate graphic design education where they do work that is typically not personally relevant. We want them to find their own voices as designers, and socially positive materials engages their emotions and their passion. My personal grand strategy, by the way, is to graduate students that have become elegant activists.

I want to share something that happened in the studio last term that I thought was quite wonderful. One of the students said sadly, I wish we could put our values in our work all the time. But as professionals we will have to do work for clients that are only looking to make money. I thought about that for a few minutes. Throughout the term we had been talking in terms of grand strategy, strategy, and tactics. So I reasoned that a client, say a manufacturer of athletic shoes, hires a design firm to help achieve their strategy: to sell more shoes. The client's grand strategy, based on traditional business principles, is to "maximize value for their shareholders."

However - and here's the fun part - the designer is free to invent their own grand strategy, as long as it serves the strategic goals of the client. So then, one strategy can support two grand strategies. And although your client wants simply to make money selling athletic shoes, you can formulate a socially positive grand strategy for your design - for example, lifting up the value of fitness and athletic ethics, or offering alternatives to gangs for social affiliation. And if you do a really good job, you can accomplish your own grand strategy in a way that gives you your voice.

Then later, in the dead of night, you can rat out the company's nasty offshore labor practices.

Denise Crisp, the brilliant designer of my new book, has told me many a tale of how female designers have managed to work feminist and humanist values into commercial design. It seems to me that this technique begins to redefine voice and its value in commercial as well as personal terms.

I intended my new book, Utopian Entrepreneur, to be a field manual for doing socially positive work in the context of business. I try to get at the structure and politics of business as it affects designers, and to offer some strategies for subverting them into something more humane.

I've been a designer of interactive media for over 25 years. In 1996 I founded a company called Purple Moon to make socially positive interactive media for girls. I was there from cradle to grave and have many a tale to tell. Much of what I have learned is cast in my book as advice for designers and entrepreneurs about how to bring their values to the front.

One thing to notice is that it's okay not to be rich. My father was a social servant; my family was middle-class and happy to be there. Earning a living wage is probably a better and more realizable goal than making millions.

Another thing to remember is that there is no good reason to consider business the exclusive tool of, you should pardon the generalization, rich old white guys. There are many things that can be redefined about business by determined people. For example, let's look at the state of design and content on the web. Right now, diversity of content and design has withered as the result of recession, the Wall Street "free money" frenzy, and failed business models. Massive consolidation under huge publishing companies has been one result. Here's a statistic. Jupiter Media reported in 2000 that their surveyed audience spent 60% of their time on sites owned by 119 companies. by 2001 that number had dropped from 119 to 13. 13 content sources on the web. Makes the library look pretty juicy, doesn't it?

Healthy cultures, like healthy ecosystems, require diversity. It's not acceptable that cultural diversity on the web be supplied gratis by devoted designers or artists or journalists in their spare time. Yet it seems that is what we have allowed ourselves to come to expect. Without the ability to earn an honest living through content creation, diversity is inherently limited and independent content production is permanently marginalized.

The philosophy of the "free market" suggests that those who produce work which others value should be able to receive value in exchange. This theory headed south when the idea that the goal of business was the creation of value mutated into the idea that the goal of business is the production of money. It's time to turn our attention to fixing the apparatus behind the curtain.

Direct economies of value provide promising models for funding cultural production while sustaining diversity. Alternative business ideas like micropayments, peer-to-peer commerce, request marketing and modest subscriptions on the web have the potential to support more nearly direct transactions between creator and audience.

We can obviously no longer duck and cover. These times require designers and content-creators to become involved in the economic context of our work. Of course economics turns out to implicate culture and politics as well. Poisonous ideas can be found lurking in the mightiest global institution of all - consumerism.

Here's what I want to say. Consumerism demeans us. Nobody wants to be a consumer. The power relationship implied by the term should be unacceptable to everyone, if they were able to understand it. I picture a "consumer" as something like a giant slug, a simple tube through which stuff passes from retail to landfill.

As Paul Hawken and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins exhort us in their book, Natural Capitalism, environmental and geopolitical realities demand that we broaden our understanding of business to include the costs - human, cultural, environmental, and ethical - of what goes into the slug and what comes out.

Consumerism is not only not sustainable, it's a planet-killer - both environmentally and culturally. When you understand how it actually works - including both campaign financing and entrainment - you begin to realize that it undermines the principles of freedom and justice that once animated our democratic republic. The spectacle is a formidable enemy - and it is winning, and it relies on consumerism to make us stupid.

In the 18th century, 80% of the populace read Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Today, we do a better job of teaching kids to be consumers than citizens. And so there are fewer and fewer young people who believe that their votes can make any difference the gross malfunctioning of our government the underlying dismemberment of our Constitution. Many, like I, are ashamed of the dim, corroded lamp we lift as we hold up our way of life to the rest of the world.

But back to business. Obviously, an all-out revolution against consumerism would be, shall we say, resisted. But a serious head-change is definitely in order. I propose that each of us actively redefine the success criteria for business to include the cultural and material costs and benefits of the product, as well as what we currently think of as "the bottom line." I'm suggesting that we find ways to help both kids and adults have access to this material and the means to understand it. I want every person in this country to know the unauthorized biography of every single thing they buy.

People who start companies can look for socially positive investors. They're out there, and working together we can make some big changes in how business works, regardless of the unwillingness of our government to control its ill effects on the public good.

At its best, commerce can be sustainable, if it is based upon the free and fair exchange of value with respect and common sense. By contrast, consumerism consists in the creation and fulfillment of desire, regardless of the actual value of the product to the individual or to society. And who decides what value is and which values are to be put forward in the design of experiences and things? Designers do. We do.

Design gives voice to values. Design suggests what is useful or beautiful or pleasurable or good or true. The affordances of a design suggest desirable actions. A design that has not engaged the designer's values may speak, but with a hollow voice. We know the rules of good design. But it often comes as a delightful revelation to young designers that brilliant design not only permits but requires the designer's personal voice.

And so we arrive at the happy confluence of responsibility and power. We are only the victims and servants of business as usual if we choose to be. This work of transformation - which I have come to think of as "culture work" - must be approached mindfully and with great conviction and effort. The strategy of culture work is not straight-ahead revolution; rather it is to inject new genetic material into the culture without activating its immune system. By intervening in the present, we are designing the future.

I wish us all a great deal of courage, self-discipline, and clear-eyed hope.

Recent Talks Brenda Laurel Tau Zero