A little while back over at Design Observer, Adrian Shaughnessy posted a tidbit about the riots in London. It was soon clear he touched off a nerve as 95 comments came rolling through ranging from "great article" to one commenter calling Mr. Shaughnessy a dick.
The thrust of the article puts part of the blame for the riots at the feet of designers. More specifically he addresses designers involvement in a culture of consumerism. This consumerism creates desires that some cannot meet and Shaughnessy suggests when the right spark comes along it releases a pent up frustration in the havenots to loot and destroy storefronts. Here's Shaughnessy:
The principal target was a highly successful chain of shops called JD Sports. It sells fashionable street wear. Other popular targets included mobile phone shops, electrical goods stores, and outlets of leading UK fashion brands.
All these shops spend huge amounts of money on branding, on store layout, on window displays, and slick advertising. Their ads leap at us from newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and the Internet. Celebrities endorse their products. They are little shrines of desire.
Despite one or two gleefully publicised cases, the majority of the rioters came from poor homes in the least desirable, least well-resourced areas of England’s major cities. They come from places with low achievement rates in education, and where employment prospects are low.
These young people are not poor in the sense in which we understand poverty in the undeveloped world. They have Blackberrys (the encrypted Blackberry messaging system was used extensively to coordinate attacks), fashionable jeans, and cool footwear: but they are poor enough to have a sense of being excluded from the great orgy of consumer acquisitiveness that is flaunted in front of them daily.
Specifically, they are excluded from the world of desire and consumption created by the brand owners, advertising agencies, art directors, graphic designers, photographers, product designers, retail designers, architects, stylists, retouchers, and copywriters.
I can see how something like this can provoke the idea that this is all patently ridiculous. Shuaghnessy does himself no favors by being overly myopic in his description of the targets. Perhaps JD Sports were targeted using smartphones, but rioters were burning cars and destroying mom and pop stores all over the city. Private property, businesses, lamp posts... it didn't matter.
Additionally it's hard to reconcile the notion that people running around with Blackberries and $100 Nikes are so upset over the fact that they can't have Mercedes and Louis Vuitton handbags that they decide to steal more $100 Nikes. I can't have Louis Vuitton luggage either. I won't even get into the armchair psychology he gets into in terms of the level of the rioters' education or manner of upbringing.
All of that said, I don't want to let designers off the hook for the role they play in consumerism. Nor do I want to downplay how consumerism and the economic realities that result from it don't have ramifications (sometimes riotous!) Designers love to talk about the "power of design" yet shy away from the idea that they would be partially responsible for something that sounds as diabolical as consumerism. We don't want our work to be labeled as "slick advertising." That makes us all sound like shysters trying to dupe someone out of a buck.
Yet you can't have your cake and eat it too. Design works. Design is good business and indeed design generates desire. Truly good design also creates beauty. In the world of branding it creates a rewarding experience. In the world of products it can create simplicity. When done correctly no wonder design creates desire. It's almost the whole point. Massimo Vignelli describes design as getting rid of "vulgarity." Design replaces those things that degrade our visual environment and improves them.
The moral question designers need to deal with are how to balance making a living (as Madonna says, we are living in a material word) with perhaps turning down work for folks that want to use design to exploit, mislead or generally inflict more vulgarity on the world. I'm not going to say the folks at Landor were amoral when they created a beautiful identity for BP that suggested BP was a shiny happy eco-friendly company. Besides, I'm sure they sleep well on their mattress full of $100 bills.
When thinking about design and consumerism, we have to remember that design doesn't create haves and havenots. Economics, public policy and political battles create them. Your moral duty as a designer is to decide who you serve and what ends do they serve. That's all you can take responsibility for, not criminal behavior of others*.
*None of this is to say that that the politics and decisions made by those in power don't deserve some sort of reaction It is above my pay grade, and out of my sphere of knowledge to know anything about politics in the UK.