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Author and Citizen: The Role of the Designer

ChwastVisual advocacy, or what Elizabeth Resnick refers to as social responsibility, is being discussed more and more frequently within the graphic design profession and among design educators. AIGA  The Professional Association for Design initiates various business strategies in pursuit of stimulating critical thinking about design. The AIGA Center for Sustainable Design, Inequality Matters, The Urban Forest Project and Design for Democracy illustrate such initiatives for its members, the profession and our culture at large.

Yet, today, there still are no standards or guidelines to aid in the implementation of these concepts into the higher education curriculum. Often times there is little to no administrative support or understanding for inclusion. Generally, it is left to the individual professors to decide  how to best integrate visual advocacy lectures and assignments into their curriculum.

As a graphic design instructor employed by a rural institution, it is my job to educate, guide, and train students about using visual language to communicate. It is my ethical and professional role to encourage students to use their education responsibly and to think beyond merely serving business.

Part of my pedagogy encourages students to realize that they are citizens participating in a democratic society. They should be cognizant that their communication skills can be put to use as a powerful tool for social change for any number of issues they personally consider important to the well-being of the society in which they live. Issues such as literacy, alcohol awareness, over-consumption, globalization, carbon dioxide emissions and toxicity levels in manufactured paper are just a small example of the variety of visual advocacy assignments our students have undertaken in recent years.

This exhibition, The Graphic Imperative: International Posters for Peace, Social Justice and the Environment, certainly is a collaborative resource for design educators who wish to instruct their students on the importance of adopting a social and ethical approach to their work. The posters by Seymour Chwast are in permanent collections of many museums worldwide and are icons in our profession. The images demonstrate the power of visual language to articulate an emotional message. People are often more adept at reading images than they are at reading words. Sometimes serious topics require simple messages in order to be understood.

Chwast didn’t play games with his 1967 poster entitled, “End Bad Breath.” Instead, he made a bold antiwar statement. To communicate such a strong expressional view, Chwast used known symbols understood by a general audience and arranged the visual language in a way that portrayed his beliefs about the Vietnam War. Rather than “wanting you in the United States Army,” he wanted to “end bad breath.” The designer said, “I took a mundane advertising slogan, married it to our most recognizable national symbol, and pushed the message home with an absurd but true idea” (Heller, Steven. “End Bad Breath: Seymour Chwast.” Design Literacy, pg. 25, 2004).

Chwast and the other designers represented in The Graphic Imperative exemplifies the important role a designer plays in our culture: an author, or more significantly a citizen, contributing to a community’s dialogue. Seymour Chwast used the basic language of design as a means to developing content. As a design instructor, I want students to learn that they also can develop and produce something of value beyond selling, marketing and promoting things. Once they find their own voices, they can think beyond design as a service to mass marketing. I think of the assignments in our curriculum as engaging points. I want students to think differently, to develop ideas, and to be able to express their thoughts so that they emerge in our profession as positively contributing to their communities.

Prof. Brit Rowe is the chair and associate professor in the Department of Art & Design.

image: Seymour Chwast, “End Bad Breath,” USA, 1968, 60 x 90 cm.

Department of Art & Design

Ann Hood

Wilson Art Building
525 South Main Street
Ada, Ohio 45810
Monday: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Tuesday: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Wednesday: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Thursday: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Friday: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Saturday: Closed
Sunday: Closed