Robert L. Peters

3 July 2003

Question Everything


Cincinnati, USA

In response to a request following his presentation at the AIGA ‘Y8/Proximity’ Conference in San Diego earlier this year, Circle’s principal Robert L. Peters has written the ‘Design/SignOff’ column for HOW Magazine’s August 2003 issue, entitled “Question Everything.” The article suggests that designers can indeed contribute to positive change in the world.

Copies of the HOW issue may be purchased online. Text for the article follows, and further links to statistical sources and resources are available on the HOW website here.

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Question Everything

Ask Why. Question the answers. Assume nothing. Especially as you consider design’s role in shaping the world.

Are we regressing as a species? Is might again right? Greed is good? As I write this, smart American bombs are flattening the ancient city of Baghdad. SUV owners complain about gas prices. Foreign despots are blamed for threatening the American way of life, yet that ironic way of life – with ravenous over-consumption as its modus operandi – poses the greatest threat to our fragile, over-stressed planet. Do designers even care, or are we numbed by the media din that we ourselves have created, deaf and dumb to large issues?

Facts don’t disappear because they are ignored. Of our six billion fellow human beings (doubled since 1963) two billion go hungry daily, with no access to clean water. An estimated 35,000 children die each day of malnourishment and preventable diseases. A staggering 40% of humans live on less than $2 per day. Aids deaths now top 6000 daily, with more than 50 million infected with HIV/Aids. Violence as entertainment brews a toxic mindset, abstracting human suffering and gratuitously desensitizing billions. One person is murdered every minute, one dies in armed conflict, and another commits suicide. Globalization is not helping – unequal distribution of wealth, health and knowledge is widening gaps between the haves and have-nots. Unrest, fear, fundamentalism and fanaticism breed in the hearts of those with nothing to lose, everything to gain. Global warming, habitat loss, species extinction… the dark list goes on.

Worldwide, the U.S. imposes its glittering material culture and values through the Trojan horse of its ubiquitous brands – ”Coca-colonization,” as Victor Papanek predicted 30 years ago. But behind the over-indulgent, branded facade, much is not well at home. Even as others starve, Americans are dying of excess – a whopping 64.5% of Americans are now considered overweight. $70 USD billion per year is spent caring for those sickened by preventable obesity-related illnesses. Starved for ‘real’ stimulus and sensation, lethargic, media-saturated audiences absorb a toxic brew of escapist programming. The average child sees 16,000 violent deaths on TV by the age of 18, and guns are the greatest cause of death among American children.

Caught in a self-centered cycle of greed, exploitation and armament (nearly $500 USD billion is spent on arms annually) it seems Americans are too busy shopping (patriotically), consuming energy (6 times more per capita than Mexicans, 38 times more than Indians) and simply coping with their own ‘lifestyle.’ One in ten Americans is now an alcoholic, and antidepressant drug use in the U.S. has increased 800% in the past 10 years alone. Sadly, the all-consuming ‘rat race’ prevents citizens from taking an active role in democracy or investing in social equality.

But hope is at hand. Design is a powerful, proven agent of change. In today’s information/idea age, the world’s 1.1 million graphic designers hold much responsibility – for forming culture, influencing values and shaping the world our children will live in. Nowhere is this more true than in the U.S., today’s most powerful and influential nation. Simply put, the hearts and actions of American designers today will determine the world of tomorrow. There is much that can be done: 1) Care more; 2) Become a world citizen; 3) Assume responsibility for elevating those less fortunate – the destitute, uneducated, dispossessed; 4) Envision a sustainable future for the world – then share your vision; 5) Help raise awareness of the crucial issues; 6) Choose to have less and live more; 7) Put people before profit, human values before consumer values; 8) Act collectively; 9) Give of your time and talent, alongside the growing number working to lift the curse of injustice, ignorance, exploitation, hunger and war; 10) But first – have the moral courage to ask some hard questions.


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