The Moral Imperative to Design Things True

Peter Mendelsund is the Associate Art Director of Alfred A. Knopf Books, Art Director of Pantheon Books, and the designer of some of the my favorite book covers of the last few years like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire

Anyone who puts out that variety of excellent, thoughtful work likely has an excellent, thoughtful process and approach to that work. To wit:

My job as book designer and art director is predicated on the idea that I will help sell a book, and to the extent that I do that, successfully position a book in the marketplace by making the appropriate jacket for it, I am fulfilling my responsibilities to the publisher.

But he goes further than the business goals of the project:

In terms of my responsibility to the author and the book…representing the text is not (at least not patently) something I’m paid to do, but I see this act as a moral imperative. Characterizing, explicating, interpreting a text visually is the most interesting and gratifying aspect of what I do. When I fail at this task of signifying what a book is (or I am urged or directed in some way to betray what I see as a book’s essential nature) there’s a palpable sense of loss and guilt.

It feels important to me that a book’s cover should not be dissonant with, or oblivious to, the text within. A book cover should be a book’s true face; which is to say, optimally, a jacket or cover will be a kind of visual translation of the book in question. So—to the extent that I successfully describe or epitomize a book—its plot, its themes, its affect…I am fulfilling my responsibilities to the book and to its author.

Ibid., emphasis mine

A moral imperative. Palpable loss. Guilt. Questions of dissonance and appropriateness.

This is an articulation of something I’ve felt for as long as I’ve been a professional designer (going on 11 years now). I have a responsibility to represent—graphically, textually, gesturally, experientially—the core concepts and message of the content, the product or service. Without that sense of responsibility, I don’t know how to best serve the content or the client because I simply don’t care enough to take some measure of ownership or stewardship. A lack of care of my part ensures I’m not delivering the best results and solutions to my clients.

Naturally, this means I’ll fight (metaphorically, occasionally literally) for what I see as best, given the constraints and culture I’m operating in. Why? Because it’s a moral imperative. Because it’s a “Mission from God” as Elwood Blues would say. Because good content deserves good packaging and appropriate, honoring, harmonious design. Because if I don’t, we all lose something, something great or useful that might have been if we had only cared more, fought harder, or simply kept our eyes on [the thing].

It’s all about [the thing], whatever the thing is in your context. The typical U.S. oath of office comes to mind…

[I do solemnly swear/affirm] that I will support and defend [the thing] against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…So help me God.

Supporting and defending [the thing]. Bearing true faith and allegiance to [the thing]. That’s what I do. That’s what all designers should do. No matter what. Cut through the cruft and personal preferences and the possibilities and the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” to defend the core of [the thing] against all enemies, foreign and domestic*. If we’re not doing that, we’re admitting a kind of defeat. We’re valuing something else with our actions, at the expense of what we say we care about.

Image credit: Bill Watterson

The strangest part of the design process is how little your enemies look like enemies. Most of the time our nemesis is apathy. Indifference. Laziness. The easy mantra of “So What?!”

“Should this widget do this action?” “It doesn’t matter.” “What kind of language should we use here?” “Just comp something in.” “It seems weird to use this font here…” “It’ll be easier if we do. Go with it.” Every one of those exchanges, killing [the thing] bit by bit. Who need competitors when we do such an amazing job of sniping ourselves? 

“But this isn’t us!” “So What?!”

When the core of [the thing] is sacrificed, even in small ways, I feel a loss—a grieving over what could and should be, a fully perceived sense that we are wandering away from what we should hold holy and sacrosanct. 

As Saul Williams says of modern Hip Hop in Telegraph:

Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones
For they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency

When we lose our way, wandering too far from the source, what we make becomes less potent, less important, and less likely to stand out in an increasingly noisy world. In short, our work is less likely to work.

If design isn’t a moral imperative, we sacrifice [the thing] for convenience, fashion, trends, opportunities, or just something shiny and new. We abandon the truth of it. It becomes something else, losing its soul in the process.

Design is the forever fight against entropy, apathy, and confusion. These are the enemies that cumulatively make it difficult for our work to communicate, or to accomplish goals. But when I care, when I craft, and when I fight, I can go to war against dissonance and, hopefully at least, design things good and true. 

And at least if I fail doing that, I can sleep guilt-free at night.

*I assure you, domestic enemies will kill [the thing] long before foreign ones will. Most branding campaigns, product designs, experiences, etc. are destroyed from within, one off-mission decision at a time, through laziness, apathy, or indifference.