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Designing dissent

October 22, 2006|Milton Glaser | MILTON GLASER, a graphic designer, has had one-man shows at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He is the coauthor of "The Design of Dissent," just out in paperback from Rockport Publishers.

DISSENT IS more important now than ever because without it democracy cannot survive. When dissent disappears, the very nature of a democratic society is compromised.

For centuries, people have turned to visual communication as a form of protest. Because this form is so immediate, it can be an extremely powerful means for disseminating messages. Because of the passion behind this type of communication, these messages tend to be expressions of rage or horror.

Unfortunately, anger is not an effective way of convincing others. It tends to communicate only to those people who are already in agreement, and it certifies their beliefs.

If one is interested in changing opinions, other methods must be employed. Provoking a sense of empathy in the viewer that creates a sense of commonality can lead to the idea that we are all in the same boat.

"Child's Play!" is a poster produced in 1998 in reaction to the killing of a Palestinian boy, and it ignites exactly that empathy. The poster addresses the issue of what happens in war, but in a way that separates it from the political issues. It reminds us that regardless of who's right and who's wrong, it is the innocent who suffer.

Even for those who are not generally sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view, the poster's powerful image penetrates one's sense of self-righteousness by illustrating war's horrible consequences.

Humor and parody can also be effective vehicles when linked to consciousness-raising. If, however, the work becomes a vicious satire, it can simply lapse back into rage and lose its strength. Humor has the ability to penetrate minds or engage them because we become interested when things are presented in a funny way. The "Got Oil?" poster is a good example. It relies on knowledge that exists in the viewer's mind: familiarity with the "Got Milk?" campaign.

Here we see the arresting and scary image of President Bush with oil on his lips. The visceral idea of having oil on one's lips is disgusting, yet this is an essential part of the power of the image. More important, however, is that the image suggests clearly and unmistakably the idea that war and peace are directly related to issues of oil.

"iRaq" works in much the same way. Again the artist has transformed the elements in a popular ad campaign to great effect. By altering, yet maintaining, each of the elements in their exact position, one cannot miss the irony. In the original advertisement, the iPod headphone wire represents freedom and euphoria, while in the parody it represents ideas of imprisonment and torture.

The most significant challenge in communication is that people frequently do not want to listen to serious messages -- they feel they have heard enough and seen enough. We are constantly assailed and thus spend most of our time deflecting information. We subconsciously develop methodologies for filtering out that which either causes pain or difficulty.

As a result, it is more and more difficult to catch people's attention -- at a moment when it is increasingly important to do so. We must pay attention and publicly voice our opinions because so much is at stake, and every one of us is responsible for taking an active role in our democratic system.

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