On this website called Bored Panda, you can find 40 examples of The most powerful social issue ads that’ll make you stop and think. There is also a quote from Howard Gossage stating that “advertising justifies its existence when used in the public interest—it is much too powerful a tool to use solely for commercial purposes.” I have no doubt that advertising is a powerful tool but is it possible for design, advertising being a form of design, to make you stop and think? And what happens after that?
First of all when an individual is invited to join in the images, text, characters and narrative structure created by a designer, new perspective can arise within this encounter. In this way, social and political oriented design would reach people who don’t know that the issues addressed are an issue in society. People would become aware of a new political or social situation. This awareness can be a powerful dynamic trigger to find words for an as yet untraceable position.
Next, these words could appeal and clarify fundamental social and political alternatives to others, whereby new knowledge emerges. So ideally socially engaged design solicits the viewer to identify with and grasp hold of a critical construction of an alternative ideal that will be shared with others. But is it possible for designed images to render visibility over new alternative ideas independent of existing structures? Or does it just overload us with images of war and violence of which we were already aware?
According to Susan Sontag when it comes to images and in particular photos of violence the problem is a passive form of looking. Although looking at violence from a distance through photography will probably generate a sense of compassion and horror in most people, it lacks the possibility of any kind of intervention. By contrast viewers will become paralyzed by the overwhelming array of images through the various media and are therefore unable to undertake any action. The misery is simply too big, Sontag tells us.
Moreover, most people prefer not to dwell on the idea that the suffering of others may have a direct relationship with our (Western) security and wealth, Sontag continues in her book Regarding the Pain of Others. What is achieved by looking at such images of ‘the other’, is a continuous awareness of inequality in the world, a world where violence and security coexist. The idea that photographic images have the ability to create a connection between (distant) victims and the privileged viewers is a mystification of what we are capable of.
Concluding, for me creating political and social awareness will stay fruitless if talking or criticizing a social situation does not actually intervene in a larger public debate. Social or political activism should become a part of the network of social relations in the public sphere. It is not enough for design to ‘be’, but it ought to create long-term, committed work of thought to come up with alternative ideas for badly functioning social structures. Whether this is possible or not, remains an open question.
By advertising agency: Publicis, Singapore
Karin – Filterdesign