Kony 2012 as a design
12 March 2012 at 6:48pm
I can’t believe I had to visit multiple prominent design blogs in search of even one article about Kony 2012. And I came back empty-handed. We should be talking about this. When a video by an NGO gains 60 million views in a few days, we should be talking about it. When such a video encourages young people to react against Joseph Kony by banding together as an “army” that wears dog-tags, we should definitely be talking about it.
Kony 2012 is a terrific case study in the pitfalls of designing for a social cause. There’s already been plenty of discussion about the need for understanding and nuance that this campaign lacks. For me, the campaign is also a clear example of some problems I’ve had for some time with the way humanitarian design is approached.
In commercial design, you can simply act, and if profits go up, you have succeeded at your job. (And in a truly commercially oriented environment, as with the denim company that dyes a river to make jeans, the only satisfaction a designer really needs is to finish the job and get paid, and then maybe get an award—no need to worry about the complicated after-effects of the work you’ve done!)
In activist or humanitarian areas of design, however, you need to pay attention to the consequences of your work. I was dismayed by this Tumblr post from GOOD, showing a thrown-together poster design with the Kony 2012 logo and the words “Stop at nothing.”
Now first of all, are designers still doing this? Is it really considered useful to hack together a poster design as soon as a designer becomes aware of a social issue? This is not design.(1) This is not a thoughtful response. It is as mindless as saying “what a shame,” but it’s also an hour wasted concepting and photoshopping that could have been spent thinking critically about the proper course of action.
But the real issue is, what message is GOOD trying to send here? It looks like they endorse the campaign. GOOD is a media organization that has a sizeable readership including concerned young people(2). Do they take their responsibilities so lightly as to endorse such a questionable organization and such an ill-conceived campaign? Does no one consider what the words “Stop at nothing” even suggest?
In his interview with GOOD to try to save face for his organization, Invisible Children staffer Jedidiah Jenkins laments:
Our films weren’t made to be scrutinized by the Guardian. They were made to get young people involved in some of the world’s worst crimes.
I have a response to each of these sentences, and each deserves its own paragraph:
Nothing you ever make should be made in hopes that a newspaper won’t write it up, especially if you are an NGO.
It is not a noble thing to post a manipulative video to YouTube filled with misinformation so that high schoolers will send you money.
The campaign and its supporters remind me of Alexandra Lange’s recent remarks on “uncriticism” and the “power of happy.” There is a certain blissful ignorance that seems to surround this campaign and others like it: The designers are trying to do good, so how can you fault them? Good intentions, I’d argue, aren’t an excuse for recklessness.
On that note, I feel many who read what I’ve written thus far will be wondering what constructive input I might offer. So let’s ignore the dubiousness of the whole concept of the campaign for a moment and just brainstorm.
If the simplicity and directness of the Kony video and its call to action is what got this issue into the public consciousness, the takeaway should not be that any campaign hoping to promote a social cause must reduce the issue drastically and give a call to a simple and perhaps ineffectual (if not harmful) action. Rather, this kind of methodology needs to be analyzed and applied to a smarter, more responsible approach.
For instance—and this is utterly off the cuff—what if this little “experiment” had been an experiment in holding public attention online? Remember when people used to watch TV? (Sarcasm.) What if Kony 2012 had been a mini-series intended to engross an audience, with periodic calls to action that involved seeking out in-depth information and multiple perspectives?
Capturing and maintaining audience attention with an unattractive and complicated subject matter is a problem to be solved. Just as a designer needs to know the details of a problem in its real-life context before solving it, the designer also needs to figure out how to transmit the complexity of that information. Mere difficulty is not an excuse for misinformation.
Now I just hope that there’s as much enthusiasm in the future for solving difficult social problems effectively as there has been outside of the design field for critiquing this campaign.
1 In any kind of design, you need to question the wisdom of the previous generation—not dismiss it outright, but look critically at where it came from. I have no idea why designers are still throwing together these meaningless “posters.” I still catch word of “poster competitions” on a regular basis—design competitions in 2012 predicated on paper waste and an archaic format free of context. (Return to place in article.)
2 4.5 million unique website visitors per month; some 230,000 magazine readers; median age 34 (source: GOOD media kit). I could have assumed, but I like to know the facts. (Return to place in article.)