Print Politics

The Politics of Un-Design

Does the border signage controversy risks destabilizing our national brand?

It's not always election campaign season, but that doesn't mean that printing and graphic design ever stop being political. One of the single biggest challenges any creative team faces in today's communications climate is how to produce collateral – in print, online or anywhere else – that's going to make everyone absolutely happy.

Over the last couple of years, it's become abundantly clear that an overly in-your-face print ad, or an ill-conceived package redesign, can cause the kind of upheaval online – on blogs and in forums – that can damage a brand severely. And even when a brand responds to criticism, and changes or apologizes for a controversial campaign, let's face it, you can't make a design decision disappear.

A very big example of this causing a stir in the design community right now is the dismantling of a piece of federal graphic design. A Canada-U.S. border crossing station recently reopened in Massena, and the design includes a huge piece of signage on the Canadian side, reading – you might think predictably – “UNITED STATES.”

Yeah, okay. So?

Well, turns out the design is so big, bright, and bold that the Customs and Border Protection Agency thinks it could be a target for terrorism. Even though the design was approved by that same agency in 2007, upon seeing it all huge and yellow and out there, they got to feeling decidedly paranoid about the whole look of the thing.

And so the sign is coming down in favor of the classically bland and oppressive building frontage that federal architecture is so famous for.

When interviewed about the failed project, designer Michael Beirut was philosophical, and expressed hesitation at second-guessing any effort made to keep us safe, which is hard to argue with.

That being said, this is a challenge and arena for disappointment faced by many creatives, and the issue is rarely that of national safety. More often that not, the fear on the client side of things is that the wrong color, the wrong image, the wrong bit of copy, or the wrong font size will somehow create an irrevocable and costly rift between themselves and their customers.

However, the fact is that decisions are made in the design and implementation process that are hard to backpedal on. Sometimes, a brand can risk loosing more face by appearing indecisive and uncertain about their own image. And the same goes for a country. If we can't represent our name to our friendliest neighbor, then maybe we should all be living underground.


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