The Bureaucratic Duty to Inform
It’s six o’clock in the afternoon. Inside the bus there are around 80 people, many of them standing. Apart from the city raining outside, the only unusual thing to be found inside the bus is a poster, sitting too small inside the frame. Carris(1) puts up these occasional posters to inform us, among other things, about the February 11th referendum(2). We all know about the referendum, we all watched the impassioned debates and the book launches on TV, we all read the blogs, the billboards, the pamphlets given to us with “Agora Sim!” [Now Yes!] and “Não Obrigada” [No Thank You](3). Nothing surprises us anymore: we’re all used to the “media circus” that characterizes any electoral act in Portugal. Nevertheless, this poster only tells us that “to vote is a right and a civic duty”. No one doubts that. But will this poster, with its hypothetical rising sun and blue sky, convince us to express our opinion, to answer “yes” or ”no” to the question we will find on the voting ballots(4)?
The Portuguese State, represented in the referendum by the Secretariado Técnico dos Assuntos para o Processo Eleitoral [Technical Secretariat of Electoral Process Affairs] (STAPE) of the Ministério da Administração Interna [Interior Ministry], calls for our vote through, among other media, a “referendum announcer poster” (official term), which is found posted in public buildings and vehicles throughout the country. However shouldn’t a “referendum announcer poster” have as its fundamental goal not only to inform, but to captivate and mobilize public opinion – we, the citizens standing during rush hour, who have other things to think about – to the electoral act it refers to? Shouldn’t the duties and the rights this poster invokes be present in a more incisive way in the very message and the discourse it conveys?
This discourse, built on a poster from orthographical (words/typography) and iconographical elements (images/graphical signs), should call to attention of passengers and other citizens, making them think about both their convictions and their future choices. Unfortunately, the poster in question does not correspond at all to the proposed objectives: its formal organization is insipid, its typographical use and composition are tenuous and ill-resolved in terms of spacing and alignment, its chromatic gradients and subtle morph – the progressive graphical transformation of one shape into another – are inappropriate and inconsequential. This poster, designed by STAPE’s resident “graphic arts technician” (the author of other posters used in recent electoral acts, visible at stape.pt) is, at best, a lost opportunity.
In Portugal there are thousands of professionals – communication designers – that through their power of observation, knowledge, creativity and talent convey messages and discourses of all kinds, using an array of media. These are the people who shape the majority of our visual landscape – inside and outside the rainy bus – and as such their work deserves to be recognized by all Portuguese. But more than recognizing it, we should all be even more demanding with what surrounds us, with what is communicated to us every day. An example of this exigency is the “Get Out the Vote” initiative from AIGA (the American communication designers’ professional association), which began after the Florida voting ballot scandal of the 2000 presidential election. Under the motto of “Good design makes choices clear”, many of it associates designed posters with one sole objective: to call on people to register and to turn out to vote. In one of them, from a studio in Maryland, we can see, and read, three words and an exclamation mark, one single typeface, and four colours. Nothing else. The composition is as clear as its message, and the urgency as present as necessary. That the Maryland poster (all posters are available for download on aiga.org) is graphically superior to the STAPE poster I have not the slightest doubt. But perhaps the most important thing about this poster is that it is proposed, both in form and content, by the very members of society – designers conscientious of their civic rights and duties – supposedly responsible for the State’s communication, with which they are evidently unsatisfied. Just as we should be, when we glance at the poor poster inside the bus that takes us home. If image and communication are a means for legitimizing the State, then the quality of the former should rise to the aspirations of the latter, and should not be understood as a mere bureaucratic procedure. Furthermore, the State, and all its institutions, should play an active role and contribute in a significant and enduring manner to the elevation of the visual culture of its citizens: they should be the first to have that exigency, and look for the right professionals to meet it.
To the American designer and theoretician Katherine McCoy, “design can never rise above its content.” In the case of this referendum’s “announcer poster”, the situation is perversely inverse: Democracy’s greatest act – the act of voting – failed once again in finding a deserving interlocutor, one that should have been elected by the very State it validates. Should that have happened, perhaps we would have left the bus with the feeling we had seen something meaningful.
(1) Lisbon’s publicly-owned bus company
(2) The second referendum on abortion conducted in Portugal, after a first No in 1998. The end result of the 2007 was Yes, making abortion legal in the country, under determined circumstances, and performable in state and private health facilities.
(3) The two most visible campaigns
(4) This text was printed exactly one week before the abortion referendum, as part of Público’s daily referendum section, under which it can still be read in the online version of the newspaper.
Originally published in Portuguese, in Público, February 4th 2007. Translated into English to be part of my application to the Design Criticism MFA as one of the mandatory writing samples (short essay)