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Design Anarchy

by Kalle Lasn
Adbusters Media Foundation, Vancouver, British Columbia, 2006
416 pp., 420 illus. Trade, $US65.00
ISBN: 0-9746800-9-5.

Review by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture
Washington State University Vancouver


Adbusters magazine was founded in the late 1980s calling itself "a journal of the mental environment." Since then, each issue has focused on confronting mass consumption and blind devotion to corporate identities. Design Anarchy, a new book by Adbusters founder and publisher Kalle Lasn, is not only a worthy compilation of some the journal's great moments, but a jolt (which Kalle defines as a "technical event" that forces your mind to take notice and search for meaning, even if there is none) for anyone mindlessly following the consumer cycle, dulled to one's sense of self and place in the world.

Like the earlier Culture Jam, also by Lasn, Design Anarchy is personal statement, manifesto, and textbook. "I wanted to be an artist, but I became a graphic designer," says Lasn at the beginning of Chapter 2. As a graphic designer, Lasn admits to pushing bits of information around until they accumulate "a kind of slickness," each branded and marketed for conspicuous consumption. Graphic design, says Lasn, is everywhere, touching everything we see, do, and buy. As a visual manifesto, Design Anarchy reprints many of the urgent reconfigurations of prominent advertising campaigns found in Adbusters as well as other activist texts and images. As a textbook, Design Anarchy is an introduction to culture jamming, of stopping the flow of bits of information long enough to interrupt the spectacle, to promote the jolt, to allow the process of awareness.

Comprised of images and words from thoughtful and thought provoking artists, designers, architects, and other creative thinkers, Design Anarchy is designed to light bonfires under the uncritical acceptance of propaganda from the news, fashion, automotive, beauty, tobacco, or food industries and others. Lasn cuts up, scrawls over, and reconfigures his own work and that of others to make the point that, as Marshall McLuhan pronounced so many years ago, media images and cultural information share nearly equal weight. Yet, says Lasn, one is not necessarily the same as the other, especially when ethos and ethics are lacking, or missing in the efforts of innocuous designers.

Lasn makes his position perfectly clear when he scrawls a quote from the late designer Tibor Kalman across one of the book's unnumbered pages: "Don't work for companies that want you to lie for them" or invites "Insert your commercial here" on multiple others. Both are message and motto for designers and consumers, especially when both, implies Lasn, are responsible for the pollution and redemption of the mental environment.

If, as predicted by McLuhan, World War IV will be fought in newspapers, magazines, on the radio, on television, and the Internet, Design Anarchy is a call to arms. The weapons of choice are memes, units of information, catch phrases, concepts, tunes, notions of fashion, philosophy, or politics that can change minds, alter behavior and transform cultures. In the information age, whoever makes the memes holds the power. Right now, corporations control much of meme production. By sharing examples from Adbusters' repurposing of several corporate advertising campaigns, Design Destiny becomes a tool kit for artists, designers, consumers, and citizens wishing to tilt the balance of power.

Lasn claims that we, members of civil society, can begin by demarketing ourselves, our lives, bodies, and brains. Then we can join with others to demarket chief rituals co-opted by commercial forces. We can change the way we interact with mass media, the way information flows, the way in which meaning is produced. The old American dream was about prosperity in vacant obliviousness. A post-consumer generation will demand greater meaning from its life, and new economies: true-cost or ecological. Once we break the commercial monopoly on making meaning, we can create a new dream, one about spontaneity.

In the end, Design Anarchy is a provocative and incendiary coffee table design book. It is also just as well a first attempt by Lasn to develop and portray a new graphic/text language whose anarchist beauty strikes a formidable political stance. In a design world where, arguably, surface is all that counts, Design Anarchy is a first-draft blueprint for leveling the propaganda arena surrounding the conception of shopping as a patriotic act.



Updated 1st August 2007

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