Waiting for Permission

Essays by Michael Bierut
1 891 words10 min read

It almost seems like a dream now. Big budgets. Fat, happy suggestible clients cruising happily along, with fat, happy design firms feeding greedily in their wake. Lavish corporate identity manuals. Hardcover brochures promoting office space in shiny buildings by brand name architects. Annual reports for non-profit clients with a little picture on the cover, a flyleaf with nothing printed on it, then another page, new paper stock, with just one or two words in 8 point type, then another page, another paper stock-with nothing on it- then a piece of coated paper with another little picture on it, and then-maybe-the darned thing would finally start, after the atmosphere had been properly created...

The eighties seem far away now, so far away, so much farther than the calendar tells us. To young designers entering the field in the lean and mean nineties, the previous decade will surely seem like an impossibly golden age, one of almost unimaginable excess and bravura. Even to those of us who lived through it, it takes the incontrovertible evidence of a flashy portfolio piece-circa, say, 1986-to remind us how much things have changed.

And they have changed. This decade sees a new awareness of environmental issues, much of it lip service abounding with soy-based images of squirrels and pine cones, but for the most part deeply felt. It doesn’t necessarily mean that graphic designers have ceased to trade in excess for its own sake, but the examples of that excess are just as likely to provoke embarrassment as envy.

This decade also sees among designers a new social consciousness as well, one provoked by equal parts Clarence Thomas and Daryl Gates. The voice this consciousness takes is sometimes cracked and halting (perhaps due to years of disuse) but genuine nonetheless.

Ten years ago, it seemed as though a typical pro bono piece was a lavish six-colour production of a clever visual pun: today it’s just as likely to be something down-and-dirty that as least looks as though it was designed to truly help the client’s cause rather than add awards to the designer’s trophy cases.

All in all, designers in the nineties seem to want more than ever to create work that’s appropriate, that’s relevant, that challenges the client’s brief, that’s aimed at more than the next design competition. In short, the spirit is willing.

But the flesh, for the most part, remains weak. While these issues dominate designer’s consciences, they still remain peripheral to most of our practices. Designers continue to work dutifully (probably, in fact, more urgently than ever these days), wishing that they could do what they think is right, rather than what they’re told to do, all in the name of “professionalism”. The fundamental idea of truly challenging the client’s expectations, of getting outside the grinding process of filling the orders and shipping the goods, of “being bad”, (as Tibor Kalman exhorted us at the 1989 American Institute if Graphic Arts Conference in San Antonio) still seems an elusive goal for most designers.

Is it hard to see why? As Milton Glaser said at that same conference, “Friends are friends, but a guy’s gotta eat.” Most of us would say that our ideals, whether new found or long held, give away at the end of the day to the pressures of running our businesses, that the sanest course of action is to push environmental activism or social consciousness as far as you can and then back off to fight another day, that a client’s a client and an invoice is an invoice. In the end it’s all about money, isn’t it?

Well, maybe not. Maybe it’s about something else, something that hasn’t changed, something to do not with money but with very structure of the relationship between designers and their clients.


Most relationships in daily life are defined at least in part, by hierarchy. Someone is in charge, and someone is following orders. Often these relationship are immutable: parent and child, student and teacher, employee and employer. Occasionally the roles are more interchangeable, as in the case of marriages or partnerships.

If you believe what you read in most designer’s promotional literature, that’s what the designer-client relationship is meant to be: a partnership. Sometimes even clients themselves (at least new clients) enthuse about this idea as well. But privately, most designers would concede that most of their client relationships are anything but partnerships, a fact that’s seen as both frustrating and basically unchangeable.

In the early sixties, a psychologist at Yale University named Stanley Milgram did a series of notorious experiments that explored the dynamics of hierarchical relationships, ones where someone was in charge and someone else was following orders. He wanted to find out how far someone would follow the orders of another person if he perceived that person’s authority as legitimate.

The experiments had many variations, but they all basically went like this. Milgram asked people to volunteer for an experiment they were told was about the relationship of learning and punishment. The volunteers, who came from all walks of life, were each paid $4.50 and were shown the same set-up when they arrived in Milgram’s lab.

They were introduced to another person they were told was a fellow volunteer. The second person was to serve as the “learner” and the subject was to act as “teacher.” The teacher would be directed by the experimenter to read a series of word pairs to the learner, and then test the learner on his memory. For each answer the learner got wrong, the teacher was to administer to him an electric shock. This was done with a control panel with thirty switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts, labelled in increments “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “strong shock,” and on up to “extreme intensity shock,” “danger: severe shock,” and finally the cryptic and presumably frightening label “XXX.” For each wrong answer, the volunteer teacher was to increase the shock level by one notch.

Of course, the whole set-up was an illusion. The shock panel was a convincing-looking but harmless prop; the fellow volunteer, the “learner,” was an employee of Milgram’s who was particularly good at screaming in agony when receiving the imaginary shocks. The purpose of the exercise was not to study learning, but to study obedience: Milgram wanted to find out how far people would go up the scale, how much pain they would inflict on a fellow human being, just because someone else told them to.

Before he began, Milgram asked his students and fellow psychologists to predict how many people would administer the highest shock. The answers were always the same: at the most, one or two out the hundred. Milgram himself, then, was surprised when almost two-thirds, 64% of the subjects, did what they were told and went all the way to the top of the scale.

Milgram did a lot of variations in the experiment to try to drive the number down. He moved the setting from Yale to tawdry-looking storefront; he had the learner complain of a possibly fatal heart conditions; he fixed it so the subject actually had to hold the learner’s hand down on a “shock plate.” None of it made much difference. No matter what, about half of the volunteers administered all the shocks to the helpless learner.

These experiments are fairly well known to the general public, and the most common moral drawn from them is something like, “People are capable of anything if they’re given an excuse to do it.” However, this is a misinterpretation: most of the subjects, even the fully obedient ones, were anything but cheerful as they followed the experimenter’s commands. In fact, it was common for subjects to protest, weep, or beg to break off the experiment. Still, the obedient majority, prodded calmly by the experimenter, would pull themselves together, do what had to be done, and administer the shocks.


Of course, designers are regularly paid a lot more than $4.50 to do things a lot less overtly heinous than administering a 450 volt-volt shock to a fellow human being. Occasionally they help promote a cause or product they truly don’t believe in or design something to intentionally deceive the public. But these dilemmas are fairly rare.

Most commonly, what most of us have done at one time or another is make something a little stupider or a little uglier than we really thought it ought to be. We’ve had good reasons: we need the money, we need the experience, we don’t want to jeopardise the relationship, we know it’s wrong, we have no choice. This would sound familiar to Dr. Milgram. “Some subjects were totally convinced of the wrongness of what they were doing” he observed, “but could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority. Some derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that -within themselves, at least- they had been on the side of the angels. What they had failed to realise is that subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to the moral issue at hand so long as they were not transformed into action.” We too somehow remain on the side on the angels.

So is it all about money? Probably not. The subjects in Milgram’s experiments often wanted desperately to quit, but they couldn’t just get up and walk away. What kept them at the shock panel wasn’t the $4.50 they were being paid but their idea that the experimenter, and not they, and certainly not the helpless subject at receiving end of the wire, was in charge. Designers, even in a climate that finds us more and more driven to question the social and ethical underpinnings of our work, cede the same authority to our clients.

Most of us enter the field of design filled with individual passions and unrealised visions, and learn quickly that the other people know better: first teachers, then bosses, finally even the judges of design competitions and editors of design annuals. We put aside our doubts—none of us want to be prima donnas anyway—and become comfortable professionals in just another service industry. And when we’re roused to out feet by a call to action, second thoughts set in. “That’s easy for him (Tibor, Milton, fill in the blank) to say, but my clients won’t let me do that.” But of course that’s not true. In fact, we don’t know what would happen of we tried: we take too much pride in the quality of our “service” to find out. So business as usual remains business as usual.

Who’s in charge here, anyway?

The designer-client relationship can and should be a partnership. It’s time to stop blaming the client when it’s not. Our work can and should serve society: it should serve an audience beyond ourselves, beyond our clients, and beyond the next design annual. Otherwise, the member of that audience, the users of the products and messages that we produce, will remain wired to their seats, awaiting the next shock.

And we designers, wanting to do what’s right but afraid to make trouble, will keep sitting, maybe just a little more nervously, our fingers on our control panels, waiting for permission.