“There’s no such thing as a cautious creative,” said George Lois, the legendary ad man and Esquire art director. He was looking down from the stage of Fast Company’s 2014 Innovation By Design Conference at a new generation of designers and entrepreneurs no doubt eager to follow in his footsteps.
But the Bronx native, whose bold 1975 advertisement in the New York Times helped spark the campaign to free boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, was just warming up: “One of my clients got very upset about the fact that we were doing it,” he said of the ad and his related efforts, alongside Muhammad Ali and others, to overturn Carter’s wrongful murder conviction. He got a call from the client: Quit fighting for Carter or you’re fired. “I told him to go fuck himself and lost a $6 million account. That’s dangerous,” Lois says.
Now 83, Lois still embodies the brash panache that gave us designs like his 1965 Esquire cover of a bobbed blonde, in full cat eye, shaving like a man. “I’ve done truth to power all my life. It’s got me into trouble, but who cares?”
His fellow panelists–Yves Béhar, designer of the Jambox; David Rockwell, the globe-trotting architect-designer; and Paula Scher, partner at Pentagram–nodded in understanding, if not in agreement. For the final panel at the 2014 Innovation By Design Conference, moderator Gary Hustwit asked each designer to choose examples of dangerous design, and none arrived at quite the same conclusions.
“We’ve come into a cycle now where danger and risk are seen as an opportunity,” said Béhar, pointing out that the language surrounding disruption has changed connotations of “danger.” He pointed to a Herman Miller open office he designed as his example. “This is a dangerous idea that changes how people see hierarchy and transparency,” he said.
Rockwell took a different approach, pointing to Disney’s crowd-pleaser happy endings. “Design was once for the culturally elite, bubbling down to the masses,” he said. “I think Disney is an example of working the other way around.”
Scher was the most literal in her reading of “dangerous,” citing examples including pill bottles, New Jersey’s highway dividers, and the Palm Beach ballots that made “chads” a national design scandal. “When you’re talking about ‘dangerous’ as a positive thing you’re talking about ‘risk,’” she said. “There’s really dangerous design out there. It’s usually design done by committees. They’re trying to solve problems in ways that don’t take into account how human behavior functions.”
In those varied examples, common themes were scarce. But the four panelists did arrive at a consensus on one issue: clients, and specifically selling clients on a vision they might perceive as dangerous: “The enemy is looking for predictability. That’s not what design is about,” Rockwell said.
Lois was even more direct: “The search is for great clients–every now and then you run into somebody who gets it,” he says. And when you don’t? “Lie, cheat, and steal.”
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