no.31 vol.8 spring 1999

Groincentered egoboosting

“However you get off, get it in by January 15” crooned the call for entries for the annual awards competition of the American Art Directors Club. Further copy suggested “BY YOURSELF…”
To counteract any danger of missing the message that this was about self-gratification, the leaflet depicted a giant appliance with shiny metallic knobs and rubbery tentacles covering its conical head and a snot-like substance protruding from its collar. Branded “Creative Stimulator”, the outrageous shape was unmistakably modelled after a battery-powered dildo. Personally, I would have added the disclaimer “don’t try this at home!”, but at poster size the announcement seemed pretty pleased with itself.

The Art Directors Club’s call for entries was one of several recent shows of groincentered egoboosting in design. The others being the twin calls for entries sleazed at us by the British D&AD. These depicted their award, the Pencil, among other dildos and vibrators in a bathroom cabinet, and stuffed down the front of a man’s underpants. D&AD bluntly stated that the campaign “asserts that D&AD is about stimulation and that winning a Pencil is better than sex”. Why is it that the idea that design is sexy must be interpreted in such bland masturbatory terms – and don’t tell me now that dildos are mainly deployed to stimulate others? I always thought that taking metaphors literally was an offence towards the intelligence of one’s audience, but maybe it is different among colleagues. Having a little after-office hours fun, bragging with the lads over a pint about how we screwed this client and tickled another to multiple orgasm. How great performers we are. How no-one can resist our charms – not to mention our pencil technique…

In Dutch, by the way, an exhibitionist is traditionally called potloodventer, pencil peddler, and the old word immediately sprang to my mind after seeing D&AD’s ad. It evokes an image of a sleazy old bugger opening a grubby raincoat to display his genitals. Pencil peddling is of course quite universally considered to be a most pathetic offence against taste and decency, and the offenders poor wretches who delude themselves into thinking that anyone might be impressed by their scruffy groins. Pencil peddlers embody the low point of masculine narcissism, and, frankly, I’m amazed that D&AD choose to stoop to that level, even by association. And yes, I think these ads are sleazily masculine, however much D&AD tried to make two versions, and regardless of whether the Art Directors Club’s outer-space dildo is intended as gender-neutral or not – or for that matter designed by women. It’s all just too phallic to be trusted!

D&AD’s president Tim Mellor stated in the D&AD journal Ampersand that the campaign served to position the organisation “as really edgy, rather than as a nanny or aged auntie, which it has been viewed as in the past”. It shows that the anything-goes-to-grab-attention mentality – an indication of desperation in the context of a saturated visual culture – has finally reached the old institute. Never mind intelligence, precision and scrutiny in dealing with visual languages and pictorial metaphors – just grab ’em by the balls and they will squirm! Never mind Ye Olde Design Standards, D&AD is young and reckless! The lengths people go to be perceived as hip! And the stubbornness with which they remain completely uncool in the process! The photography being by “Rankin of Dazed and Confused fame”, doesn’t alter the fact that the guy with the pencil in his pants looks straight out of a scene from the dizzy and disoriented dead end of a stag party.

Ultimately, these ads are a sign of the kind of egotripping that has increasingly clouded designers’ brains over the past decade. If this choice of metaphor stimulates anything, it is the misleading conception of design being about strong egos telling the nitwits out there how to communicate, instead of listening to them in order to meet their briefs (and I don’t mean underwear here). The suggestion of getting off on your own work is as blatantly egocentric as it is stale. By the way, apart from masturbation, the physical equivalents of phalluses are in real life mostly used for taking a piss… All in all, using a penis, or its decoy, as the icon for design performance turns out to be more risky than risqué.

Art Directors Club: art direction and design: Stacy Drummond and Tracy Boychuk; illustration: Jordan Nogee; copy: Amanda Brokaw; studio: MTV off-air creative.

D&AD: art direction and design: Adam Keene, Alexandra Taylor (Saatchi & Saatchi), Mark Farrow, Jon Jeffrey (Farrow design) et al; photography: Rankin.

max bruinsma