Skip to Content

Designing Complaints

Shawn Clybor

Steve Heller. Photo by Nir Arieli.

The dumbing down of language. People who stop at the top of escalators. Congress. Global warming. Suspiciously happy individuals. War. Certainty. Smokers. Work. These are a few of the many topics griped about in the 70 or so posters by contemporary artists and designers in the exhibition Complaints! An Inalienable Right, curated by noted design critic and ridiculously prolific author Steven Heller (160 books and counting). Heller teaches at the School of Visual Arts, so we took this occasion to quiz him on the poster show, hoping to be taught something about complaints and their purpose. The exhibition, which opens March 20 (it is also currently online as a daily poster), is part of larger project, the Power of Design ideas festival March 20–23, organized by The Wolfsonian–Florida International University. This is the festival’s inaugural year. The theme? You guessed it—complaints.

SHAWN CLYBOR: As a leading authority on graphic design, what connections do you see between complaints and design?

STEVEN HELLER: Designers are supposed to (but don’t always) improve their worlds. Complaining is a road into that process. The complaint triggers the design. In the case of posters, we are asking the designers to translate their complaints into word and picture, type and graphics. But the trick is to not make it a whine. We need to learn something from the complaint, not just ingest it and let it sit like a heavy piece of flanken.

CLYBOR: Tell us about Complaints! An Inalienable Right.

HELLER: The designers took the task seriously and created a wide range of, let’s call them “signposts.” We hope they will provoke thought, maybe even action.

CLYBOR: Have you previously dealt with graphic representations of complaints or complaining?

HELLER: I haven’t. I think many people (and some of our designers) don’t distinguish between dissent and complaints. That’s why the poster show is fascinating: You see how different people interpret the word through their graphic responses. Some are expected, many are surprising. Some are quite personal, others are universal complaints. Some are more philosophical than others.

CLYBOR: So what is the difference between dissent and complaints?

HELLER: There is a nuanced distinction. Protest is based on complaint, but the word protest sounds more high-minded. Complaint sounds petty. A complaint can be petty or profound, it all depends on how it is communicated.

CLYBOR: I am struck by the title of the exhibition, by your use of the word “inalienable.” Do you think we feel entitled to complain? Or do we actually have a right to complain?

HELLER: Good distinction. I could say both, but then you might complain I’m taking the easy way out. In the U.S. we are guaranteed free speech, right of assembly and dissent. But I think we are entitled to complain if we do more than just utter the words or make the face. Complaints are hollow if there is nothing that offers a solution.

CLYBOR: Now that you have seen all the posters, what is your verdict?

HELLER: Unlike more traditional protest posters, these mostly take one subject and illustrate a particular problem that needs solving. I love the critical mass. If you soak all of them in, you’ll think of that issue or thing that bugs you most. If you contemplate what you’ve soaked in, you may arrive at solutions.

CLYBOR: Do you consider yourself a complainer?

HELLER: No. I actually hate complainers. Who wants to know?