There is an inane, primal need for people to be seen and heard. It is amazing to see how many people seek to make a more permanent, indelible mark within their environment.

Many satisfy that desire in a socio-economic fashion by striving to garner a higher social status through the acquisition of power and the ensuing privilege that comes with it via the accumulation of material wealth and/or the ability to control people and events. These people become social benchmarks who epitomize the notion that hard work over time produces success. The general populous celebrates this cliché, and we consciously or unconsciously either aspire to be just like them or we gauge ourselves against them. We readily celebrate our local heroes who have achieved what we term in American culture as “success”. Those who reach the upper echelon are idolized on a national and global scale and can become the holiest of all things in our society – a celebrity. Many transcend are transformed into historical figures of mythical proportions for all of time.

Achieving power and privilege can happen in a million ways and on many levels. Someone could own and run a multitude of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, selling fried dough for an endless stream of dough. Others receive seemingly inconsequential percentages of stock trades that quickly accumulate into an unimaginable, obscene amount of unadulterated, hardcore wealth. Regardless of the method or level, it all comes down to ultimately being seen and heard.

Those of us who work in the design industry clamor for pretty much the same things. We all want to fulfill our impulse to create and make something, earn a decent living and, hopefully, be appreciated by colleagues and the people who by the stuff we make. How nice and wholesome this all sounds, right? Well, there are contrary approaches to how one can be “seen and heard” born from a number of different attitudes.

If you don’t have the loud voice you think you should have or lack the ability to control things, there’s a rather quick and sure-fire way to project your beliefs and unleash your philosophical and satirical views to the world around you. Yes, you can become seen and evoke an expected reaction from a vast constituency. It’s called vandalism! Quickly integrate the physical and criminal act of vandalism with a talent for wordsmithing; incorporate principles of design and illustration; and visually support your effort with an appreciative sense of typography, color and composition. And now we have the quasi-artistic, sotto-design competency we call graffiti.

Graffiti Design

It is amazing to observe how much graffiti there is around us. Graffiti is the subculture of commercial billboards and signage within our environment. Ironically, graffiti can be much more content sensitive, highly sympathetic, visually compelling and usually more entertaining than standard-issue, super-sized brand communications placed above the tree line, blocking a pristine view of tree dotted hills. Finding graffiti is like bird watching. If you observe, you will see it. And there is more of it than you think.

Most embolden, well know graffiti artists have no formal training. A designer needs a college degree to enter most work forces. Add an advanced degree to enter the design community of corporations and perhaps another still to teach within institutions of Higher Education. A visual vandal gains Robin Hood status after creating an ownable and recognizable style applied to totally audacious targets. Designers strive to be mainstream and known, while visual vandals strive to remain stealth within a wink-wink secret society. When visual vandals “make it” and become exposed and mainstream, they may gain monetary notoriety (seen and heard), yet they loose the grass-root street cred that was the spiritual core of who they were and what they stood for. For them, obscurity produces success – success means you have failed. How ironic and tragic.

America is arguably the market leader in visual vandalism. People usually associate graffiti with areas of urban blight, social or community discontent and anger, or merely chalk it up to youthful immaturity. Yes, there are possibly more raw canvases in urban settings. Plus, there are more people commuting in and out who will actually see what you’ve created, so it’s only natural to be where your target consumer is more prevalent. Where there are more people, you’ll usually find more of everything. However, there are acts of visual vandalism that extend beyond the metropolises and protrude suburbia and country settings as well. On a recent drive through the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, I was amazed at the numerous intrusions to nature along long stretches of federal, state and local roads. Painted barns emblazoned with patriotic proclamations, candidate preferences and vehement non-preferences, religious statements to comfort and others to warn me of eternal damnation, others in support of a particular social movement, and of course, the timeless announcement that Billy loves Sally.

It is fascinating to see that America is not the only place where visual vandalism occurs. It is prevalent throughout most industrialized nations around the world. Amazingly, even if you can’t read the graffiti, you get a very good understanding of the intent, inflection, and overall meaning through its graphical elements of design: imagery, type, color and composition. It is amazing to look out of a weathered train window pulling into Paddington Station in London, Newark Penn Station in New Jersey or Hung Hom Station in China and see pretty much exactly the same thing adorning the back sides of buildings, retaining walls and bridge structures. At first it’s comforting to be in another country and see something so familiar. Its like going into McDonald’s in a foreign land knowing you’re going to eat a burger that is the same as the one you ate in your local joint in high school.

But wait. How has this amalgamation of culture and expression happened? How are there such drastic similarities? How is it they look the same? Have these outlaw designers all been to the same global visual vandalism conference to fine-tune common techniques and define best practices? How do they create something so personal, so deeply meaningful in such a quick amount of time. They are thousands of miles from each other yet it all looks almost exactly the same? It’s as if it came from the same design studio perpetuating a specific style.

Graffiti Design

How did this happen? Is there mass plagiarism going on? Is there a primitive, cave drawing gene present in all human beings? Are we all artists and designers missing only the skill to use multiple spray cans under the cover of darkness with great speed? Do we all share part of the exact same human condition to be seen and heard?

The question is: do we practice, support and proliferate amateur global visual vandalism? The even more evocative and introspective question is: are we professional proliferators of global visual vandalism beyond graffiti?

In our travels around our globe, the Kaleidoscope team will continue to deliver observational thinking on the simple and not so simple things around us to consider their impact on design and people.

Graffiti Design

Graffiti Design

About The Author

Jim F. WarnerJim F. Warner
Global Managing Design Director, Kaleidoscope Chicago

Leader of 2D & 3D Co-Creative Design, masterfully integrating Iterative Design Thinking, Rapid Ideation, and Iterative Prototyping with downstream technical, manufacturing and operational implementation. With over 25 years of experience, he has touched almost all categories and industries globally. He’s fearless.