City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


(Continued from World Design Congress 2009: Day two. Written at the time, last October.)

Victor Margolin was up next. Writer of numerous books, and he did focus on sustainability, and very directly.

In fact, after an introduction which sets the scene in terms of industrial development leading to climate change (probably not something many needed in the room, but you never know), he stressed the importance of COP15, and stated the need for “greater transparency” about the direct and indirect “causes of climate charge”. He noted that “environmental problems are global not just regional/local” and that there was a broad “public mistrust of companies, and of organisations to act in the interest of citizens.”

The “result” of this, as he sees it, is a “demand for more information on the one hand – and improved products and systems on the other .”

We’re engaged in a “politics of survival”, a “politics of protest.” As such, he sees a “new role for the graphic designer”. That there is a latent “demand for graphics and visual displays to help people understand condition of the world – (to create) explanations of what is happening on the planet as a result of human activity …”


Margolin sees this “politics of survival” on three levels:

  1. Individual behaviour. Margolin points to the likes of and energy consumption labels on appliances as examples of how feedback to individuals can enable behavioural change. He also notes that the environmental qualities of buildings could be communicated better in this way. Here he is describing how the activity of small groups can be manifest through consumption. (On the one hand, this seems a positive reconceiving of consumption as a potential carrier of strategic information, a feedback loop emanating from individuals, and this is something I fully agree with. On the other, I’d like to hear more about individual agency manifest in something other than consumption.)
  2. Individuals acting together. Margolin sees this occurring largely through “institutions”, such as “local, regional and federal government, businesses, activist groups” and so on. This is manifest in “boycotts, protest marches, demonstrations, social networks etc.” Margolin refers here to the great work of Ezio Manzini – and his Sustainable Everyday programme – as well as emergence of the LEED classification of buildings (and as positive an act this is, there are huge issues with it too.)
  3. Global. Here Margolin is talking about “discussions and negotiatons through individual governments, treaties, charters and other agreements” such as the Kyoto protocol in 1997, and (then) forthcoming COP15 conference on climate change.

Margolin then switches tack to describe the history of “the environmental movement”, and particularly the graphic design strategies associated with it.

He points out that it was “not always the case that it was globally recognised”, and the movement only really consisted of a ”small number of people at 1970s.”



Margolin organises his examples across seven categories (and eight including the website containing the above), and they include:

  • The Doomsday Clock, first used on the cover of Bulletin Of Atomic Scientists (designed by Martyl Langsdorf), where the clock was initially set at 7 minutes to midnight. This was redesigned by Pentagram (Michael Beirut), and has shifted to five minutes to midnight (at time of speaking.)
  • Peace symbol by Gerald Holtom.
  • Rachel Carson's Silent Spring
  • Earth Day rally, and its Robert Rauschenberg poster (Margolin notes this was “complex and provocative, which was unusual then and now.”)
  • The Ecology flag, where the ecology symbol replaces stars, letters are joined E and O such that it resembles theta.



Earthdayrally Earth Day, he notes, never became a political movement. Whereas the start of political parties in Germany, Australia (Tasmana) and Switzerland, started around 1972, such that the Stockholm UN conference in 1972 was preceded by report 'Only One Earth' by Barbara Ward and René Dubos. It contained the sentence: "We cannot rate highly the chance of reaching year 2000 with planet functioning". Margolin notes that, indeed, we didn't make it. Perhaps aware that it’s somewhat depressing to hear that this movement has been around for 40 years or so without cutting through, Margolin suggests that it has not well-served by its associated communications activities.

Jan Van Toorn had earlier noted the “problems of explaining graphics that express true communication”. Margolin here suggests that “we are still working with clches” and that “we need new designs there”. The existing set is replete with “cliches of green, leafy tree, earth seen from above etc.” He notes that Zhu Dake, the "previous speaker spoke about problems of red – I'm going to speak about the problems of green."

He describes how the recycling symbol arises from Gary Dean Anderson who, in 1970, won the first prize in student competition sponsored by a paper board manufacturer.

Margolin now switches to what the “potential of data display”, noting the lengthy history starts around 1786, when William Playfair introduced bar charts, and other visual graphs to the world. Margolin then gets really interesting by fast-forwarding to Buckminster Fuller, and his presentation for 'geoscope', an installation that would "provide man with a total information integrating medium”.


This proposal from 1962 – an influence on our London CLOUD project, incidentally –  was for a 200 foot spherical globe that would be manufactured and mounted around 200 feet above the East River in New York. Lit by millions of small light bulbs, it would effectively work as a giant data display, indicating population trends, geological shifts, weather, and the like. Or in Fuller’s words:

“All relevant inventories of world data arranged chronologically.”

Margolin relates Fuller’s notion that, “if the world could perceive it, utopia was possible”, and that this was the way to "educate all humanity as rapidly as possible". He also notes other Fuller projects such at the “World Game” and another game called “How to make the world work”.

For a contemporary extrapolation of these trends, Margolin notes the data displays at Bloomberg by Lisa Strausfield of Pentagram, as well as unrealised displays for Grand Central.


(Although Margolin entirely understands the potential, he appears a little unaware of the burgeoning set of examples of informatics projects emerging over the last couple of years. I introduce myself afterwards and tell him know about the CLOUD—and its debt to Geoscope—but unfortunately he’s not around to see it discussed in my talk later.)

He talks persuasively about the “need for public data displays”, though also wonders (correctly) “who will fund it”.

Overall, an interesting talk, putting contemporary design work into historical perspective, and ultimately finishing in areas of direct interest to me. And bonus points for deploying Bucky’s ‘Geoscope’.

World Design Congress 2009, Beijing: Day one
World Design Congress 2009, Beijing, Opening ceremony
World Design Congress 2009, Beijing: Day two
World Design Congress 2009, Beijing: Day three

All Beijing photos [Flickr]

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