Designed With The Best Of Intentions

Martin Luther King Jr was a visionary who led with a powerful use of thought, words and education.  Recognized as one of the leading voices in the fight for equal rights in the United States – and perhaps the world – MLK continues to teach nearly 44 years after his death.  The latest opportunity to teach does not really relate to his life’s work, but to the design of his memorial in Washington D.C.  Both the architect and sculptor of the memorial felt that a truncated quote would look better and decided to edit King’s original quote, causing King to seem conceited.  There seems to be no doubt that the architect and sculptor had the best of intentions when making the decision for the memorial that opened in August of 2011, but just days ago, the decision was rightfully made that solid design does not trump the truth.

Image Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post

In the case of the memorial, the designers chose to shorten the fuller (and more humble) actual MLK quote from his speech two months before his assassination where he encouraged his congregation to seek greatness through service and love and not just the need to be in front.  It was an adaptation of the homily “Drum-Major Instincts by J. Wallace Hamilton:
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
In the case of the designers shortening it to “I was the drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” they not only made him seem arrogant, they absolutely went against the basis of his entire speech that they pulled the quote from.  Luckily, the US Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, announced a couple of days ago that he’s given a deadline of 30 days to replace the “quote” with something more fitting.
We’ve seen instances in business where designers care more about the look of something than what it conveys.  How many times have you seen a beautiful billboard, commercial or print ad that looked great but didn’t convey any relevant information?  Often, the confusion comes from a designer’s belief that they are an artist first and a communicator second. That’s where you can tell the difference between a passable designer and a good one.  A good one will know that they are there to help communicate a business, concept or product and will masterfully blend both form and function.  In this time of many outlets and fierce competition for eyeballs, the drive to extend a narrative can cause marketers to lose sight of the actual remit. The final product on that is a beautiful nothing at best and a counter-intuitive or damaging program at worst.
In the case of the MLK memorial, the designers missed the point and messed up because they thought less was more – regardless of context.  In a case like the memorial, it was neither established as a piece of fine art that would allow for flexibility in representation nor an advertisement that could possibly get away with augmenting reality.  It is, above all, a form of communication to people – for centuries to come – what Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for and why it was important to erect a memorial in the first place.
It is sad that those chosen to communicate the essence of one of history’s strongest communicators should fall into such a design trap and miss the mark so eloquently. It was not the intention, but the design provided one of the best forms of teaching.  One that MLK might or might not have been proud of…

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