Placebo: a Metaphor for Graphic Design

Yale GDMFA Visual Methodology Presentation

In 2010, the first-year graphic design MFA candidates at Yale were asked to present our thesis proposal as a slide show of other people’s work. “An eight minute presentation of our visual method through the vehicle of the works of others throughout the expanded field of graphic design.” This is a transcription of my proposal—with some minor edits and a few added images. Special thanks to Paul Elliman for helping me with it. My thinking has evolved a lot in the intervening years—I’d like to think it has matured. Nevertheless, I made some observations back then that seem relevant now. I want them on the record.

Lullaby Spring (2002) — Damien Hirst

The Placebo

The situation that we’re probably most familiar with involving placebos is the clinical trial: some subjects are given what is believed to be effective medicine, and others are given a neutral pill — usually just a sugar pill. Patients take the pills and report back on their effectiveness so that the two treatments can be measured against one another. That way, the scientist can be clear about which result is caused by the medicine and which is caused by the act of taking a pill.

The thing is, sometimes in a case where the medicine is actually working — where it is actively healing the body — the placebo is as effective or even more effective than the real medicine. Even when the medicine is causing measurable changes, like blocking pain receptors, a placebo can match and sometimes exceed those results. When this does happen, it’s been shown that the more effective the placebo looks, the better it works. Pills with bright colors and dazzling qualities like translucency or liquid centers actually work better. They effectively heal the body with form.

H20®, PD 237 and VIS KEN 5 (2014) — Damien Hirst

Now, I just want to interject an important point about placebos and the placebo effect before I delve into my thesis proposal, because placebos get a bad rap for being fake or lacking substance…and it’s true. Placebos do lack substance. They are design objects. They do not function apart from their design. But they do work. They do cure the body. That is why they are so vital to clinical trials. The power of placebos — they way they look, the way they feel, the ceremony around them — it is mesmerizing! And that spectacle can actually cause a measurable, repeatable physical result. The placebo effect doesn’t always work, but when it does, it is not fake-healing you. It is actually healing you.

Of course, I’m a believer in medicine. I am not out to start some alternative therapy to heal with graphic design. But I love the story of the placebo because it illustrates the power of form and the power of suggestion.

Puppy (1992) — Jeff Koons

The word placebo comes from the Latin placere “I shall please” and it a lot of ways it wants to be what you want it to be. Shiny, sexy, gooey and delicious…a lot of the work I love, the work I aspire to make, gives pleasure in a very basic way. It zones in on our basic magpie attraction to color, gloss, sex and cuteness. Take, for instance Jeff Koon’s Puppy: each time I went to visit it when it was in Rockefeller center there were folks there just making out. I mean, it’s so obvious… puppies and flowers! It was like a huge monument to pleasure, so it’s not surprising that it provoked so much spontaneous PDA.

Blow Job (2008) — Marilyn Minter

Or take for instance Marilyn Minter’s painting of Cynthia Dicker blowing bubblegum. It is so luscious and palpable, it is the picture of pleasure. Obviously, so much of the beauty in her work comes from the way she describes her subjects — not all photos of bubblegum look this orgasmic — but her choice of materials is important. Water, glitter, candy, make-up, bubbles, Pamela Anderson…all of these subjects are eye catching…and her way of describing them exaggerates those qualities.

These works are hyper. They are fantasy. Like a placebo, they are constructed…fake. No hard reality here, no bitter medicine...just flowers, puppies, bubblegum and sex. They are what I love to look at and what I want to make…this turns me on.

Prancing J-Settes (Jackson State University)

…and this kind of excitement is contagious. Cheerleaders have always intrigued me because the goal point of their performance is to infect you with enthusiasm. Even if their team is losing, even if they’re having a bad day, they dress up in spangles and do their thing. It’s the power of positive thinking — the familiar trope of pop self-help…fake it till you make it.

These are my favorite cheerleaders, the J-Settes from Jackson State University, who I learned about on YouTube. Their dance moves inspired the choreography in Beyonce’s Single Ladies video last year. Here is a link to a 20 sec clip of the JSU Marching Band and the J-Settes performing in 2005.


The power of the placebo and the power of suggestion is scary to contemplate…

The Persuaders (2003) — Charlie White

If we are so defenseless, so responsive to anyone who pushes our pleasure buttons, it makes us vulnerable. Cheer can be a delusion. In this super creepy work, The Persuaders by Charlie White, whatever is going on is too serious to be addressed by puppets. The puppets seem ill equipped to handle the situation. Their intentions seem disingenuous, even malicious. What are they trying to convince this poor woman to do?

Brazil (1985) — Terry Gilliam

This scene Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil that poses the idea that we so placated by the placebo of advertising that we don’t seek a cure because we don’t even notice the symptoms of our disease. Who cares about fixing the barren landscape if you cannot even see it beyond the lush vistas on the billboards? It’s an idea straight out of John Stuart Mill: would you rather be a happy pig or an unhappy socrates?

Is ignorance bliss? Maybe we should all sign up for lobotomies?

Brazil (1985) — Terry Gilliam

The visual style of Brazil is a pastiche of different 20th Century looks with heavy emphasis on mid-century styles...

The Hidden Persuaders (1957) by Vance Packard

…playing on the cold-war era fear of mind control and a big brother government who — like a placebo — is using our psychology to manipulate us. These ideas were very big for the boomer generation. My mother was ten when Vance Packard’s book, The Hidden Persuaders, came out. It was the first of many books to explore how advertisers and politicians were attempting to manipulate the psychology of the masses with psychological techniques like subliminal messaging. Just a year after this was published we get this…

Chevrolet Commercial (1958) — Dinah Shore & Pat Boone

And a year after that comes The Manchurian Candidate.

Subliminal Seduction (1973) by Wilson Bryan Key

So by the time GenX comes on the scene, these ideas are totally part of the zeitgeist. I’m on the cusp of GenX & Millennial, so I was in high school in the mid-90s. It was a very politically correct time, and there was a general feeling that ideas were dangerous and should be censored. We were taught how to decode the subliminal messaging in advertising as part of the curriculum. Most of the information came out of the book Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Bryan Kay who claimed that Madison Avenue art directors were painting images into ice cubes to sell liquor. The most famous anecdote was that a Gilbey Gin ad had the letters S-E-X spelled out in the ice. Even though his book came out in the seventies the legend was still strong enough in 1994 for Absolut to make this ad:

Absolut Vodka Ad (1994)

So a lot of the messaging directed at me as a teenager played with the idea that advertisers were these anonymous big brother characters who were playing with our minds and should be treated with suspicion. OK Soda was, in my opinion, the most compelling of these:

OK Soda Commercial (1993) — Wieden+Kennedy

So…there are so many placebo themes in this ad…I just want to unpack them really quickly…

  • We get the retro 50s cold war detective/spy theme
  • An anonymous corporation who is deaf to complaints about OK and is only willing to hear flattery about OK.
  • A bland new-agey dispensation than “Everything is going to be okay.”

This was followed up by a radio spot with recordings of the messages that callers left. I tried to get one from Wieden+Kennedy, but unfortunately they only had it on tape and couldn’t digitize it in time for this talk…so I’m just going to read it…

“Ah, this is Pam from Newton, Massachusetts, and I resent you saying that everything is going to be O.K. You don’t know anything about my life. You don’t know what I’ve been through in the last month. I really resent it. I’m tired of you people trying to tell me things that you don’t have any idea about. I resent it. ((Click!))”

It was unclear to the listener if these were real calls or staged . OK Soda made it seem very possible that if you left a message you would get on the radio, so my friends and I spent quite a lot of time calling this number.

The “big brother” idea was also huge in rave culture where you were never really sure who was throwing the party. Answering machine messages played a big role because party promoters would have secret numbers that you would call weekly to find out locations and secret passwords for the parties. Like the placebo, the mysterious power of the messages made them work. These parties seemed exciting and exclusive even though most of them were just in MIT dorms.

Harmonic Convergence (1995) — Silent Graphics

These ideas continue to intrigue me especially since, as technology progresses it is becoming more and more operative. So much of what is entertaining about he internet is the strange messages we get through internet memes and spam. So often we can’t tell whether a message is sincere or ironic — if it is a surreptitious recording or a performance.

On a side note…Harmonic Convergence is my favorite rave flyer ever.

Gilbey’s Gin Ad (1971)

So I just want to backtrack to Subliminal Seduction and the ice cubes because Wilson Bryan Key’s claims were ultimately debunked…at least in the Gilbey Gin case cited in his book. The art director did not intentionally airbrush any messages into the ice cubes. It was not some elaborate corporate mind-manipulation. Key’s interpretation of the image came completely from his own mind. Like a placebo, the ice cubes were inactive. But, it is the suggestion that a placebo has power which gives it power. It is open to interpretation…a screen for your own projection.


This has lead me towards work with looser forms that, like inkblots, are more open to interpretation and projection.

Io I. & Io II. (2010) — Sara Hartman

In Io I. and Io II., Sara Hartman photographed moving cotton candy and captured it in a way that transforms into a bearded man and carousel pony. Similarly, Roxy Paine’s Scumak machine produces amorphous blobs out of polyethylene—suggestive forms with no rigid meaning. Both these works feel close to unconscious dreams and the imagination. They are open to meaning beyond what is intended by the maker.

SCUMAK (2001) — Roxy Paine

…and also to Mandalas. These complex symmetrical forms are used to stimulate meditation and induce trance. They could be considered a self-styled placebo or even an antidote to a placebo, because they attempt to link the conscious and the unconscious. Here you are using the power of suggestion on yourself to suggest the ideas that you want suggested.

Here is a beautiful modern one by French artist Geneviève Gauckler

Mandala (2003) — Geneviève Gauckler

and another on a dress by fashion designer, Manish Arora.

Manish Arora (Fall 2008)

and in the 100-year-old but recently published Red Book by Carl Jung.

The Red Book (Published 2009) — Carl Jung

So, this is how I want to position myself as a designer:

  • I want to make work that inhabits a fantasy space, that is luscious and visually pleasing.
  • I want to make work that plays with the power of suggestion and explores ideas of ambiguous authorship, suspicion and psychology.
  • I want to make work with looser and more imaginative forms that are open to interpretation.

The thesis topic that I am proposing is Placebo. Thanks!