As most of you know, I draw weekly cartoons for the Daily Barometer. I designed the characters, molded their personalities, and sculpted their surroundings. I created my own little world – a world of ideas that I can express on paper in short vignettes each week. As a whole, my comics are my own original creation. However, each constituent part that makes up my comic is not. In fact, my ideas come from a combination of life experience, artwork I like, personalities I have encountered, and places I have been. My comic strip is simply my synthesis of all of those things. Regardless, I still put my name on each comic along with a copyright symbol. It’s still my own creation. It’s a bit of a stretch, but this is the argument posed by the documentary RiP! A Remix Manifesto.
A remix, as defined in the film, is a hodgepodge of sounds and songs that has been reorganized into something new and entirely different than any of the source material. The conflict comes from the artists and corporations who own the source material wanting compensation for the use of their work. By claiming that any form of copying without compensation is copyright infringement, artists and corporations can prosecute anyone who does as little as download a single song without paying. The film blames this mess on ill-conceived copyright laws lobbied by large corporations – Disney in particular. By 1998, Disney succeeded in extending copyright to 70 years past the death of the create and 95 years for corporations. This pushed public domain works back to before the 20th Century. According to the film, this kind of corporate chokehold on so-called intellectual property is hampering freedom and stalling cultural growth.
The film turns to Brazil as a counterexample and praises Brazilians for ignoring U.S. copyright laws. Why? The South American country ignores U.S. drug patents and makes its own HIV medications, thus providing cheaper health care for its people. The people in Brazil also happen to like remixed music. The people are not inhibited by laws that try to suppress the use of “intellectual property”. Instead, the sharing and combining of existing ideas is encouraged. Whether or not this is actually benefiting Brazilian culture is debatable. Documentaries are notorious for editorializing to prove their point. Regardless, it does seem to be a lot healthier and forward thinking than the current U.S. copyright policies.
How, then does this all relate to graphic design? What does a graphic design remix look like? Here’s one way to look at it: the documentary describes Walt Disney as one of the great “remixers” of the 20th Century. He took old stories that had already been written and retold them in a way that would connect with a contemporary audience. He ripped off old ideas, updated them, then made them his own. Perhaps this is how graphic design should be approached – remixing old communications techniques, updating them, and presenting them as something entirely new for a contemporary audience.
Like it says in the film, culture builds off of what has been done in the past. As time goes on, we have an increasing arsenal of design tools and techniques at our disposal. We ought not to be afraid to combine and alter old ideas. It’s the only way to move ahead.