Design as Legitimacy

Treatise #7

When you look at a product or a website, how do you judge it? Most people look at the packaging (aka the design quality) and decide if it looks like a quality product or not. The packaging is meant to reflect not just the information of what the product is – but also indicate it’s quality. Is the product a lower-price or quality product? No matter what the contents actually are, the quality of the design will make people think better or worse of it.

I think the most blatant example of this is the No Name brand of products in Canada. This is a series of products that (almost) lacks branding completely. No Name products are meant to be the generic products offered by Loblaw’s, a popular grocery chain in Canada. They are marketed as being the most basic through a sort of anti-brand. The products are literally called No Name brand and use a consistent yellow and Helvetica packaging. The idea is the product is basic, cheap and fits your needs. You are not paying any extra for a ‘name’ brand. 

Now, we have been looking at branding as offering an idea of quality, but what about legitimacy? Legitimacy is a Political Science concept to generally express “people’s beliefs about political authority and, sometimes, political obligations.” There is a lot of discussion around this term, but here we can generally think of legitimacy as referring to people’s belief in the eligibility of a ruling body to rule.

So, what does this have anything to do with design and the No Name brand? In short, design allows products (and services or companies or organizations) to have legitimacy in the eyes of their potential customers. Good packaging, for example, validates the legitimacy of a product to provide that service. That if you buy a tomato sauce it is safe, abides by health standards, and maybe it is even premium sauce that is hand–stewed by an Italian grandmother. The design will validate and legitimize the product, organization, or service that is being provided in the eyes of its audience.

Therefore, taking the political science definition of legitimacy, we can redefine in design terms to be: to people’s belief in the eligibility of a body to provide it’s intended purpose.

What does this image tell you about Kazakhstan?

This too can also work on a massive political level. Governments, such as Kazakhstan, have even used architecture and aesthetics to legitimize their entire rule. We also can get a deeper understanding of the NFL kneeling controversy through this definition.

NFL Players, by kneeling at the US Flag – the most central branding component of the US Government - are expressing that they feel a lack of legitimacy of the US Government to rule them. Indeed, they are expressing (as they have said in interviews) that the US Government, represented by the Flag, has failed in its duty to provide its intended purpose of security and justice. 

Expressing the Lack of Legitimacy of the US Govt Brand via the Flag