Can graphic design kill you?

There is an irony to the fact that four days after the Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? exhibition opened at the Wellcome Collection, the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair kicked off at the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands.

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Banksy’s submission to Art the Arms Fair

The former, in the words of Creative Review, showcases graphic design used to “educate, inform, persuade and even save lives. Items include anti-smoking stamps, anatomical pop-up books, a 17th century plague notice and a mural that uses illustration to explain the symptoms of Ebola to people in Africa.” Where as the latter, in the words of Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade will: “bring many of the world’s most appalling regimes together with the biggest arms companies.”

The irony here is that if you have ever been to a trade fair, regardless of what it is for, you will be aware of the role graphic design plays in exhibition graphics created for traders to attract delegates to their stands.

Irony never seems far from DSEI. The first ‘fair’, on 11 September 2001, was launched in London as planes were crashing into the World Trade Center in New York. This year, according to The Independent, the British “Government has been accused of double standards for participating in arms control talks in Geneva as the exhibition opens, amid continued criticism over sales to regimes including Saudi Arabia that are accused of perpetrating war crimes using British weapons.”

I’ve known designers to leave firms because they have been asked to work on contracts that they ethically disagree with, including creating stands for DSEI. This is entirely admirable, but the unfortunate reality is that there will always be someone else to do that work.

The art world is equally impotent, and the recent Art the Arms Fair exhibition and website, despite attracting big names such as Banksy to produce artworks against this year’s event, will have had absolutely no impact on it other than maybe helping to convince people to attend organised protests. In the face of all that hardware and money, protesting seems equally and depressingly pointless; and a cynic could argue that protesting simply becomes a testing ground for some of the surveillance devices being sold at the fair.

At least artists and protesters are working from the outside though; they are not complicit in helping to sell weapons to regimes with questionable human rights records as graphic designers are. This raises the question of whether the design industry, and in particular the design press, should become more vocal in challenging such practices? Currently, there has been much in the design press about the Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? exhibition, and the good work we do as a discipline that this show has shone a light on. The excellent title in itself causes one to stop and think about cause and effect. In general though, there is less said about the more uncomfortable truths of our trade. Critical voices from below are unlikely to reach all sectors of the design industry, and they are unlikely to convince those who just see their job as communicating someone else’s message to act differently. But give such debates more oxygen, and it may make one or two firms, or at least those that work for them, think again about the humanitarian impact of the contracts they accept.

It seems fitting in discussing this to finish by mentioning that Ken Garland’s 1964 First Things First manifesto, a call to designers to think more carefully about the work they choose to do, is featured in Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? I hope all who are actively involved in the business of graphic design who go to the show take the time to read through this seminal text.

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Ken Garland’s 1964 First Things First manifesto

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? runs until 14 January 2018 and is free. Details here.

The DSEI arms fair will return to London in 2019. Details here.