Distance: 3.7 miles
Ground covered: Feeder roads into and out of Ipswich town centre; pedestrianised shopping precincts; town centre.
It has been a while since I last did a dedicated graphic commons walk; 2017 in fact. More recent graphic commons posts have mainly been about walks taken as part of other activities. This reengagement is due to the resurrection of a graphic commons project that was put on-hold a few years ago—that of a series of publications dedicated to specific categories of the commons as I see them. The other commitments that took precedent over that project have now been completed, and it seems like a good time to jump back in. I will post more news here soon as it develops, but for now, here is a more generalised document of yesterday’s dérive.
This text was first published as a pamphlet of the same name in August 2017. It is republished here for the first time online. Copies of the original pamphlet, as a numbered limited edition of 300, are still available on request. Please get in contact if you would like a copy.
This essay introduces the term Graphic Commons as an identifier with which to discuss graphic design within shared public environments. It sets out why a new linguistic term in contemporary graphic design discourse is required, and situates this as part of wider discussions surrounding urbanism and social responsibility.
Much has changed since Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 declaration that: “…there is no architectural or urbanistic criticism on a par with the criticism of art, literature, music and theatre.” (1991, p92) Some 43 years later urbanism is studied in renowned academic centres such as University College London’s UrbanLab. However, graphic design as a discipline is often overlooked as part of ongoing critical urban dialogues. While anti-advertising rhetoric is in rude health within academic, design and political circles, advertising remains its focus. Although a critique of advertising is an important aspect of the Graphic Commons, and therefore appropriate to discuss under the term’s usage, this proposal considers a much wider remit of study. As Lefebvre stated: “There would certainly seem to be a need for such a criticism… We are talking, after all, of the setting in which we live.” (1991, p92)
The state of design criticism, it could be argued, has never been in better shape. There are the big guns, such as Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand’s printed compilation of fifteen years of online discourse at the Design Observer with Culture Is Not Always Popular. Likewise, AIGA’s Eye On Design magazine which covers topics interrogated on a given theme, (see previous Field Readings post Thoughts on discussions on criticism). Mike Monteiro’s recent Ruined By Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It, is an accessible takedown of poor design choices and the importance of ethics to design decisions, while Mode of Criticism‘s self-titled publication is a diversely rich academic and theoretical critique of design in a time of neoliberalism.
One publication that caught my eye recently that I wanted to specifically highlight is the House of Common Affairs journal. It comes out of a forum held at the Royal College of Art in London, and moderated by the journal’s editor Paula Minelgaite, that sought to question the relationship between creative practice, current affairs and the way information is communicated to the general public. The journal specifically looks to discuss Fourth Estate utopias.
Image © Paula Minelgaite
In living through the nightmare that is, (possibly), the final stages of the UK being in the European Union, it is difficult to see outside of the political, media and social storm that is raging around us. Looking back on this post, after whatever Brexit becomes, readers will, I suspect, be aghast at just what the British public have allowed to take place in their name. Amidst the turmoil though, there is a beacon of hope that is lightening the depressing situation by poking a finger in the ribs of contemptuous politicians. That finger poking is coming from a group calling itself Led By Donkeys.
Source: Led By Donkeys
Over a pint in early January 2019, four friends discussed the idea of using billboards to quote politicians contradictory words about Brexit back at them. With MPs using Twitter as an immediate way to score points over their rivals with quick soundbite statements, the four realised they would have plenty of examples to choose from. As the talk of this being a humorous prank continued, they convinced themselves to look into it further. After some research, they found that £300 would pay for the printing of 4 billboards and the equipment they would need to hang them. Clubbing together, they decided to make the pub banter joke a reality.
Source: Led By Donkeys
Design criticism is often discussed within design circles. Such pondering on the topic has been brilliantly, and I can’t help think sarcastically, summed up in the title of a 4-way debate recently published in AIGA’s Eye on Design journal (2018, the Gossip issue). The article was called: What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking About Design.
There is a concern amongst some designers and academics, or you could call it a chip-on-their-shoulders, that graphic design criticism isn’t given the same level of respect as other, more highbrow artistic disciplines. The Eye On Design article itself raises this in its introduction stating: “We [graphic design] still side-eye art, architecture, and literature, wondering why design doesn’t have quite as robust a history of criticism.” (2018, p21.) It is a shame that such a discussion comes up time and time again when graphic design writing is being discussed. I am constantly bemused that we do not just accept that graphic design should be judged on its own terms, and not on those of other disciplines. Cultural and academic elitism is something we can circumnavigate by simply ignoring such questions. Continue reading
While some may praise Lush for its recent #SpyCops poster campaign, having your own shop window to deliver a political campaign message in is a luxury most do not have. Now, the non-shop owning agitpropper can turn to Brandalism, who have launched a Subvertising Manual that shows anyone how to reclaim visual spaces from advertisers by replacing 6-sheet adverts with their own artwork.
Taking aim at the backlit hoardings most frequently seen at bus stops, the manual tells you everything you need to know to hang your own work in these spaces. Subtitled What You Need And How To Do It, it discusses what tools are required to open the displays; artwork sizes for the majority of bus shelter hoardings, (advertising lingo calls these 6-sheets); what to wear and the best times of day to hang your work to avoid getting caught; and where you can find information online so your work stays up as long as possible.
The bracketing of the Hope To Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–2018 exhibition at London’s Design Museum is interesting for many reasons. Starting with Shepard Fairey’s Hope campaign for Obama’s 2008 election, and (almost) finishing with Trump’s Make America Great Again baseball cap, these two items showcase how effective vacuous phraseology can be in winning over people’s emotions when asking them to vote on big decisions. Both speak to the human condition of wanting ‘better’, without actually defining what that ‘better’ might be. They leave it for the reader to appropriate the slogans and adapt them to their own set of desires.
It has to be said the application of such sloganeering adds weight to the message—the words alone didn’t win their respective elections for each candidate. Fairey’s message appealed to the youth vote as much because they were street posters and were run counter (and unendorsed) to the official Democrat campaign; while baseball caps are everyday headgear worn by the everyman and everywoman of America. Each message is targetted precisely, whether strategically intentioned or not. What both tell us though is that logos do not win elections, neither for Obama in 2008 nor Clinton in 2016. As graphic communication devices, logos tend to be overly associated with corporate structures, despite both Obama’s and Clinton’s being applauded by design critics for their aesthetics, symbolism and ‘cleverness’. In thinking that these could help win around floating voters, it strikes me that the audience was ultimately forgotten, unlike with the street posters and baseball caps.
These are just a few of the thoughts I came away with after visiting Hope to Nope with a group of graphic design students the week it opened in April.