Proposing the Graphic Commons

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.

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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)

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Common affairs

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.

An image of the House of Common Affairs journal cover

Image © Paula Minelgaite

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Led by donkeys

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.

Image of a quote by David Cameron posted to a billboard

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.

Image of a quote by Jacob Rees-Mogg posted to a billboard

Source: Led By Donkeys

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Thoughts on discussions on criticism

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

Back at ya: exhibitions are always political (reprise)

While exhibiting protest graphics in a show titled Hope To Nope, London’s Design Museum decided to host an arms industry fundraising event in their Kensington premises. Many of the exhibitors were so angry about what they saw as an unethical affront to their presence in the show, they physically removed their work from the museum with two weeks still to run. In an act of ingenious protest, those same exhibitors are now mounting their own exhibition of the work they removed, and then some.

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From Nope To Hope website

In the Design Museum’s exhibition, covering 10 years of protest graphics from 2008 to 2018, the chronological nature of the show produced an undeniable air of negativity with Trump being the end point of the show. It was almost as if the championing of the effectiveness of protest graphics throughout the rest of the show was bought to an end by Trump being elected – it felt as if all that had passed before had been pointless. For the museum’s director to then brush aside concerns by exhibitors that the gallery was aiding and abetting the arms trade, created an increased air of negativity around Hope To Nope in what otherwise was an excellent show. In a twist on the original show, the organisers, under the name the Nope To Arms Collective, have fittingly reversed the Design Museum’s title to now read From Nope To Hope.

What this new show does is to revive positivity, both in terms of putting on the exhibition itself, and in the word play on the original title. The Design Museum’s stance, (at the time of writing), on not developing an ethical fundraising policy, is now the ‘Nope’; while displaying the removed work for free has become the new ‘Hope’. This semantic about-turn breathes belief back into protest graphics, while putting on the new exhibition is an act of protest in itself.

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Graphic commons: analogue community

Lostwithiel, Cornwall, (affectionately known as Losty by the locals), was the nearest town on our recent summer holiday.

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As I have mentioned in a previous post I have an interest in noticeboards, and Lostwithiel has not one, but two that I could find. What struck me more than this though was that 2 noticeboards did not seem to be enough for its towns-folk. For on our first proper wander around Losty, every single telegraph-pole seemed to be adorned in posters of varying quality and displaying a cornucopia of events and information. These flyposters didn’t seem to be an alternative to what was on the ‘official’ noticeboards—in fact, it looked like there was a lot of repetition.

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