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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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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Festival of Britain benches

I have had a fascination with the Festival of Britain since I came across one of its guidebooks several years ago and wrote an article about it for Eye magazine’s blog. In my day job I have also had the pleasure of hearing Abram Games’ daughter, Naomi Games, talk to students about her father’s work, (for the uninitiated, it was Abram Games that designed the FoB logo). Further to this, I have a keen interest in modernist design principles, and in particular the work of the Design Research Unit who played a key role in the planning and organisation of the 1951 Festival. It is therefore not surprising that when driving through the Lincolnshire village of Barnetby Le Wold while on holiday with my wife recently, that my eye caught sight of the familiar logo. However, the fact it was set into the concrete of a bench by a very busy roundabout was the last place I expected to see it.

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The famous logo—the right hand rendering has faired better in the weather than the left

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Graphic commons: more banner frenzy and other temporalities

After my last walk in Chelmsford, I’ve been noticing more and more temporary banners tied to railings. So today I took a short walk around my local area to capture those I had seen whilst in the car.

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Unlike many that I saw in Essex, the ones I saw today were mostly ‘official’, in that what was being advertised/promoted related to the property owner of the railings they were attached to. For example, Ipswich NHS Trust banners outside the hospital and the local St Elizabeth’s Hospice railings were covered in banners for fundraising events. Continue reading

Graphic commons: progress and an Essex drift

Chelmsford

Chelmsford

Notes on current research
As my graphic commons project grows and I’m formulating links between different urban studies and theories, I’m finding out how little research there appears to be into graphic design in shared environments, (within both current or historic thinking around the topic). This may obviously be because I just haven’t found it yet, and others may be able to fill the holes in my studies, (please post in comments or DM me via the contacts page if you do have any research pointers). A 2017 report by the Design Commission titled People & Places: Design of the Built Environment and Behaviour, makes reference to how urban environments can influence mental health, but fails to mention anything in regard to how everyday visual culture may impact on this. Such references tend to be more explicitly discussed in anti-advertising doctrines such as the excellent Advertising Shits In Your Head. However, in doing so, such texts tend to be polemic and agitational in nature and do not make a wider connection to urbanism as a theoretical study.

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Graphic commons: north-east of Ipswich

Distance: 4.2 miles
Steps taken: 9,687
Start time: 09:37
Ground covered: Small town centre, surrounding residential areas and seaside promenade

Any talk of Southwold and psychogeography is duty bound to include a mention of W.G. Sebald’s Rings Of Saturn. My drift around Southwold yesterday, as part of my continuing Graphic Commons project, did take me up Gunhill, and past both The Reading Room and The Crown, all of which Sebald discusses in his text. These though, are as much of a mention as Rings Of Saturn will get here.

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