One person’s ordinary…

My father, a commercial photographer, subscribed to the British Journal of Photography and from a very young age I used to love flicking through its pages. While over the last ten years I have maintained a sporadic subscription to the magazine, it has never been as satisfying to my adult eyes as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, photo-books have become my photography drug of choice and I find immersing myself in the vision of one particular photographer at a time gives me a much deeper connection with the work shown. One particular photographer whose output I have become fascinated by in recent years is Iain Sarjeant. Since 2016 I have been collecting his Out Of The Ordinary volume of books, the series now in its third and final iteration. These titles document the spontaneous shots he has taken as he journey’s through everyday Scotland as part of a long-term project.

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What first attracted me to his work was that I could see something in his photos that mirrored my own interests in the overlooked. But this soon became more than just an interest in the subject matter and as much about his approach to it—he has an eye that looks to make order out of what other’s would pass by.

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)

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

In the introduction of issue one, Minelgaite says: “HOCA journal provides an opportunity to challenge the niche and yet popular field that exists in the overlap between the arts and journalism. HOCA attempts to address the issues it presents to its readers by avoiding elitist design snobbery that perpetuates discrimination, dogmatism and self-righteousness. It does this this by moving the project outside the RCA and inviting a more diverse range of voices into the conversation.”

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

As working people with families to support, after their first foray into the night-time manoeuvres of illicit flyposting, they realised they couldn’t afford to keep this up, nor risk arrest for covering over other’s paid for adverts. So they decided to go legitimate and launched a Crowdfunder campaign, thinking they would be lucky to get the £10,000 limit they had set for themselves. With a Twitter feed promoting what they were doing, it only took 3 hours to raise an incredible £50,000. Very quickly they realised that they had hit upon a hugely popular idea.

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.

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Image: Eye on Design, AIGA

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.

Graphic commons: Bucharest, a bohemian rhapsody

Recently I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Bucharest, Romania, for work. The trip was so that I could attend an art and design education fair and to talk at a couple of high schools about our courses. This was my first such recruitment trip abroad, and I’m told you often only get to see a city from a car window and in the evening before flying back the next day. Thankfully though, because of the timings of our itinerary, I managed to get a little time to myself to wander the city and soak up Bucharest’s visual culture.

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This was my first visit to Eastern Europe, and one, given the timing of the trip, that was over-shadowed by Brexit. Our host, locals and delegates from other countries all had an opinion, with none of them positive. The majority of Romanians I spoke to about it, (and Romania isn’t a country afraid of change, it could be argued), all thought Britain was putting itself in a ridiculous position.

One of the things that struck me about Bucharest from the outset, was that it is a country that is happy to wear its history on its sleeve—it is there in plain sight for everyone to see. Our hotel was very close to Revolution Square, the site of the uprising that saw Nicolae Ceaușescu toppled from power nearly 30 years ago.

Monuments to these tumultuous times have seen better days, and the local anarchists appear to show little respect for those that lost their lives fighting against the dictator. Some locals said the current government is the most corrupt in 100 years, so it appears a struggle continues. Given we were a week away from national celebrations of 100 years of independence for Romania, this is some claim given their more recent history.

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.

In my original write-up of my visit to the Design Museum, (see Exhibitions Are Always Political), I declared that I couldn’t help thinking that Atelier Populaire, who occupied the print room of the École Des Beaux Arts in 1968 to print graphic flyposters to further the unfolding revolution in Paris at the time, would have been dismissive of Hope to Nope. I went on to quote that in 1969 they said: “The posters produced … are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centres of conflict, that is to say in the streets and on the walls of factories. To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect.” (Kugelberg and Vermés, 2011, p1).

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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Reclaim the sheets

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.

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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.