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.
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.
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.
I recently wrote a review about the design and illustration of Chris Packham’s A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife and I’m honoured that Eye magazine have published it on their blog. You can read the review here.
Harry Woodgate‘s illustrations for the manifesto are stunning. Thanks to Harry, and to Chris, for allowing Eye to use his work.
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.
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).
Lostwithiel, Cornwall, (affectionately known as Losty by the locals), was the nearest town on our recent summer holiday.
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.
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.
For many, traipsing historic academic cobbles and starring at spires, let alone dreaming of them, would define any visit to Oxford. For me, on a family weekend there recently, it was an opportunity to study its graphic commons.
Looking for its vernacular, I mostly steered clear of high-street parades, and came away finding the city’s contradictions being easy bedfellows; hi and lo culture mix comfortably, on the streets at least. Testament to this are the highbrow events flyposted on chipboard, acting as a temporary hoardings for college concerts where no sacred wall can be damaged.
These sat just around the corner from the usual tattered pastings I more typically photograph. Technically the same in purpose and application, each arguably despoiling/enhancing the streets, depending on your point of view. The only difference being that those on chipboard could be moved out of sight quickly. While on display though, from a visual perspective, they are exactly the same.
Pockets of resistance were also visible. Some philanthropically recognised, others unofficially bubbling up from the underground.
I was recently asked to feed into a Creative Review report on creative collaboration. Published this week, it also features educators Tash Willcocks, Joe McCullagh, Pam Bowman and Dr Cathy Gale discussing teaching collaboration. Matthew Beardsell, Tom Harding and Stuart Radford of Music, Made by Many, and Superunion respectively, were asked about the importance of collaborative practice to their studios. The report also publishes the results of the Creative Review Design Employer Survey on what skills matter most to them.
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.
Today sees the last copy of The Guardian in its Berliner format.
What is about to follow will be known by those that come to this blog post after Monday 15 January 2018, when the new look Guardian is launched. But for now, only the new masthead has been revealed in a video teaser.
The teaser, and its corresponding print campaign, demonstrates some interesting references to John Stezaker covering found photographs with white squares, (and Jonathan Barnbrook’s subsequent ‘borrowing’ of this for David Bowie’s The Next Day), see Field Readings’ post Graphic obscura.
The campaign cleverly suggests that The Guardian will still reserve space for commentary and opinions that tend not to be heard in other areas of the mainstream media, (with maybe the exception of the Channel 4 News). This, I believe, is the result of a sense of responsibility the paper feels to report accurately and critically in the face of an otherwise largely right-wing and conservative media. Its investigative journalism has broken some of the most important and disruptive news stories of the last decade, from Milly Dowler to Panama Papers. In these supposed post-truth times, long may this continue.