Tuesday, February 10, 2009

TypeSHED11 — Design Escapism 101

As typographers, graphic fashionistas, advertising moguls and the elite of the visual communication world come together in Wellington this week for 'TypeSHED11', I thought it might be fitting to revisit my earlier text on an alternative graphic design practice. Of course, design, or more specifically typography, is off the radar for the majority of everyday, working people — so it may seem an odd topic to focus so much attention on. Yet it is a profession that has a huge impact on the lives of working people whether they understand the complexities of typography or not — mainly in the mass consumption and the spectacle of the capitalist society to which both design and our everyday lives belong.

"Graphic design has predominately been, and still is, the tool which beautifies, communicates and commodifies a set of ideas, ideals or products within various tenets of our social and economic relations. Unfortunately, it is fair to say that this creative tool is overwhelmingly used in an economic/commercial sense — consciously or unconsciously using its talents to exploit — to raise profit margins and material wealth for the benefit of a select clientele. While graphic design lends its talents outside of the commercial realm in the form of an informative and communicative visual language, and in academic or self-authorship, research-based practices — the primary role of graphic design as a medium is that of the visual instrument of the powerful; the seller of sales, the convincer of consumers — employed by the corporate body or state-sanctioned by capitalist/socialist totalitarian governments in order to perfect and reinforce their hegemonic positions. And while design academia can wax poetic about the virtues of graphic design and its specialised visual language — conveniently side-stepping more tangible issues — the design industry practitioner, whether one chooses to acknowledge his/her role or not, must realise that their labour is nothing more than the harbinger of consumerism, used in the service of monolithic capitalism and all of its ails. Without graphic design those who sustain these ills of society have no face, no visual identity, no point of reference, and most importantly, no effect.

If one takes the above view, which I obviously do, then to analyse the worth of such a conference as 'TypeSHED11' is a valid one. From a brief look the program on their website, there seems to be no space dedicated to any kind of social change work. There is one workshop called 'Bridging Culture' which mentions the latest conflicts in Palestine (for research purposes), but to use the their own words, the workshop sounds more like a pep talk in globalisation and diversity of the market. "Technology, mass media and the global village concept have made the world smaller and the cross-cultural audience bigger for the design profession. It is becoming a must for designers to think beyond their local boarders and to be able to create visual communication materials that makes sense to a diverse audience." Of course I could be wrong, but I sincerely doubt that there will be discussion on how graphic design could alleviate, instead of activate the current exploitative system we live in — or the complex situation facing the people of the middle east.

"Design then, must explore the peripheral space outside of advertising; totally devoid of any commercial use — or more specifically, for the movement towards a more humane and libertarian society, that is to say, a more autonomous existence based on self-management, mutual aid, solidarity and direct participation and control over one's affairs. As the potential producer, educator and visual face of social change, graphic design could weld its creative future with more important and pressing concerns than market shares, profit margins and consumption rates."

If there in fact WAS talk of social justice work in Wellington this week, then that would be a tentative start. But, like the 'First Things First Manifesto' of 2002, we should question the locality and the direction of that way of thinking.

"While proposing 'a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting, and democratic forms of communication', the manifesto falls short in recognising any kind of tangible and radical change. The 'First Things First Manifesto' of 2002 fails to recognise that the 'uncontested' and 'unchecked' consumerism they wish to re-direct is so engrained in the very system we participate in, that anything short of the complete transformation of social priorities, structures and organization will never effect true social change. Proposing the shifting of priorities within the system rather than the shifting of the system itself — as history has proven in both state/democratic socialism, and the farce of parliamentary democracy — will do nothing more than file down the rough edges of our chains. The fact that rampant globalisation and totalitarian corporate hegemony go hand in hand with the current system is the real issue concerned graphic designs could be questioning. In fact these systems, "far from being a guarantee for the people, on the contrary, creates and safeguards the continued existence of a governmental aristocracy against the people."

So, what is the alternative, if any, that graphic design could play towards radical, social change? This is the crux of my original text, and the topic of a type of praxis we could undertake as practitioners interested in a more egalitarian way of existing.

The everyday individual or anarchist design practitioner, through the basic act of joining their libertarian principals with their material production, should, and could, greatly contribute to the transformation of everyday life — towards a more just and humane existence. As educator and mediator, it is the responsibility of anyone with an understanding of visual communication to instill in people's minds a broader sense of possibility, using the communicative powers of artistic imagery to empower, encourage and enrage. It is important to shift societies' many urgent concerns from the fringes and into the public realm, in a direct and unavoidable manner. However, purely negative and angst-ridden critique (while sometimes useful) can only go so far — it is the sense of positive possibilities that need to be associated with the ideas of anarchist communism. The marginality of current grassroots movements must be overcome — the isolation of both activist groups and concerned individuals thoughts must be rendered public, transparent, and shared.

Mainstream media do a rather convincing job of keeping our private thoughts as seemingly isolated and illogical. It is an important task to illustrate that the critical and questioning ideas we may be having individually are, more often than not, shared as a whole, rather than letting them be diffused and disarmed by hegemonic structures and institutions such as the popular media, the church and the state. Graphic design can publicly and prolifically become the visual manifestation of these shared ideas. "Ideally, art can inspire hope, encourage critical thinking, capture emotion, and stimulate creativity. It can declare another way to think about and participate in living. Art can document or challenge history, create a framework for social change, and create a vision of a more just world. When art is used in activism it provides an appealing and accessible entry point to social issues and radical politics".9 As the initial point of contact with more in-depth and varied forms of activism, graphic design can act as the essential catalyst for further education, involvement, and more importantly, direct action.

However, images alone are not enough. Further exploration of participation and facilitation in design and the design process can only set the basis for future non-hierarchical, organic organisation. Structures and ways of working with others raised in ones practice could essentially form patterns and guides for the self organization of a more libertarian society. Therefore the act of making work could be as empowering as the visual message itself. Both collective and personal processes of making work could lead the way in eventual liberation on a more macro level, exploring the 'unlimited perfectibility' of both design activity and social organization."

Type rest of the post here

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