This evening the Women’s Design Research Unit (WD+RU) held an event to celebrate their 21st birthday, and they asked a group of WD+RU friends and supporters to reflect, refresh and [re]act. For the past 21 years WD+RU have been raising awareness of the role of women in visual communication design and related fields.
For this intimate gathering hosted by Good Agency, and with delicious catering by Food For Good, invitees were asked to respond to the following sentence ‘If I could take one action toward raising awareness about women working in visual communication, it would be…’
As an educator in contextual and theoretical studies for students of visual communication design, my response was to communicate how I can raise awareness of female designers. I showcased the work of icon designer Susan Kare, who has been a constant presence in the field of visual communication since her work was incorporated into the visual language of the Apple McIntosh computer, launched in January 1984. You can see Susan talk through her career here.
WD+RU founder Siân Cook gave all the guests a badge, each one depicting the name of a female designer. The badges were pairs and it was our task to find our pairing and get to know them. My partner was Sonia, a freelance designer, we discussed many design related subjects including Margaret Calvert discussing the design of the British road sign system on Top Gear.
It is too easy to be cynical about this show at the Barbican, after all most of us collect (or have collected) ‘things’. There was little that surprised me here, some of Martin Parr’s postcards made me chuckle, and the large spiders in Damien Hirst’s Last Kingdom sent shivers down my spine, but what struck me was the amount of stuff that humans produce and consume, some of it rational, some of it bonkers.
Making connections between the collected objects and the oeuvre of each artist was down to the viewer, introductory text panels provided some insight. Does it matter that we know why someone collects elephants, in varying sizes with geometric patterns, not really. The value of the exhibition was that these objects have been revealed to us just as they revealed themselves to their respective owners before they became consumed by them.
I didn’t buy the catalogue, somehow it seemed fitting to let these objects fade from memory, some more than others.
The stoic concrete mass of the Hayward Gallery is a fitting plinth on which to exhibit a cold-war Bloodhound missile. Dare to step out onto the roof terrace and be dwarfed by this six-tonne – show-stopping ‘sculpture’. Its scale and potential reflects the idea behind History is Now, so enormous is the task to select from 70 years of post-war history, it’s no surprise that seven artists were each given a slice of curatorial cake. When photographing the missile against the blue sky of this cold March day, I was struck by the sobering realisation that, had this defensive weapon been deployed, it signaled Britain was under nuclear attack. The pessimism surrounding the object’s intent, set against the optimism of the blue sky suggests the mood of the exhibition. Writing in The Guardian Maev Kennedy cites curator Cliff Lauson “there are many questions, some answered, some unanswerable.”
It was Roger Hiorns meticulous research, storytelling and modernist graphic presentation of the development, and subsequent outbreak of BSE and vCJD, that provided the visitor with a unified and historical account of a medical condition that incited ‘a collective sense of dread’ according to Hiorns.
Hiorns complements the vast quantities of text-based material with two works – a black and white photograph of consumers of high culture in the countryside, and two tanks filled with formaldehyde, each containing the head of a cow. These works are clever props within the archive, they are immediate and caused me to ponder humankind’s relationship with these delightful ruminants, something that I hadn’t thought much about since the 1990s.
Writing about the exhibition in The Telegraph Alastair Sooke suggests “it offers a multifaceted vision of our recent national identity so complex and kaleidoscopic that it risks leaving visitors bewildered, bamboozled, and exhausted.” I didn’t feel bewildered or bamboozled, a little exhausted maybe, there’s simply too much to take in on one visit. I sympathise more with Adrian Searle’s benign appraisal in The Guardian “this is exhibition as time machine.” It really is as simple as that.
Tonight I attended the last in the series of talks celebrating 50 years of graphic design at the RCA. As the title promises so much, did the contributors deliver?
Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks delivered a retrospective of his studios output and then focused on the ethics of designers working for corporates (profit) and charities (common good) a tiring theme that the evening couldn’t really shake off. The graphic design discourse needs to move beyond the spectre of First Things First. In his rebranding of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Johnson spoke of the need for him to be involved in design that has more meaning ‘one poster cannot change the world’ he quipped, hence his work for DEC has been instrumental in raising ‘millions rather than thousands’. When pressed to define graphic design, Johnson gave a pragmatic response ‘it’s a delivery mechanism from an agreement with a client’. There’s a truth to this, but I was looking for something more existential.
Lucienne Roberts, in part, provided a more emotional hook, and told us that she was going to talk mostly about ‘her intention’, quoting Woody Allen’s maxim that ‘his work is a quality distraction from the problem of being alive’. In a candid admission that she is from a family of depressives, Roberts aims for her work to have soul, to do work that ‘touches people and moves them’ and, in the words of Philosopher A. C. Grayling, ‘make the experience of being alive more aesthetic’. Roberts then went on to define graphic design, using visuals which provided aesthetic stimulation, ‘graphic design is everywhere, apart from where there are no people, and not in small groups where ideas can be disseminated one-to-one. It involves everybody, with the exception of new born babies, and the blind (although she qualified this with a caveat that other senses can communicate graphic ideas). In essence, graphic design is for everyone who can respond to words and images. Then we were told about everything, the special relationship that graphic design has with (almost) every other subject. This is where Roberts plugged her publishing venture Graphicdesign&. In conclusion Roberts’ definition is pragmatic: ‘graphic design is for everyone – not about graphic design in and of itself, it’s about other people’.
Second year RCA student Andrew Brash asked some poignant questions, such as ‘what are the contemporary conditions? No time, no money. What forms does this result in? Repartition, standardisation, copies’. This theoretical position manifests itself in the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF ) an animated image that is prolific on World Wide Web, and has become epitomised by Vine, the application that allows you to ‘explore a world of beautiful, looping videos’, Brash argues ‘the image doesn’t exist as a GIF if it isn’t being viewed’. He suggests that the GIF is hauntological, a theory posited by Jacques Derrida in that it has a spectral quality, because of its looping, revisits the past, from which the present can never escape. This repartition, according to Brash, is Brechtian, a distancing that is constituted by the repeating of a single gesture. Brash suggested that certain graphic design motifs such as the use of the slash, represent this cyclical disposition to re-present marks that, in themselves, become tropes of tropes of tropes, what Brash calls ‘poor images’ in relation to Hito Steyerl‘s definition as ‘a copy in motion’. In conclusion, Brash believes that GIFs have a mutability, they are a collected resource ‘their gesture of use is not limited by their content’. In terms of a broader philosophical approach to defining graphic design and who it is for, Brash provides us with ideas surrounding the pervasiveness of images that since the introduction of the Web, can be created with graphic design in absentia, illustrated by a quip from Neville Brody at the end of his segment: ‘no graphic design was used in the making of this GIF’.
Neville Brody echoed Johnson’s thoughts on the poster as a vehicle of communication ‘where is the poster relevant today?’ he asked. In a series of soundbites, he told us he ‘loves strategy but hates structure’ that the Anti Design Festival nearly bankrupted his studio, and graphic design is one of four disciplines that asks ‘Where am I?’ The other three being: art, research and education. ‘At the heart of it [graphic design] is a broker, a negotiator between spaces’ say Brody, it can persuade for good or for ill, it is an enabler, and it is not unbiased, in fact it is bias itself, ‘remove the designer and you are left with a box’. In an attack on consumer culture Brody suggests the world has changed and it’s the fault of graphic design, that there’s too much design for design and there is a graphic design industry for the graphic design industry, a slight on the culture of awards. In terms of what happens next in the profession, he answered an audience member with a lasting thought ‘new is unrecognisable, if it’s new you wouldn’t recognise it’.
Brash was the most provocative and the closest to providing an innovative critique of the state of the profession, adding a level of theoretical underpinning, of which there is still a paucity in discourse. These talks have been illuminating, in parts, however they commit themselves, through the venue, into the exclusivity of the RCA ‘club’. The Senior Common Room is, as the description suggests, ‘an exclusive members’ club and provides a venue for private dinners of up to 76 seated, or receptions for 200 guests, in an environment of art and design excellence’. Holding the exhibition and the talks solely within the RCA is logical, however why not make this anniversary a spectacle, that could be enjoyed by the masses? There’s nothing inherently wrong with private members clubs, but in this sense, holding discussions of graphic design in the Senior Common Room is a reflection of Brody’s view of the poster ‘where is it relevant today’. This could have been a traveling exhibition, and maybe the talks will be made available as podcasts, making them reflect the true spirit of graphic design, as Roberts suggests ‘it’s for everyone’.
Tonight I attended a panel presentation and discussion ‘RCA Design Start-ups + Book Launch’ as part of the ongoing exhibition of Graphics RCA: Fifty Years Exhibition of Graphic Design Royal College of Art.
The theme of graphic design start-ups explored the ongoing success of RCA graduates who form collectives either while studying or upon graduation.
Phil Carter of Carter Wong showed us their logo for Formula One, and discussed their passion for craft.
Kirsty Carter from A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL) met Emma Thomas while at the RCA. Kirsty told us that while studying together they made a shrewd business move, they designed a catalogue for the Goldsmiths Curating Course, whose graduates became clients of APFEL. This vital aspect of being proactive while enroled in post-graduate study, was emphasised by Erwan Lhuissier from Julia.
Julia ‘cares about’ the work they do. When asked about how they were able to make a living when starting out, they replied ‘we got through the first four years because we didn’t know what we were getting into’. ‘It leaves physical marks’ said Valerio, and an array of changing hairstyles it would appear.
Adrian Shaughnessey ended the discussion with a lackluster promotion for the book that accompanies the exhibition.
There was nothing revelatory here in terms of how these design groups were formed. Maybe next weeks discussion on ‘What is Graphic Design and Who is it for?’ will be less warm and fuzzy?
Tonight I attended this panel discussion at the RCA in the Senior Common Room. Professor Teal Triggs opened the discussion, framing it with Professor Richard Guyatt’s 1948 proposition that art school students should employ ‘the head, hand and heart’ a maxim that originated from Ruskin.
Phil Baines RCA alumnus 1987 told us that out of the three forms of education – by a person of higher authority, by a person of lesser authority, and by a person of equal authority – the later ‘being the best’. He also told us that students bring agenda’s to MA courses and there are of course, institutional agendas. He asked ‘what is design?’.
Sophie Thomas RCA alumnus 1997 and founder of Thomas Matthews framed her ideas around waste and sustainability, asking ‘why do we stop when we graduate?’.
Professor Bruce Brown RCA alumnus 1979 told us many insightful things, namely that graphic design at the RCA is (or should be) the flagship, that there is a real poverty of imagination, and utility is more important than creativity. A brief history of visual communication followed.
Cathy Gale RCA alumnus 1993 spoke of dissent, the offshore art school and quoted Donald Schön (1992) ‘design is a reflective conversation with a design situation’. Gale says ‘design education is a situation in need of critical reflection. Students are the participants and end users of this situation – let’s imagine them as crew’.
Brown suggested that universities should be outside the mainstream and should foster dissent, that ‘design is a virtue, it reconciles paradoxes’ and paraphrasing impact case studies ‘graphic design has not sorted out research in the discipline’.
Gale told us that design education has become conformist.
This was part nostalgic reflection for some RCA alumni audience members, and part enquiry into the state of the discipline, however it was Brown and Gale that provided the most searching questions and reflections.