RCA50: What is graphic design and who is it for?

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Michael Johnson

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.

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Lucienne Roberts

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’.

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Andrew Brash

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’.

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Neville Brody

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’.

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