Criticality in Graphic Design (Part One)
Soon after the financial services firm Lehman Brothers epically collapsed in 2008, economics occupied a central position in the media. For decades, the financial sector had been commanding a process of de-politicisation of society, but the exposing domino effect caused by the auto-destructive nature of capitalism, allowed it to continue subduing an already fragile public discourse. New terminology such as ‘subprimes’, ‘derivatives’ and ‘collateralised debt obligations’, headlined public statements and TV reports, as 3D infographics attempted to explain what had really happened. Confining the blame to the ‘markets’ – a conveniently phantasmagorical identity – buildings and brands, not people, were and still are to a great extent, the entities used to attach responsibility to such a faceless crisis. Zoomed-out photos and aerial views of stock exchanges and financial districts throughout the world were used to visually represent 1, and therefore camouflage a series of financial activities.
1— This is perhaps the last economic crisis in which physical buildings are still used as visual entities. With the rapid silent rise of cyber capitalism (see Žižek, 2001, for example), the location of economic/ political activities will be dramatically harder to trace and therefore, to illustrate or reveal. Whether server farms in disparate – and difficult to locate – parts of the world, or screenshots will be the chosen replacement, it is plausible that new manifestations of online branding will inevitably become increasingly more sophisticated.
As European countries started to implement draconian policy measures and cuts in all areas of public life, civil unrest was imminent. This took form as an outburst on behalf of the people, in response to the pressure exerted by banks, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, to which society felt both powerless and not responsible. Throughout the media, a shift in discourse emerged. There was a reality before the global financial crisis started, and another one after it begun. A ‘pre’ and a ‘post’-global financial crisis. These prefixes are recurrently used to signal paradigm shifts or to mark the before and after of a social, political and cultural event in time.
Five years have passed since the crisis emerged. A profoundly negative effect is evident as a result of the failure (bankruptcy?) of the current “political” system. This demise is recurrently contested in many cities around the world, as demonstrations are literally protests for the future; a future that many cannot imagine. In fact, as geographer Erik Swyngedouw points out:
Rarely in history have so many people voiced their discontent with the political designs of the elites and signalled a desire for an alternative design of the city and of the world, of the polis. Yet rarely has mass protest resulted in so little political gain. (Swyngedouw, 2011, p. 8)
What this realisation outlines is that the city, the natural habitat of graphic design, is presently immersed in a consensual, highly colonised moribund state. To this condition of evacuation of the ‘proper political’ 2, Swyngedouw calls the ‘post-political’.
2— Proper politics exists whenever the count of parts and parties of society is disturbed by the inscription of a part of those who have no part. (Rancière, 1998: 123)
He argues that it is at the junction of a “double fantasy promise;” that one has to choose sides. On the one hand, we are promised an eventual enjoyment; one which “is forever postponed, that becomes a true utopia”. On the other, “there is the promise of catastrophe and disintegration if the elite’s fantasy is not realised, one that is predicated upon relentless cultivation of fear…”. What is then continuously propagated is that both this fear and the design of the ever-delayed enjoyment can only be managed through “technocratic-expert knowledge and elite governance arrangements”. (Swyngedouw, 2011, p. 54)
When the main focus of Western governments are a predictable and desperately obsessive yearning for economic growth at any cost, the state of crisis naturally spreads not only to all layers of society, but also to all academic disciplines. Graphic design is no exception. Still generally packaged as a synonym for ‘good business’, it has another opportunity to rethink its complicity with capitalism as an unavoidable fatality. The present economic, political and social crisis highlights the fragilities and limitations – but also the potential – of many disciplines, of which graphic design is here the case-in-point.
In a series of ‘post’ prefixes emerging at the beginning of the 21st century, resides the inevitable realisation of design’s impossibility of ever being released from the double-bind situation that characterises its existence. Or, the last bastion of hope for a critical and reflective design practice.
In August 2011, the auto-denominated and now extinct, ultra-leftist Deterritorial Support Group (DSG) released a poster on a PDF format for dissemination. In the digital file, a photo is used as a background, with a bold embossed yellow typeface over it. The photo consists of a man, a teenager and a woman at their doorsteps, with a police officer holding a dog, appearing to be patrolling the surrounding area. This image suggests the idea of imminent danger, fear and control, while also naturally making a reference to the Territorial Support Group, the London Metropolitan public order riot police. In the top right hand corner, it is possible to see DSG’s logo branding the poster.
Following the summer 2011 UK riots, the undoubtedly timely photograph used in the poster was awarded a particular symbolism. However, it was the centred sentence laid over the photo that brought to the attention of mainstream media (notably The Guardian, 15 December 2011), a term that had been circulating within the philosophical, cultural and political discourse for over a decade: the ‘post-political’. In the poster, it was possible to read: “The post-political = the most political”. Powerful and confident, the poster was also prone to different interpretations – not only because of its statement, but also because of the dialogue the sentence established with the photograph in the background.
Indeed, this phrase can have two different but converging meanings: on the one hand, it suggests the rise of a new political reality, and on the other, the struggle to deal with that reality. DSG firmly endorsed the latter on their blog.
In “The Post-political City and the Insurgent Polis” (Bedford Press, 2011), Swyngedouw explains the former, while also quoting philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who has been reflecting upon the term for more than a decade:
The post-political condition is one in which a consensus has been built around the inevitability of state-backed capitalism as an economic system, parliamentary democracy as the political ideal, humanitarianism and inclusive cosmopolitanism as a moral foundation. Imagining alternatives to this capitalo-parliamentary ideal (as Badiou calls it) is censored, foreclosed. Post-politics is ‘thus about the administration (policing) of social, economic or other issues, and they remain of course fully within the realm of the possible, of existing social relations’ (Žižek, 1999b: 198). (…) The ultimate sign of post-politics in all Western countries, Žižek continues, “is the growth of a managerial approach to government: government is reconceived as managerial function, deprived of its proper political dimension” (Žižek, 2002a: 303 in Swyngedouw, 2011, pp. 21–22)
This condition sets new rules in the contemporary city, ones which the photo used by DSG attempts to illustrate, by provoking a conflict with the presented statement. What the term ‘post-political’ also opens up, as might any other term using the ‘post’ prefix, is a questioning of the meaning of the word it is aiming to leave behind. In this case: politics. Citing philosopher Jacques Rancière, Swyngedouw says:
What are “true-politics”? A community of interruptions, fractures, irregular and local, through which egalitarian logic comes and divides the police community from itself. It is a community of worlds in community that are intervals of subjectification: intervals constructed between identities, between spaces and places. Political being-together is a being-between: between identities, between worlds… Between several names, several identities, several statuses. (Rancière, 1998, 137–138 in Swyngedouw, 2011, p. 26)
It is therefore appropriate to note that dissensus is a fundamental element in a truly democratic society. Allowing fractures to exist maintains democracy under permanent review, allowing alternative and unaccounted political models to be discussed. This realisation is also relevant for design, as it outlines the need for an agonistic dimension in the discipline, if it wants to more actively contribute to an egalitarian, liberating and democratic condition. To make this statement clearer, Swyngedouw cited political philosopher Peter Hallward, who argued that:
The concern of democracy is not with the formulation of agreement or the preservation of order but with the invention of new and hitherto unauthorised modes of disaggregation, disagreement and disorder’ (Hallward, 2005: 34–35 in Swyngedouw, 2011, p. 26)
On the other hand, the meaning of DSG’s use of the term, indicate the ways in which people had been attempting to do Politics. Direct action, public forums with direct participation, and concentrations in improvised ‘agoras’ throughout the world, are just a few examples. Pointing to the bankruptcy of the ‘old politics’, the post-political offers, in DSG’s motto, a new platform in which there is space and hope for a different system, one that supports the emergence of the true political.
3— The fake text, pretending to be written by Slavoj Žižek announcing his and Lady Gaga’s support/ presence in the University and College Union strike (2011), brought substantial attention from numerous newspapers and blogs.
The poster, along with other tactics 3, served then to create a surface of conflicting and antagonising meanings, allowing different interpretations and discussions to emerge. Boldly ambiguous, the poster promotes disagreement, aware that a decaying and bankrupting system that only provides consensus and radicalises dissensus, cannot be truly political.
In a conversation between the designers Zak Kyes and Mark Owens published in Iapsis Forum on Design and Critical Practice: The Reader (2009), the latter makes a pertinent observation concerning the (mis)use of adapted terminology in graphic design discourse.
Owens argues that graphic design tends to be delayed in engaging with terminology under discussion in other disciplines, more often than not borrowing terms that are “frequently founded on some unacknowledged misreading or misunderstanding.” (Owens, 2009, p. 327)
He suggests ‘postmodernism’ as a case in point, noting that it was an exhausted term within fine art and architectural discourse by the time it started to be used within graphic design in the late 1980s. To add to the list of examples, the same was valid, according to Owens, with the ‘graphic authorship’ discussions of the 1990s and more recently, with the exploration of the term ‘relational design’. Owens notes:
Something similar happened with the “Designer as Author” in the 1990s, which originally came out of a fairly nuanced reading of Barthes by Michael Rock, but subsequently morphed into a shorthand for a kind of market-savvy, entrepreneurial form of self-promotion. It’s the same situation with Relational Aesthetics, a term first coined over a decade ago by Nicolas Bourriaud to describe a certain tendency in late-90s art practice, which graphic design critics only now seem to be discovering and attempting to retrofit under the rubric of Relational Design. (Owens, 2009, p. 329)
The term ‘post-critical’ seems to follow this legacy. As it happened in the past, it is still a fairly recent term within graphic design discourse unlike, again, within other disciplines. And, as Owens points out in relation to other terms, its reading and interpretation are likely to generate misunderstandings, but surely also overlaps with the ones set out by other disciplines.
In “Critical of What: Toward a Utopian Realism” (2005), architect and critic Reinhold Martin makes a succinct account of the post-critical manifestation within architecture. Martin starts his argument by making a reference to architect George Baird’s article “’Criticality’ and Its Discontents” (Harvard Design Magazine, 2004), using it as an initial reference before he builds upon it. First, he uses it to analyse what has been called “the critical” or “critical architecture”. He then suggests that “it might be fair to characterize such practices, variously named “postcritical” or “projective,” as sharing a commitment to an affect-driven, non-oppositional, nonresistance, nondissenting, and therefore nonutopian, forms of architectural production.” (Martin, 2005, p. 104) The kind of practice Martin describes whilst citing Baird, failed to deliver, according to the author, “an actual, affirmative project”, hiding instead behind adjectives such as “easy,” “relaxed,” and “cool”.
Following this description, Martin suggests that the post-critical may be seen as a shift from ‘political critique’ to ‘aesthetic critique’. The former, he continues, might be defined by a “Frankfurt School-style negative dialectics” in a clear reference to critical theorist Theodor Adorno, and associated with theorists like Manfredo Tafuri or Michael Hays. 4 Yet, architect Peter Eisenman explicitly diverted his criticality, as Martin argues, towards the questioning of the discipline’s internal assumptions. By demonstrating both disinterest and resistance towards the political, social and economic struggles architecture has to deal with, at professional and academic levels, Eisenman semantically changed what was understood as ‘critical’. Therefore, Martin alerted to his illusion that a “formal syntax could be separated definitely from its political semantics,” as per architect Giuseppi Terragni’s ethical positioning. It is then under this aegis that an ‘aesthetic critique’ operates.
4— Interestingly, he then argues that “this position usually winds up testifying not to the existence of a critical architecture, but to its impossibility, or at most, its irreducible negativity in the face of the insurmountable violence perpetrated by what the economist Ernest Mandel called, some time ago, “late capitalism.”” (Martin, 2005, p. 105) This is particularly pertinent to note, as graphic design has to deal with the same political and economical conditioning as architecture, in their search for spaces for critical autonomy.
Finally, Martin points to a pertinent observation made by Baird in which he highlights that the described post-critical “relaxed” or “projective” attitude, assumes the existence of what it denounces or, in any event, criticises.” This realisation finds a parallel in graphic design, as the term post-critical implies that the discipline was previously ‘critical’. This presupposition is debatable.
In issue 64 of Emigre (2003), a concern with a generalised acritical state of the graphic design discipline was openly expressed, namely by design curator Andrew Blauvelt and educator Jeffery Keedy.
Commenting on a reality observable within graphic design discourse after the vivid contributions generated during the mid-eighties and nineties (namely the discussions revolving around ‘design authorship’), Blauvelt presented a dark account of the state of the discipline. In the article “Towards Critical Autonomy or Can Graphic Design Save Itself?”, pluralism seemed to be, according to Blauvelt, the word that best described graphic design at the beginning of the 21st century. The discipline’s constituent elements were so “scattered and destabilized”, that for him, “any attempt at definitions becomes meaningless”. Blauvelt went even further, by introducing the ‘post-critical’ term to graphic design discourse:
This situation of academic and marketplace pluralism, as well as a dearth of critical discourse, are actually related phenomena, each reflecting the condition of the other. Slowly but surely, any critical edge to design – either real or imagined – has largely disappeared, dulled by neglect in the go-go nineties or deemed expendable in the subsequent downswing. However, the reason seems not a factor of cyclical economies, but rather the transfiguration of a critical avant-garde into a post-critical arrière-garde. (Blauvelt, 2003, p. 38)
Five years later, Blauvelt reaffirmed this post-critical condition. In the article “The Work of Task” (Design Observer, 2008), he reviewed the birth of the magazine Task Newsletter, as being symptomatic of an installed non-confrontational attitude in graphic design practice. Blauvelt asked: “The presence of Task asks, How do you make a magazine for the post-critical, post-movement moment of contemporary graphic design?” After the application of the ‘post-critical’ term was contested in the blog post’s comment section, Blauvelt provided a clearer reasoning for its use, shedding light on its meaning:
In my opinion the critical establishes a position. The post-critical does not. I’m not evoking a specifically architectural reference for the term, only alluding to the idea that there is nothing to define, uphold, be against, or resist, etc. The issuance of an object into the world does not necessarily establish a critical position. It is possible that we can have more objects and fewer critical positions. (Blauvelt, Design Observer, 2008)
5— Trying to describe the group of participants of Forms of Inquiry, and dismissing the title of ‘critical designers’ attached to them, Bailey said: “And I think the answer is that they don’t yet know what they want, other than opportunities and occupations that accommodate their interests. Their defining characteristic as group is Lost, sometimes happily adrift, sometimes unhappily insecure. They care about working and the nature of that work, but not particularly about either $$$ or Big Causes. They’re more commonly seeking to perpetuate and share interests–in art, literature, music, and all the other usual tools for psychic survival.” (Bailey, 2010, p. 80)
Still in issue 64 of Emigre in which Blauvelt suggested a scattered post-criticality, design writer and educator Jeffery Keedy raised a question concerning graphic design’s increased interest in social and political issues at the beginning of the century. In “Design Modernism 8.0”, Keedy made a ferocious critique of some attitudes manifested in the magazine Dot Dot Dot, by describing the state of graphic design as an eighth reincarnation of Modernism. A tougher description of the result of pluralism sees a parallel with Andrew Blauvelt’s article, whilst being inevitably connected to an apparently convenient looseness defended by the magazine’s editor, Stuart Bailey 5. In what can be seen as an early description of the post-critical, and in response to the design and content of Dot Dot Dot, Keedy says:
Modernism 8.0 truly offers the worst of both worlds. From Modernism it takes systems, reductivism, and a dogmatic style, and from Postmodernism it takes relativism, low vernacular taste, and pedantic self-indulgence. Creating “systems” that can be used as both a crutch and shield, it is neither ambitious nor inspiring, aiming low to successfully meet its goal. (Keedy, 2003, p. 61)
The ‘post-critical’ description put forward by Blauvelt finds a parallel in Keedy’s critique of the recurrent rebirths of Modernism: “Instead of wilfully ignoring the failure of Modernism, graphic designers should have faced Postmodern reality with critical optimism, not cynical detachment.” (Keedy, 2003, p. 67)
It would be easy to say that the post-critical thrives on enthusiasm, on tumblring, Behancing, pinteresting, on design buzzing and hourly retweeting, on liking and reblogging. Even easier would be to classify a vast quantity of designers and design students spreading excitement on the web, addicted to riso printing, participating in “creative” portfolio gatherings, filling walls with post-it notes and engaging in confused editorial endeavours, as defining the ‘post-critical’ in graphic design (a scattering of the post-critical indeed). Such a generalisation, together with a very blurry definition of what constitutes criticality in graphic design, renders the ‘post-critical’ term, at the very least, extremely vague and reductionist. The term is so broad that it virtually snowballs any critique, especially because what is presently considered to be ‘critical’ in graphic design, is so open to debate.
Yet, the analysis Reinhold Martin makes of a shift from political to aesthetic (or projective) critique – finding a parallel in Keedy’s critique of Dot Dot Dot – focus on a more specific, conscious, non-confrontational, and de-politicised attitude towards graphic design. It is then the manifestation of a new acritical form of criticality, if judged with the original Frankfurt School foundations. The lack of ideology is the ideology. It is one which, perhaps unwillingly, blurs, confuses and ignores what critical has been known to mean in the past. The ‘aesthetic critique’ reconfigures what the word critical can mean in relation to graphic design, thereby allowing it to be attached to virtually any kind of practice that deviates from the discipline’s canon. The post-critical places itself beyond criticism; delusionally rendering the criteria that preceded its existence, neglectable. 6
This link seems to indicate an important correlation in the light of the confrontational necessity of the ‘proper political’ previously noted: the less Political, the less critical.
6— Reinhold Martin argued that the post-critical avoids becoming obsessed with the past, looking instead optimistically to the future. Stuart Bailey seems to partially reinforce this idea in his open letter in Dot Dot Dot 20. Responding to design critic Rick Poynor’s criticism of overlooking graphic design history and/ or tradition, Bailey said that they (referring a group of participants of Forms of Inquiry) have their own [history], make their own and will continue to do so, sustaining his arguments with a series of eclectic references. For them, Emigre is as much as an influence as an independent record label or a band. (Bailey, 2010, p. 82)
One of the most popular accounts of this kind of prefixes, can be found in What is Post-Modernism? (Academy Editions, 1986), authored by architectural theorist Charles Jencks. He draws attention to the implications of using such a prefix, but also to the existence of many other ‘posts’, while explaining the precise and ambiguous nature of post-modernism:
The phrase thus carries the weight of all the ‘posties’ that have been around since the 1880s and Post-Impressionism: post-industrial, post-historic, Post-Capitalist, Post-Christian, etc. Common to all these usages is the notion of posteriority, the transition from a known classifier to an unknown but suggestive future.
Post-modern has chosen us because it is so precise and ambiguous at the same time: accurate about the post we have left and richly suggestive of the destiny for which we are heading. The direction comes from the past cultural weighting and the pull of the future. (Jencks, 1996, p. 15)
While these and other ‘post’ terms surface within graphic design discourse, it is unlikely that designers will want to wear their corresponding badges, avoiding pigeonholing in an increasingly volatile and fast changing discipline. That is arguably the least relevant contribution of their emergence. However, they are useful to signal paradigm shifts, to point upcoming demises and especially to open up discussions and platforms, which in turn can foster new approaches to deal with current social, political and cultural conditions – ultimately keeping the discipline under much needed scrutiny.
They too provide an opportunity to debate how graphic design, as a tool, can help designers and society to navigate and survive in a widely spread crisis; both at a personal, disciplinary and public level. If there is a term graphic design does not need to borrow or adapt to, it is the post-critical. Paradoxically, it may well be the extreme conditions created by the post-political reality that can perhaps prevent the post-critical from fully realising its suicidal – but comfortably and seductively self-indulgent – potential.
Bailey, S. (2010) Another Open Letter, Dot Dot Dot 20
Baird, G. (2004), Criticality and Its Discontents, Harvard Design Magazine
Blauvelt, A. (2008) The Work of Task, Design Observer
Blauvelt, A. (2003) Towards Critical autonomy or Can Graphic Design Save Itself?, Emigre 64, Princeton Architectural Press
Jencks, C. (1996) What is Post-Modernism? London: Academy Editions
Keedy, J. (2003) Modernism 8.0, Emigre 64, Princeton Architectural Press
Martin, R. (2005) Critical of What? Toward a Utopian Realism, Harvard Design Magazine, no. 22
Owens, M. (2009) Forms of Agency in Iapsis Forum on Design and Critical Practice: The Reader, Sternberg Press
Swyngedouw, E. (2011) Designing the Post-Political City and the Insurgent Polis. London: Bedford Press