Operationalising the Means: Communication Design as Critical Practice


What is critical consciousness at the bottom if not an unstoppable predilection for alternatives? — Edward W. Said

The Message as Derivate
The force of conviction of my modernist upbringing as a designer explains my fascination with the formal aesthetic side of the classic idiom of communication design. At the same time I am constantly surprised by the fact that, under pressure of the current socio-economic conditions, modernism time and again succeeds in keeping its original liberating social intentions out of sight by concentrating on the very form itself; a conceptual and communicative shortcoming that is concealed in the abstractions of thinking and the elegance of form. This is true of all forms of cultural production, but especially of the “forbidden territories”, as Pierre Bourdieu (1979) calls them, which are less under scrutiny, such as the arts, architecture, design and so on. These are all disciplines that play a large part in the most far-ranging aesthetic production of capitalism ever known; but it is a production that lacks the sense of reality and spirit of rebellion of the avant-garde to look the ‘monster’ of the power relations under which it works in the eyes. This is intellectual and artistic deficiency that reduces the achievements of the great modernist works and ideas to that of isolated individuals in an ahistorical context.

Equally disturbing by now is a postmodernist aesthetic activism that due to this need for tranquillity in artistic production, increases the atrophy of its emancipatory capabilities and ends up in a frankly classic practice using a revolutionary terminology, but in actual practice fulfils no other than a kind of institutional opposition. This is like leaders who call for revolution, but whose social strategies, procedures and language use are routine.
Now that the democratic public sphere has collapsed in the profit-driven, managerial and academic inflation of the worldwide neo-liberal climate, communication design’s optimistic pragmatism and belief in providing great services ends in an attractive speechlessness, knowing no other way to stay in place than the personal fashion of unbounded influence. It is a type of cultural production of the creative industry that Fredric Jameson (2015) —correctly in my opinion—compares with the derivates of the financial economy that subsume our experience under the empty fictions of conceptualisation and promotion.

Cultural production is social commitment. (…) Computers don’t have built-in social consequences. How is one to identify with the messages? Empirical observation, data, are socially conditioned, are related to modes of production, give shape to forms of sociality. In spite of the forces that determine it the given should be worked through, should be related to reality, to everyday life. Which is a question of method, that is to say political. — Susan Buck-Morss

The meaning and visual quality of the message are thereby no longer a means but an end. We cannot distance ourselves any longer from this stagnant state of our work in the consensus media. The influence of the false dilemmas of the public debate has become so strong that the mediatory “incubators of new social forms”3 like architects and designers, as Rem Koolhaas (2003) puts it, can no longer turn away from the unchecked mass mediatisation and displacements of meaning that they help to produce. All the more reason to put up a fight against the raging dualisms and antagonistic egocentrism of a world in which almost everything becomes elusive through a conceptual and aesthetic self-mystification as a dangerous impasse to liberation and equality. It is also high time to land in reality as professionals and to invest in a visual journalism that takes up a deliberate position against current correctness: to projects that, removed from aesthetics as such, deal with and contribute once again to the public sphere to further progress and social change. Freedom, after all, is an activity; a call for a committed reinvestment in the substantive democratic and multiform realities of human exchange.

Strategy and Method
About a decade ago Andrew Blauvelt (2008) still expected that design would begin to explore “its performative dimension, its rhetorical impact and its ability to facilitate social interventions”.4 But communication design sacrificed the common good and once again became a matter of fine-tuning the usual ideological escape route of combining an artless belief in the intuitive act of aesthetic inspiration and digital technology as the ultimate outcome. This is often either a form of naiveté or just a sort of polite strategic gesture with a compromised aesthetic and weak intellectual stand, entirely lacking any realistic ideology and agenda.

This is why our situation today first of all calls for the rediscovery of a politically aware, empirical form of operationalisation of the means. After all, the choice of a political subject or a critical position does not in itself make the message political. It is the way the message is intended and shaped that is by definition political. Even though the word strategy is common in postmodern design discourse, its programmatic and strategic considerations underlying the intentions regarding the effects of the message on the recipients are hardly considered today. A more aware, investigative visual communication, however, should realise that the socio-public space is not something given, but a condition outside the capsule of design to be dealt with critically and practically at the same time: doing away with the autonomy of the design object, actively trying to explore the freedom of the symbolic field, striving for more meaningful and transparent action.

Terry Eagleton (2012) distinguishes in this connection two elementary concepts, their strategies and forms: “This classical conception, of the form of the artwork containing but not subjugating its contents, is less suggestive than the concept of structuration. Structuration mediates between structure and event, in much the same sense that a strategy does. It signifies a structure, to be sure – but a structure in action, one constantly in the process of reconstituting itself according to the ends it seeks to achieve, along with the fresh purposes it keeps producing (…)”.

Els Kuijpers (2014) has convincingly elaborated this model in a communicative spectrum of five strategic positionsright 101In this range she distinguishes: functionalism, formalism, informalism, productivism, dialogism. See: Kuijpers, E. (2014) Strategies in Communication Design. Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum. based on the intended working vis-à-vis the spectator. Her research shows a sliding scale of strategic positions that vary in accordance with the variation of standards for a political or other kind of awareness to negotiate, resist, or make a difference in the world. It makes clear the dimensions of the potential room for manoeuvre when the autonomy of the traditional design object and its perceptual wholeness are abandoned and where the opportunities lie for the tactics of dissent action in the media.

The Great Method is a practical doctrine of alliances and of the dissolution of alliances, of the exploitation of changes and the dependency on change, of the instigation of change and the changing of the instigators, the separation and emergence of unities, the unselfsufficiency of oppositions without each other, the unification or mutually exclusive oppositions. The Great Method makes it possible to recognize processes within things and to use them. It teaches us to ask questions which enable activity. — Bertolt Brecht

In this sense strategic insight is a basic condition for a genuinely critical practice. It forms the basis for a radical change in method and language use followed by a series of practical steps that turn abstractions into a contemporary and projective elaboration of the commission as the foundation for the structuring and mise-en-scène of the message. Bertolt Brecht’s lapidary definition of his “great method” (Jameson, 1989) is an inspiring example of such a critical and speculative thought in action, leading to a plot and scenario that ask for and enable a more meaningful and reunified sensorial language use.

Structure and Articulation
Now that private and individual interests have become rooted on a massive scale all over the world to the detriment of the public and general interest, the ability of language use in the media to signify and confer meaning has been corrupted to a considerable extent by professional mediation. It is an accommodation in which design plays a dominant and visually determinant role, resulting in the residues of representation and style, of individuality and skill. In short, communication design transferred from the sphere of the ‘exchange of meaning’ to a stylistic orientation driven by technological, administrational and institutional discourse.
In this light, the politicisation of the instruments of criticism is more than urgent. An absolute condition for success is the linguistic awareness that all language is based on its bi-articulate, twofold nature. A combination of fact and fiction as a multi-stranded form of experience and interpretation offers a potential for meaningful intervention in the message that will lead to a recasting. This goes beyond modernist institutionalisation and harks back to the ‘fresh roots’ and experiences of the cosmopolitan heritage of the modern.

That does not make this text a plea for the abolition of the achievements of the current practice of communication design. On the contrary, it is an argument for a broader, dialectical, journalistic and political approach that makes it possible to reformulate the commission in the light of its workings and the current state of the conditions of production. At the same time it is a plea for a deep interest in the working of the message and an practical investment in an open, multifaceted language use without which a truly critical practice cannot not exist.

To communicate is a verb, “a structure round which we must circle, looking at it from all sides, peering down from above, investigating from below” (Lissitzky, 1968, p. 343). Designers on the whole, however, trained as they are in the conceptual order of the text, are not familiar with the non-verbal, associative vocabularies of language. Even less do they feel at home in a language use that, driven by its operational intentions vis-à-vis the spectators and readers, replaces the conventional idea of communication as an objective form of representation of the world, with a complementary language use of a model allowing mediated and multiple interpretation.

The meaning of the text (…) is not an object but a practice. It emerges from a constant traffic between work and reader, so that (…) the act of reading is a project in which one receives back one’s own response from the other (the text) in transfigured or defamiliarised form. — Terry Eagleton

All the same, that reunification of the senses related to the practices of life lies at the core of the liberating force of what Viktor Shklovsky (1917) calls a “dialogic practice”. That is first expressed in the design process in the use of the editorial ground plan structuring the message’s story, by distinguishing between ‘motif’ and ‘plot’. Respectively defined as the basic elements of the narrative in logical and temporal terms that enables the unrolling of the subject, including the delay and retarding of a series of motifs which leads to the “defamiliarisation” of the message.

The creative process that results from this is not only a great pleasure but also a constant investment in the meaning and visual richness of the message. Here too the estrangement of the dialogic model replaces the conventional relation between performers and spectators. As a practice that seeks to demonstrate the why and what of the subject, it is thus unable to act without a well-spoken, polylinguistic language use – a form of hypertext as a visual, spatial, digital, etc. multi-literacy that shows its argument and exposes it in a variety of forms, leading to what Pier Paolo Pasolini (1972) calls the “free indirect style”. The consequence is a language use that establishes an inverted order to deconstruct and chart the world in an unusual sense, enabling activity and interpretation, so that the final word is never spoken.

It is from here that the real work starts, investing in the far-reaching skills of the verbal and non-verbal forms of expression – bearing in mind that the liberation of the viewers and readers is not so much to unify as to share our differences, to undo the supposed factualness of representation and replace it with the controversial figures of interpretation.

Blauvelt, A. (2008) Towards Relational Design, Design Observer.
Bourdieu, P. (1979) La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement. Les éditions des minuit.
Eagleton, T. (2012) The Event of Literature. Yale University Press.
Foster, H. (2002) Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes). London: Verso Books.
Jameson, F. (2015) Aesthetics of Singularity. In: New left Review no. 92. Minuit.
Jameson, F. (1989) Brecht and Method. London: Verso Books.
Koolhaas, R. (2003) In: Obrist, H. Interviews, volume 1. Charta.
Kuijpers, E. (2014) Strategies in Communication Design. Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum.
Rancière, J. (2006) The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Continuum.
Pasolini, P. (1972) Empirismo Eretico (Trans. Heretical empiricism). Garzanti.
Said, E. (1983) Traveling Theory. In: Raritan Quarterly.
Buck-Morss, S. (1997) Cultural Production And Social Commitment. Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Academy. Lecture.
Shklovsky, V. (1917) Art as Technique. In Lemon, T. & Reis, M. (Eds.), (1965). Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Translated by Lemon, T. & Reis, M. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 3–24.

Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 2 – Critique of Method (2016).

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1. In this range she distinguishes: functionalism, formalism, informalism, productivism, dialogism. See: Kuijpers, E. (2014) Strategies in Communication Design. Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum.