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Critical Graphic Design

A few days late, but here is my response to Alice Twemlow's Feb 21 post to the Design Observer, Some Questions about an Inquiry. The article talks about critical design and the Forms of Inquiry exhibit at Utrecht last month. She poses the question of where is graphic design in the critical design praxis.

My response:

Graphic design has always had a critical praxis

From Adbusters; the French organization, Ne Pas Plier, to Design for Democracy; graphic design has been " that, through its form, can question and challenge industrial agendas; embody alternative social, cultural, technical or economic values; and act as a prop to stimulate debate and discussion amongst the public, designers and industry" (Twemlow 2008).

As a design anthropologist, the value-add of graphic design to any social endeavor for me is its ability to make critical values and perspectives -- sharpened through iterative editing and evaluation to the clearest and most concise message -- tangible to people at a level of experience that is both intuitive and rational.

In the case of activist collectives like, Ne Pas Plier, graphic design makes tangible to others the critical perspectives of the people through signs that make you feel, think, and hopefully act to mitigate social and economic injustice.

Exemplified in Adbusters, graphic design makes the critical perspectives of our engagement as designers in commerce tangible to us as well as provide models on how to subvert and hack our participation in the industrial systems.

To me, one of the most powerful uses of a critical graphic design to use it to elicit people's critical experiences of deeper social processes. For example, on a project with a government health agency billing and payment policy, the research (not inquiry) participants were people who started off not very articulate about what was wrong with the system. It was when I placed a set of brochures, forms, and signs from a proposed new information system in front of them that they could easily express how "cheap" the institution was that they would use an orange color, or how a confusing layout reflected the lack of professionalism of the institution. We could use that same feedback not just to improve the materials but to go back to the government agency and say that this is how your practices need to change to match the desired experiences of the people as represented in these materials.

To me, the iterative process of designing, based on a human-centered design process, has been a power tool for critical design in the hands of designers and researchers who have a critical perspective and are willing to use it advocate for others.

So perhaps, it is not a matter of creating something new, but rather excavating and promoting what already exists in the hearts, minds, and hands of graphic design and its collaborators.


It is interesting that a Slovenian colleague of mine, Ksenija Berk, was taking about how there is a lot of design theory and critique being practiced by young people, but the "eminent" people are not aware of it, thus keep making proclamations that it does not exist. That's how I feel about the discussion on critical graphic design.

In Texas for the College Art Association Meetings

I'm in Dallas, Texas for the College Art Association meetings. It is my first time going to a CAA meeting. I ran into a Art History colleague, Heather Grossman and U of Minneasota Design colleague, Steven McCarthy. That's the nice thing about what seems to be a really small conference, you run into people you know.

This is an fly in and out conference so I won't see many panels, but it will be fun to present tomorrow on Contemporary Design Theory. I've read all the papers and it is amazing the overlap, but more tomorrow.

Happy Valentine's Day_9 forms of love

I once read somewhere a long time ago, (but currently found on the dataguru website) that Beverly Fehr conducted a study in which she described how there are 9 forms of love:

  1. Friendship
  2. Platonic
  3. Affection
  4. Romantic
  5. Passionate
  6. Committed
  7. Infatuation
  8. Puppy
  9. Sexual

So as you celebrate love today, figure out which form of love you are celebrating. Or which mixture of loves you are celebrating. Today, (this can change tomorrow), I'd go for a heady "love mix" of 50% affection, 20% friendship,  20% committed, and 10% Passionate love these days. Leave me digital valentines of your "love mix" for the day.

Splitting the delegates

So as I ask around today, it seems I am not the only one who was split between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. In Illinois, you select the candidate but you also get to elect the delegates. I and other friends (even in other states) dealt with our being torn by splitting the candidates. So many this is why the delegate counts seem so crazy on Real Clear Politics table.  Hilary Clinton has 1012 delegates, while Barack Obama has 933.

In Illinois, Obama won 96 delegate while Clinton won 49. I wonder which part of that was based on percentages and which was based on people splitting the delegates. I'm too tired to do the calculations.

The point is I am still undecided about Clinton and Obama even after the vote.

Yes, We Can_Obama and Hope

I just saw the most moving political action in my life. Following a link from Design Observer, I viewed YouTube video of musicians and actors saying/singing the word's to a Barack Obama's speech, "Yes, We Can." Most of the time I would link to it, but I think it is important to embed the video.

This is the "I Have a Dream" action of my generation. It's an action not a speech, because it is the appropriately musical (by Herbie Hancock), accessible, full of beautiful people, and viral aspect of this that has moved me to tears. I've heard Obama speak, and have yet to be moved as I was by this video that makes him into the expression of hope and centers us as the expression of that hope.

Cornell West characterizes hope:"Hope enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group xenophobia, and personal despair".

Until now I have been skeptical. But perhaps it is time for hope.