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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.


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When i get a design to the point where its just a streamlined process to get the thing done i almost never like it. When i do like it it’s not long before i get this horrible feeling that there is something wrong with it.

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Very interesting article. I'll have to look more into some of your observations myself.


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