Political Agency in Graphic Design: In Conversation with The Elective Collective

3 years ago by

Written by Cameron Ralston

Supported by Creative New Zealand

Cameron Ralston is a contributor to Aotearoa Design Thinking 2017, a series of commissioned critical design essays published by Design Assembly and funded by Creative New Zealand.

This article is the fourth in a four part series which looks internally at this concept of ‘Design Thinking’ and what on earth that actually means. Is there really a designer-ly way of thinking? And what is relationship between thinking and designing? This series will attempt to clarify where we find ourselves in the current field of design.

You can read Ralston’s earlier Aotearoa Design Thinking pieces here:

Part One: What is Design Thinking?

Part Two: Who’s Winning? Graphic Design Competitions

Part Three: Plans and Reality in Central City Christchurch

The Elective Collective is a project initiated by a group of ten third year Graphic Design students at the Ilam School of Fine Arts, Christchurch, New Zealand. As part of their research this project seeks to engage with the political agency of graphic design. The Elective Collective invites students and designers to contribute work and research towards a collective public database. This database aims to both archive and activate a collection of political graphic design in New Zealand. Cameron Ralston, Christchurch writer for Aotearoa Design Thinking interviewed Holly Maitland and Daniel Shaskey of The Elective Collective.

Cameron Ralston: We of course have an election coming up this month (I hope you’re both enrolled). I can only assume the current political situation was one of the reasons for your research. Can you tell us what the impetus behind initiating The Elective Collective was?

Holly Maitland & Daniel Shaskey: Most of the people in our class have interests in different social issues which you can see through our work, from climate change to gender equality to animal rights. I think it’s something that is inevitably going to happen within an art school, and as graphic design students we are learning the skills to visualise these issues and ideas. We loosely structured the project around the election to explore how this type of design might have an effect on people’s approach to the current political landscape of New Zealand. There was really a whole lot of forces driving us in this direction. Our lecturer Luke Wood is highly influential in these types of projects too, he sort of kick-started us by structuring the initial research around Adam Curtis’s documentary HyperNormalisation which criticises the artists/designers role in driving political change. Stating that radicals “turned to art and music as a means of expressing their criticism of society” instead of trying to create change through collective action. That had a pretty important role in the initial discussion around the project, which then led to where we are now.

Film Still from Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation, 2016

CR: The works you currently have up on The Elective Collective website are critical of social and governmental issues. Do you think that graphic designers have a social responsibility? You have split The Elective Collective into the past and the present. I get the sense that the further you go back through history the more gravity this social and political involvement has. A big example of this is the United States of America’s original Declaration of Independence documents, in which many of the printers took a risk in typesetting and printing. Now that the tools are regularly available do you think this is, or can you see, a change in quality and role of graphic design in the political context?

HM & DS: Designers absolutely have that social responsibility. We have these skills and tools at our disposal, it seems such a waste to not engage with social and governmental issues. When you look back on the history of social movements, it’s the ones with such a clear identity both conceptually and visually that stand out. You can see this with a lot of the collateral that was generated for HART by the Wellington Media Collective in 1981, this type of identity would not have existed without graphic designers. It’s definitely evident that the further back you go the more political design becomes, but that also speaks to the time that these items lived in. Graphic design can be such a good documentation of political contexts that have existed in the past, which is something that is important for us to be aware of as we develop our current socio-political environment. Political design outwardly appears to be dying off today, when you look at all the amazingly political works between the 60s and 80s—the likes of Tomi Ungerer, Jamie Reid, Barbara Kruger, Guerrilla Girls, etc.—and compare that to what we see today, we seem to have become so much tamer. This might have been due to the rise of social media and the decline of printed matter over the past ten years. But again, that speaks to the context, perhaps it is that we need more activists for designers to collaborate with. The role of the designer is defined by the social context they interact with.

Mobilise May 1st Poster, designed in 1981 by the Wellington Media Collective for HART:NZAAM. This identity was also adopted for flyers and pamphlets that were spread around leading up to the protest.

Barbara Kruger, I shop therefore I am, 1990

CR: I’d tend to agree that there is some kind of social responsibility for graphic designers. But graphic designers often also have private and commercial practice responsibilities. So, yes in political contexts graphic designers can perform an important role in spreading messages amongst the public but this has to be balanced with the practicalities of everyday practice and graphic design being a profession. Dealing with politics outside the critical bubble—such as academic institutions, for you the Fine Art School—is often a much trickier to navigate. Furthermore using graphic design as a tool for criticism of public issues can lead to difficult situations, especially if it’s your livelihood.

I don’t think that there’s any lack of activists in New Zealand, so I’m interested in hearing more about where you see the disconnect between graphic designers and activist communities. Do you think there is a designerly way of engaging with politics that is different to other disciplines such as journalistic and documentary film and photography means? How so? I guess a lot of this comes down to a question that I wrestled with after art school of: do designers actually need to be critical?

HM & DS: It’s difficult, and it’s certainly not for everyone. As with many other occupations you tend to find a balance between socio-political views and professional practice, either separating the two or committing to one or the other. While there is that social responsibility, how you implement it varies between designers. With the ever-increasing rise of capitalism, graphic design becomes more and more commercialised. This means that commercial graphic design is now the primary focus, rather than looking to social issues and politics.

It’s not that there is a lack of activists so much, but the relationships that once existed between designers and activists seems to have weakened. The Wellington Media Collective was built on this relationship, it’s members were actively involved in social and political movements outside of their practices, their famous slogan “We will work with you, not for you” speaks to how this relationship played out.

As for the designerly way of engaging with politics, graphic design is often about identity. While journalism and documentary film engage with content really well—often falling under the same umbrella as graphic design—there are many aspects that graphic design has to offer that other mediums do not. For instance the clear visual identity sought after in graphic design can really have a political impact, alongside the content. Graphic design also has the ability to offer an instant understandable message where documentary could not.

Art school is an incredibly critical place, and it’s hard to compare with other academic institutions when we haven’t been through them, but since we are taught to generate content rather than stylise pre-existing material it becomes important to be critical of both ideas and visual representation.

CR: You have set this project up as a collective that people can contribute to. I’m interested in knowing more about how you see graphic designers (and non graphic designers) interacting with the content. What do you envisage them putting in and getting out of the collective and how is it managed?

HM & DS: We have imagined the project working in two waves. The first wave is focussing on design students and designers and how they can communicate their political stance. We are encouraging them to upload both historical content that they feel is relevant to the political history of New Zealand graphic design, and content that they have generated themselves to interact with our current socio-political context. The second wave aims to open the project up to the public where the content that has been generated will be able to be shared around via social media or printed matter. Because we are aware of the different political backgrounds many designers come from, we have tried to have a very liberal approach to managing the content. We have no restrictions on what is uploaded, as long as it is relevant to the project. So, in theory someone could upload the most right-wing conservative poster, that would then sit in the same space as another poster that is promoting the left-wing. In this sense it is sort of emulating the chaos of the poster walls before the 80s where anyone could paste anything up no matter how confronting it was.

CR: You made the point that printed media has been on the decline and has thus led to less graphic design involvement. I wonder if the disconnect you see between activists and skilled graphic designers is diminished because right now—especially in Christchurch—printed media reaches a smaller number of people than a online post can. Especially when you can see the analytics: number of likes, shares, demographic reach and so on. That’s definitely not to say that print is dead, I still regularly get political pamphlets coming through my letterbox. With online media it’s easier to change and adapt the message on the fly. But printed media requires a statement to be made and stuck by (it’s been interesting watching the Andrew Little billboards slowly be replaced by Jacinda Ardern ones). Your project is a kind of conflation of the social online clickable images and focussed print images, how do you see that difference between online and physical medias playing out in The Elective Collective? What kind of context will the printed outcomes enter into?

HM & DS: Print is certainly not dead, and probably won’t be for a long time, if ever. There is certainly a place for both platforms to convey a message. The thing we are trying to do is find that middle ground where the content we are hoping for will engage with both mediums. Social media is great for getting a message to a certain demographic online, and like you say it is easy to adapt the message after it has been posted. But the weakness of things like social media is that the flow of information is so mediated. If you scroll through Facebook or Instagram, you see imagery that feels like it has been collated specifically for you. These platforms are constantly trying to adapt to the user, creating filter bubbles of people with similar views. So, naturally when an activist group creates an event or makes a post about an issue, it is only going to reach a selected target. This is fine because often this demographic is the one that is showing up to protests or taking action on issues. However, social media does not have the opportunity to challenge the opposition in the same way as print media. Physical ephemera has a more unmediated reach, it can sit places and be seen by the far right, the far left and everything in between. The Elective Collective in a way is trying to address both platforms, allowing images to be shared on social media, while also giving the option of downloading high quality PDFs to be printed out and posted up around schools, studios, public spaces, etc. Anywhere the site visitors feel like they might work.

The Elective Collective website showing past and present contributions

CR: You’re absolutely right that graphic design can be quite in your face. Often a lot of what could be seen as or studied as typographic design is made by people untrained in graphic design. I’m thinking about things such as protest signs and graffiti. How do you see these as being a part of your research? Or are you more interested in designed pieces and identity systems? Emma Ng in her recent piece What does a fact look like? talked about legitimacy and how graphic design can give ideas a visual verification and make it sit alongside certain associated ways of thinking. Have you found this in any of the ephemera you’ve collected and come across? Emma also goes on to talk about how systems and platforms are designed and how they can alter shared experiences of messages. I’m interested to hear how you approached the visual aesthetic of your project.

HM & DS: There’s an article by Elaina Hamilton in The National Grid #3, that deals with typography in protest. Specifically, in relation to the Springbok Tour, she talks about how this typography, while seemingly chaotic, is still related to its function. Often these involve duplicating an image or text by stencilling, not so different to other forms of graphic design. This aesthetic still has an obvious identity. So, while we are interested in ‘professionally’ designed pieces this seemingly naïve/handmade type of design still very much fits with the project. We have already seen some examples of this being uploaded to the website in the form of a couple of stencils that someone made trying to inspire people to vote.

When you look at some of the historical ephemera we have collected you can get a pretty strong sense of legitimacy. Take, for example, the Broadsheet issue no.103. The bold imagery on the cover gives the magazine a sense of agency and gravity, echoing the content of the articles inside.

Approaching the project visually we tried to be thorough in our thinking about the context it would sit in. Initially choosing colours and themes from the historical content we had collected. Over time we refined the website to become a neutral space for user to upload a range of perspectives. We have tried to keep an underlying political aesthetic, using Futura for the logo, keeping the red and blue theme, etc. It will be interesting to see how people react with this content on the site and when it is shared or printed away from this platform.

Broadsheet No. 103 Cover, 1982,

CR: To round this off, you’ve covered the past and present in the project but how you see graphic design’s role in politics in the future?

HM & DS: Anything could happen. It seems evident that there could be a resurgence in politically active graphic design. There has been some talk in the international media lately about how millennials are starting to reject platforms like Facebook. This is something that would have a huge impact on politics. This could result in the return of print, causing the world to feel more connected. Alternatively, it could feel very disjointed, as older generations continue to build their lives around social media while the younger ones turn away from it. As long as there are social issues to protest and politics to follow, graphic design will have an important role in future society.

The Elective Collective is a project initiated by Annabel Ambrosius, Milena Baden, Adriaan Bourke, Holly Maitland, Danni Quick, Lee Richardson, Daniel Shaskey, Tuha Tuimaka, Sarah Tunstall and Vickey Zeng. Visit their website and follow them on Facebook.





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