Design responses to crises in 2020
by Matthew Galloway
In The Crystal Goblet (1947), typographer Beatrice Warde talks about the ‘pure magic’ of black marks on a page both representing the thoughts of one person, and being readable to another. She calls this phenomenon an act of ‘thought transference’.
This way of describing the simple act of giving form to thought illuminates the possibility inherent in that form-giving. Black marks, like those I’m making here, are loaded with meaning, existing and entering into an endless flow of language that forms both public and private discourse. Alphabets — the signifiers of language — weave together in infinite variations to convey thought and meaning; references are made, signals are given, and the bulbous thought train of humanity trudges onwards.
The Crystal Goblet is a seminal graphic design text that advocates for rational, clear that is invisible — allowing the content to speak for itself. The result is a fraught modernist argument that champions a noble cause while being less aware of the context and implicit bias of its moment.
I return to Warde’s black marks often, as a reminder of the paradoxical simplicity and complex possibility at play in the act of thought transference. The Crystal Goblet is a seminal graphic design text that advocates for rational, clear typesetting that is invisible — allowing the content to speak for itself. The result is a fraught modernist argument that champions a noble cause while being a little unaware of the context and implicit bias of its moment. Warde hopes for black marks untarnished by stylistic considerations, leading to a pure experience of thought transference. But of course, this is impossible. For instance, we can look at graphic design from the modernist period and read its formal austerity as the stylistic embodiment of utopian ideals regarding universal language. In trying to be invisible, the designers of this period were literally filling black marks to the brim with their modernist ideologies and world views.
The manner in which we commit language to form is never pure, there is always an element of design involved. A hand-written note is embodied with the unique movements of one’s hand gesture; a photocopied legal document holds the formality of word-processing technologies filtered through the imperfections of reproduction; A 280-character tweet is inherently tied to the medium through which the message is given — a vast, algorithmic communication framework with ever-morphing cultural significance. In the act of communicating through visual forms, value is added, maybe obviously, maybe subversively, probably both. This is what I have always found so compelling about the graphic design act; it is the utilisation of visual phenomena to add value to black marks.
If messages are able to be augmented in this way, we must acknowledge the power inherent in the design act. As designers, we need to be aware of the responsibility embedded in our ability to amplify meaning.
But what does this added value lead to? When we visualise language through the process of design, what new meanings are inadvertently created through the technical proficiency of graphic design tools? How does the sophistication of contemporary design languages add value through, say, the elegance of illustrative figures? Or the simple act of adding colour? If messages are able to be augmented in this way, we must acknowledge the power inherent in the design act. As designers, we need to be aware of the responsibility embedded in the ability to amplify meaning.
Beyond this, it’s important to acknowledge that this layering of visual meaning and language on top of a message weaves a complex subtext. This subtext operates because of, but also independent to, the communicated style, form and message. This subtext operates as an impression of labour, and as a result, the work of the graphic designer is not only understood as a conveyed message, but as a distinct act in its own right.
In this contemporary moment, when thoughts and images are able to be produced and shared at a rate unrivalled by any other time in human history, the process and implications of such design acts are perhaps more problematic than ever.
… in too many cases witnessed throughout the varied crises of 2020, these design acts end up being nothing more than empty gestures; moments of tokenism and virtue signalling that hold the appearance of action …
By sharing a designed image on a social media platform advocating for racial equality or action on climate change, an action is implied. It’s not just that a visual image is shared, it’s not just that the image shared might do a sophisticated job of amplifying a certain message, it’s that the very act of the message being filtered through the design process implies time, labour, and care. Such design acts can feel meaningful to the designer responsible as a representation of their ability to use their platform for good. These design acts can similarly feel important to the viewer; because they formally legitimise a certain message or ideology, which again, feels like an action — feels like progress.
But, in too many cases witnessed throughout the crises of 2020, these design acts end up being nothing more than empty gestures — moments of tokenism and virtue signalling that hold the appearance of action, without any solid outcome other than a vague source of solidarity, whose primary outcome is to make those involved feel better about themselves. The designer feels good, the viewer sees the design act and mistakes it for some sort of change or progress, and both continue to scroll.
In reality, my fear is that this kind of empty gesture — by implying action and allowing both author and the audience to feel better about themselves — creates a net-negative effect; nothing concrete in the world changes, but the appearance of change allows those involved to remain passive and immobilised.
However, this is not the worst case scenario. In early 2020, I participated in a project, Mate Act Now, asking designers worldwide to respond to the problem of climate change by designing a poster. These posters were then shared on Instagram and made into a limited edition book. ‘Famous’ designers were involved, the project was profiled on numerous sought-after design blogs, and come awards season, the project was celebrated in categories dedicated to projects for social awareness and ‘public good’.
But it was only after participating I discovered that the designers and studio responsible for the project count Shell Oil amongst their clients. This case is, among others, the worst example of tokenism imaginable. Designers create beautiful imagery to show their support for climate change, and get profiled for doing so, while being bankrolled by big oil — a fact that would never be promoted through social media.
We must use our bodies in line with our design gestures. Our bodies have the power to inhabit real space, to move, to take to the streets, to print and paste, to talk together, to demand change.
It’s true that the design act has power, it’s true that our ability to amplify the act of thought transference is significant. But where that power rests and what it leads to can paradoxically mean nothing and everything, depending on what real action is represented, promoted, or hidden. As this time of crises must illustrate, we cannot inflate the design act beyond its station.
Designing and sharing alone is not enough, and can be incredibly fraught as stand-alone actions. We must use our bodies in line with our design gestures. Our bodies have the power to inhabit real space, to move, to take to the streets, to print and paste, to talk together, to demand change. Our bodies sitting, moving digital objects around a screen until they appear pretty enough to upload to social media become empty, they do not hold meaningful space, they do not commit to real change. Our bodies standing, walking away from our computers and refusing to move another pixel for big oil is real change.
In this vein, there have been many examples of the effectiveness of design as a catalyst for action, notably so these recent times: Printed Matter became a distribution point for sharing free PDFs of anti-racist posters, pamphlets, signs, flyers and organising material that directly contributes to education and protest marches in the US.
Aotearoa’s Designers Speak (Up) protested against and lobbied the Designers Institute of New Zealand to make real change regarding their failure over two decades to address significant gender imbalances within their organisation and the industry’s Best Awards. In 2019, Designers Speak (Up) held panel discussions and hui while touring their open call poster series, Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa, up and down the country — grassroots action.
Initiatives such as Where are the Black Designers? have utilised social media and video conferencing to create ongoing discussion around systemic racism in both design education and industry. Many print shops have provided free printing for posters in support of climate change, BLM and education surrounding COVID-19. Lost Time is geared to spark conversation and action to close the gender pay gap, with proceeds going into nonprofits working towards equality in the creative industry.
Design can be a catalyst, but change comes after that, in our actions; how we use our bodies; the company we keep; the companies we refuse to work for.
Designers, through the practise of broadcasting messages, are engaged in a public and thus inherently political activity. To understand and utilise this platform can be powerful. But to use the slickness of design language to pass as action, or use it as a cover for negative action, is a serious misplacement of that power. Words without action become meaningless. The same is true for design. We must not mistake our ability to amplify black marks with the ability to create real change. Design can be a catalyst, but change comes after that, in our actions; how we use our bodies; the company we keep; the companies we refuse to work for.
Matthew Galloway / artist and designer / matthew-galloway.co.nz