A graphic designer is perched on top of a tall row of Ikea shelving units at the De School Gallery in Amsterdam. She waves a yellow flag bearing the word “Unionize” on repeat, as if it’s chanting. She picks up signs marked “self-exploitation” and “overwork,” and sticks them over her head. For six hours straight, the designer rearranges folders, numbers, and others signs in various piles on the shelves.
Meet Tereza Ruller, one half of The Rodina, an experimental graphic design studio currently based in Amsterdam. Alongside commissioned design projects for clients including Harvard Graduate School of Design, the National Theatre of Prague, and our very own Eye on Design Magazine, The Rodina regularly applies its conceptual thinking to design-led performances and installations—like this particular piece, entitled “UNIONIZE: Abolish the Stage of Precarity.” A response to the current labor conditions in the creative industry, Ruller’s performance enacts the exhaustion of creative freelancers whose work and life blur in a never-ending cycle. To date, she’s performed this piece at De School Gallery and Copenhagen’s Chart Art and Design book fair.
“I wanted to create a situation where I could talk to people, where I can express my opinion, and be transparent about the topic of working conditions and labor,” says Ruller. “That’s why I imprisoned myself in a shelving structure for more than six hours, three days in a row. It’s very uncomfortable. My presence in the installation is important because it embodies my concerns regarding the future of work.”
The tight, metal shelf is a grid; its rigid system is a physical stand-in for the spreadsheets navigated by creative freelancers to keep project planning, deliverables, budgets, and accounts on track. Ruller spends her six-hour stints in this grid rearranging variously shaped and colored tokens; they measure the time she spends “working” (or rather, they measure her “work performance”). “When I need to stretch after hours of sitting, I can climb down the shelf and wave one of three flags,” she says.
Part of The Rodina’s interest in “performative design” lies in the conversations that are spurred through physical presence—and this installation is no different. “I wasn’t interested in looking for a solution or starting a real union, but rather opening a discussion,” Ruller says. “I wanted to make the piece physical and tactile—to use my body, to be here and now; present, rather than online. I wanted to address visitors rather than users. And I’ve found that many others felt that this is a hugely pressing issue, too.”
For Ruller, the way design studios present themselves on social media—obfuscating the realities of day-to-day creative labor—is a major problem. “This is hugely simplified, but the way studios represent themselves on social platforms distorts reality—platforms hide exploitation. Often on social media, the relationship and dialogues with a client are not visible, which is a hugely important part of design work.”
During Ruller’s conversations with visitors, many agreed that a contemporary design union must exist across industry disciplines, especially considering how quickly many roles change scope and nature today. A few recurring questions included:
- “Why are we afraid to ask about our future?
- What will we do when we are older?
- Who will pay us our social and health security when we are self-employed and underpaid?
- What will we do when we are not sexy to the creative industry anymore?
- What will we do when we want to start our own family?”
For Ruller and many of those who visited her installation, the biggest challenges facing freelance creatives are:
- Uncertainty and insecurity: “The no-contract gig economy = no stability.”
- Unpaid work traded for exposure: “Creative labor is often taken for granted and expected to be done for free, as if it’s some weird hobby.”
- Instant flexibility: “It sounds great when you’re young, but when you become ill or want to have children, it becomes your enemy.”
- Recurring studio costs: “As designers, we can barely buy typefaces or pay the monthly rent for our software and tech updates, so how are we to relax, have holidays, and take care of our families and friends?”
- Self-exploitation: “We work extra hard because if we don’t succeed, we blame ourselves—but maybe we should ask whether our situation is caused by the system that we all have to operate in.”
For further reading, and to raise more awareness about current working conditions in design, Ruller recommends the educational project Precarity Pilot from design duo Brave New Alps. This platform provides a list of “best practices;” and a toolkit which helps organize one’s career, redefine notions of success, and encourages cooperative dynamics. Ruller also recommends Silvio Lorusso’s text “What Design Can’t Do,” initially presented during the Citizen-Designer symposium held at AKV in 2017 in the Netherlands.
Eye on Design is currently exploring design collectives as a way to expand on our ongoing investigative reporting into workplace rights. It’s part of our broader action aimed at establishing a new, fair, open, and inclusive system to address the unmet needs of visual designers. Keep watching this space for further coverage on the topic.