For many extended families across the United Kingdom, 2016 became the year that we stopped talking to one another. Something similar may be the case for the U.S.: At Christmas dinner last year, I was advised by my American partner not to discuss politics with his extended family. While the television covered Trump’s impeachment trial, we fought over the best way to make Hello Dolly Bars. Many have chosen to meet the “other side” in our two “divided nations” with silence, because talking has only led to red faces, slammed doors, and a lot of pain and heartbreak. How can we ever move on with a conversation when we can’t agree on its basics?
“It’s hard, but telling the other side they are wrong doesn’t work,” writes the journalist Ian Leslie in his essay for The Other Side: An Emotional Map of Great Britain, the latest release from London-based design publisher GraphicDesign&. For the title, 26 Leave and 24 Remain voters cite one loss and one gain from the UK’s 2016 referendum results, as well as their reasons for voting the way they did. The book is double-ended so that neither side is favored—it simply has two beginnings and no end. The intention behind The Other Side is not to change minds; rather, graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright hope the publication will encourage readers to consider the perspectives of those who voted differently from them. At its most radical, the book might even prompt empathy; most often, it reveals the depth of emotions the UK has felt in recent years—our pride, anger, revenge, relief, fear, devastation, and hope—forming a snapshot of a volatile moment in national history.
At once an exercise in graphic design’s potential for reconciliation, The Other Side is also an exploration of its role and culpability in the 2016 referendum results. We take a deep look through the pages of the divided book with its authors.
GraphicDesign& has released several titles to date—books focusing on graphic design in the context of mathematics, health, social science, literature, and religion. When did you know it was time to explore graphic design and politics, and how did you know the focus would be Brexit?
Lucienne Roberts: We’d both been very hurt as Remainers. It started from a sense of real grief.
Rebecca Wright: The day of the result, we were on the phone together in tears. I remember that conversation really clearly because it was such a shock. It felt so unbelievable. Lucie had such a track record in terms of politics being part of her work, so it was kind of inevitable that we would do a politics project at some point. But it took quite a lot of talking to work out what the project would be in relation to Brexit. After the vote, we felt the time had passed to make the argument for one side or the other…
Roberts: The moment that we really began to talk about what we could do, and whether we could get some dialogue going between Leave voters and Remain voters, was when it became apparent that we were part of the Remain bubble. That was a rude awakening.
How does the book fit in with the goals of the GraphicDesign& project at large?
Roberts: The whole idea behind GraphicDesign& is that graphics in itself only exist because of everything else. We set it up in 2010. We were frustrated by design publishing at the time, which was quite an insular business. It didn’t focus on what graphic design does, but more on people, on famous designers.
Wright: We felt it was all a bit self-congratulatory. Although we loved the glossy graphic design coffee table books, we felt there was a real gap in terms of looking at what the graphic design is doing. We are a service industry, and I think we sometimes forget that in terms of how we talk about ourselves.
Roberts: What’s always behind our books is that they’re accessible to non-designers. The same goes with the two exhibitions that we’ve originated—Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? at the Wellcome Collection and Hope to Nope at the Design Museum.
Wright: Our projects are about brokering a different kind of conversation. The Other Side is a GraphicDesign& title because it uses graphic design to try to frame the conversation. Graphic design is the language we’re using, as well as examining—it can help us understand things, challenge things, question things. We also look at its culpability…
In the book, 26 Leave and 24 Remain voters share their views on why they voted the way they did. Each interviewee then shares their perspective on the losses and gains from the UK’s decision to leave the EU. How do you select your interviewees, and how did you connect with them?
Roberts: It’s been an amazing network. We knew we wanted a certain number of people, and certain areas and certain jobs were absolute must-haves. We knew we wanted a sheep farmer. We knew we wanted a fisherman. And it was hard for us to find the right people. We connected through friends of friends of friends. And relatives. We contacted professional organizations.
Wright: Finding interviewees became about by thinking about where the gaps were, in terms of the individuals, that seemed to be left out of this really polarized rhetoric. The really interesting thing about trying to find contributors is that it didn’t just reveal our own bubble, but it revealed how the geography of the country was key to finding people who voted differently to us. Then you realize just how divided a nation we are, but also how different our experience is, our life is, our perception of power is, by being part of a system that’s related to geography.
How did you find the conversations, as Remain voters yourselves?
Roberts: With Leave voters, I think the most poignant for me was Darren the fisherman, who gradually got round to this position that it’s not the EU’s fault, it’s actually the government’s fault… I’m not saying, ‘Yipee, someone came round to our side.’ It really wasn’t that at all.
We were talking on the phone and I was scribbling notes, and gradually we were inching towards something. He was obviously very upset by it all, upset by what’s happened to his industry. He’s been out on the boats since he was a boy. There was this peculiar meeting of human beings being quite nice to each other on the phone. I’ll never meet him. This will probably be the end of our relationship. But it was exactly what we wanted the book to do, just on a personal level. I would not have been speaking to this chap had we not done the book, you know? And I did get an insight into his world. How decimated he felt it all was. And how confused he is about who is to blame.
Wright: For me, one of the things that became apparent early on was that even if you don’t agree with the interviewees—and we don’t agree, we felt there were inaccuracies particularly with some of the Leaver answers—you can’t hold on to this sense of “Leave voters are stupid” after reading their responses. You can’t hold on to that position when you contextualize people’s reasons for voting Leave. It did allow for a different type of understanding. It doesn’t necessarily evoke empathy, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with them, but it does move us beyond this idea that Leavers are one thing and Remainers are another.
It doesn’t necessarily evoke empathy, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with them, but it does move us beyond this idea that Leavers are one thing and Remainers are another.
Roberts: Intentionally, the Leave voters are very diverse. There are some serious Left wingers in there. So there’s that voice, which is totally different to a fisherman’s in Grimsby.
Each interviewee has two spreads: The first spread includes their biography on the left, followed by their reasons for voting on the right. On the next spread, there is their ‘loss’ on the left, and their ‘gain’ on the right. Can you tell me about how you decided to lay out the various responses?
Roberts: Having decided that it was going to be a double ended book, I got this fixation of everything growing out from the middle. I’ve never done anything like that before. The idea is that when you flip through, even when you get halfway and it becomes upside down, there’s still a relationship between the pages. That was a core idea, that the whole thing was hanging off this central axis.
Wright: We wanted to give space to the loss/gain quotes. We wanted to give space to really consider their points. That was one thing that was missing in the media: People weren’t given the opportunity to just pause and reflect.
Roberts: Some people’s loss/gain were just three words each. Some had written reams of text. We had to come up with a way of laying out these quotes to make them equally important. The very short texts still look very powerful: They’re bang in the middle of the page, not tucked away in the corner.
Then there was the question of which font to use. We started off by having all these meetings with Astrid Stavo and Sarah Boris—we wanted to talk to designers that were from the EU but not British themselves. We had these very passionate conversations about typography. Long, long meetings about type. We talked a lot about the idea of neutrality. But then we worried that if everything was printed in the same typeface, it would make it look like they were all the same and not different voices. So we came up with this system of breaking up the country into map regions, assigning each region a font, and choosing fonts we would loosely define as a “neutral” sans serif created after the second world war as part of the International Style.
Each font has very subtle differences, and while you have to be a bit of a typo nerd to get into the details, it’s still a very interesting thought process. We worked with [type designer] Paul McNeil: We came up with a list of fonts, and then he narrowed the list down a little bit, assigning them to map regions and writing a text for each one, which gives a bit of historical context to their origins. When you flick through the book, you’re like, “Oh, is that typeface different?”
Wright: At every stage of this process, we have had to check ourselves. Are we in some way implying a judgement through our editing? Through our design choices? Are we imposing a hierarchy, or bringing the Remain EU perspective to what we’re doing? We had our copyeditor check us on it and she said, “You’re going the other way! If you’re being neutral, be careful that you don’t overcompensate.” We’ve never had a project quite like that.
Can you talk me through the relevance of the fact that the typefaces are post-World War II?
Roberts: We looked at fonts designed after the war, and the International Style, because of the idea of universality and accessibility, the idea of stripping away the unnecessary, of getting to the heart of something. In terms of access, it’s a very powerful idea in our industry.
We also used fonts that are relatively new, that are called things like “neutral,” because it’s an interesting idea whether that’s actually attainable. So even though, yes, they have a semblance of neutrality about them, clearly, some of them are… a bit more friendly than others. Some are more accessible than others.
Wright: In a way, going back to our overall “mission” as GraphicDesign& where we’re advocating for what graphic design can do, the typefaces became a way to quietly build the case to show that our visual language is not British.
Roberts: It was clear that there is a cross fertilization that goes on within the design community. One designer influences another. The baton gets past on. And that drove the choices. So the fonts go from ones designed in the ’50s, most famously Helvetica and Univers, all the way through to fonts that are really new. You can see there’s a relationship. And all the designers are cited alongside where they came from, and that ranges from New Zealand to Switzerland to the UEA. That’s absolutely the point. It’s subliminal, but then the countries are also noted.
The themes of neutrality and emotion are present throughout the book, and even in the subtitle “An Emotional Map of Brexit Britain.” There’s the idea of a map on the one hand, which is ideally “objective,” an informative, accurate visualization, and then there’s the word “emotional,” which can be understood as the opposite. What part did neutrality and emotion play in the making and design of the book itself?
Roberts: From a design perspective, most of the work I do attempts to be neutral. That comes fairly naturally. The theme of emotion came from the visual essay [by type designer Nadine Chahine, which charts the visual history of the “European project” from the 1950s to the present day]. It was quite a late addition after talking to [journalist] Ian Leslie…
Wright: While we were making the book, the context changed all the time. We were leaving in March… And then we weren’t. Right up until the 31st of January, things were in the balance. We kept wondering how the book would stay relevant. Initially, it was going to be published before the date we would leave. Then we quite quickly realized it wouldn’t be. At each point, we had to ask, “What makes this an interesting book?” The visual essay was part of saying, actually there is now a history that we’re documenting here. And it all felt very emotional. It was a process of putting it all together that was us trying to be neutral…
Could you summarize the differences in design approach between the 2016 Leave and Remain campaigns?
Roberts: We have to remember that Remain was a government campaign—it was designed by North, who are friends of ours. And looking at it now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s interesting to see what was chosen in the end. Everything presented was in red, white, and blue, referencing the flag. Today, we can clearly see how top down it looks. It looks like a bit of corporate branding. And that makes it—and its interesting thinking about this in tandem with the idea of “neutral fonts”—it makes it dispassionate.
But it was all about clarity. When you think about the leaflet that went through everybody’s letterbox… it’s accessible, but it doesn’t make your heart sing. That’s partly to do with not only how it’s presented, but the message. Nowhere in the Remain campaign did people talk about the history of the EU. Nobody talked about the world wars, both of which started in Europe. It was all about economics. And Leave, they got all the emotion. They understood how to leverage that really effectively.
Wright: There’s been comparisons with the “Make America Great Again” campaign, and how it also had a memorable strapline. Leave’s “Take Back Control” was very powerful. When you read our Leave contributors’ entries, you kind of get why they wanted to “take back control.” What was never asked was: Take back control from who? The Remain campaign was rational. And the Leave campaign was about how people felt. That really is the cause of the success and the failure of those campaigns.
Micheal Beirut at Pentagram, who led the Hillary 2016 campaign branding, asked a provocative question in an essay for Design Observer: “Had Trump won not in spite of his terrible design work, but because of it?” Where does this leave us as designers?
Wright: One of the insights we gleaned from our exhibition Hope to Nope, is the way in which graphic design as a tool of statecraft seems to have lost its grip on how it activates behaviors. One can still appreciate sophisticated design and its aesthetic qualities, but sophisticated design brings with it a great suspicion that it belongs to the establishment. This is a strategy that both Leave and Trump were able to capitalize on: The idea that the establishment is the problem.
One can still appreciate sophisticated design and its aesthetic qualities, but sophisticated design brings with it a great suspicion that it belongs to the establishment.
Both the Leave and Trump communications exuded this idea that they are not the establishment… Even though in both cases, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are a privileged elite and very much the establishment. But they used a visual language to present a very different vernacular connection to “the people.” It probably surprised everyone, including commentators who were very sneering at the “Make America Great Again” graphics. In the UK, there was quite a lot of sneering at the lies, sneering at the Vote Leave bus for example, [which carried the familiar NHS logo to support its claim that leaving the EU would release funds for healthcare]. It does raise a really big question for graphic design, and graphic design not only in relation to its credibility, but also its impact in terms of behavior change.
Graphic design doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It carries a message. As a design educator, what is really interesting is to see how students that we currently have at Central Saint Martins in undergrad and postgrad feel that they have a right to be at the table where decisions are made. They believe graphic design should be part of how messages are conceived not just how they’re presented. Of course, that’s part of being an idealistic student before you’re out in the world. But co-design, knowing your end users and working with them, means that you have a better success in finding the voice that resonates.
Roberts: Part of the problem is that people—rightly—mistrust corporate culture. And there’s a design that goes with corporate culture. People are right to be skeptical. The problem is, looking for what appears to be an “authentic” voice like the Trump hat is not any more authentic than corporate culture. But that hasn’t been widely recognized yet. I don’t like the term “authentic” because it’s so overused, and I don’t know how we even define it now in graphics. I wonder whether the things that are not trying to take over the world, that are just small marks, inevitably have a greater sense of authenticity? I wonder whether we’ll head more that way, which is something I might applaud.
At Eye on Design, we’ve noticed a huge spike in politically motivated student work since 2016. We’ve seen a lot of great projects centered on activism and marches, but we’ve also heard a lot of designers complain that they’re feeling fatigued with the idea that design’s response to political upheaval is to create posters that “speak to the converted,” so to say. What advice do you offer design students who want their design practice to embody a political agenda?
Roberts: The problem with this—having done this for a while myself—is you can’t make a living out of it. Very occasionally I’ve worked for the Labour Party, and obviously they pay. But to survive from working for overtly political causes… It’s very difficult to make a living. You could take a political position on your work more broadly, which is what I have done. I don’t work for certain types of organizations. But it’s important that students are realistic and that they understand what it means to be political. In terms of the relationship between money and graphics, there is a reason why you get paid more for some work that other work. And you have to be true to yourself. You have to be able to sleep at night.
Wright: There are an awful lot of graphic design students in London, let alone in the rest of the UK, let alone in the rest of the world. One question we get a lot as educators is, well, where the hell are all these jobs for graphic design graduates? The course at CSM is graphic and communication design, and its intentionally taking an expanded view of the disciplines in order to actively talk to students about not necessarily being graphic designers. It doesn’t mean you’ll be an activist, but what we are encouraging students to do is to develop as a person as well as a practitioner, and to stretch themselves and work out a shape that they draw around themselves. We do want students to be aware of their own agency and ability to inform how their clients might consider and make decisions.
We do want students to be aware of their own agency and ability to inform how their clients might consider and make decisions.
For instance, climate emergency is right now an extremely visible preoccupation in student work across all the disciplines—students are seeing that they have knowledge, and clients and employers want to understand that knowledge. There is this generation gap. You can’t pretend to students that if they become an activist they’re going to have a career and money, but you can say, well, where is your knowledge needed? And how can you conceive what you do in relation to employment or consultancy?
Roberts: Clearly with what’s happening with the climate, who is to say that there will be all these jobs in the future? If we follow through with our goals, we will not be producing as much stuff that needs to be marketed… So, graphic design as we know it, graphic design as a tool of marketing, might be seen as this historical blimp that had a revolution and then faded away…
Wright: This takes us back to the book and GraphicDesign&, which thinks about graphic design as a language. We’re interested in how graphic design can help us understand things, challenge things, question things, and actually democratize conversations.