Brexit, Why Did it Happen? by Paula Minelgaité

Eschewing the usual “print, editorial, get in touch” wording of most designer’s bios, London-based Paula Minelgaitė describes herself as “concerned with the politics of truth.”

Such concerns are indeed front and center in her self-initiated work, which broadly examines the role of design in manipulation and persuasion, and the far-reaching consequences of that. Minelgaitė graduated from London’s Royal College of Art’s visual communications course last year, and her final project was entitled ‘Brexit: Why Did It Happen?’ The work manifested as a research-based exhibition and publication, which looked to uncover insights into those who voted in both the 1975 referendum to join the EU, and the 2016 referendum which resulted in the UK leaving. While cold hard stats revealed that less educated, older people were more inclined to vote ‘leave’, things are naturally not that simple.

The House of Common Affairs by Paula Minelgaité

Minelgaitė’s research focused on the archives of The Sun tabloid, the most read newspaper in the UK, looking at how the interplay of text and image spoke to audiences in 1975 and today. She also interviewed people who had voted in both referendums, visiting boroughs which had been particularly skewed one way or another in terms of their views. Lastly, she included photographs from her family’s archive taken during the period when the UK was part of the EU, “in order to expose my bias as the author and to humanize immigrants like myself… to provide some insight into how the personal is related to the political,” says Minelgaitė, who was born in Lithuania and moved to London when she was 12.

At the heart of her practise is a desire to interrogate the “truth” in a theme—usually a political one—and examine graphic design’s role in constructing that truth. Dutch designer and researcher Jan Van Toorn is cited as a major influence: “He was very interested in showing people how graphic design is used by politicians to manipulate an audience,” says Minelgaitė, “so whenever I’m researching, at the same time I’m showing that as a designer, I’m aware of how we can manipulate the truth, and in the work that means exaggerating certain aspects or mocking them.”

As part of her Brexit project, Minelgaitė visited Havering, a borough on the border of east London and Essex that was one of the strongest pro-Brexit boroughs in the country, with 69.7% voting to leave. Romford, the administrative center, provided the inspiration for the typeface she created for the project, Romford Stencil. Minelgaitė walked the area taking pictures of graphic ephemera, and happened upon some wall lettering—a stencil font that it turned out even a Reading University stencil type specialist had never seen before. That provided the key influence of the font she went on to draw.

“The union breaking apart informed the aesthetics, which is why I used a stencil font,” she explains. “The upper and lower cases are different stylistically, showing that it’s about that idea of difference that Brexit represents. That provided the main visual element in the whole Brexit project.”

Since graduating, Minelgaitė’s time is spent working as a graphic designer at architecture firm DSDHA, working on her own personal and commissioned work, and sometimes teaching on Kingston University’s graphic design course in the Alternative Art School strand. The second year BA strand focuses on students working collaboratively to engender self initiated projects, informed by workshops with the likes of Adrian Shaughnessy.  “Everyone hates group work!” says Minelgaitė. “So in Alternative Art School it’s very open, and the students have to first define what it means to them. It’s about giving power to them.” They decide on a theme, put together a symposium around it, and that theme carries through the rest of the course project. “It’s about the role of play and creativity in creative practise, and also making students think about what they’re doing more critically,” Minelgaitė adds.

Brexit, Why Did it Happen? exhibition by Paula Minelgaité

The ethos of the course partly draws on the work of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which promotes techniques using theater as means of promoting social and political change. So how far does Minelgaitė feel designers—or creatives more generally—have a responsibility to make work that engages with political issues? “In terms of responsibility, I’m on the same level as Metahaven, who say that whatever political or social conditions we live in, that’s not in the designers’ control. But I’m also quite sceptical of when people do workshops on banners, and ‘let’s make posters or memes and post them on Twitter,’ as that doesn’t really achieve anything.

“Design in itself is already political in terms of how much someone’s responsible. You don’t necessarily have to be interested in political subjects, as long as you acknowledge that design, and the methods designers use, have a big influence on culture. As a designer you’re always in dialogue with how things should be, and at the very least try to make something that makes the audience critically think about something.”