As politically turbulent times go, the last decade has been pretty much a constant “seatbelt on” period. And with political turbulence comes politically charged design—whether through posters, memes, GIFs, printed ephemera, slogan T-shirts, or anything else—generated as much by amateur activists as “professional” designers and studios.
A new exhibition at the Design Museum in London entitled Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18 explores the role of graphics over those 3,650 or so days to engage, message, influence, and provoke; charting events from across the globe, including the election of Barack Obama, the worldwide Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, Brexit, and Donald Trump’s presidency.
“Our focus and rationale was to look at the graphic output from the events,” says Design Museum curator Margaret Cubbage. “So the criteria wasn’t just about good or bad design, but the kind of impact and influence [it had]: how clear is the message? How emotive is it?”
The show was conceived by GraphicDesign&’s Lucienne Roberts and David Shaw, with Rebecca Wright (they also created the exhibition graphics), along with the Design Museum. “As it’s just the last 10 years, it’s still a work in progress,” says Roberts. “Most exhibitions are in part historical, so it’s quite controlled, but this is responsive. Inevitably that means there’s omissions and inclusions, but certain things are a given, and you’re building everything else around those.”
With such tempestuous curatorial conditions, the team has been “very hot” on making sure this isn’t just a Western view of recent political graphics, and that visitors are not just hearing the same voices. “It’s lazy to come at it from just a Brexit and Trump perspective,” says Roberts. “We’ve been very vigilant to dig out the stories that are harder to find out about from a Western perspective. We’re privileged as we’ve got relative freedom of speech… there are a lot of people under the radar, and that’s quite humbling.”
Indeed, one of the major challenges was in representing work from places where taking a certain political belief or standpoint is fraught with danger. Take, for example, the Chinese group of feminists who tried to run an anti-sexual harassment campaign on the public transport system. They couldn’t display those posters—some were even imprisoned for their views—and the only way they could get people to see them was by holding them up and getting on and off the trains.
Another challenge of curating a show of such recent, and indeed very much ongoing, issues and the graphics produced around them is in crediting creators. In some cases, accreditation is largely impossible, such as with the photographs of vast swathes of protesters, each bearing unique banners reframed in the show as graphic ephemera. It’s a peculiar thing to think of archiving and presenting such pieces; the very notion of an archive is steeped in ideas of temporality, storing things that are preserved and from the past, not the very recent times or the present. The task is easier with the works that were created as personal, socially minded projects by established designers and studios, of course—though the curators have been careful to present such works democratically alongside those pieces that are more grassroots and harder to credit.
The show is split into three sections: Power, Protest, and Personality. Power looks “at things you think of as being orthodox in some sense,” says Roberts, exploring how “the establishment” uses design in a bid to assert authority. The flip side of that—how those icons and images are subverted by dissenting parties—is also explored, with examples from both sides including the Remain campaign by London studio North, Michael Bierut’s designs for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign (it’s a treat to see the sketchbooks of Bierut and Jessie Reed’s typographic tinkerings, with “Futura, period” decisively scrawled out), North Korean propaganda, Soviet posters turned into a gay rights campaign, and Dread Scott’s flag in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of Cubbage’s favorite pieces is housed here: a three meter tall letter “N,” replacing that from the “Newborn” sculpture that marked Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008.
“Trump has become a graphic icon, in a way”
The Protest section features “more material from multiple sources,” Roberts explains, meaning works created by activists and demonstrators such as newspapers from the 2011-12 Occupy London camp, an umbrella used during the 2014 Hong Kong ‘Umbrella Revolution’, and a huge replica of the inflatable duck from the 2016 protests against Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. “[The credits] are harder to track down, but there are pieces by named designers, and it’s interesting to see how designers are compelled to express their beliefs in their work,” she adds. Key points in this part of the show include materials from the 2015 Je Suis Charlie and Peace for Paris, responses to the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster; with a little light relief in the form of a Brexit-inspired tea towel designed by Mr Bingo. Of course, there’s lots and lots of Trump depictions: “he’s become a graphic icon, in a way,” says Roberts.
This throws up an interesting question too. A show at a public museum—whether it’s about politics or not—has a certain duty of neutrality. Whatever the beliefs of the curator (or indeed the predicted visitors), one agenda can’t be pushed over another. I put it to Roberts that this must be hard when anecdotally, and statistically, according to GraphicDesign&’s own survey of designers’ political leanings, the creative industries in the West are pretty overwhelmingly left-leaning. That is to say, largely anti-Trump, anti-Tory, anti-Brexit. And if those are the views of the people producing the graphic output that’s going to make up the show, how do you even begin to represent both sides?
“It’s been really tricky,” Cubbage concedes. “Obviously there’s certain individuals or opinions that are more popular or widespread, so I suppose the attitude towards Trump and the graphic imagery is quite one-sided. But it’s been very challenging to ensure the way we’re presenting this material in the space and the way we’ve interpreted them in the captions is unbiased. There’s more left wing creative content than right wing, but we’ve tried to balance that as much as possible.”
One way of showing the other side was through the pub: specifically, in displaying beermats from Wetherspoons, a vast chain of cheap, sometimes cheerful pubs in the UK whose founder is a very vocal Brexit supporter. “We had to include them as they’re interesting graphically, but they’re also an example of a private enterprise using their power to sell a political message,” says Roberts. Another example that falls into a non-Leftie camp is English tabloid newspaper The Sun’s “Bye-EU” tapestry—its Brexit-inspired take on the Bayeux Tapestry, which the paper claimed marked, “freeing us from the continental shackles of the hated EU.”
Such pieces are likely to make much of the design-crowd shudder. But why is it the case that the creative community is so overwhelmingly left? “To be a designer you have to be a bit leftfield in a broader sense—you’re used to being a bit ‘other’ and not conforming in a way; that’s part of what makes us good at what we do, that we’re prepared to push some boundaries,” says Roberts. “I certainly feel that [as a designer] you’re looking at society from the outside, and that’s a part of what you’re called on to do your job properly.
“Yet so much graphic design supports capitalism, in a broad sense, and I guess that makes a lot of us ask questions around the value of what we do. Making work that’s more socially inclined makes us feel we’re contributing something more meaningful, and to an extent that’s true.”
“Professional designers see themselves as [relinquishing] ownership or releasing the copyright as they realize the greater impact they can have if they let their work spread—not just through technology, but through protest.”
It’s a double edged sword of course: designers’ output, like any activism, has its limits—as satirized by the Oddly Head poster featured in the show, which will be familiar to many in east London specifically, that reads: SLOGANS IN NICE TYPEFACES WON’T SAVE THE HUMAN RACES. “From our point of view it begs a lot of questions about what we all value and how much impact we can have,” says Roberts. “I don’t necessary buy into it. We’ve also got the Sagmeister and Walsh “pins won’t save the world” project, which is quite self-deprecating, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be contributing. It’s a joint effort.
“These things are galvanizing and that’s the role of design in a sense: it’s about feeling you’re not alone and that is important, a sense of solidarity which is empowering. A good example is Je Suis Charlie: everyone held the same placard, saying ‘we’re all standing together.’”
Cubbage also points to how designers are increasingly making their politically minded work open-source and downloadable; such as in the cases of Cuban illustrator Edel Rodriguez, who offered his work up for download for use in the Women’s Marches, and Shepard Fairey’s ‘We the People’ poster series, free for all to take from the Amplifier website. “It creates another consistent visual language,” says Cubbage. “Professional designers see themselves as [relinquishing] ownership or releasing the copyright as they realize the greater impact they can have if they let their work spread—not just through technology, but through protest. It’s a big shift, and shows graphic design’s impact in spreading and sharing a message. They want people to actually use it.”
The final section, Personality, shows how political figures are represented graphically: there’s the unofficial Nike-like T-shirt supporting Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, as well as the Guy Fawkes mask co-opted by Anonymous, and originally created by David Lloyd for Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta. Across the show, other designs from more well-known corners of the creative community include Metahaven, Noel Douglas’ work for Occupy, DSG (Deterritorial Support Group), and Brandalism, an anti-advertising artist collective founded in July 2012 in London. There’s also work focusing more on bigger organizations and brands, like Greenpeace’s Choke campaign, which targeted Coca Cola, and Diesel’s Make Love Not Walls campaign. At a more local level, the museum is also presenting Brixtopia (a play on south London’s Brixton, billed as “a nation state-of-mind welcoming immigration from all.”
Obviously this is an exhibition about design, at the Design Museum. But even objectively, it shows the power of graphic design and digital design, too, as possibly the most vital, and certainly most visible, tools of dissent that we have. It also proves, as Cubbage points out, that “print is still relevant. Posters are really strong, and a great format to spread these messages.”
She continues, “Graphic design has the capacity to encourage people to really look at things differently: whether it’s subvertisements or propaganda, there’s a sense that whether through image or choice of typography, it has a real potential.” It’s also about the inherent immediacy of graphics: they can respond right away, like the illustrators after Charlie Hebdo.
“These creatives can put pen to paper and really emotionally respond to these events and show solidarity through making work,” says Cubage. “Graphic design can really connect people visually: it has a raw, authentic, genuine intention that can counteract the messages we see in mainstream media.” One piece in the show that’s very recent and entirely backs up her point is Milton Glaser’s series of posters on the New York subways, which counter hate rhetoric and demonstrate that “we’re part of a larger system: humanity itself,” as Glaser recently told an audience at New York’s School of Visual Arts.
“Graphic design has the capacity to encourage people to really look at things differently.”
What must be an exciting but tremendously daunting curatorial hurdle for a show of work so recent is not having any sort of ‘canon’ to fall back on: putting together a show on, say, Postmodernism, or the Bauhaus, or even on a decade as recent as the 1990s gives the organizers the small but significant luxury of being able to rely on inherited “greats.” There are those items that “must” be featured, as deemed by countless essays, monographs, art and design historians, and academics. For the most part, such canonical absolutes do not exist for 2008-2018 (yet); especially when throwing “amateur” design activism into the mix.
“There’s a filtering process over time and basically this work hasn’t gone through that: the earlier work has, the Obama ‘Hope’ poster, for instance, has stood the test of time, and you know there’s no discussion about whether that should be included,” says Roberts. “But with the more recent work it becomes harder.
“With this show, in 10 years time it’ll be really interesting to look back at it and see how we view it then, as it’s so close to us now. I’ve no idea how much work will fall by the wayside and how much will still resonate.”
Hope to Nope is on show at the Design Museum, London, from 28 March 2018 – 12 August 2018.