“YOU ARE PRIVILEGED,” begins the introductory essay of Ruben Pater’s The Politics of Design, in big, shouty caps—which seems like a surefire way to turn off the design-curious reader. But shining a light on the role visual communication plays on the global stage is the crux of Pater’s latest volume, and there are some difficult truths to accept along the way, starting with the very first words.
“Just reading this sentence makes you part of the 85% of the world population that is literate and the 20% that understands English,” he continues. ”You’ve spent around $15 on this book, which is a price only 20% of people (those earning more than $10 a day) can afford. If you are reading the electronic version, you are among the 40% who have access to the internet. If you bought this book, you probably have a higher education which is only available to a privileged few.”
This sets out Pater’s stall for 196 pages of primer on the loaded nature of image-making, and the inherent socio-economic, cultural, geographic, sexual, and racial biases with which we all interpret design. It’s the kind of literature that should be handed out to all students on their first days at art school, along with all the Albers, Berger, Benjamin, and Sontag that form the backbone of the design curriculum—an up-to-date assessment of the landscape through which all modern visual practitioners must navigate.
The chapters are divided into Language and Typography, Color and Contrast, Image and Photography, Symbols and Icons, and Information Graphics, which sound prosaic and academic enough, but the contents of these headings are diverse and unusual. We’re encouraged to consider the implications of typography using Arabic, Cyrillic, and African alphabets; what color means to gender identity and national pride; how sexism affects the way we interpret images; and the colonial legacy still present in maps and time zones, that are seemingly without bias.
What the book lacks in detail is made up for in referencing, consistently encouraging readers to do their own deeper research, and though brief and sprawling, the message of The Politics of Design is clear: complex times require complex measures, and no designer—however apolitical their circle—will remain unaffected. Pater’s advice? Be prepared.