Can graphic designers change society?
An attempt at reformulation, Tuesday, 4th of January 2022
Well, do graphic designers change society? Hm. Yes and no. Sure, graphic design, just like anything that produces the symbolic order, changes the world (big words!). But I’ve become more skeptical about the agency and nobility proposed in the question wether graphic designers can change the world and the most common tropes of the discourse around that question. Graphic designers are most often too far downstream from power and fundamental decision-making to be able to fundamentally alter the course or the goals of »visual communication« (sell stuff/win votes). Once we are in positions of considerable power, are we still willing to sabotage them?
On the one hand, I oppose careerist integration into institutions of power on the premise that (Hi, Antonio Gramsci) the institution is more likely to march through you than the other way around. On the other hand there seems to be no outside to the capitalist order and therefore, no uncompromised position to work from. Either way, true commitment and a thick skin seem to be indispensable.
So what can we do if we want to cHaNgE tHe wOrLd? There seems to be no way around power, and in power, there seems to be no way around corruption/compromise. Maybe the success of neofascist forces in infiltrating power structures to steer their courses is a counter-example, but maybe, ideologically, these power structures were never too far from the infiltrators – at least in never-denazified, anticommunist-as-hell Germany.
A first step for graphic designers to actually gain political agency might be to say: I reject cathartic performances of symbolized politics! (half-ass posters for half-ass charity, etc.). I am a political subject and my power as a graphic designer (service-provider to capital) is limited. My energy and labour is far more useful in long-term commitment to political groundwork, in organizing with fellow workers or even unionizing, in providing my services to political forces, in teaching visual literacy to non-designers and in political self-education.
If you are a skillful graphic designer in a position of relative power, embedded in a network of other workers with similar ambitions and complementary skills, have the will and ability to work relentlessly and hard for a cause and hold principles/dogmas you’re not willing to sacrifice, you might be able to affect the established order to a certain extent. You would thus be a graphic designer who changed the world, but the framing in this expression alone is already highly individualist and a sure pathway to navel-gazing and delusions of genius. The people who often do god’s work are usually invisible on a wider scale and too busy and committed to walk around and talk about it. The liberal, depoliticized practice of doing-good-and-talking-about-it most often reveals itself as a practice of doing-good-to-talk-about-it and can safely be considered non-commitment. Changing the world (as in Revolution or Transformation) is relentless, steady work and needs principles and a rejection of cathartic, attention-grabbing acts of virtue signaling. Praxis isn’t necessarily glamorous.
Further thoughts, November 23rd 2020, 17:40
Being critical/political is hardly a question of aesthetics primarily. There is no such thing as an inherently anticapitalist aesthetic or critical typography in a capitalist world because anything can and will be coopted and commodified at some point. Wether a design holds critical potential is entirely up to its context and content, because graphic design is by nature relational and context based. WHAT is it critical OF? Does it conceal or show its ideological cargo?
I guess a mere form can’t be political in itself.
Also, if designers would engage in political activism beyond making another design project out of it and instead, fight actual, personal, structural fights, things could actually move on.
What might often be mistakenly framed as critical graphic design seems to be honest graphic design. This is entirely up to approach and process and any aesthetic result just that: its result. There is no criticality to a mere form without its context. Design decisions in reflection of the given material and its context/implications can provide a critical framing or show something for what it is. This approach is unlikely to be realized within the predominant commodity fetishist graphic design production (typical »communication« design) and at best applicable to projects in marginal fields (design for »the cultural sector«).
2nd of March, 2020, 18:08
Can graphic designers change society?
First, wether you are a graphic designer or not, you are part of a class and a milieu specific to your upbringing and socialization. »Graphic designers« is not a class and certainly not a homogenous milieu, so it’s weird to summarize graphic designers as a possible political actor.
If you mean »changing society« as a rhetorical figure, yes, everything you bring into or take from society is a change, however microscopic it may be. If »changing society« is meant as in political change, supposedly progressive in nature and ideologically left leaning, the answer is yes, too.
As a graphic designer, you can »change society« just as much as anyone else with a comparable amount of power: by being a political subject and by also looking beyond your occupation.
If you work at an agency, discussing a supposed criticality in design works can help corporations coopt political movements as target groups – joining a union or forming a workers council can help improve the lives of all employees and, in the long run, change ideas of how work is done and acknowledged in the socalled »creative industry«.
Making typographic »political« posters and showing them on the internet can help your portfolio – engaging with political movements and participating in political struggle can help improve the lives of discriminated people and just about everyone else, too.
There are ways to engage in political struggles that are highly effective and go way beyond graphic design as direct (re)action. Graphic design can serve anything from product sales to propaganda, but it comes into play after a theoretical, ideological and strategic base was established and can’t be a substitute to that. When graphic design acts on behalf of a political struggle, it can be tremendously powerful – not only in the form of artifacts (the infamous MAGA hat¹) but also and even more so, in the form of a swarm of images and carriers (memes, general visual »languages« that become synonyms of ideologies²). The ideological power of capitalist advertising and marketing is enormous, but there are fields outside of that to engage in. Given the overwhelming hegemony of the »creative industries« as a field of employment and the niche existence of fields such as arts, culture and theory publishing or designed science publishing, the idea of the graphic designer as a direct political actor is rooted in privilege and narcissism in most cases.
Graphic designers can »change society« as political subjects first, and as service providers to political agents second.