Some thoughts on “Critical Graphic Design”
Saturday May 18th 2013, 8:57 pm
Filed under: miscellaneous,news,reading and writing


Last weekend I was invited to participate in a small symposium/dinner at the N/A space in Toronto on the subject of “Critical Graphic Design”. Organised by Chris Lee and Patricio Davila, the dinner brought together a diverse group of (mostly local) designers, educators, researchers and activists to chat informally about what critical graphic design might be, with the goal of moving towards a series of workshops in the summer.

I was honoured to be invited amongst the numerous guests, which included a couple of old friends, a couple of design heros, and generally all people I’d like to get to know better: JP from Paper Pusher, Anouk from Studio Feed, Sheila from The Public, Abake, Michelle Champagne, members of the Beehive Collective, and many more.

It was a pleasure to meet everyone around a delicious potluck, and I was really excited by the prospect of this re-engagement with design discourse. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay very long, and I wish I had had a chance to speak with people more in depth. Nonetheless, quite a few interesting ideas emerged from that night, and I’ll sketch a few of them out here.

• Does criticality imply a politics? It should. The range of participants there also spanned a broad (if “liberal-progressive”) range of politics. This isn’t surprising, nor a criticism, but given the current economic and political climate, I expected a bit more radicalism against capitalism and a little less “softening the edges” as it were from “critical” graphic designers.

• I’m kinda old and we’re still dealing with the same questions. Not that this is a bad thing, as they’re generally good questions, but I again realised how special Declarations was, and how privileged I am to have been a part of that discourse 12 years ago. I was both pleased and a little disheartened about the amount of common reference points that kept coming up.

• One thing that did actually irk me, was the return to the question raised by First Things First (not that it was mentioned) that basically boils down to making a living without selling your soul. I’m sorry, but this isn’t a problem unique to designers, it’s a problem for anyone “waking up on the wrong side of capitalism”. It’s a question of privilege and I think we need to move beyond it and actually tackle the question of graphic design itself, and stop worrying about our bank accounts and our consciences.

• Which isn’t to say that (immaterial) labour shouldn’t be part of the discourse, it should be central. The currents that are running through artist run culture might be a good starting point. Close to home, Nicole‘s work is a great reference point. It also made me think of the research I did back in January about the International Typographical Union, more on that soon I hope.

Studio Feed does some beautiful (if apolitical) work. Which ironically leads me to thinking about aesthetics and how central they are to politics. I’m really thinking a lot now about the current trends in design, their reference points to previous “movements” and what this all means. For the first time in a while, I’m seeing (and noticing that I’m using) a really consistent set of design tropes. Why? And how can it be subverted?

Metahaven are design rock stars, possibly the only critical design rock stars. Which again isn’t a bad thing, but I certainly wish there were some more out there, tackling a broader range of problems.

• At one point, Chris mentioned the idea of speculative design as a form of prefigurative politics. Creative fictions, fictional creation, or perhaps the anarchist notion of “living as if”. I really really love this idea. How to flesh it out?

• By making graphic design do things it’s not supposed to do? I’m thinking of critical graphic design as something that destroys itself to remake it anew. A vague notion for sure, but I think there’s something there…

Many thanks to Chris and Patricio for initiating this! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but in this instance, I wish I lived in Toronto. Hopefully the conversations will continue nonetheless.

2 Comments so far
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“I’s a question of privilege and I think we need to move beyond it and actually tackle the question of graphic design itself, and stop worrying about our bank accounts and our consciences.”

It’s a privilege to also not have to worry about your bank account no?

Comment by Wei 12.05.13 @ 2:43 pm

Wei, you bring up a good point. Of course it’s a privilege to not have to worry about money. My point is that everyone has to worry about their bank accounts, some more than others, but making this the central point of discussions around “critical design” is kind of missing the point.

One of the most sharp minded design theorists I’ve ever met worked as a janitor.

Comment by kevin 12.06.13 @ 11:19 am

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