Editorial: Graphic Design
by Chris Lee and Ali S. Qadeer
This issue of C Magazine ushers in a new visual design courtesy of Raf Rennie. Serendipitously, for this issue’s theme, we turn the lens to graphic design. This is a field which tends to be regarded as a prosthesis to art, a facet of commerce, an effect of mass-production—a discipline bound to service and marketing. Initially, the theme was to be titled “Design and Power” but we decided to simply go with “Graphic Design” and bypass the suggestion that design’s relationship to power is a special case, and recognize that it is rather deeply entangled. Because of the ways in which graphic design is often misrecognized, in this issue, we attempt to sidestep some of the anxious discourses of our field, such as: What can design do (to make things “better”)? How can design solve our problems? Such questions have plagued design professionals and students since the post-war marriage of graphic design with the transnational corporation—from Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto to the annual Amsterdam-based festival also titled “What Can Design Do?”— as if design does not already do something profoundly consequential.
In essence, this issue is an attempt to ask quite earnestly what does design do? How is design entangled with power and how does it manifest its impositions? Our answer to this question is to readdress graphic design’s disciplinary imaginary to be something not merely constituted by an affirmative parade of visionaries, or even as a specialized domain that holds insights about the fundamental principles of human communication, but rather through the operations of what the media historian Lisa Gitelman calls the scriptural economy—a term she borrows from Michel de Certeau to assert that printed, reproducible forms are central to our culture. Gitelman’s study of documents easily translates to the operations of this field, which involve both proliferating and critiquing the scriptural economy. Why not frame graphic design as a matter of knowledge production, or even an epistemological apparatus that makes persistent rational, empirical ways of seeing and knowing, and thus invalidates others?
For this issue, we asked contributors to consider graphic design as a visual practice that gives form to power and shapes ways of knowing. As the issue came into focus, we noticed two distinct trends in how the contributors perceived this relationship. On one hand, some highlighted how design operations serve to obfuscate the way that power works. Others sought new practices to renegotiate graphic design operations away from their historical alignments with capital, colonization and state power. On the obfuscating edge, Chris Hamamoto and Federico Pérez-Villoro’s piece, The Blackbox Trick, is a study in the notion of magic as it is deployed by governments, tech giants and branding agencies to obscure the operations of techno-capitalism. Tucker McLachlan’s Incidental Graphics is an attempt to define a category of images which are designed to play a role in the construction of colonial facts. Finally, David Schnitman draws on the work of Pierre Bourdieu to explore the movements and machinations of capital as it permeates the contemporary articulations of “style” within graphic design.
Simultaneously, other designers and thinkers are renegotiating, rethinking and redirecting the narrative of graphic design and the urgencies it can address. In this issue, Winona Wheeler and artist Joi T. Arcand discuss the history of the Cree syllabary and consider typography’s potential for undoing colonial historiography. Kalpana Subramanian traces her own pedagogical experience at the confluence of American-industrial-modernist design tendencies and ways of making that are oriented towards local contexts, at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. Tings Chak documents a moment in design history where a limited toolset, an educated design class and a political project all coalesced to birth a vibrant design language which offers an alternative understanding of the term internationalism, beyond its association with corporate modernism in graphic design. Finally, Mary Banas explores the work of Shannon Finnegan, an artist who uses typography as a disarming examination of how the designed environment privileges a narrow range of ability, and playfully proposes new imperatives for accommodating those with disabilities.
The same dynamic between obfuscation and renegotiation is represented in selected reviews in this issue. With a critical eye towards the way that graphic design functions as a channel to maintain institutional power, Michèle Champagne close-reads the film Design Canada through the lens of Canada’s history as an extractive, colonial project. Steven Chodoriwsky looks at the vernacular genre of the institutionally branded cookie. Additionally, Danielle St-Amour reviews Paul Soulellis’ experimental publication, QUEER.ARCHIVE.WORK and Brian Morgan reviews the typeface Times Newer Roman, among others. This issue’s Artist Project is a piece by Detroit-based graphic designers Danielle Aubert and Kikko Paradela. The two unearth and reconstitute a series of documents in order to reclaim land seized by eminent domain for General Motors. Gitelman responds to this piece with poetic insight into the authoritative role official documents play in her own relationship to her automobile.
It is our hope that this issue presents a new set of perspectives on the field of graphic design and makes available more of its critical and discursive facets—its epistemologies, histories and rhetorical operations. By inviting new frameworks for critique, we intend to offer a clearer vision of the capacities of graphic design to obfuscate its role in reifying the normative standards that constitute the power of coloniality and nationality; reproducing hierarchies of class, ability and access; generating fault-lines of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, immigration status, ownership, and more, through the scriptural economies design artifacts constitute. It is our hope that people can use design practices to renegotiate these very same urgencies.