For the final assessment task (Assessment 3: Issue Essay), having found myself enthralled by the Defining design as activism (Thorpe 2011) reading decided to explore and explain how recent design projects have utilised design activism to respond to one or more contemporary social problems. Given the broad nature of the topic – and how relatively little exposure I have had to it thus far – I settled in for some research and found two peer reviewed journal articles which helped greatly with my understanding.
Markussen (2013) offers somewhat of an explanation of design activism, in much the same vein as Thorpe – even going so far as to reference Defining design as activism (2011) – but works harder overall to separate design activism from other aspects of activism in general, insisting that although political activism and design activism may share common interchangeable themes the two are not mutually exclusive and can coexist harmoniously.
Lees-Maffei (2012) takes a slightly different approach and stance to design activism. In a recount of events from the 34th Design History Society annual conference in Barcelona Lees-Maffei cites historical sources and argues that – as was noted by a number of keynot speakers in the Catalan capital – Design Activism has become a fancy new way of describing design reform and is not necessarily a new thing. Instead it has been happening for hundreds off years in all matter of mediums as a way of achieving positive artistic expression be it embroidery or engineering.
While both articles contain vastly different content the overall summation by Lees-Maffei (2012) does well to bring together not only these two pieces but all facets of Design Activism.
“Design activism provides a compelling prism through which to understand the past, and awareness of the history of design activism and design reform can inform the present.” (Lees-Maffei, 2012 p. 92)
Lees-Maffei, G. (2012). Reflections on design activism and social change. Design Issues. Spring 201, 28(2), 90-92. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b303ec5f-bb3a-45b3-8def-c3edbbad4489%40sessionmgr4008&vid=8&hid=4101
Markussen, T. (2013). The disruptive aesthetics of design activism: Enacting design between art and politics. Design Issues. Winter 2013, 29(1), 38-50. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b303ec5f-bb3a-45b3-8def-c3edbbad4489%40sessionmgr4008&vid=9&hid=4101
Thorpe, A. (2011). Defining design as activism. Retrieved fromhttp://designactivism.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Thorpe-definingdesignactivism.pdf
Life’s greatest questions have always been; Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here?
When it comes to the second where we come from makes up a huge portion of our identity and, like us, where we come from has an identity of its own to maintain. It is for this reason that most states, territories, shires and towns have their own unique logo – something to capture their identity and share it with locals and visitors alike.
(Baw Baw Shire Council, n.d.).
The Baw Baw Shire council logo is a fairly safe and simple logo. It’s neat and tidy and places emphasis on where you are – with the big bold Baw Baw leading the line. The colours used are symbolic of the area. The red soil of the volcanic Strzelecki ranges, the green in betweens of the pastures in the valleys and the dark green figure of Mt. Baw Baw itself with a peak that rests peacefully above all that surrounds it. The design has one simple purpose – to capture the essence of the hills and mountains in which it frequents and act as “…a unifying symbol” (Glickfield 2010, p. 31).
(Latrobe City, n.d.).
In Glickfield’s On Logophobia (2010) she explains that “logos increasingly have to communicate an ethos rather than something figurative or literal, the designer’s task is to give form to abstract values, concepts and attitudes in a single mark” (2010, p. 27). This can be seen in the more modern, abstract looking logo for Latrobe City which looks to cash in on the abundance of coal mines and power stations in the area. The bold typeface on Latrobe gives it the main focus and the eye is directed by (what appears to be) a cooling tower.
Both logos identify and define the areas that they represent – but unlike a larger more densely populated and well known area (such as Melbourne) – this may only be seen in full to eyes of a local. A weary traveller who had just drifted into town with no knowledge of the area would be forgiven for just seeing a collection of assorted shapes and colours.
Glickfeld, E. (2010). On logophobia. Meanjin, 69(3), P 26-32. Retrieved from http://onlineres.swin.edu.au.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/522077.pdf
Baw Baw Shire Council [Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.bawbawshire.vic.gov.au/Home
Latrobe City [Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.austimber.org.au/sponsors/latrobe-city/
In its simplest form activism can – and quite often does- appear around us daily. Why then is it, by definition at least, so difficult to properly identify? This was the question that Defining Design as Activism (Thorpe 2011) aimed to answer (with regards to design activism at least – which is where we go from here).
Using the image above – taken from an Inkahoots project for Queensland Conservation – we can see how with the right application the criteria suggested by Thorpe can suitably define and demonstrate design as activism.
From (the) overview we can extract four basic criteria to define design as activism:
- It publicly reveals or frames a problem or challenging issue.
- It makes a contentious claim for change (it calls for change) based on that problem or issue.
- It works on behalf of a neglected, excluded or disadvantaged group.
- It disrupts routine practices, or systems of authority, which gives it the characteristic of being unconventional or unorthodox—outside traditional channels of change.(Thorpe 2011, p. 6)
Five simple words are all it takes for these criteria to be met – which clearly shows the power of design in activism. The first two criteria seemingly go hand in hand.
The problem or challenging issue? Mining.
The claim for change based on that issue? To make it stop.
The second two criteria, though still present, may not be as glaringly obvious – but are still relevant nonetheless. In todays modern society the single most neglected or disadvantaged group in existence has to be the natural environment. Humans may think they are the be all and end all but without our environment our existence is doomed. This human ignorance is prevalent for the final point as well – as it is we who have developed the mining practices which are being opposed.
It is for these reasons that a visually stimulating design is able to do so much more than a traditional activists protest or angry letter ever could.
Thorpe, A. (2011). Defining design as activism. Retrieved from http://designactivism.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Thorpe-definingdesignactivism.pdf
Keep Coal in the Ground [Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://inkahoots.com.au/projects/keep-coal-in-the-ground
Since the dawn of the first human, and throughout recorded history, our race has collected data to quench our insatiable thirst for knowledge. From the Neanderthal cave paintings of the past to the unwritten tweets of the future information from which we can draw knowledge is everywhere. When we consider our existence in this way data visualisation then becomes an incredibly powerful tool for enhancing our understanding. Whether it is a plotted graph displaying complex statistics or an infographic, like the one below demonstrating a Cab Double Cork 1440 (aka The YOLO flip), everything becomes easier to understand when it is broken down visually (Reas & McWilliams, 2010).
(The YOLO flip, n.d.).
The foundation of the image makes use of the ‘dynamic map’ technique (Reas & McWilliams, 2010, p.141); setting out a linear plain on which the viewer can follow the move from right to left in sequential order as if following the snowboarder himself. With a basic understanding already occurring subconsciously, given our instinctive familiarity with a map, the image is then able to break down the process of the otherwise complicated trick using a ‘time-series’ visualisation (Reas & McWilliams, 2010, p. 135). By taking a series of images in constant motion and overlaying them we are able to gauge better the overall process at each individual point from beginning to end.
The turn of phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ has never been more apt.
Reas, C., & McWilliams, C. (2010). Form + code in design, art, and architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
The YOLO flip [Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://iouri-in-sotschi.nzz.ch/en/1-star/#yolo-flip
The First things first manifesto 2000 is, on face value at least, a concise and well thought out piece that aims to re-establish designers as legitimate artists and more than just commercial marketing tools. Beneath the surface of this call to arms for designers everywhere however – or at least those, the undersigned, of the manifesto – the root cause of the authors’ issues seem to hinge more on a lack of personal recognition. Further evidence, provided by Michael Bierut (2007), even goes as far as to identify the 33 signatories of the manifesto as part of the “cultural elite” and questions whether or not they have ever even participated in any form of design for the corporate machine that they so detest.
“A Cynic, then, might dismiss the impact of the manifesto as no more than that of witnessing a group of eunuchs take a vow of chastity.” (Bierut 2007, p. 55)
Speaking in broad general terms it cannot be denied that the design industry as a whole has been impacted by globalisation and become another cog in the corporate machine. It also cannot be denied that a piece, similar to the First things first manifesto 2000, does hold some merit in helping to create a more harmonious public discourse for design as an industry. For this to be achieved, however, those who are writing it must do so from the front lines of design and not from an ivory tower.
Emigre 51. (1999). First things first manifesto 2000. Retrieved fromhttp://www.emigre.com/Editorial.php?sect=1&id=14
Bierut, M. (2007). Ten footnotes to a manifesto. In M. Bierut (2007), 79 short essays on design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.