The Daily Heller: Keep Politics Out of Design?

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During the four decades I have been writing for design magazines and websites, I have been criticized whenever I address political, especially partisan, issues. The testy criticism often takes this tone: “Stick to design, I don’t subscribe to read about your politics!” Occasionally, I reply that design is in politics and politics is in design. I’ve devoted books to political design, from symbols and emblems to posters and magazines … and yes, even architecture represents forms of political identity and ideology. In fact, political messaging for one side or the other is integrated into everything that designers do. Illustration, typography and typefaces are common political tools, so writing about design history, journalism and criticism seen through a political or politically partisan lens is not an anomaly. It is also fair game for intelligent counter-argument, not stupid rebuffs like "shut your mouth."

Above: video from Jan. 15 Norman Rockwell Museum “Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression symposium, Part 1

It is a fallacy that all graphic designers, like mass media in general, are politically progressive There is a growing chorus of reasonably conservative as well as irrationally ultra–right-wing voices, too. This is not new, either. History shows that some of the strongest propagandist/artist-designers supported repressive regimes: F. T. Marinetti, Paolo Garretto, Fortunato Depero and Ludwig Hohlwein, among them, had direct links to Fascism and dictatorships, believing that their art and design served a "legitimate" revolution, and in that sense they were true to their cause.

In 2008 I asserted in Eye magazine that a dominant number of liberal designers appeared to contribute to design magazines and blogs at that time. This is not so (at least in the United States) during this current period of polarization. There are various shades of political coloration within the mainstream and DIY design worlds, where on the spectrum ranges from dark blue to deep crimson — and ambiguous colors too.

The mainstream design associations in the U.S. have sometimes been reticent about voicing controversial views and cautiously stay clear. Indeed, if an organization is designated as a not-for-profit 501(c)(3), partisanship is forbidden—and can result in the loss of tax-free status. Balance of views is preferred (but is all balance equal?).

In the early 2000s, the anger over mixing ("contaminating"?) design with politics surfaced on blogs and chatrooms, which provided a “safer,” more anonymous, playing field for dissenters and trolls than, say, design conferences, where people may feel uncomfortable to express themselves. Today, websites are fertile ground for polarized discourse. But even polarization is better than rejecting political discourse altogether or doing so under pseudonyms.

Above: video from Jan. 15 Norman Rockwell Museum “Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression symposium, Part 2

Earlier in the decade, those who opposed and were angered by politicized design writing fell into two camps. One objected to being ambushed by political messages by design writers who were accused of having no credibility in the political arena (which is not unlike how some people view movie stars and other celebrities who stand up for causes). “Designer writers could do the political processes of the world a great favor by taking … their nonsensical idealism elsewhere and leaving the heavy thinking up to people who actually have a clue,” wrote a Design Observer reader. The second camp resented challenges to their own views.

“Injecting politics, of whatever leaning, into the design discourse is obviously a recipe for antagonism,” I wrote in Eye. “But why must this be? Designers are no more divorced from politics than any other aware citizens, so to restrict, as some have proposed, discussion on design blogs or at conferences to designer-specific themes, such as typography, would misrepresent design practice. Even type[faces] have political ramifications in how [they are] used to convey [whatever are the] messages.”

Before the 2000s I once asked Paul Rand (who saw himself as liberal) about the efficacy of political discourse in the classroom. Rand asserted that design education was not a good venue for politics. It should not be ignored, he told me, but rather kept at bay. Political content, he suggested, was so charged it could distract from teaching formal issues.

Yet I believe in the current climate we’ve moved away from his belief. Form and content cannot be separated, and content has become more politicized from the Bush to the Obama eras, and has exploded in megatons during Trump’s tenure through an agonizing war of words and images (e.g., hope vs. MAGA, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter). Silence is not golden.

Graphic design is so integral to the political process because digital technologies—blogs, social media, video, podcasts—have made soapboxes, megaphones and bunkers out of our desktops, laptops and hand-held devices. And as the political climate has become more antagonistic and provocative, uncivil partisanship has flooded the internet. Nonetheless, I’d much rather read oppositional debates than read the refrains that politics does not belong in a graphic design forum.

This past weekend I took part in a symposium at the Norman Rockwell Museum (co-sponsored by the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University in St. Louis), “Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression.” While skewing left, given the illustrators, designers, scholars and my own keynote (watch the videos above), it was just not an echo-chamber. I believe there was more nuance and some room for oppositional views. But to ignore politics entirely is to chop off an arm and leg, if not the head of artists's and designers's thinking and making. Let’s keep it civil, but let us acknowledge design is in politics and politics is in design.

(Author's note: I revised and re-edited this post on January 20, 2021 for reasons of clarity and style.)