As the much-anticipated exhibition Hope to Nope opens in London, we spoke to curators Lucienne Roberts of GraphicDesign& and the Design Museum's Margaret Cubbage about the graphic design exhibition that everyone's talking about.

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Exhibition photography by Benjamin Westoby

Grafik: The exhibition seems very timely, how did the idea for it first come about?

Margaret Cubbage [Design Museum curator]: GraphicDesign& first proposed an idea for the political graphics exhibition back in 2016 prior to the Brexit Referendum. At that time although an interesting topic and field it didn’t necessarily jump out as being a physical exhibition. Then a year on, and after the Trump Inauguration, we revisited the idea and started conversations with GraphicDesign& again and decided to focus the topic on the last decade. With this focus, and with the rise of technology, this became part of the story and in this time, we have seen the rise of the internet meme and a new type of propaganda which has a wider reach through sharing on the internet. Although pivotal, we didn’t want the exhibition to be dominated by Trump and Brexit and actually found when looking back over the past ten years it is actually visually rich with many political events and ways in which graphic design has been used to respond/ react or fight against political events or themes.

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Lucienne Roberts [co-curator and 2d designer of Hope to Nope, co-founder of GraphicDesign&]: 

Alongside running my studio LucienneRoberts+, I am co-founder of GraphicDesign& [GD&] with design educator Rebecca Wright. GD& publishes books and curates events and exhibitions that explore how graphic design connects with all other things and the value that it brings. All our projects challenge perceptions about what and who graphic design is for. A key component in how people are informed, educated, entertained and provoked, we believe graphic design makes a demonstrable difference. Last year we examined the vital role of graphic design in relation to health in the Wellcome exhibition Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? a show originated and co-curated by GD&. Hope to Nope is our second foray into working as exhibition curators, but actually pre-dates the Wellcome show.

With my 2d designer hat on, LucienneRoberts+ had an ongoing relationship with the Design Museum. Looking back at old emails I see that we first proposed a GraphicDesign& Politics show in 2014. The museum were interested by the idea but it didn’t quite hit the spot. We were more than gratified then when last year Design Museum curator Margaret Cubbage came back to us asking that we rework the proposal for resubmission. The time felt ripe. The idea was to focus on the last ten years – the political landscape having changed dramatically since 2008. We discussed how underlying political ideologies may still be recognisable but the tone and focus of debate – and the way political messages are disseminated – is utterly different. New technologies have in a sense democratized graphic design. Utilised by the marginalised and powerful alike, as traditional media rubs shoulders with the hash-tag and the meme, never has graphic design seemed more critical in giving us all a political voice. Working alongside the Design Museum curator Margaret Cubbage, the GD& curatorial team comprised Lucienne Roberts and David Shaw with input from Rebecca Wright. Dave and I have worked together as designers for many years, often engaged in political projects, his knowledge of the field has made him a pivotal addition to the team.

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Which pieces in the exhibition do you find most powerful?

LR: Looking back at our initial proposal we have dug far deeper than I imagined possible in such a short space of time, uncovering one powerful example after another. Stories are drawn from across the globe, artifacts range from beermats, badges and banknotes to inflatables, typographic monuments and flags. For me, some of the most significant work on show is produced by unnamed amateurs, or by designers forced to use pseudonyms for their own safety, powerful as much because of the context in which the work is produced as the end result. Equally, we identified some stories for inclusion – Cambridge Analytica for example – way before they became topical, so I feel a degree of vindication in having considered them to be important too. GD& have collaborated in producing the Design Museum book that accompanies the show and this has been conceived very much as a snapshot of a particular time. Time will be our judge of course in terms of omissions and inclusions.

The examples of ‘powerful’ work I would cite are not only important because of effectiveness, in some cases it’s because of what they tell us about the limitations of design also. An obvious example is Michael Bierut’s logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. I reread his Design Observer piece I’m With Her last week. His sense of disappointment is palpable, his reflecting on the value of orthodox graphic design unsettling. ‘Armies of smart people generated oceans of words in the aftermath of the election trying to figure out what happened’ he writes. ‘I too wondered if the very thing I was so good at had somehow betrayed me.’ At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of commercial work, is London-based TEMPLO’s UN report, posters and digital assets on the 2014 conflict in Gaza. These employ striking infographics, including one that compares blast radii to the size of a football pitch. These gained worldwide media attention. The report was instrumental in the Human Rights Council adopting a draft resolution to ensure accountability and justice for people affected by the conflict.

As a feminist I am in awe at the bravery of a group of feminist activists in China. Supporters bravely held anti-sexual harassment posters aloft on public transport – acting as human billboards because their request to run an orthodox campaign had been denied by government. In Venezuela, meanwhile, we include images of protesters against economic hardship and food shortages carrying homemade shields to protect themselves from police tear gas and water cannon. These feature political slogans, memorials to dead protestors, religious iconography and colourful artwork and are made from repurposed objects such as satellite dishes, drain covers and barrels. Visually striking, the shields are frequently made by supporters less able to actively participate on the streets who leave them at prearranged points ready for collection.

We of course include examples drawn from designers who feel impelled to instigate political projects. The book The Complete Lexicon of Crisis Related Suicides 2008–2013 was the brainchild of designer Richard Sluijs. The economic crisis led to an estimated 10,000 suicides in North America and Europe. This 712-page publication is a form of memorial and a critique of the actions of politicians and bankers. Each spread tells a suicide story, using symbols to communicate the method used and a typographic dagger for a memorial cross.

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What makes an effective piece of political graphic design?

MC: Something that connects people and immediate and responsive to the event – illustrations in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks provide a perfect example. Graphic design can encourage people to change the way they perceive or look at things in a different tone.

LR: If by ‘effective’ you mean that it achieves what it sets out to do then there is no straightforward answer. ‘Authenticity’ has arguably always been important in this field – currently this seems to exclude some work that has the hallmarks of commercial graphic design. In times as politically turbulent as these, projects that are obviously heartfelt responses to a given situation, or that signal not being the work of professionals, can often be very persuasive. 

Examples of the former might be the hugely varied illustrative depictions of Donald Trump who has become something of a graphic icon in his own right. His distinctive hair, tanned skin, long red tie and baggy black suit have provided image-makers with a palette of recognisable visual symbols. One of the artists whose work we exhibit is Cuban born illustrator Edel Rodriguez who arrived in the US as a child, a fact that informs much of his work. Endlessly inventive and full of wit, he has created numerous images of Trump, including cover commissions for TIME, The New Yorker and Der Spiegel, and recently shared downloadable anti-Trump artwork for use in protests.

Another interesting example is Peace Factory, an initiative of Israeli designer Ronny Edry. When war seemed likely between Israel and Iran, he posted a selfie with his daughter on Facebook, colourfully captioned, ‘Iranians, we will never bomb your country. The image spawned a Facebook community and other groups promoting peace. This led to Peace Factory, a social media movement and website aiming to ‘make peace viral’ in the Middle East through sharing personal stories and images and using Edry’s graphic as inspiration.

When it comes to the work of ‘amateurs’, it would be hard not to reference the great swathe of posters, placards and banners at the women’s marches held on the first day of Donald Trump’s presidency, and exactly one year later. In 2017, nearly 4.5 million people in 914 marches protested against Trump’s attitude to women’s and minority rights, among other issues. Participants carried handmade, angry and often witty placards or wore hand-knitted pink ‘pussy’ hats, referring to Trump’s boast about grabbing women with impunity. Many of these items were clearly conceived with social media in mind and some even used English in non-English-speaking countries to widen appeal.

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Much of what we call ‘protest graphics’ comes from a grassroots level. Traditionally many graphic designers have avoided getting involved in anything political, do you think that’s something which is changing?

LRGraphic designers in the West may have historically avoided getting involved overtly in politics but not necessarily elsewhere. We all feel anxious about the future now though, so we are all motivated to engage. The story of graphics and politics since 2008 is dominated by new technology of course. It has transformed public engagement in politics, affecting the production, control and reach of political messaging – and its visual forms. While traditional formats such as the poster or political banner are still relevant and powerful, they exist alongside the digital within a proliferation of visual messages delivered instantaneously to our devices, wherever we are. This has led some to feel more invested in world events, more able to effect change or influence debate; others voice concern that amid the mass of political messaging nuance is being lost. Arguably new technology has empowered grassroots activists but also resulted in targeted campaigns by political interest groups, designed to set people against one another and even destabilise political systems.

More broadly, my own personal take is that politics and design have always gone hand in hand, they are inseparable, not least because the intention of so much graphic design is to persuade. The question that has to be asked is ‘persuade to do what and to whose benefit?’ I must mention designer Mike Monteiro in this regard. Mike is co-founder of San Francisco-based interactive design studio Mule and a powerful advocate for design responsibility. Since 2017 he has delivered his talk How to Fight Fascism in 20 cities around the world. In it he argues that design is always political – who we work for, the problems we choose to solve – and all politics is designed. ‘The world is a mess’ he says ‘a certain set of people designed it to be a mess. Now we need a different set of people to design our way out of it. This is not a choice. Fascism is knocking on our front door. This is how we knock back’.

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Do you think that people still underestimate the power of the image?

MC: I think people are becoming more aware, in the age of social media and Instagram. Protest are becoming more performance-like, with the knowledge there is an audience and the potential that this image can go viral in seconds.

Why are there so few exhibitions dedicated to graphic design at the Design Museum? It seems that the focus has been on individual designers (which appeal to specialists), rather than design as a discipline (which would have a wider appeal)

MC: The Design Museum is a platform for all the design disciplines. The exhibition programme tries to show what is current or celebrate individuals at a certain stage in their career. Thematic exhibitions are generally more difficult to curate and need more time to develop, that said this exhibition was curated in just over six months. When graphic design does not feature in the exhibition programme we try to curate events or workshops to appeal to the graphic design community.

Justin McGuirk [Chief Curator, Design Museum]: Since reopening the museum in its new home the emphasis has been on thematic exhibitions. If you think of Fear and Love or California or Imagine Moscow, works of graphic design had a strong presence, especially in California, but they were not graphic design shows per se. We are also developing a new series of displays around the atrium which will include graphic design, and these are the most widely visited spaces in the museum. On the topic of individual designers, that was certainly the case historically, but we haven’t done a classic monograph since we reopened in 2016 (Hella Jongerius had a show exploring the theme of colour last year but it contained none of her products).

It’s been suggested that people don’t want to see exhibitions about graphic design, but how do we know if there aren’t any for them to visit?

MC: I personally don’t believe this. I know the graphics exhibitions we have are very popular, Alan Fletcher, Wim Crouwel attracted high visitor figures. The graphic design audience we attract are extremely loyal and there is a large following.

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Can graphic design change the world?

MC: Graphic design can play a part in changing the world. It has the power to communicate messages and connect people.

LR: I have always believed that it can. Not on its own though. The whole purpose of GD& is to demonstrate what graphic design delivers in relation to other fields. Graphic design is rarely about graphic design after all. It’s about everything else. Politics changes the world so graphic design can have a role in changing the world too.

Hope to Nope emerges from GD&’s belief in the ability of graphic design to increase public engagement with and participation in politics. Thanks to technology, graphic design now shapes movements as well as being the medium for their messages. Our intention, however, is that the works collected demonstrate the pivotal role that graphic design plays in not only responding to the political moments of our time, but also in challenging, changing and dictating them. Celebrated graphic designer Milton Glaser said he is critical of ‘pieces that satisfy their maker and express their rage, but do not transform other people’s visions’. A sentiment I most certainly agree with.

Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18
28 March to 12 August 2018

Design Museum
224-238 Kensington High Street
London W8 6AG