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(3) Does contemporary visual communication design have public secrets in and of itself, and can it unveil its own public secrets as well as those powers others may have?

Bergen Academy of Art and Design

Public secrets, hiding in sight – open to sense

by Åse Huus and Dóra Ísleifsdóttir

To answer the question “What is, maybe, the most urgent question in our study program right now?” we, Åse Huus and Dóra Ísleifsdóttir, decided to revisit a call for papers we recently wrote in which we answered the question, though in a slightly different context. We did so in an editorial collaboration with Victoria Squire, Peter Jones, and an editorial board of fifteen international colleagues, for Message 4, the fourth volume of the Message Journal, a publication on Graphic communication design. In the Message call we used the term Graphic communication design, but have taken the liberty here to use Visual communication design, as it is the umbrella term for all the teaching and artistic research in question among us, the Nordic teachers, in this symposium.

As Arja Karhumaa in Aalto said in her invitation to host us all for the first symposium, there are many questions regarding our profession and education in the field of Visual communication, and we think we have detected a pattern of concern—if not a pattern of easily produced solutions or magic formulas. It is possible, we think, that our profession needs to radically shift from being a service-oriented form of craftmanship, to becoming more explicitly a form of knowledge; one that has as its main purpose to inquire and question, to make visible through translation into the visual language—and to create meaning, and by doing so perhaps create an audience, a more literate public?

So, to quote ourselves and or co-editors, we propose that: The largest proportion of Visual communication design aims to, indirectly or quite directly, sell more products, services, and experiences. We suggest that this demonstrates the discipline’s key role in underpinning the unsustainable Western/Capitalist model of production and consumption, and as a consequence Visual communication design bears responsibility for (many of) the problems that are attributed to this model. The global adoption, adaptation, and corporatization of this model of production and consumption, plus its modes of presentation and coordination, could not only be described as a form of colonization, but, also and in particular, a form of visual colonization.

Visual communication designers have a history of engaging with social, Economic, and political issues, from William Morris and his support for women’s suffrage, socialism, heritage preservation, workers’ rights and conditions, through to early Soviet, subsequent Allied WW2 propaganda, to the First Things First Manifesto, Kalman’s Fuck Committees and his works towards unity and Fairey’s Obama posters. All of these aimed to engage with and change the broader social, economic and political circumstances. Whilst the latter rather obvious examples may demonstrate a progressive narrowing of focus, do they also demonstrate the Visual communication designers’ loss of agency or are they our most popularized examples and as such obscure our view of more valid and recent examples? Inspired by Tony Fry’s Becoming Human by Design (2012) we would also like to reflect upon the uncertainty and complexity in a relational world consumed by systems that are serviced, supported and upheld by Visual communication design: ‘While forming specialist disciplines and divisions of knowledge claiming to produce universal knowledge, it [design] failed to make vital “horizontal connections”. In so doing, it was blind not only to its own and wider causality but, also, to the inhumanity that accompanied its humanism and against which modern civilization was defined.’’. 1 (Fry, p. 25)

Fry’s words lead us to call for examples of deeper meaning and perception in a world where ideas and resources are usurped and muddled into a global system of consumption; where designs are made into shallow material symbols of status and power that ignore, or even belittle, other possible modes for human beings to achieve prosperity and a sense of humanity. [end of quote]

In light of the above, for our students’ sake and our own, we hope that there is a core to visual communication design. A core that has existed for as long as humans have communicated with words and images combined, and possibly longer than that, in some form. We detect that the core might be to uncover, show, and convey meaning and understanding. In the hope that people, somehow, then become able to change their minds and behaviour. And that Visual communication is, in essence, an open and very democratic Force.

As teachers, we think we are detecting a clear pattern; that our students want to face and deal with complex and wicked questions through design—that they are basically arming themselves, through their studies. The examples we selected clearly depict two major directions: the climate crisis, and fast paced technological development. We have three recent examples here: The Afluenza design team says we, humans, have an are overwhelmed by an overconsumption epidemic. By identifying this issue as a virus, design can be used to fight this epidemic. Overconsumption is a problem that threatens the living conditions of our planet. It is driven by capitalism and a lack of personal responsibility. We designed an interactive experience to create an emotional shift in consumer habits in order to address our target groups in this situation, because our planet is a limit to (economic) growth, and your behaviour is not sustainable.

Albert Tang describes his artistic research project Reflective Roaming — Design, ubiquitous fantasy, everyday reality as a critical inquiry into our conditions of living and being in the relationship between the “designing” and the “designed” in the contemporary informatized everyday. In this project, design is positioned as a means to question the status quo of the technocratic promises that fundamentally shapes personal, economical and socio-political dimensions in our everyday lives. And he asks: What are the consequences of being fully engaged with the technological visions presented by tech corporate institutions? How is humanity positioned in the intersection of information technology and market? What does it mean to be human in the eyes of machines and, the ones behind them?

Yawen Bao says about her project, the Whisper Game, that she wanted to explore how she could help potential keyboard warriors reflect upon their behaviors on social media. She designed a website and an interactive device that tells an open-ended story in order to unfold the process of spreading rumors on the internet. Yawen addresses netizen behaviors and information fragmentation in order to make her audience realize that what they are informed about depends on their perspective. That way they can become aware of what they see is not the whole story, and be encouraged to see the one event from multiple perspectives. She designed a way for people to take responsibility for their opinion, to not spread rumors on the internet or participate in cyberbullying, leading to fewer human tragedies in the world.

To summarize, we turn to Herman’s and Chomsky’s Manufacturing of Consent (1988), which begs for us, not only to question Graphic Communication Design’s role as a key instrument that mediates ‘falsehoods’ and is employed to misdirect and veil the consequences of relentless production, consumption and waste, but also to question its role in the illumination and mass dissemination of knowledge and facts.

1 Becoming Human by Design (2012) by Tony Fry