A combination of the rise of social media and the endurance of one of the most politically volatile decades in history has led to huge public engagement with politics since the financial crash of 2008. The Design Museum’s forthcoming exhibition, Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–2018, explores graphic design’s critical role in providing a political voice for the masses over the last decade, whether it’s grassroots Brexit protest placards to hashtags and memes surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency.
Ahead of the opening of Hope to Nope on March 28, we spoke to the exhibition’s curator Margaret Cubbage about the show, which examines a variety of graphic design strategies and the role of visual communication in influencing opinion and debate through a range of work from both high-profile and amateur designers.
Culture Trip: Do you think people have become more politically aware over the last decade or do you think the rise of social media has given the masses more of a voice – or both?
Margaret Cubbage: Yes, I think people are more politically aware and this in part is a result of social media. Not only do the masses have a platform in which to voice their opinion, but politicians use the same platform in which to communicate current affairs. You can choose whether or not to tune into this or engage or participate in this dialogue, but largely it is more prevalent within our daily interactions and communications. Before, you could choose whether or not you wanted to watch or listen to the news or purchase a newspaper. Now it pops up in our news feed whether we are interested or not.
CT: How would you compare the political propaganda of a decade ago to that of the present day in a visual sense – how has it changed aesthetically?
MC: Aesthetically and stylistically there is no real change. There is still in some case a rawness and coarseness that is reactionary and immediate. There is still a cut and paste style to the political propaganda, or in some cases it is intentionally unpolished to distinguish and differentiate itself from mainstream media. This is also to show its authenticity and visually articulate that it has not been manipulated and originates from grassroots level as opposed to top down. It also adopts techniques and traditional iconography or compositions, such as the North Korean propaganda.
CT: Have artists changed their approach do you think when it comes to portraying major political events and key figures?
MC: I think the techniques remain the same. It is still common for artists and designers to adopt humour or satire to convey key figures or political events. You also see the material that came out in support of Jeremy Corbyn – artists and designers used his name alongside brands that would appeal or grab the attention of a certain demographic.
CT: The creative world has always documented and responded to major events – what makes the last decade so different/noteworthy?
MC: The way in which these images are disseminated. People are aware that globally we are all connected through the Internet and work is created or images are conscientiously created or documented for an audience. We are savvy to the potential of the Internet and to how far our message can reach.
CT: What place does traditional media have now in the digital age?
MC: It still has a place, from newspapers and magazines to billboards. An example of this is The New European newspaper, a publication which was launched after the UK voted to leave the EU, and continues to print, sell and make a profit. The transient nature of digital media means it doesn’t have a physical footprint quite like traditional media, and therefore may not last as long. However, it spreads further and is potentially seen by more. That said traditional media, such as posters and flyers still have potency and communicate political messages as effectively as digital messages. Their impact, however, is more localised until it is documented and spread via the Internet, which increases its influence.
CT: Why do you think there has been a rising trend in the subversion of well-known icons?
MC: People are interested in the meaning of these images and the subliminal messages. We see these symbols every day, so by changing them slightly or juxtaposing them with other images or symbols to encourage people to look at these in a new way, considering their origin and meaning.
CT: Would you say the increasing resistance to authority is reminiscent of the social and political revolution of the 1980s? Elements of this era seem to be coming ‘back in fashion’ in the creative world – for example, the resurgence of postmodernist-style architecture – could this be linked to the political unrest in the UK?
MC: There is a similar sense of restlessness linked with this period of change, as there was in the 1980s. You can see parallels in creative statements and ambitions to break from convention similar to designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Neville Brody during that era. It was a time when people had the confidence to try new things and break out from convention, be it in fashion, graphic design or architecture. There is this question of authenticity and authorship, where hybrids are created from the amalgamation of styles. Similar to the 1980s, you can see within graphic design that more designers working on self-initiated independent projects where there is no client but the work is more about making a statement or encouraging dialogue.
For example, Fraser Muggeridge’s work, who collaborates with the artist Jeremy Deller on large-scale installations, and the many graphics examples such as Stefan Sagmeister’s ‘Pins Won’t Save the World’ in response to Trump’s presidency. Metahaven practice and its project ‘The Sprawl’ looks at the idea of the Internet as now being a dystopia, a platform for fake news, where we now cannot believe what we see, hear or read. Designers are looking at how we as a society are opting out of reality through the immersion into the world of the Internet. They are more about visual commentary, or creating spaces or finding unique ways in which to encourage dialogue. In some cases these are presented in a way that is satirical. Also designers are finding new interfaces in which to communicate and present their work, for example Barbara Kruger’s latest work ‘MetroCards’ in the New York City Subway.
CT: With exhibitions this year including Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Revolt and Revolutions; T-shirt: Cult, Culture and Subversion at the Fashion and Textile Museum; and Rhythm and Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain at Two Temple Place, do you think the theme of rebellion and subversion is going to be a strong topic in the design world for 2018?
MC: Yes, it certainly feels that this theme is striking a chord with the public and there is a real appetite and market for designers to react to this. Design is about responding to and adapting to the surrounding changes. They need to find ways that they can challenge conventions and push the boundaries, rather than playing safe.
CT: Why is it so important for institutions such as the Design Museum to highlight work like this?
MC: The Design Museum is a place to celebrate contemporary design in all its forms. This exhibition demonstrates and reinforces the power and importance of the role of the graphic design, highlighting the relevance and presenting the context and evidence of how impactful this work is. It affects everyone regardless of culture, gender or race. It also highlights the emergence and influence of technology within this domain. This exhibition reveals to the visitor how political messages are constructed, who they are created by and the motivation behind them, to equip the visitors with the knowledge and skill of how to read political message and understand the motive.
CT: What are your personal highlights from the exhibition and why?
MC: The ‘Newborn’ typographic monument is one of my personal favourites. It is an example of statecraft, and the birth of a fledgling nation, celebrating Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. A bold and clear statement to the world, that celebrates the independence of a country and is a monument that people can gather around. I also like the fact its appearance changes each year to mark the anniversary.
Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–2018 runs from March 28–August 12, 2018 at Design Museum, 224–238 Kensington High St, London, W8 6AG. For more information and to book tickets, click here.