The rise and fall (and rise again) of the political designer

This year saw the end of renowned design studio the Designer’s Republic, tDR for short. The CR blog gave an excellent account of what happened here, well worth reading for anyone interested in this ground breaking agency. For me their end has signaled something that has been a long time coming; the end of the politically motivated designer. Ian Anderson, tDR’s founder, has always been outspoken, especially on the subject of consumerism. Some of his most memorable work were the manga dolls and his slogans “Work, Buy, Consume Die“. There are few designers that I am aware of these days working within the mainstream of graphic design that are producing work with politics as the central theme. Most studios will produce some altruistic work for charities, events and so on, but the appearance of design like some of the political stuff done by tDR is increasingly rare.

Political is probably the wrong word, very few designers make direct political statements in their work, outright, unsolicited support for one political party over another. The obvious recent exception is the recent rallying cry behind Brand Obama, with artists and designers lining up to create their visual messages of support, most prominent of those being Shepard Fairey. This grass roots support undoubtedly helped to secure victory for America’s first black president. The man owes a huge debt to the creative industries, one he is indeed starting to repay.

The subject of Obama’s promises brings me neatly to next week’s climate change summit in Copenhagen, the first of it’s kind since the only mildly successful Kyoto agreement in 1997. Once again world leaders will meet and attempt to thrash some deals on carbon emissions etc, and there has been much speculation on how much will be actually achieved. I like the Guardian’s in-depth analysis of how it’ll all go down.

Of course there’s been a load of blog activity on the subject of the conference, but I have been unable to find any chatter at all about the graphic identity that has been produced for it, not even on the usually-reliable Brand New. I’m pretty disappointed, especially when you consider how bent-out-of-shape everyone got when Ikea announced they were using Verdana as their main font. Is this really of more interest to designers than this potentially world-changing meeting?

Go and check out the identity designed by Denmark’s NR2154 on their portfolio site, and decide for yourself.

But I’d be wrong to imply that designers don’t care about politics anymore. Whilst the world focuses it’s attention on Denmark, back in the UK, the British government is introducing a Digital Economy Bill that has among other boring bits of legislation is a rather heavy-handed and unwieldy attempt to block internet piracy. There has been a massive swell of discontent among internet types, chiefly against what is being seen as ideas from stuffy old men who don’t understand the web being pushed by corporate fat cats to try and contain the free file-sharing that is part of everyday life online. The Open Rights Group have all the detail of what’s wrong with the bill over here, and Fellow Creative (it was Carl’s blog that first made me aware of the existence of the bill) has the some more approachable methods of taking action as well as great collection of links here.

Should designer’s care? Well yes they should, I for one am getting very twitchy about it. I’m taking the view that “they’ll be coming after us next”, I’m imagining a world where Peter Mandelson, drunk with un-parlimentary power, starts to ban us from posting images on our own website and sharing links on twitter. There hasn’t been the kind of fly-posting that characterized the old style of political graphics, but people have started talking and, I hope, this is just the start of resistance to the Digital Economy Bill.

UPDATE: Brand New have now done a critique of the COP15 identity (hurrah!) courtesy of Dutch designer Mads Jakob Poulsen. Check it out.

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2 Responses to “The rise and fall (and rise again) of the political designer”


  1. 1 Tillie December 9, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I’m not knocking your article at all, because I think it is really interesting and generates debate which I’m sure is what you want! But, do we need to rely on the promotion/design/marketing of Copenhagen to attract people to it? Surely the importance of climate change and the effect our habits have on the planet should be enough to get people’s attention?!

    Also very interesting to note the Obama effect. Not sure we’ll ever see similar in the UK!

  2. 2 hedoesdesign December 10, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Yeah I agree that design won’t really help attract people to go to Copenhagan, I’d just like to see the design community engage a bit more with the identity of what is the most important conference of it’s type probably ever. The branding was put out to competition in Denmark, rather more succesfully than the identity for London and the NR guys won it, plus someone designed a ‘sound’ to go with it. Don’t really get what that was about.

    I’ve seen two things since I posted this which are design responses to Copenhagen;
    These posters by Steve Price and this installation over on Design Observer.


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