Spark 001 / Constructivist critique

Almost a year ago the design school that I teach at was lucky enough to host a talk by a notable American communication designer. It’s not important to know who the designer was, except to say that he is a historically significant figure, most notably for being an heir — and an upgrade — to the mantle formerly held by Charles S. Anderson as the vivid illustrator of lush, retro Americana.

I very much liked the guy personally. We have some things in common, both of us being heavyset, midwestern guys from working class backgrounds who happened into graphic design via a love of snowboarding. I am also a fan of the work, for both the painstaking process and the impeccable end-product.

Where we differ however, was highlighted in a moment of political discord that occurred during a graciously performed impromptu critique of student work in our advanced communication design studio, the HIVE Labs. It grated on me at the time, but I said nothing out of a knee-jerk Canadian tendency to not want to make our guest uncomfortable. The smart move would have been to initiate debate on the spot, but instead it has become one of those “I should have said …” moments that have plagued us all at one time or another.

It happened when the visiting designer was looking at a piece by a student that very clearly referenced Russian Constructivism in its design. He gravely warned that the student should be more thoughtful in producing work in this style because “they killed a lot of people.” We can assume that “they” in this context refers to the Soviet Union specifically and communists generally. Putting aside that this designer was more likely thinking of Stalinism — which can’t be considered textbook definition “communism” — he has a valid point; the Soviet Union was a brutal regime that did imprison, censor and execute many of those opposed to their ideals. They most certainly trampled over human rights. They did surveil the citizenry in secret. But did the Constructivists? Should they be painted with that same brush? To my knowledge, Aleksandr Rodchenko never curtailed anyone’s rights, Varvara Stepanova never murdered anyone, and I’m willing to bet that El Lissitzky never spied on a single soul. These were merely designers that were hopeful they were ushering in a new era in human development, one that included equality for all. (And if we’re going to criticize governments that frequently abuse human rights and secretly surveil their citizens, well …)

DEKONSTRUKT 2 (detail), Jesse Warkentin

My issue here isn’t primarily with confusing communism and Stalinism, or Stalinism with Constructivism; the problem lies in the double standard inherent in that statement considering where — and who — it is coming from. If your body of work has been steeped in glorifying Americana, and this inevitably leads to it referencing the aesthetics of vintage gas, oil or automotive company logos, are you glorifying those complicit in America’s misadventures in the Middle East in recent years? Why is it valid to elevate these symbols of capitalism-run-amok through graphic homage, but not symbols of a genuinely hopeful moment in the history of human evolution? Let’s not kid ourselves that the Iraq War wasn’t entirely about oil — it very clearly was. Were the oil companies who colluded with the Bush regime not complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people? Further, are they not still, by knowingly producing and selling a product that poisons the air and heats the planet? Glorifying symbols of capitalism, in particular oil and gas companies — and to be clear the designer in question is far from the first or the last to do this — has always been couched in this odd notion that somehow because capitalism is “fun” it makes the elevation of it okay. Thinking of gas-powered America conjures up images of convertibles on coastlines, SUVs conquering forest trails, drinking beer in the box of a pickup truck. So where’s the harm in that? I love fun as much as the next person, but the harm is that we already glorify unbridled conspicuous consumption in our everyday lives while we have much more serious problems that require our focus, a noteworthy example being our own possible extinction. Glorifying consumption through our graphic design seems more than a little like doubling down on a system that wants to kill us.

To be fair, the visiting designer has produced beautiful work for many excellent progressive initiatives; he is a passionate Democrat, and a supporter of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. However, this too is part of the problem, as I see it, with designers today: are politicians like Hillary Clinton or Justin Trudeau really the limits of our creative imagination? This designer didn’t feel Bernie Sanders stood a chance of being elected President (keep in mind this was a year ago, when Bernie’s odds looked decent), so he chose to support the least offensive option. When exactly did “better than the alternative” become our go-to cri de couer? As designers of the world around us, we should be at the vanguard of proposing the incredible and describe to the public-at-large a world that could be better, more equal, and more fair. In the design community we lost that urgent political drive at some point in the 1970s, but we see today that the stunning rise of inequality has in turn advanced players on the left like Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, European parties like Syriza and Podemos, and organizations like Scotland’s Common Weal. These sparks of revolution should inspire us to believe that our only limit should be that of our radical imaginations.

The point of this space from today onward is to be a platform for radical political ideas in design. We want to put forward progressive ideas that may seem impossible, even ridiculous, but shouldn’t be. Why should it seem ludicrous to think that left-wingers like Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein don’t represent the type of course-correction America needs after decades of Clinton-Bush doctrine? We should find a lot more common ground with France’s Left Front Party and their proposal for a 100 percent taxation rate on all income over 500,000 euros (who needs to make more than 500,000 euros per year?) than we do with President Obama’s “we’re drilling all over the place”* and we should be expressing that visually.

Welcome to Spark Poster, where design gets political. In the coming posts we’ll be looking at issues such as gender-neutral bathroom signage design, packaging laws, the marketing of electric cars and what’s to be done about Hudson’s Bay Company. Along the way we’ll be looking at designers and others using design in service of social activism, people like Justin Kemerling, Think Public, Jacobin Magazine and Thonik. Here’s hoping that you’ll join us.

*Remarks by the President on American-Made Energy, March 22, 2012: Cushing Pipe Yard, Cushing, Oklahoma