Shock Troops and Cheerleaders

A Rant on the Current State of Graphic Design

Kevin Yuen Kit Lo
Jun 4, 2014 · 6 min read

Graphic design is a shell game, a cheap hustle, when it could be a language. A practice of seeing and listening, speaking and writing, thinking and making, that might point towards a way out from under the wire, and maybe, just maybe, out of the game entirely.

The constant buzz of the semiotic stock market. Endless Tumblr feeds filled with nothing but blind utopianism, nostalgic sentimentality, or hollow cynicism. Empty words set in a geometric sans-serif, centred in white space and framed in black. Faux-weathered lettering pasted over a photo of a forest, or the ocean. Stretched Times New Roman is as radical as it gets here.

Or Pornography…

or Fashion…

What does it feel like to be living in the world today?

On this side of the world, the apathy of the infinite scroll seems like an apt metaphor.

I have enjoyed Print Magazine for 15 years now. But I have to say, the cover of the current issue upsets me. If you were to tell me an eight-year-old child designed it, I wouldn’t believe you. I’ve yet to meet an eight year old as aesthetically inept as whoever duped you into printing this “thing.” Seriously, who approved it? Also, can I have their job?

— Comment posted on by ChrisAtAcces in response to Metahaven’s design of the October 2011 issue. Repeated three times (likely a Wordpress error), this is the only comment about the issue.

The new ugly ain’t got nothing on the old ugly. It’s hardly a cult, more like a gang ; a pack of wolves circling the contemporary art galleries and fashion magazines. At least the dramatically labelled ‘legibility wars’ of yore held something of a promise, the belief that something was worth fighting for. Where are our Emigrés now?

It would be naive to think graphic design could instantiate any genuine social change. Yet there is still something radically enticing in its position as one of the few ‘professional disciplines’ (read as being crassly utilitarian to capital) to have flirted so passionately, if briefly, with critical theory and cultural studies. Importantly, this flirtation bore material form, and a vulgarized, visceral one at that.

For a moment, graphic design looked a bit, felt a bit, like the world, of the world.

But the blood didn’t stick to the walls. Experimentation devolved into style. We all got off the streets and strolled back to the office mall incubators, brunching on the new Midwest vernacular and finding solace in our reflections in the white-washed cube.

Legibility is a condition of manipulation…

—James Scott, Seeing Like a State

like, like, like…

The expanding multiplicity of ordered forms, our means of being read, identified and categorized (and to perform the same to others) relates directly to our state of nervous anxiety. Each night my jaw keeps getting tighter. Each night the state draws closer.

Given the ever more violent abstractions performed by capital, the critical positioning of graphic design as one of concerned, civic, mediation is no longer even possible. Softening the edges is futile when there is no outside anymore. And it’s only going to get worse.

The urgent task is one of reification. Not in the Marxist sense of the thingification of our social relations, but as a concretization of our ideas, the materialization of the possible, as physical resistance.

Historical Interlude

The International Typographical Union was founded on May 5, 1852 (in 1869 the name was changed from National to International after it began organizing members in Canada). The ITU was composed of typesetters and printers, apprentices and journeymen, and was considered one of the most democratic and progressive unions; condemning Sunday work, actively supporting organizing efforts by other craft unions, and being among the first to institute membership by women. Its organisational model, which strongly valued the autonomy of locals, acted as a preeminent case study for ideal union democracy, minimising bureaucracy and sedimented elitism.

In 1906, the ITU secured the eight-hour work day through the use of tactical strikes in major cities, paving the way for a standard that would eventually be implemented across all other industries. After World War I, when employers sought to lengthen the work day to 12 hours, the ITU fought back with massive strikes across the country, engaging in a three-year long battle that cost employers dearly, and successfully defended the union’s significant gains.

Typographers were able to punch above their weight in numbers due in large part to their unique position at the presses of every major city, where they were able to intervene on the production and dissemination of information and influence publicity in their favour.

The Montreal Typographical Union was formed in 1867 as Local 176, hosting the first ITU convention outside of the United States in 1873. Amongst the prominent members of the MTU was linotype operator and typesetter Kalmen Kaplansky, who served on its executive in the 1930s and early 40s. Kaplansky was a leading activist in the Jewish community, advocating for anti-discrimination efforts that extended beyond fighting anti-Semitism to combat discrimination against all minorities.

Between 1940 and 1943, Kaplansky served as the chairman of the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeiter Ring) in Montreal. The organization conducted itself as an irretrievable part of the radical labour movement, and provided education, health benefits, a library, open forums, clubs and cemetery plots for its members.

In 1936, the Workmen’s Circle Centre at 4848 St. Laurent blvd. was completed, and served as a cultural and political centre for the community. The centre hosted many notable speakers, including the famed anarchist Emma Goldman, who delivered lectures on literature and poetry, sex and birth control, art and revolution.

Since the 1980s, the Centro Social Español has occupied the building and continues to use it as a cultural centre for people of Spanish decent. Since 2000, the building has housed La Sala Rossa, a popular, family-run, music venue that has hosted many of Montreal’s most acclaimed musicians. The building across the street houses Sala Rossa’s in-house print shop, Popolo Press, run by Kiva Tanya Stimac. The press houses letterpress, relief printing, screen-printing, die cutting, bookbinding and foil-stamping facilities. Stimac describes it as ‘printing without a wire.’

In order to avoid romanticism, it should be noted that throughout its long history, the International Typographic Union was not always on the side of the oppressed. In Detroit, the ITU ended up on the conservative side of the Black Radical movement of the 1960s. They made it impossible for the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to print their newspaper, Inner City Voice, in Detroit.

On December 31, 1986, the ITU dissolved. The remnants of the membership merged with the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Before its dissolution, the ITU was the oldest union in the United States.

( Insert Silence )

Graphic designers today, in our labour, are the shock troops and cheerleaders of precarity. Dressed in tutus and wielding nightsticks. Millions served daily with a smile. The entrepreneur, the studio, the startup, the freelancer. The atomised individual. The ironic endgame of high modernism.

Over time the search for form will leave you hollow.

The burial site of the Russian avant-garde artist and theorist Kazimir Malevich has been covered in concrete by a real estate developer to make way for luxury housing. [… ] Russia is in the midst of officially promoting the artist. Mr. Malevich’s works, along with those of Wassily Kandinsky, inspired the design for the logo of the G-20 meeting opening in St. Petersburg next week.

—NY Times, Artbeat, August 30, 2013

Oh, and by the way, fuck you:

As more of our basic needs are met, we increasingly expect sophisticated experiences that are emotionally satisfying and meaningful. [… ] Design thinking is the tool for imagining these experiences as well as giving them a desirable form.

—Tim Brown, IDEO CEO

Sorry Tim, but whose basic needs are really being met here? I increasingly expect these gilded cities to burn. And I expect that to be a sophisticated and emo-tionally satisfying experience.

When the time comes — and it will — we should be ready to once again stop the presses.

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