Signs that make us smile
This is an article originally published in Desktop Magazine, July 2012 issue.
Public signage is a silent sentinel, warning us of impending danger ‘WATCH OUT’, controlling us in what we do ‘NO TURNING RIGHT’, and signal helpful public amenities like ‘TOILET 100M’. Its bold, upper case, sans-serif command carries an authoritative tone and non-negotiable instructions of what we should or shouldn’t be doing in public. Its presence is often ignored as another urban blemish until the time we realise that we actually need their instructions. So, when public signage speak to us in a friendly, human tone, or even make us chuckle, it tends to stand out from the norm. Especially if it’s in a place like Frankston, a southern suburb of Melbourne that suffers from a bit of a rough reputation. Public safety is one of the major concerns for their residents.
Please, please smile is a series of polite signage program, commissioned by the Frankston City Council and designed by Stephen Banham’s studio, Letterbox. If you’re already familiar with Stephen’s sharp wit, his willingness for design to contribute socially and his well-regarded flair for typography (this is putting it mildly), you’ll see that this project is also imbued with Stephen’s unique character (excuse the pun). Smile – CCTV in operation, and please keep it family friendly, alcohol free area, is a series of in-ground circular signage plates in a friendly, almost child-like script. Its success with the commissioning City Council has led them to even consider using the please, please smile phrase as their tag-line, which goes to show how infectious this concept can be. Who would’ve thought that a public signage could be so infectious?
Another example of the polite signage program, to the beach is a 1.2 meter high metal typographical sculpture that greets the visitors, arriving at Frankston railway station. It beckons them to a trail that winds down to the foreshore, an oft forgotten and obscured asset of the area that needed to be re-discovered to celebrate it as a signature attraction. In contrast to the heavy metal construct weighing in at 2.4 tonnes, the sign is very light-hearted. To the beach is bright red, curly script, expressing a sense of fun and excitement – a presence to eclipse the negativity that often overshadows the railway station. Plans are underway to have short stories and poems carved into the footpath to accompany the casual stroller down to the beach. It is a public invitation to enjoy Frankston’s beautiful coastline. Apparently, it’s already caused a bit of a buzz among its local residents and beyond as a local landmark. Hopefully this will be one of many small positive changes towards de-stigmatising Frankston’s reputation.
The polite signage project asks us to re-value the public assets that we share, whether they are public toilets, buildings, spaces or a reputation. It does so with a whiff of cheekiness and an abundance of trust. Politeness is about showing respect and courtesy and to mean this by what we do and say to one another. The polite signage project demonstrates this sincerity by walking the talk, and not by commanding us as a proxy for an authority. It speaks to the goodness and the playfulness in all of us, to create and cherish communal asset, rather than telling us that we ought to care (because penalties apply). As any experienced parent, teacher or manager would know, encouragement and positive reinforcements often works better than compliance. As Stephen remarks, the signage was meant to ‘bring an element of joy to the street’.
The civic role played by signage increase in salience when we consider them as symbolic forms that shape and interface communities. The attitude contained and expressed within these symbolic forms are important because communities are a social construct – in other words, we create it by interacting with one another. We do this within a set of interactions and behaviours that have meaning and expectations between its members. This is constantly being created through actions based on shared expectations, values, beliefs and meanings between individuals. All things social and cultural are stored and transmitted by symbols. Signage is symbolic forms that create and construct the kinds of communities we want to be, and this is a significant step, particularly for a notorious neighbourhood like Frankston. The polite signage is symbolically expressing the shifts and changes that are occurring to the communities themselves. And the wonderful thing about this is that we do this simply, but powerfully, by smiling.
Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Community’ in the encyclopedia of informal education
, accessed 25th
May 2012 from http://www.infed.org/community/community.htm.
Design Futures at Media and Communication
The irony of discovering the thing you seek is, in fact, residing in the work itself happened today… Reuben and I presented our work to the School under the Design Futures group and made us realise what it is that makes our collective interesting. Before I forget, here are some realisations from the conversations we had.
- Design/designing is enabling. This seems a fitting key concept for Design Futures. Neal then mentioned how he thinks about design as propositional or provocative, and that was an interesting way of thinking about ‘enabling’ as well. Alongside that, I guess there are many other adjectives too – questioning, reflecting, playing…
- Strong connection between artefact, people, process/method and practice. This is in contrast to areas that tend to separate them out individually as THE thing that represents design eg. especially artefacts, or in HCI-esq discourse where method is the king. Our area makes this connection/relationship between them central, and in doing so, brings a different way of presenting/talking/sharing/researching design. In fact, I think we need to be better at talking about this connection, and that will make what we do even more interesting.
- Related to the point made above, connecting design to different fields of knowledge/discourse/practices. Design, in fact, becomes the bridge or the needle that ’stitches’ fields together. This changes the conversation where design had to be ‘different’, ‘unique’, ‘original’ emphasising separation rather than connection – we celebrate the similarities between design and other fields because we see design’s agency when it ‘lives’ in contexts outside of its field domain.
- Participation is a strong value we bring and promote. We practice it, as well as interrogate it.
Reuben and I then later lamented how little we share / talk about our research with one another these days. I haven’t seen his work since he began. I miss the Design GRCs – I think we took that forum for granted and so I really see the impact of its absence now. Lets bring it back – or at least, have ‘mini GRCs’ within our group!
Slides from my preso:
Oscillation between artefact and process – I used this as a framework
artefacts that trigger / scaffold engagement, and in turn,
engagement that creates artefacts or experiences (ie, open-ended and contextual = human-centred)
Just found this really interesting article on ‘public wayfinding’ guerilla signages in N. Carolina.
Probious: Making graphic design visible
As we inch closer to launching the ‘probes’ for the Probious project, I’ve been having really interesting conversations with a few designers. This morning, it was great to get a phone call from Kevin Finn, who I e-mailed out the blue asking for recommendation for designers in regional areas of Australia.
There was a lot we talked about that resonated with conversations that emerged out of past workshops with other designers, but there are a few that stood out from the rest. One area that provided rich discussion was on ‘community’ – its oft nebulous, mis-used term – and that this project was a way to define and describe what the connections might be among people who call themselves ‘graphic designers’. Who are we, what makes us get out of bed in the morning, and what is our relationship to design? These ‘human’ elements can begin to show the make up of our design ‘community’ that is not defined by a job description/qualification. Kevin shared some personal experiences and recollections when he was practicing out of Kununurra, in remote north Western Australia. He said that he didn’t purposefully seek out other designers, but instead, allowed those connections to form naturally with those he had shared interests with. We then laughed at my dislike of being deliberately introduced to other Japanese people in a large party, just because we are Japanese and therefore we must have so much shared interest, or we know common people back home (!)
In our fetish for design artefacts, these often become the criterias in which a designer is evaluated by – “s/he’s a good designer because s/he does engaging and unique work”. This peer-evaluation works on a certain level (such as awards and setting certain ‘benchmarks’ of work) but is not conducive in building cohesion or connection – the bonds that define a community to give its characteristics and unique experiences. In discussing hypothetical scenarios of designers who are in remote/regional areas of Australia, they might deliberately disconnect with the borader design ‘community’ for that reason – for fear of being judged based on their work – because so much of the design ‘community’ is driven and celebrated by those with established their practices in urban areas who have a wide range of ‘interesting’ clients to work with. Designers who are in regional/remote areas may not have access to that diversity, the multi-faceted cultural stimultion and opportunities for exposure of their work, but they are designers nonetheless with personal motivations, their own definition and trajectory into the field of design. The picture of the ‘community’ we are building is to look inside the individual and the contexts they are surrounded by. We need to avoid the reductive, and instead, build a picture of pluerality and diversity.
Kevin warned not to make the designers in such regional/remote places feel as if they were chosen for this study because they are a strange ‘anomaly’ of the design ‘community’. The ‘bearded lady’ to be gawped at at a circus. I can see how easily this project can be misconstrued that way from their perspective, especially if there is a deliberate disconnect from their part and healthy mistrust for ‘all that jazz’ in the city. I’m glad to be reminded of it so we can proceed with more care and caution than before.
Kevin wisely commented that this project can become bigger than initially conceived, generating more questions rather than answers. I sense this enormity as well, and this reassures me that its a piece of research worth doing. However, the question I struggle with now, which came out of our conversation, is whether this is about graphic design at all. Neither it is to make the hidden aspects of it more visible to the public for it to be valued more. These may have been the intial intention of the research project, but I think it has shifted through the process of doing the reserach and having such insightful and critical discussions with practitioners like Kevin. Perhaps this project is similar in objective to the bushfire community preparedness research – an action research that is bridging disconnected individuals though a common purpose or interest – and through this connection, generating knowledge and learning experiences for all.
The future of design education…?
We’ve been talking about this a lot. WE, I mean, by a few people in Communication Design at RMIT, and some like-minded people I’ve hooked up with on the COTEN forum. The timing of these two colliding couldn’t have been better and I guess that’s the power of social-networking – if there is no physical community-of-practice that is broad / informed enough to have a fruitful discussion, I can easily tap into a one on-line. Wow.
Communication Design at RMIT is in trouble. Its been rudderless for so long I can’t remember. But now, the bolt of lightning has struck from above, and we’re getting our act together to consolidate what our future will look like, led by re-structuring the prized, the precious, the prodigal Works. I have been vocal in welcoming this change, some have been pissed off, some have been confused, and some have been apathetic to the whole thing. It has also led to student activist/protest (The infamous ‘H’ that only lived for a few hours on 20/5/10 – see below) but I am not sure if that had jolted the staff in to open dialogue with the students – well, perhaps, not just yet anyway.
The discussion about the future of our program is intricately linked with the future of the practice. What we are seeing is a global movement in design where disciplinary practices are starting to collapse, being replaced by fields/words such as ‘design thinking’ or ’systems thinking’ in approaching complex real-world problems more holistically. No longer is design bound to the ‘things’ they make. Design is moving away from products to process, from production to utilisation, from transaction to relationship building (as Arne van Oosterom says from Design Thinkers). This all sounds familiar to those who are playing/studying/working in the field of Service Design.
However, in teaching this new mish-mash field of design, Cameron said “it almost feels like universities are saying, we don’t know how to prepare you anymore so we are just going to throw you in amongst ‘real world problems’ from the start. To this, John Thackara said ‘There is a real challenge here. A lot of design persons, not just students, are venturing into the (grotesquely named) ’social impact space’ – and they tend to be well-intentioned, but not well-prepared.’
This is the danger I see with what we propose to be the future of design education, and at a micro-level, for our program. We, at MCD studio, have only begun understanding the nature of design’s agency in real-world problem contexts, let alone got a handle on how to teach/coach/mentor/guide/facilitate undergraduate students into it. Our knowledge and expertise as a community of practice has only begun to be developed through the collective input of a fantastic range of PhD candidates, like Miek and Nifeli.
Real-world projects are f***ing hard. I don’t sleep well at night when I’m in fully immersed in projects. Take the bushfire project as an example. They’re no longer ‘projects’ – they’re like having a full-on relationship break-up argument because it presses deep, emotional buttons and I can’t help but take them home and toss over them in my sleep…!
I’ve walked into that project (well, put my hand up willingly) without knowing a lot of what I know now. Some other projects I’ve done in the past, well, I wouldn’t want to do it again – the experience was so awful. At the end of the day, one cannot help feel powerless in shifting/changing things to a more desired state – because we designers are so ideological.
I’m ranting again… but what I thought I should think about more deeply is the ‘baby-steps’ to introduce students with. What would 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th years do – what skills can one gradually develop over the 4 years that can educate a designer to be able to take on ‘real-world’ problems? And, if we are going to focus more on core design skills than field-specific ones, what goes and what stays – because we can’t teach everything. If we can’t teach everything, what alternative methods/mechanism can we facilitate so that students learn from peers/outside influences in combination to what is taught by the university?
TBC. This is just the start.
Aylesbury Estate project
This project aims to preserve the oral histories, transitions and sense of place of its residents as the Estate goes through a process of regeneration. Teal, Claire, Joanna from the London College of Communication and myself ran a series of workshops with the residents to capture and share their stories.
I was amazed at how large the Aylesbury Estate was – its one of the biggest Estates in the UK! Apparently, the Estate is going to be knocked down and re-developed to improve facilities and house more people. This period of transition and re-development was considered a critical time to document and record the past and current life stories around the Estate, so it can be shared with others in the future.
The first workshop that Teal ran was with the Design Writing Criticism students from LCC. The students and residents took part in a breadmaking workshop as a communal activity to talk and share each of their stories. Some students brought their own cultural ingredients, like rosemary, raisins and cinnamon to make different kinds of bread. I thought that was an informal and inclusive way to ‘exchange’ knowledge, cultural practice, tradition and stories.
The second workshop continued the theme of food. We designed ‘invitations’ for residents to come to a story-telling session around food on special occasions. Everyone who attended had many stories to tell about food or special occasions. It was really interesting to hear how much times had changed since they were children (some participants were in their 80s!) particularly about what they ate and the lifestyles they had. I had designed ‘trigger’ cards of food as a way to facilitate the conversations, but its hard to know how effective they were. Many were so vocal and willing to tell us their stories anyway!
The third workshop extended both of these themes to capture the resident’s wishes for the future. The first session showed them the telling your story blog that Joanna designed. This was a great vehicle to demonstrate how their stories were captured and shared with others. It introduced them to this ‘new technology’, hopefully enabling them to tell their children, grand-kids, friends and relatives about Aylesbury Estate. Later, we asked them to write their wishes for the future on the cards I designed.
Some were quite hesitant but others were willing and there were very lovely thoughts being expressed in all of them. Later, they were clipped on to ribbons, like how christmas cards are displayed.
Australian graphic design: making the diversity visible
Recent indicators such as the wide criticism of the cost of designing the City of Melbourne visual identity suggest there is a significant gap between the public’s understanding of the nature and value of graphic design and that of the graphic design community. To add fuel to the fire, Rick Poynor recently warned at an AGDA event that graphic design is on the verge of complete surrender to business imperatives unless designers can make the public more aware of the value of graphic design beyond its commercial application. As design educators and practitioners we have had a long-standing interest in what happens in contemporary Australian graphic design. However, we see that graphic design lacks public recognition by comparison to a field like visual art; graphic design works having short life spans and mostly appearing without recognition of their creators. This has prompted us to consider how the diversity of Australian graphic designers and their work might become more visible to the public and to researchers.
What can be done?
This issue sparked debate, concern and excitement at a workshop in Melbourne, late September 2009, which was attended by several graphic design practitioners, educators, post-graduate students and design researchers. The discussion highlighted the paradox of graphic design practice – that its ubiquity was very public and visible, yet its practices was poorly represented and understood by the broader public. Many designers were excited about the benefit of making the practice more visible to others and to the design community. They believed that such initiative would spark curiosity, interest and recognition and strengthen client’s understanding of graphic design. The usual ‘traps’ of reductive definitions of Australian graphic design was avoided, and instead, the discussion described a practice that was rich, broad, hybridised and varied. Questions were raised concerning what ‘design practice’ means, why designers ‘painted on Sundays but didn’t in the studio, etc…
What were some of the ideas?
Many participants emphasised that designers’ creativity, thinking processes, their unique contexts and perspectives were important aspects to capture and make visible to others. Instead of using traditional methods of interviews and questionnaires, the ideas sought lateral, creative, visual and tactile methods of capturing the diversity of practices. Creating a cultural probe as a method of capture and collection therefore seemed ideal in fulfilling this task. A cultural probe is a commonly used ethnographic method in design research. It is usually a package, sent to the participant, containing various items with instructions, questions and provocations to trigger responses to reveal facets of the participant’s life.
Brainstorming what a cultural probe can provoke and trigger to reveal aspects of a designer’s individual and professional design practices generated an abundance of ideas. Examples, like collecting ‘design blunders’; continue a story-board by narrating or filling in the speech-bubbles; providing a ‘chart’ to record one’s mood over the course of the day; responding to ‘what does your mum say you do?’; disposable cameras to record inspirations by the letter ‘G’ in Bodoni; flash-mob SMS to document one’s activity at 10:53:44… and much more. Common to many of the probe ideas were the use of constraints, finishing something that had already been started, capturing a ‘snap-shop’ of the every-day, opening up creative dialogue in a variety of mediums, and provoke lateral responses to avoid any ‘promotion’ or standard company-line of what designers do. We also felt that it was important that the probe be sensitive to design aesthetics and fun to use, prompting designers to reflect on aspects of their identity and experience as designers.
The next steps?
We hope to continue with the discussions and generate ideas of cultural probes, inviting more designers to become collaborators of this project. Our intention is to design various prototypes of the probes and trialing them in 2010 by sending them out to graphic designers around Australia. This allows us to evaluate what kind of probe would best suit the purpose. After this trial period, we will launch this initiative by asking designers to nominate other designers in their network. We will send the probes to them, and ask them to nominate more designers, allowing this process to continue until it exhausts itself. We hope to capitalise on social networks among designers, which is a valuable human engagement and resource.
Eventually, our idea is to capture the diversity of individuals, practices and contexts that comprise Australian graphic design in urban and rural environments. Its intention is to make the invisible, visible by inviting contributions from all Australian graphic designers, here and overseas, with the aim of discovering the richness of graphic design practices as a complement to the image portrayed by more visible, client-focused work. After the process of sorting, categorising and analyzing is conducted, the collective outcome will hopefully surprise and delight, revealing the vibrancy, distinctiveness and breadth of the Australian graphic design community. This project will create a ‘snap-shot’ of the graphic designers today. The collection will become a significant archive of the practice and profession of graphic design – a community who is daily, contributing to our visual culture and landscape. The body of knowledge will also be an important resource for graphic design educators and researchers to help them generate more information on the nature of contemporary Australian graphic design. The vast collection from this project will be presented publicly, whether through a website or a physical exhibition, the possibilities will be endless.
This project is in partnership with AGDA and is supported by the Design Research Institute, RMIT University, and Swinburne. We would like to thank and acknowledge the participants of the September workshop, including, Stephen Banhan, Greg Blakey, Miek Dunbar, Marius Foley, Elise Hassett, Tania Ivanka, Bec Nally, Dion Tuckwell, Peter West, and Jeremy Yuille.
Come on Rick.
Rick Poynor wrote a review on New Views 2 symposium that we organised. This can be read here:
I have to say… its rather disappointing. Rick, in his critique, is specifically responding to Dick Buchanan’s closing speech of the symposium, which I and many others, found patronising anyway. So this article starts off on the wrong foot for me, that Buchanan didn’t ‘get’ the point and purpose of the symposium, which was then reinforced by Rick’s comment – all in all its barking up the ‘wrong tree’. The part that I find even more frustrating is the fact that these ‘old boys’ can command an audience, due to their prominence and public platform. People still listen to them, and they expect to be listened to….
‘Doom and gloom for graphic designers – the window is closing’
Dick Buchanan’s sermon of the day was how he sees that the window of opportunity was still open so long as designers’ practices was based on conversation. That was the theme of his talk ‘The Truth Begins with Two’ – that it takes two to have a meaningful conversation. Rick interpreted this as designers beginning this conversation with their clients. However, I took Dick’s metaphor of conversation as designers needing to reposition their role in facilitating the conversation with the public – including the client, designers and other stakeholders, where the designed artefacts are tools and mediums that can potentially facilitate such dialogue. It is a role that shifts the designer, who creates and produces the finished product to convey information from A to B, to a role that acknowledges the co-creation of messages by various participants through the design medium. It is a conversation because it is dialogic – not monologic, as many graphic designed outcomes can be perceived to be. By the way, this shift is not a new discussion – a great deal more has been discussed in CSCW and Participatory Design fields for a while now (should graphic designers wish to look beyond their own disciplinary boundaries).The process of design in these fields emphasises the relationship designers create with people they design for and with, which contests the dominance of mass market design and its ends-oriented values with an alternate, ethical, cultural and social modality.
So Rick’s rather traditional way of thinking of graphic design/visual communication was surprising and disappointing to me. I was rather hoping that he would meet Dick’s critique squarely in this article, but instead, Rick seems to have dug his heels in to argue the importance of craft, typography and the ’shaping of graphic form’ – an ‘old hat’ of how graphic design is identified, argued and promoted. Was that the only way he could counter Dick’s offense that its doom and gloom for graphic designers? Is that the only ammunition Rick has? That there is so much ’stuff’ out there that reassures him that what we are doing is ‘okay’, so stop worrying unnecessarily?
I was equally disappointed (actually, at this point of reading, perhaps I expected it) that Rick dismissed the speakers (I assume, Chris Downs from Livework and Terry Irwin) by saying that they didn’t ‘care that much about visual communication’, confirming to me that he wasn’t able to see beyond his own perspective/definition of graphic design. The two talks by Downs and Irwin, even though they were different, addressed a similar social and environmental concern of the role that designers play. They both asked designers to act and think beyond their traditional roles. Downs presented a pilot-project where Livework provided a loan system to a household so that alternative-energy renovations could be made. Repayments for these installations can then be made through the money saved on utility bills, thus alleviating the financial burden off the resident. Irwin, in her forceful speech, addressed how our ‘worldview’ should be questioned in order to re-think and do design in a different way. Some delegates took Irwin’s call to kick start off discussions, for example in the ‘Real World’ cluster, which was the group that I was in (but neither Dick or Rick visited – we were lucky). It had provided our group with an enormous challenge of how we can begin to question our own preconceived ideas of what design is, and our role within it. We only begun to scratch the surface of what this is – but its a good start.
It is too easy to overlook the outcomes of New Views 2 – especially when Dick and Rick (two prominent, white, western middle-aged men – there seems to be a pattern here) can, because of their standing in the design circles, ‘wrap it up’ in their own interpretations and opinions about it and for others to assume that this is it. Indeed, nothing big, bold, shiny and new has come out of New Views 2 – but I question why such expectation should be placed on this event. The underlying intention for New Views 2 was to nurture conversations among a diversity of people engaged in design. It was a unique opportunity where, through each individual’s active participation, generated the content of the conversation and shared outcomes within the group. It was, as Rick says, ‘unorthodox’ in the way it contrasts with the usual conference where the window for conversations and dialogue are limited to tea/lunch breaks and the paper presentations take precedence. New Views was not a forum for pushing content onto one another, but rather, to seek connections and take on board the differences in perspectives in how we each engage in design. This in turn, created common themes and differences in each of the groups. New Views 2 had provided the ’scaffold’ for such meeting to take place – and it is now up to the individual participants and groups to take what has emerged and apply that to their own contexts, teaching, projects, writing or any collaborative initiatives.
I heard that Rick has taken a position at the RCA as a Research Fellow. Being a researcher requires a different relationship to design than being a design critic. As a researcher discovering and exploring alternative avenues of graphic/visua/ communication/design, maybe then, he can contribute and participate in different ways to think, discuss and collaborate on what the future of graphic design might be.
Where is our diversity
Cast your mind over listing the top ten graphic designers, either in Australia or overseas. Think of the various monographs and self-promotional books that have been published in this field. How many of them are female, or non-western graphic designers?
This was a troubling question for the organisers of a graphic design forum/event in Melbourne. In order to seek diversity of ‘voices’ for this event, a number of practicing graphic designers as well as academics in various graphic design educational institutions were asked to suggest any prominent female or indigenous graphic designers that can be invited to participate in this event. Their response was that they were able to list a number of male graphic designers, but not many others.
The realisation that our profession had lacked this visibility of women, non-western or indigenous designers was a wake-up call to the organisers of the event. Or more accurately, perhaps it had confirmed what the have been observing for a while. Why does graphic design lack this representation? What does this say about Australian graphic design industry, or more broadly, the industry world-wide?
In response to the theme of the special issue of Visual:Design:Scholarship, the authors critically examined whether a profession that lacks diverse representation are in a position to address complex social contexts of our time. As the call by the editor questions, ‘how can graphic design become a visible part of the ongoing living narrative of culture?’, this paper also questions the visibility of the diversity of practitioners in graphic design. It specifically critiques how this may not reflect the culture and society in which it designs for, and within, especially in the context of Australia with its growing diversity of peoples and cultures.
The critique raised by this paper is not new. Debate on the lack of diversity of representation had been an issue for the profession for decades. Back in 1994, Laurie Haycock Makela and Ellen Lupton published an article in the Eye magazine about the ‘Underground Matriarchy in Graphic Design.’ In this article, they discuss various works and collaborative projects by female graphic designer canons to readdress the imbalance of the ‘Old Boy’s Network, which for so long has excluded women, younger designers, an people working at the margins of the professional mainstream’ (para 3). The article discusses an impressive array of female canons and the diversity of work they were involved with. For example, names such as April Grieman, Sheila de Brettville, Lorraine Wild, Katherine McCoy are now familiar to us through their prominence during the 90s, encountered thorough published works in Eye or Emigre magazines, or if one was lucky enough, hearing them talk powerfully and articulately at international symposiums. Coupled with the projects by WD+RU (Women’s Design Research Unit) by Teal Triggs, Sian Cook and Liz McQuiston that also gained exposure during this time, it had seemed that the imbalance was slowly but surely being readdressed. However,15 years on since Haycock Makela and Lupton’s article was published, the authors are puzzled to find that there is still a lack of equivalent calibre and cannon of prominent female graphic designers in Australia.
It is important to clarify that this paper is not about the battle of the sexes. Rather, its core argument is motivated by a concern about the imbalance of values that are adopted and promoted across the graphic design industry, and how this may represent or give identity to its profession. We argue that an industry that lacks diversity of representation reflects a lack of diversity of values. The fact that there are few prominent female, ethnic or indigenous graphic designers in Australia calls to question of how their values, opinions and perspectives remain hidden and invisible to those outside of the industry. There is a strong case to argue that the lack of plurality and inclusivity in this representation can undermine how the industry can potentially address the humanitarian and environmental concerns of Australian society, which includes many ethnic nationality groups and indigenous peoples as part of its diverse culture.
The critique of the lack of plurality and inclusivity also applies to bodies that represent graphic design to the public, other industries and government, such as Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA). AGDA suffered perception of being as an ‘Old Boys Club’ with white, middle-aged men making up the presidents of national and state-level council members until a few years ago. Since then, changes in its national and state level council members have brought in younger, female designers to the group who are undertaking prominent roles within the organisation. This shift also coincides with an event that occurred during a graphic design forum called Character in 2005, held in Melbourne. The past Character series had continually hosted a panel of up-coming and prominent male graphic designers. However, a concern was raised from the audience on, ‘where are the women designers?’, to which the panel members or the organisers were unable to respond to. Michaela Webb, who is the co-president of Victoria’s AGDA council, attributes this event as being catalytic in raising the concern of the lack of female representation. As a result, this concern had led to her appointment as the vice-president this year.
AGDA is not alone in being questioned on its representation of diversity. Adbusters have recently been criticised in only selecting white-male jurors for their ‘One Flag’ design competition. The critique raised by Drenttel (2008) in the Design Observer website, is pronounced even more due to the nature of the competition being on the issue of global citizenship. Furthermore, an organisation like Adbusters is well-known for campaigning against monopoly of white, masculine-culture corporations. That they failed to notice a bias towards their selection of jurors until Drenttel had raised the alarm was indeed a concern for the community to discuss.
More interestingly is the discussion on the Design Observer forum that ensued. Opinions were exchanged ranging from criticising the debate as holding up a ‘politically correct’ straw man; those who questioned whether this was a ‘racism’, ‘leftism’ or ‘reverse sexism’ issue; those who argued that the juror selection criteria should be on ‘qualification’, ‘merit’ and other qualities irrespective of their ethnicity, and the counter to this argument that such ‘qualification’ often strongly correlates with social position and can result in a selection of homogenous jury anyway. That this debate had sparked so much interest, unearthing a broader and deeper issue from the diversity and polarity of viewpoints expressed is a healthy sign of the field. This paper follows in the wave of this debate. It seeks to initiate a discussion on diversity of representation in Australian graphic design industry in the same intention that Drenttel had in starting the debate on the Design Observer. The authors are not attempting to raise this issue motivated by politically correct agendas, or to suggest that a tokenistic pick-and-mix of ethnicity and gender is a necessarily a good representation of diversity. It seeks not to provide definition of what diversity is, of what a model of it should look like. A complexity of issues surrounds and provides subtext on what ‘diversity’ means. It is time that we began to discuss this as a central issue to design, alongside the broader issue of design practice and the role it plays in society. They are intrinsically linked.
Where do our graduates go? Who are our role models?
The puzzlement and questioning had led the authors to re-look at where the graduates go once leaving their educational institutions. Both authors teach at prominent graphic design educational institutions in Melbourne where the cohort of students represents a healthy diversity of gender, ethnicity and international backgrounds. For example, in the communication design undergraduate program at RMIT University, the number of international students and those who have parents born overseas, constitute nearly half of the entire year level student cohort. In the classrooms, there are 70% of the female at the commencement of the course. However, during the past 8 years, there has been no indigenous student enrolled in the communication design department at RMIT University.
In a recent survey of graduates from the communication design program at RMIT University, 80% have found employment after graduating. Among these percentages, most of the international students have returned to their home countries due to visa-related obstacles. However, there is a few each year who have successfully secured work-sponsored visas or permanent residency to remain and work in Australia. Though there is a lack of concrete data on these cohorts, upon following up on some of our graduate networks on what roles and they have undertaken, many of them are working as freelancers, or middle- to large-sized graphic design studios and companies, ranging from junior to mid-level positions.
These anecdotal evidence suggests that the graphic design community in Australia is indeed diverse in terms of gender balance and ethnicity. From this observation, one can assume that the collective of various studios, companies, individuals are all operating, designing and constructing outcomes that contribute to our socio-cultural landscape of Australia. However, their work, voice, opinion and values are difficult to locate and identify in comparison of the prominence of white, male designers, who are more visible and vocal. Though this can be assumed to be ‘unintentional’, this is a critical concern especially when negotiating the identity for the individual practitioner. It contradicts the complexity and plurality of the context of practice. When the perception of the Australian graphic design industry is predominantly white-male designers, how and where do we seek other role models who we can identify with and relate to?
Surprisingly, academia is a place where a diversity of role-models can be found. Thankfully, students’ daily exposure to a diversity of perspectives and identities can be sought here through their lecturers and supervisors in graphic design programs. Many females and people of ethnic origins have prominent roles and positions in academia, providing a strong voice in addressing the concerns and future of the graphic design industry. This phenomenon in academia was also noted in Haycock Makela and Lupton’s (1994) article. They state that the exemplary ‘matriarchs’ they have discussed in the article have also come from the academic world where it is ‘… a place where women have found visible and influential places over the past twenty years’ (para 20). They offer reasons of institutional support and clear structures for advancement that schools offer, to be a strong attribute for this phenomenon. Haycock Makela and Lupton describes how this is a paradoxical position that combines influential and peripheral avenues in providing critique and observation of graphic design practice. Influential, in that it holds the responsibility in guiding the student’s learning and affecting their future pathways; peripheral, because it is outside of commercial practice where critique can be safely expressed and often sought.
What does this say about the culture of graphic design industry?
Observation suggests that discourse in organisational management is beginning to move towards adopting models of inclusiveness, collaboration and plurality. Attention to these values has been growing in the organisational literature, propelled by changes in workforce demographics, globalisation and greater interconnectedness or cultures and societies facilitated by technology (Glynn, Barr and Dacin 2000). A McKinsey research article published in 2006 identifies best practices of more than 230 global businesses. In their findings, they report that the development of a culture within the organisation that has ‘an environment that encourages openness, trust and challenge’ (p. 3) produce dramatic result and makes the organisation more effective. Furthermore, they have also identified that the ‘carrots and sticks of incentives’ is least effective in motivating and encouraging employees to perform well and stay with a company. Command-and-control leadership is stated as being ‘the still popular art of telling people what to do and then checking up on them to see that they did it, is among the least effective ways to direct the efforts of an organisation’s people’ (p. 3). These values are linked with masculine cultures and qualities associated with the world of men. On the contrary, values to nurture, to support and to enable have been traditionally associated with the world of women (Lupton 1994). ‘Matriarchy invokes the values associated with feminine culture – gathering instead of hunting, cultivating instead of conquering, nurturing instead of self-promotion’ (para 4). Irrespective of the lack of female representation in the identity of Australian graphic design industry, it is encouraging to witness that these values are gaining stronghold in considering how to manage how people work in organisations.
It is therefore not surprising that the pluralistic, collaborative and inclusive models of design is being discussed in fields of architecture, industrial design and interaction design through the theory and methods of participatory design, human-centred design and co-design. The process of design, in these fields, emphasises the relationship designers create with the people they design for and with. In particular, Nelson and Stolterman (Wolford-Ulrich 2004) state the importance of creating and maintaining a symbiotic relationship among designers and their constituents through empathy. In these models, hierarchy is de-emphasised in favour of an egalitarian relationship.
… this is a first draft of an on-going paper I am writing with Carolyn Barnes … obviously there is more to write + articulate!
Current state of communication design
Whilst reading through the abstracts of New Views 2 and attending the June 2008 Graduate Research Conference made me think how much communication design has evolved since I graduated a vis. comm. degree in 96. Twelve years on, communication design is now an area full of activity where peoples’ expressions can manifest readily, from street art, web/internet, digital broadcasting, or any other material forms that remain unlabeled or undocumented. A designer who works in this complex environment then needs to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what their role is and their relationship to others. The current state of communication design is still unknown / silent. This makes it scary, for some, whose tendencies are to hold on to the past where it was more certain or stable. Graphic Design, in my mind, represents this stasis, a black + white understanding of the practice.