Memes, design and politics

On how graphic design can serve to social issues.

Book cover

Metahaven is a research and design studio founded by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden based in Amsterdam. Their work is usually dedicated to reflexions on politics and social problems in the form of graphical and media design. They are also among the teaching staff at The New Normal educational programme. It is focused on the new contemporary condition, which has emerged with the rapid development of technology like machine intelligence, VR and AR, and aimed to define new paths for urban design and development. Strelka Magazine offers to get acquainted with an extract from Metahaven’ essay published by Strelka Press.

The first internet memes, unsurprisingly, had never even heard of “graphic design.” Memes live by echo and imitation. They refute the dogma that everyone is creative. A hidden truth can become obvious overnight if it is amplified by the internet, just like the Marshall amplifier once made rock music revolutionary by making it very loud.

The aesthetic of "image macros” is a byproduct of the omnipresence of Microsoft Windows. Such images often use the font Impact, one of eleven "core fonts of the web” distributed with the operating system from 1996 to 2002. Impact (itself based on Helvetica Inserat "display” type) is a standard, wind tunnel and time-tested. The remaining Darwinian core is a bare bones typeface which can’t be be reduced any further. Somehow such standards, like memes, are the survivors of a ruthlessly subtractive process. The art is in surfing the waves of reduction while not giving up on the idea. Then, even the minimal design that was ever involved has been rapidly made unnecessary as memes become online templates; when a popular meme arises, such as "condescending Wonka”or “Business Cat,” meme repositories such as Quickmeme and Knowyourmeme provide online template files so that anyone can make their own. Such templates then also solidify and conserve the meme aesthetic into its Microsoft-inspired “Impact” stage.

From the perspective of graphic design, this trajectory was unanticipated and untheorized. It is unavoidable that the political design strategies emerging today make use of completely different repositories of “public” information than previous ones, and are perpetuating in trial and error rather than in the certainties of bygone era graphic design museum pieces. “Political graphic design”, as a genre, has been dying for decades. As a terminally ill patient, it was supposed to be maintained by designers feeling socially, politically and environmentally “responsible.” Political graphic design was then supposed to operate like a charity for universal, nonpolitical goods—effectively adding a few socially responsible footnotes to an already written-out, market-based, capitalist realist storyline. The ideologies of social design and sustainability have taken no issue with corrupted rule in formally democratic countries; they have instead presupposed, in the ideological void of the post-political, that these systems were inherently okay and just needed correction on some unethical details. Yet, the very notion that “responsibility” is the continuation of a political tradition is itself a mistake.

Wim Crouwel, 1976 calendar

Rest assured that the historical picture of graphic design as a discipline inhabited by socially concerned humanists fighting for a better world is a gross misrepresentation of what this discipline has ever had to offer. It has been 99% bland (thus boring) “normality” based simply on the predictability of getting reasonable financial returns from running a graphic design practice. Everything else is an exception. Design historians, in search of a useful dialectic, have fed the public (or, the small partition of it that has even heard of graphic design) with the historical comparison (and thus, the false choice) between a “functionalist” approach and an opposed, “radical” one. The Dutch designers Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn are known as the “polar opposites” representing both these directions, which are spoonfed to every graphic design student. Both designers however, as Michael Roclc has noted, merely occupied sides of the same coin. Even the supposedly radical position was tied to institutions which already advocated what the designer then amplified. Both designers fostered long-established partnerships with museums and public institutions like the Postal Service. Some of the formal obsessions of Crouwel, the systematic problem-solver whose Total Design was The Netherlands’ first corporate design agency, its high modernism at the time criticised as “the new ugliness,” now seem dated. Equally, some of the political complexities addressed sideways by Van Toorn, a highly talented organiser of absurd socio-political photomontages with disruptive typography, are now forgotten. Van Toorn’s self-declared zenith of political activism, his “Drees stamp” for the Dutch postal service, devoted to the depiction of a former Dutch prime minister, positions the political figurehead cut-out and diagonally superimposed in an attempt to commemorate the man as an anti-icon of himself What remains of this faux-juxtaposition is that a public institution like the Postal Service, as a platform for graphic design, could indeed give rise to radically different “solutions” to very similar “problems” This has, in graphic design, been mistaken for a permanent condition, so that extremely long periods of difference and exception to it came to seem like unwelcome deviations from a pre-established normative frame; Van Toorn himself attested to this point of view when he observed that “the discipline has abandoned the previous mental space in which it reflected on its social role”. Even if this were to be true, it is stunning how Van Toorn seems to disregard the crucially important role played by institutions (and organisations) and indeed attributes almost everything to the deteriorating intent of design itself We are beginning to see now that it may have been different all along.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Foucault map, 2004

Rick Poynor notes that Van Toorn, while in his mid-30s with a family, did not take part in any of the 1960s protests in Amsterdam; “nor did he belong to, or work for, any radical political group, either then or later”. Classical “political graphic design” is exemplified by designers such as the French collective Grapus-a group of graphic artists who came together after May 1968. In their initial years Grapus’ clientele consisted of trade unions and political organisations, while it later came to consist mainly of museums and cultural and charitable organisations. Grapus’ work is widely praised; its со-founder Pierre Bernard was individually awarded the 2006 Erasmus Prize for the group’s achievements—itself a mockery of the original politics of collective practice. Graphic design as a trade and as a client-based practice indeed may be too tied to institutional practice of any kind to constitute a revolutionary act on its own merits. The artist Thomas Hirschhorn, in an interview with Alison Gingeras, expressed such concerns when he reflected on his initial enthusiasm for radical design:

I came to Paris to work for the graphic art collective Grapus right after school. I wanted to work for them because I admired their form and their political engagement. For me, these two elements are inseparable. (...) Yet, while working at Grapus, I began to realise that they functioned like any other commercial advertising agency. They worked for the unions (les syndicats), for the Communist Party... but this realisation was a shock to me. There was nothing revolutionary about this world.

Grapus, Expo Grapus, poster, offset, 1982

Grapus used the poster as an affordable and effective means of distributing a message and broadcasting it onto the streets. Effective does not mean straightforward; much of Grapus’ work was dashingly complex. Pierre Bernard had “discovered the image as the vehicle of social criticism and utopian desire.”On a similar middle ground between criticism and utopianism rested Van Toorn’s “dialogic image,” which mashed multiple, conflicting messages into a collage, or montage—often serving the publicity of museums, exhibitions, and arts journals. The dialogic image permitted the viewer to draw his own conclusions, but urged them to be uneasy ones. Van Toorn and Grapus alike did their thing on a middle ground of public and state—in between collective symbols of public life and public good. Another territory of that middle ground was taken up by a design which serviced the smooth functioning of the public facilities—transport, energy, timetables, signage, the mail, and so on. The infrastructure of public institutions created a space where two different attitudes and approaches—the political-provocative, and the techno-institutional, co-existed as sides of the same coin, like they did in the art schools where such respective design attitudes were taught. During and after the privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s, the middle ground of these public institutions continued to wither and disperse into a capitalist realist, pseudo-competitive world.

What is left of political graphic design is a bit of a jolce. In truth, there hasn't been a project— either as criticism or as utopia—to take its place, as the space where it used to appear has been eclipsed by a flurry of arts institutions, galleries and small presses, indeed, a hipster remainder of the taxpayer-enabled cultural middle ground.

Image source: goatse hashtag on Twitter

With regard to its implications for the meme, DSG made important suggestions. In their essay, Goatse as Industrial Sabotage, the group suggests that the Goatse (an extremely unpleasant image of a man stretching his rectum) is in reality a return of Jan van Toorn’s “dialogic image.,, Goatse emerged in the same way as the Riclcroll did; an unsuspecting user would click on a promising link and then get “surprised.” In turn then, Van Toorn’s work would be a pre-interactive form of “linkbaiting”; in the absence of links to click on, the designer already combined different target images into a single collage. Was Van Toorn indeed Rickrolling his audience, avant la lettre? In a dialogic image, says DSG, “the design presents multiple conflicting messages, with a view to forcing a demystified, critical reading from its audience. Here it is used in a positive form, influenced by Enzensberger’s theory of 'emancipatory media’; it is considered, logical, a conscious and explicit criticality, aimed at heightening a social awareness of the constructed nature of the visual environment. A criticality negotiated between an autonomous, individual designer, an adventurous client, and a broad, undifferentiated public audience—a product of a social settlement already dead in the UK, now finally being destroyed in the Netherlands.”

If the eclipse of the underpinning social settlement ends the effectiveness of the visual strategy, it is useful to consider what is the current “settlement.” Graphic design is now a nameless collective of survivors of the (self-) destruction of paid labor. The unpaid labor of meme making, pranking and trolling, is for DSG a hitherto untapped resource in a networked type of design power, embodied by the “in-joke”—a cloaked type of worker solidarity. The dialogic image was still a relative luxury enjoyed under social democracy. In the neoliberal gulag of precarity, such amenities are cancelled out. 

Cover photo: sprawl.space