Where can we find the post-human or non-human in graphic design?
In other areas such as product design or architecture, these have been central concepts for quite some time, an interest motivated by environmental, social, and political concerns. This month, for instance, I went to see the Museum of Vibrant Matter (MVM) at the Porto Design Biennale 2021, curated by Alastair Fuad-Luke, which raised these issues in a timely fashion.i Its objective was encouraging “us to adopt radical, yet humble, attitudes beyond anthropo-supremacy so we can collectively design preferable material futures that regenerate us, our communities and our terrestrial/aquatic/marine habitats.”
Going “beyond anthropo-supremacy” suggests entering a non-human or post-human realm. With that in mind, the exhibition reconceptualized matter and objects as vibrant things, endowed with perceptions, volitions, life cycles. It presented furniture grown organically out of fungi and textiles braided with electric cables turning them into functioning circuits. Some of the exhibits examined the decay of everyday objects, treating cigarette lighters and discarded cellphones as repositories bearing the successive traces of human, biological, chemical, and environmental interventions.
The Museum of Vibrant Matter echoes recent tendencies in philosophy, such as Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) or New Materialism (NM). OOO has a central concern with objects, refusing to put humans above non-humans beings. NM aims to reconcile matter and objects with the notion of a socially constructed reality, representative of poststructuralism, and is critical of a text-centric perception of the world. The idea that «there is nothing outside the text» was the epitome of the so-called Linguistic Turn, which centered philosophy and social studies on language as a primary way to construct the perception of reality and, maybe, reality itself. However, it’s hard to maintain that «there is nothing outside the text» amid climate change, extreme weather, violence against minorities, or the refugee crisis. Hence the rise of matter-centric or object-centric philosophies like NM or OOO.
Forensic Architecture (FA) constitutes a successful attempt at using such tendencies inside the design field. FA is a research unit based at Goldsmiths University of London that uses architectural project methodologies to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity, ecological disasters, and state violence. Its founder, Eyal Weizman, believes in truth as a collectively performed construct that involves the efforts of both human and non-human agents. The latter can be AI programs trained to identify tear gas canisters on youtube videos or tree leaves carrying the traces of pollution or walls that reveal the silhouettes of drone attack victims outlined in shrapnel as if fixed on photographic paper. A central FA goal is speaking for the non-human, be it a wall on a bombed building or a skull recovered from a mass grave. As the name suggests, human remains are perhaps the most potent example of the closeness of the human and non-human.
But we began with a question: what about graphic design? Where can we find the non-human in graphic design? Visiting the Museum of Vibrant Matter, I couldn’t help but wonder how its central ideas would translate to my native area. Indeed, there is a renewed concern about the sustainability of materials, printing practices, and the ecological footprint of our tools. But, though crucial, these worries are not specific to graphic design, and they don’t alter its fundamental ethos. By comparison, Forensic Architecture is a radical departure from regular architectural practice, reconstructing it as something adjacent to journalism or criminal investigation, with a central kernel of philosophical meditation and artistic practice. Graphic design has yet to show such a dramatic deviation from its traditional character because – I suspect – graphic design remains, at least compared to product design or architecture, more human-centered and human-shaped.
It’s human-centered because, in part, it still thinks of Man as its preferred identity and interlocutor – with all the masculine, heteronormative connotations. But we could apply this criticism to many other areas. Graphic design has traits that make it specifically anthropocentric. For one, it was always a text-centered activity. Its focus on typography has been increasing in recent years, to the point where it’s difficult to conceive a graphic design object devoid of typography. For graphic design, there really is nothing outside the text. However, one of the objections New Materialism makes to poststructuralism is that, while proposing the End of Man, it is still crucially based on text, which is human-centered.
I’ve also mentioned that graphic design is human-shaped. It is so because its discourse revolves around biographic formats. Its history, for example, still tends to be narrated through the lives of illustrious designers. Moreover, it’s rare to find canonic texts of design criticism focusing on objects. Most center on its professional aspects: the profession’s status, its practitioners, the practical and rhetorical issues of addressing clients, the problem of attaining a meaningful ethical and political role in society at large while providing a service for clients. Either speaking as the designer or for its idealized Other, the client, the discourse remains primarily anthropomorphic. iiThe recent methodological and ethical debates around critical graphic design tend to be less about critically treating design objects than about the relationship between criticism and the design profession. Ironically, the primary object of design criticism seldom is an object.
Nevertheless, objects indeed punctuate the historical and critical discourse of graphic design. Still, they are only bit players, coming right after people and institutions. What connects an object to other objects is primarily a human mediation, the life narrative of a designer, the program of an institution or movement. An object is not invoked on its terms but, above all, as an example, an index of something else.
One way to go beyond human-centered, human-shaped design would be to change the center of the discourse from humans to objects, letting the latter lead history, criticism, and practice. As New Materialism and Object-Oriented Ontology warn, a human perspective is inescapable, but it’s possible to move the focus point. Consider the famous Marshall McLuhan dictum: the chicken is the egg’s idea to make more eggs. Or Richard Dawkin’s take: humans are the gene’s idea to make more genes. Suddenly the focus is decentered away from the more complex, obviously sentient organism to a simpler, apparently more inanimate unit. The human (and chicken) becomes a surface pattern, a side effect.
With this in mind, we are ready to find a possibility of non-humanity in graphic design. Not hidden but on the surface, not rare but trivial, even obnoxious in its banality. I’m talking about those common manifestations that designers classify as “trendy” – one-size-fits-all graphic devices employed regardless of context, generated by run-of-the-mill software, operated by uncaring or inexperienced designers responding more to form than anything else.
Design discourse loathes trendiness because it sidetracks the designer’s agency. “Trendy” can mean forms responding to each other and not to the designer’s intentions. A typeface is curvy because last season’s fonts were straight. A gradient craze follows a period of flat colors. Loose kerning succeeds tight spacing. Form leading the design process is what designers call formalism.
Design discourse tolerates formalism when forms are subject to a program, as with the International Typographic Style, but looks with disgust at feral formalism manifestations, where forms seem to have a life of their own. (And in some instances, they do. Many trends originate in graphic algorithms, like photoshop filters or ready-use layout templates.)
“Formalism” is also the name for a type of criticism that gives precedence to form, isolating it from content, function, context, or authors’ intentions. Graham Harman, an Object-Oriented Ontology philosopher, argues that formalism can be a model to engage objects on their terms.iii Some say that formalist criticism overlooks the political, social, and professional circumstances. Still, the truth is that these circumstances are chiefly defined in human terms, forgetting non-human agents – such as software, matter, climate, or collective formal or social dynamics that transcend conscious or individual agency.
Harman reminds us that for Immanuel Kant, one of its first proponents, formalism was also an ethical concept.iv For Kant, making a fair aesthetical judgment involved forgetting our biases and appraising an object according to itself. When we assess a situation, an ethical decision demands a similar ability to ignore our feelings, needs, and human prejudices. Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology builds on this primordial connection between aesthetics and ethics to see situations, events, objects, or even matter as complex objects with their own agency, forms of perception, and logic.
The last decades have seen attempts to dismantle graphic design’s universalist bias and its lack of diversity. But graphic design’s political and social concerns of the past decades manifested primarily as contentv – the discipline claims to be political or social when it works for politically or socially minded clients, in politically or socially-minded contexts, or with politically and socially-minded themes. The dominant practice remains the same as ever: figuring how to digest all kinds of people, institutions, organizations, and objects, representing them with a repertoire of conventional graphic formats, hopefully in a novel way. Or, put bluntly, to turn everything on sight, be it a corporation, a religion, a stretch of land, or a person, into charming logos, brochures, posters, book covers, ads, etc. The purpose of design remains to solve the self-imposed problem of matching new content to the same stale old forms.
By keeping the political and ethical debates centered on content and rejecting any meaningful and transformative discussions on form, graphic design preserves an inner core of universalism: the belief that modernist formal systems are self-evident, necessary, and natural – that they are, indeed, design itself. On the contrary, they are historically determined. I’ve argued elsewherevi that there is a deep connection between design’s historical development as a distinct field of expertise and the rise of formalist theories and practices in art. Much of design’s discourse on form is a frozen relic of art’s formalist tendencies near the close of the 19th century. Since then, formalist theory has evolved, taking into account its association with imperialist and colonial practices, acknowledging distinct ways of thinking about form and composition, and extending its analysis to political forms, matter, and non-human beings. Most of graphic design’s practice, theory, and criticism ignore all of this.
Walking out of the Museum of Vibrant Matter, I felt the possibility of treating graphic design itself as an entity with dynamics that transcend its components, some of them us, some matter, things, objects.
i The conceptual basis of MVM was Joan Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.
ii Even when working with organizations, the solution by default is to humanize them using graphic identities.
iii Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, ebook.
v The various iterations of First Things First manifestoes are examples of deriving design’s social value from content and client types.
Acknowledgments: I’m indebted to Joana Baptista Costa for pointing out that many trends originate on filters and presets. They are machine-based and therefore non-human.