Form is political

What are we speaking about when we speak about the politics of design? The “First Things First Manifesto,” published originally in 1964 and updated periodically, is an excellent place to search for an answer.

In brief, the manifesto appeals to designers to do less publicity work for corporate clients, choosing instead to solve public and civic problems.

One of the problems of this proposal is that it places the politics of design squarely on choosing the right political content or client. You are a political designer if you conceive a logo for an NGO, but not if you do the corporate identity for a brand of dog biscuits. Politics is thus a function of the type of content or client. Design itself remains pretty much the same in both cases.

We could say that this is a functionalist view, where function or content determines design values and processes. Design operated in a functionalist framework during most of its history, even outside the period associated with that name.

This functionalist framework serves as a crucial foundation for the design profession. In this context, form and function are not only two concepts defined mutually, but the basis of professional ethics: function and content are the client’s responsibility, form is the designer’s. And in this scheme, form must be determined by a total ethical commitment to the client’s needs.

Designers brand colleagues they perceive as negligent of the client’s needs as “formalist.” If they overstep the boundary and produce content, they brand them «designer as author.»

Thinking of the form and function divide as professional ethics and a labor division allows us to see that design politics isn’t limited to content or function but also inhabits form – since form determines the ethics and even the labor division in design.

Most political criticism overlooks the central role of form in design. Marxist critic Terry Eagleton stated that a political criticism that didn’t engage with form but only with content and themes is mere sociology.

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