It has been challenging for me to think about the implications of Ukraine’s war on graphic design. I haven’t read any texts or interventions on the subject. Before writing this post, I took a look at Aiga Eye on Design and Design Observer and found nothing. The same at Futuress. I don’t know if I missed anything.
Last week someone posted a picture of the changes made by the Russian conquerors to the three-dimensional letters that identify the city of Mariupol. The Ukrainian blue and yellow were replaced by the Russian federation’s blue, white, and red. The spelling now represents the Russian-speaking pronunciation. In general news, I found a reference to Russian designers who had lost access to Adobe’s software because of the boycott.
As far as I noticed, no one in the design community commented on either of these developments.
This kind of three-dimensional lettering has become commonplace in urban graphic identity in the 21st century. These 3D logos are easy to plan and make. Because of their cartoony, somewhat digital look, they function as a big tag, suspended into the landscape, ready for use by any instagramer or tiktoker.
It has been commented many times how this form of branding de-problematizes cities, trying to turn them into pure units of consumption and capital, hiding under a graphic surface an endless number of ruptures, marginalizations, exclusions, etc. Porto is an excellent example of these dynamics.
The rebranding of Mariupol shows how these processes and formats continue to be used in a war of conquest. The erasure mentioned above becomes a representation of the genocidal erasure of the Ukrainian population in the name of Russian chauvinistic irredentism.
Why are so few people within design talking about this?
In the last two decades, graphic design has made efforts to become critical, political, or social. It has achieved some goals in that direction, particularly on the issues of minority inclusion and the expansion of design history and practice beyond the geographies and identities that traditionally dominated it.
However, much of the political and social effort in the field has translated only into applying a corporate veneer to social causes, producing logos that can attract private investors. These causes range from charity to city branding.
In political terms, one of the recurring questions has been how to combine a critical design practice with regular studio or freelance work. How can you make ends meet without sacrificing social and political intervention?
Almost all political discussion in design is, in short, about potential clients and professional ethics. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to talk about design in war, genocide, or military occupation situations.
I think we would need a reflection on design that goes beyond designers’ professional interests, politics as content, and design as a private service.
There are examples of this kind of practice in other areas, by initiatives like Forensic Architecture or Bellingcat. In these practices, what is done is to stage new modes of critical vision about images, social media, and algorithms. In my opinion, these are the kind of critical practices that graphic designers dream of but cannot achieve because they are locked into a professionalizing view of the discipline.
Professional forms are reinvented to accommodate these new visions, not the opposite. One moves from producing images and business formats to staging an investigative design of both tools and methods as frameworks with which to deal with new and extreme political problems.