Book Review: The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication

By: Petra Seitz

The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication

Ruben Pater

At a Waterstone’s book store not too far from you, you might be able to find a copy of Ruben Pater’s The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication. Short and shrink-wrapped in plastic, it might be placed a few books away from Eric Gil’s An Essay on Typography, highlighted by an employee recommendation as “An instantly recognized classic that presents Gill at his best.” Presumably (and hopefully) this “best” is not Gill’s long-time sexual abuse of his teenage daughters.

In a section of the store where Gill is a stand-out, outstanding author, The Politics of Design is a very welcome reprieve. This juxtaposition between the two design volumes almost seems intentional, to set The Politics of Design up to successfully make its case that, despite what the recommender of Gill might want to believe, there can be no separation of man and art. (1.) The physical proximity of the two books, makes Pater’s opening assertion that “all design is political” and that “A design cannot be disconnected from the values and assumptions in which it was created, from the ideologies behind it” seem to be directed squarely both at Gill and the employee who chose to feature his writings.

Through 58 sections, Pater walks readers through aspects of graphic design, from color theories and meanings from around the globe, to non-latin typography and the omnipresence of offensive athletics mascots. With a surprising amount of cohesion, Pater weaves together sections like the “Celebrity Guide to Politics with Taylor Swift”, which highlights political missteps made by popular musicians and actresses due to design misunderstandings (in support of her world tour T.S. 1989, Swift produced countless items of merchandise with T.S. 1989 faux spray painted on them. In China, this might easily be interpreted as a reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The items could not be sold.) with sections addressing the deeper links between politics and design such as the non-objectivity of the concept of perspective.

Pater’s writing is, at its core, highly accessible. This accessibility positions The Politics of Design perfectly as a primer on the fundamental connections between the world of politics and power, and the world of design. While not a heavy-hitter on these connections by any stretch of the imagination, in 192 pages Pater manages to effectively cover the basics of the inherently political nature of design as a concept, as a field, and as a practice. In this, it is clear that Pater’s ideal audience is not those who are consuming items of graphic design, but rather those who are producing them – he is writing to inform practicing graphic designers, and to this end should be quite successful.

 

Pater’s to-the-point approach clearly and concisely addresses topics which frequently go unaddressed and un-thought about, such as the non-ubiquity of the Gregorian calendar, the mercator projection map and its dissonance with the physical realities of the world, and the tensions inherent in the ubiquitous use of capital letters. He challenges graphic designers to make more active decisions in the designs they are creating, and to evaluate the place of their designs within global norms and structures.

Quite ironically for a book on graphic design, the graphic design itself of The Politics of Graphic Design may fall short for readers with a keener design eye; while fluorescent pink and yellow ink may have been a great conceptual idea in the planning process, they can be difficult and sometimes even nauseating to read. However, on the whole, the unorthodox and potentially amateur-appearing layout and design of the book does succeed in breaking the hegemonic binds between imperialism, white suprematism, capitalism and design which Pater seeks to highlight. The bright colors, simple, straightforward diagrams, and unpretentious, almost un-designed layout remind the reader at every page to consider and reconsider the role which graphic design plays in subtly (or not so subtly) shaping viewer opinions.

 

While it’s clear that The Politics of Graphic Design approaches the field from the side of graphic design, the book also makes a suitable and important primer for those studying, practicing, or interested in political science. In a political landscape where design has become fundamental to electoral or activist victories, yet is often shipped out to third-party designers, a core understanding of the link between political and design hegemonies, can function as a powerful tool in subverting and avoiding current status quos.

In a design world where Eric Gill is still continually read and praised, and substantive mention of his crimes are swept under the rug, the importance of highlighting the impossibility of design neutrality in creating a better world cannot be understated. (2.) In a world where Gill’s An Essay on Typography still takes prime billing in the book store, we are lucky to have straightforward, unpretentious, yet still politically viable and truthful volumes like Pater’s The Politics of Design to balance out the equation, and bring a dose of cold, hard, political reality to the design field. Go out, buy yourself a copy, and read it – it will only cost a tenner, and an hour or so of your life, and might change the way you look at, or create design in this increasingly politicized world.

1.) Or, in this case, man and design.

2.) And better designed…

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