Collective Fire of Change

Words by Kristina Ketola Bore
Illustrations by Kine Andersen

The desire to carve out more room for a diversity of voices is spreading. In the field of graphic design the collective fire is growing steadfast. But how do we get to the point of facilitating positive change in a way that is geared constructively and aware of its contexts? 

"I definitely believe graphic design inhabits possibilities to intervene, change or create larger nuance in questions of inequality," says Nicole Killian. 

Based in Richmond, Virginia, her graphic design practice evokes LGBT and feminist strategies, with the ultimate goal of using her work as a way to create conversations around the queer body, lesbians, language and how technology has changed these things. Her work is in constant dialogue with online visual languages, and through pulsing, glittery text and eclectic gifs and pink forms, she works to illuminate the social bias that exists towards the self-identified female. Apart from her design practice, where she has worked with clients including Nike, Sony/BMG and Brooklyn Museum, Killian is also an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"I want to smash the patriarchy. I want to raise up the people around me. I hope that my work provides a different way to look at design, and to think about what design can be."

Acts of refusal
The Office of Culture and Design (OCD), made up of Clara Balaguer and Kristian Henson, is a studio based in Manilla that has issues of decolonisation at its heart. An extension of the studio, the publishing house Hardworking Goodlooking, operates from both Manilla (through Balaguer) and New York (through Henson). Through it they have published books on the vernacular postmodern street typography of the Philippines, a cookbook consisting of over 30,000-year-old recipes from an aboriginal tribe in the Philippines, as well as a reader (a collection of texts) that further explores one of their goals: Using art and design as tools to bring about real change. In fact, most of their work can also be said to be around the theme of decolonisation.

"Decolonising is an act of refusal," writes Balaguer. "On the one hand, refusing to conform to Northern or Western ideas of value and creating a different language out of the rejection or mistranslation of North or West structures of significance. On the other hand, it also passes through refusing to subscribe to the idea that absolutely everything that comes from developed or coloniser countries is without value, simply by virtue of the historical wounds reminded into existence by colonial pasts."

As a response to the question of whether she believes design itself can facilitate change, Balaguer replies that design is rarely performative on its own. By this she means design must act together with content.

"The content, either in its creation or emission, is what creates relationships or plants insights with people, giving the design its social relevance," she adds. "Without human content assigning meaning and depth to its use, design will serve mostly to keep things going as always, not to engender the change that many places need or seek."

For designers working with issues of feminism, decolonisation and creating room for other voices, the question is – to what extent does design need an external purpose or content to facilitate or evoke new ways of thinking, looking or simply, challenging preconceptions?

Collective fires
"We are in the practice of creating cultural literacy, and the visibility of bodies and language. I don't think graphic design on its own inhabits these actions, but in tandem with intended audience and collaboration it holds great power," says Killian. "My work is driven with a passion to give other people a place, to talk about being queer and explore the power of collectives and community."

The idea of working together, of fuelling a collective fire, has often been at the core of any movement setting out to bring change, both in and outside of design. However, what role should designers take in this process? As we have seen with numerous design projects, especially those executed in developing countries that fall under "social design", they often end up only projecting upon the local population either a Northern or Western way of seeing or being in the world.

"These projects are called social innovation but more often than not you will experience that the community has been of greater service to the designer than the designer has been to them," Balaguer points out.

She also goes on to say that design on its own, as a pure abstract idea, is often helicoptered from developed to developing contexts. – Without design acting in concert with the communities that practice it vernacularly, intuitively, out of need rather than as a sentient profession, the challenges will always act in detriment to the intention of progress.

And it seems clear that also, when we work with issues of feminism, of queerness and diversity as an intersectional and inclusive method, we need to ask: How can we do so, not only from the point of self, but from the point of research, community and from an informed perspective?

Process through conversation
"I think graphic design comes alive when it's in conversation with other things. Things become good once practice and research inhabit multiple worlds and structures," says Killian. "We manoeuvre in a realm of cultural literacy, so why would we be inhabiting one little bubble?"

In other words, if the designer wishes to create change, she needs to stop being only in conversation with herself and her own field, and reach outside of the historically set junctions of graphic design. 

The age-old idea of the designer as a problem solver is one often repeated uncritically, and today – as before – retains as little stamina as when it first arrived, straddled on the back of mid-century Dutch, Swiss, German or US graphic design. The idea that design should be a magic tool set to fix any given problem, proclaims an unwillingness to listen or to use dialogue as a tool to gain a deeper understanding. The idea of the problem solver also seems to dictate only one way that the designer can work, and raises the designer to a genius stature. Needless to say, being in conversation becomes increasingly important when working with issues of great social or cultural urgency.

"A queer and feminist perspective in graphic design is intersectional — it's inclusionary," says Killian. "We must be sensitive makers, and look outside our comfort circles and the things we already know. It happens when we take action, when we stop being silent and realise we have a lot of responsibility as makers of visual culture. We communicate, we help, but we do not judge a community we are not a part of. We work on things together."

First published in Volume Ten.