The Politics of Design

Amsterdam, 2016

Dymaxion world map by Buckminster Fuller, 1943. Image by Ruben Pater.

You are privileged. Just reading this sentence makes you part of the 85% of the world population that is literate, the 20% that understands English, and the 40% that has access to the internet. Visual communication is not an even playing field, but is dominated by the urban regions, primarily in the Northern hemisphere. The design of visual communication is shaped by the designers’ cultural and political bias. Designers themselves are often unaware of this. The Politics of Design is a book that shows the cultural and political bias of visual communication using visual examples.

When most of us think of the word politics, we think of the daily political practice; elected leaders, voting, parliaments, political parties, etc. But politics are in effect principles of power and status that function outside of this sphere as well. They are present in everything we do, think, in the way we talk, the way we dress, and the way we design. The political system in which the designer works and lives cannot be disconnected from the design she/he creates. A political ideology is continuously being produced and communicated through design. Acknowledging this can give designers more agency in their practice to “either serve or subvert the status quo”, as Tony Fry said.

Image from: Dreyfuss, Henry. The Measure of Man. Whitney Library of Design, 1959. Copyright 1993 Henry Dreyfuss Associates.

Military Bodies

A very clear example of how design becomes political is through standards. In 1959 the U.S. designer Henry Dreyfuss published The Measure of Man, a seminal book which is still being taught at design schools. Dreyfuss had the insight that designers should use the measurements of the human body to create more human-centred design. This helped push design and architecture forward but also created a false sense of truth. The measurements of the men in Dreyfuss’ book are based on data from the U.S. military. They represent bodies of a specific type, age, and height which is anything but universal. The binary gender division (male/female) establishes a very conservative idea of gender, unlike the way that gender is perceived in society. For instance in 2014, Facebook introduced 58 choices in gender identity for its users.

ISO 7001. Pictograms designed for the U.S. Department of Transportation, 1974. Design: Roger Cook and Don Shanosky.

A well-known example of standards in visual communication are the pictograms used for signing. These pictograms were designed in 1974 for the U.S. Department of Transportation, and later adopted by the international organisation of standards as ISO 7001. They are used worldwide and are so ubiquitous we might not notice its cultural and political bias. The male icon is used for both a male and a person (m/f), while the female icon is only used to signify the female gender. The pictogram for ticket counter is a women selling a ticket to a man. The pictogram for restaurant is a knife and fork, which are Western eating utensils. The pictogram for parking uses the letter ‘P’ of the Latin alphabet for the English word ‘Parking’. The ISO 7001 system of pictograms is not neutral or universal, but in fact communicates Western values and outdated ideas of gender.

Various skin-coloured objects.

Fake Diversity

Many of the objects in this image are so ‘normal’ that we do not even realise they are biased until we see them together. Band-Aids for darker skin colours have only been available since 1998. The way race is perceived in society is shaped by designers, not just in products, but also in visual communication.

Screenshots from the websites of Northrop Grumman, 2015, Central Ohio Diversity Consortium, 2015 (site now offline), CNFDI, 2015.

In recent decades, the world of corporate communication has been focusing heavily on diversity. Every major company now has a diversity program that emphasises the value of a multi-ethnic and gender-equal workforce. On the website of the U.S. company Northrop Grumman we find a diversity page with a photo of an ethnically diverse group of employees. It all looks a little too perfect, and when we reverse search the image we find the same image is used at the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium and the French private education office CNFDI. Using stock photos is standard practice in corporate communication, but it can backfire and have the opposite effect when communicating diversity. Generic images of an idealised workforce obscures the fact that actual diversity in the workforce is still far behind (in 2015 only 4 of the Fortune 500 companies had a black CEO, and only 24 were women).

Mercator projection, drawn in 1569 by Gerardus Mercator. Still used by Google maps, Apple maps, and Bing maps.

Maps and Legends

Politics and design are wed together in the world of map-making. Maps have always been a method of exercising control over territory and its peoples and resources. During colonial times, mapping an area was sometimes enough to consider it ‘conquered’. World maps have a complicated history. A two-dimensional map of the world is always flawed, since it always distorts somewhat by projecting a sphere on to a flat plane, the so-called projection. The best known world map is the Mercator projection, a map from 1569 made for early colonial seafaring by European countries. It is the best known world map and it is still used by Google maps, Apple maps, and Bing maps. Mercator has been criticised for being scientifically wrong and colonialist because it places Europe at its centre, and makes the ‘colonised’ continents Africa, Australia, and South-America, look too small in comparison. This is a consequence of its optimization for compass directions. This distorts the southern hemisphere enormously. If you look at the Mercator map keep in mind that Australia is in fact 2,5 times larger than Greenland.

Gall-Peters projection, first drawn by James Gall in 1855, and in 1973 by Arno Peters.

German filmmaker Arno Peters criticised the Mercator in 1973 for being colonialist and proposed an alternative (Western) world map that showed an equal size comparison. The map is now known as the Gall-Peters map and is officially used by the United Nations and British schools. For those used to the Mercator map it might look very strange, even distorted. In fact this map is a very politically correct map when it comes to size comparison, because each square is the same size on this map.

Micronesian Stick chart, Marshall Islands. Image: national Geographic Society, photograph by Walter Meayers Edwards.

Maps can have many forms, and designers should not automatically assume it is two-dimensional. The first known map is around 14,000 years ago and was scribed onto rocks. Some of the most ingenious maps ever made are the stick charts made in the Marshall Islands, an island country in the Pacific. The shells represent the islands and the sticks represent the waves and currents. The Marshallese were the first to ever map ocean swells, and these maps were memorized beforehand to navigate the ocean.

Left image: ‘Caligula’ (37-41 CE), marble, h: 28 cm, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark. Right Image: ‘Caligula’ (reconstruction), 37-41 CE (2011), marble. h: 28 cm, Archäologischen Institut der Universität Göttingen and Stiftung Archäologie, Munich.

History? Whose History?

Being critical of our own cultural and political bias also means questioning the historic foundation of design. In Western art history the iconic archetypical sculpture is the classic marble Greek and Roman sculpture. In 2007 scientists used X-rays and UV light to prove that these sculptures were actually brightly painted. Just as any other history, the history of Western art and design is not free of assumptions, exclusion, and ethnocentrism. Continuously questioning the history of art and design can make way for those cultures and communities that have been misrepresented or underrepresented in the past.

Diego Rivera, Murals at Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (1929-1935). Image: Flickr.

An example of a more inclusive communication of history can be found in Mexico city. After the Mexican civil war in 1920, a new government was elected that strived for a more egalitarian society. Years of dictatorship had ignored the thousands of years of indigenous history. The population, of which two-thirds was illiterate, was largely unaware of the country’s history. Artist Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint the history of Mexico in a series of murals in the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. By using murals as a form of public education, Mexico’s history became accessible to all citizens.

<i>The Politics of Design</i> book. Image: Ruben Pater.

These are some of the many examples in the book The Politics of Design, which is organised according to the formal elements of graphic design: language and typography, colour and contrast, symbols and icons, image and photography, and information graphics. The collection of examples in this book is only the beginning, and on the book’s website more examples and reader suggestions will be added. The Politics of Design is by no means the first book that acknowledges that all design is political, but this debate has been taking place primarily in academia and not in design schools. If we look at visual communication today, we see that ethnocentrism, sexism, and racism is far from eradicated. This is a clear sign that we should keep addressing these issues among designers and communication specialists. Hopefully this book can contribute to the long-term integration of critical thinking from cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, and communication studies into the curriculum of design schools.

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