November 23 2018

I read the book. How can design become more responsible and inclusive?

Since The Politics of Design was published in the fall of 2016, many people have asked me what they should do to avoid offensive or inappropriate visual communication. Indeed the book has some examples but offers no complete guide or list of instructions. That is intentional as such a list does not exist, even though many management books on ‘cross-cultural communication’ suggest otherwise. Some assign character traits or cultural habits to countries, religions, or cultures, which is insulting and even dangerous. National borders have little to do with cultural behavior and we should never assume a country of origin, a language, or someone’s physical appearance aligns with someone’s personality. The truth is, there is no simple answer of how to avoid insensitive communication or how to avoid cultural bias. That is probably an unsatisfying answer to many readers, which is why I want to share some of the insights from my own design practice.

What we consider ‘natural’ comes from our own personal experience. As a graphic designer you could be tempted to create materials for somebody like yourself in mind, because you consider this to be ‘natural’. However it is only natural to you, not to everyone else. Designers have a position of power because they are (partly) in control of the messages that are sent. Most people are not in that position, and in that we tend to forget our privileges, such as that more than half of the world population does not have internet, that very few people are higher educated, that many people are illiterate or low-literate, that very few people speak or read English, that people have (visual) disabilities, that there are many different languages, accents, skin colours, classes, genders, differences in sexual orientation, ages, cultural contexts. Etcetera, etcetera. The list is too long or complex to simplify or categorize. A good way to begin to understand how cultural bias works is to test your own implicit assumptions at Project Implicit made by Harvard University.

This quote from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri is as obvious as it is important. Graphic designers are almost always asked to ‘speak’ in the name of others, as we are the messenger between sender and receiver. The paradox is we are incapable of speaking in the name of others, because our designs are made from our personal perspective. Everything we make is subjective and designs can therefore never be neutral, global, universal, or aligned with another person’s beliefs. That is not a problem but rather a blessing. This way we can assume personal responsibility and acknowledge that what we make is subjective, and that any representation of the ideas or feelings of others will be inherently flawed. Practically this means that we should carefully listen to both sender (often the client) and the receiver (the audience or target group) and accept that mistakes can, and will be made in the process. Testing and working with different iterations can help to avoid some of these mistakes.

We should not pretend that inappropriate or insensitive visual communication is something to be learned from books or academia. In deciding what is acceptable and unacceptable social behavior, our common sense and empathy gets us a long way. Sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, xenophobia, transphobia, and other such behavior can unfortunately be encountered in all parts of society, and most of us know all too well what it sounds, feels, and looks like. Such behavior is unacceptable, inexcusable and we should call out and condemn those who are guilty, whatever their social status is.

More often than not, a graphic designer receives text and images from a client. If such material is offensive or inappropriate, it might be difficult to confront your client, as this might jeopardize the work and its associated income. However graphic designers are communication specialists and hired for their professional advice. As a designer you have an ethical responsibility for the work you put into the world, and it is important to communicate your concerns. The client might have overlooked or wrongly assessed a situation and your advice may improve the outcome. If the client insists using offensive or inapproriate messages against your advice, you should be prepared to refuse work. If other designers do so as well, the client will have to reevaluate their messaging. The opposite is also true. If the client tells you your design is insensitive or inappropriate, listen and take their considerations seriously. Be prepared to change your work if you have made mistakes.

Graphic designers are used to doing many tasks themselves, from writing, editing, photographing, to prepress, printing and publishing. During this process you could be tempted to do things or talk about things you know too little about. It is essential to acknowledge everyone has shortcomings and there are limits to what one person can know and understand. Especially if you are working with languages or orthographies other than your own, or visual cultures, media platforms that are different from your own. Do not assume your knowledge in one area automatically translates to another. Reach out to users, communities, translators, anthropologists, sociologists, anyone that might offer needed advice. Seek advice and listen.

These insights are from my personal experience and will not necessarily apply to other situations or persons. One thing is certain though: despite these insights, and perhaps even thanks to these insights, you will fail. But you should own up to your mistakes, assume responsibility, and learn from them. Learning from mistakes is what makes a design practice better, and these moments of failure gives us important knowledge to become better designers, and better people.

* Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Assembly, Oxford University Press, 2017.

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October 6 2018

Native Mapping

Ronnie Cachini, Ho’n A:wan Dehwa:we (Our Land), 2006

The maps we know today are rooted in an imperialist and colonial world view. Territory is regarded as property, to be owned or occupied. This has not only shaped our idea of mapping, but also how we understand the concept of land. However many different practices of designing maps exist outside of this imperialist world view. A:shiwi Map Art is an initiative of the Zuni people in New Mexico, the United States. Sixteen Zuni artists have been commissioned to reimagine the cultural history of the Zuni people through native mapping. Watch the documentary on Emergence Magazine, a great informative piece by Adam Loften and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee.

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September 14 2016

‘Discovering’ the Inuit


Left: Ungava gin label. Right: Inuktitut syllabics.

The arctic region of Northern Canada has been home to the Inuit for thousands of years before Europeans ever set foot there. During the 1950s the semi-nomadic Inuit were forcefully relocated from their hunting grounds to missionary schools to be ‘civilized’ leading to the many problems Inuit communities face today; a lack of employment, high suicide rates, and alcoholism. Which is why there was much protest when Ungava gin, a company with no Inuit staff, used Inuit culture to promote their alcoholic product in 2013 using the slogan ‘Discovering the Inuit’. Inuk artist Stephen Puskas pointed out inaccuracies in depicting Inuit culture and accused the brand of appropriating Inuit culture to sell alcoholic beverages, with blatant offensive imagery. Inuktitut syllabics, one of the orthographies used for Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, are used as meaningless ornaments around the label. In the campaign faux-Inuktitut is used as a typeface. What’s interesting about the ornamental ‘exotic‘ use of Inuktitut syllabics, is that the orthography itself was developed by Christian missionaries in mid-19th century, but has since become part of the cultural heritage. Since the complaints, Ungava gin apologized and have taken the video and images offline.

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August 27 2016

Who’s Afraid of Arabic Type?


Tote bag designed by Rock, Paper, Scissors. Left photo: twitter image by Zarah Sultana. Right photo: Rock Paper Scissor Instagram

On August 16, 2016, Zarah Sultana tweeted an image of a tote bag she saw in the Berlin subway that went immediately viral. The bag had Arabic type on it which said, ‘This text has no other purpose than to terrify those who are afraid of the Arabic language”. The image was retweeted 78.000 times and the design was featured on news sites around the world. The tote bag is made by Rock Paper Scissors, a graphic design studio in Haifa run by Sana Jammalieh and Haytham Charles Haddad. When interviewed by the Australian news site SBS, the two designers said about their design, “While fuddling what to write we came to a conclusion that the existence of the font and language—and not necessarily the writing—is what’s important.” The designers live in the Israeli city of Haifa, where typography is easily connected to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The designers continued, “We notice here that the Arabic language is starting to disappear from signs and public places.” The bag’s popularity coincides with growing xenophobia in Europe and populist politicians who brand Middle East culture as religious or Islamic extremist. The bags are currently sold out but keep an eye on their webshop, if you one.

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August 14 2016

Prejudiced Parks


Detail of the 1931 planning map of the Robert Moses park and parkways plan. Source:

To battle the depression of the 1930s, President Roosevelt proposed massive government spending on public works. In 1933 the future master-builder of New York, Robert Moses, had a plan ready to build a network of parkways to connect the parks in Long Island. To limit the access to the parks only to the rich and white New York residents, he made sure the bridges over the parkways were so low that public buses could not reach the parks. Robert Moses did not hide his disdain for the poor and non-whites, and as a state official actively helped to segrerate public works. As Parks Commisioner of New York City he built parks, ponds and 255 playgrounds built out of reach of the poor. He also saw to it that the Robert F. Kennedy bridge exit ramp was built in Harlem, clogging the streets with cars, so wealthier neighborhoods like the Upper East Side would not suffer the intense traffic to the bridge. Urban planning decisions from that still actively shape the lives of people today. Read more on Robert Moses in the award-winning biography The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro from 1974.

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June 21 2016

Subversive Graffiti on the Set of Homeland


‘Homeland is racist’, graffiti by Heba Amin, Caram Kapp, Don Karl, 2015. Photo by the artists.

The award-winning show Homeland is a television series from the U.S. featuring Claire Danes as a C.I.A. counter-terrorism agent. The series has been criticised for Islamophobic stereotypes and errors in its depiction of the Middle East. When filming in Berlin in 2015, artists from the Middle East were hired to ‘decorate’ the set with Arabic graffiti. The artists quickly realised no one was interested in what the graffiti actually said. As artist Heba Amin noted, ‘Arabic script is merely a supplementary visual that completes the horror-fantasy of the Middle East’. They decided to use this opportunity to criticise the television series by writing slogans like ‘Homeland is Racist’,  and ‘#blacklivesmatter’. Only after the episode aired the artists released a statement about the meaning of the slogans that had appeared during the show. The artists said, ‘It’s very important for us to address the idea that this kind of stereotyping is very dangerous because it helps form people’s perceptions of an entire region, a huge region, which in turn affects foreign policy’.

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June 11 2016

How Designers Make You Addicted to Social Media

Image: Tristan Harris

Tristan Harris spent three years as an design ethicist at Google, and in a recent article he gives some insight into how designers purposefully manipulate users into social media addictions. He uses the analogy of the interface designer as a magician, using blind spots, edges, vulnerabities and the limits of people’s perception to trick them. Interface designers are experts in using psychological vulnerabilities for their benefit. The most effective are techniques to turn smartphones into slot machines by offering ‘variable rewards’. By constant e-mail and social media notifications, users become addicted to social approval through their smartphones. Websites and apps are designed to keep you there as long as possible, and make you come back as often as possible. Tristan makes a strong plead to designers to tune down the continuous interruption and respect people’s time and attention. Read his article here.

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June 11 2016

The Ugliest Colour and The Most Boring Type


In May 2016, the U.K. introduced a new law for cigarette packaging which dictates the design up to the colour, typeface, and image. All cigarette packages have the standard design which was first introduced in Australia in 2012. The packages will be printed in Pantone 448, a colour which came out of market research as the world’s ugliest colour. Logos or branding are no longer allowed, only the brand name in Pantone Cool Grey 2, typeset in Helvetica. The only distinctive element will be the health warnings with photographs that cover 60% of the pack. Research showed that cigarette package designs mislead people about the difference is health risk per brand, for instance people assume light-coloured packages are healthier than dark-coloured, which is why it was decided all cigarette packaging should look the same. The same designs will be introduced in France and Ireland as well.

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May 17 2016

Are Racist and Sexist Ads a Thing of The Past?


Left: Tipalet cigars, Young & Rubicam. Right: Weyenberg Massagic shoes, Playboy, 1972. Beyond Belief: Rude, Crude, Sexist, Racist and Dishonest, The Golden Age of Madison Avenue, by Charles Saatchi.

Before he was an art collector, Charles Saatchi started in advertising in the 1960s. With his brother he started the ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi, which became the biggest in the 1980s with over 600 offices. Recently Charles Saatchi published Beyond Belief: Rude, Crude, Sexist, Racist and Dishonest, The Golden Age of Madison Avenue. The book is a collection of sexist and racist advertisements from the Mad Men age of advertising, roughly from the 1930s to the 1970s. What is interesting that the book does not show ads after the 1980s, implying that the advertising industry has learned its lesson and since then does no longer tolerate sexism or racism. Obviously, ads still objectify women sexually and many ads still use racist and ethnic stereotypes. Although more implicit, sexism and racism have never left advertising. When his former agency M&C Saatchi Australia celebrated its 21st birthday in January 2016, it did by having women jump out of a cake, as if the age of Mad Men never stopped.

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May 12 2016

Diaspora Drama

Left: cover of the first issue. Image by Isaac Kariuki. Right: From the series Weaponise The Internet. Image by Isaac Kariuki.

Left: cover of the first issue. Image by Isaac Kariuki. Right: From the series Weaponise The Internet. Image by Isaac Kariuki.

Diaspora Drama is a magazine from the U.K. dedicated to ‘offbeat creative and cool people of colour on the internet.’ It explores the identities of the children of the diaspora, young artists outside of the mold of Western society who use cyberspace to work outside the dominant narratives. Editor in chief Isaac Kariuki introduces the magazine by saying, ‘We’ll observe just how impactful cyberspace is to our generation and the safe spaces created by and for people of colour to help them navigate through life.’ The first issue features artists like Tabita Rezaire, Hassan Hajjaj, interviews with M.I.A.’s personal photographer, and future Kurdish superstar Cany Dilan. The magazine is 100% contributor based, and physical copies can be bought online via Each issue comes with a ‘Punx of Colour’ mixtape.

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