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.
NEVER SPEAK IN THE NAME OF OTHERS*
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.
USE YOUR COMMON SENSE AND SPEAK UP
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.
EDUCATE YOUR CLIENT AND LET THE CLIENT EDUCATE YOU
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.
DO NOT DO EVERYTHING YOURSELF
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.
YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES
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.
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.
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.
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’.
If you already have everything, what else could you want? Your own typeface. This is what Louis XIV, the sun king of France commissioned in 1692. The ‘Romain du Roi’ was engraved by Louis Simoneau for the exclusive use by Louis XIV. It took a group of type cutters and scientists more than 50 years to produce, and in 1745 all twenty-one sizes of roman and italic letters were cut. The typeface is an outstanding example because it was one of the first grid based typefaces, built up on a 8 x 8 grid. Although roman capitals were constructed, lower case letters were not based on a grid at the time. The designs for the Romain du Roi were loosely interpreted for use by type cutter Philippe Grandjean, for the rigidity of the design would have made the typeface too dull. Louis XIV was not the only ruler who had his own type made, in 1804 Napoleon commissioned the Didot as the ‘Romain de L’Empereur’, the emperor’s roman.