How has the concept of graphic design changed as a result of British designs for protest and counter-culture movements?
Chapter 1: Introduction
The purpose of this dissertation is to explore how countercultural graphic design in Britain during the last half of the 20th century brought the traditions of the discipline into question and helped to reshape it.
A central part of my argument requires an understanding of the ways in which graphic design has been re-defined over the decades in response to changes in attitude, politics, technology, teaching methods and other causes.
Graphic design is a relatively new concept, which may help explain its state of flux. The term was first used in print by W. A. Dwiggins in an article entitled New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design in 1922.
In the article Dwiggins distinguishes three classes of printing: ‘plain printing; printing as a fine art; and a third large intermediate class of printing more or less modified by artistic taste.’ (Dwiggins 1922) It is in this third class that Dwiggins places graphic design, and as he goes on to reveal this class of printing is concerned with advertising:
Its function is to prepare the ground for selling something, or to sell something directly itself. By hook or by crook, by loud noise or subtle argument, it might fulfil its mission of getting something sold.
Dwiggins, 1922, republished in Bierut, et al. 1999, p.16
Thus began a debate which continues to the present day about the definition of graphic design. Dwiggins wanted to separate this form of printing from ‘fine art printing’ and ‘plain printing’ in order help designers working in advertising to do a better job. He realised that this form of work had separate demands from fine art and thus needed to develop its own processes, some of which he tried to outline:
In the matter of layout forget art at the start and use horse-sense. The printing-designer’s whole duty is to make a clear presentation of the message – to give it every advantage of arrangement – to get the important statements forward and the minor parts placed so that they will not be overlooked. This calls for an exercise of common sense and a faculty for analysis rather than art. (ibid, p.17)
Of course people had been in the business of printing, and thus designing with print, for centuries, but it is useful to start somewhere and Dwiggins’ pioneering use of the term ‘graphic design’ helps mark a point at which designers are beginning to consider themselves as something distinct from printers and artists. The actual use of the term in this article only appears briefly:
Advertising design is the only form of graphic design that gets home to everybody.
ibid, p. 16
But it is a significant moment because this distinction allows designers to develop a new discipline, less dependent upon the worlds of ‘plain printing’ and ‘fine art’ (although still associated with them).
However by making this new discipline about ‘selling something’ Dwiggins had restricted the possibilities for it to that of advertising. As we shall see a significant number of graphic designers have been rebelling against this idea ever since.
During this dissertation I shall be looking at designers who have worked outside this narrow view of graphic design as ‘selling something’. I shall be attempting to argue that such design work has opened out the possibilities for graphic design and has given it a wider role in society.
I shall be looking at both practical and theoretical work, starting with Ken Garland’s 1964 manifesto First Things First. I will show how designers questioned the focus on marketing and advertising. I shall be looking at countercultural design work produced in the zines movement (most notably the style of zines associated with punk music) and I shall follow this with a look at the designs David King did for the anti-apartheid movement and the Anti-Nazi League. Following these three studies I shall bring things up-to-date and see how these movements affected the development of graphic design in the 80s, 90s and towards the present day.
My method will be to look at each movement and assess the effect it has had on the design world, both in terms of how mainstream design co-opted some of the new aesthetics, but also how the discipline began to open up to alternatives to advertising as a focus for the profession.
In conclusion I shall look at the legacy of this period and the influence this had on postmodern ideas of graphic design.
Dwiggins, W.A., first published 1922, New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design. Boston Evening Transcript, 29 August, republished in Bierut, M., Helfand, J., Heller, S. and Poynor, R. eds., 1999, Looking Closer 3. New York: Allworth Press.
Chapter 2: First Things First
Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto called for a shift of priorities for graphic designers away from advertising and towards more socially beneficial purposes
Graphic design has a long association with advertising. Even before W. A. Dwiggins formulated the term and associated it with advertising it was being employed in a commercial context.
In post-Second World War America graphic design was pressed into the service of industry and advertising. There the commercial artist’s function was to sell, but many designers justified the profession in terms of boosting the economy and thus aiding society.
Designer Paul Rand argued:
Even the graphic artist by ‘selling’ a product helps secure jobs as well as profits. Under these circumstances it becomes a matter of social responsibility for the commercial artist to have a clear and firm understanding of what he is doing and why.
Rand and Rand, 1960, republished in Bierut, et al. 1999, p.141
But even in America some designers questioned the orthodoxy of graphic designer as ‘commercial artist’ by suggesting a designer’s work should have a higher function. In 1949 the Hungarian émigré to America, György Kepes, emphasised the importance of design functioning for the benefit of man:
Has not our concern for the efficiency of the detail led to the neglect of the efficiency of the most important design, the design of man as an individual and as a member of society? It is a brutal paradox of our age that by concentrating all efforts on material products the very heart of all those achievements is neglected; the producing man, the active man, man’s happiness, growth, and promise. (Kepes, 1949, republished in Bierut, et al. 1999, p.100)
In Britain socially minded designers were also questioning their role in society.
In 1963 designer Ken Garland attended a conference put on by the Society of Industrial Artists . There was a debate going on about why graphic designers should join the society. Garland was angered by the assumptions being made about graphic design. He said about the society: ‘The manifesto was meant to be an alert to the fact that monies, which were pouring into visual communications of all sorts, seemed to be going down the wrong channels. There were all sorts of things that we could have been about and we weren’t
Odling-Smee, 2007, p.65
Many of the trade magazines at the time focused on advertising and the society itself valued designers who could help sell products, but did little to recognise work outside of this remit. Garland believed passionately that designers should have loftier ambitions and decided to make a stand.
He wrote a draft manifesto and asked to read it out to the conference. In that speech he called for a shifting of priorities so that socially beneficial, non-commercial work could be valued alongside advertising. He said:
In common with an increasing number of the general public, we have reached saturation point at which the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise. We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on … We hope that our society will tire of gimmick merchants, status salesmen and hidden persuaders, and that the prior call on our skills will be for worthwhile purposes.
Garland, 1964, republished in Garland, 1996, p.30
The speech was well received at the conference and was published in 1964 in several design journals as well as The Guardian newspaper. The manifesto was signed by numerous leading graphic designers.
Garland’s aim was to switch the priorities of graphic design into areas less profit driven. He later summed this up in a short document written for the University of Reading:
How can we, with any moral justification, say to our colleges and our students in communication design, ‘First, develop and employ your skills in the cause of marketing and selling; then, and only then, may you devote what is left of your time (if any) to some secondary pursuit’. Given this assumption, there could be no graphic art, no design for books and periodicals, no film making, no photoreportage, until there had first and foremost been design for marketing and selling, since these arts derive communication skills.
Garland 1987, republished in Garland, 1996, p.88
A number of designers misunderstood what the manifesto was arguing for. Garland later insisted the manifesto was not anti-advertising or primarily about an ethical attitude. In 2007 he told Eye magazine:
There was the same misunderstanding about it now as there had been then. I get asked to talk about ethics, and they mention ‘your anti-advertising manifesto’ and I say ‘Read it again please!’ It’s not anti-advertising. And it isn’t primarily about our ethical attitude. It’s not that I discount ethics, but I was talking about what seemed to me to be a political and economic point, about the way we spend money. That was my concern.
Odling-Smee, 2007, p.65
Garland identifies himself as a socialist. He recognises that in a capitalist system designers need to work in a commercial context, which will often mean advertising, and he suggests that designers should not be coy about this.
He delivered a speech for the Design for Survival conference in New York in 1967, in which he said that all paid work is related to keeping the capitalist system going, either directly by increasing a company’s profits or indirect by supporting a public service which in turn is financed by the capitalist system which it supports:
So when I think about my work in the short term I always have in mind this fact: that financial profit is the spur to industrial initiative, the reward for commercial achievement, the balm for battered professional consciences; and that lack of financial profit is a sign of failure, no matter what.
Garland, 1967, republished in Garland, 1996, p.37
His urge was to make designers admit they are working within the capitalist system and not to pretend that design work can be separated from the product being advertised.
He railed against the slogan ‘the medium is the message’. For Garland design is inseparable from the message. So an advert for baked beans is a trivial work however great the design is, because the content itself is trivial. He said:
The implication of the misleading slogan ‘The medium is the message’ is that those of us working in communication media may now treat with lofty condescension the initial content presented to us knowing that however trivial it may be we shall transform it into something significant; we can, in fact, welcome the triviality as being a fit challenge for our talents.
This is eyewash. Respect for the content is an absolute requirement in our business, whether it is about baked beans, or the future of mankind, or what you will.
Garland wanted designers to consider the messages they are asked to convey. He also wanted designers to consider work outside ‘marketing and selling’.
He is a particular fan of Harry Beck’s London Underground map and Wainwright’s walking guides which gives an indication of the kind of socially useful graphic design work he would like to see receiving plaudits above baked bean adverts.
The message of the First Thing First manifesto resonated with a later generation of designers. The Canadian magazine Adbusters, a publication devoted to challenging capitalism and advertising, decided to update the manifesto in 2000.
In some ways the updated manifesto makes its purposes a little clearer than in the original. For example:
Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design. The profession’s time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best.
Barnbrook, et al. 1999
The fact that the manifesto, even in modified form, is still seen as relevant today can be seen in both a positive and negative light. On the plus side it shows that designers are still aware of the problems with their profession becoming advertising led and are willing to rebel against it. But on the downside it shows that the commercial advertising world is still the dominate force in graphic design (it’s what pays the bills) over other more socially important work.
But it shows that Garland’s message still resonates and is still making designers consider the type of work they take on and the social benefit it can have.
First Things First was delivered at the same time as independent design agencies like Fletcher Forbes Gill (established 1962) were popping up. Agencies working independently from advertising firms meant that designers could begin to forge their own identities and choose the work they wanted to take on. It would also mean the big money from commercial projects could fund smaller, more socially beneficial or artistic work.
The biggest change in the commercial world since the 1960s has been globalisation and with it global branding and marketing.
In the late 1980s the culture jamming movement was formed with the mission to subvert these global messages by graphically altering billboards. The Adbusters magazine became one of its central publications and published pictures of subverted billboards alongside subverted magazine and newspaper ads. The fact that this publication embraced the First Things First manifesto and updated it for a new era shows the desire for non-commercial and socially beneficial graphic design is alive – even if it is a minority movement.
Barnbrook, J, et al. 1999. First Things First Manifesto 2000. Eye 33/9
Rand, P., and Rand, A., first published 1960, Advertisement: Ad Vivum or Ad Hominem? Daedalus: The Visual Arts Today, Kepes, G., ed., republished in Bierut, M., Helfand, J., Heller, S. and Poynor, R. eds., 1999, Looking Closer 3. New York: Allworth Press.
Kepes, G., first published 1949, Function in Modern Design. Graphic Forms: The Arts as Related to the Book. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, republished in Bierut, M., Helfand, J., Heller, S. and Poynor, R. eds., 1999, Looking Closer 3. New York: Allworth Press.
Garland, K., first published 1964, First Things First: A Manifesto, self published, republished in Garland, K., A Word in Your Eye, 1996. Reading: University of Reading.
Garland, K., first published 1967, Here are some things we must do. In: New York University, Vision 67 Conference: Design for Survival. New York, 1967, republished in Garland, K., A Word in Your Eye, 1996. Reading: University of Reading.
Garland, K., first written 1987, What shall it profit…?, unpublished discussion document given at Department of Typography and Graphic Communication. University of Reading, republished in Garland, K., A Word in Your Eye, 1996. Reading: University of Reading.
Odling-Smee, A., 2003. Reputations: Ken Garland. Eye. 66/07. pp.60-68.
Chapter 4: Punk zines.
New technologies in the 20th century gave more people the means to self-publish magazines. So called fanzines gave a voice to a new generation and opened up design to enthusiasts. The DIY zine aesthetic was the perfect forum for the punk music scene as its amateur nature was easily translated into a reflection of the anarchic and transgressive politics of the music and fashion.
In this chapter I am looking at the growth of fanzines, which later became known as zines. These publications grew as a result of new technologies which meant that production, duplication and distribution of publications all became easier.
Cultural historian Stephen Duncombe defines zines as follows: ‘[Z]ines are non-commercial, nonprofessional, small-circulation magazines which their creators produce, publish, and distribute by themselves.’ (Duncombe, 1997, p.6)
The roots of zines can be traced to the political pamphlets which have a history stretching back to the early 16th century. Of particular note is the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine, whose political pamphlet Common Sense, published in America between 1775 and 1776, called on the citizens in the 13 colonies of America to fight for independence.
Political pamphlets could be very influential, but the authors had to overcome numerous hurdles including the cost for printing and distributing the material, running the risk of arrest (if the work was deemed treasonable) and of course finding a sympathetic printer also willing to run such a risk.
Modern zines share DNA with political pamphlets, they have an independence from the mainstream book and newspaper press and as such can contain material which would be deemed unfit for publication (because of its quality, subject matter or legality). But because zines are self-published they get round many of the difficulties pamphleteers faced.
Early technology which enabled fanzines to get a start in the 20th century included the mimeograph machine, invented by Thomas Edison and introduced in 1887 and the spirit duplicator (also known as the ditto machine) invented by Wilhelm Ritzerfeld in 1923. These devices were designed to be a smaller and cheaper to run when compared with existing print technology. Nico Ordway has suggested that these devices ‘led directly to the phenomenon of zines’ (Ordway, 1996, p.187).
The earliest fanzines identified by historians are science fiction. From the 1920s onwards fan produced publications started appearing. Academic Teal Triggs identifies several early science fiction fanzines which could be seen as precursors to zines from the 1960s to the present day. These include Amazing Stories in 1926 and Comet in 1932 (Triggs, 2004, p.81).
The big technological breakthrough for zines was the photocopier. The process of Xerography was invented by a patent attorney called Chester Carlson in 1938 (Xerox Corporation, no date), but it was not until 1955 that Copyflo, the first entirely automated machine, was produced (Ibid).
Even then it took time for the device to be commonplace enough for zine makers to take advantage. Documentary evidence suggests it was not until the punk magazines of the 1970s that the potential of the photocopier began to be exploited in zines.
Triggs observed (in 2004) that since the 1970s the photocopier had remained the preferred means of zines production in the UK, in contrast with America where printing took over:
In Britain, the majority of fanzines remain photocopied or if they are printed, retain the do-it-yourself and anti-institutionalised aesthetic established during the mid-1970s punk period.
Triggs, 2004, p.108
The photocopier became significant not just because of its speed and economy but also because of the design possibilities it enabled:
The photocopier embodies certain qualities due to the nature of the process. For example, early machines often resulted in ‘dimly streaked’ effects, blacks were not fully black, and images were reproduced as high contrast, the outline of cut-n-paste inevitably featured, and so forth.
Triggs, 2004, p.107
A recurring theme with underground or counter-cultural publications is that their aesthetic is often derived from the limited means of production. But this aesthetic can become a badge of honour, ‘an image of amateurishness implying solid conviction, whereas a more polished result might suggest power, money and authority’ (Hollis, 1999).
Zines enabled people who previously had no voice a means of becoming heard. And in design terms they allowed these same people the ability to design and distribute their work.
Technology disrupted the strangle-hold of the printing / publishing trade and allowed a new generation access to publication. The ability to print before technology enabled much wider access to printing processes was at the mercy of printers. Often printers would refuse to print material because to do so would put them at risk of arrest:
…As with 1960s radical broadsheets and underground comix, printers scrutinize the materials they are asked to print and will refuse if images or the content breeches obscenity laws. British laws in particular are written where all parties involved – producer, printer and distributors – could be sued for unlawful material.
Triggs, 2004, p.105
The most famous example of this was when Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis were all arrested, tried and imprisoned for the School Kids issue of Oz magazine which was deemed to have breached obscenity laws.
Self-published zines allow the producer to take the risk on, and it is a hard sector to police because of the way they are distributed (often via post). In America, where many zines were still printed by a professional printer the small runs and distribution method would offer some protection.
Zines were always an underground activity, and their actual impact on the wider population should not be over exaggerated. But I hope to show that their designs had a profound effect on the graphic design world.
There was a famous poster produced during the punk music movement:
This image first appeared in a zine called Sideburns in 1977. It encouraged readers to become musicians by just getting out there and doing it.
This is also a metaphor for zines. The DIY design of zines encouraged others. As Duncombe says:
The seamlessness of commercial culture and the technical virtuosity of high art encourages spectators/consumers to stand back and utter in awe, ‘Wow. That’s amazing. How did they do that?’ Zines – with all their seams showing – encourage the opposite response, encourage you to come close, and say: ‘I see how they did that. That’s not too hard. Anyone can do that.’ Commercial culture welcomes you into a relationship where you are alienated from any sort of reciprocal creativity; zines alienate you in order to welcome you back in as an equal.
Duncombe, 1997, p.129
This strikes at the heart of what graphic design is. Do designers learn to become ‘good’ to distance themselves from amateurs – to create work which is hard to imitate, that ‘wows’ viewers at how it was achieved?
The punk aesthetic set out to be anti-style, in keeping with the music and the fashion it aimed to be genuinely anarchic and transgressive by tearing up the rules on design and typography and opening it up for anyone to take part.
This methodology was not new, it has a striking similarity with Dada and Situationist International work:
The first image is a poster advertising a Dada lecture created by Theo van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters in 1922 and the second image is from Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s situationist book Mémoires from 1957. Both show a similar chaotic typographic treatment to punk zine publications:
So in many ways punk graphics can be seen as either a revival or continuation of artistic practices which challenged authority. Dada start during the First World War and was a rejection of the forms of authority linked to the war. The Situationist International movement was a socially revolutionary and anti-authoritarian organisation. Not only did punk share a similar political outlook it also had a similar graphic style.
But what punk graphics did differently was to open up the work to everyone. Its founding principal was do-it-yourself and the idea that anyone could take part.
However, the punk ‘anti-style’ negated one set of design rules, only to create and adopt new ones. Rather than being an ‘anti-style’ it is perhaps better to understand it as anti-authoritrian. It is a rejection of old rules and a sense of freedom – but of course freedom is always limited by resources and finances. In this case it is also limited by the requirements of avoiding the old rules at all costs and so in fact becomes quite limiting. The fact that punk design is so recognisable is a demonstration of its limitations.
And having started out as an anarchic and transgressive method, the punk ‘anti-style’ quickly became a style which was assimilated into the mainstream.
In a short period of time mainstream publication like Face and iD were incorporating punk graphics into their designs. However, shorn of its political content punk graphics become just another style to be used and abused.
There are two ways of viewing what happened to punk graphics. Either the style was assimilated into the mainstream by professionals looking to exploit the style for their own ends or less dramatically that the style itself simply became so popular it stopped being underground. The important point is that the underground style was a reflection the transgressive politics of the music, and is no longer reflective once this context is lost.
Even as the punk ‘style’ was losing its political identity as it was subsumed in mass culture it was having a profound effect on graphic design and its definition. It came at around the time that postmodernism began. Designer Rick Poynor sees a direct link between the punk aesthetic and the postmodern concept of ‘deconstructionism’:
In the 1970s and early 1980s, graphic artists associated with punk rock mounted a sustained assault on professional design’s orderly methods and polite conventions, revelling in deviation and chaos and refusing to acknowledge any such category as ‘error’.
Poynor, 2003, p.38
From this point Poynor draws a direct line from the punk aesthetic to the complex idea of deconstructionism. The point being that designers, including amateurs, were already rebelling against the tenets of modernist design at around the same time as theorists were asking the same questions.
Zines opened up design to amateurs and the publications raised questions about the time honoured rules of layout and typography. Once the process of stripping away the rules began professional designers started to embrace post modernism. But the question of appropriateness always remained and when students and professionals started using the punk ‘style’ outside of its original transgressive context the results could be mixed.
The student publication Output, designed at Cranbrook Univeristy in 1992, was clearly influenced by postmodern rule breaking which owed a lot to the punk aesthetic (as well as Dada and Situationism). A poster produced at the university is an example of this:
This design became symbolic of the ‘cult of the ugly’, a term coined by graphic designer Steven Heller. He argued that outside of its original context the punk design was plain ugly:
Ugliness is valid, even refreshing, when it is key to an indigenous language representing alternative ideas and cultures. The problem with the cult of ugly graphic design emanating from the major design academies and their alumni is that it has so quickly become a style that appeals to anyone without the intelligence, discipline or good sense to make something more interesting out of it … Ugliness as its own virtue – or as a knee-jerk reaction to the status quo – diminishes all design.
In conclusion we can see that the punk aesthetic reflected in zines, posters and album art came about as a result of many factors. New technology enabled self-publication to a larger extent than previously, but it also enforced technical limitations which in turn influence a graphica povera style on the graphics.
The DIY nature of zines combined with the transgressive politics of the punk music informed a style which deliberately tried to defy conventions (although borrowed from earlier radical movements such as Dada).
This ‘anti-style’ was quickly appropriated by mainstream publications and went on to inform postmodern design and became part of academic study and artistic practice. But the style, when employed outside of its context, raises issues of appropriateness.
The DIY ethos employed in punk design serves to show the ways in which protest graphics have shifted how design is thought about and taught. In the age of computers it is now easier than ever before for people to design their own publications. How punk graphics and the idea of do-it-yourself will effect this future will be interesting to see.
More generally, the music, fashion and design the scene produced had the effect of making the population at large more visually aware. By creating an anti-style look the movement forced people to take another look at music, fashion and design and reassess their notion of good and bad. Even people who strongly disliked punk and all it stood for were forced to see it and re-evaluate their visual tastes.
The last word goes to Ken Garland who realised the importance of visual literacy:
These sensibilities are no longer the sole prerogative of a small group of privileged aesthetes, or those who have had the benefit of a design training. Indeed, the most vivid and productive innovation in our ways of dressing, designing and looking at one another was given to us – no, thrust upon us by the Punk or New Wave kids, with their eccentric behaviour, their torn fishnet stockings, their plastic bag dresses, their patched-up typography and their defiantly amateur fan magazines, oe ‘Fanzines’.
Garland, 1985, republished in Garland, 1996, p. 76
One of the most important contributions punk made to design was to make the general population more design conscious and visually literate. It would open up access to design, but would also force designers to adapt to a world which had greater awareness of what they do.
Duncombe, S., 1997, Notes from Underground: Zines and the politics of Alternative Culture. London and New York: Verso
Garland, K., first published 1985, Graphic design in Britain today and tomorrow, Idea Magazine. Seibundo Shinkosha, Tokyo, republished in Garland, K., A Word in Your Eye, 1996. Reading: University of Reading.
Heller, S., 1993, The Cult of the Ugly [Accessed 24 April 2014].
Hollis, R., 1999. Revolutionary language, [online] Available at [Accessed 8 April 2014].
Ordway, N., 1996, A History of Zines in Valerie Vale. Zines! Volume 1. San Francisco: V/Search.
Poynor, R., 2003. No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism. London: Laurence King Publishing.
Triggs, T.A., 2004. ‘Generation Terrorists’: The Politics and Graphic Language of Punk and Riot Grrrl Fanzines in Britain 1976-2000, Ph. D. The University of Reading.
Xerox Corporation, The Story of Xerography, [online] [Accessed 24 April 2014].
Chapter 5: David King – A house style for the radical left
David King created a graphic identity for the anti-apartheid movement and the Anti-Nazi league. The style was so strong it became synonymous with left-wing protest movements, becoming the closest these groups had to a house style.
Designer David King had a huge influence on the graphic identity of protest movements in the 70s, 80s and 90s. His work for the Anti-Nazi League in particular is the closest the radical left has had to a house style.
His work has clearly been influenced by Soviet Constructivism and King has argued this was due to the limited means available to him:
If you’re working on the Left, then you run up against all the same problems: where’s the paper coming from? Who’s going to print it? You can have whatever ink you want, so long as it’s black or red. When I worked more commercially, and could use four-colour, I did so. But the leftist stuff was governed entirely by a lack of money, materials and time. And that had been the same in Russia.
Wilson, 2003, p.62
One of the ways in which protest graphics have affected graphic design has been the development of a style born out of limited finances and resources. Just as in the Paris student uprising in 1968 and with early Communist designs the lack of resources forced designers to employ cheaper means of production. In the commercial world there is generally more money for good quality paper and a range of inks, but protest movements enforced a small palette. This has been a key feature of protest movement designs from Ken Garland’s CND posters and banners right the way through to David Gentleman’s designs for the no Iraq war campaign.
In fact low cost design was actually a way for some designers to express a political standpoint even when more resources were available to them. Robin Fior, who was one of King’s lecturers at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, took this view. Designer Richard Hollis described Fior’s standpoint:
Poor technical standards had the effect of making a grafica povera – an image of amateurishness implying solid conviction, whereas a more polished result might suggest power, money and authority. On the contrary, the effect of printing on cheap, off white paper, on wrapping paper or the wrong side of tinted paper using worn wood type, was aesthetic … This ‘roughness,’ a solution to which Fior returned over three decades in trying to make messages ‘open’ and accessible, was common internationally.
The deliberate use of ‘impoverished’ techniques has the effect of conveying the values of the design. The objective is not perfect printing and ‘correct’ use of typography, as it is in Swiss design, but to make a point about the wastefulness of expensive techniques and to show the designer in alignment with the impoverished people he or she represents. It thus questions the expense and decadence of fine printing and shows another way in which design can go.
King’s work was a conscious attempt to create a graphic identity for the left, in order to put the ethos on the map, to paraphrase the designer (Wilson, 2003, p.66). In 1976, shocked by the riots and killings in Soweto, South Africa, King contacted Apartheid in Practice and started to produce posters for the movement. Attracted to the designs the Anti-Nazi League contacted him and he started doing posters for their movement as well. It was posters for these two groups that established King’s protest style. The designs employ dot-on-dot printing – a technique which had been used by King’s friend Judy Groves on Time Out magazine.
The designs employed strong use of sans-serif bold lettering, often only using black and red ink, with use of slanted text. In the apartheid posters King used a design which resembles a newspaper or newssheet front page. He pasted lines of text which appear to have been taken directly from a typewriter, detailing the situation in South Africa. The posters are dominated by a central image which takes up the majority of the poster’s space. The image on each poster varies according to the subject – but they are designed to shock and support the accompanying text.
As a whole, the black, white and red colouring and inexpensive paste-up technique supports the idea of a grafica povera, mentioned earlier, which conveys the idea that these designs have been created to represent the impoverished and oppressed population. Its newspaper format may also have been a reaction to the suppression of the black media. They create a stark image, designed to shock the viewer into engaging with what is going on in the country.
The hand-made look of the posters to some extent recalls the design of punk zines. It express the idea of an alternative underground newspaper daring to report the news the mainstream South African media ignored. The irony is that King’s background as a designer on The Sunday Times Magazine was at the opposite end of the spectrum from DIY newspapers.
King’s Anti-Nazi League posters, on the other hand, dispensed with the typewriter text and became more typographic productions. The simple motif of National Front = Nazi Front played on the similarity of the NF formation with a swastika. These designs were if anything more constructivist than the apartheid posters. They made use of the characteristic slanted text and strong contrast between black, white and red colours. By reducing the amount of text, but making the remaining text larger the message is even stronger.
King felt that his work was successful in putting these movements on the map. In an interview in Eye magazine, conducted by Christopher Wilson, King said:
DK: Before the anti-apartheid and anti-Nazi Material, there wasn’t a visual style on the Left – it was a mish-mash. Fior and Hollis did some marvellous posters, but there was no visual statement position over a wide area like they did it in Russia. We contributed to doing that.
CW: Were you consciously trying to create a visual style for the Left?
Wilson, 2003, p.65
Wilson goes on to question whether a house style for the left is a good thing or a problem, and I think King’s response is revealing:
CW: But as soon as you create a style for a political stance, then it becomes easier to disregard.
DK: In my experience, the creating of a specific visual style for that ethos went a long way toward putting it on the map in the first place. The Left is still using it, strangely enough.
CW: But is that a good thing or a problem? King-derived work tends to look uncompromisingly hard now, especially after the softer, more fluid typography of the 1990s.
DK: I would have thought that someone else would have had a few ideas by now. I never wanted to beat anyone over the head with this stuff; it was just the way in which I worked. As regards the design making the politics off-putting, well, people will always find an excuse to not get involved. There were still a million people on the anti-war march, so somebody’s not being put off.
Wilson, 2003, p.66
I believe this debate is at the heart of the argument Ken Garland had made about the dangers of corporate identities. A strong identity conveys a strong message and is instantly recognisable, but also becomes easier to dismiss and off-putting. The message becomes stark and uncompromising, it becomes them Vs us, one-sided argument which precludes discussion and interpretation. These are issues which both designers and protest leaders must address. The extent to which discussion and multiple viewpoints are suppressed to make the message stronger.
The idea of a left-wing corporate identity also runs counter to the anti-corporate branding pursued by Adbusters (see chapter 2) and Naomi Klein’s No Logo book.
In that work Klein attacks the way global capitalism has allowed international brands to exploit slave labour in third world countries and has increased the buying power of global corporations which in turn allows them to set the political agenda internationally. In this context the global brand has hugely negative connotations, so to attach a brand to a left-wing movement has become contradictory. However, without a strong visual identity how do movements get their message across and attract new members?
Wilson, C., 2003. Reputations: David King. Eye. 48/12
Hollis, R., 1999. Revolutionary language, [online] [Accessed 8 April 2014].
Chapter 6: Conclusion
The purpose of this dissertation has been to highlight some of the ways the concept of graphic design has been challenged and expanded by practitioners working outside mainstream communications.
I began the journey by looking at Ken Garland’s First Thing First manifesto. It wasn’t the first time the dominance of advertising work was challenged, but it was a concise rallying cry for a generation of designers who believed the focus for the discipline should be something more useful than advertising.
Garland’s point was to suggest there should be a shifting of priorities so that social beneficial graphic design, which may not have a financial benefit, should receive more attention. He also emphasised the importance of the content of design, stating ‘Respect for the content is an absolute requirement in our business.’
Garland, 1967, republished in Garland, 1996, p.38
From this point I have charted movements working outside advertising which have challenged notions of what graphic design is. My focus has been on political and counter-cultural works because I am interested in the interaction between underground culture and the mainstream.
In my study of punk zines I showed how amateur designers forged a new style in response to new technology but also established an ‘anti-style’ which would set it apart from mainstream culture.
Again, this was not the first time that artists have challenged authority through the negation of official forms. Dada and the Situationists International had done this before. But the punk DIY ethos brought the cultural rebellion to a much wider and less elitist group of people. It was an example of youth culture rejecting authority by negating its rules. In graphic terms this meant breaking the rules of typography and layout, just as in fashion terms it meant deliberately wearing ripped, torn and unfashionable clothing and accessories.
The punk aesthetic challenged the idea of ‘International Style’ by showing that form could be more than just a clear transmitter of a message, rather it could be a fundamental part of the message.
However, although this movement set out to be genuinely transgressive it became a recognisable style of its own and as it became popular much of its political meaning began to fade away. Eventually punk graphics would become another style to be used by the industry.
But its original ideals did spur on postmodern design thinking. In the 1990s the old rules of design began to be questioned by both professionals and within universities. The transgressive punk style took on new significance because of its rule breaking nature.
A big shift in graphic design happened when Sheila Levrant de Bretteville was appointed director of studies in graphic design at Yale University in 1990. The course at Yale had previously been a bastion of Modernism and de Bretteville’s appointment caused such a controversy that Paul Rand, a member of the faculty, resigned and encouraged others to follow suit.
What angered Rand and other was that de Bretteville took a postmodern approach to design. Many of the themes to come out of protest movement and counter-cultural design were picked up and modernist ideals were challenged.
For example de Bretteville embraced diversity and design featuring multiple viewpoints and interpretations, something that was present in zines where a diverse range of people made their views known for the first time. de Bretteville said:
I will never, never, never forget to include people of colour, people of different points of view, people of both genders, people of different sexual preferences. It’s just not possible any more to move without remembering. That is something that Modernism didn’t account for; it didn’t want to recognise regional and personal differences.
A thread can be sown between the different points of view expressed in the plethora of zines and this postmodern viewpoint. The net is being cast wider so that the views previously marginalised groups are expressed and the work of unschooled and non-professional designers and artists can have their place.
It is important to note that the form of mondernism that de Bretteville was reacting against is the International Style which had become synonymous with Yale and designers like Paul Rand and Massimo Vignelli. The style had become so dominate that it was seen as authoritative and thus a problem for those who wanted to question authority – such as zine producers and protest movement graphic designers.
de Bretteville picked up on the multiple viewpoints that movements like zines had enabled. Zines like Riot Grrrl had given a voice to a new wave of feminists, for example, and it was these different viewpoints that de Bretteville wanted to represent in the teaching at Yale. She said:
In my understanding, feminism acknowledges the past inequality of women, and doesn’t want it to continue into the future. And the issue of equality broadens beyond women to involve the equality of all voices. Feminist design looks for graphic strategies that will enable us to listen to people who have not been heard before.
This is a good point to conclude because it shows how the history of counter-cultural design had broken down barriers and been accepted into mainstream design teaching. A fresh perspective had come to graphic design with de Bretteville’s appointment, but these possibilities became possible in the first place because of the design work that was going on beyond the realm of mainstream design.
Garland, K., first published 1967, Here are some things we must do. In: New York University, Vision 67 Conference: Design for Survival. New York, 1967, republished in Garland, K., A Word in Your Eye, 1996. Reading: University of Reading.