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Why Designers Need to Get Political

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From my years in art school into professional life, I can’t tell you how many artists and designers have told me they don’t “do” politics, that they’re just interested in creating great art/design. 

This declaration has always baffled me. First, because their position seemed to indicate that they think politics and great art or design are mutually exclusive, and secondly, because they view life and politics as separate entities.  

You see, life for me has always been political. To be alive, for me, means to be aware of the myriad forces at play in the world that affect my existence, my ability to thrive and succeed. I don’t have the luxury of ignoring these forces because at various times they have deemed me and people who look like me to be sub-human, of sub-par intellect, prone to criminality and wantonness, abnormally fecund, incapable of controlling my own destiny, and undeserving of accessing resources available to others. 

As a multi-disciplinary creative, I keenly understand the power that designers have to affect the way people see the world and each other, and I know that a certain amount of political awareness and engagement is critical to avoid acting thoughtlessly and doing unintentional harm.

So in this article, I’ll explore what I mean by getting political, why more designers need to become politically engaged, and how you can learn to define your own political views.

"One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." — Plato

What It Means to Get Political

When designers talk about not doing politics, they’re usually coming from a place of disillusionment created by self-serving and dishonest politicians who never keep their promises and leave you feeling powerless to effect change. 

What they often overlook by this rejection of what I call big “P” politics is the importance of little “p” politics. 

If big “P” politics is about political parties and governance, little “p” politics is about taking individual responsibility for the world you live in and are helping to create.

Little "p" politics is about:

  1. who you are, what you stand for and believe in as a human being 
  2. educating yourself about the nature of power and powerlessness 
  3. understanding the history of exploitation, injustice, and inequality
  4. discovering who controls the majority of the earth’s resources and how and by whom these resources are consumed
  5. fighting the impulse to surrender to apathy and/or hatred
  6. giving a damn, having compassion, and not accepting for others the conditions or experiences you find unacceptable for yourself  
  7. grappling with the hard questions and tough decisions, instead of taking permanent refuge in privilege or a magic carpet ride to fantasy land
  8. having integrity and taking actions within your control that show consistency between what you believe and what you do in your life
"In our age, there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political." —George Orwell

Too often, we underestimate the impact of personal engagement and overestimate our reliance on governments alone to bring about the quality of life or change we desire. But, in fact, many of the little and big advances in our quality of life that we take for granted came about due to popular movements led by ordinary human beings in the past. These movements created so much pressure on governments that they were forced to take action or risk political unrest or loss of power. 

Here are some of the more obvious examples from history in various parts of the world. All of them were created by ordinary people who refused to accept the unacceptable for themselves and/or others:

  1. The 40-hour work week 
  2. End of child labour
  3. Women winning the right to vote
  4. American Civil Rights movement
  5. End of Apartheid in South Africa
  6. LGBTQ rights
  7. End of European colonisation
  8. End of Trans-Atlantic slavery
  9. End of the Cold War
  10. Add yours here
"Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers." — Aristotle

Five Reasons Designers Need to Get Political

1. Designers Are Powerful 

As a designer, you are more powerful than you may realise. Designers manipulate typography, illustration, photography, etc. to create visual representations of ideas and messages that find their way into magazines, newspapers and books, advertising, websites, television, movies, product packaging, signage, and more. These media have an enormous impact on the construction of meaning in the world. They shape the way we look at and understand the world and the way we see ourselves and each other. 

As a designer, everything you create is a living reflection of you, your intelligence, your understanding of the world, and your values. 

Check out this smart and controversial Nike Ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, an American football player who began to kneel during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at games, rather than stand as is customary, as a protest against racial injustice and systematic oppression in the country. The ad, designed by an astute and politically savvy team, represented a risk for Nike, one that earned the company a whopping $6 billion increase in overall value following the release of the ad.

Nike Ad featuring Colin Kaepernick 

2. Save Your Client Money and Loss of Reputation 

Designers who are politically engaged and astute can save a client money and loss of reputation by recognising insulting and inappropriate material and educating a client about why it is inadvisable to move forward with an idea. Even if a client refuses to take your advice and moves ahead with the ill-advised material, you will have the satisfaction of having stood up for your beliefs, and it is likely that they will remember you as the lone voice that tried to save them from themselves and recognise they should trust your judgement in the future.

Imagine if just one of the designers involved in this Dolce & Gabbana Ad had had the knowledge, integrity or courage to realise that the idea and its execution were highly insulting and inappropriate to Chinese people. They would have saved their client the loss of untold millions and the long-term damage of loss of reputation. 

Dolce  Gabbana Ad Dolce  Gabbana Ad Dolce  Gabbana Ad
Dolce & Gabbana Ad 

3. Use Your Talent to Be Inclusive

When the Canadian actress of Korean ancestry, Sandra Oh, became the first Asian to host the American Golden Globes in 2018, she commented with deep appreciation on the range of ethnic diversity of that year’s nominees for awards, saying: “These are faces that I feel many people have been just so starved to see.” 

Getting political means recognising that there are some people who are over-exposed when it comes to representation in ads, magazines, TV, movies, etc., and others who are severely under-represented. 

Seeing oneself represented positively in ads, magazines, TV, and movies contributes to healthy self-esteem and a sense of empowerment. Meanwhile, seeing under-represented minorities represented positively leads to a respect for and appreciation and acceptance of their presence as contributing members of society. 

As a designer, use your voice and power to be an ally to those who are regularly excluded in media or represented stereotypically.  This includes but isn’t limited to older people, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, and ethnic and religious minorities. This is something that the designers behind Dove’s ad campaigns excel at. 

Doves ad campaigns Doves ad campaigns Doves ad campaigns
Dove’s ad campaigns 

4. Create Work With Depth and Complexity

Politically astute and engaged designers eschew shallow platitude and distasteful stereotypes. Instead, they are capable of creating work that shows depth and understanding of complex social, political, economic, and cultural issues. This is particularly important at this time of incredible political, economic and environmental uncertainty where companies are trying to distinguish themselves by creating ads with political overtones and optimistic outlooks. 

In April of 2017, Pepsi recorded a major fail, with a tone-deaf ad featuring reality star Kendall Jenner at a gathering filled with young attractive people of different ethnicities protesting an unspecified issue. In the ad’s climactic scene, a police officer accepts a can of Pepsi from Jenner, setting off rapturous approval from the protesters and an appreciative smirk from the officer.  

The company was accused of appropriated images from the Black Lives Matter protests, and trivialising the widespread protests against the killings of black people by the police in order to sell a soft drink. The protest was so great that Pepsi pulled the ad immediately and issued an apology, but of course in the age of digital communication, once something is out there, it's impossible to completely erase it. 

Pepsi Ad featuring Kendall JennerPepsi Ad featuring Kendall JennerPepsi Ad featuring Kendall Jenner
Pepsi Ad featuring Kendall Jenner

5. Differentiate Yourself by Standing for Something

According to Edelman’s Earned Brand 2018 study, people the world over would prefer to spend their money on brands that take a stand on a social or political issue. If you want to differentiate yourself, have the courage to take a stand for your beliefs, like designer Luke Irwin who created this brilliant piece called the Seat of Power. 

In Seat of Power, the U.S. flag is sitting in the lap of a hammer and sickle, with the stars depicted as doves of peace fleeing from their rightful homes in the upper left blue corner.

Of his creation, he says: "My vision for the Seat of Power is to use it as a crucible for discussion and conversation around our perceptions of power. The conversation piece contains the conversation."

Luke Irwin Luke Irwin Luke Irwin
Seat of Power by Luke Irwin 

How to Define Your Own Politics

The first step to “getting political” is to realise that political views are based on the personal beliefs and value systems we all carry within us, and our personal belief and value systems result from a combination of our nature, our upbringing, and our education.

Getting political requires you to marry your personal belief system with a political position. If you’ve been standing outside the fray so far, you may not be clear on what political positions exist. So here’s a quick guide to the main political positions today and how to choose between them. 

Earlier, I mentioned big “P” politics. This refers to the activities associated with a population’s election of a political party to form the government of a country.

There are significant differences of opinion among political parties about how a country should be run and how the country’s resources should be used, but political analysts normally divide political parties and their ideas into left, centre, and right. Though these three positions vary across countries, generally speaking, it can be said that:

  1. Parties on the left tend to value egalitarianism and progress. They work to eradicate social inequalities, believing them to be unethical or unnatural, and champion environmental protection. 
  2. Parties on the right tend to value hierarchies and tradition. They accept social inequalities as inevitable, the result of ineradicable natural inequalities or of competition in market-driven economies. They see attempts to create social equality as utopian or authoritarian.
  3. Parties in the centre tend to accept both a degree of social equality and a degree of social hierarchy while opposing political changes which would result in a significant shift of society strongly to either the left or the right.

Which of these positions resonates most with you? Remember, this is not just a theoretical exercise. This is about the policies and conditions that you would be happy for yourself or your children to be on the receiving end of.  

Obviously, you'll need to go quite a bit further than this to define what you believe and stand for, but this at least gives you a starting point from which to expand your exploration. Don't be afraid to express your fledgling viewpoint, to question others, and to have them questioning and challenging you. This is how we grow, develop, and expand our ideas. 

"We must reject not only the stereotypes that others have of us but also those that we have of ourselves." — Shirley Chisholm

Get Engaged

Whichever approach you adopt, here are a few ways to incorporate your political viewpoint and value system into your life and work: 

  1. Push back against clients who have ideas that from your vantage point you understand are problematic.
  2. Make suggestions based on your values, and be prepared to defend them.
  3. Seek out work that reflects your values or at least doesn’t undermine them. 
  4. Reach out to artists and designers who create political work you admire and propose a collaboration or mentoring relationship.
  5. Look for ways to use your talent to shape the world you want to live in—for example, you could volunteer to create a piece of work for a charity that does work you believe in.

Here are some great examples of artists who have done interesting political work.

Most of all, remember that design isn’t a refuge from the world and its challenges, rather it is a thoughtful and profound engagement with it. Get engaged. 

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