A review of Ruben Pater’s
The Politics of Design - A (Not So) Global Manual for
Bis Publishers (Amsterdam, 2016)
"Design, but know this," Ruben Pater seems to say with his book The Politics of Design - A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication. Starting off with a powerful essay focussing the attention right on the reader themselves in its first line by stating “YOU ARE PRIVILEGED.” and goes on further explaining why it is, as a reader, that you are.
In this book Pater showcases his and other’s research into the social and cultural implication of various visual forms, categorised into the chapters: ‘Typography and Language’, ‘Colour and Contrast’, ‘Image and Photography’, ’Symbols and Icons’ and ‘Information Graphics’. The book is a small, colourful and pocket sized, counting 193 pages, making it a good fit for something that is meant to represent a manual. Flipping through it gave me a great first impression; familiar images from the news and pop-culture mostly, and a lot of text. For a critical, sociological and anthropological body of work, its modernity and colourfulness are surprising. Something that instantly drew me in was the striking cover, a three toned gradient (cyan, magenta and yellow) spread out over a black background highlighting the book’s title and an alternative map of the world. That alternative world map, we later learn, is donned the ‘Best Designed World Map’.
This is one of many examples in the book where Pater points out how our visual culture could do a much better job at designing what we think we ‘know’, and more specifically points at how we are wired into thinking that things ‘should look’ a certain way because they’ve always looked that way. Upon a closer look the familiar images I thought I had recognised too seem different, when their context is pointed out: A ‘wall’ of emoji’s compared to ancient hieroglyphs, the President of Syria, Assad, turns out to be heavily photoshopped to make him look younger, Coca-Cola as presented in China translated into phonetic Chinese, turned out to mean ‘female horse stuffed with wax’.
“It’s the kind of literature that should be handed out to all students on their first days at art school, along with the Albers, Berger, Benjamin, and Sontag that form the backbone of design curriculum.” 1
Pater made a habit of accompanying his bigger design projects with an essay since he was asked to write one on his project The Drone Survival Guide 2, 3, this I find wildly interesting because text and image can not only communicate a great deal with how they look, but first and foremost with what they say. To have agency over both as a designer puts you in a position of being able to communicate more clearly what it is you find important and / or interesting. He puts his reasons for writing like this:
“It complements my work because it pushes me to reflect on the context beyond its immediate effect. I think during a design process many interesting things happen that are as interesting as the result, even if they are invisible in the end.” 2
I see The Politics of Design as a natural evolution of his work thus far, most of his works go more into depth about a single subject, but his works always revolve around themes of trying to clear up misrepresentation; for example in Blue Screens 4 where he and director Jaap van Heusden literally give voice to those that are misrepresented in the current media culture: Iranian citizens who are living in a highly controlled media environment. I interpret this book then as a manual of what to look out for might you venture into design that is meant for a different culture than your own or a more global audience overall. In this manual he gives both examples of greater and lesser attempts of either projects that successfully merge two cultures together, or completely failed to predict or test its (mis-)interpretation.
Overall I find this work a great summary of critical points of view on global design throughout the design world, highlighting new examples with every page you turn. At the end of the book Pater recommends further reading into the subject(s) he touched upon with works such as John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (Penguin Books, 1972), Edward W. Said’s Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979) and Susan Scafidi’s Who Owns Culture? (Rutgers University Press, 2005) and many others, categorised per chapter. A well researched work, furthering a progressive conversation and outlook on design, tying together the global communication Pater seems to find the most important topic to work within, and with good reason. Since our world has become so much smaller since the coming of the internet, we need now, more urgently than before, to learn to understand each other without forcefully imposing a centralised visual language from above erasing thousands of years of cultural differences.
James Cartwright, What Do Designers Have To Do With Sexism, Plagiarism + Colonialism?, AIGA (August 8, 2016) http://eyeondesign.aiga.org/what-do-sexism-plagiarism-and-colonialism-have-to-do-with-your-job↩
Ruben Pater (in response to “how do you keep the balance between text and graphic design?”) interviewed by Régine Debatty, Drones, pirates, everyday racism. An interview with graphic designer Ruben Pater, We Make Money Not Art (2 september, 2015) http://we-make-money-not-art.com/interview_with_ruben_pater-2↩
Ruben Pater, 21st Century Birdwatching, Untold Stories (October 2013) http://www.untold-stories.net/?p=Drone-Survival-Guide – Drone Survival Guide official project webpage http://www.dronesurvivalguide.org ↩
Ruben Pater, Behind the Blue Screen, Untold Stories (October 2014) http://www.untold-stories.net/?p=Behind-The-Blue-Screen↩