Heike de Wit



Digital Craftsmanship (essay)
Generative Questions (essay)
Everything is Political (essay)

A review of Ruben Pater’s The Politics of Design - A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication,
Bis Publishers (Amsterdam, 2016)


The Art of Peer Pressure
Thinking and Producing (essay)
Your Ad Here
The New Modern


The Selfie (essay)
I Protest
The New Aesthetic
Heike de Wit, 2016

Everything Is Political

"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 map on the cover, The Dymaxion Map, was made by the designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller in 1943 and is divided into twenty triangles, making sure it has no top, bottom, left or right side. The map can also be folded into a sphere-like form. However inventive on a cultural level, the map does not serve a cartographical purpose since he did not make consistent use of latitude and longitude.

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’.

Pater points fingers at amusing examples but at the same time highlights and goes more into depth of the underlying problems of miscommunication and centralised-thinking, in the accompanying text. AIGA praised the importance of this message highly by saying:

“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.

One project where the designers really worked with a diverse team and experimented with the project’s visual language within the area it was meant to be executed, was studio Butterfly’s Learning about Living, an e-learning program for northern Nigerian high school students about sexual health, made in cooperation with the Nigerian Ministry of Education, parents, teachers and students themselves. Through experimentation they found out that the illustration of a Nigerian girl wearing a hijab they had made, based on photographs taken on location, looked like she was married due to the way her hijab was draped. This is not what they meant to imply and in this way could still be corrected before the project was carried out.

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.

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. Ruben Pater, Behind the Blue Screen, Untold Stories (October 2014) http://www.untold-stories.net/?p=Behind-The-Blue-Screen