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Creative Unions: Design and Politics

Helen Milne1
Helen Milne1

Written by
Published date
10 October 2017

In Creative Unions there’s a rich seam of designers satirising the current political situation. Often, these responses come from graphic designers from Emma King’s remaking of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” through Trumps tweets or Kathryn Basterfield’s pastiche dating agency pairing UK citizens with their EU counterparts as a post-Brexit workaround – both alumni of MA Graphic Communication Design – to BA Graphic Design graduate Thomas Moore’s contemporary rendition of Hogarth’s biting “Gin Lane” from 1751.

The political target for some exhibits may be a little harder to discern. Take BA Product Design’s Ellen Nyqvist. Her cabinet is presented as the first object made to her DogmeDesign manifesto, a call to arms inspired by Dogme95 film. Her manifesto is framed as a search for truth within design with form following function, lack of embellishment and technological complexity as a process of much-needed purification.

Her interest in “truth” within design originated from the broader political context in which truth has become ever more malleable or even entirely artificially constructed.  “We live in a personalised tailored universe, comfortable and cosy, where algorithms filter away what they don’t think would interest us, we’re never bored or disturbed. Filters are making us oblivious of the unknown,” says Nyqvist, “We no longer know what’s real or true. DogmeDesign is a rescue mission, a reaction and countermovement against the technological and digital manipulation, where everything has become superficial and predictable.”

Other projects in Creative Unions present systems and processes intent on changing the status quo. “Whether you are designing against (or for) a specific political condition or just creating a space there is always politics involved,” says Tom Atkinson. His M ARCH project, the Micro-Developments Bureau focuses on new ways for local councils to build housing. The design and creation of the homes may not be overtly political, Atkinson explains, “but the reason for designing it is completely political. Having a system so broken that people do not have a home to call their own is a political problem. Having a target of homes that each borough needs to reach is a political decision. Cutting councils budgets and forcing them to sell off their land and privatise their social housing is a ridiculous situation created by a daft political system that is lying to the people who voted for it. Most design is a reaction to a political decision.”

Tackling these huge problems, be it inequality or climate change for example, some designers create tools of protest. Helen Milne, BA Textile Design graduate, made a series of flags that are not only emblazoned with messages but materially embedded with the detritus of air pollution, plastic pollution and soil erosion. “I feel it is my duty to understand and engage with the political and cultural climate, particularly now,” she says, “this work is a direct response to the collective cultural negligence surrounding the huge issue of climate change – my work can be seen as an attempt to visualise and break down some of the problems we face in society.”

But beyond raising awareness, do designers have a place in influencing big business or political systems? Jenny Banks, MA Material Futures, has created Sustainable Fast Fashion a closed-loop garment production process that combines additive manufacturing and textile design disciplines. Her work revolves around the consumption of fashion, specifically fast fashion – exploring how such unsustainable practices can be disrupted with new technology rather than attempting to change behaviour of consumer through heavy-handed and unsuccessful didactic messaging.

“Designers have a huge amount of potential to drive change and we need to make the most of it,” Banks says, “the biggest steps towards our sustainable goals can be made by policy makers and our big corporations. I think it’s important that designers not only have creative ideas about tackling our ecological issues but also build the business case for their ideas and really grabs corporate attention. Producing work that is accessible to the general public is equally as important because collectively we can initiate change within government.”

Creative Unions is on show in the Lethaby Gallery, Central Saint Martins, until 21 October. 

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