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Peter Hall in conversation with Rebecca Ross


Written by
Colin Buttimer
Published date
27 January 2016

Rebecca Ross, Course Leader of MA Graphic Communication Design sat down recently with the new Course Leader for BA Graphic Communication Design , Peter Hall, to talk about how they first met, what he finds exciting about the Graphic Design course at CSM, and the power of design in changing attitudes of people, corporations and governments.

Rebecca Ross: You’re originally from the UK but haven’t lived here for some time. We first met when you were my design writing tutor at Yale, fifteen years ago! And you’ve been in all sorts of other places around the world since. Tell us about some of the places you’ve been and things you’ve been up to.

Peter Hall: I’ve been overseas for 24 years now, but gradually moving around the world as part of my efforts to get back to the UK. My last position was as programme director of the BA Design and BA Design Futures degrees at Griffith University Queensland College of Art in Australia. The Design Futures degree was an ambitious effort to re-imagine design practice in a larger social and environmental context, so that we could encourage students to more critically look at design as contributing to current environmental and political problems as well as being the place to look for solutions.

I also got my PhD in Australia, on the topic of the uses of mapping in design criticism and practice. Before Queensland I was in (equally sunny) Texas, where I worked as a senior lecturer in the Design department of the University of Texas at Austin, and before that, I was living in New York City for 16 years.

The most interesting place I’ve visited was Indonesia, where there was this chaos of traffic and planning and people, but also layers and layers of improvisation and invention. I climbed to the top of a Buddhist temple led by a Muslim guide, saw someone selling refurbished lightbulbs on the street and rode on the back of a scooter in torrential rain in traffic-clogged Jakarta.

Rebecca Ross: What is most exciting to you about leading the BA Graphic Design course at Central Saint Martins?

Peter Hall: I think it’s one of the top design colleges in the world, with this really deeply ingrained culture of making that goes back to Lethaby’s founding principles. The new building presents an amazing opportunity to build a bigger international profile for the College, which is a project that seems well underway (as seen at the CSM Public launch and the crowds and the spectacle at the Lumiere festival which were quite phenomenal).

Rebecca Ross: Tell us about something interesting you’ve seen or read recently.

Peter Hall: I really enjoyed Michael Foley’s book Life Lessons from Bergson about the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Michael Foley is a poet and novelist and a former IT lecturer, he has a great writing style that makes Bergson’s mind-blowing ideas very easy to grasp.

Rebecca Ross: What are the most important challenges and opportunities for Graphic Design right now?

Peter Hall: The graphic design industry is in a period of great transition; while the tools of  design have become mundane and ubiquitous, the arts and skills of design and design thinking are not easily mastered or downloaded as software. One of the biggest challenges is to work out how graphic design can confront environmental, political and social crises without making the problems worse.

I think part of the answer lies in the design of information and experiences that make complexity easier to navigate and comprehend, but also to recognise how graphic design can help persuade people, corporations and governments to behave differently, and to do this not with propaganda but with imaginative, artistic and inventive approaches to rethinking behaviours.

The danger is the reactionary tendency among designers to patrol the perimeters of the graphic design “profession” and become taste-makers and controllers. I think it’s much more healthy to recognise that change is inevitable, cultures are perpetually reinventing and adapting visual codes, and the dogmatic push to control and standardise graphic design is entangled with an economic and political approach that has brought us to this current crisis point.

The challenge for graphic design students and academics, put simply, is to help develop new imaginaries that help us see things differently.

Rebecca Ross: Can we get a preview of any forthcoming books or articles. What have you been working on most recently?

Peter Hall: I’ve been working on an article with my colleagues in the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London. It’s about seeing data visualisation as a process. It contends that we’ve become obsessed with protecting information, rather than people, and data visualisation has unintentionally helped fetishise data rather than what it could do, such as showing how people build networks and share information.

Visualisation has a less-celebrated discursive role as a means of articulating and sharing individual perspectives on risk, raising awareness and building trust.  The paper is going to be presented at the Electronic Visualisation and Arts Australasia conference.