Design as Knowledge Production

The cover of C Magazine issue 141, designed by Raf Rennie

We spoke with graphic designers and educators Ali S. Qadeer and Chris Lee about the graphic design–themed issue of C Magazine they recently edited. The conversation touches on design as knowledge production, platforms for design criticism, and design’s relationship to contemporary art and to political power.

Frontier: How did the opportunity to edit this issue come about?

Chris Lee: I designed C Magazine for four or five years. This is the first issue of Raf Rennie’s redesign, so the editors thought it would be appropriate to focus on the subject of design. When editorial director Kari Cwynar approached me, I immediately thought of working with Ali because of our ongoing conversation about graphic design and design education.

Ali Qadeer: We thought long and hard about commissioning articles about design for an art-world publication. Our practices as designers orbit around arts institutions, and we recognize that, especially in Canada, there are too few conversations about the relationship between art and design. We also wanted to explore graphic design’s relationship to history and to “the scriptural economy” (to borrow a phrase from Michel de Certeau).

CL: It seemed to us that contemporary art has a more robust critical discourse than contemporary design. There are not many museums, institutions, and galleries devoted to design—even if we could quibble about whether such spaces would be particularly relevant. But I do find increasing interest in design from art-world curators and writers. And there are more practitioners today who identify as graphic designers but whose works are critically engaged—research-driven rather than client-driven.

Spread from C Magazine issue 141, designed by Raf Rennie.
Spread from C Magazine issue 141, designed by Raf Rennie.

AQ: C Magazine focuses on theorizing art, not just showcasing it. We’re both interested in new ways of theorizing graphic design, and the issues that interest us relate closely to those being addressed by artists.

Frontier: Does the increase in critical design practice that you have observed result from a shortage of platforms for serious design discussion? Are designers filling in the gap through their work?

Professional training for young designers is important, but design education should also give young people new frameworks for understanding the world.

CL: Both of us attended graduate school for graphic design. It’s hard to periodize developments in the field, but it seems that academic credentials are on the rise in design. Design school can be something of a bubble in which you need not worry as urgently about clients and business imperatives, and that autonomy can hold space for esoteric and politically charged conversations.

Or perhaps social media has increased the visibility of critical practices. That’s how I got into it. I was researching illustrators while working at The Walrus and came across the Dutch designers Metahaven. I thought, “What the hell is this?” That led me down a rabbit hole and has influenced much of what I’ve done since.

Installation view of Metahaven’s Facestate in Graphic Design: Now in Production (2011) at the Walker Art Center.
Installation view of Metahaven’s Facestate in Graphic Design: Now in Production (2011) at the Walker Art Center.

AQ: Our primary roles are as design educators. We see, from our students, that while there may not be a robust set of platforms for design criticism, there is plenty of discourse. My undergraduate students are genuinely interested in using design in a more inquisitive way. And while some may leave school, enter the “industry,” and wonder how their education bears upon their professional life, there is something to be said for this inquisitiveness as a frame of mind. My own undergraduate work was in the humanities, and it gave me frameworks for understanding and approaching the world. Professional training for young designers is important, but design education should also have the goal of giving young people these new frameworks for understanding the world. Explaining this to students is one thing; explaining it to parents is another. [Laughs]

Does graphic design include property deeds, maps, birth certificates, or drivers’ licenses? We would argue that it should.

Frontier: Can you elaborate on your belief, stated in your editors’ letter, that design is a form of knowledge production?

AQ: We read a history of canonized Western graphic design that progresses from Gutenberg through many technological modes of scriptural production. Up until the world became largely digitized, documents have been the primary arena in which society has operated. To take one example: land ownership is contingent upon written deeds, which are themselves designed artifacts. Chris and I have long been interested in trying to use design to talk about history, knowledge production, and power.

CL: What gets included as part of the history of graphic design? Does it include property deeds, maps, birth certificates, or drivers’ licenses? We would argue that it should, in part because it’s a provocation to then think about how design might be entangled with entities that hold power: colonial empires, modern states, corporations. Such entities produce design artifacts “invisibly” but on a massive scale, mostly in the form of documents. The documents create the forms that they then certify. Documents create the administrative notions of gender, for example: checkboxes for male and for female with no other options. One key influence on this conversation is the work of media historian Lisa Gitelman, especially her 2014 book Paper Knowledge.

Let’s tie this back to design education. No one applies to design school hoping to design tax forms. But if students are encouraged to think about how governance is designed, and how redesigning it might allow for, say, the redistribution of wealth, then those ideas might influence work they do later. I hope such ways of thinking proliferate beyond the university.

Spread from C Magazine issue 141, designed by Raf Rennie.
Spread from C Magazine issue 141, designed by Raf Rennie.

AQ: The university itself is a center of power wherein knowledge is designed. Chris likes to rethink institutional forms: syllabi, for example, or other university artifacts.

Frontier: Perhaps this is an apt moment to bring up Tucker McLachlan’s article, in the issue, on incidental graphics.

AQ: Tucker is not interested in uncovering the meaning behind an aesthetic, but rather to uncover an economy hidden in plain sight. His essay is not only about how images proliferate, how graphics are shared, but also about their sources and how they are produced. Tucker is also a fan of Gitelman’s Paper Knowledge, and I can see the link between that book and his essay.

CL: Incidental graphics is his term for the kinds of graphic production that constitute bureaucratic systems. Sometimes designers are dismissive of certain forms, but they can have outsize influence over our lives.

Frontier: Would the goal be to have these works no longer be recognized as merely “incidental”?

CL: It would be incredible if a graphic design program engaged with what are too often considered banal forms of design production. Students do not imagine themselves as being engaged in that kind of work, but all these artifacts have designers. We would love for students and emerging designers to think about how their efforts are incidental to the exercise of power, and to think about how to shape their practices such that they can serve to organize people or create knowledge.

Frontier: That’s another way of thinking of design as a “service industry”—as being in the service of people, communities, activism.

CL: Or let’s abandon the idea of service, which can feel like a trap. Maybe instead of service, it’s governance, or organizing, or even antagonism—new principles as the motivation for design practice.

AQ: This might sound less ambitious than Chris’s comment, but perhaps design can simply be a knowledge strategy for deconstruction and critical analysis.

CL: If we can get better at unpacking and deconstructing design in design schools, then we can also train designers to be self-conscious about the ethical and political dimensions of the forms that they make.

Every few weeks, we send Dispatch, a newsletter that draws together fascinating stories on creativity and purpose.