In this research paper I have established that the literary strategies of digression and association, rooted in the act of walking, provide possible (if but theoretical) ways for an alternative design practice to consider the states of individual reflection, labour and common space for both designers and users.
As outlined in Extraordinary popular delusions… we live in an ‘accelerated age’,. shaped by technological progress and economic policies that are subservient to market forces. Within this context, graphic design is positioned as an invaluable tool in the unbridled commodification of everyday life and the reinforcement of dominant power structures. Lamentably, Late Capitalism is so insidiously inextricable from daily norms that its manifestations can be difficult to identify, examine and challenge – our passivity and disempowerment contributing to its success. Good design is good business, but as practitioners we often neglect to ask ‘…for whom?’.
The reverence toward productivity that emerged from the protestant work ethic impacts designers and users alike. Authentically free time has been all but eliminated by asynchronous communication, prolonged and flexible work hours, and the incessant consumption of products, services and information as leisure. The domesticated mind serves up a docile citizenship. Ever more imperative then, that designers channel their efforts toward the creation of ‘artefacts and experiences that encourage thoughtfulness and deliberation’.. The advance of technology toward dematerialisation has dramatically altered how any individual physically encounters the world. Assisted travel, concerns for safety and sedentary jobs/schooling have reduced mobility for both adults and children, while seemingly intangible communication networks and complex financial systems obscure personal and corporate responsibility. We opt for the ease of the virtual over the messiness of reality, resulting in a physically and conceptually fragmented, detached and alienated lived experience.
Because it can be bewildering to imagine new realities beyond those that presently exist, this research has used the practice of walking as a thought experiment, as a frame of reference to measure against the condition of acceleration. Observations on the feeling… reviews the recent history of walking in Western culture to argue that its conditions inherently facilitate critical thought and physical perception. John Jacques Rousseau declared ‘…when I stop I cease to think. My mind only works with my legs’. Movement of the body increases dopamine levels in the brain triggering focus, while a walker’s outlook provides distraction, and repetitive steps induce relaxation. This enables the subconscious to create insightful connections in the present moment, removed from obligations of productivity. Critical to this is an element of time, with pace being determined by the capacity of the body. Walking can be a means in itself rather than a means to an end.
Thinking about the context of the personal, walking exemplifies Fromm’s state of ‘being’ in which knowledge and experience are inquisitively embedded. This state is the antithesis of ‘having’ which can be linked with capitalist narratives of acquisition and appearances. In the realm of the professional, walking promotes Cannon’s notion of ‘the worthwhile ethic’ which values activities based on their intrinsic and social value, in comparison with the protestant ‘work ethic’ which has become synonymous with increasing individual wealth. In the arena of the public, walking promotes an individually unique but shareable experience of the land, in stark contrast to capitalist notions of privatisation and pseudo-public space reinforcing income inequality and societal division.
A Portrait of the Artist… applies the insights deduced from the practice of walking to the practice of graphic design. It argues that the literary strategies of digression and association, which derive from walking and share purpose with Shklovsky’s ‘defamiliarisation’ and Brecht’s ‘alienation’, are useful in formulating more constructive approaches to the production, distribution and consumption of design artefacts and experiences. To start, graphic design practice should take on projects which bring explicit value to the environment, society, politics and culture. Additionally, it should encompass ‘problem-finding’ in its activities, an exemplary model being Ruben Pater’s Untold Stories. But problem-finding can be fuzzy. It requires time, time which may not necessarily correspond to the Capitalist equation of ‘effort equals output’. ‘Problem-finding’ often sits outside the conventional client-designer framework, being more or less feasible depending on the geopolitical context. A helpful way to develop a critical practice is through writing. Writing helps us to determine the ‘true, essential and urgent’ as John Berger puts it, which we can be further argued through design.
Applying the ‘worthwhile ethic’ to graphic design practice dictates that it be holistic. That is, that no individual worker be alienated through the tedious division of labour, but instead attain a sense of both self-realisation, in working autonomously from concept to production, and of ethical responsibility, in managing distribution and consumption. This attitude assumes that all individual members of any group effort are valued and respected, forming a non-hierarchical organisation like a co-operative or Employee Benefit Trust rather than conventional tiered hierarchy. In support of a healthy, non-invasive work environment time should be governed by strict boundaries rather than by external demands. Where possible, communication should happen face to face rather than via email or message, and thinking through physical making should be encouraged. The ‘worthwhile ethic’ urges that the success of a project not be measured by monetary remuneration, industry awards or recognition, but on the quality of process, working relationships and ‘life’ of the artefact or experience. These qualities align with Fromm’s notion of ‘being’ rather than ‘having’.
Further development of this body of research should explore how existing theoretical proposals might be implemented successfully in practice. Most pressing would be to explore new models of sustainable funding beyond the commercial client-designer framework, as this can often limit the critical nature of the work. It is important to recognise that design, like literature, might raise more questions than it answers. To conclude, the strategies of digression and association enable us to rethink the production, distribution and consumption of graphic design, ultimately impacting how designers and users individually reflect, labour and share common space.