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Hope To Nope: How the Internet changed the political and design landscape

Our Head of 2D & Graphics Darren Lewis visits the Design Museum’s latest exhibition ‘Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18’.

“Slogans in nice typefaces won’t save the human races” shouts a giant poster on the wall of the Design Museum’s current graphics and politics exhibition ‘Hope to Nope’. Yet here we are, surrounded by some of the more familiar graphic designed political campaigns of the last ten years. Politics is the new design, but design has always been political, so says writer and design studio Mule co-founder Mike Monteiro. “The world is a mess”, his voice booms across the exhibition; “a certain set of people designed it to be a mess. Now we need different people to design our way out of it. This is not a choice. Fascism is knocking at our front door. This is how we knock back.” A bold call to action it must be said, but one I fear that the design industry still hasn’t yet found the right answers for.

The first wall of displays shows this idiosyncrasy in its finest – the graphic identity for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign of 2016 and the Britain Stronger in Europe marketing logo. Both designed by well respected ’branding experts’ (Pentagram and North), for a price, with which both campaigns lost. It was said in the chaotic blame game aftermath they ‘failed to connect emotionally with voters’. At the other end of the exhibition, where Donald Trump gets his own entire section of the gallery, lies the memorable and daresay icon of his election campaign; an off the shelf red baseball cap, ‘Make America Great Again’. Stitched across its front in that ubiquitous and commonplace of fonts Times New Roman, a typeface available free to anyone. The designer-maligned, the ‘unbranded’—now a symbol of Trump’s America in the late 2010s. Is it any wonder people have had enough of experts?

Starting at the beginning of the 2008 financial crash, the exhibition explores pivotal political moments of the last ten years in graphical form; the attack on the Charlie Head offices in Paris, the anti-Zuma rallies in South Africa, Grenfell, Corbynmania, North Korea propaganda as well as the aforementioned Brexit and Trump plus others. Split into three sections, ‘Power’ explores how graphic design is used to assert and subvert ideas, identities, governments and nations. A timeline shows how online data and the rise of social media–and the parallel rise of its abuse–gives the visitor pause for thought on how nobody can now say that politics doesn’t affect them.

‘Protest’ displays work by activists and demonstrators’ intent on galvanising others to incite change. Images of mass rallies and protestors adorn the walls as well as a video installation set the scene for political protest; from the silent march for the victims of the 2017 Grenfell disaster, to the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ march placards, the idea of unity and collective anger is laid bare. The recent worldwide women’s marches, with its selection of both angry and witty homemade placards, show how original humour is being used to engage online followers, liking and sharing across the globe endless non-designers own ‘branded’ handiwork. In an age where Instagram influencers are getting political by being seen at mass marches, the one-of-a-kind placard that cuts through the crowd is everything.

The last section, ‘Personality’ shows how our politicians are subverted into heroes or demons. A wall of Donald Trump depictions on magazine covers show how he himself has become a design icon, his distinctive look now instantly recognisable symbols. None so more is this proven in the original alternative cover for Michael Wollf’s exposé Fire and Fury, Trump’s portrait reduced to a basic orange and yellow illustration against a black background. Brand Trump is so simple and one-dimensional anyone can get it; the acronym Keep It Simple Stupid has never been so unfortunate in its success.

To paraphrase Mike Monteiro: “if we’ve designed ourselves into this mess, we can design ourselves out of it”. But political design is no longer in the hands of ‘expert’ designers. As this exhibition shows, some of the more successful campaigns have come about without flashy coherent identity campaigns and logos with six-figure sums. Politics is now about the subversion of the everyday. Democracy is after all a system of government by the whole population, and nothing says power more than people having the tools and support to make their own propaganda. When Mike Monteiro says we can design ourselves out of it, I’m in agreement, it just won’t be the ‘expert’ designers doing it. “Slogans in nice typefaces won’t save the human races” may be the most damning and correct piece of propaganda after all, even if as ‘expert’ designers we continue to refuse to believe it.

Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-2018 runs at the Design Museum until August 12, 2018; designmuseum.org