Common affairs

The state of design criticism, it could be argued, has never been in better shape. There are the big guns, such as Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand’s printed compilation of fifteen years of online discourse at the Design Observer with Culture Is Not Always Popular. Likewise, AIGA’s Eye On Design magazine which covers topics interrogated on a given theme, (see previous Field Readings post Thoughts on discussions on criticism). Mike Monteiro’s recent Ruined By Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It, is an accessible takedown of poor design choices and the importance of ethics to design decisions, while Mode of Criticism‘s self-titled publication is a diversely rich academic and theoretical critique of design in a time of neoliberalism.

One publication that caught my eye recently that I wanted to specifically highlight is the House of Common Affairs journal. It comes out of a forum held at the Royal College of Art in London, and moderated by the journal’s editor Paula Minelgaite, that sought to question the relationship between creative practice, current affairs and the way information is communicated to the general public. The journal specifically looks to discuss Fourth Estate utopias.

An image of the House of Common Affairs journal cover
Image © Paula Minelgaite

In the introduction of issue one, Minelgaite says: “HOCA journal provides an opportunity to challenge the niche and yet popular field that exists in the overlap between the arts and journalism. HOCA attempts to address the issues it presents to its readers by avoiding elitist design snobbery that perpetuates discrimination, dogmatism and self-righteousness. It does this this by moving the project outside the RCA and inviting a more diverse range of voices into the conversation.”

It is the point about moving away from elitism and against self-righteousness that particularly struck a chord with me. Elitist attitudes are endemic within academia, and critical design discourse in general, and the need to engage with those that our work is for is essential to foster meaningful critical conversations, (I discuss such concerns in Thoughts on discussions on criticism).

Image of a double page spread from the House of Common Affairs journal
Image © Paula Minelgaite

In House of Common Affairs, the two central texts are transcripts from the forums at the RCA, and these are interwoven with 2 different essays/texts that work as threads within the same narrative. Laid out on the same pages in different fonts, at first I was unsure how this would work from a reader’s point of view. But it became easy to follow once my eyes adjusted. After reading the transcripts, going back to ponder the essays in the same sitting, you can see how they inter-relate and the layout helps to highlight inter-dependant nature of the different threads. From a design perspective, I thought this was innovative and it worked successfully in tracking across topics, especially when the forums tended to be more freeform and tangental, while the essays are tighter and more focussed.

In An artist, a politician, and a journalist walk into a bar…, Ruben Pater starts off taking about design education and assumptions Western designers can make that skew communication. Talking on the back of his his 2016 book The Politics of Design, the narrative moves in relation to thought-provoking interventions from Monika Parrinder, Ken Hollings, Belle Promchanya, Noortje van Eekelen, and other participants. The odd joke from Minelgaite also punctuate the discussion, (“What’s the difference between an art student and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.”, was one of my favorites. (p69))

Woven within this is a conversation between industrial designer Maya Ober and design journalist Abja Neidhardt discussing accountability, collaboration, and again, design assumptions.

The second forum includes Olivier Kugler discussing his approach to illustrative journalism with questions and input from Jessie Bond, Theo Inglis and others. Luxuriously printed bookmark style interjections of contextual definitions are interspersed in this latter section.

An image of a page from the House of Common Affairs journal opened to shown inserted bookmark
Image © Paula Minelgaite

What really chimes with me about HOCA is its strive towards inclusivity in all that it does. It is there in its rationale, as set out by Minelgaite; it is there in the forums, in regards to their make-up; it is there in the forum discussion contexts; and it is there in the way different texts have been bought together on the same page. This inclusivity is a key discussion point within design criticism at the moment it seems. Who gets to decide what design is, or isn’t, is spoken about at length by Monteiro in Ruined By Design, published contemporaneously to House of Common Affairs. Although he is talking mostly about the who get’s hired within design firms; his thinking can equally be applied to the breadth of who is included in critical discourse. Monteiro says: “All the white boys in the room, even with the best intentions, will only ever know what it’s like to make decisions as a white boy. They will only have the experiences of white boys … Even those that attempt to look outside their own experiences will only ever know what questions to ask based on that experience. Even those doing good research can only ask questions they think to ask. In short, even the most well-meaning white boys don’t know what they don’t know.” (2019, p72). The same goes for academics and design critics, and this echos much of what Ruben Pater talks about in House of Common Affairs and in his 2016 book.

An image of a stack of the House of Common Affairs journals
Image © Paula Minelgaite

HOCA Issue #1 also includes interviews with artist Alina Negoita, designer Chourouk Zarkaoui, artist Latifah Al-Said, and an essay by graphic designer and artist Jaione Cerrato. It comes highly recommended for anyone interested in communication medias and how meaning is visually coded in its delivery to the general public.

You can follow House of Common Affairs on Twitter @HouseofCAffairs,
and buy your copy by going to this House of Common Affairs Big Cartel link.

All images used with kind permission of Paula Minelgaite.

Minelgaite, P (ed). (2019) House of Common Affairs: The Fourth Estate Utopias. Journal #12019. London : House of Common Affairs
Monteiro, M. (2019) Ruined By Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can To to Fix it. San Francisco : Mule Design

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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