Proposing the Graphic Commons

This text was first published as a pamphlet of the same name in August 2017. It is republished here for the first time online. Copies of the original pamphlet, as a numbered limited edition of 300, are still available on request. Please get in contact if you would like a copy.


This essay introduces the term Graphic Commons as an identifier with which to discuss graphic design within shared public environments. It sets out why a new linguistic term in contemporary graphic design discourse is required, and situates this as part of wider discussions surrounding urbanism and social responsibility.

Much has changed since Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 declaration that: “…there is no architectural or urbanistic criticism on a par with the criticism of art, literature, music and theatre.” (1991, p92) Some 43 years later urbanism is studied in renowned academic centres such as University College London’s UrbanLab. However, graphic design as a discipline is often overlooked as part of ongoing critical urban dialogues. While anti-advertising rhetoric is in rude health within academic, design and political circles, advertising remains its focus. Although a critique of advertising is an important aspect of the Graphic Commons, and therefore appropriate to discuss under the term’s usage, this proposal considers a much wider remit of study. As Lefebvre stated: “There would certainly seem to be a need for such a criticism… We are talking, after all, of the setting in which we live.” (1991, p92)


Graphic design is impossible to escape in contemporary Western society. Some aspects of it we invite into our lives by choice, such as magazines, food packaging and smartphone apps, to name but a few. Most, however, is thrust upon us without consultation: a walk down a high-street will bring window displays and advertising billboards into our eye-line; a visit to an unfamiliar town will necessitate following directional signs and road markings; health & safety warnings will surround road works and sites of potential injury, or even death. Regardless of whether these items of graphic design are of benefit to social cohesion or merely marketing opportunities, they typically arrive at our retinas uninvited. There is little potential within our shared environments to not see an item of visual communication and this is an important area for consideration because, “…the urban landscape is…a space through which everyone must inevitably traverse.” (Dog Section Press, 2017, p36)

We live complicated lives and to consider living without such visual guidance would seem preposterous. Graphic design as a means to impart information has established itself as a central part of urban infrastructure alongside the growth of towns and cities. Its core function straddles both social and commercial aspects of daily life. However, it would be a folly to consider this phenomenon purely as one restricted to towns and cities. Lefebvre claimed that the:

…expression, ‘urban fabric,’ does not narrowly define the built world of cities but all manifestations of the dominance of the city over the country. In this sense, a vacation home, a highway, a supermarket in the countryside are all part of the urban fabric. (Lefebvre, 2003, p3–4)

In opening up definitions of what constitutes ‘urban’ as Lefebvre does, and applying these contexts to all shared environments, means that regardless of where one might live, graphic design in one form or another will be imposed on everyone.


Aesthetically, there are obvious ramifications of living in an image saturated world. For example, road signs may visually clash if hung too close together, thus making for dangerous driving conditions. (Topham, 2015, Equally, health and safety graphics may be so readily dispersed that we develop an immunity to their important messages. Nelson discussed this in his 1977 book, How To See:

The trouble with matters like visual pollution is that they cannot be measured, nor can the effects be predicted. If we want to calculate the environmental damage done by, say, car exhausts or factory effluents, we have the people, techniques and instruments needed to come up with precise answers … But how do we measure the harm done by a superabundance of billboards? (2017, p14)

Harm is a strong word, but to discuss the negative effects of the Graphic Commons on society, one only needs to look at housing developments to uncover examples. A report in The Guardian recently looked at the imagery adorning property billboards. “‘We don’t do ordinary’, declares the billboard at the entrance to the Battersea power station building site…” notes design critic Oliver Wainright. (2017, He goes on to observe that:

…they don’t appear to do black people either. In the computer-generated visions emblazoned across the site hoardings, the bustling cafe-lined streets are inhabited by an almost entirely monocultural society of white thirtysomethings.

Such visual ethnic cleansing sets a dangerous precedent for the current and future residents of any location undergoing development. The book Advertising Shits in Your Head explains that this dominant behaviour has been achieved is: “through the private ownership of public space … [they] have literally written their names on things that are supposed to belong to everyone.” (2017, p36) In this regard, if the hoarding sits on private land but looks out into shared space then effectively commercial enterprise has claimed that visual environment for its own purposes. They are projecting their narrative into the public sphere uninvited. Those who have to navigate these locations are powerless to avoid such racist messages. Any graphic designer that thinks they only have to consider problematic areas of their practice if they get a job request from UKIP, needs to think again.

The lack of consideration for graphic design’s societal impact once it has left a studio is astounding. A 2017 report People and Places: Design of the Built Environment and Behaviour, states “…that in designing and constructing the environments in which people live and work, architects and planners are necessarily involved in influencing human behaviour.” (The Design Commission, 2017, p5) This important study, which hopes it: “demonstrates how the health of a society is directly linked to the places its people inhabit…”, (2017, p11) fails to mention either graphic design or advertising in its 50 plus pages. Ambitious and well meaning, it states: “If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.” The sentiment is admirable, but one has to question how this can be accomplished if its authors are blind to some of the most dominant and persuasive visual aspects of our built environment.


Jesko Fezer believes neo-liberalism has dictated these narratives, and that as a result, they have become ones of non-critical debate. In his pamphlet Design In & Against the Neoliberal City he claims “…designers continue to withhold their criticism and proposals, feeling neither responsible nor qualified to touch these urban issues.” (2013, p16) Considering that: “…the emerging design practices in question consist of almost exclusively top-down strategies to further control and commercialise urban spaces…”, (2013, p23) he proposes that if:

…design is to transcend its complacent function as a tool of urbanisation in the service of private interests, the intentions of designers, as well as the potential critical action beyond economic considerations, must be considered.” (2013, p27)


Neo-liberalism is not purely a commercial concern though, but a laissez-faire attitude that undermines the need for holistic thinking about how society functions. Consider, for example, the potential psychological ramifications of a disregard for the ongoing management of our Graphic Commons. How a local resident feels about their surroundings in response to a neglected dirty road sign, a weather-beaten charity banner hanging on a fence, or circus posters pasted on a boarded-up shop, invites comparisons to the broken windows theory first muted in the early 1980s. The concept, dreamt up by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, “used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighbourhoods.” (2017, Its basic premise being that if an area looks neglected, then local inhabitants stop caring about the environment they live in. The belief that it is someone else’s responsibility to take care of such things pervades, and neither personal nor corporate responsibility is taken into account. Communities, along with the visuals that sit within them, are left to wither on the vine.


Obviously, how urban environments look isn’t purely reliant on graphic design. It does appear though that other types of visual imposition within public space have more scrutiny placed upon them. A good example of this is ‘public art’. As one town planning document declares under the title, ‘Community Cohesion and Nuisance’: “Opportunities should be taken to include public art that reflects and celebrates cultural diversity … visual intrusion will not disturb nearby residence.” [author’s emphasis] (Ipswich Borough Council, 2017, p25) In this instance, where there is responsibility being shown for the wider community, no such demands are made of other forms of visual communication in shared public spaces. It could be taken from this that visual intrusion and cultural sensitivities remain un-challenged unless classed as ‘public art’.

To say that the Graphic Commons were out of control may seem far-fetched and over dramatic. But on closer inspection, once someone takes an active interest in their visual surroundings, a free-for-all visual space-grab is clear to be seen. For example, banners adorn railings and fences for pantomimes or art exhibitions or to declare Ofsted ratings; laminated signs call out to would-be slimmers to attend weight-loss classes; missing cat posters are left to decay on lampposts without any knowledge of whether poor Bertie was ever found; and delivery lorries unloading groceries in otherwise unadorned streets force their livery graphics onto the entire neighbourhood. Add to this the branded litter staring up from the gutter, as much a piece of advertising as if the same logo were staring down from a billboard, it would appear that this everyday image overload is only set to continue unabated.

In 1974 Lefebvre argued there was a “lack of an appropriate terminology”, (1991, p92) that prevented a critical dialogue about urbanism. Today, the same can be said in regard to any meaningful discussion about the implementation, and resultant impact on society, of graphic design within shared environments. It is with these contexts that the term Graphic Commons is proposed.

Further to that though, it is put forward in the acknowledgement that all stakeholders need to be part of the conversation—not just academics, graphic designers, town planners or anti-capitalists—because shared public spaces are there to be used by all. More importantly though, these are environments that contemporary urban life dictates one must pass through in some capacity. As a result, the choice of the word ‘commons’ is an appropriate one, referring to: “shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest.” (Hess, 2006) To this end, the term Graphic Commons provides a linguistic identifier which allows a critical dialogue to open up in order to be able to discuss the visual contexts of everyday life in shared spaces. It can be used as a catch-all phrase that is self-explanatory, while also providing a metaphorical and literal line-of-sight through this contemporary urban phenomenon we must all interact with.


Dog Section Press. (2017) Advertising Shits In Your Head: Strategies For Resistance, London: Dog Section Press

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2017) Broken Windows Theory. Available from: Accessed: 12 July 2017

Fezer, J. (2013) Design In & Against the Neoliberal City London: Bedford Press

Hess, C. (2006) Research on the Commons, Common-Pool Resources, and Common Property Available from: Accessed: 12 July 2017

Ipswich Borough Council. (2017) Public Open Space: Supplementary Planning Document Ipswich: Ipswich Borough Council

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing

Lefebvre, H. (2003) The Urban Revolution Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Nelson, G. (2017) How To See: Visual Adventures In A World God Never Made London: Phaidon

Tindale, J and Turner, N. (2017) People And Places: Design Of The Built Environment And Behaviour Available at: London: Design Commission/Policy Connect

Topham, G. (2015) Government taskforce set up to tackle ‘ghastly blight’ of road signs. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2015)

Wainwright, O. (2017) The property billboards that reveal the truth about Britain’s luxury housing market Available from:  (Accessed: 06.04.2017)

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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