The politics of political design

On the third floor of a Soho terrace, just down from Oxford Street, Alex Aiken, Creative Director of Perfect Day, flicks through his notebook. He made notes on the train in this morning, he tells me, to make sure he got everything right. It seems like overkill, maybe, but then again, it was a project that didn’t really receive much positive attention at the time and even now, a decade later, it’s still being critiqued relentlessly. We sit at a glass meeting room table, the kind that doesn’t do much to hide nervous body language, across from one another. He launches straight into the conversation; no small talk, no easing in. It doesn’t really seem like a project he feels comfortable talking about. I tell him not to worry, that I’m not trying to trip him up or paint him or the work in a negative light. I’m just interested. I ask him, quite early on, whether he thought the reception the project we’re discussing received was unfair, if it felt like it was being criticised only for its associations, rather than as a piece of design. “Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.”

Faux Tory sticker by Keep it Complex

I want to talk about the left. Or rather, I want to talk about this perception of the creative industries as unanimously, uni-vocally of the left. That we’re a group of like-minded liberals who consider ourselves culture-shapers, utopia-makers, and so of course we’re left. That we’re for progressiveness and against social injustice, and that, importantly we embody that stance.

And it starts with a poll.

On April 20, just two days after the snap UK election was called, a poll went up on Design Week. It asked: “General Election 2017: how will designers vote?” Of those that responded (less than 1% of all UK designers, if you go by the Design Council’s 2010 estimate of the size of the industry), nearly half – 46% – intended to vote Labour. Collectively with the Lib Dems and the Greens, progressives made up 66% of the responses. Granted, only 574 took the poll, but that overlap in the Venn diagram of designers, Design Week readers and poll-takers suggests that yes, the industry at large does consider itself politically leftist.

But maybe the more interesting statistic to come out of the poll was that almost a fifth of these respondents said they’d be voting Conservative.

Open Your Eyes to the Tory Lies poster by Supermundane

Once the election was called, Rob Lowe (aka, Supermundane) released his downloadable Open Your Eyes to the Tory Lies poster series; Studio Output launched the identity for the Rize Up campaign (complete with b revolutionary fist which doesn’t strike me as pro-Tory); Keep it Complex followed on from their EU-referendum ‘Potatoes are Immigrants’ campaign with mock-Tory flyers that say ‘Tax the poor, vote Conservative’; Studio Operative published a poster series that included, amongst others, the slogan-like ‘May out in June’ and XmarkstheBökship had posters that included ‘Essex, do us all a favour, vote Labour’. There was a wealth of anti-Conservative design, but a noticeable lack of pro-. Do these projects not exist or are they just comparatively less visible? I’ve tried, but I can’t find a single one.

It’s a myth, Steven Heller said back in 2007, that “all graphic designers, like all creative people, are somehow politically progressive”. Design Week proves him right. Statistics go against both the external and internal view of political allegiances in the industry. Is it oxymoronic to be part of visual culture, have gone through art school, to be designing for people – and be right-leaning politically? It’s an inconvenient reality that obviously makes us feel uncomfortable. “Nonetheless right-leaning designers have largely been under-represented – or drowned out entirely – in the political design discourse,” Heller said.

When right-leaning designers or projects do get media coverage though, it’s usually negative or loaded with bias against the politics, which is perhaps why Aiken seems worried about talking to me. (He’s not alone in his concerns, a number of people turned down or ignored my request of an interview for this piece.) He half-jokes that I “need to be nice” about them, which probably tells you a lot about how they’ve been received in the press so far.

Conservative Party logo, originally conceived by Perfect Day as a green tree in 2006, but later adapted in-house to contain the union flag

Aside from one project, Perfect Day are a relatively typical studio. They do full-service agency type work – lots of branding and campaigns across print and digital, plus some marketing-type events. There’s 15 of them altogether, with an office in London and a second in Canada. Their two-floor workspace in Central London is sort of quirky in a way that feels familiar to many commercial agencies (there are reclaimed theatre seats as you enter, neon lights fashioned into the shape of their logo and, on the day I visit, a studio dog curled up in the middle of the room). But they’re also an agency that has done the seemingly unspeakable: used their practice to actively support the political right. Back in 2006, Perfect Day were responsible for the rebrand of the Conservative Party.

Aiken talks me through how the project came about. It started a year earlier with a call from long-term collaborator Steve Hilton, who was then advisor to David Cameron. Cameron was running for leader of the Conservative Party, and his team needed promotional visuals to be produced on short notice; this was three weeks before the contest. They had no problem making the decision to accept the job. “We all quite liked David Cameron at the time, and we already knew Steve pretty well. We’d done lots of jobs for him before, outside of politics.” Aiken describes the intensity of the project – producing a campaign identity and suite of national advertising collateral – as fun. A year after Cameron’s success, they continued to work together, this time on the rebrand of the entire party.

The agency took the Saatchi-esque line that it was, essentially, just another account. There was the obligatory list of ‘values’, sometimes real, sometimes imagined, but ultimately ubiquitous (in this case: honesty, trust, change, growth, built to last, the environment and togetherness – make of those what you will). They worked with a group of (very involved) stakeholders who generally held the same views as one another, but who had very different ideas when it came to the execution. There was a huge amount of internal politics. The ‘scribbled tree’ was the option that appeased everyone. “It’s a logo that came out of a really open process with the client,” says Aiken.

At launch, the comments came in straight away: it was a bunch of broccoli, a snuffling pig, a chicken pecking at the ground, and even a “berserk green elephant”. A nameless but senior Tory told the Evening Standard at the time: “I think this will attract a fair degree of derision, because it does look like a child’s doodle.” There was an arboreal analysis in the Guardian. But while it was ridiculed in the press, there was unanimous silence from the design industry. There were no interviews, conversations or even polemic, Aiken tells me. Nothing. It was being ignored.

In 2014, the scribbled tree was filled with a Union Jack. It wasn’t until 2015, for another Design Week article, that designers would respond. Cog Design’s Michael Smith would be more understanding than most: “Politicians and their advisers make for terrible clients. It must have been frustrating for agency, Perfect Day to work with David Cameron on that anodyne Tory tree, but being asked to fill it with a union flag … must have been an excruciating conversation,” he said. The others would refer primarily to the party’s politics or to tired stereotypes about Tory voters.

Now though, much of the party’s design work is done in-house, so Perfect Day no longer work with them. Ultimately, they considered it to be an invaluable learning experience. “To be honest, I’m so aware that it was such a learning curve for all of us. It’s meant that we’re very confident about doing anything now, and it’s really helped us get the clients that we want to work with.” According to their website, that’s “people who are passionate about what they do and who strive to change the world for the better”; in what some might consider to be quite a change of direction, they now work primarily with foundations and charities. They’ve worked on health campaigns for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, male suicide awareness projects with Kent County Council, and the identity for ecological conservation organisation, Chagos 672.

But Perfect Day aren’t shying away from their involvement with the Tories. The project is there, on their website, for everyone to see. They don’t pretend they didn’t do it, or ignore that it ever happened. Whether it aligns with your personal politics or not, it’s a project (and stance) that requires balls.

What seems to upset people the most about the job isn’t the work, it’s the politics. It’s blue – true blue, in fact – and it’s not apologising for it. And it’s even bluer by comparison; most projects exist in ambiguous grey areas on the political spectrum, not as easy to categorise. Rarely is it as easy to identify those projects that you’d conscientiously object to. To think that any job is apolitical though, is a mistake.

So how does left-ness fit into this massive grey expanse – can you say you’re left and do, let’s say, commercial branding? Let’s trace it back. The current, particularly virulent form of capitalism – neoliberalism – goes back to the 70s. The markets we interact with, it asserts, should be free, deregulated, defined by consumer demand. Companies should compete; only the most successful grow, expand, globalise. To keep competing, these businesses need to differentiate, to distinguish themselves. They would do it through branding.

Is the left-leaning designer who creates brand identities more of an oxymoron than the right-leaning commercial designer? Can you help maintain and stimulate a right-wing ideology, and then say with credibility that you’re of the left?

“I felt ashamed and I felt guilty,” said Pentagram partner Marina Willer on Eye’s website, a week after the UK made its decision to leave the EU, “because I knew that as designers we could have done so much more to avoid the fiasco of Brexit.”

Does “more” come in the form of posters and campaigns, or does it come from something else? ‘Political’ or ‘ethical’ studios like Barnbrook and Thomas.Matthews are still set apart from the majority of the industry, put on an inspirational pedestal. There’s a dogged commitment to a philosophy, projects based on a list of clients who abide by or act towards this philosophy and a wide-angled view of their own work that considers its influence and impact. That’s not to say it’s easy – it’s precarious and exhausting at the very least, but it also has integrity. Ultimately, it’s 24/7, not just when a referendum or election comes around.

Hannah Ellis is a designer and university lecturer

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