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How The “Anxiety And Disorder Of Our Time” Is Changing Design

Graphic design legends Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic reissue their seminal book The Design of Dissent. Here, they talk exclusively to Fast Company creative director Florian Bachleda about visual design in the Trump age.

The Design of Dissent

In 2005, designers Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic released The Design of Dissent, a book showcasing socially and politically driven graphics from around the world. Since then, events ranging from the Arab Spring to the election of Donald Trump, have destabilized global politics and led to a renaissance of visual dissent. Glaser and Ilic have expanded the book to include design projects from the past decade. Here they talk about the newly reissued book,  how social media has changed graphic design, and what designers can do to fight 21st-century authoritarianism.

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Fast Company: When and why did you decide there was a need for an expanded edition?

Milton Glaser: Since the first edition, conflict and polarization throughout the world have seemingly become more intense and dangerous. The new edition simply documents that fact.

FC: What’s different about this edition?

MG: The most significant difference is the increase of activity that reflects the anxiety and disorder of our time.

Mirko Ilic: In the original version there was very little representation of dissent from certain parts of the world. Like for example in Arabic countries. A decade ago that kind of visual dissent almost didn’t exist. The Arab Spring changed that.

FC: Was it difficult to narrow down the images for the new edition? What was the criteria?

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MG: I can only suggest that the criteria for measurement is effectiveness. Polemics tend to employ cliches but clearly some are more powerful than others.

MI: We received over 1,000 different entries and from those we managed to fit over 160 images in 60 pages. We tried to represent the visuals of the most important events around the world. Of course not every event had strong visuals. Lots of dissent today is manifested through text-based social media.

Mirko Ilic and Milton Glaser

FC: Have you noticed a change in graphic design executions of dissent during the past 12 years?

MG: I would say there is not a clearly discernible difference in either the imagery or execution of most dissenting posters, although frequently, stylistic differences reflect the vision of the maker.

MI: Due to the influence of social media, imagery has become more global. The smiley face emoji and the Guy Fawkes mask appear everywhere, from the U.S. to Egypt.

FC: At the time of this book’s first edition, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were either in their infancy, or didn’t even exist. Now, Twitter has over 300 million users, Instagram has over 400 million users, and above all–Facebook now has over 2 billion users. These platforms can now spread ideas and images globally in seconds. But that also means a firehose of ideas and images bombarding us. Does this help or handicap designers in communicating ideas? Or is it both?

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MI: New internet platforms allow instant overwhelming delivery of any message. However, the percentage of well-designed messages is the same as before. But let’s not forget that this instant and overwhelming access is available to good and bad guys alike.

FC: In an interview included in the book, Steve Heller wrote “Changing an established order is the goal of dissent.” Established orders have typically been governments and arguably powerful industry special interests. Will companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook become a new dominant established order because of their unprecedented global influence? And if so, will we see dissent against companies like these?

MG: All corporate entities become tyrannical in response to their power and influence. This seems to be as inevitable institutionally as it is personally. No one is unaffected by an increase in personal power and by and large, that turns out to be self-serving. The essential role of both corporations and government is to maintain their control over others. Bigger is not necessarily better.

MI: I don’t think I have much to add to Milton on this but good dissent is dissent against all established orders, which are rarely on the side of people. There has always been dissent against large corporations, let’s not forget the capitalists and robber barons who gave us strikes and unions who produced some amazingly “striking” visuals.

FC: Graphic design has traditionally been the combination of words and images. How has the rise of video platforms changed this?

MG: Graphic design usually does reconcile words and images. Frequently when one or the other doesn’t appear they are implicit. In my experience, the brain interprets these forms in the same way.

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MI: I think the combination and balance of words and images must exist in any new platform for it to be successful.

FC: Different ideas and executions may be better suited to different platforms for different intended results (voting vs. protesting, for example). Which platforms do you see becoming a dominant choice for the future?

MI: Thanks to the tweets of our president and reactions to them, Twitter seems more dominant in media than any other platform.

FC: We’re now experiencing more of a push toward authoritarianism with President Trump than at any time in American history. Outside of dutiful citizenship, what are some of the best ways for specifically a designer to dissent?

MG: Be entertaining. Be persistent. Do no harm. And be truthful.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. 

About the author

Florian Bachleda is the Creative Director of Fast Company Media, where he directs the creative content for the print and digital platforms. Previously, he was the Creative Director of FB Design, whose clients included Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst, and Latina among others.

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