Title: The Politics of Design
Author & Designer: Ruben Pater
Publisher: BIS Publishers
No. of pages: 192
Publishing date: April 2016
Reviewed by: Anthony Furia, RGD
This timely book in many ways takes a look at our global media landscape dominated by urban regions of the Northern hemisphere and often told through a white male lens. The Politics of Design seeks to provide a much-needed counterbalance to this systemic view, debunking the notion of “universal” and “objective” assumptions by educating the reader through a wonderful collection of history, humour, brand fails and downright mind-boggling acts of witless insensitivity—a reminder that communication is rarely, if ever neutral.
My first encounter with this notion was on a trip in Europe where I was surprised to learn that roosters didn’t necessarily bellow a global “cock-a-doodle-do”. In fact, the cheeky buggers clucked in a whole host of local dialects! In Italy for instance, they interpret a roosters screech as “chicchirichi,” in France “coco-rico,” and my personal favourite hailing from Iceland, “gaggala gaggala gu.” It struck me then, that if I was projecting my own misunderstanding of what I considered to be “universal” onto something as innocuous as bird slang, what else was I doing this to of more serious consequence?
Cultural ignorance, ingrained stereotypes and personal biases can creep into even the most well-intentioned of acts. Proof of which can be found in the constant pulling of ad campaigns due to social media backlash—an almost daily occurrence now for brands desperately trying to connect with our emotional sensibilities and missing the mark in spectacular fashion. Perhaps such faux pas can be avoided in future by stuffing The Politics of Design into the
Christmas stockings preferred festive gift receptacles of marketers this holiday season.
There are many such great examples detailed throughout the book. For instance, in 1928, Coca-Cola entered the Chinese market with a phonetic translation of their brand that basically read “Female Horse Stuffed with Glue”. Disappointing sales led to an investigation and revised translation, resulting in the rather nauseating “Happiness in the Mouth.” Which makes you wonder… just how many Chinese consumers gave Coke a second-chance swig only to spit it out proclaiming “I don’t care how many times they rename it, I can still taste the horse glue!”
Popstar Taylor Swift also encountered a bit of communication trouble in China during her 2015 world tour entitled “TS 1989”. The Chinese government didn’t quite pick up on the nod to the singer’s initials and birth year, nor did they appreciate what they inferred to be Miss Swift’s blatant rallying cry over the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
In addition to these humorous missteps (and there are many more of them), The Politics of Design covers a multitude of important and serious issues pertaining to design, including:
- Cultural appropriation
- Skin coloured medical and beauty products (whose skin colour exactly?)
- Colonialist world views in cartography
- The erasing of history through image manipulation
- Racial stereotypes in typography (Chinese menus anyone?)
- Colour psychology across various cultures
- The hypersexualization and unrealistic depictions of women in advertising
- Ill chosen domain names (www.childrenswear.co.uk is one of the cleaner examples)
- Fake diversity in stock images (just when you thought stock images couldn’t get any faker)
- Offensive sports team branding (Coachella Valley Arabs?… seriously, this was actually a thing up until 2014)
- Misinformation graphics
- Icons of equality (only 1% of people who identify with a disability actually use a wheelchair, this poor choice of a representative icon has no doubt led to many unnecessary parking lot confrontations)
- Face (or is it race) recognition technology
- And the list goes on and on…
Few design books are able to transcend their design-centric audiences, this is one of them. The Politics of Design is an interesting, shocking, eye-opening, eye-rolling, and uncomfortable read at times, and an important addition to the bookshelves of any responsible designer seeking to become better-informed and more thoughtful in their work.
About the Reviewer
Anthony Furia is the founder and principal designer of Furia, a Toronto-based design firm creating brand identities, websites, print and digital design for clients across commerce, arts, and culture.
To find out more about the RGD Book Club and to join, please email book club organizer Heather Angell Prov. RGD at .