Design is Political: David Lancashire on Australian Graphic Design.
2nd November, 2009
When you work for an industry association such as AGDA you witness quite a lot of what you might call industrial soul searching. Graphic designers, perhaps more than other professions, like to talk about why they do what they do and interestingly (for me anyway) where it all fits culturally. This inherent reflexivity might be attributed to the strong social component of graphic design. Design is as much about our society, the state of it and the structure of it, as education or healthcare. Thus all the questioning and soul searching is a vital and healthy part of an industry that must balance the demands of business with pertinent social and environmental concerns. Many of these issues are not new and for some working in the industry they have been revisited many times.
David Lancashire is a well-respected, practising graphic designer based in Melbourne. It is obvious when we sit down to talk one cool, clear September evening that he has been thinking and talking about Australia, its design and its culture, indigenous and otherwise, for a number of years. His frustration is papable when he says, “I think the culture of design emulates life any way. It’s interesting that these things are in the paper a lot more than they once were, but the really tragic thing is we are still talking about the same things we were talking about 40 or 50 years ago.”
David comes at Australian design from a unique perspective. Originally from the UK he has been practicing design in Australia for decades; his wife is an anthropologist and, directly or indirectly, this seems to have had a profound effect on his design practice. Australia’s indigenous culture, our landscape and our bleak and troubled history has had, and continues to have, a profound effect David’s practice. He firmly believes that we should all be informed by place, by country and by where we have come from and he reiterates this sentiment time and again during our conversation. For David, everything is inseparable, “We need to be aware of Australia’s history and a little more sympathetic to certain issues. It can be a very hard road, emotional and trying but people need to be a little more knowledgeable about what went on and what continues to go on.”
David’s design practice seems to rest on three basic principles: that all design is political, that it is shaped by the culture which produces it, and perhaps most importantly, that Australian design must be informed in some way by the Australian landscape. As he argues, “All design is political. No matter what you do you do it for political reasons regardless of what you are trying to uphold, whether you’re perpetuating a brand like coca-cola or something else. It’s political. I don’t think you can exist without being political.”
If we take David’s lead, we cannot divorce ourselves from our cultural, historical and socio-political baggage and if we do, we risk producing bland and dull design. In particular, he sees it as problematic when designers look outside Australia for influences, “The looking out and not looking in is a good one. Because in Australia most design or designers look out. They look to Europe, they look to America, they look to the UK, and we mimic it, generally speaking. There are exceptions obviously. There are some really good designers here.” This is perhaps most apparent in the neutral colour palate used by Australian designers, “I think fine artists have probably worked through a colour palate here more than designers have.”
While David firmly argues for an awareness of Australia, its landscape and its history, he believes that the question about whether Australian designers should be actively promulgating a quintessentially 'Australian design' is basically a redundant idea, “I think the question has been asked a lot. I think it’s about influences and my influences come from nature. I collect birds eggs, swap eggs, bird watch. I initially went into design and advertising but I’ve always wanted to be an artist. It’s nice if you can connect to where you are and in some ways I think that working with indigenous Australian’s has made me who I am. I feel I have a better understanding of this country because of this.” David’s approach has allowed him to produce unique and interesting design over a number of years. All Australian designers might take David's lead and seek out their own influences and their own vision of what it is to be Australian and a designer working in Australia.
by Brita Frost
the above image is the Twelve Apostles signage by David Lancashire Design.
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