Interview with Jason Grant by Tanja Lesničar-Pučko
in the Slovenian national newspaper, Dnevnik, October 6, 2007
Please note the original interview was translated from English to Slovene, and then back to English online, so there are many resulting idiosyncratic phrasings and some enigmatic meanings which have been left unedited.
We create design and it creates us
Jason Grant is the co-director of the cult Australian design studio Inkahoots, which started working in the 80s[*] in Brisbane, experienced its bright moments and dark moments – a fire in 1998 destroyed everything – but has never gave up on its initial mission, that in addition to professional quality, design is ethical and has a social responsibility.
For several years, Grant was also a designer, art director and writer for the famous international design magazine Eye magazine based in London, and he came to Ljubljana to establish an international platform for joint projects with Studio Poper, with whom he has been working for a long time. At the same time, he also participated as a designer in Mitja Gaspari's election campaign.
Tanja Lesničar-Pučko: The activities of Inkahoots date back to the 1980s, when tectonic shifts were also taking place in Eastern Europe, when civil society initiatives flourished and the continent was bursting at the seams.
Jason Grant: Now that you mention it, many new ideas of the time arose in Brisbane as a reaction to oppression. And these movements were particularly characteristic of the state of Queensland, which was in some ways much less advanced than other Australian states and where such forms of rebellion were less common.
Our then premier, Bjelke-Petersen, was an extremely autocratic, backward, racist, despot. Much of what happened at the time was in response to this reactionary atmosphere, it simmered beneath the surface, and even as the authorities constantly attacked it, it grew. Perhaps it was similar to what happened in Great Britain during the Thatcher era, and it is interesting that we had one of the first punk bands in Brisbane, The Saints, before the English and American ones; but we were completely disconnected internationally, completely isolated.
In general, the 1980s were a time of hypermaterialism, traditional values were rapidly disintegrating, replaced by commercial ones, and this was inspiration for a creative response from those who opposed this logic. The achievements and effects of this activity were revealed only later, when everything had already changed a lot, when many former rebels had already started flirting with the mainstream...
… or even become a part of it.
Yes, it’s true! Former cultural icons have become lame reactionaries. A good Australian example was the 80's rock band, Midnight Oil, which was considered a relatively radical socially critical group. It was led by the charismatic Peter Garrett, who protested against nuclear tests and environmental destruction, even before it became a hot topic, fought for the rights of the original inhabitants of Australia to their land, etc. Well, now Garrett is the opposition Minister for the Environment, Climate Change, Heritage and the Arts, and suddenly is supporting plans to expand nuclear power, US military bases in Australia, he makes impossible compromises.
Even our former punk is now a money mogul, and even claims that business is the same as punk.
Yes, and I can't really comprehend that, even personal interests don't seem like a sufficient explanation for it. What do you think, is this part of the process?
It definitely reminds me of that proverb: a revolutionary in youth, a (petty) bourgeois in middle age, a conservative in old age. Maybe people are not always able to see when we forsake our principles, when we start to make compromises and slide into the logic of those in power. Just as we probably cannot see if we cling too long and too dogmatically to our youthful ideas.
Probably true, even if it’s harder to understand why a person would change their views if their position in society has not changed. Maybe people who are idealists believe that only by being pragmatic will they really be able to change things? And because they are immediately forced to compromise, they are on the other side before they know it? To me, change in itself is certainly not a problem, if that change is a critical response to the situation, but if it is some kind of surrender to the ruling ideology, it is a miserable defeat.
Personally, I’d prefer a revolutionary who says "I gave up my ideals because they were wrong" than those who say "I surrendered because I have a family, because I need money, I want to be comfortable". As if it were possible to survive and make a living only by "dirty deeds”! I do not believe this at all, I firmly believe that public and private benefit are not mutually exclusive, on the contrary, it is the tension between them that presents us with a real challenge.
Studio Inkahoots – the name is a jigsaw puzzle that means collaboration and, as you say, has a slightly political undertone in Australia – so in your opinion, has it managed to stick to its social role, as it set itself at the time of its creation?
I think so. I hope so. We absolutely all still believe that we have a responsibility for the common good.
Is it true that all employees have the same salary?
Bosses and boss friends?
The studio was founded mainly by artists, and you joined later, as the only trained designer in it. Has this brought about any changes?
It was founded by a fertile mix of artists and activists who worked with civil societies, unions, ecological associations and who needed posters, t-shirts, badges and the like. My task may have been to bring some organisational professionalism, some sensibility of contemporary design to the immediacy of the expression.
One of your points is that you don't advertise things you don't believe in. Such an attitude is as rare as bird's milk among advertisers.
Contrary to popular opinion among advertisers, we don't necessarily see our role as something that should promote the sale of a product. We hope that the quality of the product or service speaks for itself, that we only have to convey it, and that anything beyond that is a scam. If the only thing that separates one product from another is a subtle visual seduction, then in a world that is already polluted to such an extent, perhaps such a product should not exist at all.
One of the current criticisms of advertising is that it has also appropriated subcultural patterns and aesthetics.
This criticism is based on the observation that humanity and the planet are in trouble, and the mainstream has also appropriated the attributes of those who highlighted the problems, and thereby devalued them. Therefore, as designers we should not only ask how something should look, how something should be communicated, but whether it even deserves to be designed and communicated...
... or produced at all, if we consider that the world is littered with products that are actually useless waste from the moment they are created.
Exactly, this is something that all people, and designers in particular, should ask themselves. It is important to understand: we create design and it in turn creates us. This seems obvious, but most designers and communicators do not deal with it, on the contrary, they resort to the illusion that we can be separated from what we create, and therefore there is this duality, this schizophrenia between personal values (everyone would like a safe environment, clean air, healthy food, an end to poverty) and what we actually do – between us and the rest of the world; like we don't live in the same world as our audience and everyone else.
It is a split that is maintained so that the market can continue to produce nonsensical products. If there are five million different sugary snacks, it wouldn't do any harm to society if there were only half as many, since they only differ in packaging anyway. So is the designer responsible if he pretends there is a real difference between them?
Or that it doesn't concern him because he's just doing his job.
And that he is only a neutral intermediary who cannot be held responsible for the content of the packaging. When designers talk about neutrality, they are really talking about passivity, about apoliticality, about not caring about the world.
Is there enough work for people like you who think differently?
This is the only work we have to do. At this point in history, graphic design, or visual communication, whatever you want to call it, is the main vehicle of the dominant ideology. The problems and opportunities facing the world are design problems. After all, all humans are designers, only we have the potential to imagine something before it is created. People often say to me: but not all of us can afford the luxury of doing a certain kind of work? This opinion still presupposes a self-evident subordination to the market, it still understands the designer as someone who merely responds to the market.
Today, the task of design is much more important and broader than this, it is about designing a future, about creating new possibilities. And if you look at design in this way, there are a lot of possibilities for work, because designers also become project initiators, not just passive servants of their clients. A good example of such practice is Studio Poper's call for the establishment of national standards for effective and socially responsible communication in the field of health. The quality of visual communication is inseparable from ethics and social responsibility.
This certainly means a very important change in the education of designers, as I imagine that they are mainly taught crafts, not sociology. You're a professor too, aren't you?
When I was a student, I was taught from day one that design was a tool of capitalism. Precisely because design was taught only as an aesthetic and formal craft, as a skill, it was appropriated by the ruling ideology. If there is no critical attitude towards society, there is also no intelligent response to what is happening in it, regardless of which area it is. The critical dimension of education, at least in Australia, in all areas is increasingly giving way to some supposedly purely informative content, in part also due to a ruling conservative government whose interests are best served by sabotaging socially critical content.
This is precisely why it is extremely important for young designers to familiarise themselves with critical theory in order to gain sufficient knowledge about society. So I try to tell my students that it's not just about doing something well, with their talent, which is important, but also that they think about the consequences of their work in society.
Are students satisfied with having to read Adorno?
(Laughter) Some. Some are dissatisfied because it cuts against their expectations, with everything that surrounds us, with our passive, consumerist, often privileged lifestyles.
There is also a lot of humor in Inkahoots work. For you, does this have an original, Aristotelian role of questioning authority?
In any case, humor, satire, parody have always served to challenge authority, and as a communication strategy, humor is a difficult thing, because of course, what’s funny to one person won’t necessarily be funny to another. That is why we look for the kind of humor that is common, that points out that communication is not only rational, it is also elusive. For example, if you look at our poster for this year's Memefest (festival of radical communication), I wanted to talk about feeling, about emotion, without being anti-intellectual – I really reject that.
So it's beautiful, but not empty-beautiful, and this central symbol, ‘falling tree = falling human’, tries to capture this relationship between nature and people, but in a friendly, humorous way. It's not a snarl, but a more open humor that still lets the darkness speak its mind. The other elements on the poster are more complex and it is this combination of directness and indirectness that interests me in the work, I am interested in the poetic aspect: the part of the postmodern critique of modernism that I like is precisely that we are not merely rational beings, that we are much more complex .
Does the content dictate the form for you, or is a personal stamp, as we know from some designers, more important to you?
It is probably a balance, visual communication is a discourse, and if you want a dialogue, the content must be clear enough to the audience. As for personal style, I think it's important to respond honestly to the world around us, to our own experiences, and not to deny our own history and sensibility. The latter is impossible in any case. However, I am not sure about the modernist logic, according to which it is necessary as communicators to separate ourselves objectively from others; I myself do not believe that it is necessary to be different for the sake of being different. A combination of these different approaches is probably the way to go.
I am asking you this because you also came to Ljubljana for Mitja Gaspari's election campaign. Why did your collaboration with him end and how do your views fit with political marketing? For the campaign so far in our country, it can be said that the candidates were very similar – according to the desperate yodeling "design".
Cooperation was interrupted due to differences in views, but we certainly do not do political marketing, but we try to stimulate social discourse, public dialogue. We didn't market a product, we didn't "sell" Gaspari like advertising agencies sell hamburgers. I'm a designer, but I'm also a citizen. I am not a citizen of Slovenia, but the positive side of globalisation is the potential for international solidarity. Many things that affect Australians also affect Slovenians and other people around the world. The problems you have in Slovenia, such as privatisation, poverty, environmental problems, etc., are common to all people in the world, they are the result of global capitalism.
And my role as a citizen is the same as my role as a designer, that's exactly what I stand for: In our elections I generally vote for the Greens (political party), I also worked for them in the pre-election campaign. Of course, I would never work with a politician if I didn't vote for them in the end, if I didn't believe in their program, if this politician didn't advocate social justice, international integration, preservation of the environment, equality. How can advertisers and designers, people who care about their families and friends, who depend on the state of the natural and social environment they live in, promote ideas that threaten all of that?
Easy, yes, sorry. But their logic and justification of their own actions are not so easy to understand.
Our election campaigns mostly brought empty platitudes, firefighter photos, they were all desperately the same... How would you make a difference?
I think that the right criteria for a campaign is that it is the carrier of smart, useful content, that these ideas are talked about at least during the campaign, and that the public has the opportunity to think about and engage with the ideas. This is especially important here, because it is a function that is primarily symbolic, which must therefore convey advanced messages. Even if the candidate loses, the party can gain in this way. And on the other hand, society loses tremendously if a candidate spreads prejudice and misinformation, because it is contagious.
In Australia, ten years ago, we had an extremely racist politician, who was given a lot of space by the media. One result was a significant increase in racist attacks on Aboriginal schoolchildren. This was a direct correlation and consequence, and an example of when talking about freedom of speech and tolerance of different opinions can be a desperate platitude and distraction. In this case, the media were directly complicit, as they enabled the spread of destructive ideas. A lot depends on the media, and unfortunately we don't have a lot of quality media in Australia because this landscape is dominated by Rupert Murdoch. In this area, somewhere like Great Britain can probably be a model for everyone, they even have progressive tabloids (an exotic idea in Australia), and therefore public debates about public matters can be very lively, very weighty. I hope this presidential race can avoid baseness and demagoguery.