Design, education and the role of revolt

At Ideas on Revolt, the third annual Graphic Design Educators’ Network conference, there were calls for students to become more involved in resistance and rebellion. But perhaps their teachers should be leading by example, suggests Hannah Ellis

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  • noel douglas 26/10/2017 at 1:15 pm

    “The answer to the questions about encouraging revolt, proposing alternatives, and reframing design education all come to back to us setting an example for our students,” she says, “not just creating briefs of revolt, theorising revolt or projects which mimic revolutionary methods, but to consider and reframe our own selves as living acts of dissent.”

    While there is much to agree with in Hannah’s piece I feel the whole article hinges on believing Revolt is going to start from an academic conference, however provocatively themed. In my experience you’re always going to have a problem with expecting actual revolt from an academic conference that has an activist theme and the Ideas Of Revolt conference held by the Graphic Design Educator’s Network is no exception to that rule.

    Like Hannah I didn’t agree with the conference premise that students aren’t angry about being sold down the river of austerity and cuts, I think they are, although we haven’t yet seen a return of the mass revolt we saw in 2010 as tuition fees increased to 9K a year, a revolt we’d do well to remember nearly broke the Coalition government and had to be beaten off the streets using extreme Police violence and much of it organised by Art colleges in London, for instance, I spoke at the student occupations at the RCA and Camberwell during those eventful days.

    But I’d actually ask where is the general revolt over austerity and cuts? Why are we all going along with our society being wrecked? Encouraging as the wave of optimism unleashed by Jeremy Corbyn’s lead Labour has been we have yet to really see the kind of fight back you’d expect when millions are relying on food banks and our NHS is being sold off.

    So no, speaking as a long time activist and organiser who has run into trouble with institutions over public protests I’ve been involved with, and has been told by Design course leaders after job interviews that my activist work could be off-putting to external client relationships – this from people whose own work builds on First Things First principles – I didn’t expect the GDEN conference to lead to rebellion, though the sense of it being too inward looking to pedagogy wasn’t helped by having Matt from Goldsmiths be the first keynote, not that he didn’t have interesting things to say, but the opening could have been much more focused on the student condition and more broadly the state of HE and design education to map out the stakes more clearly, a missed opportunity.

    What did I expect? A good opportunity to share some radical pedagogy, and continue to build a sense of collective identity that could in the future lead to educators acting more rebellious themselves over the ongoing commodification and audit culture that is rife in Universities and Art Schools we all complain about, this could and should include discussion of how we include causally employed staff in our discussions.

    Hannah is also absolutely right to flag up the lack of diversity among art and design lecturers, this is also echoed in an industry that has, according to D&AD, fewer than 11% of jobs are filled by BAME workers, where only 12% of creative directors are women worldwide, and where in the UK your twice as likely to have gone to a fee paying school if you work in design, it’s a problem that starts from early education and has been reinforced by austerity and cuts cutting off a wider intake from education, social mobility is now worse than it was in the early 70s, not that getting as few working class kids up the social ladder was ever the answer to inequality but at least I had a chance, working class kids now whether black or white would struggle to get anywhere in a society where the top 1% and layers of upper middle classes have so firmly taken back control of the field of culture.

    But GDEN could, as it grows, become a centre for organising politically over these issues in a way D&AD can’t and I do hope that this will happen, and it won’t be a way just to build people’s research profiles, it’s a shame that the plenary never happened at the conference as this could have been part of the discussion we could have had to help us move in a more rebellious direction and the crucial thing about that is that would be a collective revolt, because my main disagreement with Hannah comes in expecting change to come through the acts of brave rebellious individuals, be they Joseph Beuys in the 70’s or Rathna’s reframing ourselves as ‘living acts of dissent’. Real change is about organising collectively.

    This is why, as part of the Occupy Design collective we launched a student poster project at the conference, Austerity WTF! to make a call for work that attacks the rotten state we’re in and helps increase our sense of collective identity across institutional divides, we hope that many of tutors will take up this challenge this year with their students. For more details of that project go to: