The Politics of Graphic Design: David King (1982)

Essay by Don Slater

Camerawork no. 24 (1982) in which this article appeared

Over the last few years, one of the most influential designers on the left has been David King. Among a political audience which is only beginning to look at design in its own right, King’s is often the only design style which is recognised and consciously considered. This visibility has come about partly because of the distinctive look of his work, and partly because the audiences reached by his designs for the Anti-Nazi League and now City Limits are far larger and broader than normally reached by the left in Britain. 

King’s work has an extraordinarily distinctive style, which has mainly been welcomed as the long-awaited break with the tradition of visual tedium of the left. His designs aim at bold, hard-edged impact based on completely filling the graphic space with a small number of simple (usually geometrical) shapes, all tightly and clearly organised. For example, the large number of bits of detailed information most posters must include are contained within thick black or coloured bars or clearly framed within well-defined spaces: the bars and spaces themselves then become bold elements within the overall architecture of the graphic space. Photographs are unusually foregrounded not simply because they are printed big, but because they are also used as shapes which frame text or define a space: they are never background or illustration because they appear as functional elements of the surface organisation of the design. The simple and strong typography is used in the same way. 

The strength of the design is usually accentuated through a repertoire of graphic devices: the bold rules, which are also used to underline headlines, words and images for emphasis; punctuating symbols (exclamation marks, stars, the arrow), which are sometimes used to cut across the geometric shapes to create diagonals and make links; and the use of colour (especially primary colours) to create striking oppositions; and duotones – images printed in black plus another colour in register – to give depth and particular moods to photographs. 

It is this boldness and organised complexity which has led to King’s work being seen as a break in left design. In the first place, it is unashamedly designed: it is visibly based on the premise that skilled visual work on propaganda is not a frill which detracts from the seriousness of a political message, but a matter of real importance – and opportunity. The premise carries over into the mode of address of the design: it seems able to visually present the left without looking apologetic, plaintive or dependent on dry appeals to duty or high seriousness: it seems to speak from strength, with technical self-confidence and professionalism, and with a sense of excitement. This attitude, combined with the centrality of the images, the use of limited colour for maximum effect and the boldness of composition all seem to work resurrect left visuals from their embarrassingly unequal relationship to the bourgeois image world. This in itself breaks through the debilitating design politics the British left has normally encumbered itself with. 

The distinctiveness of style has been used to great effect throughout the range of his work (e.g. poster campaigns for the Anti-Apartheid Movement and National Union of Journalists, book design for the Penguin Marx series), but particularly in the Anti-Nazi League campaign. King designed the ANL’s (and Rock Against Racism’s) logo and many of its posters and leaflets, and the overall style was adopted through much of the campaign. Within a campaign already more than usually rooted in cultural opposition, the strong style gave a real unity to the ANL’s visuals and provided a rallying point of symbols, images and visual personality. In a sense, with the linked design of the posters, leaflets, badges and the overriding symbol of the arrow, this was possibly one of the first visually integrated propaganda campaigns on the British left: It was certainly one of the largest and most effective. 

Similarly, the distinctive and immediately recognisable style of King’s design of City Limits’ weekly covers and original grid had the clear function of visually distinguishing it from its competitors. However, the response to this work raises important questions which cut across the design aims which found them. Design is not a matter of pure formal organisation, impact or recognisability. Graphic devices, notions of how to order space, modes of address, types of symbols and images – all originate in specific visual ideologies and generate specific meanings. 

It is interesting to analyse the codes at work in King’s design through its relation to the ANL. The linkage between the ANL’s political aims and organisation, and the youth and ethnic subcultures which became involved in it, promised new forms of political action and organisation based in subcultural opposition and concretely grounded in the current fragmentation of sources of opposition. Though this focused on subculture as defined by music (particularly RAR and the festivals), diverse visual traditions and innovations were intrinsic. For example, the cut-and-paste “anti-design” of the punk fanzines both mediated a particular subculture and expressed a specific visual politics. Temporary Hoarding, especially, is a compendium of visual derivations from subcultures. A visual break occurred which involved an enormous freeing up of design, breaking the rules, playing, and using found imagery, rapid output, and a sense of technical immediacy to break through dominant codes and to develop an imagery of fragmentation and diversity. 

On the other hand, King’s style – which at the time seemed part of the same break with left visual conventions – actually predated the ANL and drew on quite different visual traditions. The design ideas which have informed King’s work over many years are based in large parts on the graphic and typographic movements of the 1920 and 1930s: constructivism, Bauhaus and the poster of the first decade of the Russian Revolution. This is in fact a period to which the left frequently turns for a model, appealing to it as the major pre-Stalinist revolutionary visual tradition. 

King’s work evokes his period on a formal visual level. As he has said, the problems faced by left designers now are very much the same as then: poor printing and paper, very little money, time or resources. The solutions offered by the earlier tradition are therefore directly relevant. 

However, the technical devices are not simply technical: they are part of a visual rhetoric and repertoire of symbols which is rooted in a very specific political and cultural conjuncture: the bold rules, the calculated angles, the highlighting of geometrically constructed space, derive from a visual ideology which celebrated the machine as liberator, the wonder and promise of modernity, the artist as scientist and industrial worker. Moreover, they express years of revolutionary optimism, in which the next task was seen as building socialism by raising the already excited consciousness of a triumphant working class. The range of graphic devices and organisation are built up into an exclamation mark of affirmation and unity. 

For the most part, cultural workers in the west today have to deal not with faith in a revolutionary future, but the pessimism and political cynicism of a population living under a decaying welfare capitalism, in a context of simultaneous media bombardment and cultural fragmentation. There is a danger that the visual power drawn from earlier models may become formal, may not connect with current sources of political and cultural opposition and may even alienate them. The same boldness which once acted as a signifier of solidarity and strength may come to be read as the gestures of an isolated and anachronistic left. 

Left design as a whole (indeed much of the culture of the British left) faces the same problem: while there is no dominant visual “voice” which unifies the left, the voices of the subcultural fragments are unequal to the hegemonic visuals of the bourgeoisie. King rightly argues that struggles against powers of the magnitude of, for example, racism, apartheid, imperialism, require visuals equal to their object: design must show the brutality of the enemy and the unity and mobilisation necessary to fight it. Yet such design still uses a language which is not necessarily spoken at other levels of cultural and political involvement. Debate on the politics of graphic design must look to more complex and open-ended interaction between the left’s traditions and resources, looking not for single solutions, but for a repertoire of visual strategies. 

Originally published in Camerawork no. 24, March 1982, p. 7. The article was unillustrated because David King withheld permission to reproduce his work. It is republished here with the permission of Don Slater