What’s the first thing that you think of when it comes to modern political imagery? For many of us, it will be the iconic Shepard Fairey ‘Hope’ image from Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign.
Unsurprisingly, this is the first thing that greets you at the Design Museum’s Graphics and Politics exhibition, housed at its airy new Kensington base. But there’s plenty beyond that to digest in this engaging show, which explores the use of design and imagery to campaign in the digital era, to protest or to seek to change the world. Exhibits range from posters caricaturing the North Korean leadership to satirical Russian propaganda images repurposed to celebrate gay rights, and much more besides.
The exhibition is a walk down memory lane for the last decade, meaning that much of what’s on display you’ll have seen before and recently too: from cringe-inducing Jeremy Corbyn merchandise to the assortment of badges and signs from campaigns including the 2016 Brexit referendum and that year’s presidential contest, or the eponymous Anonymous mask blended with an Egyptian pharaoh’s face, marking the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
But there is still much that won’t be as familiar. Nor is everything overtly political – for example Greenpeace’s campaign replacing Coke’s logo with the word ‘choke’ to highlight the damage being done by single-use plastics to marine life – although the majority is. There’s a replica of the Justice 4 Grenfell billboard (itself inspired by the recent Frances McDormand film) with the phrase ’71 Dead’ emblazoned on it, which can’t fail to make you gasp, or the Podemos election manifesto with the party dressed up to look like an Ikea-esque lifestyle catalogue in a bid to attract younger voters.
Political junkies will enjoy the Brexit section in particular, from the Sun’s Bye-EU tapestry, replicated in large form here, to the beer mats created by Wetherspoons to promote the Leave campaign. An entire wall is devoted to magazine covers about Trump; I loved Time’s take on the president as a wrecking ball and smiled at der Spiegel’s cartoon of him as a toddler riding a nuclear weapon, while there are plenty of memorable examples from around the world, for example a Chinese anti-sexual harassment campaign integrating cartoon cats.
The exhibition’s argument, in so far as it has one, is that we are uniquely primed to receive and disseminate graphics-based political messaging, whether in the form of memes, data visualisations, slogans, animations or striking infographics. Right and left, east or west, anti-capitalists or established parties, we all rely on design to get the word out.
And it’s a fairly convincing contention, albeit that the exhibition largely overlooks the long history of effective image-based propaganda. A vast chart shows the explosion of social media in the last decade, from Obama having 100,000 followers on MySpace in 2008 to Facebook’s two billion active users 10 years later. Never before has it been so easily to share a picture or memorable slogan. Never before, it is implied, have images had as much power to influence or swap opinion. The exhibition doesn’t really consider whether this is necessarily a good thing, although a brief reference to Cambridge Analytica (apparently from before the latest revelations) is a reminder that it might not be.
Mostly, though, this is a celebration of clever, attractive design and a thoroughly enjoyable one too, with very effective use of video. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t dig much deeper – as one poster points out, “slogans in nice type face won’t save the human race”.
Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18, the Design Museum, until 12 August 2008