By João Doria
João Doria: The historical precedent of any activity makes for an infrastructure layer on a critic's daily work even when framing debates on contemporary work. Do you agree? What other ways do you see of establishing the debate on the ground other than that of the ideas around historical progression?
Kristina Ketola Bore: I think it’s an easy route to take, to see yourself in the lineage of other ideas laid down within graphic design — and it’s a route I’m guilty of having taken a couple of times. However, several artistic disciplines are struggling with freeing themselves from the hard grip of modernisms. Also, because GD isn’t at the front of the critique at large I think you are often confined to having to validate the field in the critique of it.
Can you ignore history has a critic? Of course. Sometimes it’s advisable. There is a point when looking back becomes old (just had to make that pun) and we must look at what is happening now, dealing with the rapid pace of our society, right now and a second ago. The web is breaking the algorithms laid down for the field of GD. I’m so excited about crazy web projects that deal with the very core of communicating through form. And as such they open for the possibility of talking and understanding GD as something that is freed from history and bound to its center of intervening in a message, in breaking, rebuilding and communicating structures. I’m not saying that we need to reinvent the way we talk about GD, but we need to have more focus on it as it is now, then – hopefully, the critic can be part of opening up paths both for other critics and practitioners.
JD: The 2 of us have something in common when it comes to the GD history of both our countries (Brazil and Norway) having its historical precedent tied to historical forms/conceptions of GD that respond to an industrial development that none of our countries actually had. What do we do with this?!
KK: The Norwegian GD scene in the early 60s saw several practitioners coming back from studying aboard, or foreign practitioners coming over to Norway. They brought with them ideas and discourses such as Swiss modernism and a multitude of ideas about how GD should be practiced, not necessarily based in the Norwegian society. I guess what is embedded in your questions is if GD can be ‘true’ if its only reacting to itself – or to its own ideas?
At the moment we are in a time where we are seeing more aesthetic reactions than for example political or policy reactions. In other words mainly form reacting to form. Of course there is GD that is reacting to theoretical conceptions, but this again becomes a form that is adapted by practitioners who may not know the reasoning behind the initial reaction.
It is fascinating how quick GD is to adapt form — I often think that it is one of the design forms that most quickly mimic tendencies. For example it was one of the first disciplines to start re-adapting post-modernism a couple of years back. Now several other disciplines are following behind, such as product design that for example are celebrating the Memphis group.
Going back to your questions of what we can or should do with this. I think nothing. I think we should rather be critical observers, and GD practitioners should revel in all the contemporary and historical forms available for being readapted and recontextualised.
JD: You've ran a few workshops now dealing with how designers write about their own work but through approaching several other forms of writing provenant of several other fields of knowledge— tell us more about this?
KK: What you always hear is that designers find writing hard. Well, we all find writing hard. I try to encourage the workshop participants to put the focus somewhere else. For example I have asked students to write about an object or a task – and to be as neutral as they can, as if they are writing a guide for someone else. I have asked them to look at cocktail recipes and tell me everything they learn from it (no cocktails were had). Perhaps this distance tricks them into writing without it being about them.
But I have also encouraged students to write personal texts that talk about the intention behind their practice - it sometimes also get’s quite emotional, which can be wonderful. Writing can in fact be so many things; sometimes you write through an idea and it makes you realise what it is really about. I always use writing as a tool with students, it is not about learning to write, but learning to think in different ways about something you are already familiar with, namely design.
JD: You’ve been also writing about culture at large; can you ever run away from a design critic's point of view? And if not, tell us more about the fun in doing so.
KK: Ay, I don’t really know. Maybe?
I guess there is some elements that seem to follow me no matter what I write about, but I don’t know if they are tied to the perspective of design. Rather, I believe they are a way of asking questions. If I take the liberty to reframe your question to: can you ever run away from the point of view of the critic? the answer is no.
In Norwegian the word critical carries with it a lot of negative connotations, and is often thought of as being about tearing something down. Rather, critique and using a critical voice is about finding a core and trying to understand what a work or object is ‘about’, and then possibly using it to build something from there. That might sound very abstract. However, I think that only work that has at its core an aboutness (which Elliot Earls calls it) is worth critiquing or to be presented in the light of a critical voice.
Working as a writer and being given the possibility of meeting and interviewing people who are passionate, informed, talented and at the fore-front of their profession is such a freaking privilege. I always try to ask questions that make it worth their time as well. It helps to use some of the elements I imagine being at the core of design critique, which is about how a work effects its surroundings, who the imagined receiver is, how it fits into a historical and contemporary narrative and what the urgency is.
JD: Finally, you've been running a special series of interviews on women GD pioneers in Norway, a country that has a good deal of equality but still has its written history tied to male pioneers. Could you tell us more about your recent discoveries?
KK: Oh — I could go on here. I remember a while back I rang the Norwegian Design Council to hear if they had done any similar charting like a survey the Design Council in the UK did in 2010 that showed that even though design class rooms are dominated by women, the profession is still mainly made up of men. The answer I received was that the advisor had never experienced that there was any lack of women in design in his time in the industry. Then he made it clear that he believed the matter was resolved. I have still to see figures over what the Norwegian industry looks like today, but from the way our history is told, it is clear that it is not a story told in favour of both sexes.
It’s time for more women to claim their roles in the GD scene, both in Norway and on an international level. It’s important both for female practitioners today, but also for those who are on their way into the profession – to have female role models. Women who are not afraid to stand up and speak their minds, who claim their place in board rooms, in the media, in academic contexts and in the field as practitioners – and who don’t apologies for their success (in that context, check out this recent Amy Schumer sketch. A recent project from a graduate at Beckmans College deals with what she calls Typeequality, promoting work done by female type designers. I have also experienced that my own students are becoming more interested in unearthing female practitioners. It’s a very positive tendency.
Even if we as a nation are on our way – to one day – achieving gender equality, there is still a long way ahead of us – and this includes the GD field. To specifically talk about this series: In Norway we haven’t written down very much of our GD history. That’s not to say that people aren’t knowledgeable, but for now most of it is orally, and the more you hear a name like Bruno Oldani, Enzo Finger or Leif Anisdahl, the easier it is to repeat it. So I wish to expand that conversation and include Ashley Booth, Kari Nordby, Anne-Kari Jensen, Liselotte Lenschow, Sissel Biong, Nina Lykke, Junn Paasche-Aasen, Else Munthe Kaas, Gunhild Sandstad, Sarah Rosenbaum and many other female practitioners who have contributed to making our field so rich and interesting as it is today.
Kristina Ketola Bore (1986) holds an MA in Design Writing Criticism from London College of Communication. She works as a design writer and critic, editor and is a partner in the publishing house Particular Facts. Some of the places she has lectured include Bergen Academy of the Arts, Oslo National Academy of the Arts, NTNU and the Estonian Academy of the Arts.