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Graphic design /graphic dissent: Towards a cultural economy of an insular profession

Matthew Alan Soar, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation is an exploration of the realm of cultural production associated with graphic design. Graphic design is a ubiquitous, yet largely invisible, professional practice that nevertheless contributes substantially to the make-up of our visual culture. Drawing on emergent strands of enquiry associated with the critical cultural studies and especially with ethnographic approaches to the study of cultural production, Graphic Design/Graphic Dissent investigates the ideological limits to agency of graphic designers by focusing on calls for greater social responsibility emanating from within this milieu. It begins by drawing on Richard Johnson's model of the circuit of culture (Johnson 1986/87), a conceptual schema intended to represent the production and reproduction of meanings and values within culture. A modification of this model—called the “short circuit”—is proposed as a way to account more fully for the rarefied habitus (Bourdieu 1984) associated with the cultural intermediaries. Graphic designers, then, like ad creatives (Soar 1996; 2000a), fashion designers (McRobbie 1998), and radio (Henderson 1999) and television (Dornfeld 1998) producers, embody a series of contradictory impulses, which are both institutional and subjective. Graphic Design/Graphic Dissent also reviews the body of critical, historical, and journalistic writing emanating from within graphic design culture, evaluating it for both its advancements and limitations; a key strand of debate within this discourse relates to the politics of feminism and professional practice. Chief among the graphic design interventions explored here are: culture jamming and Adbusters magazine; and, the First Things First Manifesto 2000 (a formal call for greater social and professional responsibility among designers). Also discussed are the following groups and individuals: Gran Fury, Queer Nation, RTMark, Women's Design and Research Unit (WD+RU), We Interrupt the Programme, Jan van Toorn and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. It is ultimately argued that a formal distinction must be made between the notions of “politics” associated with high-profile, even spectacular, interventions, and those relating to more modest, local, and marginal initiatives.

Subject Area

Mass media|Design|Interior design|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Soar, Matthew Alan, "Graphic design /graphic dissent: Towards a cultural economy of an insular profession" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3068593.