In this short interview with Marco Ugolini, graphic and type designer, author of the font used in the Reshaping Concern brand identity, researcher Katherine Simpson finds out about how he integrates political concerns into his design practice.
Marco perceives all design as political, and through his practice, he addresses his concerns through public spaces that are loaded with social-political dynamics, which he describes as design as ‘public intervention’. He perceives public spaces beyond traditional interfaces such as town halls or parks, but into the public realm, common grounds such as supermarkets, the internet and typefaces – his interventions allow people to shift their perspectives to expose new meaning. As a Senior Lecturer on the BA Graphic Design at the University of the West of England, he is in charge of educating the next generation of designers about how they can make sense of the world. Marco positions dialogue as pivotal to the designers role in the future. He invites designers to take responsibility to represent different views, find common ground, reflecting on the basics of political dynamics. This practice goes beyond interpersonal connections of people and clients but between spaces, regions, objects and communities. Therefore every project he participates in is completely different because of the unique qualities of each set of actors involved.
You can read more about Marco’s design intervention practice in the printed Æffect Journal of Innovation Management which will be ready to purchase in June.
KS – Some of your projects are addressing political concerns. The typeface you designed Biko, which is the branding for the MA Innovation Management Reshaping Concern degree show, at Central Saint Martins was named as a tribute after Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist. Is addressing concern part of your practice?
MU – My practice is multidisciplinary. I deal with different aspects of design. Part of my practice clearly links to classic editorial design, while another part is research-based and crosses the border between design and visual arts. In all of my work, I try to bring in a certain political discourse or reflect on the impact my projects have on the rest of the world. The Biko typeface was a little bit of an experiment. I wanted to design a font that was put together from different aspects I like in typography. It was during the process of designing the font that I thought about what to name it. I lived in Steve Biko Square for three years when I lived in Amsterdam. All the street and square names of the neighbourhood were dedicated to South Africa. The area was charged with history and politics and I became intrigued by the figure of Steve Biko – who seemed to be less known and may be underrated by the general public compared to Nelson Mandela. I thought it would be a public intervention to name the font after him, as a tribute. It’s quite hard to design a typeface that actually communicates strictly the values that such a historical political figure would communicate himself. In general, the font has a friendly character. It communicates a certain humanity, maybe naivety, without being afraid of showing it. It was a very successful project due to the high visibility. The font has one million downloads online. Many companies have used the font for projects and in particularlary, a Greek design agency used it for the logo of a political party, founded by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Minister of Finance, called diem25.
KS – You mentioned public intervention, what do you mean by public intervention?
MU – In many of my projects I like to reflect on the public space as a meaningful space. I like to reflect on the public space as a space that is loaded with social-political dynamics. These reflections usually give birth to the projects I do.
MU – Yeah, my practice is not only multidisciplinary but it’s also multimedia, not in the classic sense of using technology but in the sense that using multiple mediums – for each project I use a different media that closely relates to the project itself.
KS – What about your design practice, how do you approach a project? For instance, thinking of it as a network of actors; the client, the interface, the computer, the mouse, the pencil, the brief, what are those relationships in your process?
MU – There’s only one way to answer this question, the keyword is dialogue. When I do projects, rather than imposing a certain style, a certain aesthetic or a certain take on that project, I want to find out as many items as possible about that project through having a dialogue. Often my projects are actually the result of a dialogue between me as a designer and the other actors involved. It is really important to understand the context in which one operates. If I have to design a catalogue for an artist for example, I want to start a dialogue with that artist in order to produce a new, bespoke product. For each book I design, every final outcome is completely different from the previous one – mainly because the content, the context and the actors involved are different. In a similar way when I do residencies and interventions, I enact a dialogue with the space around and the people involved in that community.
KS – You say dialogue is the overarching thing across all the ways you interact?
MU – I was told the etymology of the word is from ancient Greek, Dialogos, that has the aspect of two “dia” and then “logos” meaning ‘discourse’ or ‘ground’. Within the word Dialogue lays the attempt of finding a common ground, to present two different views and try to make them co-exist. If you think about it, to establish a relationship with someone else, to find an agreement, a common ground, that’s one of the starting point (almost like an atom) for political dynamics. In a way, dialogue is a way to prevent conflicts, and engaging in dialogue avoids the risk of being patronising. One of the risks of being a designer is that your visual language might overtake, rather than communicate the identity of a certain entity, company or client. Dialogue takes away that risk to act in this patronising force.
KS – Talking about dialogue as a being a skill, it’s not easy to be able to facilitate dialogue with different people and you’re trying to create this as you saying creating a common meaning. As you’re the senior lecturer on the BA Graphic Design course what skills, training and practices are going to need in the future? Is dialogue a skill you teach?
MU – Yes, we do teach about its importance. This is where it gets interesting. Graphic design is visual communication, and teaching involves communication as well. So, in teaching graphic design you have this double act of communication. You have to communicate certain things in order to somehow make the young generations reflect on communication itself, and how complex, delicate and crucial it is. For example, one of the most ambitious goals is to teach the students about their future relations with clients. They have to somehow find a compromise between providing as a service, without serving their clients. A good designer is able to educate clients that the designer’s decision is the most informed and appropriate. In their projects, we teach our students to come up with a strong design strategy, concept and rationale. The relation between designers and clients is a very tricky one, and therefore tricky to teach as well.
To find out more about Marco’s work visit https://www.jesuismonreve.org/