Reconciling Anthropology with Graphic Design: Postcards from Bilbao, London and Oslo

Olga Neva, Research Assistant, Department of Anthropology, UCL
This project was intended to illustrate how Visual Culture can be analysed through a combination of anthropological and graphic design approaches; understanding the social dynamics where images have been created; and the logics of production and consumption of images, as well as various approaches to formal design and its cultural context. The analysis is based upon contemporary postcards of Bilbao, London and Oslo. The research covers processes where graphic design is involved, such as the design logics of representation in each city, and the production and consumption of postcards. The method incorporated formal analysis and other techniques that derive from graphic design itself.
Analysis revealed that the internal design elements differ from place to place. The contemporary market in postcards is totally controlled by private local producers and distributors and in the case of London by foreign companies. Some attempts by the state to control the images can be discerned in Oslo, and some regulations apply to the postcard design system in Bilbao, but in general city authorities do not concern themselves with this industry. Overall, the bigger the city the less the attempt to control either production or the visual politics of place. Oslo being a small city tries to control their images by having “official Oslo Products”; Bilbao has made various efforts to create a consistent visual identity for the city, but the postcards produced do not correspond with the visual identity manuals they have created; and London the biggest of the three has no attempt at control at all, as evident of the visuals. This is manifested in the role of the shield used as a motif by the production company, the depiction of Londoners, the Monarchy, architectural, governmental and other subjects. Evident also is a lack of design found in the saturation of space with the use of as many images as possible to represent the encounter and the idea of experiencing everything, especially in London. When selecting postcards, people seem to prefer those which were photography based and with a traditional aesthetic based on harmony and rhythm. That is they preferred the designed postcards of Oslo to the relatively haphazard cramming together of images found in London. The point of this study, however, was not to judge any aesthetic value of postcards. Rather it was to demonstrate how graphic design can be a valuable tool when analyzing material culture, including some understanding of the thinking of the graphic designer and their influence on visual culture.
I am hoping to continue my research on how to link anthropology with the graphic design industry, seeing the industry both as a potential subject of study and trying to find approaches which link the perspectives of both. I was wondering if there is anyone else out there with similar interests or who knows of other attempts to create this bridge between graphic design and anthropology.

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2 Responses to Reconciling Anthropology with Graphic Design: Postcards from Bilbao, London and Oslo

  1. Mary Stevens, UCL March 26, 2007 at 5:15 pm #

    In the context of my own PhD research I have recently been thinking about some similar questions. I am researching the project for a national museum of immigration in France and have recently been looking at how its corporate identity and particular political philosophy are configured in its logo (or more broadly, ‘visual identity’). I have had the good fortune to be in contact with one of the designers to discuss his work, which is very specifically informed by anthropology. Indeed, he describes his work as a practice of ‘ethnographism’, with the ‘ethno graphic designer’ (or ‘ethnographiste’, in French) as a mediator between the client and the target audience, providing the former with a grahpic language with which better to communicate its own vision (and not the designer’s as if often the case). I’ve written a little bit about this on my own blog here.
    One version of the logo, presented by one of the designers can be viewed here
    I know that these designers are inspired by the work of Christian Bernard, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Geneva. They are also familiar with the work of Latour, who may have been influential in developing this practice (I’m hoping to find out more soon!). I’d be interested however to know if anyone knows of any other instances of ‘ethnographism’? I think it would be fascinating to follow a design project through from conception to realisation to consider the extent to which graphic design can be an ethnographic practice as much as a technique of representation.

  2. Hi Olga,
    One person who you could contact is Jean-Sébastien Marcoux at the Haute École Commerciale de l’Université de Montréal. Jean-Sé’s an anthropologist whose undergraduate degree was in graphic design. He works on various aspects of consumption, marketing and material culture. Many of his current Masters students are doing projects in that interface between visual consumer design, marketing and anthropology.
    All best,

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