The body is tired, sore. The eyes are strained, tearing. Micro movements of the wrist, the hand, the fingers. Legs, forgotten. Breath, forgotten. The laptop in the bed. How long has it been? Where are the limits, the boundaries? Motor-functioning is weakened. Tendons along the whole right side need care. The neck, the back, the shoulders. How long can a body work like this? Awkward positions. Harder. Better. Faster. Limitless. Who can work like this? Can I heal my relationship with computer technology?
When I started teaching visual communication design this spring, online learning was already in full bloom. While planning an MA studio course on the topic of Visual Narratives, I found many recent resources on what to consider in terms of the new challenges distance learning brings to inclusive and accessible education. I realized that my underlying role as a teacher this year would be to tend to others’ (and my own) emotional and physical wellbeing. I wanted to live, teach and vocalize care and self-care above anything else.
A number of the students in my course wanted to work with tools for making visual narratives that would relieve them from extensive computer work and long hours in front of their screens. For example, crochet, embroidery, and book-making by hand. In all of these cases, “getting away from the computer” was a primary goal and starting point for their work.
Sanni Wessman, Little Joys (2021)
Sanni Wessman’s project Little Joys began with a mission to find joy in these difficult times and to show some of life’s pleasures through embroidered illustration. In another example, Katja Ronkanen’s work EXIT presents unworldly crocheted face masks which tell a pandemic story of overwhelming isolation, mental health suffering and social detachment.
Katja Ronkanen, EXIT (2021)
This approach to textile work is familiar to me. In 2019, I collaborated with Kiia Beilinson on a quilt project called tXtile where we experimented with writing and designing away from our keyboards. We used the time and freedom granted by our study to try out a new way of collaborative working in graphic design. We sourced content from physical spaces such as our local recycling centres. There was no screen between us and our work which enabled us to watch and sense each other and the direction of the project more immersively.
Kiia Beilinson and Robynn McPherson, tXtile (2019)
Another example is Linn Henrichson’s MA thesis Hypermanual from the Visual Communication Programme at Konstfack. The work explores post-digital methods where material and process are put into focus; it shows possibilities for visual communication practice made from a critical distance from the digital while remaining partly defined by it.
Linn Henrichson, Hypermanual (2020)
Weaves. Webs. Nets. Mesh. Matrixes. Wombs. Design and narrative work together as an underlying “fabric” and historic “recording” of our social and cultural lives. The author Sadie Plant makes links between textile craft and the digital web as kindred forms of cultural production and visual storytelling. In the 1997 book Zeros + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, Sadie writes that “..cloths persist as records of the processes which fed into their production: how many women worked on them, the techniques they used, the skills they employed.” What stories will our digital designs tell about us…to those who come after us?
Print advertisement for Macintosh Apple Computer (1984)
Print advertisement for Apple Multimedia Program (1993)
In the fall of 1984, Apple purchased all of the advertising space in Newsweek magazine's special edition commemorating Ronald Reagan's landslide win of a second term as U.S President. In 1988, a promotional VHS for the first edition of Adobe illustrator presented the personal computer in the workspace of a graphic design studio, where the actor explains: “No matter what kind of graphic art you create, Adobe Illustrator 88 can help you create it faster, easier, and with better results than you could ever achieve by hand.”
MacBook Pro Frontal View Mockup showing a promotional video for Adobe Illustrator 88 (1988). Video link
It’s important to remember that the practice of “digital design” is a relatively recent phenomenon (~30 odd years) in the much longer history of visual communication design, storytelling and technological craft. The digital turn in graphic art and visual communication design imposes a new relationship to spaces, bodies, materiality and time. As computers become more and more ubiquitous, working non-digitally in the field today feels like less of an available or obvious option. In a sense, making hand-craft and textile work can appear radically laborious and slow in comparison and limit (now familiar) possibilities such as edit>undo or the ability to change certain elements at the last minute.
Making with the spinning wheel in Hailuoto, Finland (1912), photograph by Samuli Paulaharju, Museovirasto CC public domain
Making embroidery in Suojärvi, Hautavaara, Finland. Tytöt "Mielitsäs Käzpaikka Kiruttaa" (1929) Photograph by Tyyni Vahter, Museovirasto CC public domain
Better, faster, easier. If the future is a shared project then need it also be a digitally dominant one? What does your body need and whose imagination are you living in? My questions are emotionally charged. Our workflows affect our designs and our designs affect our workflows. How we collaborate and how our bodies relate to physical space and materiality is a topic of my concern. If dominant working cultures value flexibility, individualism and acceleration, then I wonder what client would budget for slower, possibly more rigid or less “efficient” design processes. The blended soup of capitalism and neoliberalism impacts our tools, processes and the whole of our creative field. We struggle with our intentions, our loves, our priorities and it’s difficult because it’s a struggle. I encourage you to imagine a future where graphic design work can be sustained through slow, careful, process-led collaborations that center a more embodied, aware and interconnected relationship to physical and environmental space.
Scanned book image. Origin unknown.
Plants. Minerals. Fingers. Digits. Is the wooden pencil in your hand closer to nature than the screen of your mobile device? Maybe, maybe not. More importantly, how do our technological tools participate in a wider system of socio-political power and ecology of..well..“things?” If that question seems challenging, then at least consider: How can we work better together and subvert the tools to do so? Also: What ways of working best serve yours/my/our emotional, physical and bodily needs?
Within the past year, I’ve heard: “I’m so tired of my computer right now,” as well as “Imagine what the pandemic would have been like without computers?”
Robynn McPherson is a Helsinki-based visual communication designer working in both institutional and grassroots sectors. Their work combines theory & practice-based research with activism in socio-environmental relations. They collaborate with designers and artists across disciplines and currently work as a teacher, organizer and facilitator. www.robynn.xyz