Rick Poynor | Essays

Inkahoots and Socially Concerned Design: Part 2

No Vacancy poster by Inkahoots for Inner Brisbane Housing Network, 2000

Inkahoots as a design company
Although the posters created by members of Inkahoots from 1990 to 1995 can be classified and understood as “graphic design” they integrate type and various forms of imagery for purposes of printed mass communication their makers were either artists, with an education and background in the fine arts, or they were entirely self-taught as visual communicators. They did not regard themselves as graphic designers in the sense in which a professional designer, with four or more years of design education and a close acquaintance with design culture, would understand the term. Inkahoots’ early designs often have a raw, even “amateur” quality and lack the degree of finesse in, for instance, the handling of typographic details that would be expected from professionally produced design. Visually, their work in the early period relates to established conventions of community poster-making, rather than to any of the aesthetic currents of professional design, either mainstream or experimental. Yet these were years in which, thanks in large measure to the arrival of desktop digital technology, design was undergoing a period of profound and frequently controversial aesthetic change.[35] Robyn McDonald does not recall the studio buying professional magazines or books about graphic design at this time, but the mastery of typography and graphic composition that she encountered in Neville Brody’s first monograph, The Graphic Language of Neville Brody (1988), had a lasting impact when she saw it around 1990.

I was more interested in the history of political poster-making, looking towards Redback Graphix and what they were producing. I still wasn’t seeing myself, or us, as graphic designers. [. . .] I was a community poster-maker, I suppose. Seeing Neville Brody’s work opened my eyes, I guess, to the fact that we needed to open ourselves to influences.[36]

In 1994, Inkahoots advertised for another member of the collective. The job went to Jason Grant (b. 1971), who had briefly studied fine art at Brisbane College of Advanced Education (now Queensland University of Technology) before transferring to Queensland College of Art to study for a Bachelor of Visual Arts in graphic design (1990–2). Grant had an immediate impact on Inkahoots as a designer and he went on to have a decisive effect on its development as a design company. Chris Stannard left the collective in February 1995, other members also departed, and Inkahoots was formally wound up as a company limited by guarantee, becoming instead a partnership between McDonald and Grant (which it remained at the time of writing). From May 1995, it was based in a small, wooden studio, no wider than a garage, next door to the Grass Roots Resource Centre in West End, a residential suburb of Brisbane.[37]

Inkahoots’ studio, on the left, next to the Grass Roots Resource Centre, Brisbane, 2001. Photograph: Rick Poynor

Outside the Grass Roots Resource Centre, 2001. March on CHOGM poster by Inkahoots. Photograph: Rick Poynor

Grant’s personal philosophy was already highly developed when he joined Inkahoots at the age of 23:

I started karate when I was about 14. In traditional karate, the emphasis is on spiritual development and that really translates very clearly into ideas of social justice and democracy. But it comes from a non-materialist, spiritual dimension, which is very hard to explain. I started studying Zen and Eastern philosophy generally. [. . .] It was a completely new world. I trained in Japan and my karate master was a Catholic priest. I wasn’t particularly religious. I had no interest in organized religion, but these things felt like deep realities to me. The kind of music I was interested in, the kind of art I was interested in, what I was doing in terms of karate it all felt like part of the same thing.[38]

Other early influences on his way of thinking included the songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the poets William Blake, Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda, and Marxist texts such as Capital and The Communist Manifesto. He attended political rallies and street protests and some of his friends belonged to a group called the International Socialist Organisation, for whom he designed posters.

I didn’t see any reason to separate a personal agenda from a professional one. I always had that sense. Right from day one at university there was the idea that design was there as a tool of capitalism. Although maybe I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, that just didn’t feel right. It felt like there should be alternatives. [. . .] So my point of view it wasn’t an intellectual point of view was probably just an intuitive feeling that there was no reason to do that, that you could reinforce your worldview through your work.[39]

For Grant, too, Neville Brody was a key early graphic influence. During his first year at Queensland College of Art, he read a manifesto-like text based on a lecture given in 1989 by Brody and American cultural critic Stuart Ewen at the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ “Dangerous Ideas” conference. Ewen and Brody argue that in the contemporary world, “Design no longer envisions, it advertises. Design no longer informs or educates, it blindly promotes the accumulation of wealth and power.”[40] What is needed, in their view, is a “design insurgency” in which design would finally be used as a tool of democratic expression. Inspired by ideas such as these, Grant believed that it was essential to use contemporary graphic languages to address audiences in the community sector, since this was the only effective way even to begin to compete with much more highly resourced commercial forms of graphic message-making:

We always thought the community sector was constantly let down by its visual material. It has to compete with highly sophisticated big budget material from opposing ideological agendas. So we thought that by giving these groups a sophisticated visual voice you are advocating for them. It’s the reality of the media culture we live in that the credibility and even the volume of voice is undermined by the presentation of the message. A lot of fantastic stuff that happens in the community goes unnoticed or ignored because it doesn’t have that authority in its visual language. We see ourselves as advocates for the client. We are political advocates, if you want to put it in those terms.

Client relationships
I conducted interviews with several of Inkahoots’ clients in Brisbane and the respect accorded to them by these individuals came through clearly. The designers’ clients do not see them as a typical commercial design company, interchangeable with any other.[42] They are aware of Inkahoots’ background in community service and activism and, in some cases, they have worked with Inkahoots for years. Dee Martin, executive officer of Queensland Community Arts Network, observes:

What’s so interesting is that they have managed to maintain a client base regardless of where those people have ended up. [. . .] If they are in government, I think they are revisiting some of where they were when they used Inkahoots and they are making a link between the past and the present and they are probably consciously trying to give work to an organization that they still believe in. I think that’s really important because those of us in the community sector are doing the same thing.[43]

Clients believe that the designers understand their activities and share a common cause, as in the following account, given by Karen Fletcher, solicitor and socialist activist, of Grant:

I saw him at M1 [anti-capitalist protest in May 2001] up against a line of police and thought: “Ah, this is why you’ve come up with this design idea, this is why you’ve given us this. This isn’t about you servicing us. This is about you being part of what we are doing.”[44]

This closeness of collaboration is best explored by focusing in detail on one of their client relationships and projects.

Joe Hurley is one of three community workers at the Housing Resource Service, based at West End Community House, a center for the local area. He works on housing issues for private rental tenants and for people who are renting through government or community organisations, especially lower income earners who are struggling to keep a hold in the inner city at a time when Brisbane is experiencing a trend towards inner-city gentrification. The service offers advice, information, counseling and advocacy about tenant rights. It is financed primarily through government funding in the form of an annual grant, though Hurley and his colleagues also look for supplementary funding from other sources, such as the local council, and from partnership agreements with other community agencies and a few businesses in the area. They aim to supply assistance to 3,000–3,500 people or households a year.

Hurley has commissioned work from Inkahoots since the early 1990s. In his previous position, as secretary for the Tenants’ Union of Queensland, he visited their original basement screenprinting workshop. He recalls: “It was quite dynamic. There would be a number of artists considering our brief and coming up with ideas.”[45] Hurley’s office walls are covered with posters from earlier initiatives and campaigns, including one by Stannard that asks, “How many tenants can you find living in the community?” Another, by McDonald, has the copyline: “Renting your home. Know your rights. Call the Tenants’ Union of Queensland.” Hurley sees Inkahoots’ arrival in West End, after Grant joined the team, as a key moment. The new address and change of studio image conveyed a different sense of “who they were” and this coincided with, and reflected, the Housing Resource Service’s evolving communication needs. “The sorts of products we want have changed and I’ve seen them responding more and more to that.”[46]

In 2000, because of public pressure about the visibility of homeless people in public places, the authorities began a campaign of moving the homeless on from parks, river banks, caves and thoroughfares the street people were effectively “evicted.” Both Hurley and Grant separately mention the example of an old man who had occupied a Brisbane bus shelter for many years. He was a familiar figure and people would stop and talk to him and even play chess with him. When a new housing development was built nearby, he was removed from the shelter and put into community housing. Grant observes:

It was an outrageous attack on people who were so vulnerable. And just the naivety of the approach you move them from a place and they are in another place. It doesn’t solve anything. All it does is make a bunch of rich blokes who have just bought these apartments feel better about themselves.[47]

The Inner Brisbane Housing Network, a group of community service workers and tenants to which Hurley belongs, also felt that this was an unacceptably blunt and inappropriate response and resolved to protest the issue. The group’s initial idea was to develop a poster based on the twin themes of “no vacancies” and the “Starlight Hotel” Australian parlance for sleeping out of doors under the stars. Grant suggested the need to focus on Brisbane and Hurley supplied him with two pages of text representing the Housing Network’s policy and arguments. This was clearly going to be too much information for a poster, so Grant edited and rewrote it a role frequently undertaken by Inkahoots so that the core message, delivered near the centre of the poster (shown above) in a small but unmissable black text box, reads:

EVICTING THE HOMELESS [heading]. The squeeze is on. There’s no place left to stay in the Sunshine State! Is housing a fundamental right or a luxury for the privileged? Can we get our governments to secure this right for ALL citizens?

The text box is a focal point of sorts, but it is just one component in a multi-layered communication that could, at first sight, appear random and that has a degree of compositional complexity that would not, in earlier times, have been thought effective or desirable in a poster designed to communicate quickly and without ambiguity. The other components are:

1. The words “NO / VAC / AN / CY,” the poster’s largest text element, rendered in the style of stenciled graffiti, as though the letters have been spray-painted in protest on the poster surface. (The slashes denote line breaks.)

2. A single line of much smaller yellow capitals, which commences with a heart symbol, turned to form a kind of arrowhead. The unpunctuated line reads: “NO VACANCY NO SHELTER NO HAVEN NO HARBOUR NO HEART.”

3. A “welcome to Brisbane” roadside sign, as seen at the city’s airport, here turned on its side so that it reads vertically behind “NO VACANCY.”

4. A series of weather forecast symbols for sunshine, cloudy sky and rain, which also read vertically. The rain symbol is repeated for emphasis, much larger than the other symbols, behind the “welcome” sign.

5. A series of found phrases rendered in the informal, commercial, typographic vernacular of newspaper classified ads: “leaving town,” “$ save $,” “house trained.” These phrases are interspersed with number codes used to order icons for the classified ads.

These elements overlap and intersect to form an intricately constructed message, at once dense but diffuse, that is both forthright in its declaration of what ought to happen housing for all of Brisbane’s citizens and cuttingly ironic in its depiction of the actual state of affairs in the city. Queensland represents itself as the “Sunshine State,” extending a warm welcome to all visitors, but this generosity is withheld from some of its less fortunate citizens for whom there is “no vacancy” in Brisbane. Those who live outdoors experience all kinds of weather conditions, not only sunshine, sometimes with serious consequences for their health. Now there is a metaphorical sense in which the city authorities, too, are “raining” on the homeless for reasons implicitly connected by the poster with financial gain and a political agenda that prioritizes the needs and sensibilities of the affluent. What makes the poster so engaging is the way it clothes these ideas in the most seductive and suggestive visual forms. Hurley describes it as “poetic” and notes its popularity among colleagues:

I found it was appealing to middle-aged and older people [. . .] even our committee of management, which is a voluntary committee. There are quite a few people on that over 60 years and they really liked the poster. They liked the colours, in particular, and everyone is caught by the “NO VACANCY” that moves across the page.[48]

The initial plan was to put up 500 copies around the city, but Hurley and his colleagues took legal advice and were informed that under legislation in effect since the mid-1990s they, as clients, would be liable to prosecution and fines. Nevertheless, someone put up the poster at the bus stop from which the homeless man had been evicted and replaced it two or three times after it had been pulled down. Some of the posters appeared in Brisbane shop windows, put up by supportive shop owners. Hurley describes watching people being attracted by the poster and pausing to read it on the accommodation noticeboard, on the veranda at West End Community House.

It is clear, too, from Hurley’s high degree of enthusiasm when talking about the project that the poster has had an important inspirational role for housing workers and activists, like himself, who are involved in encouraging public awareness of these issues. He expresses the hope that it will be possible to use elements of the poster image in other printed formats for future campaigning; copies were held back so they could be used for later presentations in the street. Inkahoots took down their usual website and put up an animation based on the issues raised in the poster and Hurley encouraged traffic to the site. At Christmas 2000, Inkahoots decided to re-use the graphic, with small adjustments, on their self-financed, annual studio Christmas card, which they send to colleagues and clients a gesture of commitment to the message above and beyond the transitory requirements of the “design brief” that further impressed Hurley:

That wasn’t something that they needed to do and it was about their belief and interest in the issue. [. . .] The message was really strong and the way Inkahoots were prepared to follow through was incredible.[49] 

Land Mark poster by Inkahoots for Social Action Office, 1999 

Problems of graphic style
Several other young designers joined Inkahoots after Grant: Steve Alexander (1995–8), Russell Kerr (1998–2001) and Ben Mangan (2000 to present). These designers, educated in the 1990s, are in many ways even more committed than Grant to new graphic approaches and styles. The problem for Inkahoots, during this period, has been to reconcile the studio’s cultural and political philosophy, as articulated with considerable self-awareness by McDonald and Grant, with the younger designers’ need for creative autonomy and aesthetic self-expression a need that has been encouraged and shaped by the dominant values of a design culture that Grant and McDonald resist. The studio has no stated hierarchy in its working relationships and this is reflected in the fact that all the workers earn the same salary, a telling example of the way that Inkahoots still holds to its egalitarian principles, and a situation that would be unthinkable in most contemporary design studios in Australia and abroad. Inkahoots’ partners take pride in not employing anyone in the formal role of art director to oversee the work of the other designers, or attempting to fulfil that role themselves. In practice, less direct forms of influence by McDonald and Grant are probably inevitable. “We definitely have input, but it’s not autocratic input,” observes Grant.[50] Nevertheless, their aim is to allow as much freedom as possible.

The NO VACANCY poster has been considered at length as an example of a project in which social aims and contemporary aesthetic form are united with evident success. For Grant, challenging political ideas should be expressed in challenging visual form:

I would see it as an affinity with a lot of the ideas that come out of the whole deconstructionist movement. A lot of those postmodern ideas about visual language there’s an affinity with that. The idea that if there is to be a questioning of social values, then there should be a questioning of aesthetic values.[51]

The response by Hurley and his colleagues demonstrates that such a synthesis is certainly possible. The poster does not conform to traditional ideas about the need for a clear hierarchy of content, visual simplicity, or unambiguous expression. It clearly relates to broader currents in international design, for instance to the preoccupation from the late 1980s onwards, especially in American design, with the “vernacular”[52]. It has an experimental, loose-fit, highly contemporary feel, yet none of its compositional elements is arbitrary and all of them contribute in some way to its intended message. The key issue here is that there is actually a “message” a campaigning social intention that precedes, and exists apart from, questions of visual form. One of the recurrent problems in graphic design in the 1990s, as Grant recognizes, is that the widely celebrated aesthetic “revolution” was not driven by corresponding ideas of social and political change. The deconstuctionist tendency, with which he identifies, rapidly degenerated into a fashionable style among designers who knew little or nothing of its critical and philosophical origins.[53]

If there was a questioning of aesthetic values, it certainly was not accompanied by a clearly articulated questioning of social values. For the most acclaimed graphic design stars of the 1990s, design often appeared to be an end in itself, something that was unquestionably desirable
because it was exciting, because it was contemporary, because it was new irrespective of any decodable, let alone consciously held and positively stated, political intention, purpose, or cause. In reality, as Grant argues, “There is no such thing as an apolitical stance. [. . .] To ignore this is a VERY political stance.”[54] “Radical” graphic design’s unreflective commitment to the endless “new” fitted it perfectly for its cheerleading role in global consumer culture and, far from posing any challenge to the status quo, it was effortlessly assimilated by the promotional apparatus of marketing and advertising.[55] As Grant writes: 

We bravely rip off style and we homogenise aesthetic diversity. We fuck promiscuously with typography and legibility but rarely with the dominant ideology. Here the radical becomes mundane as the conformist plays the revolutionary.[56]

The dilemma, for Inkahoots, is whether such styles, having become the medium by which aesthetic diversity is homogenized, can be recuperated by a kind of reverse manoeuvre, a détournement, that renders them once again authentically meaningful, this time within the sphere of socially concerned design. Or is this strategy inherently bound to fail? If the bogus radicalism of such styles has now become the very sign of a conformist dominant ideology, how are they supposed to signify differently just because the context is switched? Or should the new styles simply be regarded as a common visual language, which, for this reason, will be readily accessible to viewers accustomed to encounter them in commercial contexts, and which can then be used for the delivery of alternative forms of message? 

Business is Booming poster by Inkahoots for the M1 blockade of the Brisbane Stock Exchange, 2001 

Another poster by Inkahoots, created to announce the “M1” blockade of the Brisbane Stock Exchange on May 1, 2001, as part of a nationwide series of protests, was based on a style of imagery often used for music and dance events.[57] It shows a graphically simplified skull and crossbones, an “anti-logo” drawn in outline like a pictogram, with a mushroom cloud erupting from the top of the skull. Below, in a stylized speech bubble are the words “BUSINESS IS BOOMING.” The degraded heading text, scanned from a shopping docket, refers to the electronic displays at the Stock Exchange. Nothing about the image would surprise anyone familiar with music flyers or CD covers, but its graphic vocabulary is a long way from the socialist realist, “fist in the air” genre of protest imagery and its commissioner, Karen Fletcher, notes that for some older activists it was problematic. There was resistance from those who believed this was not an image with which ordinary working people would identify, though many came round to it after the posters were printed and they realized how provocatively different it was from the norm. The graphic style was probably most successful, Fletcher acknowledges, in appealing to a “nightclub, inner-city, student milieu,”[58] but she observes:

My view is that working people recognize good design when they see it and crappy design doesn’t impress anybody. Having something with design values has actually set us apart from a lot of the other propaganda that’s around. People look at it twice. They don’t look at it once and write it off. They’re interested in what it’s about. Even that element of it not being clear what the mushroom cloud is [. . .] People have a look at it and think, “Well, what is that trying to say? What is it about?”[59]

At other times, when projects are not led by Grant or McDonald, the design approach can be more questionable. In a magazine design for the Australian Association of Young People in Care, titled Illusion Free Zone, former Inkahoots designer Russell Kerr employed a battery of graphic mannerisms familiar from Ray Gun magazine, designed from 1992 to 1995 by David Carson. On the contents spread of issue 2 (1999), the word “Contents” is rendered in massive type, in a jumble of sizes, while the contents information is put into miniscule letters, jammed against a heavy black bar and partially obscured by graphic smudges. There is no obvious reason for the glassy, pink, computer-generated shapes to be juxtaposed with a drawing of a speeding train and the handwritten words at the foot of the page are hard to read. The arbitrariness of the design in what is, after all, a functional part of a publication is completed by a yellow diagonal bar, terminating in a graphic splotch. Similar devices are used throughout the magazine.

In this kind of design, for which Carson’s work provides the template, rules are broken simply because they are there. If convention decrees one thing (even if convention is founded on good sense), then the designer does the opposite for the satisfaction of showing he can. However, McDonald reports that feedback from young readers in care was favorable. The publication seems to have projected a powerful sensation of supportive nonconformity to this emotionally and socially disadvantaged group precisely because it did not look like a worthy, boring, official publication. Whether it was as intelligently conceived or as creatively focused in its fusion of “challenging” form and content as it might have been is debatable. One is left feeling that the designer was using the project as a vehicle for his own satisfaction, rather than grasping the opportunity to understand the magazine’s readers and communicate with them in a more reflective and insightful manner. McDonald concludes: 

That certainly wouldn’t have been appropriate design for many other jobs and sometimes that was a point of conflict, when sometimes Russell’s design wasn’t appreciated by the client not even so much because of the style, but perhaps because he wasn’t focused on what the publication was for and on the audience.[60]

The key question I sought to answer, in undertaking this case study, was the extent to which Inkahoots might be regarded as a paradigm for other designers who wish to undertake an alternative, socially concerned form of graphic design. Without compelling and well-publicized examples of such approaches in action, to encourage and inspire other designers, no amount of theorizing about the desirability or necessity of non-commercial design will be sufficient to make it occur. In conclusion, a number of observations can be made. 

First, it only became clear to me by visiting Brisbane and gaining a sense of its recent history and of its social and cultural atmosphere that much of what Inkahoots were able to achieve in the 1990s was facilitated by the unusual, if not unique, qualities of the city itself. For someone coming from London, some parts of Brisbane, especially suburbs such as New Farm and West End, where Inkahoots are based, recall the anarchistic, even hippie-ish days of the early 1970s. To a visitor, these communities felt like refuges and enclaves gentler, slower-paced, nonconformist and inhabited by residents much less obsessed with money, career development and status symbols than people in other major cities overseas and perhaps elsewhere in Australia, too. However, Brisbane is changing and some of the qualities that seem so distinctive today may soon be eroded by economic pressures. Inkahoots’ pursuit of socially concerned design means that they earn considerably less than they could earn if they undertook projects for corporate clients and the economic pressure on them to compromise, by taking on work towards which they feel much less commitment, can only increase. There is little doubt that a group of designers attempting to pursue a similarly idealistic path today in London or New York would struggle to survive. 

Another closely related factor that has helped to facilitate Inkahoots’ way of working is their own deep attachment to the city. Their relationship with their community is organic. They care about Brisbane, have many long-standing contacts in the city and draw their clients from a well-dispersed network of colleagues who have known them for years. Inkahoots have grown from a particular type of soil and, without these deep roots, it is hard to see how a design company could flourish by undertaking this type of work, or how, without a caring relationship with a community, its personnel would acquire the motivation to serve in this way. By their own commitment, as we have seen, Inkahoots have earned the respect and continuing support of their clients. 

More than this, Inkahoots’ long-term success as a socially motivated practice has come about because of the shared beliefs, concerns and ideologies of its partners, McDonald and Grant. McDonald’s views were formed in more stridently political times by a mutually reinforcing web of social and intellectual influences. Despite broader changes in cultural and political attitudes, these views are strong enough for McDonald to continue to hold them with conviction. Grant’s background, with its early emphasis on spiritual development through advanced study of karate, is more idiosyncratic, a personal route into alternative politics that seems even less reproducible, at this cultural moment, than McDonald’s. Most young designers who have come to maturity in the late 1980s and the 1990s, in the wealthy western nations, have not been exposed to the political passions and prolonged public struggles that are almost certainly needed to inform a social practice with Inkahoots’ strength of engagement. Meanwhile, the commercial sphere exerts a greater influence than ever. Even for those, like Inkahoots, who do have the commitment, there is little sense of a national, still less an international, network of designers sharing similar aims. As Grant says: 

We are fairly isolated. [. . .] The only time we have attempted to hook up with what we perceive to be individuals or groups within the movement, it hasn’t really worked out, anyway, like with Adbusters. There doesn’t seem to be any response from them.[61] 

This feeling of isolation and lack of a support network is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the reawakening and growth of alternative forms of design practice. Even allowing for the increased awareness of these issues prompted by an initiative such as First Things First, or by the international impact of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, there is little sign of imminent fundamental change.[62] Inkahoots do not find it easy to recruit young designers who share their political attitudes in any historically informed and intellectually penetrating sense. In late 2000, former Inkahoots designer Steve Alexander, still based in Brisbane, co-founded a new company, Rinzen, which produces fashionable, decorative, illustration-based graphic imagery for print and the Internet that has no discernible critical or social content and merges indistinguishably with the prevailing lingua franca of international design culture.[63] 

Despite these caveats, Inkahoots’ strength of purpose and achievement in sustaining a socially concerned practice in the face of contemporary design culture’s indifference and even scorn towards such ventures is remarkable. For more than a decade, they have shown the continuing viability, in the right circumstances, with adequate levels of understanding and commitment, of a form of engaged design that has few recent champions, even though it remains, as they would argue, more vital than ever. 

Update: Inkahoots in 2013
Jason Grant still works as a designer at Inkahoots in Brisbane. From 2002 to 2004 he was based in London as an art director and designer at Eye magazine. Robyn McDonald left Inkahoots in 2009. She is communications manager for one of Inkahoots’ clients, Micah Projects, a community organization in Brisbane that works with disadvantaged people. Ben Mangan continues to work with Inkahoots and is now based in Melbourne. The other team members are: Mat Johnson (interactive programming), Jordan McGuire (designer) and Joan Sherriff (accounts manager). Inkahoots remained at the studio I visited until April 2009 when they moved to a temporary space in South Brisbane while they built a new studio, where they moved in July 2012. Grant reports that Inkahoots is more committed than ever to socially concerned design: “One benefit of longevity is that we can focus on our core interests without the financial pressure to take work outside this area. (That’s not to say things aren’t still tight!) One lesson we’ve tried to learn is about picking the right people to join the team, so it is an unshakable priority that new members share our ideological concerns. We’re probably doing more different kinds of work now — online, interactive, public interventions etc. — as well as traditional print-based stuff.”

See also:

Inkahoots and Socially Concerned Design: Part 1
Why the Activist Poster is Here to Stay
Utopian Image: Politics and Posters




35. For a contemporaneous survey of the new typographic design, see Rick Poynor and Edward Booth-Clibborn (eds.), Typography Now: The Next Wave, London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1991. Emigre magazine, from 1988 to 1995, is an essential document of the new design.

36. Interview with McDonald, 1 September 2001.


37. In the early hours of the morning on 21 September 1998, an arsonist set fire to Inkahoots’ building, for reasons unknown, and it burned down. Nothing survived and posters and other materials from the Inkahoots archive were lost. It took several months to rebuild the studio and replace all the equipment. Inkahoots’ clients gave their full support during this testing period and all commissions were completed.

38. Interview with Jason Grant, Brisbane, 8 September 2001.

39. Ibid.

40. Neville Brody and Stuart Ewen, “Design Insurgency,” Print, XLIV:I, January/February 1990, p. 119.

41. Interview with Grant, 8 September 2001.

42. Inkahoots’ clients include: Brisbane City Council, Brisbane Urban Renewal, Ecological Engineering, Social Action Office, Queensland Conservation Council, Legal Aid Queensland, Relationships Australia, Family Planning Queensland, Australian Association of Young People in Care, Domestic Violence Resource Centre, Department of Youth Affairs, Prisoners’ Legal Service, Anti-Discrimination Commission, Arts Queensland, Queensland Community Arts Network, La Boite Theatre, Queensland Poetry Festival, Queensland Writers’ Centre, Brisbane Independent Filmmakers, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation.

43. Interview with Dee Martin, Brisbane, 30 August 2001.

44. Interview with Karen Fletcher, Brisbane, 30 August 2001.

45. Interview with Joe Hurley, Brisbane, 31 August 2001.

46. Ibid.

47. Interview with Grant, 8 September 2001.

48. Interview with Hurley, 31 August 2001.

49. Ibid.

50. Interview with Grant, 8 September 2001.

51. Ibid.

52. See Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, “Low and High” in Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design, New York: Kiosk, 1996, pp. 156–66; Jeffery Keedy, “I Like the Vernacular . . . Not” in Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press, 1994, pp. 102–3.

53. See Lupton and Miller, “Deconstruction and Graphic Design” in Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design, pp. 2–23; Chuck Byrne and Martha Witte, “A Brave New World: Understanding Deconstruction,” Print, XLIV:VI, November/December 1990, pp. 80–7; Gérard Mermoz, “Deconstruction and the Typography of Books,” Baseline, no. 25, 1998, pp. 41–4.

54. Jason Grant, “Polite Obscenities” in Public x Private: Inkahoots 1990–2000, unpaginated.

55. For further discussion, see Poynor, “Design is Advertising” in Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World, pp. 123–35.

56. Grant, “Polite Obscenities,” unpaginated.

57. For background on M1, see http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/27542

58. Interview with Fletcher, 30 August 2001.

59. Ibid.

60. Interview with McDonald, 1 September 2001.

61. Interview with Grant, 8 September 2001.

62. See Naomi Klein, No Logo, London: Flamingo, 2000. See also Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland (eds.), Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1997, and Thomas Frank, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy, London: Secker & Warburg, 2001. In the design sphere, Adbusters continued its agitations after the launch of First Things First 2000 and the ensuing debate in its letter pages. See, in particular, issue no. 37, September/October 2001, devoted to “Design Anarchy.”

63. See
Studio profile: Rinzen, Desktop, no. 163, September 2001, unpaginated.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Politics, Social Good

Comments [12]

Thank you for this post. I was somehow moved by this story. Possibly it was the designer's frankness and their convictions in the face of what must be a constant up-hill battle. Or maybe it was also the work's 'poetry' as one one their clients called it. Looking at their design today it is exciting and vital. To not only have endured but flourished creatively is an inspiration.
Chandan Mehra

reading this i couldn't help but wonder why there aren't more Inkahoots'.

politically engaged practices are obviously never going to be legion given the way designers are traditionally taught and the nature of the industry. but they must be out there? metahaven, inkahoots, experimental jetset?, barnbrook? the list must be longer than this? can someone help me?

i also couldn't help wonder why there isn't more writing like this. close readings of particular practices. the depth of enquiry here makes a lot of other writing about designers look very slight?

Thanks for these supportive comments, Chandan and vito. I do believe that Inkahoots' work offers a persuasive model for a socially-orientated design practice, though they are engaged in a rather different kind of enterprise from Metahaven or Experimental Jetset.

What's also refreshing is that they have found a viable way to produce challenging work in enduring alliances with clients in their community who desperately need good design. By contrast, the more familiar alternative contemporary route of working mainly for clients on the arts and culture scene could appear safe and unchallenging. I think we have to ask why it seems more important today for would-be progressive designers emerging from MA and MFA courses to concentrate on various shades of inward-looking "conceptual" design rather than to commit themselves as radical communicators to genuinely pressing and neglected (by designers, that is) social causes.
Rick Poynor

Thank you for this Rick, it was read with rapt attention! I was struck how similar the practises of Inkahoot's work is to the work of critical designers and design fiction. It would seem to me that these are two sides of the same coin, critical design being birthed in the object and socially concerned design coming from the graphic yet they seem to forward a similar agenda. You mentioned the 'Poetry' of Inkahoot's work, a similar word I've encountered in critical design practises. Do you see a link between these practises yourself and if so, where is this moving towards? Are designers becoming visual patrons towards causes they believe in over pixel pushers? and in doing so, leaving the rest of the work to the new wave of hacker-designers?

"Or should the new styles simply be regarded as a common visual language, which, for this reason, will be readily accessible to viewers accustomed to encounter them in commercial contexts, and which can then be used for the delivery of alternative forms of message?"

My student colleague Amy West used this vector to great effect in her project 'Grafik Bullshit' and it is something I'm still trying to grasp fully but am so enthused with pursuing!


Forgive me if I don't share your rose-coloured glasses on this. We have had variations of conversations about this, so if it seems that this is already in the middle of a previous conversation, perhaps it is.

Can you expand on what you mean by "viable" in your response above? As a fulltime educator in a tenured position, I am ever mindful of the fact that I am teaching people who will be set adrift into a challenging profession, often saddled with an average of $32,000 in student debt from the minute they graduate.

I would like to know why so many people have left Inkahoots. Could it be that they had children and could no longer justify a bare bones existence? Or how about the fact that relying on public sector grants is in itself, not sustainable over the long term, particularly if there is an implied suggestion that more designers should choose to "make a living" that way? Or how about the fact that in most major cities like New York, Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam, et al., the cost of living is exorbitantly high, thereby affecting our decisions of whether to pursue social causes, or eat.
David Cabianca

David, these glasses of mine are certainly a little grimy and chipped these days but I hope they are not rose-colored. I'm a little surprised to find you leaping in with the "but how can we ever make it work financially?" argument, which is always such a close-down. Yes, design education can be fabulously expensive in the US and increasingly in the UK. But where there is a will there is often a way and these two posts about Inkahoots are, in any case, aimed at readers worldwide.

I tried to make it clear in this study (written in 2001) that there are a number of contextual factors that created the conditions in which Inkahoots have been able to pursue this way of working for more than two decades; these are historical, local and ideological/philosophical. They are also personal: Robyn McDonald and Jason Grant are two of the most concerned, committed, generous and focused people I have met in the graphic design field. Your picture of attrition is inaccurate. This is a small, consistent studio, run with good business sense. McDonald worked with Inkahoots for 19 years before deciding she needed a change, Grant has been with Inkahoots for 18 years, Ben Mangan for 13 years. All design studios have people "passing through." Grant makes it clear in the final update that they need to be careful to take on designers who share their social goals.

If Inkahoots can do it, then other designers who share their level of commitment can also do it. Even now.

James, yes, there is a link to critical design in the sense that both social design and critical design share a dissatisfaction with a purely commercial conception of design. "Poetry" might be the result. I don't want to generalize about what design is "becoming." But there are enough examples out there of alternative ways of working to show that this remains a very real possibility, despite the cost of living.
Rick Poynor

David, aren't you just rehearsing the tired old justifications for doing nothing? Of course designers could earn more working for corporate clients, the same way people outside design working in their own businesses, social, welfare, humanitarian etc organisations could earn more working in conventional corporations.

But don't we now need to find new ways of making a living that do not impact negatively on our collective future? Some of these ways will fail and some will succeed, but the implication that design graduates should slot into the economic status quo is an insult to imagination.

If you are really concerned for your students' future, especially in this time of crisis, you would be encouraging creative contingencies. The real risk isn't that graduates earn a mere 'barebones' living, rather that unless creative people everywhere direct their energies towards untested alternatives, the whole game is over.


As a founding member of Inkahoots who left the collective after 5 or 6 years (I can't remember exactly), I should respond to your question of why. As it goes, I landed a job as executive officer of the Queensland Community Arts Network (one of our clients), largely, I think, on the strength of my achievements at Inkahoots. Yes, I did have a new son and yes, that was a factor, but so was the opportunity to work at a higher level of cultural policy development. After a couple of years I left that job too and freelanced as an artist for ten years. In all my work I applied the same principles that informed the founding of Inkahoots and maintained a long collegial association with Robyn and Jason. I made public art, consulted on cultural policy, taught at tertiary institutions and developed theatre projects and exhibitions. On the strength of that work, I landed my current position as curator in a contemporary arts centre, where I am respected particularly for my work in community engagement. I now have three more sons and they all ate their dinner tonight. To me, this shows that this line of work is "viable". It may not be Graphic Design, but it was never about Graphic Design. Graphic Design is merely one of several sharp instruments in the toolbox for social change.

Thank you Rick, for republishing this paper. It warms the cockles.


I have no truck with social engagement, particularly in design. I do, however, have a problem with the perspective that teaches students (or others) to hate their profession, i.e. "do as I say, not as I do." As someone who came to graphic design after an education in architecture, I recognize that many of the faults that exist in society are not the fault of graphic designers. Instead, I recognize the complexity that graphic designers have to deal with on a day-to-day basis: negotiating personalities, dealing with difficult clients who don't respect what one has to offer, securing new work, etc. What about the marketing departments who often bring in the graphic designer after the real important decisions have already been made? or the CEO who is only beholden to shareholders and his own bonus? or the behavioral science department that studies how to best part a consumer with his or her dollar at the impulse zone?

When business schools start teaching their students and Executive MBAs that design is a way to inject social equality into a product and there fore society rather than just a way to increase sales and profit margins, them maybe I can start to agree that many of society's faults lie with graphic design and graphic designers.
David Cabianca

david you are obviously so entrenched in a culture as to be blind to alternatives. it doesn't sound to me that anyone at inkahoots hates themselves or their work.

a graphic designer's task is difficult and complicated, so our complicity is excused?

'many of the faults that exist in society are not the fault of graphic designers', so our complicity is excused?

seems to me anyone that isn't uncomfortable, at the very least, with the contemporary profession of graphic design just isn't paying enough attention.

this old 'don't shoot the messenger' defence might wash if the messages weren't part of the very substance of a terminal ideology.

well while you are waiting for 'business schools' to change before you reconsider your position i hope your students at least can just get on with it themselves.

Great to read my fellow co-founder of Inkahoots, Chris Stannard's post. I feel the issue of whether we work towards the social good is far bigger than the design industry, it's a major life choice for everyone. If Universities are not teaching students to believe they can do more than sell products, grow profits and never question the status quo, then they are failing them.
Robyn McDonald

David, can we be clear that nowhere in these two posts about Inkahoots do I suggest that the many faults in society are all the responsibility of graphic designers, which would be ridiculous. You are taking a discussion that's meant to be positive — what can designers do? what have some committed designers (Inkahoots) actually done? — in an unhelpful direction that entirely misses the purpose of this case study.

vito's pointed response to your last comment is right on the money.

Incidentally, you start that comment by saying that you "have no truck with social engagement, particularly in design." In other words, according to the meaning of "have no truck with," you have no wish to have anything to do with socially engaged design. Is that actually what you meant to say?

Chris, great to hear from you and thanks for the update on the path your work took after leaving Inkahoots.

Robyn, I'm certain that many design educators take a wider perspective, but there remain inherent ideological biases in the way graphic design is considered as a practice and taught as a job.
Rick Poynor

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