Applying Graphic Design Principles to Social Permaculture

by Matilde Magro

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There are two main factors that maintain the visual hierarchy of a graphic design piece: contrast and value. These two primarily pop out as the maintenance provided in the scale of color, line, form, and texture of some artistic (or not) piece of design.

These principles weren’t exactly defined as such, there wasn’t anyone who set the order or the directive, simply arose out of the organic nature of graphism, of someone being a creator and another being a spectator.

Before we move on, I’ve been diving into indigenous art lately and one particular beautiful woman (Marcia Kambeba) spoke about the importance of graphism, not only as a means of conveying a message but also as the deeper energy a piece invites and what it says behind what is there. That graphism, in its essence, is the culture and identity of the design artist expressed through a medium.

So in contrast and value, we can see two things: one is the form, the other is color. Most of us anyway, for those who dive deeper into the realms of graphic design, other elements are more relevant. The contrast brings us a notion of the identity of the piece, meaning what it says about what the piece is. If you have a poster with a white background and giant non-serif letters, you can sense a taste of modernism and contemporarity, as if you see something colorful with serif lettering you’ll see something that you can include in some 70’s type of design. These visual elements aren’t so as solely the identity but the base to what the poster has to say, what the poster represents. These are visual identity forms to which we attribute meaning and identity, furthermore the color just accentuates that.

When we speak of value, we enter the domain of merit and talent. What is valuable about this piece? Is it what it says or what it represents? What emotions does it evoke? What kind of thoughts does it participate in? This value is, by its own relevance, what drives future appropriation. The highest the value we attribute to the piece the more we consider it culture or art, the more we invest our emotions and energy into it. There is seldom a time where you go home saying you saw an amazing poster if you’re not a graphic designer who lives and breathe design for a living. It’s more common to speak about a tv ad than a poster on some billboard somewhere.

Bridging this to social design, two components for me are fundamental: ecology and humanity. Or more so, how the design represents both the incorporation in the ecosystem and the human identity that it replies to and aims to sustain. Much like contrast and value, we see this as the identity and cultural aspect of the design. And much like form and color, it will be what drives the design further into the realms of what is artistic.

In working on a specific part of a social design I realized there is no way to design something in which a considered minority is excluded. Instead, we need to embrace difference in the design in order to incorporate the diverse tapestry of human value, to sustain what is de facto a social design. If you exclude the social, it is just an idea that has no value to pursue completion. This is also where contrast reflects: the contrast between cultures, subcultures, and ethnocultures belong deep within the underlines of a social design.

And this may be a form of criticism or not, depending on how you look at it, but in our everyday lives how much do we take into account the inclusion of diversity? If you’re a considered minority, possibly quite a lot. If you’re not, maybe you just have to make an effort. Particularly aspects of things like Permaculture and Regenerative Cultures aren’t as inclusive as they could be. When they go mainstream and are appropriated and all voices and faces of the movements are white and blonde is quite a take on the lack of inclusivity. I’ve been to hundreds of talks about these subjects and seldom are traditional or indigenous cultures even mentioned. But also, complaints about the lack of interest and the ever-going repetition about the same things over and over again. Another bridge is how often these cultures move to the small eco-communities subculture basically shutting out every other ethnocultural, creating even more segregation and divergence as it would aim, and it does, to include. It’s something that needs to be solved, otherwise, it will never be a solution for the future.

When we add value to some graphism we are aiming to include the diverse tapestry of the ecosystem our design belongs to. For example, if you do a poster for an art and design school it will have a completely different value than if you do one to post at a coffee shop down the street, not only because the audience will be different, but the setting in which that design is now taking part of and the people it connects with. The identity of the piece will have a completely different understanding in both settings. Such as individuals.

So when we aim at directing an artistic design piece in a school, the value it will have will be higher, for good or bad reasons. Why is that? A presumably more cultured audience. If you speak about permaculture with a farmer who practices it or a layperson who works in a bank, the idea of permaculture will be completely different from those two persons. The idea that is behind the value, is not the exact identity but the energy that lives in the piece. When it comes to social design when you bring to the table an incomplete process that doesn’t include the unique identities of the ecosystem that it represents then it will have no value.

If in a design process, whatever that may be, particularly something as human-centered as permaculture (you’re allowed to disagree, but something that is human-centered is built towards the best behavior it can have to the inclusion of the human in the ecosystem), you won’t have a robust system if you exclude things like building soil or places the pets can play in. By exclusion of what is there, it will never be a good design, even if pretty.

So, the idea that in a design that is Earth-centered, there needs to be a higher contrast with indigenism and indigenous way of life and bigger value attributed to the cessation of ignorance and exclusion. It’s safe to say that to explore these new venues, the voices need to be less of the problem and more of the solution. As much as we can disagree, color is only irrelevant for those who don’t live and breathe colorism and racism. If in our own communities we aim to exclude, there’s no point in holding the flag, it will be a negative contrast with no value.

A fancy way of saying: walk the talk.

Whether you’re building an urban garden or a forest, a city or a community hub, the basic design principle to take into account is the organic nature of the identity of the project. If you aim for excluding the harmful, some regenerative good has to be included. But that does not mean that somehow, in a globalized society that desperately needs healing you can achieve any type of progress with the problems of the past.

Despite deeply respected and respectful people in my life having a different opinion, the sustainable goals are a piece of social design that does not exclude but aims at including. What people see in it and how countries work with it is the same aspect of how the value of a poster in an art school or a coffee shop. In the coffee shop there is no underlying past mechanism of working with posters, much like government officials who did cocaine for a living and now have the word sustainable up their noses. So we, who do have the benefit of working in the field of what is now called sustainability, have the means of working in a way that includes the best value and contrast and excludes irrelevant hierarchies. The inclusion aspect cannot be dismissed entirely, in fact, they need to be higher in our priorities.

The aim for 100% respect for human rights cannot be an undone utopia for any of us.

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