Projet de recherche, financement RCDAV 2017–2019
Haute école d’art et de design – Genève
Head Me: A Prepackaged Design
Social networks dictate the form of messages using generic graphic tools and an often opaque system of algorithms. In a move to pick up on current events, the Head Me experiments sought to adapt to these constraints.
A play on words with the acronym of the Haute Ecole d’Art et de Design (HEAD) of Geneva, Head Me means “lead me” in English. The Head Me experiments were dedicated to social and political current events both in Switzerland and internationally. “Lead me”: it seems like the injunction of a lost websurfer, one who is then taken by the hand by a designer… “lead me, I’m looking for a sort of Ariadne’s thread amidst this labyrinth of loud and vague messages, “lead me” through this world of infernal current events…. Of course, our approach is more subtle. This interjection is addressed as much to the digital native as the designer and the social networks, since one no longer really distinguishes who is leading whom in this system whose mechanics seem to be a permanent case of the biter bit.
As we well know, the Internet has profoundly transformed the profession of graphic design over the last two decades, and social networks have upended it even more. The latter have offered publication tools that create packaged formats for messages. Designers must come to terms with the networks’ static graphic universes: it is impossible to modify the appearance of a Facebook or Instagram page, and they must also adapt to the platforms’ opaque algorithmic predispositions. For example, a message created with the Facebook text app is forwarded more often than the same message created by us in the form of an image. Designers often have to rely on these generic tools and they often find themselves obliged to produce derivations of these prepackaged graphics.
These platforms are, above all, advertising media whose objective remains to capture the attention of websurfers and direct them towards content that would be financially remunerative for the platform. Consequently, they remain dependent upon user responses, which they seek to direct without appearing to do so. A designer’s margin for creation is not totally absent but is severely limited. These platforms do not have a large tolerance for graphic ingenuity, and visual inventiveness does not automatically entail greater visibility.
Head Me is a project that brings together graphic experimentation that reacts to daily events, whether Swiss or international. Initially, we proceeded as we had for our first experiments on abstentionism, in an individual and empirical manner. We tried to infiltrate ourselves into the flow of messages reacting to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s rants, or the Swiss vote on dental insurance. As we played upon mimetic codes or invented caustic photomontages, we observed that some were liked and some were liked less. We ended up being confronted with the same difficulties that we had encountered when we began our experiments on abstentionism. Working from our personal accounts, without any real preexisting viral aura, our first images bounced around without, however, provoking any real buzz.
The Gilets Jaunes: A Strong Rallying Cry
A social movement born in France in October 2018, the Gilets Jaunes came together, rallying through the symbol of yellow safety jackets.
The Gilets Jaunes is a protest movement that began in France in October 2018 after the government announced an increase in the price of gas through a tax on the consumption of energy products (TICPE). This spontaneous social movement originated in the distribution, largely through social networks, of calls to protest against this increase. Completely outside the structure of political parties and unions, the force of the movement as it spread throughout France took the government by surprise. As a result, thousands of citizens brought together by social networks took to the streets, organizing protests where they blocked roads for months, and the French government renounced the controversial law, but they did not manage to stem the protests. Groups are still resisting one year later, occupying roundabouts and blocking roads.
On October 24, 2018, Ghislain Coutard, a thirty-six-year old from Narbonne, posted a video on Facebook to rally people for a protest on November 17, 2018, called for by trucker Éric Drouet. This form of addressing the public is a standard of social networks: any citizen can thus share their indignation, their anger, or a rant in the form of a selfie video. Coutard got on his soap box and called for each protester to display their yellow safety jackets on the dashboards of their cars to show their solidarity.
Other social phenomena have been represented by distinctive symbols, such as the red squares sported by striking students during the Maple Spring of 2012 in Quebec. The Gilet Jaune is particular because it originated with the publication of a single individual and did not require any prior production. The high-visibility yellow safety jackets are obligatory in each vehicle, so the gesture is extremely simple for most of the participants, who can easily display them. It then became an easy way to show sympathy for the movement.
The Gilet Jaune movement is highly contested, commented, and heterogeneous, bringing together people of all sorts of viewpoints and politics. The French intelligentsia, put off by its protean aspect, have been reluctant to champion it since they cannot identify with it. Intrigued by the spontaneity of such a groundswell of citizens initiated on social networks, as part of our Head Me project, we decided to enter into a dialogue with them without any judgment or political implication on our part.
Social Reminders: It’s Time to Raise Some Questions
Intrigued by the scope of this social movement born on social networks, our team entered the debate graphically.
As part of the Head Me experiments, our team observed the activities of the Gilet Jaunes on social networks. They refused all leaders: their events were organized on Facebook as well as dozens of local and national pages that sprang up as early as the first days of the movement. Debate on them is agitated, cut-and-dried and sometimes violent, but its effervescence is illustrative of the type of citizen coalitions that have come into being as a result of social networks.
Our aim being to incite discussion in a non-partisan fashion on pages with established and high levels of activity, we opted for an open question in black on a yellow background. These inserts were extremely simple graphically speaking, using Courier, a font that exists on every computer, a square format and full text justification, the idea being to enable each and every one to reproduce the look. The design was inspired both by alarm signals and emojis and the questions were set out like road signs, like so many emergency flares along the roadside.
The first questions, published in this manner or inserted in the form of comments, were very fruitful. When we asked the question: “If [President] Macron resigns, who, or what should take his place?”, it got 500 comments within the space of two hours before the thread was censured and erased. It was impossible for us to know if it was the admins of the page or Facebook who acted as censors. No recourse possible, end of discussion.
A Design Kit
Contrary to the founding principles of the profession, designers must adapt their proposals sometimes, suggesting only one design principle. Here, the Post-It™ became a simple medium of communication, accessible to everyone.
After a few weeks, the Gilet Jaunes movement took on such momentum that it became really difficult to maintain a presence amidst such a flow of messages: dozens of posts would appear each minute, each canceling out the other.
Then we had the idea of changing course and going into the field, and connecting with protesters in the south of France. Our proposition consisted of placing our questions on yellow Post-Its™ set out in urban spaces. A small group was gathered and began to relay the idea, first in Arles, then in other towns in the south of France, such as Nimes and Montpellier. The core group then dotted urban spaces with these questioning Post-Its™, thus having the street preserve a trace of the passing protesters, and pose a series of open questions. In this manner, the Post-Its™ became the outdoor equivalent of a hashtag (#), a way of uniting a series of messages around the same visual sign.
This manner of addressing a community both on social networks and on the ground enables one to upend the graphic principle. Our first publications on social networks were simple images easily reproduced on computers. Here, the proposition was a kit addressed to the Gilet Jaunes community that consisted of a Post-It™ and a felt-tip pen. Our work ended there, leaving them in complete liberty, as on social networks, to either appropriate the tool offered, or decline it. We find ourselves coming full circle when the images of posted Post-Its™ circulate on the Internet, thus attesting to the protest as event.