The words ‘graphic’ and ‘identity’ in the same sentence usually signal a discussion about branding, but there are other ways we can address identity in graphic design. One approaches identity as a reflection of who the maker is, addressing issues of belonging, of what constitutes a community of professional practice, and how such a community is defined. Another addresses identity as a reflection of what is being made. This is a discussion that addresses what things look like: how visual language is used and how content is transmitted. What follows here addresses the first of these approaches.
What does it mean to talk about national identity with regard to design, or for that matter, any other form of cultural production? What are the determining factors in the constitution of identity? By what criteria is it assessed? Is it simply whatever happens to be the output of people who were born in the country in question, no matter what they produce? Or is it connected, less to people, and more to circumstance, and to the social context in which work is created? And is it possible, within an increasingly globalised culture, to separate what belongs in what place and where things originate? Does it even make sense to attempt to do such a thing, and for what purpose?
Identity is complex. It is the result of varying, not always harmonious forces acting upon each other, and often in a state of flux. It’s also an issue that has a particular personal resonance for me, and one that I have recently revisited for a variety of reasons.
I say revisit because these are not new concerns. National identity, writes Bhikhu Parekh, is not a substance but a cluster of tendencies and values, that is neither fixed nor alterable at will, and that needs to be periodically redefined in the light of historically inherited characteristics, present needs, and future aspirations. Identity is often a sensitive issue because of the ways in which it touches on one's sense of belonging.
At the time of writing I have been living and working in Portugal for the past twenty-seven years. It has become my home. Personal (family) circumstances aside, on a professional level I work within a Portuguese context—a context circumscribed by specific political, social, cultural, and economic characteristics, with accompanying practices and habits, limitations and opportunities. My clients are Portuguese. My studio has grown over the years with the input of young Portuguese designers that I have employed. I teach in a Portuguese school of design, and have educated hundreds of young Portuguese designers over the years. I have organised events, conferences, and exhibitions that have aimed to promote not just professional design practice in Portugal, but to stimulate our collective interest and knowledge in practice as a valuable form of social and cultural production.
And yet my origins are not Portuguese, and subsequently my outlook has different roots. All of this raises a number of questions for any 'foreigner'. The first of which is: where do I belong, or more pertinently, to what do I belong? In my case, what body of cultural and commercial legacy have I been contributing to—English, or Portuguese?
This becomes a pertinent question, not just on a personal level, but on a social and professional level. It first became apparent some years ago when an exhibition was organised in Madrid about Portuguese Graphic Design. I was excluded on the grounds that I was not Portuguese. It happened again in 2015 during the Ano do Design Portugûes in relation to a publication organised by the ADP and curated by Jorge Silva. This publication, entitled Portugal by Design: O Melhor do Design Nacional (Portugal by Design: The Best of National Design), includes the work of ninety-five designers, most (but not all) living and working in Portugal. From what I understand from the introductory text, I was excluded for the same reason as the Madrid exclusion: because I am not Portuguese and was, therefore, not eligible, despite everything I refer to above. (Notably, the title of the book is half English, half Portugues —an irony apparently lost on the authors.)
There is a further paradox. The initiative—Ano do Design Portugûes—that commissioned and promoted the publication, in which I am regarded as a foreigner, is the same initiative that invited me to curate an exhibition in London about Portuguese Communication Design. The inference here is that while I am seen to be qualified to overview and comment on Portuguese graphic design, I am not part of it: which is to say that my work as a professional designer does not belong to the national body of work that constitutes Portuguese Design.
Perhaps, instead of having being titled Ano do Design Portugûes (Portuguese Design Year), the initiative should have been called Ano dos Designers Portugueses (Year of the Portuguese Designers). But who exactly understands the difference, or might have stopped to consider this? Was there any discussion about it? One would have thought that such an initiative would have been the perfect opportunity to address issues of cultural identity.
Having been born in England, with a French mother, and as a Portuguese resident since 1993, I am officially entitled to three passports. Let's assume I have Portuguese citizenship. How does this change my identity, or more to the point, how does it change the nature of my professional practice? And should it make any difference?
In what ways does someone's legal status define their identity?
We can turn the mirror around. There are many Portuguese-born designers living and working abroad. Let's take a Portuguese designer living in say, Berlin. What is the context within which they work, and to what body of professional practice does their work contribute to—Portuguese, or German?
I use my own personal circumstances above as an example, but the issues about identity and belonging are not only about me. The same could be said of, say, Robin Fior who lived in Portugal for forty years and—had he not passed away in 2012—would (with the application of consistent criteria) also be ineligible within the survey of national design. The pertinent question is whether any, in whatever country, can contribute to the DNA of a national identity? And conversely, to what extent is the identity of a country influenced by inputs that are, by their very nature, exterior in origin? Imagine this happening on US soil. Missing from any collective American publication would be work by designers, including—but not limited to—Ladislav Sutnar, Ivan Chermayeff, Tibor Kalman, Lorraine Wild, Zuzana Licko, Rudy Vanderlans, and Stephan Sagmeister, since none of these designers were born in the United States.
The relation of immigrants in relation to their ‘adopted’ countries is double-edged. They bring with them attitudes, outlooks, habits and references which often enrichen their new contexts. At the same time, the enrichment is reciprocal with the adoption of new locations influencing the nature of the journey, opening new perspectives, and framing new opportunities.
Design is, now as ever, an international language, a process of translation, and an expression of robust cultural amalgamation. Who erects the barriers to entry—for what purpose—and to what end?