5 questions on collaboration, politics and design
Arjun Harrison-Mann (MA Visual Communication, 2017) is a London-based designer, activist and lecturer at Goldsmiths University and the Royal College of Art.
He co-founded Studio Hyte, is a member of activist group Disabled People Against Cuts, and has a collaborative practice with Benjamin Redgrove in which they address access to protest within the UK’s Disability Rights movement. Through his studio and collaborative practice he explores alternative methods of engagement that give subject matter and participant equal consideration.
We spoke with him about the intersection of design and politics and the ethics of designing with communities.
What is Studio Hyte?
Studio Hyte is a multidisciplinary design studio that works between graphic design, interaction and emergent forms of visual communication, placing research and concept above medium. Collectively, our visual practice is a means through which we can plot out a conceptual landscape in order to understand and explore real-world scenarios.The studio has been a long time in the making. Myself, Benjamin Cain and Jordan Gamble met when we were 16. We then met Eugene Tan during our BA at Central Saint Martins. For me, it’s always felt natural to form a studio grounded in friendship that produces work informed by our collective ethos. Using design practice as a means to create meaningful, experimental and thought-provoking interactions with communities was one of the drives for us forming. This can be seen through projects such as What We Can Do, a collaboration with Antonio Roberts and Furtherfield Gallery.
We produced a set of multi-dimensional interactive billboards that pose a provocation as to the future of Finsbury Park by reanimating the words of Octavia E Butler, and subverting augmented reality to create spaces of utopia and hope.
Your practice is based on dialogical design, could explain what that means and how it shapes what you do?
At the RCA I became interested in the modes designers can use to ethically engage with issues close to their hearts, whether politically, culturally, socially or environmentally. For myself, this is rooted in the Disability Rights Movement in the UK, and addresses what the UN in 2016 termed the ‘grave and systemic’ cuts to disability benefits the Tory government implemented across the UK.As an ally to the movement it became important to be aware of my own role in the work and to make sure myself and my collaborator Benjamin Redgrove made work ‘with, not for’ the Deaf and Disabled community. To make work that doesn’t just communicate, or broadcast, but begins to listen and respond.
This is where this idea of dialogical design starts to sit, looking at using dialogue and conversational processes, mediums and platforms to create designs that ethically engage with and foreground communities.
How did studying at the RCA help you arrive at this approach?
While studying at the RCA I had this moment where life and practice started to blur. With my family directly affected by the cuts to disability benefits I started to understand for the first time the role of catharsis in design practice, and began to test out ways of addressing the political as a personal experience.Having this time to shape and reshape both myself and my practice led to new collaborations with Benjamin Redgrove and activist group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), and strengthened old collaborations with Studio Hyte, which are important parts of my practice today.
Do you think visual communication can be an effective tool to address political issues?
Whether you are a designer or not, we all have an important role to play in seeing a more inclusive and accessible world take place. It’s through the collective action of multiple lived experiences, skillsets, practices and perspectives that we can start to understand the potential role of design practice in addressing today’s political issues.This is something that I am consistently learning through mine and Benjamin Redgrove’s involvement with DPAC. They introduced us to The Social Model of Disability, which is an important provocation for us as design practitioners. It essentially states that people aren’t disabled, but that society is disabling. This highlights the ways design practice can marginalise disabled people if it doesn’t properly take into account their lived experience and consider accessibility as a medium in itself. It also shows the potential for design practice to reimagine what it means to be radically inclusive. This can be seen through our projects, Power Tool and ProxyProtest.com and our latest project Perspectives on Visibility, in collaboration with Kaiya Waerea, in which we look at the relationship between power and presence, the potential role of the proxy in making protest accessible and the role of design in foregrounding anti-ableist aesthetics.
How did studying Visual Communication at the RCA prepare you for what you are doing now?
Being a part of the community of tutors and students on the Visual Communication course has truly been an incredibly invaluable and meaningful experience for myself, my practice and for the formation of Studio Hyte. I am truly grateful to have had the time, support, advice, challenges and collaborations that took place during my time there.