In Conversation with Remeike ForbesEliza Chen (BFA GD 2019) Tiger Dingsun (BFA GD 2019)
Remeike Forbes (MFA GD 2014) is the creative director of Jacobin, a magazine offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture. In November he spoke at RISD in the Graphic Design department about some of the work he has been doing there. Eliza Chen and Tiger Dingsun sat down with him for Modern Usage (modernusage.com), a publication focusing on interviews with RISD’s visiting artists and designers. Modern Usage aims to further the conversation beyond just the talk or lecture, inviting professionals in art and design fields to speak frankly about how their practices engage with theory, pedagogy, and professional methodologies.
Eliza Chen: In socialist circles, I’ve heard this phrase, “I became politicized when—” or “I became aware of the cause when X event happened.” What caused you to “become politicized,” and how did that relate to starting your graphic design practice? In doing a little research about you, I stumbled upon a Harvard Crimson article written about you in 2011, when you were graduating, and found out you were doing graphic design even then.
Remeike Forbes: Yeah, I was in this department called Visual and Environmental Studies, which was essentially a fine arts department but broken into different tracks. There was a typical visual arts track, a film studies track, and then there was something like an environmental studies track, which was a bit more obscure, and related more to architecture and the built environment. It used to be a more vibrant sub-department many years in the past, but by the time I got there it was just one person teaching classes.
RF: So it was more like a general design studies sort of thing, and we would take on a lot of print media. For example, we would write papers where we would have to analyze an advertisement and decode its meaning, as well as describe its historical context. Once I had to write a paper about an ad in the 1920s for bathtubs or something. I also did quite a lot of printmaking, mostly silkscreen, and outside of the department, most of the classes I took were in political science and philosophy. Later on, all these interests kind of converged for me—I did a thesis in college that was about the WPA [Works Progress Administration] poster division. My main extracurricular was doing student labor solidarity work. I was the director of a group on campus called the Student Labor Action Movement, which I was active in my entire time there. So that was what I was doing before I got to RISD.
EC: I feel like the hot-button issue around labor right now is grad student unionization. Was your group doing anything related to that?
RF: If there was anything going on, I would have known, and there really wasn’t anything at that point. I think at Harvard there may have been efforts prior to when I got there, and obviously efforts have happened since. But I think, really, the only Ivy League university that had any sort of history of grad student unionization was Yale, throughout the ’90s, and even there it’s still a sort of fraught—
EC: Perilous struggle?
RF: Yeah, exactly. It’s much more of a protracted struggle than Harvard’s in many ways.
Tiger Dingsun: I feel like a lot of students here, in the Graphic Design department at least, are constantly butting into this question of how entrenched graphic design can be in capitalism and that kind of entanglement.
EC: Yes, and there’s sort of this vague pedagogical undercurrent in our curriculum that suggests that graphic design in and of itself can be a solution or be disruptive. But a materialist view of history would reveal that no, it’s actually the social cause that changes society. The graphic design is just one aspect of the change.
TD: When you were getting more into graphic design and political theory and socialism at the same time, did you run into these issues?
RF: That question occupied my mind much more a couple years ago but doesn’t really anymore. When I got to RISD, I already had these political leanings. In fact, when I got to college I was already a socialist—I was president of the socialist club in my high school actually. When I got to RISD, I almost had this mission in mind: I would learn tools of design and use it for like, my own political ends. Which I think technically, I’ve done in a way. But I think I also had a more hubristic view of my own agency then. I thought like, Oh yeah, we have to use graphic design as a hammer to smash capitalism or something.
EC, TD: [Laugh]
RF: That seems a little silly to me now, just because all of us, whether we like it or not, are embedded within these capitalist structures. I think this can kind of go two ways, and they are mirror images of each other. One is this political perspective, where you can use design to achieve certain political ends, and then there’s the mirror, the corporatist perspective, which is in the vein of something like Fast Company, in which design itself can change the world and act as this constant revolutionization of the means of production. It’s a weird mirror image.
EC: Right, like they use the same language, but for very different things.
RF: Yeah, and the reality is, obviously design occupies a certain place in society, and it’s part of our cultural atmosphere, and there’s some significance in that, but it doesn’t shape society in any specific way, no more than any other cultural practice or type of work. For the vast majority of people who do graphic design, that’s what it is: work. It’s a way of making a living and surviving. I’m not particularly dismissive of designers who have to do work for anything. Not everyone has the luxury that I have of working for a socialist magazine for four years. That’s an unusual niche that I’ve found—
EC: Possibly the only niche of its kind. [Laughs]
RF: Yeah, highly unusual, and it’s not really reproducible for other people, so I’m not gonna go out and say, “Oh yeah, you should turn down whatever job you got after RISD and start a leftist magazine.” That would be a bit odd.
TD: Could you talk about the aesthetic direction you’ve taken with Jacobin? Eliza and I were talking earlier about how there seemed to be a cliche that socialist publications were ugly, or had to be ugly.
EC: Yeah, and so much of what makes Jacobin appealing is that it looks really good. I was also thinking that maybe this is an American thing? Like American socialism, maybe in the last fifty years, has developed a certain association with ugliness, in contrast to how Russian revolutionary posters and propaganda are endlessly aestheticized.
RF: Yeah, that’s another question that occupied my mind a lot years ago. Honestly, since I’ve started working on Jacobin in 2011, my primary concern isn’t about producing a thing that looks good. I’m more focused, or at least more interested, in the content we’re producing and responding to the times. But yes, when I started working on Jacobin, our goal was to make a socialist magazine look good. We felt that could set it apart. But the funny thing is that things have changed since then. When Jacobin started, Occupy started, which was essentially started by a design magazine (Adbusters).There were all these publications and posters and art that sprung up around it, in part because the left had more people involved, and brought in more artists and they responded to the moment. Even, for example, the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] now has this gigantic media arm.
In general, one thing I remember thinking at the time—and to some extent I still think this—is that the left has this very defeatist mentality about its own self-image. Like, “Oh we’re the poor scrappy underdogs,” or even just the self-image that it couldn’t approach people politically with any sort of flair.
TD: Because it would seem disingenuous?
RF: Yeah, exactly, and this is a serious thing. I’ve heard stories from people from older left-wing publications, where, say if they try to produce a nice mailer or something, the readers actually get angry, because it’s like, Why are you spending money on this blah blah blah …? It’s a funny thing, we don’t ever have this problem with Jacobin, because we’ve set people’s expectations at a certain place, so if we were to do something kind of strange or out of the ordinary in terms of the design and production value, it wouldn’t trouble anyone really. And that’s because we’ve developed a particular kind of audience and cultivated it over many years. If certain other publications were to do that overnight, it could be disastrous. You’re constrained by the institutions you’ve already created and the expectations you’ve established.
EC: I feel like there’s a certain expectation for young designers to live this sort of “total design life”—a litany of total design all the time, like being completely one with your work. Part of that is just an image—designers have a vested interest in appearing to be professional designers, especially to people who don’t know them personally—but I also think that tendency seems perilous, because at what point do you start teaching people that they ought to just totally embody their work? You work at Jacobin full time—what’s it like to be in a workplace that acknowledges that your work is not your entire being?
RF: I think this sort of total graphic design lifestyle can mean a couple of things. For some people it may be totally genuine, how they perceive and understand their place in the world, and that’s fine. Another thing, which you’ve sort of hinted at, is that some people, in order to succeed in a particular type of work environment, have to act in that way. This is the strange thing about the way people do creative work today. Something that should be a kind of leisurely activity, like organizing your Pinterest or your Instagram, actually becomes a form of work in itself, a way to elevate your profile. And at the end of the day, it’s a way to maximize your opportunities to get work.
It seems silly, but in many different ways, those are the kind of decisions that everyone is forced to make under capitalism. People constantly have to perform in the workplace and have to be concerned about how they are perceived. Designers are not unique in that respect. And again, I have a great deal of sympathy for those people because I’ve never had these kind of outside pressures. But getting more specific to designers, I think this tendency has to do with a drive many have to reshape the world, where like, if they see something hideous on the street, they think, Ugh, god, why is someone using Comic Sans? or something. It causes a genuine revulsion for some people. I used to have this mentality to some extent, that everything has to be designed and beautiful. I don’t really think that way anymore. [Laughs] I’m not sure why exactly, but I don’t see hideous things and feel deeply disturbed by them.
EC: I’m always thinking about the Massimo Vignelli quote that’s something like, “The life of the designer is to fight against ugliness.”
RF: [Laughs] Yeah, I think some people have an almost militaristic mentality about these things.
I’ve never been someone who’s satisfied with always engaging with one kind of thing. I have all these varied interests, and that’s one of the nice things about working at Jacobin. I can turn off the design brain for a second and think about editorial content, or sometimes about programming-related tasks. There’s a varied set of things that I can do, and I get a lot of pleasure out of that. I think I would probably go insane if I thought about design all the time.
TD: Do you have any thoughts about the state of print media in today’s landscape? I feel like there’s this mood of fear over the obsolescence or devaluation of print. Do you feel that, as someone who’s worked at Jacobin for a long time?
RF: Yeah, it’s kind of strange for us. I can’t remember who said this—and I think it’s true in many ways—that had Jacobin never been a print publication, it wouldn’t have had this much success. Obviously, print media is not going to die. There’s a bit of hysteria about it but that’s not true. But it will be transformed, and it’s not clear to me whether that transformation will be good or bad. On the one hand, there’s this expectation—and I think this is part of why Jacobin has done well, and why the design has been so important—that if you’re going to put something into print, you can’t just put words on paper and put it out into the world. You actually have to do something with the medium for anyone to engage with it, because otherwise why not just publish it online?
So that’s raised the bar for what people expect in the print media they consume. And that’s why I think the design of print material is actually quite imperative again.
EC: With so many media delivery vehicles, the stakes are higher for print.
RF: Right. There has to be something that you’re doing in that space that’s different from what you would consume online. So in many ways, you’re probably gonna see the emergence of a lot more high quality print material. But in other ways, it’s not entirely a good thing. Print media used to be a form of mass media. Now it’s become a more boutique kind of object.
TD: And now it’s like fifteen dollar magazines.
RF: Yeah, and that’s a little bit of a bummer. But yeah, to be honest, for us it’s like ... We need to sell something to continue operating. [Laughs]
EC: [Laughs] Right, and it might as well be this book.
RF: And if you’re producing words, then, you know, a magazine is a pretty good form. [Laughs] It’s a pretty natural product to sell.