Propaganda is in our hands.
Donald Trump. Advertisement, New York Times, 1989.
What does design propagate?
Sebastiano del Piombo. Portrait of Christopher Columbus. 1519.
What is the relation between matter and image?
NASA. Self portrait of European Space Agency Astronaut Luca Parmitano during a spacewalk. 2013.
Is materiality a form of propaganda?
John Carpenter. They Live. 1988.
How do objects transfer unconscious meaning?
Apple Inc. Macbook texture. 2016.


On Friday 24 June 2016, Europe woke up into a new reality. Against all odds, Great Britain had voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. Stock markets plummeted, and both traditional and social media exploded in disbelief. In the following days, ‘what is EU’ became one of the most popular online searches in the UK. Leaders of the Brexit movement admitted that some of the arguments for leaving the EU were exaggerated, half-truths or outright lies. Many of those who had voted to leave, regretted and pleaded for a new referendum, admitting that they voted based on loose promises, nostalgia and rebellion against the current state of affairs without even believing that their votes would actually matter much.

Questions of propaganda 1 have become urgent. In addition to Brexit, phenomena such as the success of Donald Trump, rise of populist politics or the aftermath of the coup in Turkey in the summer 2016 have created situations that affect the lives of millions. In the design field, events such as What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge 2 or questions of design authorship in the case of designer Daan Roosegaarde 3, have created fierce argumentation about the communicative role of design and a designer.

Propagation of movements, ideologies and opinions is assisted by the development of algorithms, online news media and social media. These contribute to formation of ever-differentiating echo chambers in which information, ideas and beliefs are amplified and repeated in increasingly enclosed systems. These echo chambers, which recognize the behaviour of an individual, disallow and underrepresent competing views and opinions.

Design bears a strong communicative power and a long common journey with both commercial and political propaganda in terms of graphic or product design. As design traditionally carries an aura of exclusivity and desire, it has been used as a tool for commercialism for decades. Advertising, fairs and design weeks are perhaps the most striking distribution channels for the ‘propaganda.’ Today, design is increasingly becoming a tool for social change. As counterterrorism analyst Artur Beifuss states, “design, advertising and counterterrorism are fields that should work together.”

Design is a medium that propagates through material and immaterial forms, such as objects, furniture, environment, graphics, systems or services. How can design interventions respond to the current societal phenomenon and state of propaganda? How does design contribute to the structuring of flows of propaganda? What is the current state of propaganda in the design field? What does design propagate – and what should it propagate?

1 The word ‘propaganda’ bears a religious origin with a meaning of setting an ideology or a movement forward. As a political action, propaganda became strongly associated with warfare after the World War I. Soon after, methods of propaganda became the foundation for the 20th century commercial marketing and promotion.

2 Pater, Ruben. Treating the refugee crisis as a design as a design problem is problematic. 21 April 2016, Dezeen Opinion .

3 Schouwenberg, Louise. It’s about time we rethink the notion of authorship. 26 February 2016, Dezeen Opinion. 


In an increasingly image-based world, reading is becoming seeing. How we consume and relate to information is becoming increasingly performative, immersive and experiential. Within design practice, is forming aesthetics around content becoming as important as the content itself? Have aesthetics become content?

Marimekko. Marimekko Showroom. 1955.

In 1959, designers Charles and Ray Eames were commissioned by the United States Information Agency USIA to make a film about a day in the life of the United States as part of the cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and the USA. The film ‘Glimpses of the USA’ was projected onto seven screens in one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes inside the Sokolniki Park in Moscow, USSR.

Metahaven. Sprawl Space. 2016.


Built environments create messages that affect human behaviour. How space and materials are constructed has consequence on how people encounter themselves and each other. This construction also signifies whether an environment is inclusive or exclusive. Built structures act as ways to facilitate the opening up of parts of the city to new cultural landscapes and thought, yet they can also radically gentrify existing communities. How does and how should design act within these existing structures? Is materiality propaganda?

Snøhetta. Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. 2008.

Oslo Opera House, 2007. The Oslo Opera House designed by Snøhetta was built in 2007 in Oslo, Norway. The building is as much landscape as architecture in design and creates new, commonly used public space in a previously inaccessible seashore.

Lambert, Léopold. When Walls Tighten on Bodies. Avery Review–Issue 11, November 2015.

Wainwright, Oliver.‘The Worst Place on Earth’: Inside Assad’s Brutal Saydnaya Prison’. The Guardian, 18 August 2016.


Objects have been used for centuries by religions to propagate faith. It is well known that objects program how we interact with the everyday world. They shape our gestures, interactions with other people and spatial understanding. How do objects transfer unconscious meaning, accidentally or on purpose? What is the relation between matter and image?

Ogilvy & Mather France. IBM: Smart Ideas for Smarter Cities, 2013.

IBM Billboards, 2016. Three different billboards that promote the company’s ‘People for Smarter Cities’ campaign are designed to sit on, to take cover under when it rains or to pull your bags over instead of carrying them. The campaign initiated and implemented by advertising agency Ogilvy & Matter France that collaborated with IBM to inspire people to think smarter about their neighbourhood.

Cochrane, Lauren. Scam or subversion? How a DHL T-shirt became this year’s must-have. The Guardian, 20 April 2016.


Design fairs have traditionally facilitated a relationship between design and industry, communicating design with an aura of glossy consumerism. Moreover, these institutions have the power to validate work. The validation of certain design works rather than others, is a way to create an image of what design is. On one hand, this validation shapes the work of a designer wanting to be a part of the institution, and on the other, it shapes images that affect how an audience perceives design. In the recent years, platforms for showcasing design are becoming increasingly participatory, durational, critical and subversive, yet an ‘aura’ of consumerism remains. What could or should be an alternative to traditional design institutions? What is the responsibility of designers in relation to how they present their work?

The Great Exhibition. Hyde Park, London. 1851.

Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano (Milan Furniture Fair or Milan Design Fair) is the largest trade fair of its kind in the world. Launched in 1961 and originally sponsored by the furniture manufacturers Federelegno-Arredo trade association, the fair originally focused on creating a market for Italian furniture design.


Fairs, Marcus. This year Milan stopped being a furniture fair and became something more interesting. Dezeen, 14 April 2016.
Wainwright, Oliver. Alejandro Aravena’s Venice Architecture Biennale: ‘We Can’t Forget Beauty in Our Battles.’ The Guardian, 26 May 2016.


Design processes amplify the transmittal of certain values from human to human. The process of designing an object, system, technology, interface or urban space is often a top-down process structured by the use of defined methodologies that collect, analyse, conceptualise and implement human behaviour. These methodologies – qualitative, quantitative or experimental – are used by global conglomerates, design consultancies and taught within design educational institutions. They are seen as a way to rationalise the intricacies and nuances of human behaviour into palatable data that can be translated to sellable product or optimise workflow. How do the processes and methodologies of design shape user behaviour? Should designers take part in global methodologies or anchor themselves in specific contexts? How do or how should design methodologies transmit values of a designer or a company?

Thomas Lommée. The Next Big Thing Will Be a Lot of Small Things. 2016.

IDEO Method Cards are a collection of 51 cards representing diverse ways that design teams can understand the people they are designing for. They are used to make a number of different methods accessible to all members of a design team, to explain how and when the methods are best used, and to demonstrate how they have been applied to real design projects.

Harris, Tristan. How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds – from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist. Medium, 18 May 2016.

Curtis, Adam. The Century of the Self. BBC Two, August 2005.