Graphic Affect

Spencer Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


“I shall consider the actions and emotions of man precisely as if I were studying the nature of lines, planes, and solids” (Spinoza, 1677)

Baruch Spinoza’s fusion of matter and sensation has in recent times served as the inspiration for a number of ‘new materialist’ approaches to art and visual culture. Contemporary materialisms question the hegemonic role of language, representation and communication in the theorisation of the visual - emphasising instead the affective dimension of our encounters with images and artefacts.

Such philosophies typically address two overlapping senses of the term ‘affect’. The first concerns qualities of felt experience and is primarily psychological or phenomenological in character, whilst the second is more materially focused, stressing the ontological power of material things and their transformative effects upon the world. Accordingly, the concept of affect, as developed and extended by contemporary process philosophers such as Brian Massumi (2002), Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987) places a greater emphasis upon the agency of images, their entanglement with the material world, and with their impact upon the body – often foregrounding the power of imagistic encounter as a catalyst for change.

Whilst there has been much interest in the ‘affective turn’ in the context of the arts, humanities and social sciences, it has been noticeably absent from discussion of graphic design. This seems odd when we consider the ways in which matters of feeling, emotion and behavioural disposition are often combined in the context of advertising, as well as in the semiotic regulation of the social, and in the modes of resistance that emerge out of practices of design activism. There are, however, a number of interesting avenues of enquiry that facilitate the discussion of ‘graphic affect’, which in accordance with this concept’s allegedly disruptive and liminal operation, also serve to narrow the disciplinary gap between art and design.

This paper will argue that the first wave of radical design criticism that emerged out of Cranbrook (Aldersley-Williams, 1991), CalArts, and the pages of Emigre Magazine (VanderLans, 2009), despite arising out of a (broadly textual) deconstructive paradigm, came close to addressing the operation of affect through their concern with difference, complexity and graphic intervention. It will be suggested that this form of post-structuralist design criticism better captured the vitalist spirit of affect than does the comparatively conservative vogue for emotional design and functional affordance which collectively fold into notions of ‘experience design’. Secondly, it will be suggested that recent interest in craft-centric ways of knowing reaches back into the collective history of art and design through the process-philosophical teachings of Josef Albers that informed the material-experiential cultures of both the Bauhaus and Black Mountain college (with Albers’ career spanning both institutions). Finally, it will be claimed that the contemporary exploration of expanded practice, DIY and modes of critical making effectively constituted a second wave of design criticism – a more directly materialist outgrowth of deconstructivist design, that nevertheless enacts an ‘affective’ mode of critique (Somerson, Hermano, Maeda, 2013; DiSalvo, 2002)
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-32
Number of pages26
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2016


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