Democratic Futures is a collaborative inquiry between BA Hons Graphic Arts students at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton and the Parliamentary Archives. The project explored the political archives of the 1872 Secret Ballot Act on its 150th anniversary and the implications of this act then, and now, to the democratic electoral system.
Before the Secret Ballot Act, voting consisted of employers, landlords, political operatives and clergy using strategies of intimidation to exert their influence on citizens who had to vote by voice or show of hands. Voters would be bribed or coerced into voting for candidates regardless of their personal opinions or views. The 1872 Secret Ballot Act introduced a radical reform which ensured privacy in the procedures and the act of voting, introducing the democratic electoral system. With the progression into the third and fourth Industrial Revolutions there have been rapid shifts in the quantity and quality of political information that we consume. BA Graphic Art students at Winchester School of Art have speculated on and explored how the expansion of new technologies are changing how we interact with political information, and with it, the validity, reliability and authenticity of political content.
Rather than look for answers, students worked by proposing questions of alternative futures rather than a conventional design problem. Here, investigating through speculation acts as a tool of enquiry by provoking societal and political debates while challenging existing norms. Asking questions beyond the project title allowed students to expand the boundaries of the project through developing outcomes that consider potential future realities. Students also questioned their use of conventional design decisions, and adherence to organisational structures and universal systems. Such formal principles represent a limited definition of design. To challenge conventions and norms of design approach, students participated in a series of multidisciplinary workshops which aimed to challenge these existing design structures that might allow for more shared thinking and more ‘democratic’ visuals.
The process of collaboration and speculation within a project such as Democratic Futures was fundamental to developing new learning frameworks. In this publication, which acts as a record and an extension of the project, each contributor responded to a question that frames key issues, dialogues and related debates giving context and meaning to the work produced, beyond face values. We thank the following professional contributors for their supporting roles in enhancing student understanding and helping develop alternative approaches to challenging norms: Penny McMahon – Outreach Archivist, Parliamentary Archives; Ed D’Souza – Professor of Critical Practice, Winchester School of Art; Dem Gerolemou – Designer Google; Jonas Zieher – Motion Designer, Andy Reaney – Printmaking Technician, Winchester School of Art; and the in-house design studio of Winchester School of Art, Studio 3015.