In her book The Circuit (available here), graphic design writer, researcher and educator Hannah Ellis investigates the actual meaning of design when it reaches the scale of fairs, festivals and biennials, as well as the effects of these events on people and places. Here, we publish, with permission of the author, a short excerpt about the political and economic genealogy of these manifestations. The Circuit is the the first title in the ‘Design Capital’ series, edited by Francisco Laranjo, Luiza Prado and Silvio Lorusso.
Common sense suggests that ‘design events’ are obviously and exclusively about design. But a more complex conclusion of what they do or are or how they exist in the world is slightly harder to pin down. They are slippery things, tricky to articulate precisely because of the fundamentals we take for granted, and subject to unofficial precursors — like ‘promotional’ — that change their meaning entirely.
‘Events’ is too big a category to file under, a cluttering of festivals and weeks and biennials, piling together the exhibitions that take over a city for days, weeks, sometimes months. Flags are planted overnight and lay claim to a place that has been conquered by design. From the outside, beyond the length of time that they stretch out and over a city for, they behave largely in the same way, or at least appear to. Differentiation requires a bit of etymological digging: take, for example, the meaning of ‘festival’ – a day or period of celebration, usually religious. For the most part, design festivals are annual, celebrating the subject with Gregorian predictability, much like the dedicated Weeks that block out one fifty-second of the industry calendar. Language puts ‘design’ next to deities and, traced back far enough, ‘festival’ can be followed through iterations of Old French and Latin – festivalis, festivus – to the root of festa, for feast. A day of dedication or a celebratory meal; in this case, what is gorged upon is not good food and wine, but an overabundance of design with the capital D. (They should not, I realise later on, be confused as moments for close examination or interrogation; further backwards still, festa is one step removed from festus – joyous.)