Anja Kaiser challenges the design industry’s neoliberal working conditions to shake up the status quo

The Leipzig-based designer takes a closer look at the tools used in the industry as a way to critically understand the current design canon.

16 April 2020

There is much to be said on the work of Anja Kaiser. Her work is beautiful, bold, but most of all highly thoughtful and considered. A couple of years back, we were lucky enough to play host to an extensive surveillance of the Leipzig-based graphic designer. There, she told us of her career’s beginnings in the music scene, her education at Halle, her move into teaching, not to mention her projects such as Sexed Realities — To Whom Do I Owe My Body? an autonomous study combining design with research.

Fast forward a few years, and a great opportunity presented Anja. Approached by the director of the Centre National du Graphisme, Jean-Michel Géridan, the acclaimed designer was invited to exhibit a body of work at the renowned centre of graphic design in Chaumont. “From the beginning,” she tells It’s Nice That of the show which is now sadly postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, “it was important to understand this show as a monograph.” The exhibition intended to not only shine a light on Anja’s powerful aesthetic, but also emphasise the enduring references to feminist theory as well as alternative club and youth culture which underlines all of her work.

In response to the invitation, she named the show Undisciplined Toolkit. “I will briefly break down the two terms,” Anja continues on the weighty subject, “As designers, we use a specific set of tools that has been consolidated, expanded and readjusted over the years within our practice.” She muses how tools in graphic design are not only design principles, but can also be seen as a report on a canon, as well as the production of academic knowledge, strategies of storytelling and models of work or collaboration. “Tools shape the way we point and swipe, but also reflect on what we crush and tackle,” says Anja. “With the exhibition, I wanted to take the opportunity to take a closer look at my tools and put them up for discussion.”


Anja Kaiser: Undisciplined Toolkit

On the other hand, Anja utilised the term ‘undisciplined’ to point to another concept entirely. She discerns that a discipline is always described by routines or conventions of traditions, and it is these characteristics that directly inform current power structures. “But what happens if the mastery of these rules is consciously unlearned and misread?” challenges Anja. These ideas concurrently point to her ongoing project Glossary of Undisciplined Design made in collaboration with Rebecca Stephany. Here, the two understand the term as “feminist unpacking of the discipline of graphic design and the questioning of supposedly known rules.” And with this in mind, by understanding Anja’s definitions of ‘undisciplined’ and ‘toolkit’, the exhibition gives rise to a complex interlinking of thoughts.

The exhibition will show both personal and commissioned work from Anja’s archive over the last six years, displayed in contrast to a tool list calling for “unstable, messy and solidary trends in graphic design.” Importantly, the show will deviate from an individualistic presentation however, as all the work was created in collaboration with others. Made in tandem with various friends, political and feminist collectives, Undisciplined Toolkit exemplifies how “work never arises solely from oneself, but in dialogues.” Anja reiterates, “In this visual translation, I desire to design as boldly and confidently as possible for the respective voices.”

To accompany the works on show, a series of texts is provided for the audience. A culmination of essays, the reaching includes the patriarchal and capitalist framework from which the design originates. Touching on queer-feminist and intersection design theory, significantly, the essays highlight female pioneers in design history, making their thoughts and ideas visible so we can better understand today’s power structures, and work towards a better future.


Anja Kaiser: Undisciplined Toolkit

“Many of my works are not immediately readable and are not only committed to one interpretation,” adds Anja. In a sense, they are more experiential, like an installation for example. She invites us to immerse ourselves emotionally within the vibrant colours, and place ourselves in a subjective relation to them. “I enjoy enmeshing foreground and background with typographic gestures,” the designer adds on the compositions, “using simultaneity and coexistence as a design strategy, combining eclectic approaches and resorting hierarchies.” Exploring the multiplicity of feminist viewpoints in design, she constantly asks herself how she can avoid norm patterns of thought which is seen through her choice of collaborators and clients.

Highly conceptual, Anja’s work is reinvigorating the landscape of critical design. It engages discussion on our working relationships and questions the ethics of the industry’s precariousness too. “This show is about my visual and conceptual strategies from a feminist point of view,” Anja recaps. “I dive into the neoliberal working conditions in order to challenge the view on traditional notions of functionality and servanthood of graphic design. Come to Chaumont if you’d like to know more, and once we’re allowed to leave our homes again.”

Glossary of Undisciplined Design will appear in a print version later this year, aiming to further encourage socio-critical and feminist productions of knowledge, as well as alternative historiographies in the field of graphic design. Elsewhere, Anja is working with a collective to transform Leipzig’s Balance Club Culture Festival online from 20-24 May 2020.

GalleryAnja Kaiser: Undisciplined Toolkit

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Anja Kaiser: Undisciplined Toolkit

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About the Author

Jynann Ong

Jynann joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. She went freelance in 2022.

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