TABLE OF CONTENTS
What Is This thing Called Graphic Design Criticism
Discovery by Design
Graphic Design In The Postmodern Era
Designer As Author
Roleplay: Designers in film
Graphic Design and the Next Big Thing
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures 1
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures 2
What Is This thing Called Graphic Design Criticism Michael Rock Rick Poynor
Rick Poynor Terms such as art criticism, literary criticism, architecture criticism and film criticism are so familiar that they require little explanation, whether we are interested in reading their products or not. They are all activities with obvious, readily identifiable roles and job descriptions attached: “art critic,” “film critic” and so on. They bring to mind the names of writers who specialize in the subject, achieve a continuous critical presence through their publications and are identified with a particular sensibility, style of writing, set of ideas and point of view. Compared to art or film criticism, the term “graphic design criticism” has an unfamiliar, slightly uncomfortable ring. It is one that even the most avid reader of graphic design magazines and books will encounter rarely, if at all. In the 1990s, the call for such a criticism has nevertheless become steadily louder, the few exponents increasingly prepared—though still fairly tentatively—to identify themselves as such. A collection of critical writings on graphic design—some drawn from Eye—has recently been published.1 Ten years ago the more forward-thinking designers urged the development of such a criticism, believing that it was part and parcel of a mature profession. Now that it is happening there are murmurs of discontent and, despite the example of neighboring disciplines, the critic’s motivation is in doubt. “Criticism,” one internationally renowned designer declared, “usually takes the form of the negative and the overly judgmental.”?2 So what exactly is graphic design criticism? Who practices it, or ought to practice it, and what are its aims? And can it, in the sense that we might talk about art or film criticism, be truly said to exist at this point? Michael Rock While we might not recognize it as such, design criticism is everywhere, underpinning all institutional activity—design education, history, publishing and professional associations. The selection, description and reproduction of designed artifacts in books and magazines, for instance, is the work of theory. Objects are represented to make a point—even if the point is as simple as “My, isn’t Rick Valicenti a genius”—and that is a critical position. Famous designers, complaining about over-zealous design critics, forget that their fame is created through exposure. For example, while I have rarely encountered actual work by Neville Brody, I have seen hundreds of examples published in the international design press and his own books, carefully organized and edited to give the impression of complete artistic continuity. Thus Brody has an
influence and reputation through publishing that he could never have in practice. Writing has a profound effect on Institution Design, the elaborate apparatus that surrounds design production.3 Design work is exchanged intra-professionally, through publishing, lectures, promotional material and other written forms. Publication may lead to speaking engagements, workshops, teaching invitations and competition panels—all of which in turn further promote certain aesthetic positions. At the same time, an historical canon is perpetually generated, a canon of that will influence the next generation of designers by indicating what work is of value, what is worth saving, what is excluded. So the relationship between practice and theory is symbiotic. The 40-year expansion of the post-war design industry has been both critiqued and promoted through writing. RP We are at an interesting juncture, where those with a stake in graphic design writing are starting to debate the forms such a criticism should take. The principal forums for the critical writing undertaken to date have been the professional magazines. Even in the more critically-minded publications, criticism has run side by side with ordinary journalism and other reader services. Established editorial formats and the need to engage a broad professional audience place pragmatic restrictions on what can be attempted and said. There are those who now feel that such “journalistic criticism” is lacking, that it fails to make its critical positions sufficiently explicit, and that we need, in short, a more academic form of criticism to compare with those generated by, those generated by, for instance, art, literature, or cultural studies.4 This is potentially of great educational value, but in Britain academic graphic design criticism is at such a rudimentary stage of development, with so little to show in terms of published research, that few conclusions can be drawn. To what extent such a criticism will be able to address the working designer is a moot point, though experience suggests that the kinds of journals and books that would carry it will have limited appeal to professional readers. What we hope to achieve with Eye is not so much a “journalistic criticism”—the term makes it sound like something that has fallen short of the real thing—as a critical journalism. By this I mean the kind of writing you find on the
arts pages of the Sunday papers: informed, thoughtful, skeptical, literate, prepared to take up a position and argue a case, aware of academic discourse and debates (perhaps even written by academics), but able to make these issues relevant and accessible to a wider readership—writing with a firm sense of its audience’s interests and needs. That, at least, is the ideal. MR Design critics who have been influenced by cultural studies tend to eschew the celebratory zeal of design journalism and attempt instead to read designed objects as cultural artifacts. As Stefan Collini notes, “those who make [cultural studies] part of their self-description regard the demystifying of unmasking of the essentially ideological operation of various forms of ... representation as the core and purpose of what they do...”5 Obviously, having work unmasked, exposing the essentially ideological operation at play can be a rather unpleasant experience for a designer more accustomed to back-patting. I think that cultural criticism is surpassing art history, formal analysis and perceptual psychology as the dominant model for design criticism in the United States. Many of my design graduate students study with its teachers in the American Studies and Comparative Literature departments and that influences the way they think about their work. It is interesting to note that cultural studies here is very influenced by the British New Left movement, literary critics like Raymond Williams, and Richard Hoggart’s Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. American scholars too have addressed the popular media in many serious academic projects. There is, in fact, more good critical writing about design than most people realize.6 I suspect that the longing for academic criticism comes more out of not knowing where to look than a dearth of material. Also, designers’ limited self-definition leads them to reject writing on subjects like advertising or public relations that have a direct bearing on our profession. While we may be heavily invested in the notion of “graphic design” as an independent activity, as a discrete category it doesn’t always hold up under academic scrutiny. Perhaps a different kind of journal, more on the model of Assemblage, might promote experimental forms of writing and cross-disciplinary work. RP At this point we run into the question of who exactly these different forms of criticism are aimed at and what they hope to achie-
hip s n o i t la e r e ce h i T t “ c a r np e e w t be is y r o e and th iotic” symb
ve. While certain kinds of theory can undoubtedly nourish and reinvigorate design practice, your reference to the cultural studies approach suggests the possibility of a future schism between practice and theory, and a division of “graphic design” into two distinct areas of study, the practical and the critical, attracting different kinds of students. Their aims may not ultimately be reconcilable. Theory’s conclusions will in some cases be profoundly opposed to certain forms of design activity. How meaningful or relevant is the unmasking of ideological operations going to be to the designer making a successful career in supermarket packaging, annual reports for Fortune 500 companies, or the world of glossy magazines? Not everyone shares the leftish political position that underpins the challenge these theories make to design. Few designers will relish hearing that their work is ideologically suspect and that they should design something approved by some cultural theorists instead. This is not to suggest some uncompromising forms of analysis are invalid or have nothing to teach us, simply to be realistic in acknowledging that they will only appeal to designers given to a particular type of critical reflection. Critical journalism offers different kinds of insights and knowledge. It is capable of forms of investigation that more academic styles of criticism overlook. Where cultural theory takes a rather Olympian view—choosing representative but ultimately interchangeable examples for analysis—critical journalism has a strong sense of the particular and uses a close, pragmatic acquaintance with the realities of production to ask more down-to-earth questions about individuals and bodies of work. What is the value of what has been accomplished? What is its immediate context? And its wider implications, both professional and socio-cultural? Designers are making large claims to authorship—both implicit and explicit—and these deserve to be tested critically. MR One of the problems of the cultural theory model is that it has not dealt with formal detail. It may be very effective for discussing the nature of the annual report as a device of capitalist culture, but weak in discussing the choice of Univers over Helvetica, although such distinctions are within its scope. But all critical positions necessarily require that you leave something out; they are perspectives, after all. To build an effective design criticism, we will have to create our own perspectives, fashioned out of a number of other techniques.
What is particularly interesting about criticism in general is how different perspectives give rise to different meanings. This has been fully realized in film criticism, for instance; the same film can be fodder for a formal, feminist, psychoanalytic or semiotic analysis, each offering a new way to read the text. Criticism doesn’t yield answers, only opinions, and opinions should be diverse. Cultural criticism has been useful because it has analyzed the institutional rhetoric of design, examined the institutional myths that are perpetuated through education and practice which serve to insulate and promote the profession. If you choose to focus on the individual, the “masters of design” approach, you intentionally narrow your scope; the cultural issue is still present in that it is consciously excluded. For instance, we had years of writing about Modern design without any examination of the relationship between the formal tenets of the movement and corporate capitalism. So we have a lot of information about logos and typefaces and the design “heroes” that make them, but little that situates the work in the culture. We need both types of analysis. RP I hope that the mixture of profiles, reports and thematic essays published in Eye shows that critical journalism can accommodate a wide range of approaches and subjects. But this leads back to the point I made at the beginning. For graphic design criticism to exist in the sense that it does in other disciplines, and with the same variety of perspectives, it will need dedicated writers. I don’t question the educational value of the critical writing that, for instance, post-graduates produce as part of their studies and I know from experience that their findings are sometimes publishable. But occasional paper writing in the course of research is not the same as being a fully fledged critic, writing regularly about a broad range of graphic design subjects, or many different aspects of the same subject. Whatever the discipline, the critic is engaged in a process of interior and exterior discovery, a riskily public dialogue with the subject matter, the readership, and him or herself. Critical positions will inevitably evolve over time, Errors of judgment will sometimes be made. The critic can only learn what is possible by constantly writing. It will also help if they can actually write. Good as some graphic design criticism is, even the best of it has some way to go before it can equal the most fluent, supple and engaging writing on
the other arts. One basic but crucial difference is that these more public subjects attract people whose primary ambition and talent is for writing and who realize this ambition through a medium that fascinates them. Graphic design is not by and large—may never be?—such a subject. It’s a catch-22, because without such writers to bring it alive graphic design stands much less chance of becoming a discourse of wider public interest. MR We don’t have a couple of centuries’ worth of books, biographies, films, myths, and stories about making a poster or designing a typeface, where-as we do about painting or writing. Graphic design is such an obscure activity, there are just not that many people who even know it exists, never mind write about it. So most design critics start off as practitioners with a penchant for writing. This explains the collusion that has existed between design practice and the design press. There are other factors that shape the practice of design criticism. Designer/critics are the products of art criticism. Designer/critics are the products of art schools where there exists a deeply ingrained division between the visual and the verbal. Students with verbal skills are suspect. The stereotype is that the verbal student uses language to mask deficient visual skills. Also, as criticism is not at all lucrative, most of us have to work professionally. Therefore the subjects of our writing are often our friends, colleagues, teachers, clients and students. You have to be willing to take great personal and social risks to write with conviction. Designers may debate the issue of “personal expression,” but there are few forms of expression as personal as writing something down, signing your name and sending it out for all the world to see. There is always teaching. But as design programs are considered professional schools, institutions require significant professional output, rather than writing, before bestowing the tenure plum. There is no escaping it. Like anything else, the only way to get better at design writing is to practice it. But without seven years of graduate study in preparation of a dissertation to hone their abilities, most design critics have to squeeze in writing here and there, and learn on the fly. Unfortunately it shows. Finally, there is little encouragement. Editors are reluctant to risk alienating the very people who make up their subscription lists, or to commission or publish longer or more challenging pieces of
writing. Since many designers—reviving the old art school bias—eschew any theorizing and demonstrate an alarming lack of curiosity about their own profession, there is a pitifully small audience for new writing. And last, there are few models. The reason we cast about for some critical paradigm is because our profession—the profession of graphic design criticism—is in the process of becoming. RP I began by quoting a leading designer’s view that too much writing about graphic design is “negative and overly judgmental.” Have we fully answered that charge? “Judgmental” is a slippery word because its use instantly suggests its more desirable opposites: tolerance and understanding. To be judgmental is to wag a finger and raise the voice, to carp and repress. Called to account in such morally loaded terms, criticism can’t possibly be a good thing.But this is, in reality, a considerable misrepresentation of the critical process when responsibly carried out. It is hardly the purpose of criticism to squash its subjects arbitrarily. On the other hand, being a critic does require the exercise of judgment based on all the writer’s knowledge and experience. The writer who wilfully suspends judgment, or fears to make it, lets down the reader and ultimately perhaps the subject itself. This critical process will often lead to conclusions at odds with those of the subject. But while the process might be intrinsically adversarial, it is not inherently negative even if the ordinary usage of the verb—to criticize—makes it sound as though it is.7 Criticism’s conclusions may be largely or even wholly supportive of the subject. MR Designers are generally insulated from any broad discussion of their work, but once in the world of commerce, producing materials that affect the lives of millions of people, designers are open to the same kind of response as anyone else in such a position, for instance an architect or novelist. The most interesting criticism uses the subject as an example of a larger idea, drawing connection between the work and the context. In order to write sharp criticism, it is sometimes necessary to exaggerate the differences between things, to compare and contrast in a way that illuminates the subject for the reader. Only lousy criticism is merely judgmental. The key to compelling criticism is to rise above petty judgment and make a rational case for your position, historically supported and logically constructed. Properly executed, even the most biting criticism should be useful, entertaining and instructive. But it would be naïve to think that the relationship between the critic and the subject will ever be entirely smooth.
Despite the difficulties, I am incredibly optimistic about the practice of graphic design criticism. We are perhaps the first generation of writers who consider themselves, as a form of self-definition, to be graphic design critics, and that sense of being at the beginning of something is extremely liberating. Through the practice of writing, I discover more and more about design and I am very conscious of trying to build a design criticism. It is a huge, organic project that involves years of con-centrated effort, missteps, public embarrassments, bruised feelings and misunderstandings, but a great deal of pleasure as well.
Discovery by Design Zuzana Licko
“...Can new design - like new science - discover phenomena that already exist in the fabric of typographic possibility? If so, who owns discovery?” –Ellen Lupton, The 100 Show. The sixteenth Annual of the American Center for Design.
Although science and design are both based upon experimental investigation, the comparison is not altogether straightforward; science investigates naturally occurring phenomena, while design investigates culturally created phenomena. But if such a parallel is to be made, then we might replace a falling tree by a typographic possibility and thereby ask the question “Does a typographic phenomenon exist if no one recognizes it?” Potentially, if every graphic and typographic possibility already exists, and each is waiting to be discovered, then we need only create an appropriate context in order to bring life to any of them.For example, consider the 26 letters in our alphabet and how they are combined to form words. There is a finite number of combinations, or words, if we limit ourselves to words of a certain length; say, five letters. Then, for the ease of pronunciation, let’s omit all words that contain a string of three or more consecutive consonants. Even with these restraints to give some “meaning” within our understanding of words, there will be many words that will have no meaning to us. Does this mean that these are not words? Does a sequence of letters not form a word when we do not recognize its meaning? It is important to note here, that the meanings of words are not intrinsic to the words themselves; the meanings are arbitrary, since the same word may have different meanings in different languages. In fact, the entire concept of using 26 letters is an arbitrary one. We could just as well have used 20 letters, or 30 letters, or thousands of ideograms like the Oriental cultures. Although these systems of communication and meanings are arbitrary, once they are established, they serve as the foundation for the creation of new meanings, and therefore do not appear to be as arbitrary as they really are. As another example, consider the grid of a computer video display, or that of a laser printer rasterizer; each point on the grid can be on or off; black or white. Given a fixed resolution, again, there is a finite number of combinations that these on/off sequences will compose. If a computer is programmed to run through all of the possible combinations, some will appear to us as pure gibberish, while others will be recognized as something that we already know or might be interested in getting to know better. Even though all these compositions are randomly generated, only those few that fit into our preconceived notions of context will have meaning. Therefore, it is the meaning, and not the form itself that has been created.
New design is the creation of new meanings; that is, new contexts for typographic possibilities. However, must be linked to existing ones. Even that design which “pushes the envelope” must build upon existing preconceptions. For unless a critical portion is understandable, the entire piece will be dismissed as complete nonsense. On the other hand, if no portion of the design is new, then it will appear so uninteresting that it might result in boredom and therefore be equally dismissed. Result in boredom and therefore be equally dismissed. Intriguing consumers with just the right amount of unrecognizable information spurs their interest. By initiating these changes of meaning, design educates the consumer to the changes in culture. Thus, design is a vet powerful component in controlling our collective consciousness. However, design is also a subconscious process, and it is therefore nearly impossible for a designer to intentionally alter a specific cultural concept. This process of reassimilation and adding or changing of meaning with each step creates an environment in our popular culture that is conducive to the assimilation of particular ideas. As this environment changes, it makes certain ideas ripe, or “ready to be liked.” In this manner, meanings change, and over time great shifts take place. Since the creation of new meanings usually results in the replacement, displacement or change of older meanings, we may also wonder if some meanings become obsolete. We may ask, “Does obsolescence exist in design, and can we plan obsolescence?” It is possible to engineer the components of a car or refrigerator to break down after a certain duration of use, thereby defining the product’s obsolescence. But is it possible to do this with a design style, typeface, or typographic form? Unlike industrial products that have a physical life, the lifespan of a typographic possibility is purely conceptual. Designs become obsolete as they are consumed by our culture, and subsequently forgotten in favor of other ones. Yet what was obsolete years ago is often revived from obsolescence to be reassimilated or expanded upon as appropriate to fit into new cultural meanings. This process repeats itself again and again, making obsolescence a temporary state in the world of design possibilities. Because this ongoing change is affected by many different forces from numerous directions, it is impossible to predict what will
happen next, or even how long-or short-lived any particular design idea might be. Since the life, or lives, of a design idea are dictated by its appropriateness for currently accepted ideas, it would be impossible to specifically plan the longevity of a design without also controlling these forces of style. This evolution of meanings is also unpredictable over time. Some meanings change very quickly, like the second hand on a stopwatch; others change so slowly that we don’t even see them change, like the hour hand on a grandfather clock. These slow changing ideas are seen as timeless, while those that change quickly are perceived as being timely. The words “timeless” and “timely” often have very strong negative or positive connotations, although neither is good nor bad, per se. The value of either of these qualities lies in the appropriateness of use, and appropriateness is usually a question of efficient use of design resources, or financial viability. For example, if it costs millions to change the signage in an airport or subway system, then a timeless design is appropriate. However, if a design can be changed every time it appears on, say, an interactive television platform, and especially if such change will stimulate interest and add levels of meaning to the audience, then a timely design would be appropriate. However, more often than not, it is timelessness that is seen as most valuable. Timeless creations are seen as the result of the process of refinement, and give us the impression that we are always working towards an ultimate goal of perfection, independent of the whims of fashion. This may appear so because history is told as a logical and progressive development. However, histories are composed in hindsight; actual events do not occur with such 20/20 vision. For example, once we identify a design idea as being fully developed, historians then work to explain its development by referring to the appropriate chain of events. However, this process also involves the filtering out of inappropriate events; events that nonetheless occupy the same time line. The inevitability of design ideas is therefore never so apparent when we’re standing on the other end of the time line. Although each development can be explained as an outcome of any number of preceding factors, this does not mean that any particular course of development is therefore inevitable. The sometimes arbitrary choices that are made along every step subsequently become
The discovery of a design possibility is therefore largely a matter of
the designer being in the right place at the right time. 21
a foundation for future developments, but there are usually many parallel, equally viable paths not taken. So, who owns these design discoveries, if we are facilitating their existence through the appropriate contexts? It may be true that all designs exist in the fabric of typographic possibility. However, since not all possibilities can exist at the same time, there must be some way to intelligently choose possibilities that will have meaning; that intelligent force comes from designers. The discovery of a design possibility is therefore largely a matter of the designer being in the right place at the right time. However, it is the designerâ€™s ability to recognize the opportunity, the talent to apply the idea to a specific creative work, the willingness to sometimes go out on a limb, and the perseverance to convince others that the idea has validity, that deserves claim to ownership. Because, in the end, it is the expertise to communicate new ideas to others that gives credibility to the designerâ€™s existence.
Graphic Design in the Postmodern Era Mr. Keedy
Any discussion of postmodernism must be preceded by at least a provisional definition of modernism. First there is modernism with a capital “M,” which designates a style and ideology and that is not restricted to a specific historical moment or geographical location. Modernist designers from the Bauhaus in Germany, the De Style in Holland, and Constructivism in Russia, share essentially the same Modernist ideology as designers like Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, and Eric Spiekermann. Its primary tenet is that the articulation of form should always be derived from the programmatic dictates of the object being designed. In short, form follows function. Modernism was for the most part formed in art schools, where the pedagogical strategies were developed that continue to this day in design schools. It is a formalist, rationalist, visual language that can be applied to a wide range of circumstances. All kinds of claims can and have been made in an effort to keep Modernism eternally relevant and new. The contradiction of being constant, yet always new, has great appeal for graphic designers, whose work is so ephemeral. Then there is the modern, with a small “m.” It is often confused with Modernism with a big M, but being a modern designer simply means being dedicated to working in a way that is contemporary and innovative, regardless of what your particular stylistic or ideological bias may be. Modern designers who were not necessarily Modernist would include designers like Milton Glaser, Charles and Ray Eames, and Tadanori Yokoo. With all the confusion in these early days of formulating theoretical paradigms, it is understandable why some designers have given up trying to connect their practice to contemporary theory. By the time postmodernism came along, many designers were quite happy to dismiss it as a trendy fad or irrelevant rambling, and be done with it. That is exactly why I think it is important to examine some of the connections between the postmodern condition and graphic design. Although there has always been some confusion about what postmodernism is, the most obvious feature is that it is a reaction (not rejection), to the established forms of high Modernism. The second most prominent feature of postmodernism is the erasing of the boundaries between high culture and pop culture. But probably the most contested feature is that of “theoretical discourse,” where theory was no longer confined to philosophy, but incorporated history,
social theory, political science, and many other areas of study, including design theory. Postmodernism is not a description of a style; it is the term for the era of late capitalism starting after the 1940’s and realized in the 1960’s with neo-colonialism, the green revolution, computerization and electronic information. Postmodernism didn’t have much impact on graphic design until the middle of the 1980s. Initially, many designers thought it was just undisciplined self-indulgence. A hodgepodge of styles, with no unifying ideals or formal vocabularies, dreamed up by students in the new graduate programs. But in fact it was a new way of thinking about design, one that instigated a new way of designing. Designers began to realize that as mediators of culture, they could no longer hide behind the “problems” they were “solving.” One could describe this shift as a younger generation of designers simply indulging their egos and refusing to be transparent (like a crystal goblet). Or you could say they were acknowledging their unique position in the culture, one that could have any number of political or ideological agendas. refusing to be transparent (like a crystal goblet). Or you could say they were acknowledging their unique position in the culture, one that could have any number of political or ideological agendas. The vernacular, high and low culture, pop culture, nostalgia, parody, irony, pastiche, deconstruction, and the anti-aesthetic represent some of the ideas that have come out of the 80s and informed design practice and theory of the 90s. After the 80s designers may still choose to be anonymous, but they will never again be considered invisible. We are part of the message in the media. In the postmodern era we are not just mediators of information, but individuals who think creatively and visually about our culture. Although Jan Tschichold has been celebrated as an early proponent of modernist asymmetric typography, designers have increasingly come to respect his earlier calligraphic and latter classical work. Tschichold’s body of work is an important precedent for today’s postmodern typography in that it represents diversity in ideology and style. It was one that ranged from craft-based calligraphy and machine-age modernism to neoclassicism. Another important precursor to postmodernism was W. A. Dwiggins, a designer who translated traditional values and aesthetics into
a modern sensibility. He was a tireless experimenter with form, who took inspiration for his work from eastern cultures, history, and new technology. Unlike Tschichold, Dwiggins never embraced the Modernist movement nor was he deified by it. However, he was absolutely committed to being a modern designer. Although Dwiggins’s and Tschichold’s work seems to have little in common, there is a similarity in how their work was initially misrepresented. Tschichold was celebrated as a Modernist typographer, which downplayed his more substantial body of design and writing based on traditional and classical ideas. On the other hand, Dwiggins has always been represented as a traditional designer in spite of the innovative and experimental nature of most of his work. It has only been in recent years that discussions of Tschichold and Dwiggins have expanded to include the full scope and plurality of their work. It has only been in recent years that discussions of Tschichold and Dwiggins have expanded to include the full scope and plurality of their work. and Dwiggins have expanded to include the full scope and plurality of their work. That is because the postmodern context has encouraged diversity and complexity, and given us a critical distance to assess Modernism and its ramifications. In the postmodern era, the line dividing modern and classical, good and bad, new and old, has, like so many lines in graphic design today, become very blurry, distressed and fractured. In the late 80s, an anti-aesthetic impulse emerged in opposition to the canon of Modernist “good design.” It was a reaction to the narrow, formalist concerns of late Modernism. It staked a larger claim to the culture and expanded the expressive possibilities in design. The new aesthetic was impure, chaotic, irregular and crude. A point that was so successfully made, in terms of style, that pretty much everything was allowed in the professionalized field of graphic design, and from then on typography would include the chaotic and circuitous as options in its lexicon of styles. In fact, most of the formal mannerisms of the late 80s have continued to predominate throughout the 90s. But now it’s no longer an ideologically relevant, or even new style - now it’s just the most popular commercial style.
In 1989 I designed a typeface to use in my design work for exprimental arts organizations like Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and CalArts. I called the typeface Bondage Bold. Rudy VanderLans saw it in some of my work and wanted to sell it through Emigre. After adding a regular weight, normalizing the spacing, cleaning up the drawings (with Zuzana Licko’s guidance), and changing the name to Keedy Sans, it was finally released on an unsuspecting public in 1991. I designed Keedy Sans as a “user,” simply based on a vague idea of a typeface that I had not yet seen but wanted to use in my graphic design. Most typefaces are logically systematic; if you see a few letters you can pretty much guess what the rest of the font will look like. I wanted a typeface that would willfully contradict those expectations. It was a typically postmodern strategy for a work to call attention to the flaws and artifice of its own construction. But I never thought of it as being illegible, or even difficult to read. I have never been very interested in pushing the limits of legibility for its own sake. Absolute clarity, or extreme distortion, is too simplistic a goal, and it is ground that has already been well covered. I wanted to explore the complex possibilities that lie somewhere in between and attempt to do something original or at least unique. At the time I had been using the American highway Gothic typeface in my design work that I cut and pasted from a highway signage manual. Another vernacular influence was the “f ” from the Fiat logo. But I was not only quoting low vernacular sources; it was important that I mixed in high design sources as well. So I was thinking about Akzidenz-Grotesk Black, which was somewhat exotic in America, because I liked Wolfgang Weingart’s typography. Overall I wanted a typeface that was similar to Cooper Black, extremely bold with a strong idiosyncratic personality. I think it is a very postmodern typeface in that it included “high” and “low” vernacular quotation, and it is self-consciously crude and anti-aesthetic in reaction to the slickness of Modernism. The initial reaction to Keedy Sans was that it was too idiosyncratic, it was “ugly,” hard to read, and too weird to be very useful. It’s hard to imagine that kind of reaction to a type design today. I guess nobody really cares any more. In 1993, Keedy Sans was still able to cause a bit of controversy among graphic designers, and it was starting to be a popular type-
Most typefaces are logically systematic; if you see a few letters you can pretty much guess what the rest of the font will look like.
I WANTED A TYPEFACE THAT WOULD WILLFULLY CONTRADICT THOSE EXPECTATIONS
face for music and youth-oriented audiences. Its popularity slowly but consistently grew; by 1995 it was starting to look pretty legible and tame compared to other new typefaces on the market. Eventually even the big boys in the corporate world were no longer put off by my typographic antics, and Keedy Sans made its way into the mainstream world of corporate commercialism by 1997. Eight years later, it is no longer considered an illegible, weird, deconstructed, or confrontational design. Now it’s just another decorative type style, one among many. Its willful contradictions are only what is expected in design today. I still think it is an interesting typeface; that’s why it’s a shame that now it signifies little more than the banality of novelty. Nowadays that seems to be all a designer can expect from their work. Resisting mainstream pop banality is an outdated attitude that only a few designers of my generation worry about anymore. Now most graphic designers need results fast; formal and conceptual innovations only slow down commercial accessibility. It is hard for a generation raised in a supposedly “alternative” youth culture, which put every kid from Toledo to Tokyo in the same baggy pants and t-shirt, to believe that relevant forms of expression can even exist outside of pop culture. Today’s young designers don’t worry about selling out, or having to work for “the man,” a conceit almost no one can afford anymore. Now everyone wants to be “the man.” What is left of an avant-garde in graphic design isn’t about resistance, cultural critique, or experimenting with meaning. Now the avant-garde only consists of technological mastery: who is using the coolest bit of code or getting the most out of their HTML this week. Resistance is not futile; resistance is a very successful advertising strategy. The advertising world co-opted our desire for resistance and has been refining it in pop culture since the 60s. After the 60s, advertising was never the same. It was the end of the men in the gray flannel suits. To this day ad agencies are full of middle-aged “creative directors” who talk and dress like twenty year-olds. They exploit an endless supply of new, cutting edge design talent to sell the same old stuff. By comparison, graphic designers were less successful at using resistance as a vehicle for changing attitudes in their profession in the 80s. That is because most designers did not want anything to challenge their continuity with a design canon they had so recently constructed. The only thing that the design establish-
ment in the 80s was interested in resisting was new ideas. That is why ultimately the strategies of resistance to Modernist dogma and the critique of the status quo, from the late 80s, only led to what is currently referred to as the ugly, grunge, layered, chaotic, postmodern design of the 90s. Only now there is little opposition and no resistance to what is an empty stylistic cliché. What I had hoped would be an ideological victory over the tyranny of style mongering, devolved into a one-style-fits-all commercial signifier for everything that is youth, alternative, sports, and entertainment-oriented. The “official style of the hip and cool” will probably be with us for some time, as it is easy to do and little has been done to establish any standard of quality. Some time, as it is easy to do and little has been done to establish any standard of quality. There have never been as many books published on contemporary typography as in the past few years. Ironically, in spite of all these new type books, there has never been less of a consensus as to what is of interest or value in typography. Although these books are fun to look at, you would be hard pressed to find any significant discussion, criticism, debate, or even explanation in most of them. They include anything and everything except critical, informative, and qualitative analysis. This new cornucopia of type books is not the result of a sudden renaissance in typography, but the result of the publishing industry’s ability to recognize and develop a commercial market. They have no interest in “separating the wheat from the chaff,” so all this new work has just become “more grist for the publishing mill.” One of the reasons Jan Tschichold went back to traditional center axis typography was because when it was done by less skilled designers, he thought it resulted in less offensive work than when the more demanding asymmetrical modernist typography was poorly done. Unlike traditional or Modernist typography, typography of the postmodern era has not up to this point been clearly articulated, much less canonized, making that type of qualitative judgment difficult at best. This situation has led some designers to simply dismissing it all as garbage. Even though the current publishing craze may be helpful as self-promotion for a few designers and a design aid for the creatively challenged, it may have done more damage than good to the
promotion of typography as a sophisticated or discriminating craft. Fortunately, on a much smaller scale, some critical and historical ideas are still being disseminated, in spite of the smaller financial rewards. Some design history, criticism and theory has managed to get published in recent years, but compared to the picture books, graphic designers aren’t buying it. The practice of graphic design has from the beginning been intertwined with pop commercialism, but that does not mean that our values and ideals, or the lack of them, have to be dictated by the commercial marketplace. Just because thinking about design isn’t a popular activity doesn’t mean it isn’t an important one. that our values and ideals, or the lack of them, have to be dictated by the commercial marketplace. Just because thinking about design isn’t a popular activity doesn’t mean it isn’t an important one. Graphic designers love new things, and new things love graphic designers - like fire loves wood. Graphic designers loved the new international corporate culture. But it was the advertising industry that ultimately won the partnership with multi-national corporations. Then graphic designers loved the new desktop publishing. But it took away a lot of our low end projects, gave us the additional responsibility of typesetting and pre-press, shortened our deadlines, and ultimately reduced our fees. Now graphic designers love the new Internet. But maybe this time we should stop and ask: “Does the Internet love graphic design?” Perhaps the Internet will simply co-opt graphic design, incorporating it into its operating system. Maybe graphic design will cease to exist as a discreet practice and just become another set of options on the menu. Or is graphic design just a lubricant that keeps everything on the info highway moving - are we just greasing the wheels of capitalism with style and taste? If graphic designers play a major role in building the bridge to the twenty-first century, will they be recognized for their efforts? Do you remember typesetters? Graphic design’s ephemeral nature has practically disqualified it from serious consideration as an important cultural practice. For most non-designers, historical graphic design is valued as nostalgic ephemera, while contemporary design is viewed as sometimes amusing, but mostly annoying, advertising. Graphic design is not generally accepted as having the cultural significance of other less
Are we just greasing the wheels of capitalism with style and taste? 35
ephemeral forms of design like architecture, industrial design, and even fashion. This is due largely to its short life-span and its disposable ubiquity. Will the even more ephemeral and ubiquitous media of film titles, television graphics, and the Internet create greater awareness and respect for graphic design, or will such familiarity only breed contempt? New media is a practical embodiment of the theoretical paradigm established by poststructuralism. It was an idea about language, communication and meaning before it was ever a technology. But now it seems that the technology has eclipsed its raison d’etre and it exists outside of any theoretical critique. The often quoted cliché is that the new media requires new rules and the old assumptions do not apply, even though somehow the old consumers do. Curiously, the new media has not yet f “intuition.” developed a new theoretical paradigm, or even a new lexicon, to comprehend this ideological shift. Ironically, the new buzzword is a familiar old standby from grammar school art classes - it’s all a matter o paradigm established by poststructuralism. It was an idea about language, communication and meaning before it was ever a technology. But now it seems that the technology has eclipsed its raison d’etre and it exists outside of any theoretical critique. The often quoted cliché is that the new media requires new rules and the old assumptions do not apply, even though somehow the old consumers do. Curiously, the new media has not yet developed a new theoretical paradigm, or even a new lexicon, to comprehend this ideological shift. Ironically, the new buzzword is a familiar old standby from grammar school art classes - it’s all a matter of “intuition.” Although intuition is a satisfactory explanation for a five-year-old’s crayon abstractions, it’s a bit weak for describing the computer-graphic-multinational-imperialism that is reshaping our global culture. Intuition is a generic term for a perceptive insight that is arrived at without using a rational process. It is a way of saying “educated guess” without defining the education of the “guesser.” That one’s source of inspiration could be unknowable, or at least indescribable, after the death of the author, and at the end of history, is understandable in these postmodern times. But the unwillingness of graphic designers to recognize their indebtedness to history, education, and their peers is not. At this juncture in its history, graphic design practice needs a more rigorous and responsible discourse. Maybe we should leave “instincts” and “intuition” to our furry friends; then we
could reinstate history, education and current practice as our center for critical reflection, discourse, and inspiration. Theoretical and conceptual discourse in graphic design has always been a bit naive compared to older more established cultural practices. For example, all designers have been, and continue to be taught, the history of type design in terms of the five families of type: Oldstyle, Transitional, Modern, Egyptian, and Contemporary. This nineteenth century terminology devised by type founders is completely out of sync with period classifications used in the humanities. As such, it disconnects type design from our general cultural history. Given this type of foundation, it should come as no surprise that contemporary design discourse is also out of sync with that of architecture, literature, and art. Graphic designers are caught up in a media stream that is very wide and fast, but not very deep. The only way to navigate in it is to go faster or slower than the stream. To go faster you must be at the forefront of technology and fashion, both of which are changing at an unprecedented rate. To go slower you need an understanding of context through history and theory. Graphic designers are predisposed to going faster or slower according to their experience and inclination, but mostly they are getting swept along in the currents of pop mediocrity. How we communicate says a lot about who we are. Looking at much of today’s graphic design one would have to conclude that graphic designers are twelve-year-olds with an attention deficit disorder. Designers today are representing our present era as if they were using a kaleidoscope to do it. Or more precisely, a constantly mutating digital collage machine, filled with a bunch of old “sampled” parts from the past, and decorated with special effects. Ultimately what we are left with is a feeling of aggravated and ironic nostalgia. This electronic Deja-vu-doo is getting old, again. Maybe now it is time to dive below all the hype and sound bites of the advertising industries media stream, where graphic designers can have the autonomy to set their own course, even if it means swimming against the current now and then. Postmodernism isn’t a style; it’s an idea about the time we are living in, a time that is full of complexities, contradictions, and possibilities. It is an unwieldy and troublesome paradigm. However, I still think it is preferable to the reassuring limitations of Modernism.
Unfortunately most graphic designers are currently not up to the challenge. A few postmodern ideas like deconstruction, multiculturalism, complexity, pastiche, and critical theory could be useful to graphic designers if they could get beyond thinking about their work in terms of formal categories, technology, and media. In the postmodern era, as information architects, media directors, design consultants, editor/authors, and design entrepreneurs, we have been chasing after the new and the next to sustain excitement and assert our growing relevance in the world. But inevitably the cutting edge will get dull, and the next wave will be like all the previous waves, and even the new media will become the old media. Then the only thing left will be the graphic design, and what and why we think about it. sustain excitement and assert our growing relevance in the world. But inevitably the cutting edge will get dull, and the next wave will be like all the previous waves, and even the new media will become the old media. Then the only thing left will be the graphic design, and what and why we think about it.
Designer As Author Michael Rock
What does it mean to call a graphic designer an author? Authorship, in one form or another, has been a popular term in graphic design circles, especially those at the edge of the profession, the design academies and the murky territories that exist between design and art. The word authorship has a ring of importance: it connotes seductive ideas of origination and agency. But the question of how designers become authors is a difficult one, and exactly who the designer/authors are and what authored design looks like depends entirely on how you define the term and the criteria you choose to grant entrance into the pantheon. Authorship may suggest new approaches to understanding design process in a profession traditionally associated more with the communication than the origination of messages. But theories of authorship may also serve as legitimizing strategies, and authorial aspirations may actually end up reinforcing certain conservative notions of design production and subjectivity — ideas that run counter to recent critical attempts to overthrow the perception of design based on individual brilliance. The implications deserve careful evaluation. What does it really mean to call for a graphic designer to be an author? What is an author? That question has been an area of intense scrutiny over the last forty years. The meaning of the word itself has shifted significantly over time. The earliest definitions are not associated with writing; in fact the most inclusive is a “person who originates or gives clearly index authoritarian — even patriarchal — connotations: “father of all life,” “any inventor, constructor or founder,” “one who begets,” and a “director, commander, or ruler.” All literary theory, from Aristotle on, has in some form or another been theory of authorship. Since this is not a history of the author but a consideration of the author as metaphor, I’ll start with recent history. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s, seminal text, “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946), drove an early wedge between the author and the text, dispelling the notion that a reader could ever really know an author through his writing. The so-called death of the author, proposed most succinctly by Roland Barthes in 1968 in an essay of that title, is closely linked to
the birth of critical theory, especially theory based in reader response and interpretation rather than intentionality. Michel Foucault used the rhetorical question “What is an author?” as the title of his influential essay of 1969 which, in response to Barthes, outlines the basic taxonomy and functions of the author and the problems associated with conventional ideas of authorship and origination. Foucauldian theory holds that the connection between author and text has transformed and that there exist a number of author-functions that shape the way readers approach a text. These stubbornly persistent functions are historically determined and culturally specific categories. Foucault posits that the earliest sacred texts were authorless, their origins lost in ancient history (the Vedas, the Gospels, etc.). The very anonymity of the text served as a certain kind of authentication. The author’s name was symbolic, rarely attributable to an individual. (The Gospel of Luke, for instance, is a diversity of texts gathered under the rubric of Luke, someone who may indeed have lived and written parts, but not the totality, of what we now think of as the complete work.) Scientific texts, at least through the Renaissance, demanded an author’s name as validation. Far from objective truth, science was based in subjective invention and the authority of the scientist. This changed with the rise of the scientific method. Scientific discoveries and mathematical proofs were no longer in need of authors because they were perceived as discovered truths rather than authored ideas. The scientist revealed extant phenomena, facts anyone faced with the same conditions would discover. The scientist and the mathematician could claim to have been first to discover a paradigm, and lend their name to the phenomenon, but could never claim authorship over it. (The astronomer who discovers a new star may name it but does not conjure it.) Facts were universal and thus eternally preexisiting. By the 18th century, Foucault suggests, the situation had reversed: literature was authored and science became the product of anonymous objectivity. When authors came to be punished for their writing — i.e. when a text could be transgressive — the link between author and text was firmly established. The codification of ownership over a text is often dated to the adoption of the Statute of Anne (1709) by the British Parliament, generally considered the first real copyright act. The first line of the
law is revealing: “Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing... Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors... to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families...” The statute secures the right to benefit financially from a work and for the author to preserve its textual integrity. That authorial right was deemed irrevocable. Text came to be seen as a form of private property. A romantic criticism arose that reinforced that relationship, searching for critical keys in the life and intention of the writer. By laying a legal ground for ownership, the Statute of Anne defines who is, and isn’t, an author. It was a thoroughly modern problem. No one had owned the sacred texts. The very fact that the origins of sacred texts were lost in history, their authors either composites or anonymous, gave them their authority. The gospels in their purest form were public domain. Any work to be done, and any arguments to have, were interpretive. The authors referred to in the Statute were living, breathing — and apparently highly litigious — beings. The law granted them authority over the meaning and use of their own words. Ownership of the text, and the authority granted to authors at the expense of the creative reader, fueled much of the 20th century’s obsession with authorship. Post-structuralist reading of authorship tends to critique the prestige attributed to the figure of the author and to suggest or speculate about a time after his fall from grace. Postmodernity turns on what Fredric Jameson identified as a “fragmented and schizophrenic decentering and dispersion” of the subject. Decentered text — a text that is skewed from the direct line of communication from sender to receiver, severed from the authority of its origin, a free — floating element in a field of possible significations — figures heavily in constructions of a design based in reading and readers. But Katherine McCoy’s prescient image of designers moving beyond problem solving and by “authoring additional content and a self-conscious critique of the message, adopting roles associated with art and literature,” is often misconstrued. Rather than working to incorporate theory into their methods of production, many selfproclaimed deconstructivist designers literally illustrated Barthes’ image of a reader-based text — a “tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture” — by scat-
tering fragments of quotations across the surface of their “authored” posters and book covers. (This technique went something like: “Theory is complicated, so my design is complicated.”) The rather dark implications of Barthes’ theory, note Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, were refashioned into a “romantic theory of self-expression.” After years in the somewhat thankless position of the faceless facilitator, many designers were ready to speak out. Some designers may be eager to discard the internal affairs of formalism — to borrow Paul de Man’s metaphor — and branch out to the foreign affairs of external politics and content. By the ‘70s, design began to discard some of the scientistic approach that held sway for several decades. (As early as the ‘20s, Trotsky was labeling formalist artists the “chemists of art.”) That approach was evident in the design ideology that preached strict adherence to an eternal grid and a kind of rational approach to design. (Keep in mind that although this example is a staple of critiques of modernism, in actuality the objectivists represented a small fragment of the design population at the time.) Müller-Brockmann’s evocation of the “aesthetic quality of mathematical thinking” is certainly the clearest and most cited example of this approach. Müller-Brockmann and a slew of fellow researchers like Kepes, Dondis and Arnheim worked to uncover preexisting order and form in the manner a scientist reveals a natural “truth.” But what is most peculiar and revealing in Müller-Brockmann’s writing is his reliance on tropes of submission: the designer submits to the will of the system, forgoes personality and withholds interpretation. In his introduction to Compendium for Literates, which attempts a highly formal dissection of writing, Karl Gerstner claims about the organization of his book that “all the components are atomic, i.e. in principle they are irreducible. In other words, they establish a principle.” The reaction to that drive for an irreducible theory of design is well documented. On the surface at least, contemporary designers were moving from authorless, scientific text — in which inviolable visual principles were carefully revealed through extensive visual research — toward a more textual position in which the designer could claim some level of ownership over the message. (This at the time literary theory was trying to move away from that very position.) But some of the basic, institutional features of design practice have a way of getting tangled up in zealous attempts at self-expression. The idea of a decentered
Decentered text â€” a text that is skewed from the direct line of communication from sender to receiver, severed from the authority of its origin, a free â€”
floating element in a field of possible significations â€” figures heavily in constructions of a design based in reading and readers. 47
message does not necessarily sit well in a professional relationship in which the client is paying a designer to convey specific information or emotions. In addition, most design is done in some kind of collaborative setting, either within a client relationship or in the context of a design studio that utilizes the talents of numerous creative people. Thus the origin of any particular idea is clouded. And the ever-present pressure of technology and electronic communication only further muddies the water. Is there an auteur in the house? It is not surprising to find that Barthes’ essay, “Death of the Author,” was written in Paris in 1968, the year students joined workers on the barricades in the general strikes and the year the Western world flirted with social revolution. To call for the overthrow of authority — in the form of the author — in favor of the reader — read: the masses — had real resonance in 1968. But to lose power you must have already worn the mantle, and so designers had a bit of a dilemma overthrowing a power they may never have possessed. On the other hand, the figure of the author implies a total control over creative activity and seemed an essential ingredient of high art. If the relative level of genius was the ultimate measure of artistic achievement, activities that lacked a clear central authority figure were necessarily devalued. The development of film theory in the 1950s serves as an interesting example. Almost ten years before Barthes made his famous proclamation, film critic and budding director François Truffaut proposed “La politique des auteurs,” a polemical strategy to reconfigure a critical theory of the cinema. The problem facing the auteur theorists was how to create a theory that imagined the film, necessarily a work of broad collaboration, as a work of a single artist and thus a singular work of art. The solution was to develop a set of criteria that allowed a critic to decree certain directors auteurs. In order to establish the film as a work of art, auteur theory required that the director — heretofore merely a third of the creative troika of director, writer and cinematographer — had the ultimate control of the entire project. Auteur theory — especially as espoused by American critic Andrew Sarris — held that directors must meet three essential criteria in
order to pass into the sacred hall of the auteur. Sarris proposed that the director must demonstrate technical expertise, have a stylistic signature that is demonstrated over the course of several films and, most important, through choice of projects and cinematic treatment, demonstrate a consistent vision and evoke a palpable interior meaning through his work. Since the film director often had little control over the choice of the material — especially in the Hollywood studio system that assigned directors to projects — the signature way he treated a varying range of scripts and subjects was especially important in establishing a director’s auteur credentials. As Roger Ebert summed up the idea: “A film is not what it is about, it’s how it is about it.” The interesting thing about the auteur theory was that, unlike literary critics, film theorists, like designers, had to construct the notion of the author. It was a legitimizing strategy, a method to raise what was considered low entertainment to the plateau of fine art. By crowning the director the author of the film, critics could elevate certain subjects to the status of high art. That elevation, in turn, would grant the director new freedoms in future projects. (Tantrums could be thrown in the name of artistic vision. “I’m an artist, dammit, not a butcher!” Expensive wines could be figured into overhead to satisfy rarefied palates.) The parallel to design practice is useful. Like the film director, the art director or designer is often assigned his or her material and often works collaboratively in a role directing the activity of a number of other creative people. In addition, the designer works on a number of diverse projects over the course of a career, many of which have widely varying levels of creative potential; any inner meaning must come through the aesthetic treatment as much as from the content. If we apply the auteur criteria to graphic designers we find a body of work that may be elevated to auteur status. Technical proficiency could be fulfilled by any number of practitioners, but couple technical proficiency with a signature style and the field narrows. The list of names that meet those two criteria would be familiar, as that work is often published, awarded and praised. (And, of course, that selective republishing of certain work to the exclusion of other work constructs a unified and stylistically consistent oeuvre.) But great technique and style alone do not an auteur make. If we add the third
requirement of interior meaning, how does that list fare? Are there graphic designers who, by special treatment and choice of projects, approach the realm of deeper meaning the way a Bergman, Hitchcock or Welles does? In these cases the graphic auteur must both seek projects that fit his or her vision and then tackle a project from a specific, recognizable critical perspective. For example, Jan van Toorn might be expected to approach a brief for a corporate annual report from a critical socioeconomic position. But how do you compare a film poster with the film itself ? The very scale of a cinematic project allows for a sweep of vision not possible in graphic design. Therefore, as the design of a single project lacks weight, graphic auteurs, almost by definition, have long, established bodies of work in which discernable patterns emerge. The auteur uses very specific client vehicles to attain a consistency of meaning. (Renoir observed that a director spends his whole career making variations on the same film.) Think of the almost fetishistic way a photographer like Helmut Newton returns to a particular vision of class and sexuality — no matter what he is assigned to shoot. Conversely, many great stylists don’t seem to make the cut, as it is difficult to discern a larger message in their work — a message that transcends stylistic elegance. You have to ask yourself, “What’s the work about?”) Perhaps it’s an absence or presence of an overriding philosophy or individual spirit that diminishes some designed works and elevates others. We may have been applying a modified graphic auteur theory for years without really paying attention. What has design history been, if not a series of critical elevations and demotions as our attitudes about style and inner meaning evolve? In trying to describe interior meaning, Sarris finally resorts to the “intangible difference between one personality and another.” That retreat to intangibility — “I can’t say what it is but I know it when I see it” — is the Achilles heel of the auteur theory, which has long since fallen into disfavor in film — criticism circles. It never dealt adequately with the collaborative nature of the cinema and the messy problems of movie-making. But while the theory is passé, its effect is still with us: to this day, when we think of film structure, the director is squarely in the middle. The application of auteur theory may be too limited an engine for our current image of design authorship but there are a variety of
other ways to frame the issue, a number of paradigms on which we could base our practice: the artist book, concrete poetry, political activism, publishing, illustration. The general authorship rhetoric seems to include any work by a designer that is self-motivated, from artist books to political activism. But artist books easily fall within the realm and descriptive power of art criticism. Activist work may be neatly explicated using allusions to propaganda, graphic design, public relations and advertising. Perhaps the graphic author is actually one who writes and publishes material about design. This category would include Josef Müller-Brockmann and Rudy VanderLans, Paul Rand and Eric Spiekermann, William Morris and Neville Brody, Robin Kinross and Ellen Lupton — rather strange bedfellows. The entrepreneurial arm of authorship affords the possibility of personal voice and wide distribution. The challenge is that most in this category split the activities into three recognizable and discrete actions: editing, writing and designing. Design remains the vehicle for their written thought even when they are acting as their own clients. (Kinross, for example, works as a historian and then changes hats and becomes a typographer.) Rudy VanderLans is perhaps the purest of the entrepreneurial authors. Emigre is a project in which the content is the form — i.e. the formal exploration is as much the content of the magazine as the articles. The three actions blur into one contiguous whole. VanderLans expresses his message through the selection of material (as an editor), the content of the writing (as a writer), and the form of the pages and typography (as a form-giver). Ellen Lupton and her partner J. Abbott Miller are an interesting variation on this model. “The Bathroom, the Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste,” an exhibition at MIT and a book, seems to approach a kind of graphic authorship. The message is explicated equally through graphic/visual devices as well as text panels and descriptions. The design of the exhibition and the book evoke design issues that are also the content:it is clearly self-reflexive. Lupton and Miller’s work is primarily critical. It forms and represents a reading of exterior social or historical phenomena and explicates that message for a specific audience. But there is a subset of work often overlooked by the design community, the illustrated book, that is almost entirely concerned with the generation of creative narrative. Books for children have been one of the most successful venues for the author/artist, and bookshops are packed with the
fruits of their labors. Many illustrators have used the book in wholly inventive ways and produced serizus work. Illustrator/authors include Sue Coe, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, David Macaulay, Chris Van Allsburg, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and many others. In addition, the comic book and the graphic novel have generated a renewed interest both in artistic and critical circles. Spiegelman’s Maus and Coe’s X and Porkopolis suggest expanded possibilities. Power ploys If the ways a designer can be an author are myriad, complex and often confusing, the way designers have used the term and the value attributed to it are equally so. Any number of recent statements claim authorship as the panacea to the woes of the browbeaten designer. In an article in Emigre, author Anne Burdick proposed that “designers must consider themselves authors, not facilitators. This shift in perspective implies responsibility, voice, action... With voice comes a more personal connection and opportunity to explore individual options.” A recent call-for-entries for a design exhibition titled “Designer as Author: Voices and Visions” sought to identify “graphic designers who are engaged in work that transcends the traditional service-oriented commercial production, and who pursue projects that are personal, social or investigative in nature.” In the rejection of the role of the facilitator and in the call for transcendence lies the implication that authored design holds some higher, purer purpose. The amplification of the personal voice compels designers to take possession of their texts and legitimizes design as an equal of the more traditionally privileged forms of authorship. But if, as a chorus of contemporary theorists have convinced us, the proclivity of the contemporary designer is toward open reading and free textual interpretation, that desire is thwarted by oppositional theories of authorship. The cult of the author narrows interpretation and places the author at the center of the work. Foucault noted that the figure of the author is not a particularly liberating one. By transferring the authority of the text back to the author, by focusing on voice, presence becomes a limiting factor, containing and categorizing the work. The author as origin and ultimate owner of the text guards against the free will of the reader. The figure of the author reconfirms the traditional idea of the genius creator, and the esteem or status of the man frames the work and imbues it with some mythical value.
While some claims for authorship may be as simple as a renewed sense of responsibility, at times they seem to be ploys for property rights, attempts to finally exercise some kind of agency where traditionally there has been none. The author = authority. The longing for graphic authorship may be the longing for a kind of legitimacy, or a kind of power that has so long eluded the obedient designer. But do we get anywhere by celebrating the designer as some central character? Isn’t that what fueled the last fifty years of design history? If we really want to move beyond the designer-ashero model of history, we may have to imagine a time when we can ask, “What difference does it make who designed it?” Perhaps, in the end, authorship is not a very convincing metaphor for the activity we understand as design. There are a few examples of work that is clearly the product of design authors and not designer/authors, and these tend to be exceptions to the rule. Rather than glorify the act and sanctify the practice, I propose three alternative models for design that attempt to describe the activity as it exists and as it could evolve: designer as translator, designer as performer, and designer as director. Designer as translator This is based on the assumption that the act of design is, in essence, the clarification of material or the remodeling of content from one form to another. The ultimate goal is the expression of a given content rendered in a form that reaches a new audience. I am drawn to this metaphor by Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese character poetry. Pound translated not only the meaning of the characters but the visual component of the poem as well. Thus the original is rendered as a raw material reshaped into the conventions of Western poetry. The translation becomes a second art. Translation is neither scientific nor ahistorical. Every translation reflects both the character of the original and the spirit of the contemporary as well as the individuality of the translator: An 1850s translation of the Odyssey will be radically different from a 1950s translation. In certain works, the designer remolds the raw material of given content, rendering it legible to a new audience. Like the poetic translator, the designer transforms not only the literal meaning of the elements but the spirit, too. For example, Bruce Mau’s design of a book version of Chris Marker’s 1962 film, “La Jetée,” attempts
What has design history been, if not a series of critical elevations and
demotions as our attitudes about style and inner meaning evolve? 55
to translate the original material from one form to another. Mau is certainly not the author of the work but the translator of form and spirit. The designer is the intermediary. Designer as performer The performer metaphor is based on theater and music. The actor is not the author of the script, the musician is not the composer of the score, but without actor or musician, the art cannot be realized. The actor is the physical expression of the work; every work has an infinite number of physical expressions. Every performance re-contextualizes the original work. (Imagine the range of interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays.) Each performer brings a certain reading to the work. No two actors play the same role in the same way In this model, the designer transforms and expresses content through graphic devices. The score or script is enhanced and made whole by the performance. And so the designer likewise becomes the physical manifestation of the content, not author but performer, the one who gives life to, who speaks the content, contextualizing it and bringing it into the frame of the present. Examples abound, from early Dada, Situationist, and Fluxus experiments to more recent typographic scores like Warren Lehrer’s performance typography or experimental typography from Edward Fella or David Carson. The most notable example is perhaps Quentin Fiore’s performance of McLuhan. It was Fiore’s graphic treatment as much as McLuhan’s words that made The Medium is the Massage a worldwide phenomena. (Other examples include any number of “graphic interpretations,” such as Allen Hori’s reinvention of Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet essay, or P. Scott Makela’s improvisation on Tucker Viemeister’s lecture, both originally printed in Michael Bierut’s Rethinking Design.) Designer as director This model is a function of bigness. Meaning is manufactured by the arrangement of elements, so there must be many elements at play. Only in large-scale installations, advertising campaigns, mass-distribution magazines and very large books do we see evidence of this paradigm. In such large projects, the designer orchestrates masses of materials to shape meaning, working like a film director, overseeing a script,
a series of performances, photographers, artists, and production crews. The meaning of the work results from the entire production. Large-scale, mass-distribution campaigns like those for Nike or Coca-Cola are examples of this approach. Curatorial projects such as Sean Perkins’ catalogue, Experience, which creates an exhibition of other design projects, is another example. of other design projects, is another example.One of the clearest examples is Irma Boom’s project for SHV Corporation. Working in conjunction with an archivist for more than five years, Boom created narrative from a mass of data, a case of the designer creating meaning almost exclusively via the devices of design: the narrative is not a product of words but almost exclusively of the sequence of pages and the cropping of images. The scale of the book allows for thematic development, contradiction, and coincidence. The value of these models is that they accept the multivalent activity of design without resorting to totalizing description. The problem with the authorship paradigm alone is that it encourages both ahistorical and acultural readings of design. It grants too much agency, too much control to the lone artist/genius, and discourages interpretation by validating a “right” reading of a work. On the other hand, work is made by someone. And the difference between the way different writers or designers approach situations and make sense of the world is at the heart of a certain criticism. The challenge is to accept the multiplicity of methods that comprise design language. Authorship is only one device to compel designers to rethink process and expand their methods. If we really need to coin a phrase to describe an activity encompassing imaging, editing, narration, chronicling, performing, translating, organizing and directing, I’ll conclude with a suggestion: designer = designer.
Roleplay: Designers in film Michael Rock
There is a scene at the beginning of Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear in which the camera tracks through the front door of a suburban home and settles on a close-up of a hand sketching long, bold lines across a pad of newsprint. “The idea is to resolve the tension” the voice over, a women with a slight drawl, assures us, “I need a motif that’s about movement...” (The director revealing his method?) The camera pulls back and Jessica Lange appears, pencil in one hand, cigarette in the other, behind a tilted drawing table. “If you can balance those ideas in a way that’s pleasing to the eye, you’ve got a logo.” That’s right, Jessica Lange just ruminated on the ingredients of a logo. Design is not the usual fare of Hollywood screenwriters. Type or toasters somehow lack the dramatic possibilities of, say, international espionage or intergalactic crime fighting. Designer appearances in films are, therefore, rather rare occurrences. And except in the most obscure cases, the fact that a character just happens to be a designer is usually incidental to the plot, a fluke, an aberration, the whim of a writer. This rarity makes the occasional sighting all the more thrilling. But as infrequent as they may be, the incidental appearances may still tell us something. It is commonly accepted that the close examination of the artifacts of popular culture will suggest the way in which that culture regards specific subjects. We can expect, for instance, that class or gender distinctions of a certain society may well be reflected in its films and literature. Even consciously radical work – work that intentionally defies or overturns conventions – tends to be symptomatic of the conditions it rejects. Films that depict designers as characters, therefore, should divulge some of the meanings and values that designers have in our culture. Character roles are symbolic (i.e. they are a device of the plot) and authors/directors choose symbols that have some resonance. Unfortunately, the sample in this case is tiny; the number of films that feature designer/characters is manageable on two fully fingered hands. This in itself may be a sign of the profound lack of impact designers have had on the popular imagination. But every so often the television and movie universe – populated with slick lawyers, exhausted doctors, gritty cops, sly detectives, hard-boiled journalists, predatory stockbrokers, conniving business executives and heroic athletes – is infiltrated by a more artistic type.
Industrial designers fell in love with Eve Kendall (Eve Marie Saint) the moment she peaked out from under her carefully controlled mascara and murmured, “I’m an industrial designer...” in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. (It is perhaps the only time those words are uttered on the big screen.) The famous lie – she is after all a spy – comes in the middle of her elegant seduction of advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) in the dining car of the Twentieth Century Limited en route to Chicago (setting up one of the campiest sexual metaphors in cinema, a cut from the sleeper compartment of the amorous couple to the locomotive rushing into a tunnel.) Industrial design must have been considered a sufficiently unusual and masculine career for a woman – “twenty six and unmarried” – justifying both her independence (traveling alone) and impertinence (seducing Grant.) There is the added symbolism of the late-fifties affair between design (Saint) and advertising (Grant as Madison Avenue man,) and in the film, as in design history, it is often difficult to figure out just who is screwing whom. There’s little question of who’s on top in the most famous designer film of them all, King Vidor’s 1949 adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. No other feature film inscribes the popular trope of the lone designer as succinctly. Gary Cooper stands tall (as architect Howard Rourke) against a world of mindless drones and committees of sniveling, compromising, corporate swine. The film, and Rand’s objectivist philosophy, has probably done more to drive disaffected, misunderstood undergraduates into architecture than any other source. “I don’t build to have clients, I have clients so that I can build!” Rourke announces, and you can hear the echo in a thousand design studios and graduate classes across the land. The Fountainhead is based loosely on the figure of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Warner Studios reportedly offered the set design commission to Wright but balked at his six figure fee.) The Warner set shop did their best to create in the Wright style drawings and models that would be the manifestation of Rourke’s genius. The results were so laughable that architect/industrial designer George Nelson actually critiqued the Hollywood representation of modernist design in a contemporaneous issue of “Interior Design”. Noting that the similarities between Rourke and Wright were “purely intentional and generally unfortunate” Nelson went on to add: “Like all work that is derivative and synthetic, the buildings of Howard Rourke have the fascinating property of presenting all the qualities of the original except the essentials.”
The Fountainhead ends with Rourke arguing before a jury of his peers his right to dynamite a building that deviated from his exact specifications. “My ideas are my own and no man has a right to them,” he declares, after which the jury bursts into applause and finds him innocent. He’s then commissioned to build the tallest structure on earth with absolute design authority granted contractually, and marries the woman he once raped, the stunning Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) widow of the billionaire publisher who commissioned the skyscraper... all in the final minutes of the film. The ultimate scene depicts the super-architect, wind in his hair, arms akimbo, astride the mile high tower; Dominique rocketing upward toward him aboard a construction elevator. Things happen fast at the top. Apparently feeling rather abused by the sniveling, compromising, corporate swine of the film industry, director Francis Ford Coppola made his own version of the stoic loner designer fable. Tucker: A Man and his Dreams depicts the trials and tribulations of Preston Thomas Tucker (Jeff Bridges), a semi-legendary automotive designer from the late forties. Like Rourke, Tucker is despised by the mediocre and the unscrupulous, and is ultimately destroyed by the dark forces of bureaucratic collusion in the form of Big 3 executives and corrupt politicians. Tucker turns on the familiar form of the designer as visionary-dreamer-crackpot, too far out ahead of his time to be understood. (An appealing symbol for Coppola, who was at the time in something of a decade-long slump.) Like Rourke, Tucker finds himself before a jury, arguing his right to dream and fail. Of course he also is also acquitted after an impassioned appeal to his fellow Americans, citizens of the land of opportunity. Both Tucker and Rourke portray a popular and romantic vision of modern design. Yet there are slight but important distinctions between the two iconoclasts. Rourke defines modern design as an elitist and egomaniacal pursuit, the embodiment of objectivism. Design is an end in itself, a celebration of a single genius’ achievement, removed from moral consequence. Rourke despises the masses. It’s a troubling notion coming on the heels of the the World War. (David Lean’s Bridge Over the River Kwai suggests another scenario in which design, or at least engineering, is removed from moral consideration. The Japanese army exploits the captive British engineer’s (Alec Guinness) single-minded obsession with solving the problem in isolation of the context. The engineer unwittingly colla-
borates with the enemy. Recognizing his error, Guinness is compelled to destroy his own creation at the end.) Tucker, on the other hand, is the populist designer, thinking not only of his dreams but of the good of the common man. He struggles to make his cars safe and affordable. Rourke stands for the rights of the individual, Tucker for the good of the powerless, he’s the image of social responsibility. He represents the other popular notion of the modern designer as the guardian of social welfare. His battle is, in effect, a Papenakian consumer rights campaign aimed at the morally corrupt forces of corporate capitalism that undermine free choice with false innovation. Designer characters like Rourke and Tucker tend to fulfill one of several highly codified functions. Design can be portrayed as a noble calling, removed from, and beleaguered by, the corrupt circles of corporate America (Tucker and Rourke), or as a superficial obsession to surface detail that obscures more important human relationships. (Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs Kramer as the creative director too possessed with concerns of his hollow advertising career to see the disintegration of his marriage; Graphic designer Judy Davis as the eighties style yuppie in The New Age.) Architecture is an especially popular profession for sensitive male characters in films whose plot demands upper middle class lifestyles and creative personalities. (The devoted widower, architect Tom Hanks, in Sleepless in Seattle.) Architects can be molded to be romantically idealistic and underemployed (early Rourke), or dangerously committed and overworked (Richard Gear in Intersection, Jeff Bridges in Fearless, David Strathairn in The River Wild.) The greatest scorn is reserved for interior designers, especially interior decorators from Los Angeles. Interior designers are repeatedly represented as vain, thoughtless, artificial or hopelessly shallow charlatans exploiting the whimsy of rich, bored housewives. (Richard Gere masquerades as a gay decorator in American Gigolo to avoid detection of his actual profession. The outrageously self-absorbed New York nouveau riche designer destroying with ludicrous post-modern home “improvements,” a quaint, authentic country house in Beetlejuice.) Post-modern decorating is the visual manifestation of the fast money and conspicuous consumption that has come to represent the go-go ‘80s, the decade of greed Daryl Hannah as the decorator/girlfriend of Charlie Sheen? in Wall Street.
â€œMy ideas are
has a right to them,â€? 65
Certain conditions of design work can also be useful in plot construction. For instance, designers can work at home (allowing for all kinds of narrative possibilities; e.g. Lange in Cape Fear terroized by DeNiro) or at a photogenic office: exotic flower arrangements, severe angles, modern art, white walls. (Architect Wesley Snipes and secretary Annabella Sciorra’s scene atop the pristine drawing board in Jungle Fever gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “graphic sex.”) Designers have flexible hours (no dying patients back at the hospital which facilitates long lunches and afternoon trysts), wear unusual or eye catching get-ups (showcasing the costume designer,) and live in funky lofts and picturesque parts of town (good location possibilities.) The commercial arts career – like that of interior decorator and gallery director – is especially suitable for the professional female character that demands a job but cannot appear too hard-edged (doctor, lawyer, architect) or too much of a throw-back (housewife, teacher, nurse.) Television commercials have relied on the female designer as a staple character. Countless women professionals with countless pairs of pounding temples rotate in their ergonomic drafting chairs away from white drawing tables speckled with pens and brushes to reach for an aspirin/Anacin/Tylenol. The harried female designer joins the architect in a hard-hat inspecting the construction site, the creative director with boards and easel finessing a presentation, the industrial designer squinting at a wire frame model on a CAD screen, in the stock of commercial images. Yet despite the creative types that dot the mediascape, the design profession remains almost completely invisible. If it is true that only 2% of American adults understand what a designer does, its not surprising that it is so rarely present in popular images. The few that do appear tend to be the butt of a joke; the arty, affected characters that are eventually revealed for their true, shallow little selves. Design by its very nature disappears into the texture of the world around us. As ridiculous as it may sound, we have no designer role models. As skewed an image as it was, Howard Rourke at least caught the imagination of the audience, projected an image that design could be a hopeful, powerful act. But don’t despair, The Fountainhead has been optioned for a remake, first by Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter), now by Barry Levinson (Bugsy). So it only a matter of time before the myth gets recharged nineties style: Howard Rourke, the heroic proponent of deconstruction, bucking the committees of sniveling, compromising, modernist swine.
Graphic Design and the Next Big Thing Rudy VanderLans
A few months back Louise Sandhaus contacted me to see if I was interested in creating an issue of Emigre that would document 101: The Future of Design in the Context of Computer-Based Media, a symposium she had organized at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Holland. The symposium explored questions about what future graphic designers are being educated for and what the role of the designer will be. To encourage me to publish this information, Louise assured me that people were probably “chomping at the bit for Emigre to introduce this material in some intelligent and interesting way.” While ambivalent about the value of such crystal ball events, what intrigued me about this request was how Emigre continues to be regarded as the place where the Next Big Thing, for lack of a better term, is not only regularly covered but also expected to be covered. The many disgruntled letters about our recent shift in editorial policy away from such popular phenomena underline this fact. This “feeding the trout” as one letter writer put it, the act of somehow keeping our readers abreast of trends, is an impossible task. Having been privy to the making of one trend in no way prepares one to recognize the harbingers of the next. I’m unsure whether this is because the Next Big Thing is simply a product of hindsight, or because it is human nature to regard ground-breaking work as the final solution, nullifying the possibility of the next Next Big Thing. The latter is particularly tempting to believe when you’ve had your moment in the sun while riding the Next Big Thing wave, but piques the younger generations who are eager to have their own experiences of experimentation and discovery. Still, if you think about it, after hundreds of years of formal, typographic experimentation on the page, you would assume that we must at some point have exhausted the possibilities. Someone will come around, though, and disprove this, I’m sure. Tibor Kalman thinks otherwise when he states in Eye that “People haven’t started fucking with the printed page in a serious way yet...” Picturing what has passed before us, however, I cannot for the life of me think of what it could be that hasn’t already been done. Actually, one could argue we reached that saturation point quite some time ago. Anything in print that appears new today can be considered a variation on age old themes. Purely from a formal point of view, that Layered Thing was fairly well explored by Piet Swart and Wolfgang Weingart. That Anti-Mastery Thing was pretty well exhausted by Fluxus
and Punk, that Deconstructivist Thing was long ago mastered by just about everybody from Apollinaire to Edward Fella and that Illegible Thing was difficult to top after Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson were done battling over who could make the reader more cross-eyed. The only significant contribution introduced to graphic design in the last 10 years or so, as Laurie Haycock Makela once pointed out, might have less to do with anything visual than with how design is produced and who it is produced by. While the idea of the Next Big Thing is ludicrous to some, it’s obvious that many hunger for it. Having documented, for a while at least, one such Next Big Thing, our magazine continues to receive inquiries from journalists and critics alike curious what the next Next Big Thing might be and where to find all the young energetic designers doing “crazy new things.” You can smell the desperation - with the absence of the Next Big Thing, what do they write about? But let’s imagine for a second that there will be no Next Big Thing in design. At least not for a while. Nothing to catch the attention of the design press, to sweep all the design awards, to receive all the lecture invitations, to function as a source of inspiration and discussion for all. Here’s an idea to fill that void; we can try our hand at judging design by its content, by the ideas and messages that it attempts to communicate. Imagine design competitions picking winners based solely on the value of what they communicate, instead of how they communicate. The moral, ethical and political biases of the judges would come to the fore, for sure, but no more or less than the formal biases of judges who rule competitions now. Design would be discussed only as it affects the message. For instance, a submission could be considered of great public value but would not win an award simply because the design, although formally stunning, obscured the message. What would the AIGA annual look like then? Of course it will never happen, because designers are visual types who have a tendency to either obsessively reduce or overly complicate the ideas of their clients, often without much concern for what is actually communicated. It is not that designers are insensitive or disinterested in the social and cultural functions of the messages they give form to; it’s just that they don’t always see the necessity (or have the opportunity) to integrate their personal ideologies into their professional work. They enjoy giving form to ideas. If designers were made of ideas, they’d be their own clients.
The World Wide Web is often hailed as the Next Big Thing in graphic design, but it’s a problematic environment for graphic designers. One problem is that it has limited graphic possibilities. The coarse resolution of the computer screen, the inability to fix layouts and typefaces, and the overpowering presence of the browser’s interface all restrict the designer’s ability to impart a specific visual character to a Web site. These also restrict the designers’ ability to leave their signature imprint, which is even more problematic, since for many designers this is the single most important asset of how they market themselves. With the absence of the stylistic choices usually available in print, many designers will refrain from getting involved, while others, by hook or by crook, will try and bend the medium to fit their personal preferences for typographic expression and style. That’s why so many Web sites look like what designers do in print but applied to the screen. If there were ever an opportunity for graphic design to be more involved with content, the World Wide Web is it. With the computer functioning as the great visual equalizer, content instead of form is what ultimately may come to differentiate and qualify Web sites. However, according to my own assessment regarding the value placed on content within graphic design, judging a Web site on the strength of its content will not soon gain popularity, at least not within the narrow world of graphic design. Unless, of course, you expand the notion of what graphic design is. Which brings me back to Louise Sandhaus’s 101 symposium and the future of graphic design. Whether or not designers will be able to make the transition from print to screen and whether or not the technology will ever deliver on the promise of seamless multimedia for everybody remains to be seen. But as we ponder the question of how graphic designers will cope with the seemingly inevitable changes ahead, we should not lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish. The purpose of what we do as designers will remain fairly basic: to communicate as effectively as we can those messages and ideas that we most care about. Having the option to do this differently and with more pomp and circumstance than before raises interesting questions not just regarding how but also why. Writer Paul Roberts’s observation that “The irony of the information revolution is that consumers neither like nor expect long texts on their computer screens” suggests a radical shift in people’s rea-
If there were ever an opportunity for graphic design to be more involved with content, the World Wide Web is it.
With the computer functioning as the great visual equalizer, content instead of form is what ultimately may come to differentiate and qualify Web sites. 73
ding habits. This shift has long been contemplated by designers and critics alike concerned with how to best address the reading habits of future generations raised on MTV and video games in an era of increasing information overload. This is problematic, however, since I can’t help but wonder why, as graphic designers, we should concern ourselves with pleasing readers suffering from attention deficiency disorder. How are we certain that by catering to their diminishing interest in linear reading and by relying on the power of images and sound bites as an alternative, that we actually increase such notions as comprehension and cognition? As a result of my own interest and experiments regarding how to best aid the reader, I’ve become increasingly unconvinced about the power of images to tell stories and the value of open-ended narratives. Where to apply such methods is crucial. When viewing Elliott Earls’s entertaining enhanced CD, Throwing Apples at the Sun, I enjoy the fact that I, the reader, can construct my own meaning from the seemingly disparate elements of image, sound and text. It is obviously the very purpose of this project. When reading an essay, on the other hand, I crave for knowing what the author means so that I can learn and respond and ask specific questions if necessary. When Louise Sandhaus, in Emigre 36, practices what she preaches and designs her essay “Click” in a manner that aspires to the non-linear, multi-level environment of the World Wide Web or CD ROMs, the result is a dynamic orchestration of text and images that subverts the conventional make-up of the page. Whether it functions as intended depends on who you ask. As a designer I’m drawn in by the curious visual presentation, but as a reader I’m unsure about sequence and often lose the thread of the writing due to the many distractions and options vying for my attention - not unlike when I’m surfing the World Wide Web or scanning a CD ROM. In Emigre 37 both designer Stephen Farrell and writer Steve Tomasula make eloquent arguments to support the notion of using animated texts and images to subserve reading and enrich meaning. Theoretically it holds water and I want to believe they are right because their work is so shockingly beautiful. But when I try to actually read their short story TOC, the experience is not as smooth as I had hoped. The story is layed out with distinct visual gestures, but I’m unclear how to read them or what the authors mean. I’m uncertain
how to fill in the gaps or make the connections. Is it my fault, as a reader, that I donâ€™t understand? Or is it the authorsâ€™? Or does it matter at all? In Emigre we have published many such theories and experiments, but their applicability in the real world, besides functioning as the Next Big Thing, has proved to be limited. This is exemplified by designers such as Katherine McCoy, Jeffery Keedy, Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, who are often presented as the key protagonists and apologists for the new theories that have inspired recent design trends, but who in reality create designs that apply only to a minimal degree the theories that so outrage its critics. Shooting holes in the new theories, of course, is easy, since they are usually general in scope and allow for different levels of interpretation, depending on the job at hand. McCoy et al demonstrate time and again that they are extremely skillful at implementing their theories. There are few books out on the market that more brilliantly combine text and image and in the process truly aid reading and extend meaning, than the books created by these designers. And the books look far more traditional than the theories that inspired them. Instead of nipping the theories in the bud, the critics should try their hand at how these ideas trickle down to the mainstream and are applied indiscriminately and irresponsibly. The opening essay in David Carsonâ€™s book The End of Print would be a good place to start. To justify his typographic aerobics on the page, Carson often refers to the changing reading habits of the audience and borrows from the theory that if you engage the readers and make them work at decoding the text, they will better remember what they read. Granted, it did take me quite a bit of work to figure out that the sentences in the essay needed to be read from bottom to top. But what I end up remembering about the essay is not so much what I read, but how difficult it was to read it at all. This type of work, as Andrew Blauvelt suggests, has less to do with redefining the notion of readability or literacy than with creating product differentiation and establishing the expressive personal style of the designer. But if designers have a tendency to apply their signature styles willy nilly to whatever commissions come down the pike, design critics often tend to paint with a rather broad brush to establish their holier-than-thou agendas regarding the social responsibility of the designer, the public good, fellow readers and other such stuff. The new
theories, as some critics claim, have no interest in such noble causes. However, when voicing their objections regarding the new theories and the work it has spawned, the critics conveniently steer clear of addressing specific designs, and instead use bodies of work such as Rick Poynor’s anthology Typography Now: The Next Wave. These anthologies present anything but a unified collection of work or theory. They consist, for the most part, of posters, covers and other commercial, experimental and student projects especially short on text, big on image, and particularly suited for reproduction in small format. Here too, besides functioning as the Next Big Thing (as the book’s title claims), the work can hardly be considered as serious research addressing the needs of future communication modes. But for the critics, who rarely judge designs within their specific context, they serve perfectly in pointing out all that is wrong with today’s empty, self-centered designerism. This is usually followed by bizarre acts of overextension leading to conclusions that the new theories are not concerned with society’s more mundane yet invaluable means of communication such as novels, educational texts, timetables, instructional manuals, application forms, etc. If the new theories are not much concerned with these, it is because they acknowledge that the old theory provides most of the answers for these applications. What the new theories are concerned with is that the old theory does not properly address the new media and the multiplicitous environments and audiences that graphic design now both serves and is comprised of. Which brings me back to the Next Big Thing. If the new theories have generated disappointing results concerning conventional print design, than the old theory has shown little ability to adapt to the new environments of electronic publishing. For instance, if issues of legibility are a social concern, why then have our most respected typographers largely ignored issues of typographic excellence on the computer screen? As we’re entering the information age, which will most likely play itself out on low resolution monitors, you can either ignore what is going on around you and then later complain about the irresponsible behavior of today’s designer and the general downfall of literacy and all that, or you can help provide a solution. For the graphic adventurers among us, this probably means having to abandon certain personal expressive preferences, and for our most learned typographers, it might mean adapting sophisticated typographic traditions to fit the still primitive world of electronic publishing. Somehow this combined knowledge must be able to generate a visual language capable of being both legible and engaging.
At Emigre, for the short term at least, as we’re trying to deal with the new technologies that surround us, we see more use for the teachings of the young Jan Tschichold than the writings of, let’s say, Frances Butler. While we’re being primed for sensory overload, the reality of electronic publishing still consists of system crashes, tedious downloading problems, links gone “dead,” incompatibility and the many stylistic restrictions described earlier. The simplicity and social concerns of Tschichold’s ideals, that “communication must appear in the briefest, simplest, most urgent form,” as outlined in the text Elementare Typographie, are far more practical than the multi-level, interactive, hypertextual and audiovisual forms of communication that, according to Butler, will better match the “fluid, additive, non-syntactic, and above all, extremely sophisticated thought process that are the natural birthright of all humans.”
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures 1 Andrew Blauvelt
The paradoxical nature of being both in and around is familiar to the cultural anthropologist, who might work in the field among the observed and at the same time remains apart from the observed. It is this observer status given to the anthropologist that creates this necessary dilemma. The conventional wisdom supporting the role of cultural anthropology has been its intention to study the cultures of other peoples as a way of reflecting on our own culture, or to borrow a phrase from Liberal Humanism, “To know others so that we may better understand ourselves.” The situation between an observer and an observed can never be neutral, however, since the power relationships are inevitably unequal. The graphic designer shares a similar dilemma of being both instrumental in the making of cultural artifacts and living in the society through which they are distributed. Graphic designers are often asked to remove themselves from their social positions and experiences and offer themselves as professionals, specialists in the various forms of visual communication. This detachment, which we might call “professionalization” or “specialization,” creates the mythical, autonomous observer in the design process. This is a learned method of being professional and a consequence of the “problem-solving process” at the core of every graphic design procedure. We are asked to be objective and to render rational decisions (solutions), and doing so places graphic design on a par with other professions. The graphic designer is, of course, a member of society and thus lives with the artifacts of his or her making, as well as with the artifacts of other designers. In this way, designers are asked to be professionals outside of (to be around) culture, and at the same time, to be a part of (to be in), culture. We are, with others in society, witnesses to and participants in the consumption of cultural artifacts and, therefore, share in the moments of seduction and repulsion that these artifacts generate. I am seduced by the messages of others I appreciate the materiality of the finely printed book I respond to the urgency expressed by the political poster ... and I shop at the mall. I am repulsed by the messages of others
I am appalled by displays of injustice I am threatened by the signs of hatred ... and I shop at the mall. The important lesson of this confession is that we consume cultural artifacts and their messages in different ways. While we consume these artifacts in the conventional manner of conspicuous consumption, which renders consumers as passive, blank slates upon which all forms of messages can be written, more recent research efforts have demonstrated another dimension to this idea of passive consumption, showing that we also consume artifacts symbolically and even ironically through small acts of individual resistance.(1) I watch Melrose Place ironically, for the melodramatic plot lines and the obvious acting - it’s so bad, it’s good - while I resist buying cable television because that’s just too much television. The Discovery of Difference The dilemma of being both in and around culture exists at another level: at the level of individual subjectivity. I have already asserted that the phrase “in and around” constitutes a subject position, if only a paradoxical one. Just as a subject position will only be meaningful if it is defined in relationship to other positions, so too is the subject of that positioning. We need other things to mark the boundaries of ourselves, our identities and our cultures. Psychoanalysis tells us that this process happens at a very early age, when the child recognizes itself as a self; that is to say, as an individual, and also recognizes others as others. Similarly, cognitive psychologists have suggested that we seem predisposed at the earliest ages to recognize difference, the exceptional, as a way of making sense of the world around us. This process of differentiation continues on a social level through identification with race, ethnicity, gender, age, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, class, etc. These social and cultural positions are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. We find that we are culturally constructed as subjects and we are socially constructed through the identities we claim or the categories we are placed in. It is easier to understand that class is a social construction but harder to consider how race is a construction, and not simply a natural phenomenon, until we realize that the idea of race emerged in a historically specific way, bolstered by the truth claims of science for various political ends. Race is not natural, it is cultural. Gender
is not natural, it is cultural. These statements are made to counter the extent to which ideas about woman, blacks, gays, etc. are so intertwined in the fabric of society as to appear inevitable and unquestionable - natural. The relationship between self and others is a two-way street, producing effects on all parties within a power structure that is typically unequal. This “discovery,” of others - that moment of first contact between different groups and their subsequent relationships - has been characterized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida as essentially “violent”: “... the anthropological war [is] the essential confrontation that opens communication between peoples and cultures, even when that communication is not practiced under the banner of colonial or missionary oppression.”(2) This violence occurs at the level of actual, lived experience and at the level of symbolic existence, through words and images; i.e., representations. Design’s relationship with cultural identification is a very important, that is to say, financially significant one. The “discovery” of various cultural groups within society coincides with their definition as an audience and as a market. It is no coincidence that Big Business “discovered” other audiences after the social turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s; the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements to name but two. We are, in fact, witnessing a renewed discovery of cultural diversity under the banner of multiculturalism, a phenomenon that is reflected in “progressive” advertising campaigns.(3) Tellingly, many of these campaigns are for fashion clientele, contributing to the notion that such “diversity” is “fashionable.”(4) In our discussions of others in this culture, it is hard to imagine a scenario that is not a product of larger economic forces. This applies to the economic development of colonialism that brought slavery to the New World and with it the foundations of racial supremacy, as well as to today’s effects of global capitalism which turn those old feelings of supremacy into longings for contact, even intimate contact, with others - their skin, clothes, language, music, crafts, cuisine.(5) It is this longing for contact with others, their exotic appeal, which drives the desire for cultural appreciation through cultural appropriation.
Imaging the Other: The Digital Fiction of First Contact This “discovery” of cultural difference through the recent guise of multiculturalism can be seen in a fall 1993 issue of Time magazine entitled “The New Face of America.” Created as a special issue and devoted exclusively to issues surrounding what we now call “multiculturalism,” this publication effort was sponsored, exclusively, by Chrysler Plymouth Corporation. From the cover: “Take a good look at this woman. She was created by a computer from a mix of several races. What you see is a remarkable preview of The New Face of America. How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society.” We learn inside that this new woman is a composite creature created through the digital “morphing” process combining specified amounts of ethnicity: 15% Anglo-Saxon, 17.5% Middle Eastern, 17.5% African, 7.5% Asian, 35% Southern European, and 7.5% Hispanic. Least we consider her some sort of ethno-techno-Frankenstein, we are told that this woman stole the hearts of several magazine staffers, obviously unaware of her virtual existence. Of course, it doesn’t take a cynic to realize the fallacy of asserting that today’s America represents the world’s first multicultural society. The history of the world’s oppressed would say otherwise. Even though the issue contains a story on interracial marriage and what it calls “crossbreeding,” complete with real husbands and wives and their real mixed-race children, it expends a great deal of effort in the presentation of its digital ethnic-mixing “times table” shown in the next spread. Using the same “morphing” technology as the cover creation, they have assembled 49 others using a 50-50 mixing formula. In a similar vein, the magazine Colors sponsored by the Italian fashion corporation Benetton, in a spring/summer 1993 issue devoted to race, offers a six-page section of digital “possibilities.” In these pages, celebrities are transformed, much like Ted Turner’s colorizing technique, creating a “black” Queen Elizabeth, a “black” Arnold Schwarzenegger, a “white” Spike Lee, an “Asian” Pope John Paul II and a “white” Michael Jackson. The absurdity of these “possibilities” as reality creates the humor that makes us laugh. These possibilities do not represent any lived reality but a mythic realm where we can now dissolve the outward boundaries of “us and them”-ness through the wonders of digital imaging.
Our fascination with others has been rethought by anthropologist Michael Taussig, who turns the table on the observer and the observed. Taussig asks “Who is fascinated by what?” when he questions early anthropological expeditions and their use of the camera and the phonograph to make contact with and record other peoples. According to Taussig, “the more important question lies with the white man’s fascination with the non-whites’ fascination with these mimetically capacious machines [the camera and the phonograph].”(6) Similarly, we need to ask ourselves who is served by the wondrous potential of digital imaging to transform pictures of race, ethnicity or gender? Who are these images for? “The shock of recognition! In an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained - ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.” The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, 1967 Over a quarter-century has passed since this prophecy about our technological relationship with others by media guru Marshall McLuhan. In the racial turbulence of the sixties, McLuhan saw the impact that increased information exchange would have on society, particularly on our relationships with other people. Tinged with the optimism that pervades all technological revolutions, McLuhan injects a message of civic responsibility - an ethics of mutual dependency. Fast-forward to yesterday: “Our critics felt that Matt Mahurin’s work changed the picture fundamentally; I felt it lifted a common police mug shot to the level of art, with no sacrifice to truth. Reasonable people may disagree about that. If there was anything wrong with the cover, in my view, it was that it was not immediately apparent that this was a photo-illustration rather than an unaltered photograph; to know that, a reader had to turn to our contents page or see the original mug shot on the opening page of the story.” James R. Gaines, Managing Editor, Time, July 4, 1994 This statement was a defense for the use of Matt Mahurin’s digital photo-illustration of O.J. Simpson for Time. This recent event un-
derscores the relationships among electronic technologies, representation and cultural identity and the many issues their convergence raises. There are many instances in recent memory of the manipulation of photographic imagery by digital technology, such as the head-of-Oprah-Winfrey + body-of-Ann-Margaret collage for T.V. Guide or National Geographic’s shifting of the Great Pyramids at Giza, which stirred numerous public controversies over the myth of “the truthfulness of photographs.”(7) In the case of the O.J. Simpson cover, Time decides to use as its defense the argument that the illustration transcends the original mug shot photo and becomes art, thereby placing it in a special cultural category reserved for suspended judgments, a place where my taste is not yours, yours is not mine, let’s agree to disagree and other relativisms that seemed to have been inherited from the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” ‘70s. By placing this commission in the realm of art, the editor can argue that the artist who created it (or rather re-created it) gave it something it lacked. This lack occurs, of course, because of the kind of image it is - a mug shot. Justification for Mahurin’s image hinges on displacing everything we know about the social significance of mug shots as documents of suspected criminals and re-reading the image as an intervention of the artist’s hand and eye, thereby elevating the commonplace mug shot to the extraordinary realm of art. The greater at-large and largely negative reaction to this image occurs at a level of understanding about how images are conceptually framed in society. According to Time management, detractors didn’t read the image “correctly” as a work of art, but rather as what it is, a technological alteration of a mug shot - a photographic document of criminal surveillance.(8) What was read, at least by some, was the darkening of Simpson’s skin tone, which shows that some grasped the fact that this was not the “original” because it did not conform to what they knew (mostly from other pictures) about O.J. Simpson. It did not correspond to the “truth.” The reinscription of a police mug shot, #BK4013970 06-17-94, into the red frame of a Time cover, trades our abstract belief in “innocent until proven guilty” for the tacit knowledge of assumed guilt. The resulting re-creation mixes several other social messages: the story of a fallen public figure (“An American Tragedy,” reads the cover) subconsciously translated in many minds as the verification of everything they think they know of black males and criminal activity.
â€œThe shock of recognition! In an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained ignored. Too many people know too much about each other.
Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.â€? 87
This mini-controversy is but the latest episode in the on-going struggle for representation in our culture that is dressed in the high-tech clothing of digital imaging, while revealing the same old social truths. McLuhan saw a social opportunity but lacked critical insight into the social reality that limits individual options that seek to operate in opposition to established social truths. What is interesting to me is how new digital technologies have been harnessed for representing racial “possibilities.” These ethnic fictions populate the world of cyberspace in ways that picturing others used to reside in the mind, moving away from imagining the other to imaging the other. Unfortunately, little has changed in the conceptions of race, only the spaces in which they are articulated. The representations of other cultures have moved from the conspicuous colonialism of stolen and bartered objects found in the curiosity cabinet and the natural history museum to the neocolonialism of appropriating cultural representations, including the creation of yet another “other:” a fictive one you can’t know because it doesn’t really exist. It is this aspect of fictitiousness that distinguishes the use of digital imaging techniques to capture and fix the image of the other. Photography has been consistently used to “capture” others, particularly in the field work of anthropologists or the surveillance of police. These photographic depictions have their own level of conceit but always remain true to their claim to capture reality “as it was.” These recent uses of digital imaging techniques, however, relinquish their claims to reality in favor of picturing reality “as it isn’t,” or “as it might be.” The fictive domain of the digital construction can be seen more obviously in another Colors (June 1994) depiction, a portrait of former President Ronald Reagan with skin lesions next to an obituary citing his recent death from complications with AIDS. The fictitious photo and obituary rewrite the Reagan-era policy on AIDS and extol the virtues of a man who “is best remembered for his quick and decisive response to the AIDS epidemic,” under the headline “Hero.” While at great pains to establish a level of reality for their story, Colors declares the fictitious nature of the story in a footnote and uses the word “manipulation” in the attached photo credit. These are offered to prevent misreading the story as true, while trying to preserve the supreme irony of the story itself. Again, the absurdity of the story plays havoc with the reality of its presentation. Unfortuna-
tely, we are left with the “wishful thinking” of the obituary and the all-too-real historical record on the subject. The fictive fantasy of digital “possibilities” seems so appealing because they offer us a form of pleasure through their refusal of a known reality.(9) The ease with which such productions are made is in contrast to the difficulties of easing racial conflict or ending political apathy towards the AIDS pandemic. As a counterpoint to these instrumental uses of digital technologies by mainstream media is the use of similar technologies by British artist Keith Piper, whose video installation “Surveillances: Tagging the Other,” deals with the use of that technology within the climate of European racism. Piper appropriates the slang term of “tagging” the marking of territory by a unique graffiti signature - and applies it to the use of electronic technologies to mark and track others. In this way, Piper shows how, for example, a proposed New European State could utilize digital technologies and information networks to target social “undesirables” and keep them under surveillance. Piper’s digital images foresee a distinctly 21st-century vision of documenting and analyzing cultural differences in much the same way as 19th-century phrenologists studied the head structures and facial features of others, particularly the insane, the criminal and the “Negro.” Keith Piper’s use of the same technology creates a different digital fiction: one you fear because it might just exist. Picturing Difference / Representing Diversity We come to know ourselves and others less often through actual contact and more usually through representations in society. Cultural identification is a factor of representation. For example, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, speaking about the concepts of woman and sexuality, said it succinctly: “Images and symbols for the woman cannot be isolated from images and symbols of the woman. It is representation, the representation of feminine sexuality... which conditions how it comes into play.”(10) The debates about multiculturalism are debates about representation. Although many people consider the issue in terms of sheer numbers - a quantitative approach to representation - the issue is not necessarily a lack of representations but the diversity of them; for as the art critic and theorist Craig Owens reminds us: “In our culture there is, of course, no lack of representations of women - or, for that
matter, of other marginalized groups (blacks, homosexuals, children, criminals, the insane...).”(11) Representations can be depictions of others as a kind of shorthand that we substitute for specific cultural categories. The effect of the linkage between dominant political interests and the use of various representations can be seen when we confront wholesale categories that are themselves amalgamations of sex, race and class, without imagery. For example, what image do you form for “welfare mother,” “crack addict,” or “AIDS patient?” These code words are the cultural shorthand for young, unmarried, poor, African-American woman; young, poor, African-American man; and young, white, gay male respectively. Their power derives from their ability to exploit media images of these scenarios in the minds of the public without directing attention to their misogynic, racist and homophobic roots. Picture This: Voice and Agency The debate on representation for the graphic designer seems to reside in the space between Karl Marx’s empowering dictate, “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented,”(12) that is to say, act for others, and Gilles Deleuze’s categorical rejection of such presumed authority - “the indignity of speaking for others.”(13) Marx’s famous dictate is the more typical task that artists and other cultural producers have assigned themselves: to speak for others. Less typical is the statement by Deleuze that suggests, perhaps, letting others speak for themselves. The negotiation of representational strategies seems central for the graphic designer (and others) who are routinely asked to speak for others. Graphic designers and other cultural producers are just beginning to rethink the terms of representation, away from speaking for others and towards speaking with and to others.(14) The factors that would allow others to speak for themselves deal with access to the means of representation that is ultimately a function of power. The debates around multiculturalism can be seen as a struggle for control over the means of representation. As Craig Owens states, it is representation itself that takes away the ability to speak for oneself. However, the traffic in representations will not end since it is fundamental to the operation of our society. So, while increased instances of represented others (tokenism) inject some presence into
the picture, they do little to explain the previous exclusions. Fundamental change is unlikely to occur through the pages of multinational corporate advertising no matter how many others are depicted. After all, have you â€œCome a Long Way, Baby!â€?? Fundamental change is much more likely to come at a broader social level through a multitude of changes from any number of sectors and inevitably it will be reflected in the construction of various representations, made by graphic designers and other cultural producers and ultimately incorporated in the constitution of identities. After all, corporate advertising campaigns and token representatives (spot the black, the Asian, the woman in the scene) do not create diversity but merely reflect it. The work of socially engaged activists, artists and designers tries to undermine the stereotype in innumerable ways; through disruptive strategies such as appropriation, subversion and inversion, as well as the destabilizing tactics of deconstructive textual readings and demystifying widely held views.(15) True inclusiveness, as a result of empowerment or agency, includes access to both the means of producing cultural representations and to the modes of their distribution in society. In this way, the voices of others will be heard only when those others have access to the larger public sphere. While graphic designers may claim an independent status, like that of neutral observers, we find that their role is a central one in the system of representations. As producers and consumers of various cultural artifacts, understood as both tangible goods, such as books and magazines, as well as the more intangible products, such as ephemeral messages and images, graphic designers find themselves both in and around culture. So what is the answer? The problems are multifaceted and much larger than design, which means we need a variety of responses on a variety of levels. It helps to remember that we are both designers and citizens. In this way, you can be part of the solution even if you are not designing for it. It also helps to remember that graphic design is about messages, and that our solutions are merely contributions to a larger effort. There must be greater cultural diversity in the people who design, including an analysis of why these people are not there now. We need greater critical awareness that the teaching and practice of
design occur in larger social frameworks, governed by rules of racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, etc., particularly for those individuals who may not experience it themselves. We need a greater range of methods and options for practicing graphic design that begins to step outside of a reactionary response to problems with its outmoded, pyramidal (top-down) structure and towards a more inclusive, responsive position found in activities like, for example, collaboration and co-authorship. Much to the disappointment of many, these issues will not disappear with dismissals of “political correctness” since they reflect a fundamental social change that has been underway for quite some time, no matter how slow it seems in coming for the rest of us. Quite simply, design has no choice but to get used to it. Notes: 1. The now classic example drawn from work of popular culture is Ien Ang’s Watching Dallas, first published in the Netherlands in 1982. Ang gathered responses from women by placing an ad in the Dutch woman’s magazine Viva, addressed to those who either liked to watch the American soap opera Dallas or disliked it. Ang discovered three general positions toward the program: one group of fans, a second set of viewers who watched the program ironically and a third group who hated the show. Ang’s work demonstrates that the consumption of cultural artifacts (in this case watching t.v.) is a complex negotiation involving sometimes the wholesale acceptance of the show’s message (by fans), sometimes an outright rejection of such debased messages and meanings (by haters) and sometimes an inverted re-reading of the show’s message and meaning (by ironists). Ang’s work is important because she examines how pleasure is produced through consumption, in rather complex ways with contradictory value systems, rather than seeing consumption as simply an end in and of itself. 2. “The Battle of Proper Names,” from “Part II: Nature, Culture, Writing” in Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, 1976, p.107. Derrida’s comment is in context of a discussion of the “Writing Lesson” by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The linkage between violence and representation is fully present in this allegorical image of “America” by Philippe Galle in the late 16th century. The New World is rendered as a naked, violent woman. Why a naked, violent woman? 3. The advent of “multi-culti” advertising has produced a bewildering amount of information on the consumptive preferences and buying patterns of various ethnic groups. For example, we now know that Korean Americans consume more Spam than any other ethnic group or that Chinese Americans drink more Cognac. In the words of one executive, “Today’s marketing is part anthropology.” 4. The most visible of these campaigns is the on-going “United Colors of Benetton.” A critical analysis of Benetton is made by Jeff Rosen in his article “Merchandising Multiculturalism: Benetton and the New Cultural Relativism,” New Art Examiner, November 1993, pp.18–26. The critical difference lies in how the concept of multiculturalism will be allowed to exist as a force in society. Will multiculturalism act as a force for substantive change in how we deal with other cultures? Is it to be seen as a form of marginalized pluralism? Or is it simply a relative concept perfect for the marketing of our times? In the reported words of Benetton’s creative director Oliviero Toscani, “Products change, images capitalize.” Or as Rosen notes, “Toscani has it backwards: Images change, products capitalize.” 5. “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream
white culture.” - bell hooks from “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation, 1992, p. 21. 6. “The Talking Machine,” in Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses by Michael Taussig, 1993, p. 198. 7. For an extended account of what he calls the “pseudo-photograph,” see William J. Mitchell’s book The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (1992); in particular, the chapters “Intention and Artifice” and “How to Do Things with Pictures.” 8. For a critical account of the use of photography in the service of documenting criminal activity, see “The Body and the Archive” by Allan Sekula, reprinted in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, 1989. 9. This thought parallels some of the conclusions of Ien Ang (see note 1), who argues that fantasy and fiction do not “function in place of, but beside, other dimensions of life (social practice, moral or political consciousness). “It...is a source of pleasure because it puts ‘reality’ in parentheses, because it constructs imaginary solutions for real contradictions, which in their fictional simplicity and their simple fictionality step outside the tedious complexity of existing social relations of dominance and subordination.” (p.135) 10. “Guiding Remarks for a Congress on Feminine Sexuality,” by Jacques Lacan in Feminine Sexuality, edited by Juliet Mitchell, 1982, p. 90. 11. “‘The Indignity of Speaking for Others’: An Imaginary Interview,” by Craig Owens in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture, 1992, p. 262. 12. The comment is from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in a discussion of the French peasantry. This is discussed by Owens (see note 10), who adds: “Here, Marx uncritically assumes the traditional role of politically motivated intellectual - or artist - in bourgeois society: he appropriates for himself the right to speak on behalf of others, setting himself up as their conscience - indeed, as consciousness itself. But in order to occupy this position, he must first deny them (self-) consciousness, the ability to represent themselves.” (p.261). 13. Michel Foucault, “ Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, 1977, p.209. This statement by Deleuze about Foucault’s work comes from Craig Owens’s essay (see note 10). 14. Undoubtedly, designers are discovering that issues of cultural diversity and social responsibility can be found in their own back yards. As I write this, the premiere issue of Sphere has arrived at my door, a publication by the World Studio Foundation. The stated intent of the Foundation is threefold: to “examine the role of cultural identity in the design disciplines,” to “collect and disseminate information about social projects in the global creative community” and to “encourage projects that empower individuals and communities to participate in the shaping of their environment.” While their intentions are laudable I am left with an uneasy feeling. Perhaps it’s cynicism, maybe it’s the Colors-like design that makes me suspicious, or maybe it’s the $50 subscription price. See the brief report on World Studio, I.D. magazine, November 1993, p. 26. 15. It is easier to see the work produced by artists as instances of “others speaking for themselves” and in the process enabling another voice to be heard. I think of Carrie Mae Weems, and African-American woman, whose photographic series “Ain’t Jokin” with titles such as “Black Woman with Chicken” or “What are the three things you can’t give a black person?” or of the Native-American artist Jimmie Durham’s work, both of whom undermine the prevalent stereotypes produced by and for dominant culture. It is harder to see this activity in the realm of graphic design proper, much of which is produced by and for dominant cultural interests.
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures 2 Andrew Blauvelt
As a spectator to the saber rattling of recent articles arguing, in very different ways, for graphic design to understand its social consequences and function, I am led back to their usual foil: style. In this line of reasoning “style,” particularly when seen as formal experimentation, is explicitly or implicitly contrasted with “substance,” usually understood as the content or message.(1) Of course, these oppositions of style and substance, form and content, are as old as the art versus design debate. The newness of recent arguments, however, lies in the epiphany that graphic design is a product of larger social forces and contributes to this thing called “culture.” This reasoning extends the analysis beyond the substance of any particular message to examine content in the bigger picture of cultural consequences and social functions; in short, its context. As an articulate contributor to the debate, Andrew Howard in his essay, “There is such a thing as society,” notes that the concern for understanding graphic design in a larger framework of society does not “preclude an exploration of the formal representation of language.”(2) This statement is made to counter the extent to which discussions of social and cultural context seem to situate themselves against the kind of intense visual experimentation associated with recent graphic design. In this way issues of form are separated from issues of content while style is severed from meaning. I believe it is necessary to rejoin these artificially constructed oppositions in order to engage in a more meaningful discussion of graphic design. For graphic design to understand its relationship to culture, we need to consider how its visual language operates in society; its locations and dispersals and how these, in turn, effect meaning. We also need a better understanding of why graphic design exists in society, which requires a critical examination of the interests it serves and can serve. With this in mind, I would like to consider a space that is opened through an understanding of the relationship between the concepts of design and culture. I wish to explore this design-culture relationship through two terms borrowed from recent work in historical studies: circulation and negotiation.(3) These two terms describe a relationship between design and culture in two related ways. I use the term “circulation” to speak of the traffic in visual languages, or styles, focusing on their location within particular groups and their dissemination among other social groups through forces like
appropriation. Negotiation relates to the idea of the transference of visual languages or styles from one group to another, not as simply a wholesale acceptance, but as a consequence of some give and take. These forms of exchange should not be thought of as somehow even or balanced, because the social positions of who gives and who receives are different, thereby reflecting an unequal distribution of power. Additionally, the circulation of visual languages is not unidirectional, flowing one-way from the top down or from the bottom up, but rather, an exchange among various social strata, where they attain specific meanings and associations and generate new meanings through each transference.(4) The Traffic in Signs The traffic in signs is the big business of professional graphic design. The high contrast marks of corporate symbols and logotypes and the ubiquity of the international signs of the pictograph are the products of this business of graphic design, signaling the way through the contemporary public sphere. Graphic design literally packages the commodities of consumer culture as it shows us the way to the bathroom. The corporationâ€™s identity is protected through its status as a registered trademark as it makes its way through the global marketplace asserting its uniqueness, its difference, in the face of utter homogenization - illustrating a basic premise of consumer promotion, the first principle of advertising: how to be a unique individual while being like everyone else. It is the particular nature of corporate culture which can speak of difference through the language of sameness. This condition of sameness should be familiar to anyone who has lived with its environmental equivalent, suburbia. Now referred to as the â€œWal-Marting of America,â€? the feelings of sameness and placelessness can now be exported on a global scale under one of the many signs of late-capitalist corporate culture. Just as an economy based on old trade routes fostered the development of colonies and colonial imperialism, the new global economy continues this, shuttling products between countries and consolidating capital in certain places, namely the U.S., Japan and Western Europe. This vision of globalism with its transcendence of cultural differences is different than earlier, decidedly modernist visions of universal communication based on the hopes for a shared visual language.(5)
While English may be the international language of business, it is the language of capital that facilitates the exchange of goods, the accumulation of wealth and the ever increasing penetration of foreign markets by transnational corporations. At a global scale, the circulation of graphic design is predicated on its instrumental use by and for dominant interests. However, reactions to the forces of corporate imperialism and cultural homogenization vary from wholehearted embrace to subversive resistance, including much in-between these opposing positions. It is some of these uses or reactions to the more dominant forms of visual language, and the interests they support, which I would like to journey through. Trickle-Up Aesthetics: Artistic Appropriations The world of logos, symbols and pictographs, as the invention of graphic design, becomes the material of artistic production through the work of numerous artists who came to typify artmaking in the 1980s, using the language, style, and the promotional strategies of mass media advertising. The roster of names should be familiar, from “image-scavenging” artists such as Barbara Kruger to “word smiths” of language such as Jenny Holzer, all of whom provide, in different ways, a critique of mass media. In these artistic strategies the traffic in signs moves from the spaces of popular culture to the spaces of elite culture - into the world of museums, galleries, alternative spaces, art journals and eventually art history. The work of three artists serves to illustrate the reuse of two types of signs; one type held within the public domain and the other circulated within the public domain but protected from infringement through copyright and trademark registrations. The signs, symbols, and pictographs of the public sphere are the subject of artist Matt Mullican’s work. These signs should be familiar to anyone who moves about in today’s society; high-contrast, simplified, and silhouetted forms, some personified with names like “Mr. Yuck” but the vast majority living life in anonymity. These signs constitute what Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller refer to as a form of contemporary “hieroglyphics,” occupying a “space between pictures and writing,” and combining “the generality of the typographic mark with the specificity of pictures.”(6) These signs exist in society for the purpose of conditioning our behavior and controlling our actions, limiting choices by simplifying options. As Henri Le-
febvre notes, “the signal commands, controls behavior and consists of contrasts chosen precisely for their contradiction (such as, for instance, red and green)”(7) thereby paring down options by setting up binary oppositions, organized into systems of codes. Mullican appropriates and originates these marks and recasts them, sometimes literally, into situations which point out their presence in the world and that presumably make us question their social function. Critics have been quick to point to the subversive quality of Mullican’s work, particularly his more public projects.(8) Walter Kalaidjian describes how Mullican’s works “function to disorient and estrange the ‘normal’ traffic in social communication”(9) and then relates Mullican’s reported reaction to a work that caused Belgian and Flemish nationalist tensions to run high when he placed a large flag over a museum in Brussels using yellow and black, unbeknownst to Mullican as the Flemish national colors: “When I put an image on a flag, I found it meant something very different than when I put it on a piece of paper.”(10) Mullican’s discovery that a change in format changes meaning is incomplete without the recognition that the concepts of cultural specificity and context - those colors, that site, those cultures - are necessary for a more complete understanding of the event. In an ironic turn of events, Mullican and his New York gallery, Mary Boone, are upset with a banner hanging in the clothing store next door, Max Studio.(11) Mullican is arguing that the store’s logo is a work he first unveiled as a flag at the 1982 Documenta art fair. The store argues that a graphic designer created their image independently of Mullican and with symbols in the public domain. In this case of ownership and property rights, symbols circulated in the public sphere and considered generic are now argued as unique, protected works, whether by artist or designer. The sites of consumption, whether gallery or clothing store, attempt to control the system of codes and find, to their surprise, the truly subversive irony of their struggles. The corporate domain consists of legally protected symbols, logotypes and other graphic marks circulate globally and have come to represent the corporation itself. Indeed it is argued that these marks come to represent the “personality” of the corporation, its (inter)face with the public.(12) It is presumably the concept of differentiation which enables each corporate body to have a unique, memorable face. Corporate uniqueness is played against corporate sameness in the need for an image that is able to transcend specific cultures and
national boundaries, not only in the form of a global spokesperson or universal human themes, but also in a way that obscures the compulsion to consume and the realities of industrial production. The advent of zip code clusters and increasingly sophisticated tracking methods enables a narrower demographic profile of consumers and their consumptive patterns. This penetration of everyday life is supported by the massive saturation of corporate-sponsored images and messages that have effectively substituted the value of the image itself for a product’s inherent usefulness or exchangeability.(13) The artist Ashley Bickerton gives us the quintessential late-capitalist consumer portrait in his construction “Tormented Self-Portrait,” emblazoned with the corporate emblems that constitute the life of his subject, including Bickerton’s signature - effectively objectifying the phrase: “You are what you eat.” Mullican and Bickerton appropriate the marks of public life knowing that their reception within the world of art galleries and museums will be received with a knowing irony, effectively negotiating their meanings from their circulation in popular culture to the institutional spaces of elite culture. This pattern of circulation and negotiation shifts meaning from the specific character of a generic existence (the logotype or pictograph in the world) to a generic character of specific existence (the logotype or pictograph in the art world). While Mullican and Bickerton offer us one critique of contemporary life by representing these signs in a different context, other artists such as Hans Haacke have deployed a social critique of corporate life that focuses on exposing its instrumentality by adopting its language. In a range of works Haacke subverts the propriety of corporate symbols and advertising codes not simply by appropriating them outright but by manipulating them to expose corporate interests that lie behind logos, ad campaigns and spokespersons. A particular example is Haacke’s 1976 exhibition titled “The Chase Advantage.” In this project, Haacke appropriates Chase Manhattan Bank’s symbol, the octagon shape designed by Chermayeff & Geismar in 1960,(14) and inserts into its empty center an “advertisement” juxtaposing a statement made by Chase’s chairman justifying the company’s support of and investment in modern art and another statement by a public relations expert extolling the need for a company to “induce the people to believe in the sincerity
and honesty of purpose of the management of the company which is asking for their confidence.” This project was part of a series exposing the interconnectedness of corporate patronage of the arts thereby implicating the art world system in a larger framework of corporate interests and demystifying the seemingly neutral status of the museum or gallery. The controversy and censorship that greets much of Haacke’s work stands in contrast to the subversive qualities attributed to Bickerton or Mullican.(15) Stealing the Signs: Voices from Left Field At another point on the cultural spectrum, in the space of subcultures, we witness another series of appropriations. Stealing the signs of commerce - appropriation is, after all, a term reserved for art - is the ultimate copyright infringement. The equity of the sign, its semiotic investment, is emptied and dominant meanings subverted. The high-jacked symbol or pictograph is pressed into service, delivering a new message and engaging in what Umberto Eco calls “semiotic guerrilla warfare.” British fashion stylist Judy Blame’s T-shirt design brandishes the message against the intellectual pollution of neo-fascism by recycling the image of “tidy man” putting litter in its place. Blame substitutes the paper wad of the famous pictograph with the Nazi swastika, which was previously borrowed from its ancient associations with good luck and fortune, now recovered from history by Neo-Nazis. The obviousness of the political message of Blame’s design points up the seemingly apolitical nature of the original pictograph. To say that Blame’s design politicizes the pictograph is to miss the original encoding of tidy man - a sign that compels our allegiance to prevailing social standards of hygiene and ecology. Blame’s message registers with its intended audience through the recontextualization process, an intellectual project made famous by the Surrealists, who knew the power of the unexpected. Another symbol of Nazi Germany is the subject of recontextualization, this time by AIDS activists. The Silence = Death Project inverts the pink triangle used by Nazis to identify homosexuals in concentration camps and subverts its infamous meaning from a sign of stigmatized visibility to an outward gesture of the invisibility of the AIDS crisis. This symbol of AIDS activism does not borrow wholesale from history, but rather alters the original by rotating its orientation from downward to upward and incorporating the
Stealing the signs of commerce -
appropriation is, after all, a term reserved for art - is the ultimate copyright infringement. 103
typographic message “SILENCE= DEATH.” Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston relate the linkage between a symbol associated with Nazi death camps and the contemporary AIDS crisis: “SILENCE=DEATH declares that silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.”(16) Stuart Marshall, co-chair of Positively Healthy, an organization of people with AIDS, has pointed out the problematic nature of this historical appropriation. Marshall argues specifically against the use of the pink triangle as it fosters a notion of victimization, “which has tended to stress death, annihilation, and holocaust and genocide analogies in its attempts to stir the state into a caring response to the crisis.”(17) Marshall’s arguments are well taken, particularly as they relate to one form of AIDS discourse dominating the voices of those surviving with AIDS. However, although Marshall relies on a specific historical understanding of how the Nazi’s dealt with homosexuals (understood as gay men, lesbians are not mentioned), he seems to inadequately address the recontextualization of that symbol or the circumstances of its contemporary reception. The mark itself is not simply the pink triangle - taken from the past and displaced into the present - but rather a signature mark combining an inverted symbol and typographic message, with its own history. The meaning of this transformed symbol registers with its audiences not only because of the familiarity of its previous existence - even if it is a suppressed history - but also because it is transformed in the act of possession. Capturing the language of oppressors, making it one’s own, is seen as an important event on the way to ending that oppression and underscores the importance of controlling the codes of representation.(18) The Ecstasy of Communication The appropriation of the symbols and images of popular culture is by now a well-documented tactic of youth culture in its subcultural manifestations, such as the punk movement of the 1970s and the rave culture of the 1990s. The graphic design produced for rave culture (promoting its raves as well as its diversified interests in things like clothing), illustrates an interesting recent phenomenon of the circulation and negotiation of visual styles as they move from design cultures to popular culture and back again to design culture. The rave graphic represents the technological mutation and syn-
thesis of pop culture imagery and the typographic manipulations available on the personal computer. The rave graphic entrepreneur, especially as an untrained professional, represents graphic design’s technophobic nightmare. The demystified technical processes of graphic design are readily available to “kids” educated on Macintosh computers who have the ability to transform found images and to skew, outline, bend, and otherwise “mutilate” type.(19) As graphic designer Jeffrey Keedy suggests, the source material for much of this work is the stuff of professional graphic designers of yesterday: “The old and low cultures that rave designers borrow from are primarily American corporate and package design of the seventies and eighties (now there’s some hacks)! Rave designers love logos, lots of color and outlined type, and hey who doesn’t? The fact that the ‘professional designer’s’ work is now being reworked like any other bit of ephemera might be some kind of poetic justice, but it fails to be an interesting design strategy. That’s because their work (like their predecessors) is essentially a one-liner that has little resonance beyond the ‘shock of the old.’”(20) This maybe true if you are judging this work with the values near and dear to graphic design, a notion of stylistic invention as innovation inherited from the avant-garde, where newness is next to Godliness. The work is interesting to me because it represents both a form of corporate cultural appropriation and subcultural invention, and it achieves this using the latest tool of graphic design, the personal computer. Unlike the photocopier aesthetic of the punk graphic, the rave graphic gains its legitimacy, its threatening posture to professional design, from the computer’s ability to sample images and seamlessly integrate the results. Gone are the mystifying processes and technical skills that supported graphic design’s professional autonomy and what remains intact are the designer’s claims to originality and innovation. These claims seem to be the last defense against professional collapse. The availability of the personal computer enables the maker of rave graphics to have access to the means of producing graphic design and carries with it the residue of its making. That is to say, the multitude of rave graphics carries the signature of the computer - its “information texture,” to borrow a term from April Greiman. Suddenly the distancing of the designer of the rave graphic as somehow outside the profession becomes problematic when we are confronted with the highly celebrated designs of a professional graphic designer
like P. Scott Makela, whose work carries much of the same technological residue. Makela as a self-described “hacker”(21) certainly toys with the distinctions and refuses the boundaries of a graphic designer with his work in other media. The creation of the rave graphic produces another code, another style. The unfortunate consequence of subcultural resistance is pop cultural commodification; as Dick Hebdige notes: “Youth cultural styles may begin by issuing symbolic challenges, but they must inevitably end by establishing new sets of conventions; by creating new commodities, new industries or rejuvenating old ones...”(22) The subcultural, as a code, becomes incorporated or assimilated into mainstream culture through commodities where any subversive power is lost. The circulation of rave graphics into the space of popular culture creates new effects on other designers. For the professional graphic designer, the rave graphic becomes a vernacular form, an oddity on the mundane visual landscape of cultural life. It comes to represent a challenge to mainstream society and visual culture, it has the currency of the “code.” It becomes the representation of a prevailing style used to articulate a subculture’s difference and the professional sees this as an available language with which to engage others. Thus, the language of the rave graphic is employed by the designers of ReVerb to promote a fund-raiser for the literary and art journal Now Time. For the designers of ReVerb, the rave graphic is but one more style available in the heterogeneous cultural milieu that they ascribe to Los Angeles.(23) For ReVerb the resulting mixture, the clash of styles, is to be prized for its inclusive approach, rejecting the exclusivity of modernism. The hybridity that results from this clash of styles generates new forms and new meanings. As Lorraine Wild, a partner in ReVerb, states: “We use styles like maniacs but we never use them lock, stock and barrel...We would usually manipulate them to create some kind of tension. No style is good or bad, it’s just another style - whether you use it wholesale or not.”(24) Authentic culture is gone, if it ever existed, and what is left is the material of invention. Ripe for quotation and parody, the styles of multiple cultures are presumably available to all. The graphic designer, seeking to speak to different pockets of culture, draws upon a range of styles supposedly denied it under the guise of modernism or the rules of professional practice. If the multiple cultures of Los
Angeles represent a vernacular language, then a case could be made for ReVerb’s work responding to the unique conditions and particular circumstances that are endemic to L.A. - a condition Kenneth Frampton labels “critical regionalism.”(25) A much larger cultural space of appropriation is envisioned by the Designer’s Republic, who would go as far as another planet for inspiration and certainly as far as Japan, without ever leaving Sheffield. In the Age of Information, firsthand contact seems potentially corrupting for designer Ian Anderson: “In some ways [a trip to Japan] may mark the end of an era, as I would loose my isolationist naiveté about the Japanese culture.”(26) In an interview with Rudy VanderLans, the Designer’s Republic sets itself up as thoroughly postmodern, in tune with pop culture and reveling in the contradictory stances that are indicative of graphic design’s anonymous social status and the celebrity status that comes with an identifiable style. Anderson describes the appropriation tactics of their style as it relates to the bigger social framework of contemporary life, where everything is up for grabs: “If there’s something which suits our purpose, we’ll use it, but we don’t discriminate when it comes to inspiration. There is no hierarchy in the age of plunder, there is equality; from the humble sweet wrapper, through the billboard on the side of a bus right up to sacred texts of Bradbury Thompson and Weingart himself.”(27) In this way, the potential subjects of appropriation are equally available for reuse, while all other hierarchies are preserved, especially the role of the designer. In a particularly telling passage commenting on someone who appropriated a Designer’s Republic design, Anderson states his conditional approval: “I don’t really have a problem with it as long as it doesn’t detract from what we do, as long as it is used to create something new, something more than it was before and providing there is a reason for it beyond lack of imagination.”(28) The values to which they subscribe are precisely those that are used to sustain professional graphic design: originality, innovation and rationality; and these are, ironically, the virtues we associate with modernism, not necessarily postmodernism. Anderson, however, does not wish to change the social status of graphic design itself and does not believe that he is in a “position to
improve [society’s] condition,” and will continue “to enjoy the game I find intriguing.”(29) Part of that game is establishing a position within graphic design that simultaneously tries to defy it - extending beyond the confines of the profession and into the global flow of images. In what might be an emblematic image for this position, the Designer’s Republic has merged the icon of ‘70s pop culture, the smiley face, with one of the icons of “good design,” Paul Rand’s Westinghouse symbol of 1960. In a gesture indicative of cultural genetic engineering, the Designer’s Republic has created a symbol of the hesitant space between a highly protected corporate image and a highly marketed cultural image, effectively fusing pop and corporate culture’s underlying sameness: the ubiquity of the mantra “good design-is-good business” with the banality of “have a nice day.” Makela, ReVerb, the Designer’s Republic and others distance themselves from graphic design proper in their respective ways: by transgressing professional boundaries, rejecting professional standards, or denying that you’re a designer at all. What Goes Around, Comes Around The circulation of signs comes full circle, weaving its way from the corporate culture of the anonymous design found in the mini-mart to its subcultural manifestations in the rave graphic back into the public space of urban culture and to the institutions of high culture - filtered through the professional culture of graphic design proper where it can be dismissed today and copied tomorrow. It is the public sphere where graphic design circulates and it is this space that is highly contested, regulated and protected. Dominant cultural interests favor the exchange and circulation of symbols and images to take place in the marginalized spaces of youth subcultures, artistic enclaves, and design avant-gardes. As the artist Keith Piper laments: “... in this mass media, mass broadcast age, it has become easy for the artist to siphon information and images off for our own use, it however remains almost as difficult as ever, to find a space to return and distribute the results of our activities within that mass media. Access to the existing channels of mass communication still remain firmly in the hands of the enfranchised and empowerment within those channels remains their closely guarded preserve.”(30)
The invention of style, whether on the street or on the screen, will continue in spite of the forces of homogenization, because it is thought to reflect the heterogeneous quality of life. Style could be better understood as a manifestation of culturally specific communications rather than a byproduct of some nebulous cultural “fallout” or an exotic language of difference. The designer needs to consider his or her role in a society that is increasingly stratified and culturally differentiated. Perhaps this is what Lorraine Wild had in mind when she says: “We need more graphic design particular to the tribes, not less.”(31) Any attempt to understand design as somehow fixed in a hierarchy of cultural spaces (high or good design versus low or kitsch design) or in a historical linearity of precedent and influence (originators and impostors) seems futile. Design should know that its place is not fixed, that design resides in all spaces. The traffic in signs that design produces circulates among these spaces, negotiating the differences of multiple positions of social and cultural identities. The privileged space reserved for the professional designer, either real or imagined, has been perforated by the historical and theoretical demise of modernism as well as by the technological democratization of the means of producing graphic design. The resulting trauma of this violent perforation in the social fabric of design culture allows us the opportunity to discover our own precarious position, both in and around. Notes 1. I subscribe to the notion that style carries meaning and is neither simply a meaningless ornament attached to nor separable from some truer, deeper, or purer structure. This dichotomy is argued by J. Abbott Miller, who makes a case for such an opposition between style and structure, in his essay “The idea is the machine,” in Eye, Vol.3, No.10, 1993, pp.58-65. 2. Andrew Howard, “There is such a thing as society*,” in Eye, Vol.4, No.13, 1994, pp.7277. 3. These terms are borrowed from Steven Greenblatt as exemplified in his book Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. 4. The trickle-down theory of stylistic diffusion, a sort-of supply-side aestheticism, is typically attributable to certain modernist sensibilities borne out of elitism, while the trickle-up theory of stylistic diffusion is of a more recent vogue, as exemplified by the MoMA exhibition, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture. Corrective variants exist for this model including Ellen Lupton’s critical examination of the graphic designer’s love affair with the “vernacular.” See Lupton’s “High and Low: A Strange Case of Us and Them?” in
Eye, Vol.2, No.7, 1992, pp.72-77. 5. The modern drive to collapsing the boundaries between nations occurs both verbally and visually through utopian projects like developing an Esperanto, or common verbal language, or in the development of pictographic systems such as ISOTYPE. Modernist qualities of objectivity and rationality reign in Otto Neurath’s ISOTYPE system, which adopts the abstract, reductive forms we now associate with signage programs meant to facilitate our movement through places like airports or the Olympic Games. 6. Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, “Critical Way Finding,” in The Edge of the Millennium, Susan Yelavich, ed., New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1993, p.223. 7. Henri Lefevbre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, p.56. 8. Nancy Princenthal in an introduction to an exhibition catalog for Matt Mullican, Untitled, 1986/7, states: “[Mullican] likes to place his work in public places, but its status there is subversive. He does not endorse standard stick-figure/plane geometry signage, but instead returns it to aesthetic consideration.” (p.5) 9. Walter Kalaidjian, American Culture Between the Wars, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 224. 10. The original statement was published in “Sign Language,” Peter Clothier, ArtNews, Summer 1989, p.146. 11. “Theft, Coincidence, or Art,” in AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, Vol.12, No.2, 1994, p. 48. 12. The foundational text promoting this idea is Wally Ollins’s The Corporate Personality, London: Design Council, 1978. For an excellent critical analysis of Ollins’s text, see: Steve Baker, “Re-reading the Corporate Personality,” in Journal of Design History, Vol.2, No.4, 1989, pp. 275-292. 13. Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981. 14. The abstract, reductive forms of modern art that were favored by David Rockefeller, CEO of Chase Manhattan and an officer of the Museum of Modern Art, go hand in hand with the design of the Chase Manhattan Bank symbol, which Philip Meggs describes as “an abstract form unto itself, free from alphabetical, pictographic, or figurative connotations” that “could successfully function as a visual identifier for a large organization.” In this way the “free” symbol can stand in for the corporation. Haacke trades on this substitution, “grounding” the symbol in the history of Chase Manhattan policies and corporate ideologies with its use of seemingly neutral art. 15. Most, if not all of Haacke’s projects meet with controversy and a few with censorship, including his Hans Haacke: Systems exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971 and his Manet-PROJEKT ‘74 in Germany. 16. Douglas Crimp with Adam Rolston, AIDS DEMOGRAPHICS, Seattle: Bay Press, 1990, p.14. 17. Stuart Marshall, “The Contemporary Political Use of Gay History: The Third Reich,” in How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video, Seattle: Bay Press, 1991, p.89.
18. This phenomenon is by now widespread including the appropriation of terms like “queer” and “fag.” Historian Stephen Greenblatt describes the first act of appropriation on the part of colonizers is the abduction of natives to serve as translators. See “Kidnapping Language” in Marvelous Possessions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp.86118. 19. See Michael Dooley’s essay, “Frequent Flyers,” in Print, XLVII:II, March/April 1993, pp.42-53+. 20. Jeffrey Keedy, “I Like the Vernacular...NOT!” in Lift and Separate: Graphic Design and the Quote/Unquote Vernacular, New York: Herb Lubalin Study Center of the Cooper Union, p.9. 21. Michael Bierut, “Sampling the Candy: P. Scott Makela,” in I.D., Vol 41, No.1, January/ February 1994, p.55. 22. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Methuen, 1979, p.96. 23. Anne Burdick, “A sense of rupture,” in Eye, Vol.4, No.14, 1994, pp.48-57. 24. Ibid, p.53. 25. Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hal Foster, ed., Seattle: Bay Press, 1983, pp.16-30. “The fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism is to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place....But it is necessary...to distinguish between Critical Regionalism and simple-minded attempts to revive the hypothetical forms of a lost vernacular.” (p.21) 26. Interview with Rudy VanderLans, Emigre #29, 1994, p.16. 27. Ibid, p.18. 28. Ibid, p.11. 29. Ibid, p.19. 30. Keith Piper, “Forty Acres and a Microprocessor,” in Place, Position, Presentation, Public, Ine Gevers, ed., Maastricht, the Netherlands: Jan van Eyck Akademie, p.263 & 266. 31. Laurie Haycock Makela and Ellen Lupton, “Underground matriarchy,” in Eye, Vol.4, No.14, 1994, p.46.
October, 26, 2015 Avant Garde Medium and Baskerville body: 10pt/12pt
A compilation of articles of design written by great designers such as Michael Rock and Zuzana Licko, showing its various faces and applicat...