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AMERICAN

GRAPHIC DESIGN

EXPRESSION

The debate continues – is graphic design an art, science, business, craft or language? Graphic design in the United

finitions, such as craft/language or business/art.

response to the communication

States has operated under multi-

This identity crisis is confirmed by the lack of

needs of the industrial revolution,

ple identities since its inception

agreement on a name for the field. Graphic design,

graphic design was invented to

with each of these identities domi-

visual communications and visual design are all

sell the fruits of mass production

nant at one moment or another.

thoughtful names in current use. A variety of

to growing consumer societies in

And each may predominate from

archaic terms persist including commercial art,

Europe and North America in the

one project to the next in a

layout and graphics design.

late nineteenth and early twenti-

designer’s practice today. Often,

Unlike its venerable cousin architecture, graphic

eth centuries. Rapidly expand-

graphic design is defined as a

design is a very new design expression, a phenom-

ing reproduction technologies

duality, combing two of these de-

ena of the last hundred years. A spontaneous

provided the means for graphic

McCoy, Katherine, ‘American Graphic Design Expression: The Evolution of American Typography’, Design Quarterly 149, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990, pp. 3-22.


design’s participation in the vast

relying on the words themselves for the expres-

It was not until the early

economic, political, technological

sion of content. Typography was neutral to the

twentieth century that meaning

and social changes of that era.

message and made no attempt to be interpretive.

was embedded in visual typo-

American graphic design’s

Craft was highly valued and books developed

graphic form. The early Modern

roots lie in European type cutting

increasing elegance and refinement as the years

revolutionary artists of Futur-

and book printing. This precusor

progressed, codifying this classical book approach

ism, Dada, Constructivism, and

to the profession was imported

into the standardized traditional text format that

DeStijl turned their attention to

to early America as part of our

continues as the standard of book text today.

text and visual communications

European cultural inheritance.

However artful the book design, the element

as well as the more traditional

For literally centuries, from the

of function relegated this activity to craft status

areas of fine art, rejecting the

invention of moveable type in

rather than fine art. The predominance of text

traditional divisions between the

the early Renaissance to the

made this tradition largely a verbal language

fine arts, applied arts, and crafts.

twentieth century, bookmaking,

expression. Illustrational imagery was used spar-

Functional expression was em-

typesetting, and type design were

ingly in early books due to technical difficulty.

an intgrated craft and industry

When used, it represented literal phenomena and

“purer self-expressive goals” of high art–function was not

braced as well as the

centered in publishing houses.

rarely mixed with the text or headline typography.

This long tradition approached

Interpretive symbolic imagery was left to paint- viewed as the enemy of art. In

typography and book design as

ing, or “high art”. Through the centuries paint-

particular, the Russian Construc-

the visual presentation of verbal

ers have employed whole vocabularies of visual

tivists retained their artists’ iden-

language, with a premium placed

nonverbal symbols to convey meaning to their

tities even as they took on the

on clarity and legibility. Deci-

audiences, who were able to decode meaning

role of public communicators

sions in type design emphasized

through learned associations, the result of shared

in the Russian Revolution. The

clarity rather than expression,

cultural experience.

Bauhaus unified art, craft and

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design in a coherent philosphy

This visual/verbal dichotomy can be under-

to read the particular language of

and sense of identity. Several early

stood through a simple diagram that charts the

the message. This process is

Modernists went on to execute

process (in the Western humanist tradition) of the

cerebral, rational, deliberate, and

some of the first serious “profes-

acquisition of meaning. Seeing and reading are

linear. If one does not carefully

sional” graphic design, appling

two modes through which we traditionally think

link the proper sequence of signs,

their early experiments to the

of receiving messages. Image and text are two

one cannot decode the message.

pragmatic communications needs

carriers of those messages. Typically we think of

Linguistics, Structuralist philosphy

seeing as a visual process connected with images

and PostStructuralism deal with

These revolutionaries explored

we see the landscape, we see a painting. This

these language dynamics.

new approaches to structuring

process is intuitive, emotional and simultaneous,

In addition, there are two

language and imagery that were

experienced almost involuntarily. Upon encounter-

other linkages possible between

radical rejections the classical

ing a vivid color photograph of a fire, a viewer

seeing and reading and image

text tradition. Their highly visual

might immediately sense fear and heat with little

and text. The early Modernists

poetry used typographic forms

need to conceptualize. Or an image of a nude

discovered that text can be seen

and composition to interpret

figure might stimulate sexual feelings instantly

as well as read, as the Futurists’

of manufacturing clients.

and extend the words’ meaning.

and involuntarily. Although associations gained

experimental poetry proved. And

One does not have to read Itaian

through life experience influence this process, it

images can be read. Neolithic

to gain an appreciation of the

is predominantly a direct experiential one, related

cave painters at Lascaux knew

Futurists’ energetic celebrations of

to the philosophical theories of phenomenology.

this, as well as most painters

industry and political confronta-

On the other hand, the process of reading is typi-

until many Modernists rejected

tion. Typography finally became

cally connected with the verbal process of decod-

imagery in favor of abstraction.

an expressive visual language as

ing text’s written language signs–letters. To do this,

This process was reconfirmed by

well as a verbal one.

one must know the code. One must have learned

the Surrealists, by the emerging

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graphic designers of the 1930s

with extremely literal presentations of both imagery

rapidly evolving reproduction

and 1940s, by the New York

and text. But with a public that was increasingly

processes. But they employed

school of advertising, and again

literate, the printer’s activities broadened to include

little symbolism. And because

by recent PostModern artists and

early manifestations of the mass media: political and

they served the tainted world of

photographers dealing with text/

commercial handbills in the late eighteenth century,

commerce rather than practicing

image relationships.

and newspaper advertising, popular magazines, “serious” art, these first “commer-

How an artist, designer or

advertising cards and posters in the late nineteenth

cial” artists were relegated to a

craftsman defines oneself has

century. These required headline-scaled typefaces.

class of servant, despite the large

much to do with their use of these

By the Victorian years a great multiplicity of orna-

public following of many.

text/image processes. Nineteenth

mental faces had been born and American wood

American graphic design was

century book designer/printers

type was developed as an inexpensive and acces-

finally born out of two new

dealt largely with the reading

sible means of embellishment for popular commu-

factors. As the 20th century got

of text, and aligned themselves

nications. This much more decorative expression

underway, an explosion of new

with the literary field of language.

spoke with a louder voice than the subtlety of

reproduction technologies stim-

Many early Modernists dealt with

traditional books, making the reader’s experi-

ulated specialization, separating

all four modes and saw them-

ence far more visual. Yet this larger scale of typog-

conception and formgiving from

selves as integrated creators of

raphy contained no coding in its visual form; the

the technical production activ-

communications balancing the

process remained one of reading text.

ities of typesetting and printing.

identities of artist, designer, busi-

The late nineteenth century’s early advertis-

Simultaneously the United States

ing, magazines, and posters stimulated a new and

received its first European

American book designer/print-

growing field of illustration. These illustrators

Modernists emigres, the migration

ers continued the European clas-

rendered highly artful literal depictions of objects,

reaching its height in the 1930s.

sical noninterpretive traditions

scenes and narratives with growing skill and

These men understood design

nessman and craftsman.

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as a balanced process involving

On the other hand, these European designs

Paul Rand and Bradbury Thomp-

the powerful multple modes of

believed that rationalism and objectivity were

son. As they grew into matured in

seeing and reaing, and sensed

appropriate for a new world ordered by commerce

the 1950s these men developed

the possibility of theory and

and industry. They continued early Modernism’s

new approaches to composition,

method as guiding the creat-

interest in abstraction and dynamic composi-

photography and text/image rela-

ive process–the first rudimen-

tions. For the first time in the United States, they

tionships. Many of their discover-

tary seeds of professionalism.

“persuaded their clients” to mini- ies formed the basis of the “big

These designers, including Bayer,

mize copy into brief essential statements, rather

idea” method of conceptualizing

Sutnar, Burtin, Moholy-Nagy,

than the text-heavy literal description favored in

design solutions which placed

and Matter, brought with them

early American advertising. Rudimentary ideas of

a premium on the flash of intu-

Modernism’s dual paths of ambi-

systematic problem solving and design composi-

ition and the individual design-

guity and objectivity. They shared

tions were offered by Ladislav Sutnar and Andrew

er’s creativity–the ah ha! method

an interest in ambiguity and the

Kner. The role of designer was defined as a highly

of problem solving. Centered in

unconscious with new work in

skilled interpreter of messages, a far more author-

New York of the 50s and 60s, this

fine art, literature, and psychol-

itative stance than the hired hand following the

individualistic process idealized

ogy. Intepretive typography and

dictates of an autocratic client. Interpretation was

the creative genius, symbolized by

asymmetrical compositions seemed

central to the idea of communication. System-

the maverick designer in his garret

more appropriate in a new world

atic rationalism drew on science, while inventive

studio. (Ralph Caplan has critiqued

where tradition was rapidly

compositions and symbolic interpretation related

designers for their willingness to

disappearing. Surrealism offered

to art, balancing this identity between art, science,

symbolic forms of conceptual

craft and business.

communication that went beyond the power of the word.

These emigres had a tremendous impact on a number of young American designers, such as

play this role--what he calls the “exotic menial”, the brilliant individual serving the needs of clients, but a servant nonetheless.)

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conceptual

Both text and image were to be decoded and

needs of large corporate clients in

“big idea” method became

read by the viewer, relying on semantic meaning

Holland, England, Canada and the

The

intuitive

a uniquely American visual

with little interest in page structure or system- U.S. A number of corporations and institutions including Container

communications expression, and

atic organization. Unfortunately many designers

was closely associated with the

today associate this powerful approach with adver- Corporation, Ciba-Geigy, Herman

New York School of adver-

tising’s commercialism and fail to take advan-

Miller, IBM and Massachusetts

tising of the 1950s and 1960s.

tage on the power of the conceptual image/copy

Institute of Technology adopted

Exemplified by Doyle Dane

concept method.

this method and aesthetic. Even-

Bernbach’s classic Volkswagen

As this highly successful form of advertising

tually U.S. corporate culture

Beetle series, this advertising

began to dominate American visual communica-

adopted “Swiss” graphic design

created intelligent and clever

tions, the first wave of Swiss design thinking and

as the ideal corporate style. What

interplays between verbal and

forms arrived on the American scene. First trans- was originally very difficult to sell

visual concepts. Short ironic

mitted in the early 1960s through a few design

to business clients is very difficult

conversational headlines were

magazines and books–Graphis and the “bibles”

to avoid today.

juxtaposed with provocative

by Muller-Brockmann, Karl Gerstner, Armin

This graphic aesthetic and

images, drawing on the lessons

Hoffman and Emil Ruder–a few young Amer-

method was the second wave

of Surrealism, and particularly

ican designers began to assimilate these ideas.

of European Modernism to influ-

Magritte. Unexpected combina-

Rudy DeHarak, the most notable of the Ameri-

ence the U.S. Essentially differ-

tions of images and/or contexts

can designers hungry for some structure, adopted

ent from the “big idea” approach,

created ambiguity and surprise.

the Swiss method on his own after seeing these

it is based on an assumption of

This “picture is worth a thou-

influential examples in the design media. Then

Modernist rational “method”, a

sand words” approach maxi-

in the mid 1960s, several professional design

codified approach not so depen-

mized the process of reading.

offices began to practice these ideas to solve the

dent

6

on

the

individualistic


inspiration and talent of the

attitude, emotion or humor. “Swiss” was found to

alternative to intuitive design,

designer. This had a profoundly

be more suitable for the corporation’s demand for

semiotic theory began to inform

professionalizing influence in

factual accuracy– the perfect style for an annual

some of the Swiss adherents

American graphic design, further

report–while the big idea was more suitable for

in the U.S. Although this diffi-

replacing the commercial artist’s

advertising’s persuasive goals. Swiss tended to

cult and complex theory was

servant image with one of a disci-

rely on representational photography and mini-

little understood, the “scientific”

plined, educated professional. As

malist typography, while the “big idea” was far

flavor reinforced that “objective”

this method influenced the field,

more image-oriented, employing illustration and

tone of Swiss design, and rein-

graphic design began to split

symbolic photography. “Swiss” graphic expres-

forced the idea that graphic

apart from advertising design, a

sion stressed the syntactic grammar of graphic

design was more than a personal

major division that remains today.

design with structured grids and typographic

art form. Semiotics became the

This classic “Swiss” method

relationships. This form of Modernism neglected

first codified theory of graphic

prescribed an ordered process

some of early Modernism’s discoveries with visu-

design, a major step in the evo-

rather than the genius of inspi-

ally expressive typography and surrealistic imagery.

lution to professionalism. As

ration, and promised far more

For the most part, classic Swiss typography was

Massimo Vignelli has so often

dependable, however predict-

meant to be read and its imagery to be seen only

reminded us, theory as well as

able, results. It assumed a ratio-

in the conventional modes.

history and and criticism are the

nal systems process based on

Semiotics, the science of signs in visual language,

essential trinity that distinguish a

semi-scientific analysis and prob-

was a theory explored in the late 1960s in Europe,

profession from a craft or trade.

lem solving. The ideal was the

especially at the Ulm school in Germany. This

The “big idea” originated in

objective (dead serious) presen-

scientific approach to the analysis of meaning in

New York, an American synthesis.

tation of information, rather than

communications was very compatible with the

The visual symbolism owes some

the subjective expression of an

rationality of the Swiss method. Promising an

debts to surrealism, but the copy

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concept verbal approach came

scribed as Classic Modernism. No sooner than

final analysis. Depending on one’s

from American wit and casual

the Zurich Swiss become estab ished in the U.S., a

critique, this movement could be

vernacular speech. Although

second more mannered form of Swiss developed

labeled baroque, mannerist or

“Swiss” found its first big growth

that could be called Late Modernism. Work from the

even decadent Modernism.

in Chicago’s heartland, intro-

Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel was a far more exper-

duced by Container Corporation

imental and complex, adding many “nonfunctional” graduates began to come to the

and Unimark International, it is

design forms. Coming from a school where students

The Basel school’s faculty and U.S. in the mid 1960s, with a real

an essentially northern Euro-

and faculty had the luxury of time and experimenta-

impact realized in the early 1970s

pean, or Germanic, sensibility,

tion, many rules were broken and the time was taken

when young American graphic

expression and paradigm. It’s

to develop the sensibility to a high level of aesthetic

designers ‘in the know’ began to

importation to Chicago repeated

refinement and complexity. The irreverent Wolf-

migrate to Basel for postgrad-

the route followed by many of

gang Weingart rebelled against the minimalism of his

uate training in graphic design.

the Bauhaus emigres of the

predecessor, Emil Ruder, in the late 1960s and initi-

By the mid 1970s some of this

late 1930s–Mies, Bayer and

ated a body of work with his students that pushed

complexity began to embellish

Moholy-Nagy.

early Modernism’s constructivist experiments to their

basic American “Swiss” graphic

This first wave of Swiss

logical extremes. Enlarging on the earlier Swiss issues

design in the form of bars and

was strongly identified with

of structure and composition, he explored increas-

rules and playful mixing of type

the Swiss designers of Zurich,

ingly complex grids and typography in experimental

sizes, weights and faces in an

Muller-Brockmann and Gerner,

compositions that became quite painterly. Yet the

essentially formalist agenda.

applying Bauhaus early Modern

typographic play was mainly about the grammar

As classical ‘Swiss’ discipline

ist ideals. Their strict minimalist

of typography, and neglected semantic expression.

was gaining followers and even

codified expression of func-

This highly formal work was not very conceptual

before Basel became an influ-

tional messages could be de-

and has been criticized as merely decorative in the

ence, Robert Venturi shook the

8


U.S. cultural scene with his 1965

of pre-Modern design. It was a definite sign of

a more intellectualized self-con-

polemical treatise, “Complexity

maturation when graphic design discovered that

scious critique on the meaning

and Contradiction in Architec-

it had a history. Until then graphic designers felt

of history. Venturi, a professor

ture”. Although most graphic

they were still inventing the discipline. The field

as well as architect, applied a

designers remained unaware of

seemed completely new with no history, a prem-

semiotic analysis to historical and

his premises for many years–

ise supported by the Bauhaus Modern ideal of

vernacular

and many may not yet realize

constant newness. The first books and conference

form as language invested with

style, meaning.

interpreting

his profound influence–his chal-

on design history provided a banquet of historical

cultural

lenges to Modernist dogma sent

forms for designers. The results ranged from histor-

were signs meant to read by

Buildings

shock waves rippling through-

ical homage, appropriation and quotation to eclec-

their audiences.

out the architecture and design

ticism, imitation and outright cannibalism.

But

Popular culture vernaculars,

world, stimulating new work

Pushpin Studios of the 1960s, a stream paral-

history and the Basel school’s

that came to be called “Post-

leling American Swiss, already knew about

mannerist Modernism came to-

Modern.” His arguments in

the pleasures of history. This New York studio’s

gether in the mid 1970s to create

favor of historical pre-Modern

popular eclectic celebrations revived, exploited,

a new, highly formal expres-

architectural forms and crudely

imitated and occasionally parodied decades of

sion most often called “PostMod-

energetic commercial American

design styles, but with an essential difference of

ernism” or “New Wave” graphic

vernaculars eventually contrib-

intention from this new more academic “Post-

design. Bored with the rigidity and

uted to a new phase of Ameri-

Modern” sensibility. Pushpin pursued a hedonistic

minimalism of corporate Ameri-

“if it feels good, do it” free borrowing

can “Swiss”, American designers,

The emergence of graphic

from history’s nostalgia, essentially the same inten-

particularly certain educators

design history in the 1970s dove-

tion as the Victorian American eclecticism they so

associated with several of the

tailed with Venturi’s rediscovery

often imitated. PostModernism’s historicism was

better schools of graphic design

can graphic design.

9


began to experiment. Working

The typography shared Basel’s visual complex-

profound

from a Modernist “Swiss” foun-

ity and was mainly expressive of itself with little

ernism has emerged as a body

dation, they began to dissect,

semantically-encoded symbolic meaning. The use

of self-conscious critical theory

multiply or ignore the grid and

of American vernaculars was also mainly a formal,

and expression. In fact, in much

to explore new spacial compo-

a borrowing of pop forms with little of Venturi’s

PostModern art, photography and

sitions, introducing complexity

understanding of context or intention.

music the central expression is a

and pattern, and frankly nonfunc-

aspect

of

PostMod-

But it was a lot more fun than classical Swiss,

critique of our accumulated body

tional design elements. Hand-

and

“New Wave quickly” spread across

of culture and symbol. Appropri-

drawn gestures and vernacular

the U.S. to become an accepted graphic style.

ation and pastiche recycle our

bad taste were artfully introduced

Just as Modernism’s classic Swiss was accepted,

experience in highly referen-

in highly aestheticized layered

this too became accepted in the business arena

tial work that owes everything

compositions. This phase could

and persists today in a wide variety of corporate

to what has gone before. All

easily be labeled a baroque or

applications. In fact it is so accepted, one design

this has its roots in structuralist

decadent American Modernism

historian, Philip Meggs, calls it the New Academy,

semiotics of the 1960s, as well as

rather than PostModernism. The

as prescribed a method as the Beaux Arts school

Venturi’s ideas. Although semi-

expression

of 19th century French architecture.

otics never became a practical

was

still

strongly

linked with Modernism’s interest

New Wave’s type of graphic PostModernism is

design method, it and Struc-

in syntax and structural expres-

essentially formalist with a rather minor involve-

turalism’s successor, post-Struc-

sionism, although by now it

ment with content–content being more a jumping

turalism, have recently provided

had become personal hedonistic

off point for graphic celebrations of style than

a real method and expression

formal celebrations rather than

the core of the matter. Certainly the “big idea”

in the visual arts and graphic

impersonal disciplined presen-

school of earlier years was far more dedicated to

design. Coming out of literary

tations of functional information.

the communication of content. In fine art, a more

theory, visual phenomena are

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analyzed as language encoded

with a tone of voice and mixes image and letter

the

for

are

in rebus-like “sentences.” The connection of

enced by recent fine art, many

deconstructed, exposing the

word and image is again as rich as the New

are taking the role of inter-

dynamics of power and the mani-

York School’s, but with a visual compositional

preter a giant step beyond

pulation of meaning.

interaction as well as a conceptual verbal one.

the “problem-solving” tradition by

Post-Structuralism and recent

The best new work draws on the formal lessons

authoring additional content

fine art have influenced a prom-

of Basel and New Wave while drawing on all

and a self-conscious critique

ising new direction that is more

four seeing/reading/text/image modes simul-

to the message, reviving roles

truly PostModern. Graphic design

taneously in powerful visual/verbal conceptual

associated with both art and

is analyzed in linguistic terminol-

expressions. There are layers of meaning as

literature. Gone are both the

ogy as a visual language. The

well as layers of form.

commercial artist’s servant role

meaning.

Meanings

client’s

message.

Influ-

audience is approached as read-

This work has an intellectual rigor, demand-

and the Swiss designer’s trans-

ers as well as viewers. In the best

ing more of the audience, but also rewarding

parent neutrality. Wit, humor

of this new design, content is

the audience with more content and autonomy.

and

again at center stage. Images are

The focus is on the audience to make indi-

in irreverent and sometimes

irony

are

reappearing

to be read and interpreted, as well

vidual interpretations in graphic design that

self-deprecating pieces that often

as seen; typography is to be seen

“decenters” the message. Pieces are a provo-

speak directly to the reader in the

as well as read. M & Co.’s provoc-

cation to consider a range of interpretations,

second person plural, often

ative narratives exploit the power

based on Deconstruction’s contention that

with multiple voices. Venturi’s

of familiar clichés, vernacular

meaning is inherently unstable and that objec-

view of history and vernacu-

typography and closeknit text/

tivity is an impossibility, a myth maintained to

lar as symbolic languages is

image connections. Rick Valicen-

control the audience. Graphic designers have

finally being explored. Stylistic

ti’s auditory typography speaks

become dissatisfied with obedient delivery of

forms are appropriated with a

11


critical self-consciousness of their

and formatted, raising the visual expectations

original content and context.

of our audiences. To distinguish high end

This new work is smart and cerebral, “challenging its

graphic communications from the vast output of desktop publishing, a new demand for highly

audience to slow down and read carefully” in

personal, interpretive and eccentric design

a world of fast forward and

With this new interest in personal content,

instant replay, USA Today and

the graphic design may once more turn toward

sound bites. The emphasis is

the fine arts, but built on decades of progress in

on audience interpretation and

methodology, theory and formal strategies. The

the construction of meaning,

multivalent character of graphic design continues

expressions is surfacing.

beyond raw data to the recep-

to shift between opposing values. Is this fluidity

tion of messages. This direction

an indicator of the field’s persistent immaturity,

seems aligned to our times and

or a confirmation of its relevance to a rapidly

technology, as we enter an era

changing world? Oppositions–art/business, visual/

of communications revolution

verbal, European/American, scientific/intuitive–are

and complex global pluralism.

graphic design’s strength and richness.

Desktop publishing is placing the production of low end print communications in the hands of office workers and paraprofessionals. Even the simplest corporate report is now typeset

If you wish to distribute or reprint this essay, it must include the following credit line.
© 1998 High Ground Design. Reprinted from www.highgrounddesign.com

12

American Graphic Design Expression  

School project

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