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Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design Michael Bierut

Princeton Architectural Press New York


“Art should be like a good game of baseball—nonmonumental, democratic and humble. With no hits, no runs, and no errors at the bottom of the ninth, we know something historical is happening. Good art leaves no residue.” Siah Armajani, 1985

“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) to Wilmer Cook (Elijah Cook, Jr.) in The Maltese Falcon, screenplay by John Huston from the novel by Dashiell Hammett, 1941


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Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content

I write for a blog called Design Observer. Usually my co-editors and I write about design. Sometimes, we don’t. Sometimes, for instance, we write about politics. Whenever this happens, in come the comments: “What does this have to do with design? If you have a political agenda please keep it to other pages. I am not sure of your leaning but I come here for design.” I come here for design. It happens every time the subject strays beyond fonts and layout software. (“Obscure references. . . trying to impress each other. . . please, can we start talking some sense?”) In these cases, our visitors react like diners who just got served penne alla vodka in a Mexican restaurant: it’s not the kind of dish they came for, and they doubt the proprietors have the expertise required to serve it up. Guys, I know how you feel. I used to feel the same way. More than twenty years ago, I served on a committee that had been formed to explore the possibilities of setting up a New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (aiga). Almost all of the other committee members were older, well-known—and, in some cases, legendary—designers. I was there to be a worker bee. I had only been in New York for a year or so. Back in design school in 1970s Cincinnati, I had been starved for design. It would be hard for a student today to imagine a world so isolated. No email, no blogs. Only one (fairly inaccessible) design conference that no one I knew had ever attended. Because there were no

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chapters, there were no agia student groups. Few of us could afford subscriptions to the only design magazines I knew about, CA, Print, and Graphis. Those few copies we got our hands on were passed around with the fervor of girlie magazines after lights-out at a Boy Scout jamboree. No How, no Step, and of course no Emigre or dot dot dot. We studied the theory of graphic design day in and day out, but the real practice of graphic design was something mysterious that happened somewhere else. It wasn’t even a subject for the history books: Phil Meggs wouldn’t publish his monumental History of Graphic Design until 1983. In New York, I was suddenly in—what seemed to me then, at least—the center of the design universe. There was already so much to see and do, but I wanted more. I was ravenous. Establishing a New York chapter for the AIGA would mean more lectures, more events, more graphic design. For the committee’s first meeting, I had made a list of all designers I would love to see speak, and I volunteered to share it with the group. A few names in, one of the well-known designers in the group cut me off with a bored wave. “Oh God, not more show-and-tell portfolio crap.” To my surprise, the others began nodding in agreement. “Yeah, instead of wallowing in graphic design stuff, we should have something like. . . a Betty Boop film festival.” A Betty Boop film festival? I wanted to hear a lecture from Josef MüllerBrockmann, not watch cartoons. I assumed my senior committee members were pretentious and jaded, considering themselves—bizarrely—too sophisticated to admit they cared about the one thing I cared about most: design. I was confused and crestfallen. Please, I wanted to say, can we start talking some sense? I thought I was a pretty darned good designer back then. A few years before, in my senior year, I had designed something I was still quite proud of: a catalog for Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center on the work of visionary theater designer Robert Wilson. The cac didn’t hire me because I knew anything about Robert Wilson. I had never heard of him. More likely they liked my price: $1,000, all in, for a 112-page book, cheap even by 1980 standards. The cac’s director, Robert Stearns, invited me to his house one evening to see the material that needed to be included in the catalog: about 75 photographs, captions, and a major essay by the New York Times critic John Rockwell. I had never heard of John Rockwell. To get us in the mood, Stearns put on some music that he said had been composed by Wilson’s latest collaborator. It was called Einstein on the Beach and it was weird and repetitive. The composer was Philip Glass. I had never heard of Einstein on the Beach or Philip Glass. Stearns gave me the album cover to look at. I noticed with almost tearful relief that it had been designed by Milton Glaser. I had heard of Milton Glaser. agia

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I was completely unfazed by the fact that I knew nothing about Robert Wilson, John Rockwell, Einstein on the Beach, or Philip Glass. In my mind, they were all tangential to the real work ahead, which would simply be to lay out 75 photographs and 8,000 words of text over 112 pages in a way that would impress the likes of Milton Glaser. With single-minded obliviousness, I plunged ahead, got the job done, and was quite pleased with the results. About a year after my disappointing meeting with the planners of the aiga New York chapter, I finally saw my first Robert Wilson production. It was the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 1984 revival of Einstein on the Beach. And sitting there in the audience, utterly transported, it came crashing down on me: I had completely screwed up that catalog. Seen live, Wilson’s work was epic, miraculous, hypnotic, transcendent. My stupid layouts were none of those things. They weren’t even pale, dim echoes of any of those things. They were simply no more and no less than a whole lot of empty-headed graphic design. And graphic design wasn’t enough. It never is. Over the years, I came to realize that my best work has always involved subjects that interested me, or—even better—subjects about which I’ve become interested, and even passionate about, through the very process of doing design work. I believe I’m still passionate about graphic design. But the great thing about graphic design is that it is almost always about something else. Corporate law. Professional football. Art. Politics. Robert Wilson. And if I can’t get excited about whatever that something else is, I really have trouble doing good work as a designer. To me, the conclusion is inescapable: the more things you’re interested in, the better your work will be. In that spirit, I like to think that this book might be a place for people to read about graphic design. But I also like to think that it’s a place where someone might accidentally discover some other things, things that seem to have nothing to do with design: screenwriting, soul singers, 50-year-old experimental novels, cold war diplomacy. You might even find something about Betty Boop. Not everything is design. But design is about everything. So do yourself a favor: be ready for anything.

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why designers can ’ t think

Graphic designers are lucky. As the people who structure much of the world’s communications, we get to vicariously partake of as many fields of interest as we have clients. In a single day, a designer can talk about real estate with one client, cancer cures with another, and forklift trucks with a third. Imagine how tedious it must be for a dentist who has nothing to do all day but worry about teeth. The men and women who invented graphic design in America were largely self-taught; they didn’t have the opportunity to go to fully developed specialized design schools, because none existed. Yet somehow these people managed to prosper without four years of Typography, Visual Problem Solving, and Advanced Aesthetics. What they lacked in formal training they made up for with insatiable curiosity not only about art and design, but culture, science, politics, and history. Today, most professionals will admit to alarm about the huge and evergrowing number of programs in graphic design. Each year, more and more high school seniors decide that they have a bright future in “graphics,” often without much of an idea of what graphics is. This swelling tide of eighteen-year-old, would-be designers is swallowed up thirstily by more and more programs in graphic design at art schools, community colleges, and universities. A few years later, out they come, ready to take their places as professional designers, working for what everybody cheerfully hopes will be an infinitely expanding pool of clients. 14


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There are many ways to teach graphic design, and almost any curriculum will defy neat cubbyholing. Nevertheless, American programs seem to fall into two broad categories: process schools and portfolio schools. Or, if you prefer, “Swiss” schools and “slick” schools. Process schools favor a form-driven problem-solving approach. The first assignments are simple exercises: drawing letterforms, “translating” threedimensional objects into idealized high-contrast images, and basic still-life photography. In the intermediate stages, the formal exercises are combined in different ways: relate the drawing of a flute to the hand-drawn letter N, combine the letter N with a photograph of a ballet slipper. In the final stage, these combinations are turned into “real” graphic design: Letter N plus flute drawing plus ballet slipper photo plus 42 pt. Univers equals, voilà, a poster for Rudolf Nureyev. Of course, if the advanced student gets an assignment to design a poster for, say, an exhibition on Thomas Edison, he or she is tempted to (literally) revert to form: combine the letter E, drawing of a movie camera, photo of a light bulb, etc. One way or another, the process schools trace their lineage back to the advanced program of the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, Switzerland. Sometimes the instructors experienced the program only second or third hand, having themselves studied with someone who studied with someone in Basel. The Swiss-style process schools seem to have thrived largely as a reaction against the perceived “slickness” of the portfolio schools. While the former have been around in force for only the past fifteen years or so, the latter are homegrown institutions with roots in the 1950s. While the unspoken goal of the process school is to duplicate the idealized black-and-white boot camp regimen of far-off Switzerland, the portfolio school has a completely different, admittedly more mercenary, aim: to provide students with polished “books” that will get them good jobs upon graduation. The problem-solving mode is conceptual, with a bias for appealing, memorable, populist imagery. The product, not process, is king. Now, portfolio schools will rebut this by pointing to the copious tissue layouts that often supplement the awesomely slick work in their graduates’ portfolios. Nonetheless, at the end of the line of tissues is always a beautifully propped photograph of an immaculate mock-up of a perfume bottle. Seldom will portfolio schools encourage students to spend six months on a twenty-part structural analysis of, say, the semiotics of a Campbell’s soup label as an end in itself. Unlike the full-time teachers of process schools, the portfolio schools are staffed largely by working professionals who teach part time, who are impatient with idle exercises that don’t relate to the “real world.” However politely the two camps behave in discussions on design education, the fact is, they hate each other. To the portfolio schools, the “Swiss” method is 15


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hermetic, arcane, and meaningless to the general public. To the process schools, the “slick” method is distastefully commercial, shallow, and derivative. Oddly, though, the best-trained graduates of either camp are equally sought after by employers. East Coast corporate identity firms love the process school graduates; anyone who’s spent six months combining a letterform and a ballet shoe won’t mind being mired in a fat standards manual for three years. On the other hand, package design firms are happy to get the portfolio school graduates: not only do they have a real passion for tighter-than-tight comps, but they can generate hundreds of stylistically diverse alternatives to show indecisive clients. What, then, is wrong with graphic design education? If there’s a smorgasbord of pedagogical approaches, and employers who can find use for different kinds of training, who suffers? The answer is not in how schools are different, but how they’re the same. Both process schools and portfolio schools have something in common: whether the project is the esoteric Nureyev poster or the Bloomingdale’s-ready perfume bottle comp, what’s valued is the way graphic design looks, not what it means. Programs will pay lip service to meaning in design with references to “semiotics” (Swiss) or “conceptual problem solving” (slick), but these nuances are applied in a cultural vacuum. In many programs, if not most, it’s possible to study graphic design for four years without any meaningful exposure to the fine arts, literature, science, history, politics, or any of the other disciplines that unite us in a common culture. Well, so what? What does a graphic designer need with this other stuff? Employers want trained designers, not writers and economists. Perhaps the deficiencies in the typical design education aren’t handicaps at first. The new graduate doesn’t need to know economics any more than a plumber does; like a tradesman, he or she needs skills that are, for the most part, technical. But five or ten years down the road, how can a designer plan an annual report without some knowledge of economics? Lay out a book without an interest in, if not a passion for, literature? Design a logo for a high-tech company without some familiarity with science? Obviously, they can and do. Some designers fill in their educational gaps as they go along; some just fake it. But most of the mediocre design today comes from designers who are faithfully doing as they were taught in school: they worship at the altar of the visual. The pioneering design work of the 1940s and 1950s continues to interest and excite us while work from the intervening years looks more and more dated and irrelevant. Without the benefit of intensive specialized programs, the 16


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pioneers of our profession, by necessity, became well-rounded intellectually. Their work draws its power from deep in the culture of their times. Modern design education, on the other hand, is essentially value-free: every problem has a purely visual solution that exists outside any cultural context. Some of the most tragic victims of this attitude hail not from the world of high culture, but from the low. Witness the case of a soft-drink manufacturer that pays a respected design firm a lot of money to “update” a classic logo. The product of American design education responds: “Clean up an old logo? You bet,” and goes right to it. In a vacuum that excludes popular as well as high culture, the meaning of the mark in its culture is disregarded. Why not just say no? The option isn’t considered. Our clients usually are not other designers; they sell real estate, cure cancer, make forklift trucks. Nor are there many designers in the audiences our work eventually finds. They must be touched with communication that is genuinely resonant, not self-referential. To find the language for that, one must look beyond Manfred Maier’s Principles of Design or the last Communication Arts Design Annual. Nowadays, the passion of design educators seems to be technology; they fear that computer illiteracy will handicap their graduates. But it’s the broader kind of illiteracy that’s more profoundly troubling. Until educators find a way to expose their students to a meaningful range of culture, graduates will continue to speak in languages that only their classmates understand. And designers, more and more, will end up talking to themselves.

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Profile for Princeton Architectural Press

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design  

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design brings together the best of designer Michael Bierut's critical writing--serious or humorous, flattering...

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design  

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design brings together the best of designer Michael Bierut's critical writing--serious or humorous, flattering...

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