Under the surface of style
Designers and critics alike reject style as shallow and meaningless. But they overlook the complex ways in which its codes are used by different social groups.
A surprising consensus about style is emerging within contemporary graphic design. Its proponents include cultural critics eager to expose consumerist trickery perpetrated in the name of style on an unsuspecting public, conservative critics who lambast entire genres for being mere followers of fashion and progressive critics who bemoan the popular dilution of innovative graphics and the commodification of ‘radical’ inventions. Although the agendas and targets are different, these factions share a distrust of style as false, shallow and meaningless.
The proliferation of design since the 1980s has been roundly blamed for transforming graphic design from a problem-solving process into a style-conscious cog in the fashion system. Recent work has been dismissed as ‘empty formalism’ whose excesses mask a poverty of content. Such opinions, however, are often predicated on a rejection of the work’s aesthetics, or more precisely on a ‘misfit’ between the aesthetic preferences of the critic and the values embodied in the work.
The idea that style is meaningless and empty goes back to Modern functionalism, a legacy which continues to set the terms for most discussions about style. The Modernist notion of deceptive forms (style) on the surface and essential contents (substance) at the core is outmoded for contemporary graphic design, which must respond to the increasing fragmentation of society and of audiences. Although the practice and presence of graphic design has changed, our understanding of form, style, function, content and taste has not. Dismissals of style ignore the complex ways in which style operates in society: how styles circulate as communicative codes that distinguish cultural groups and social classes.
Form versus content
Debates about style usually invoke dualisms such as form / content and style / substance. These artificial dichotomies divorce the terms from one another, giving the mistaken impression that there is form independent of content, or style in lieu of substance. In fact, since each term is married to the other, a relationship must be established and the terms negotiated. So form is legitimised on the basis of content – form is truthful or aesthetically valid when it faithfully represents content. This coupling is offered as a unified whole in which the ‘problem’ (content) is inseparable from the ‘solution’ (form). From the depths of the problem comes the essential truth of the solution, which bypasses style altogether. As Alvin Lustig wrote in his attempt to reconcile the counter claims of traditional and Modern design in the US during the 1940s and 1950s, ‘We will simply solve each problem within its own terms, without conscious thought concerning “styles,” modern or traditional.’
The twentieth century has been characterised by a near constant rejection of form which is empty or meaningless, gratuitous or extraneous. Often such form is dismissed as mere style – something that is added rather than being an integral part of the solution. Style has also been criticised as an appeal to popular tastes – a pandering to the masses which turned Modernism into the ‘modernistic’. The issues of style and taste are ignored in most theoretical accounts of Modern design; they are simply placed outside the brackets of the problem-solving equation.
The dismissal of style does not, however, do away with the question of aesthetics. In functionalist terms, proper visual solutions require a faithful representation of the content. The interpretation of this caveat of Modernist design varies across the fields of graphics, industrial design and architecture, but what is common is the appeal for a transparent reflection of content, whether a product’s function, a building’s construction or a client’s message. Historically, this way of thinking informs maxims such as Louis Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ or the Bauhaus insistence on ‘truth in materials’. Swiss designer Max Bill, who designed buildings, industrial products and graphics, wrote in a 1955 essay: ‘Examining critically the shapes of objects in daily use, we invariably take as criterion the form of such an object, as a “harmonious expression of the sum of its functions”. This does not mean an artificial simplification or an anti-functional streamlining. What we specifically perceive as form, and therefore as beauty, is the natural, self-evident, and functional appearance.’ For Bill, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but is derived from the ‘self-evident’ form of the object. This tidy set of substitutions (function = form = beauty) bypasses the question of taste, which is seen as extrinsic to the equation, no matter how germane it is to the reception of design by the ‘masses’.
The Modernist equation denies both the subjectivity of aesthetic judgement and the subjectivity of the designer’s expression. What is called for is an objective form language through which the designer can speak. In Josef Müller-Brockmann’s seminal text The Graphic Designer and His Design Problems, the subjectivity of the designer is eclipsed by the objectivity of forms: ‘By discarding the old free subjective manner of representation, [the designer] acquired freedom for a more highly charged organization of forms that were appropriate to the subject.’ Müller-Brockmann continues: ‘The more anonymous and objective these elements are the more suitable they prove as a vehicle for the thematic idea; the realisation of this idea in graphic form is the end to which all the elements of design must be directed.’
The idea to which Müller-Brockmann refers is, in fact, the concept or solution before its visual representation. In art, the form-content relationship is divided on the basis of techniques (form) and statements (content). But in graphic design, content exists both as the concept of a solution and as a pre-existing message statement supplied by the client. Form expresses not the designer’s subjectivity nor even the message statement, but the content of a designer’s conceptual solution. Form is fully dependent on this content for meaning or substance. Form not accountable to content is extraneous, as Leo Lionni’s distinction between decorative and expressive form indicates: ‘Design is form. Sometimes it is decorative form, and has no function other than to give pleasure to the eye. Often it is expressive form, related to conceptual content, to meaning. It is always abstract; but like a gesture or tone of voice it has the power to command and hold attention, to create symbols, to clarify ideas.’ But the pleasurable forms of style are also expressive, communicating ideas about taste and social status. The core is not the client message statement but the designer’s conceptual solution, which no matter how ‘transparent’ still gains expression through its visual translation and cannot simply be exchanged for the message statement.
The definitions of style, form and content which inform contemporary debates in graphic design were cast in a specific historical period, the Modern, against the background of the design profession’s modernisation. Their usage within a different period – the post-industrial, late capitalist post-modern – is problematic. Although the context has changed, the original definitions persist. The purity of the problem-solution equation leaves no room for issues such as form not attributable to an internal content, taste as an aesthetic value in society and designers who add their own ‘statements’. Though style is banished to the hinterlands of non-meaning, it can nevertheless be found in the work of most designers who reach not inward to the problem but outward to the ‘masses’.
The seductive surface
While functionalism evaded the issue of style by locating it outside design, contemporary critics tend to see design as nothing but style. Stuart Ewen, in his book All Consuming Images, sums up the sense that the proliferation of style since the 1980s is at odds with substantive concerns and values: ‘Style, more and more, has become the official idiom of the marketplace. In advertising, packaging, product design, and corporate identity, the power of provocative surfaces speaks to the eye’s mind, overshadowing matters of quality or substance.’ In this scenario, style deludes as it seduces: style with its seductive surface diverts us from the truth.
This notion is expressed not only by cultural critics but also by designers, sometimes in surprising ways. In The Graphic Language of Neville Brody 2, Jon Wozencroft criticises contemporary British ‘style culture’: ‘Once made public, the ideas, let alone the simple techniques that were used to give form to them, were often smothered by the success of the style culture in England with which Brody had been associated. Here, style is used as an ointment to seal in any “difficult” material that might interfere with the gloss finish.’ Wozencroft describes the use of style to mask ulterior motives or politicised agendas. Style is false, purposefully misleading. But rather than seeing this as a possibility for all design styles, he confines his comments to the way style blurs the distinction between an ‘original’ design and an imposter: ‘The more successful The Face became, the more it was looked upon as a “Style Bible,” which provided a monthly graphics phrase book that enabled imitators to make the right visual noises. Such was the business demand for “style culture” to exploit new patterns of consumer behaviour, few took the time to reflect or even care whether or not they were getting the genuine article.’ Progressive critics use style to prop up the cult of originality while bemoaning the commodification of innovative work.
Conservative critics invoke style to dismiss ‘new’ work, particularly that which they regard as fashionable kitsch. Here, graphic design has been diverted from its problem-solving imperatives to become aberrant form and hence style, as Pearce Marchbank stated in a review of The Graphic Edge: ‘The “designs” here (with the exception of items such as record covers, which can be treated as stylistic art objects) show that concise messages, let alone briefs, seem to have been often ignored in favour of creating a fashionable vehicle for style.’ Such blanket rejections are often simply a result of a mismatch of aesthetic values between the critic and the work, giving rise to a misrecognition of style as dysfunctional form.
Parody and Pastiche
Style is not governed by functionalism’s desire to reflect an internal truth. Style engages us on the surface – it is about appearance – but this surface is neither the glossy reflection of adoring consumers seduced by their own image nor a layer of camouflage hiding the truth. Rather, style is an outward sign of difference that gains its uniqueness in relation to other styles.
Style’s seductiveness lies in its ability to transform signs and manipulate codes, through mimicry and parody for instance. Parody imitates the stylistic features of the original while undercutting its foundation. Spy magazine, renowned for its satirical humour, parodies in its February 1995 issue the American sportswear catalogue J. Crew. The white middle classes in the great outdoors are replaced by an inner-city underclass, substituting the original’s wardrobe of polo shirts, parkas and pre-ripped jeans with streetwear such as the ‘Flak Jacket’ (‘For casual drive-bys’) and the ‘Felony Tee’ (‘Gangsta. Nothing quite says it like a bold horizontal stripe’). The careful duplication of the catalogue’s design style lends the air of authenticity necessary to carry the humour.
Parody can be based on a type rather than a specific original, as in John Bielenberg’s 1993 ‘Virtual Telemetrix’ annual report. This report for a fictitious company is intended as a commentary on graphic design’s relationship with corporate culture. Bielenberg wanted to disseminate the project through design annuals and so had to incorporate enough elements of corporate communications to make it convincing for the designers judging the competitions. Since his design does not copy a particular corporation but an entire genre, it must synthesise a core set of values and styles in order to pass itself off as authentic – familiar enough to be recognisable as corporate literature, competent enough to be deemed professional, and different enough to be judged innovative.
Pastiche is another form stylistic mimicry, but one which lacks the humour of parody. While parody works by means of reference to a specific style, pastiche, as a hodge-podge of styles gathered from disparate sources, is a particularly post-modern phenomenon. The fragments assembled in such compositions – well suited to the current vogue for layering –retain a residue of their previous existence and bring traces of their origins to the new context. The introductory pages of Wired magazine, designed by John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr, incorporate a multitude of fragments in a densely layered, fluid composition. The background to a quote from an article on ‘immersive’ technologies is constructed from a wiring diagram, a photograph of auditorium seating, a first-aid illustration, snatches of technical information and assorted digital textures. That such images are created using computer imaging programs, together with their presence in a magazine of ‘new media’, contributes to the notion that this is a ‘digital style’.
The stylistic mimicry by professional graphic designers of the anonymously designed vernacular – flyers, supermarket circulars, clip-art – is another instance of pastiche. Art Chantry’s CD packaging for the Liquor Giants’s You’re Always Welcome is typical of this strategy. Here a newspaper circular provides the stylistic vehicle, while the band acknowledges the impossibility of ‘original’ form through its appropriation of a pre-existing style. Also classifiable as pastiche are the crop of ‘new’ styles which look familiar but whose ‘original’ source cannot be definitively located. The straightforward treatment of text and images in Frankfurt Balkind Partners’1992 annual report for science and technology conglomerate EG&G was likened by I.D. magazine to a Barbara Kruger exhibition. A more perceptive Jeffery Keedy at the American Center for Design’s 100 Show pointed out: ‘I really wanted to select Details, but since they didn’t submit, I selected this pale imitation. It’s the next best thing to the original. In graphic design, it’s not important who did it first, but who got the most use out of it.’ The need to find an origin for design styles seems futile when the appropriators are themselves appropriated.
A multitude of dialects
The demise of Modern functionalism – perhaps the one great style of Modernism – as the standard against which all designs can be measured has allowed for a proliferation of styles in design in response to the fragmentation of contemporary society. Graphic design today is a collection of disparate styles which rather than representing entire movements or schools of thought, as styles did in the past, are private languages: a multitude of dialects. Style operates as a code of communication, not for the transparent reflection of content but as a signifier of taste. Design historian Penny Sparke’s description in An Introduction to Design and Culture in the Twentieth Century of the advent of mass taste and style in relationship to industrial design earlier this century could easily be applied to graphic design today: ‘it became increasingly important that the objects destined for the new markets contained a high level of instantaneously perceived overt symbolism which served to reassure [consumers] of the “correctness” of their taste values and their new social status.’
If style has a function, it is to be recognisable and categorisable. It must communicate with specific pockets of culture and lifestyles, defined by social and market forces and grouped according to some shared physical trait, common cause or demographic profile, combining characteristics such as ethnicity, age, class, sexuality, gender, religious convictions, marital status and so on. Style communicates through connotation not denotation, making allusions, having the right attitude, knowing the code. Style is simultaneously exclusive and inclusive, its language distinct yet easily identifiable by its initiates.
The success of youth culture graphics testifies to the ability of style to represent even the most vaguely defined interests (the Generation X phenomenon). Ray Gun, the self-proclaimed ‘Bible of music + style and the end of print’, is the most celebrated source of youthful hipness. Its devoted readership shares the magazine’s stylistic code and seems delighted by the aesthetic repulsion expressed by parents, design teachers and other outsiders, despite the fact that Ray Gun’s design style owes more to graphic experimentation done within the academy than to the subcultural music fanzines with which its readership equates it.
In other cases, designers extend and refine an existing vernacular, as with Jager di Paola Kemp’s work for Burton snowboards, which has built on the jargon and inventive graphics of snowboarding culture. Youth style has even been used to sell political awareness for Amnesty International. For the magazine Say, aimed at Amnesty’s younger members, designers at Johnson and Wolverton adopted the graphic vocabulary of youth culture. Lauded in design annuals for using a now commonplace style as a vehicle for its message, Say gained establishment acceptance because of its ‘substantive’ purpose. But the championing of the content deflects attention from the role style plays in reaching the audience in the first place.
Style does not hold meaning within itself and therefore can be considered arbitrary. But this is not to say that style lacks meaning – rather, it is a cultural code operating in an ever-shifting network of meanings. Graphic styles are exchanged among social groups, whether bought, borrowed or stolen. For instance, the design firm Bureau uses an idyllic illustration of natural bliss – sun shining, birds chirping, flowers blooming – to carry a message about the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. In this context and for this audience, the banality and artificiality of the image project a camp sensibility, while its hyperreality shifts from picture perfect symbolism to irony under the headline ‘You and your kind are not wanted here’.
The co-optability of a style is not a result of its lack of allegiance to content but of its capacity to carry a surplus of meanings. The small size, hard cover and sewn binding of Ellen Lupton’s design for the American Center for Design’s 16th annual 100 show catalogue give it a bookish feel, imparting a seriousness to the subject matter in contrast with its coffee-table cousin, Graphic Design USA, from the American Institute of Graphic Arts. More overtly, the catalogue of artist Kim Abeles’ show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art borrows the style of a 1960s World Book Encyclopedia. Designed by Susan Silton in collaboration with the artist and curator and entitle Encyclopedia Persona, the catalogue follows the original’s layout and format (including a leatherette cover with foil stamping). The point is not to parody the encyclopaedia but to use the authority of its style to convey information about the artist’s work, life and influences.
Style also represents more mainstream tastes. The lifestyle of the aspiring gentry who fuel the industry that is Martha Stewart is fully articulated in her magazine. The subject of parody and the source for a series of imitators, Martha Stewart Living provides advice on interior decoration, gardening, cooking and collecting. Tasteful, elegant and restrained, the magazine’s design style is consistent with the values to which its readers aspire. Photographs taken in natural light are arranged in symmetrical layouts: everything has a place and everything is in its place. There is just enough white space to signal decorum but not extravagance, while the leisurely pace of the features – eight pages of tips for cake decorating, for instance – connotes a certain thoroughness.
Graphic designers today have their own culture and are therefore subject to the same knowing pitches as other audiences. As part of its advertising campaign of mutating vodka bottles, Absolut has recently developed ads for I.D. magazine which use the signature style of famous designers. Unlike their fine art predecessors, where artists’ names were incorporated Peinto the headline copy (‘Absolut Warhol’), these ads sport tag lines such as ‘Absolut Attitude’ (designed by Thirst) and ‘Absolut Voice’ (designed by Bates Hori). The ads do not have the bottle change into some other form, but work instead with an ‘empty’ bottle – a void filled by the design style itself. Here the values of design culture are represented as hipness (‘Cool’ reads the ad by Thirst). The presence (‘Voice’) of the designer defines a transparent product: Absolut Absence.
Codes of communication
It is time that the old debates based on aesthetic judgements (the good, the bad and the ugly) are replaced by discussions based on the particular aesthetic values of the designer, the critic and the consumer. In the domain of aesthetic value there is no privileged hierarchy (good design versus kitsch), only the relative nature of competing, sometimes contradictory beliefs. If we wish to address issues of taste, we must look at style as expressive of both the designer’s and the consumer’s valuation of form and not as a non-expressive element.
To gain a broader understanding of graphic design’s social status, we must look at how it is perceived by others. To evaluate visual language only in terms of the correspondence between form and content is too insular in an age when audiences must negotiate a wide variety of styles in the many objects that surround them. Style carries valuable information about how the codes of communication operate in society, and many graphic designers already use a range of styles to address different audiences. Our understanding of style must be adjusted to face the introduction of new technology that expands the availability of graphic design and hastens the dispersal of styles. Such strategies will place renewed attention on the materiality of graphic design – its articulation on the very surface we try to dismiss but cannot because this, after all, is our only representational space.
First published in Eye no. 18 vol. 5, 1995
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