Autumn 2004

A glimpse of graphic hell (extract)

Whatever ideological stance they take, designers must at least believe in design

Sitting on a London bus the other day – one of the city’s new buses, comfortable and frequent – I gazed out of the window. As the bus idled at a busy junction, I saw, framed in the window, an almost uninterrupted display of graphic design: posters, signage, banners, streamers, flags, fascias and printed canopies. Even the bus window was covered in transparent stickers, so my view was filtered through a layer of reversed letterforms. I was in a blizzard of graphic design; the messages were shrieky, the colours garish, the impression hellish.

My glimpse of graphic hell made me realise that I wasn’t just looking at bad graphic design, but something much worse. It has become increasingly clear that graphic designers are losing faith in graphic design. This is odd because I’ve never met a graphic designer who didn’t care about how graphic design ‘looked’. There’s something in the DNA of the designer, some molecular impetus that means they can’t help but care. Nor have I ever met a designer who wasn’t offended when his or her work was changed by an unthinking client. Yet here was the output of designers who didn’t give a hoot. Has there has been some malfunction in the designer gene?

My gloom deepened after completing a series of interviews with some well known, radically inclined designers for a book I’m writing. My interviewees talked of metaphorical doors closing: of contraction, retreat and an unwillingness to fight the fight. These are mostly designers who came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, and the sense of opportunity and excitement that surrounded them then appears now to have evaporated. Although, paradoxically, the appetite for and interest in design among young designers and even non-professionals, appears to have increased.

Of course, designers are great grumblers – a sign perhaps of design’s uncertain status within society. But you can’t help feeling that there is some justification for this disgruntlement: the role and function of the graphic designer is under scrutiny as never before and powerful forces are clamouring to tell the designer what he or she should, and should not, be doing. Nothing wrong with a bit of critical scrutiny, you might say: in the new techno always-on world of real-time, change and perpetual reinvention, those who are resistant to constant appraisal, will die. But, among graphic practitioners, all this scrutiny and questioning is contributing to an inertia that makes it difficult to function coherently and with integrity, and it is causing the craft of design to buckle and distort like a leaf left in the sun.

Marketplace brutalism

The most powerful of these clamouring voices is the marketplace. The big design groups, with their global footprints, realised some time ago that offering mere ‘design’ was not enough: corporations, institutions, events, government departments, even cities, wanted ‘branding’. This had the cumulative effect of pushing design down the pecking order: it became subservient to the process of ‘brand engineering’, and joined printing and distribution as just another technical delivery system. WPP, the conglomerate that owns numerous advertising agencies, marketing consultancies and design groups (including The Partners, Landor and Enterprise IG), doesn’t even include the word ‘design’ in the list of services it offers at the beginning of its latest annual report. Significantly, the ‘D’ word is barely visible in WPP communications. How does it feel, I wonder, to be a graphic designer in a WPP-owned company? . . .

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