Autumn 2003

Chewing it over: issues of style and content


In the spring issue of Eye (no. 47 vol. 12) I wrote a particularly harsh review of the new magazine Gum.

And so the erstwhile Gumsters marshalled the forces of graphic design and cash to take out a full page advertisement in the following issue of Eye that juxtaposed my Mr Mean quote (‘the ultimate in cheesy designer excess’) with different cheeses and glowing mentions by designers including Chip Kidd, Rick Valicenti and Rudy VanderLans. It was, I suppose, meant to show how little I, or critics in general, know. It’s a venerable, if hackneyed, old gag, left over from the back cover of Kidd’s own novel, The Cheese Monkeys, and innumerable satirical outlets, such as Mad. Normally it seems a shame to prolong these kind of intra-magazine spats, if only because it merely generates more publicity and I may come off as priggish or insulted, both of which I’m not. (You’ll have to take my word on the first one, though.) But the magazine – plus the way it responded – brought up a few curious issues worth writing about, so here goes.

What bothered me about the ad was similar to what bothered me about the magazine: the unselfconsciousness and seeming lack of critical knowledge on display. The ad pits designers against critics, which is a pointless endeavour because there’s no better match than eloquent, critical writing and strong, articulate design, as proven by the very eminencies that Gum chose to oppose me with: VanderLans’ Emigre has been marked by a combination of creative typography and prose, and recently produced the pocket-sized Rant, which, ironically, wonders about the lack of critical writing in design. And didn’t Chip Kidd write both trenchant, smart criticism for magazines, and an entire, self-designed novel that insightfully investigated a life with graphic design? So the whole endeavour just seemed, well, weird. Anyhow, to back up a bit, upon reading my review, Kevin Grady, co-editor of Gum, wrote to me:

‘Obviously you’re entitled to your opinion, but I have to say that it amazes me that you would be so negative about something that was so lovingly labored over. I mean, you edit and publish The Ganzfeld, so you know just how much effort goes into creating something like this (especially when there are only two of you doing it, as with your publication). You’re not obligated to like it, of course, but I would have thought that you would at least “respect” it. “Spit it out”? Honestly, what’s the motivation for writing something like that?’

I never responded to Mr Grady. But, yes, because I edit and publish The Ganzfeld I do know how much effort (and money) it takes, which makes me that much more critical when it is so wantonly squandered and so over-hyped. Anyone can publish what they like, of course, and clearly I just didn’t like Gum.

Purpose beyond self-gratification
So, what’s the motivation? First let’s do away with notions of objectivity.  I publish a small, visual culture periodical loosely based on the notion of combining Brodovitch’s Portfolio magazine with RAW. The Ganzfeld is an ongoing attempt to expand and articulate a visual culture not represented anywhere else. It is also about giving past and present designers, illustrators, gallery artists, cartoonists and writers (many unknown, all important) a chance to publish in the best conditions possible. We want to contribute to and revise visual culture, in a sense continuing the job that Portfolio started when it published work by Alexander Calder, Hobo symbols and William Steig, and treated all three equally, using Brodovitch’s design to tease out yet more meaning from the prose and pictures alike.

I realise this might seem overly serious, but I view self-publishing as an important calling – it enables small groups of under-financed people to say what they want to say, and, in my case, to pursue a very specific mission. But with that freedom comes an obligation to the community a publisher aims to serve. There are enough thoughtless magazines and books produced these day to the point, I feel, of visual pollution. I’m curious about all manner of things, but recently it seems as though there are four or five identical magazines for every kind of visual style, though the dominant style right now is the one Gum pushes: flat, cartoony graphics mixed with graffiti and a pinch of David Carson. The quantity and homogeneity of such publications is overwhelming. And although overload is the way of both culture and, more pertinently, capitalism, if you’re self-publishing and not making much money anyhow, what’s the motivation to contribute to the deluge? A little restraint would be nice.

So, while I do indeed understand the effort involved in putting out a magazine, I also know that a huge part of that effort is doing my research, finding the voice of the project, and making sure that I have something substantive to contribute and that I’m unique in the field. Why bother otherwise? The answer to that is in Grady and co-editor Colin Metcalf’s introduction to the first issue:

‘In the shadow of That Day last year [September 11] particularly, lots of us looked up from our busy-ness for the first time in a long while and set to pondering a niggling new question: namely, whether all of our erstwhile interests and endeavours were really that worthwhile to begin with. With this in mind, two old friends (us) called each other, and after a hard minute’s reflection, declared as one with absolute confidence, “Um . . . Yes! Yeah. Definitely. Of course.” And then we shook hands over the telephone and set to work immediately on something brand new. GUM.’

Justifying any kind of hobby with 9/11 is grotesque, but a design magazine containing commercial photography portfolios, interviews  with graffiti artists, silly rants about advertising, and actual gum with the motto ‘Design You Can Chew On’? The responsibility of a small publisher extends to the moral intelligence of his readers, as well.

And so, to finally answer Grady’s question: no, respect is not part of the equation here. What I want in place of hubris and unawareness is a sense of purpose that extends beyond immediate self-gratification. So, I looked to another small publication, Dot Dot Dot. With a minimum of promotion and fanfare, editors Stuart Bailey and Peter Bilak have launched an essential graphic design journal whose purpose is to publish intelligent writing about graphic design by providing a free and somewhat informal forum for exchanging ideas on the subject. Through smart, at times acerbic, articles, manifestos and critical journalism, it is doing just that. Nothing feels recycled or half-assed, and when articles fail, as some do in every publication, they do so because they just didn’t work internally, not because of their subject or the presumptions of its editors. I certainly don’t always agree with Dot Dot Dot, but in an old-fashioned way I trust its intentions, which in concept and execution are an improvement on graphic design discourse. It is also a wonderful symbiosis of design and writing, with new, low-key blends of the two in each issue.

I’m not saying that Dot Dot Dot or The Ganzfeld are the only right ways to publish, but that they are informed, critical ways to publish. And I’m not saying it’s an either / or situation; there are simply better and worse contributions to be made to what I think of as a badly ailing visual culture, and, in particular, a design culture in real pain right now. So when a new magazine trumpets itself in full page advertisements, I want it to make a contribution, to give something we need, not just more style, more celebration and more elaborate packaging. Looking at major magazines of the past, from the aforementioned Portfolio to Avant Garde to Typographica, I can safely say they began with an awareness of, and articulate passion for, visual culture absent in today’s climate. Though this may seem like an obvious point, what we need is not snippy advertisements, tired style or extended infighting, but a return to actual pages and real content – a move towards critical, responsible publishing by writers and designers alike (and preferably together).

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