Autumn 2001

A serious book …

Clean New World

Maud Lavin
MIT Press, £19.50

Maud Lavin has written a book for designers who wonder what became of the revolutionaries they were at art school. As she says in her introduction, ‘This book is about who gets to say what to whom.’ Lavin knows designers who have kept their dreams alive: she knows designers who have insisted on keeping the layers and ambiguities in their work in climates that demanded simplicity, she knows about pro-bono work for political groups, she knows about freelance visual activists such as Barbara Kruger, she knows about entrepreneurial designers who have started their own firms in order to have the freedom of full vision for their clients. She knows there are stakes to this and interviews designers who are mothers, wondering if they can keep up their unpaid night work. She speculates on her own choices and for comparison tells you about the designers in pre-fascist Germany who made their choices and made no profit. This is a road-map for people who know about design and politics and dreams, but want to know about stakes too, and sometimes seek inspiration. It is also a cultural history of what happened to American design through the neo-traditionalism of the Reagan and Bush years, of analogous phenomena in design during pre-Fascist Germany, of certain ways of protesting both that occurred in the unrecorded history of corporate design.

Maud Lavin is no stranger to either side of what designers can be. Her contacts are from large corporate firms, she herself has engaged the people through the internet novella The Couch, and she teaches the history of aesthetics and politics at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her experiences have brought a richness to her ideas about culture and the designer, a willingness to believe with the support of precious examples that there have been people in corporate culture who maintained their own identity and political agenda and inspiration. She has little time for the vernacular wisdom that advertising is just a tool of money, that art must be completely separate from society.

Clean New World engages this mission through many layers of society and many points of history. The series of essays speculates on the relationship of designers to their work, looking at advertising in Weimar Germany and its relation to the avant-garde, looking at the Internet and designers who take seriously questions such as whether cartoon-faces or human-faces as interfaces cause users to identify more with a program’s capabilities.

Lavin is particularly interested in women’s experiences and position in the design world. Pay and equality are serious social issues for her, but her social concern allows her to muse about an interesting hypothesis. If women are less often at the top of the design world in terms of pay, she wonders, do they have a unique position to take on more work which doesn’t pay well but is open to more of their own choosing, to gratify their ambitions in another way, which is in the end more socially meaningful? To her credit, Lavin doesn’t try to answer this question. She opens up part of her book to testimonies from women designers about just this issue, to their own reflections about the compromises they’ve witnessed in their career, about how that might be related to the social action work they\'ve done. Lavin’s prejudice is on the side of women being uniquely positioned to save civilisation, but in talking about it she accomplishes the graceful turn of simply using her set of women as examples of how some real designers have struggled and succeeded in weaving together family, work, inspiration, money, and politics.

In all these stories, the past twenty years are an interesting case. Lavin claims across several essays that America at the Millennium has been left with a heritage of a kind of technological utopianism, a love affair with the machine. A hundred years ago, ideas about efficiency and cooperation were beginning to ferment, and both Fascism and Communism leapt to create streamlined images of a brave new future. This spawned design that was aerodynamic, simple, perfect, utopian. Both the right and the left have been intoxicated by the machine and it comes out in design from both the avant-garde and the socially conservative. Lavin argues that such streamlined design in corporate culture has often been on the side of creating a world where individuals feel cowed beneath the glorying aegises of corporate branding. She takes up GE, IBM, and the Prudential for their logos. It’s an issue, she claims, for designers: a point at which designers, not critics alone, must understand the stakes and take up a social consciousness. This is a point of pride and a point of responsibility for designers, who have so often been told that they were mere instruments of money\'s flow. Lavin protests this. Designers, she writes, shape the interface between individuals and their money, between people and the corporations. Designers make the masks by which people recognise corporations as omnipresent gods of many nations, and those masks can proclaim the gods to be streamlined and perfect, or to be a tool in the service of consumers.

Lavin begins to wonder about the Internet. (Here Marcel Proust’s observation about the telephone is appropriate: ‘The advance of civilisation enables people to display unsuspected qualities or fresh defects which make them dearer or more insupportable to their friends.’) For Lavin the Internet can give people new chances to consider types of design that would encourage people to understand the capacities of the electronic world to invade their privacy, or new chances to forget all of that and become once more dwarfed by a corporate culture, streamlined, too perfect, making them forget about their capacities to change it and interact with its design. Lavin’s project in part is imagining a kind of design which would encourage people to interact with their computers’ designers, to not take the machine or the Web-layout as a flat, but as a limited item which will become more ergonomic when more people contribute their problems about it.

Lavin’s best strength is that she takes these issues seriously, subtly: this is no schema-riddled piece of social theory, although she knows the theorists’ views and engages them efficiently. Lavin writes for designers and critics who want to know more. Alongside this is her tact in weaving in a profound sensitivity for cultural criticism and a rich understanding of history so that thoughts capable of revolutionising text-centered academic criticism waft in under the door. She takes her audience to be serious about where they are, and this is a serious book, brilliant with experience and discretion.

First published in Eye no. 41 vol. 11, 2001

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.

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