Summer 2003

Back on the old battleground

Emigre No. 64: Rant

Princeton Architectural Press, USD 12

In Emigre No. 49 (1999), editor and founder Rudy VanderLans announced his magazine’s abandonment of critical debate in favour of a return to typeface design – ‘our first love’. That edition’s front cover image of a shopping trolley signalled the reason for this volte-face: the battle to make graphic design into something more than a ‘service art’ had been lost; commerce had won without even breaking sweat. Arguments about legibility, self-expression and design-as-art suddenly appeared otiose. Now, fifteen editions on, VanderLans revisits the old battleground. Emigre no. 64, a compact little paperback, provides a nearly imageless platform for some long-time Emigre contributors to, in VanderLans’s phrase, ‘rant about the state of graphic design.’

Inviting designers to engage in critical discourse and fierce introspection when redundancies are rife is admirable and hazardous to say the least. VanderLans admits as much in his introduction: ‘It’s difficult to question and investigate the deeper meaning of design when you have a hard time finding work.’ But Rant’s contributors (with one notable exception) lack VanderLans’s street savvy and wade in with a batch of essays written in lofty and disdainful tones that take little account of the real problems facing design and designers. The dozen or so essays reveal a pre-occupation with the theoretical and offer little engagement with the practical. Only designer and activist Shawn Wolfe seems to want to talk about the dirty business of ‘doing it’.

First into the attack is academic Kenneth FitzGerald, who delivers a spiky appraisal of modern graphic design. Those of us who see a need for theoretical discussion will applaud his eloquent plea for a renewed critical discourse. But who are we kidding? It will take more than critical discourse to save graphic design.

Alan Fletcher, Stefan Sagmeister, John Maeda and Eye all have their knuckles rapped by the acerbic Professor. Only Rick Poynor is deemed an unequivocally good thing. Vaughan Oliver, Art Chantry, Julie Lasky and Dot Dot Dot get curt nods of approval; Bruce Mau’s Life Style is treated to a lengthy critique. The mandarin tone is continued by Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel and Andrew Blauvelt.

You have to turn to Shawn Wolfe’s essay for any sense of practical engagement. Wolfe writes about gum wrappers, the Burger King logo and KFC buckets, and tells how he stumbled towards a personal philosophy by designing ‘faux distressed jeans tags and embroidered heraldic crests that signified nothing.’ Wolfe’s willingness to trade in the mundanities of commercial life means that he is mainlining straight into the bloodstream of the wider culture. By doing so, he is closer to Naomi Klein than he is to his co-contributors. Klein’s great achievement was that she pitched her arguments directly at the evil empire: into the boardrooms of the corporations and into the dark heart of the mass media. This is where the battle to stop graphic design becoming a pale anodyne thing has to be fought, because however much those of us who enjoy theoretical debate may dislike the fact, the future of graphic design is in the hands of the brand mangers at Burger King and KFC, as surely as it is in the hands of arty practitioners who catch the eyes of sharp-brained theorists.

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