Summer 2005

Coming to terms with the ‘c’ word at the RCA

George Hanson Critical Forum

Edited by Jonathan Rabagliati and designed by David Sudlow. Royal College of Art, £2, euros 4.50

The George Hanson Critical Forum – eight round-table discussions from the Department of Communication Art and Design at the Royal College of Art, London – was organised as a series of talks between a wide range of creative practitioners to explore contested aspects of contemporary art and design practice. The publication is a record of the email exchanges, written reflections and edited transcripts of the original conversations thoughtfully designed by David Sudlow.

This is a book that will appeal to those whose creative convictions put them in daily contact with the contradictions, and apparent borders, of their commercial practice. As artist Liam Gillick notes, ‘most people know the edge of their activity, which doesn’t mean that they are restricted or compromised within those apparent edges’. However, the existence of edges – both real and imagined – suggests the need to expand the discourse of design, so that the limits of creative possibility can be more clearly identified, and sometimes challenged.

Each of the book’s chapters addresses a different aspect of design’s interface with art, discussing a wide range of issues, from ‘Art’s Romance with Design’ to the question ‘Does the World Need Another Typeface?’.

Chapter 1 explores fine art’s colonisation of graphic practice and poses the question how artists might usefully extend the imaginative parameters of a design ‘solution’. Alex Coles argues that artistic interpretations of industrial briefs can construct ‘a platform of parallel activity, from within which they can comment on design and its processes’, and concludes that ‘few designers have the flexibility within the briefs that they are set to do this with any real commitment’. The forum asks whether a designer’s adherence to day-to-day business protocol serves the development of the profession as a creative discipline.

In succeeding chapters the concept of ‘creativity’ itself is called into question, and the ‘c’ word is frequently cited as a problem for designers. Erik Spiekermann forcefully expresses the opinion that design and typography are fundamentally craft-based activities. Practitioners do not ‘create’ objects, but work towards solutions for their clients: ‘we are “creative” on demand,’ he says. David Blamey openly challenges this view in the section entitled ‘Self for Sale’, proposing that: ‘The understanding in some quarters is that there is an opportunity for an illustrator to be paid for their opinion – visually and intellectually – as well as illustrating someone else’s idea.’ The question of self-indulgence is a recurrent theme.

The book raises some thought-provoking issues. Can personally initiated projects support industry-centred briefs? Can a stylised response to the communication needs of a client be justified by a social setting that is increasingly engaged in the vagaries of fashion? David Blamey enjoys the last word, advocating the need for critical reflection within the profession. Graphic design is not in a state of crisis, he surmises, but challenging debate is necessary to keep a client’s demands in sight.