Spring 2003

Some problems are headaches . . .

Problem Solved: A Primer in Design and Communication

By Michael Johnson
Phaidon, £29.95

Michael Johnson is a partner in the design firm Johnson Banks, and D&AD president-elect. In this ‘primer’ he has organised hundreds of examples, mostly from the past 20 to 30 years, to illustrate creative responses to what he terms eighteen ‘generic problems’ faced by students and professionals alike in design and advertising.

The work of the designers and creatives featured is, almost without exception, their most (over-)exposed: from a Heartfield photomontage of Hitler to a classic Guerrilla Girls poster; from George Lois’s most lauded Esquire covers to Milton Glaser’s I Love NY; from Paul Rand’s IBM logo to Stefan Sagmeister’s genitalia. The text combines the peppy chitchat of a ‘how-to’ manual with the occasional smug knowingness of an insider.

According to the press release for Problem Solved, this is ‘the first book to analyse the design issues and problems faced by designers involved in major contemporary advertising and graphic design.’ Johnson says as much in his introduction. Alas, even a quick glance at his own modest bibliography, which includes Bob Gill’s Forget all the Rules You Ever Learned about Graphic Design and Sagmeister’s Made You Look shows that this claim is simply untrue.

There are several missteps. The first is Johnson’s retelling of the story of Ernst Bettler, the alleged designer of a series of posters that led to the downfall of the Swiss client, a pharmaceuticals company with a right-wing past. This story first appeared in an issue of the journal dot dot dot, and was then picked up by Adbusters. Using strategically posed models, each poster spelt out a letter in the word NAZI, although the poster featuring the letter ‘A’ is the only one reproduced. Other clues as to why this legend is most likely fabricated: in the issue of dot dot dot that first carried the story, the editors commented that they would be ‘resorting to fiction to make certain points’. And didn’t the company name, Pfäfferli + Huber, sound suspiciously like two figures from graphic design history: Max Huber and Bruno Pfaffli? [See ‘The “Ernst Bettler” problem, Rick Poynor’s Critique on eyemagazine.com.]

Second, if Johnson had read Naomi Klein’s No Logo he might be much less self-assured in trotting out his unwavering faith in the bloodless logic of branding, and rather less glib in his dismissal of other people who take this stuff seriously. Since those he does identify are college students, it seems just a little too easy to treat them as youthful idealists who’ll grow up to know better.

Of one student’s anti-McDonald’s project, Johnson says: ‘will she stay true to her beliefs when, and if, she sees the colour of their money?’ Regarding another student’s symbolic gesture against Nike – which involved cutting up or burning her collection of trainers – Johnson notes that she ‘eventually admitted that she couldn’t burn her seventh and favourite pair (i.e. protest had a cut-off point, and she reached it.)’ Surely the point here is, conversely, that her brand-identification was so ingrained that, even armed with a freshly politicised conscience, she couldn’t break the habit? Isn’t that a Problem worth mulling over?

Johnson discusses a Nike commercial without the slightest sense that it might be offensive to anyone but ‘women’s groups’ (as if they don’t count). The ad featured a chainsaw-wielding, hockey-mask-wearing man pursuing a terrified female runner out of her house and through a dark forest. The endline is: ‘Why sport? You’ll live longer.’ Johnson claims that this ‘was clearly meant to be ironic but seemed to be slightly misunderstood by some customers.’

These complaints aside, my main issue with the book is that I can’t imagine anyone using it in the way he intends. Would any self-respecting creative really take the trouble to thumb through the contents page of Problem Solved looking for the ‘generic problem’ that matches their particular needs at that moment? The writing is infor-mative, but many of the examples used have been discussed elsewhere with more insight. Take as examples BBH’s ad for Barnardo’s showing a baby shooting up, or Benetton’s death row campaign, or the text-only record cover for XTC’s Go 2. All three are featured in short essays in Rick Poynor’s collection Obey the Giant (also on Johnson’s list).

Johnson writes in his introduction that Problem Solved was ‘inspired in its style by a wonderful book by John Berger, called Ways of Seeing.’ He also notes that this book, first published in 1972, ‘is designed in quite an odd way where the words and the pictures are almost intertwined – Berger talks a bit, then there’s a picture. Bit more chat, another picture. And so on.’ This description is vaguely endearing, but it misses the point entirely. It is the series of arguments put forward in Ways of Seeing that are at least as important as its innovative layout (courtesy of Richard Hollis). All the more puzzling, then, that Ways of Seeing is a book Johnson ‘strongly urge[s] you to read, if you haven’t already’ since for all his apparent enthusiasm, the author of Problem Solved can’t possibly have taken Berger seriously. To do so would have been to confront a sustained critique of advertising and our relationship to images that directly threatens the underlying premise of his own book. Berger would take a dim view of the kind of picture editing that places a hard-edged ad about multiple sclerosis next to an indulgent fashion catalogue, or a stylish Toyota press ad across from a stark Robbie Conal poster aimed at George W. Bush. Such are the underlying incompatibilities that surface when insisting on organising all design and advertising – regardless of purpose or history – into eighteen categories of creative dilemma.

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