Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012



AIGA ninth National Design Conference, Washington DC

‘One more session and we’re outta here,’ said John Hockenberry. ‘We can all go back to our miserable lives and forget about all this virtuous stuff.’ Hockenberry, a genial, provocative moderator, had picked up on the conflicting moods of the conference, which lurched from post-First Things First soul-searching (Ken Garland, Stefan Sagmeister) to comedy (Matt Groening, Joe Garden, Dave Eggers). Scooting around the platform in his wheelchair, Hockenberry had fun with the phrase ‘since nine-eleven’, feeling sorry for poor words like ‘since’. ‘Nine and eleven you can understand why they would get screwed . . . that’s tough luck.’ He reserved particular scorn for Kevin Spacey, who had apparently said: ‘I don’t want to do anything trivial ever again,’ while promoting the movie K-PAX on national TV.

But the catastrophic events that had led the conference to be postponed from last September were never far from anyone’s thoughts, whether it was Joe Garden, senior writer from The Onion disputing the concept of ‘terror sex’; or the tentative but unapologetic way that Jonathan Barnbrook presented his Apocalypso font; or journalist Pete Hamill’s testimony: ‘the fanatics that came out of a clear blue sky on September 11 had a design.’ Hamill’s memories of the dismembering of that corner of downtown Manhattan by planners and builders in the 1960s added another complex layer.

Voice was big, with 1200 delegates, but a squib compared to its 1999 Las Vegas predecessor, which boasted 3000 (see Eye no. 34 vol. 9). An international flavour was contributed by artists such as Natalie Jeremijenko (Australia), Alfredo Jaar (Chile) and Luba Lukova (Bulgaria), yet it was undeniably a United States event, with a strong bias towards New York. Oddly, there was hardly any mention of the attack on the Pentagon, just a few miles from where we were sitting.

Thursday’s opening night began with medals for Samuel Antupit and Paula Scher (2001), Robert Brownjohn (whose medal was accepted posthumously by his daughter Eliza) and Chris Pullman (2002). A ‘20:20’ session, refereed by Pullman and Michael Bierut in striped sports tops, allowed each of twenty contributors to make a one-minute presentation. Highlights included Drew Hodges’ ‘Paula Palooza’ (for Scher), Clive Piercey’s droll countdown, with an image for every second, Marcia Lausen’s typographic joke at the expense of Motorola and Nigel Holmes blaming ‘bad graphic design’ for the Florida vote outcome in the 2000 Presidential elections. Sponsor Fox River contributed a clever 1940s newsreel parody followed by a spoof congressional hearing about graphic design – shades of Mr Smith Goes To Washington – featuring Bierut and Dana Arnett.

Bierut noted that at AIGA conferences, the most interesting debates and conversations always took place away from the main stage, in coffee bars and corridors. The point was grabbed mischievously the following morning by Hockenberry, who gave a stern warning that anyone found having a conversation that was less interesting than those taking place on the stage would be thrown out. This came to mind later on, when I chanced upon a little exhibition entitled ‘Don’t Say You Didn’t Know’, tucked away on the lower ground floor behind the trade exhibitors. Its subject matter was both contemporary and incendiary: the plight of the Palestinian people, expressed through a series of simple, inkjet-printed colour posters. Designers who had contributed work included Roger Cook, Yossi Lemel, Rebecca Rapp and Dana Bartelt, the curator. When a delegate suggested that some of the posters were anti-Semitic, other passers-by were quickly drawn into a discussion about the exhibition’s right to exist under the AIGA aegis. (You can read some of the arguments surrounding this project on the AIGA Voice website, Bartelt is a New Orleans-based educator, whose interest was sparked when some Israeli friends invited her to see what was happening on the West Bank, and the posters – many of them based on a simple ‘big idea’ – tackled several aspects of the situation, from water supplies and death during childbirth to ideology and economic aid.

There were some parallels with this tiny show in the testimony of photographer James Natchwey, and in Alfredo Jaar’s untitled ‘Rwanda’ piece. Natchwey made the point that though ‘journalism is the first draft of history – with photography, the first draft is all you get.’ He showed many images of man-made grief from Bosnia, Romania, Rwanda, Afghanistan and of crime and punishment in the US. For his performance, Jaar screened a series of Newsweek front covers from 6 April to 1 August 1994, while reading out the bald facts of the Rwandan crisis of that time. By the time Newsweek put the story on its front cover, the death toll had reached more than one million people. Without a pause, Jaar played a Papa Wemba tape. He explained that the four minutes of music and darkness offered space and silence for mourning after the bald facts of the tragedy. ‘These one million deaths have not been mourned,’ he said.

Jaar, now living in New York, comes from Chile, where there is a tradition of referring to America as a continent. His piece A Logo for America was made as a Spectacolor display for Times Square in 1987. As a campaign to remind citizens that the word ‘America’ means much more than the United States, Jaar felt that it was perhaps too late, that it was impossible to change the way so many English-speaking people use the language. Nevertheless, the simplicity and eloquence of his piece made a forceful argument against insularity: the words ‘This is not America’ appear across a silhouette of the US; an image of the stars and stripes is captioned: ‘This is not America’s flag.’

Yet this was a national conference, and there were straightforward and memorable presentations from home-grown heroes such as Matt Groening, who explained why The Simpsons were yellow (they’re easy to spot while channel-surfing), Milton Glaser, Sylvia Harris and Dave Eggers, whose deadpan evidence of his untrained, ‘Mac hack’ background – a ‘Special Achievement’ certificate with coloured balloons – had everyone hooting with laughter. Books from Eggers’ collection – manuals, literary magazines and a series called ‘Rare books on avoided subjects’ – revealed the influences behind his McSweeney’s layouts. ‘I sense you have an affection for these books,’ said Hockenberry. Eggers replied that ‘books now are aloof – they take themselves too seriously.’

Milton Glaser’s talk, which earned him a standing ovation, was both funny and deadly serious. His set of rules for designers began with ‘Only work for people you like’ and progressed via ‘Less is not necessarily more’ and ‘Doubt is better than certainty’ to ‘Tell the truth’. Another list, handed out to delegates, was a twelve-point questionnaire (previously published in the AIGA Journal) that delineated the designer’s ‘road to hell’, starting with: ‘1. Would you design a package to look bigger on the shelf?’ and moving all the way up to ‘12. Would you design an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death?’

Sylvia Harris had tackled the challenge of following Nachtwey’s presentation by walking on stage singing modified Bacharach & David: ‘What the world needs now, is design, sweet design / not just for the few but for everyone . . .‘ Harris listed five projects in need of good design. ‘Don’t wait for the phone to ring . . . You gotta go out there and get the work in the public realm.’ She gave an example in the work of Chicago AIGA members Bob Zeni and Marcia Lausen in dealing with a local ‘butterfly ballot’ question. ‘They volunteered . . . and made simple, simple changes . . . they looked for democracy in the details.’ Her arguments echoed a ‘not-so-far-fetched’ concept advocated by Samina Quraeshi: ‘the citizen- designer’. Brenda Laurel lamented that we’ve helped make consumers rather than citizens: ‘Consumerism is killing the planet.’ She wants to ‘find ways for every kid and adult to know the unauthorised biography of everything they buy,’ calling for ‘brand strategies that don’t diminish people.’

Apart from the ‘virtuous stuff’, there was plenty of ‘cool stuff’, such as Golan Levin’s feast of laptop sound and vision – abstract, ‘difficult’ work that was effortlessly communicative and entertaining – and Jeremijenko’s multi-disciplinary fine art projects, tackling everything from clones to colour-coded car parking. Both revealed careful thought, humour and a twenty-first century attitude to new technology. Shawn Wolfe’s portfolio presentation – from his Negativland covers to useless ‘products’ such as his Installer/Remover – was full of ideas and energy.

Several speakers urged us to think outside the normal boxes of design practice. Sagmeister demonstrated an argument behind the ‘Move Our Money’ campaign – which aims to cut 15 per cent of Pentagon spending and redirect it to healthcare and education – by pouring ‘bebes’ (ball bearings) into a plastic bucket, showing the amount of atomic weapons (150,000) maintained by the US. Each little ball represented a vast amount of destructive power. The noise seemed to go on for ever.

Yet no-one was ready to provoke direct action more than Sylvia Harris: ‘Pick up the phone,’ she urged, ‘and volunteer to go downtown and show them what design can do . . . you know that it’s your civic duty, and you might get a job, and you never know, you might do some good.’ That’s not a bad message to take home from a design conference. As Milton Glaser put it: ‘Professionalism is not enough.’