Autumn 2004

A glimpse of graphic hell

Whatever ideological stance they take, designers must at least believe in design

Sitting on a London bus the other day – one of the city’s new buses, comfortable and frequent – I gazed out of the window. As the bus idled at a busy junction, I saw, framed in the window, an almost uninterrupted display of graphic design: posters, signage, banners, streamers, flags, fascias and printed canopies. Even the bus window was covered in transparent stickers, so my view was filtered through a layer of reversed letterforms. I was in a blizzard of graphic design; the messages were shrieky, the colours garish, the impression hellish.

My glimpse of graphic hell made me realise that I wasn’t just looking at bad graphic design, but something much worse. It has become increasingly clear that graphic designers are losing faith in graphic design. This is odd because I’ve never met a graphic designer who didn’t care about how graphic design ‘looked’. There’s something in the DNA of the designer, some molecular impetus that means they can’t help but care. Nor have I ever met a designer who wasn’t offended when his or her work was changed by an unthinking client. Yet here was the output of designers who didn’t give a hoot. Has there has been some malfunction in the designer gene?

My gloom deepened after completing a series of interviews with some well known, radically inclined designers for a book I’m writing. My interviewees talked of metaphorical doors closing: of contraction, retreat and an unwillingness to fight the fight. These are mostly designers who came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, and the sense of opportunity and excitement that surrounded them then appears now to have evaporated. Although, paradoxically, the appetite for and interest in design among young designers and even non-professionals, appears to have increased.

Of course, designers are great grumblers – a sign perhaps of design’s uncertain status within society. But you can’t help feeling that there is some justification for this disgruntlement: the role and function of the graphic designer is under scrutiny as never before and powerful forces are clamouring to tell the designer what he or she should, and should not, be doing. Nothing wrong with a bit of critical scrutiny, you might say: in the new techno always-on world of real-time, change and perpetual reinvention, those who are resistant to constant appraisal, will die. But, among graphic practitioners, all this scrutiny and questioning is contributing to an inertia that makes it difficult to function coherently and with integrity, and it is causing the craft of design to buckle and distort like a leaf left in the sun.

Marketplace brutalism
The most powerful of these clamouring voices is the marketplace. The big design groups, with their global footprints, realised some time ago that offering mere ‘design’ was not enough: corporations, institutions, events, government departments, even cities, wanted ‘branding’. This had the cumulative effect of pushing design down the pecking order: it became subservient to the process of ‘brand engineering’, and joined printing and distribution as just another technical delivery system. WPP, the conglomerate that owns numerous advertising agencies, marketing consultancies and design groups (including The Partners, Landor and Enterprise IG), doesn’t even include the word ‘design’ in the list of services it offers at the beginning of its latest annual report. Significantly, the ‘D’ word is barely visible in WPP communications. How does it feel, I wonder, to be a graphic designer in a WPP-owned company?

The new managing director of Nestlé Rowntree UK caused a stink recently when he was asked by the British advertising journal Campaign what he thought about Nestlé advertising: ‘I don't like any of the ads …’ he said; ‘they are focused on awards, not on selling more product to more people at higher prices.’ This marketplace brutalism (and its concomitant mistrust of creative practitioners) is common enough, and I’ve encountered similar thinking in clients far less mighty than Nestlé Rowntree. But what does the designer do when faced with such crassness? For the elite of the design world – the able and the super-talented – the answer is simple; they move away and find work in more congenial surroundings. But for the less able, the less confident, the less articulate, the answer is not so easy.

For many rank and file designers, a possible solution was offered by the rise, in recent years, of design theory and of a lively design discourse. This refreshing willingness to study and debate the cultural and artistic issues relating to being a designer offered the hope that designers could stake out their intellectual and cultural territory. The discourse appears at its liveliest in the US, where the blogs groan under the weight of opinion, counter-opinion, praise and complaint. Rudy VanderLans’ Emigre is now a book-format collection of essays – image free – by designers and academics (in Steven Heller’s phrase ‘a journal of critical commentary’). But as Norman Potter notes in his book What is a Designer: ‘Designers who earn a living by design, seldom have the time to read many books … Thus the main burden falls upon critics and design theorists, who read each others books most assiduously.’ It is hard to find evidence that all this critical effusion is filtering through to the ‘trenches’, to use Kenneth Fitzgerald’s phrase, coined in his memorable essay, ‘Fanfare for the common hack’ (Eye no. 27 vol. 7). And even when it does filter through, it often increases confusion and uncertainty.

Take the frequently voiced argument that designers should concentrate on socially useful work. The blogs fizz with talk about the merits of designers working for ‘not-for-profit organisations’. Very laudable, and there’s no doubt that designers should, wherever possible, use their skills for social good. But supplying design to public-welfare bodies such as the National Health Service in the UK – of which I have direct experience – can be an unexpectedly dispiriting experience. Designers working for the NHS are constantly reminded that every penny spent on signage or smart-looking literature is money diverted from patient care. For health service accountants, government spending-review boards and sniping commentators in the national press, design equates to profligacy. This equation of design with extravagance (a rather British notion, it has to be admitted) applies to many other public-sector design projects, and as a result, designers who do socially useful work may find it hard to remain solvent, and paradoxically, may end up contributing less to the nation’s welfare than those design groups who do lucrative work for big corporations, pay hefty annual tax bills and provide employment to large numbers of people.

I’m not advocating abandoning theory: quite the opposite, we need more. My own professional life as a self-taught graphic designer and, until recently, as creative director of a medium-sized (25-strong) design company, has been radicalised (to use a good 1960s term) by my engagement with theory. I agree with the definition of theory proffered by the American designer and academic David Cabianca, expressed in an interview with Rudy VanderLans in Emigre no. 66: ‘By theory I am referring to something very specific: at its best, theory is a way of thinking about the world. But it doesn’t guarantee any outcome. For instance, there may not be a practical application for thinking about an idea in a particular way, but it may foster a sense of curiosity about the world.’

But if it is to help deal with the problems typified by the man from Nestlé Rowntree, and the loss of faith among designers, then theory is going to have to extend its reach. It is going to have to use a language and a tone that reaches into the ‘trenches’, and it is going to have to go and find its audience and not wait for the audience to find theory. Theorists must also come to terms with, and be less scornful of, the non-verbal nature of designer’s intelligence. Designers have visual intelligence (sometimes called spatial intelligence) and it is not the same as verbal or linguistic intelligence – some of course, have both. The designer’s ability to arrange information in a manner that is both aesthetically resonant and effective as communication, is a skill every bit as worthy as the writer who assembles a complex argument with clarity and precision. I also think that theorists (who are often designers, too) need to dispel the suspicion that they have adopted theory because it is easier than ‘doing’ design in the era of the man from Nestlé Rowntree. Rudy VanderLans notes that ‘… right now, I find more interest in design discussion than design itself.’

The plight of working designers is not helped by the increasingly narcissistic design scene itself. The magazines, the books, the conferences, the seminars, the awards ceremonies, all contribute to a distorted view of design and designers. Design now has its own celebrity culture, and like celebrities from any other arena, design-celebs project a vision of effortless success and sweat-free existence. In this sanitised view of design we are denied the ‘back story’ - the messy stuff that goes with being a designer: the rejected work, the wrangling over fees, the myriad disappointments that are inevitable in the life of a professional designer. As Saul Bass noted in a 1989 interview, gazing uncritically at beautiful work can have a harmful effect on young, impressionable designers: ‘They are not privy to process. They may have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer. This is a very unsettling perception for young people, because they struggle with their work. They have a go at it … They redo … It gets better … It slips … It gets worse … it comes back … It comes together. And maybe it’s something that’s pretty good, even excellent. But they say to themselves, ‘Gee, it comes hard and it’s so difficult. Am I really suited for this?’

Avoiding discouragement
The only ‘superstar’ designer who appears willing to tell it like it is, is Stefan Sagmeister. In his book Made You Look (reviewed in Eye no. 41 vol. 11), he lists the fees for all his work, shows his failures alongside his successes, and in a witty photo-cartoon reveals the way clients interfere with even the work of star designers. This degree of candour and soul-bearing is unusual in design. Some will dismiss it as mere attention seeking, but in my view, Sagmeister is offering a much-needed antidote to the uncritical celebrity-designer hagiography which has become the industry norm.

If designers are to resist the grind-down effect of the marketplace, if they are to benefit from the theory and discourse that surrounds design, and if they are to avoid being discouraged by the celebrity culture of design, then they must start by believing in design. Whatever they believe in, whatever ideological stance they take, designers must at least believe in design. It’s a bad moment to lose faith: if designers don’t believe in their craft it will be swept away by an uncaring marketplace and replaced by focus-group led branding, and no amount of theoretical fireworks – or awards ceremonies – will save it.

First published in Eye no. 53 vol. 14 2004

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