Spring 1998

Fanfare for the common hack

Design theorists cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the everyday experience of the many.

For a few months last year, I had a rare perspective on contemporary design activity. By day, I worked freelance in a corporate art department. I was another anonymous designer among thousands worldwide churning out product – one of the mercenaries looked upon with disdain by the cultural elite of graphic design for their supposed indifference to aesthetic or cultural significance. In my own time, I laboured over a personal project to be published in an upcoming issue of Emigre. I was spanning the extremes of design experience. The situation forced me to consider the relationship between these worlds and confront my own ambitions. An added dimension was my being fresh from a graduate study of design writing, having recently published my first article. My daily experience made me constantly re-examine my conceptions of design literature as a whole: ‘What and who is criticism for? Who and what merits attention?’

Design writers usually have enviable titles: partner, principal, professor, owner, curator, director, editor. (When my Emigre project was published, the freelance job came to an end and I got one of those titles for myself.) These people are not punching MacClock, or filling in the timesheets. They have moved on from the humble jobs they once held down. Their writing reads like that of a small, intense group talking between themselves, analysing hair-splitting differences imperceptible to outsiders. The former (and more formal) radical now wants nothing more than establishment approval. ‘In Graphic Design: The Movie, David Carson is Paul Rand!’

But where are the down-in-the-trenches designers? Don’t they have any theories? At my former workplace, the popular design publications are available but go unread. They are kept as visual resources – something from which to lift ideas when the muse missed the meeting. Even if you are interested in reading, who has the time? Long, unrecompensed hours mark the job. Theory is limited to ‘how am I going to get this out on schedule?’ With time to read at a premium, writing is an unthinkable luxury. When staff designers finally get to go home, they hardly want more design.

Compared to what I read and think about, I wonder if such ‘trench work’ should be considered design at all. Everyone in my trench cared about their work and took classic design considerations seriously enough to get the work done on time and to expectations. But aesthetics do not predominate: deadlines, economics, technology and clients rule. Few – if any – writers on design have something to enhance this experience. It is not just the case of postmodern theory missing the mark: everyone and anyone’s conjecture have little application. If there is a guiding theory, it is a functional Modernism, established through inertia.

But what would an entrenched designer write about? To hear the voices of the anonymous majority, just scan the letters pages of magazines. It is not uncommon to encounter a reply to some thoughtful article bemoaning, for instance, the fading of good typography skills. ‘I agree with everything you say,’ the respondent will write, ‘but it fails to take into account my everyday reality.’ This is not a failure of will, knowledge, training, or appreciation. It’s the job.

Good design fails to happen because designers are rarely in charge of the workplace whose pressures determine how design is done. The commercial structure that brings design into being prevents it from reaching its imagined heights. Critics rarely address this reality head-on. Design writing often resembles malcontents discussing utopia after the revolution comes. Instead, critics debate formal minutiae and accuse people of educational, intellectual, aesthetic or moral failures. The writing may not be meaningless but it often lacks a crucial relevancy. The fellow readers are uncommon readers – other writers – not the people doing the work. Yet everyday designers are everyday readers. They are one and the same! Surely these should be the people expounding on issues that affect the average designer?

Design writing can be grouped into three broad categories: management, showcase, and escapist. Management (as in crisis) writing is represented in HOW, Critique, Step-by-Step Graphics, and the like. This style focuses on the practical aspects of producing design. The workplace as it is currently constituted was how it has been and ever shall be, amen. No help here fighting the powers that be.

‘Showcase’ publications such as Graphis, Communication Arts, I.D. and Print feature practitioners who have risen above anonymity – at least temporarily. The premise is that exemplary work will improve your situation and maybe everyone’s: more sales for the client, more work for you. The world may stay the same but you’ll be on top of it, design-wise. Finally, escapist literature – as found in Eye, Emigre and Design Issues – is for those seeking a passage out of the workaday world: alternatives in theory or practice. The majority experience is one from which to flee or study safely at a distance.

The increased blending of the three categories in many magazines does indicate a desire to connect the strategists, the tacticians and the soldiers. But design writing lacks a dedicated transformational literature, advocating change in the socio-economic structure of design activity. This writing would link design with other occupations in a greater struggle for workplace equity. Rather than seeking respect by isolating design from other activities – claiming it as something special – this writing would explore the work of the common designer.

The lack of regard for design echoes the business world’s contempt for most non-management occupations. Denise Gonzales Crisp’s ‘Ways of Looking Closer’ (Emigre #35, 1995) details the overwhelming influence of the client and capitalism in a critique of the Looking Closer anthology. Crisp exposes how this landmark collection of writing fails to address design’s most pressing determinant. Milton Glaser’s ‘Design and Business: The War Is Over’ (AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1995) advocates a ‘new narrative for our work . . . a new sense of community’ to counter the crushing effects of ‘entrepreneurial capitalism.’ Both articles point out the impossibility of improving design activity without confronting the politics of the workplace.

Design has borrowed from art history an unhealthy obsession with ‘great masters’ – individuals more rightly considered aberrations than ideals. Graphic design acknowledges its subjective selection process and hero-worship but hardly acts to change. Brody and Blackwell’s G1: Subj: contemp. design, graphic (see ‘The endless library at the end of print’, pp38-47) nods toward the inequity of anthologies: its list of ‘Possible reasons for inclusion’ begins with ‘Accident’ and ends with ‘Your work was seen by somebody who knows somebody who worked on the book’. The final reason for non-inclusion is ‘Fame/notoriety’. However, all the named and included designers have status in the field. To supposedly put all work on the same level playing field, names of designers are placed in the back of the book.

‘Vernaculars’ have their artefacts reproduced but are kept anonymous. The fascination with ‘vernacular design’ does not extend to wanting to work in that world: it is somewhere from which to harvest inspiration. The labour of thousands of designers is treated as a natural resource – free for the borrowing. When design attempts to celebrate the vernacular, it resembles (and often refers to) the patronising, ghetto-like fine-art construction of ‘outsider art.’

Social histories, which focus upon the activity and artefacts of ‘common’ people and ‘outsider’ groups (women, indigenous peoples, minorities) are frequently scorned by professional historians, who assert that only political history is worthy of serious attention. Design writing similarly abstracts and shuns the majority activity while claiming it as its concern. Critics dismiss personal experience – all those art-directors’ war-stories – as irrelevant and ignore all but a few theoreticians. Design, they claim, will improve if we emulate exemplary practitioners and/or assimilate arcane theories: eventually, these ideas will trickle down and transform the marketplace. This does happen, but only in formal aspects emptied of meaning and recycled as surface style. Though critics disparage this action, they are the ones who make it happen.

The consequence is that a narrow, specialised activity and its star activists are honoured while the majority is kept down. Gestures of inclusion inexorably lead to self-aggrandisement of an elite. A wilful blindness sets in, as does a theoretical distance. For instance, why isn’t Carolyn Davidson [the designer of the ubiquitous, all-powerful Nike ‘swoosh’] lionised? The logo is praised but not the designer. Rather than concentrating upon theory, we should give ambition more scrutiny. It always leads out of the vernacular realm.

‘The cream always rises’ is the functional cliché. Yet it is usually one of the current creamery operators doing the separating. The process and meaning of ‘rising’ is rarely questioned and if it is, it is in terms of formal excellence. Is it that the work is excellent or that the designer managed to get it printed or into the honour system? Every designer has examples of great ideas that didn’t fly.

Obviously, something else is at work. We live by a design-specific social Darwinism, where attaining positions of power counts as much as talent. If you do not parlay your product into a particular career, you’re (non) history. Who knows the talents that have been lost – and are currently overlooked – in this evaluation? I always allow generous space above and among the recognised leading lights because . . . you never know. The person one cubicle over may have been the next Brodovitch but for some choice: say, they didn’t want to study in Bloomfield Hills, live in New York, flog foreign fashion, start their own type foundry or work non-stop proclaiming their genius. To say we cannot help what we cannot know is an evasion. All design discussions are speculative. We all guess – about everything. An honest appraisal of the available options for (and the expectations of) designers is long overdue.

What steps might be taken to promote inclusion and an equitable workplace? First, rather than fearing and loathing all those desktop publishers, why not claim them? You are one of us. Wouldn’t this raise design’s stock in the portfolio of the average person? Could the public recognition so craved by designers be far behind? The next step might be for organisations such as the AIGA to reconstitute themselves as unions. Admittedly, overcoming their compromised image would be a challenging task of ‘brand re-launch’, but it might prove more successful in swelling the ranks with dedicated, committed designers of all stripe. The question is: will partners, principals, professors, owners, curators, directors, and editors stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the anonymous and fight for our rights? Are we really for good design for all – good lives for all – or for our own careers? Will we research and honour the names of the vernaculars as much as our own? Nobody achieves prominence in design without paying dues. The dues of staying close to the ground, dug into it, getting dirt ground in our ears. Design theorists, who have to pay their own dues, cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the everyday experience of the many.

First published in in Eye no. 27 vol. 7, 1998

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.