Summer 1993

Whatever became of the content?

Much new design is over-complex and confusing. An alternative current, sharing many of the same assumptions, aims for clarity

While the dense, layered work of the last few years continues to represent an energetic current in recent design, there are signs that a calmer approach may soon become more common. This tendency has been evident for a while, but because its manifestations are less extrovert and less obviously ‘experimental’, it has received less attention than more extreme approaches. It should be noted at once that this new work does not represent a throwback to some earlier way of designing. It is not revivalist, though it has its precursors. In fact, it is nourished by many of the same influences as more complex postmodern work. The fundamental difference lies in the nature of the designers’ conclusions.

The most intelligent examples of this new work put the emphasis firmly back on content. So, in theory, did the work produced at CalArts, Cranbrook Academy of Art and other forcing houses of the new deconstructivist design. But the results, even to the interested outsider, never mind the sceptic, were forbiddingly complex. As a number of critics have pointed out, including Mike Mills in this column last issue, without a similar educational background to the designers and the same exposure to post-structuralist theory, it is doubtful that even the most insightful of viewers would be able to negotiate these image-texts in the way that the theory describes.

In contrast, the new design works by narrowing the viewer’s options. It may indeed be susceptible to alternative ‘readings’, but fewer of them. Quite possibly it encourages alternative ways of reading – it is not necessarily ‘linear’ – but not at the expense of a coherent communication. It is old-fashioned and quite un-post-modern in the sense that it believes that it is possible to transmit intelligible meaning, even when the topic itself is difficult or for that matter post-modern, and that is the designer’s job to make the message as clear as it can be. Where this design finds itself in agreement with post-Cranbrook work and the wider cultural context is in its reliance on the image as an essential component of the message. A highly effective example is the Artificial Nature catalogue designed by Dan Friedman for the Deste Foundation, Athens, in 1990. The core of the catalogue is an essay by the exhibition’s curator, Jeffrey Deitch. Friedman uses a brush script and red ink to highlight significant phrases from the large-print essay: ‘Genuine nature may now be more artificial than natural’… ‘Could it happen that the next generation will be our last generation of real humans?’ Dotted between these phrases, keywords read as white out of black bars: ‘genetic engineering’ … ‘ worldwide suburbia’… ‘chemically induced high.’

We have already been given two ways of absorbing the exhibition’s main arguments: linear reading or associative scanning (and it should be stressed that Friedman’s highlighting in no way impedes the flow). The third approach lies in the full-page pictures with which he brackets the essay. These offer lurid glimpses of the new artificiality: beauty treatments, back projection, film sets, open-heart surgery, photo-retouching, virtual reality headsets. Here the keywords and phrases return as floating captions. ‘Worldwide suburbia’ is used to link images of a golf course, a leafy suburban street and a ‘Ralph Lauren Country’ advertisement. ‘Genuine nature may now be more artificial than natural’ is stamped across the waterfall. By this point – the book’s penultimate image – genuine nature looks as hollow as a stage set.

The brilliance of the picture research gives Artificial Nature a sense of queasy revelation. The relentless, plasticised artificiality of the images and the irony of the captions combine to query the moral neutrality of the deadpan main text, prompting the thoughts: is it really this bad and where do I stand on this issue? And there is a final irony entirely consistent with the exhibition’s message: the catalogue is not so much a record of the show as a meticulously conceived substitute for it – an artificial experience which is just ass good, perhaps even better, than the real thing.

The point about work like this is that is would make no sense for the designer to try to bluff or browbeat the reader. Displays of superficially impressive styling would only detract from the impact of the argument. The design of Artificial Nature might be obtrusive by the standards of conventional book typography – it has to be to function – but compared to the complex and would-be meaningful manipulations of the deconstructivists it is modest. Far more critical to the effect is the care with which the material is structured; the designer knows that the ideas and pictures are so compelling in their own right that they need little dressing up.

It is an approach that can work just as well in mainstream publications as in the margins of the art world. The fourth issue of Benetton’s self-styled ‘magazine about the rest of the world,’ Colors, deals with the subject of racism. It opens with a montage of violent racial incidents and the words: ‘These pictures are our way of showing the problem quickly and bluntly.’ This, in essence, is the Colors credo: the magazine is published in five bilingual editions and points are made visually with unflinching directness and the bare minimum of text. One article establishes the universal presence of racist abuse in a tabular spread of multicultural faces and insults: ‘savage’, ‘slit-eyes’, ‘lowlife’, ‘raghead.’ Another uses the ear as the basis for a discussion of the physical properties of different skin colourings. Once again, detailed research provides the structural basis of the design.

In the long run conceptually-based projects such as these may provide a far more valuable example to designers than the wilder outgrowths of recent graphics. We have been through a long learning period with the Macintosh in which the emphasis has fallen on formal experimentation at the expense of content and meaning. There are signs now in the Netherlands, US and UK that design students, teachers and young professionals are reacting against these excesses.

At Yale, Dan Friedman gives students back-to-basics exercises in which a given phrase must be matched against three different pictures to expose alternative meanings. Fuel, a magazine edited by students at the Royal College of Art, sets hard-hitting black and white photography against brutally lucid texts. Dutch designers cite the photographic children’s books of Dick Bruna as embodying an important truth about the need for designers to make their meanings plain. Even Cranbrook appears to be in retreat. Recent work from the academy is much more direct, personal and emotionally raw.

These projects, like Artificial Nature and Colors, strive to achieve an equal working partnership of image and word. Of course, deconstructivist design too is ostensibly about the interplay and mechanics of verbal and visual language. In its less thoughtful versions, though, the linguistic content of the design, however slender, becomes little more than an excuse for aimless typographic doodling.

There is an analogy to be made here with cinema. In an era of astonishing special effects, it is easy for film-makers to overlook the important of the writing and storyline, or to use technical gimmicks as compensation for a lack of real substance in the script. Recent design shows the same ultimately self-defeating reliance on sensational effects; but the mood appears to be changing. In the end it could mean the difference between messages that matter to the reader and messages that don’t.

Rick Poynor, Eye editor, London

First published in Eye no. 9 vol. 3, 1993

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published 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.