Spring 1997

Not waving but dancing

British graphic design, like art, pop and fashion, is on a high. But does it know where it is going – or why?

In a letter published [in Eye 24], a British designer, Peter Brawne, takes issue with what he believes to be the “determined anti-intellectualism” of contemporary culture and, by extension, of design culture. These days, he suggests, “it’s clever to be stupid.”

Such comments have become a familiar refrain in the 1990s. Across the board, in just about every area of our lives, cultural critics solemnly inform us, in one diatribe after another, that we are not only dumb already but getting dumber by the day. A recent collection of essays, Dumbing Down, finds this to be the case in education, arts and sciences, public and private life, and the media. Eye itself has registered concern, with Will Novosedlik’s essay “Dumb” (no. 22 vol. 6), in which design, “once an ally of verbal intelligence,” is arraigned for its obsession with the image and its reluctance to contribute to the growth of knowledge.

Jeremiads like this are so enjoyable, and make the reader feel so good for being on the side of the angels – we, at least, aren’t dumb – that it is easy to take them as fact. But how much truth do these doom-laden pronouncements contain? Does a clever-to-be-stupid ethos really prevail in graphic design today? The situation varies so much from country to country that there is no way to answer that question meaningfully at an international level. But it may be that a closer look at the British context that gave rise to Brawne’s remark – Eye’s own context – will produce some observations of wider relevance.

Eye was founded, in 1990, as a reaction against the prevailing tone and content of British graphic design journalism. It wasn’t that there was a lack of it – the country has an exceptional number of design magazines – but what there was tended in the main to be superficial. British design was booming and the journalism was a product of its time. It was good at reporting the latest thing but poor at establishing context and uncomfortable with ideas. Compared to the writing on graphic design of an earlier era – even in Britain – it lacked seriousness and a sense of real engagement with its subject. We believed there was a great deal more to say and that designers themselves were hungry for a higher level of debate.

The response we have received in Britain in the last seven years suggests that for many designers this was certainly the case, yet despite some real progress, in other crucial ways nothing much has changed. At an institutional level, our design organisations still pursue a public agenda that boils down to the unsurprising news that design can be good for your business – an important message, perhaps, but hardly the last word on the subject. The Design Council’s magazine Design, a source in the early 1980s of progressive design thinking, now addresses itself almost exclusively to the business community. It has disappeared from the newsstands and has nothing of much interest to say to graphic designers. Closer to home, the Designers & Art Directors Association has also failed to produce a regular publication of note.

However well they serve the profession in a promotional sense, what these organisations still don’t project is a convincing view of graphic design as a complex, meaningful, cultural activity. They aren’t “dumb” but nor do they show much sign of responding with genuine vision and leadership – with a remade agenda – to the enormous changes that graphic communication has undergone in the 1990s. Britain has nothing as focused, trenchant or stimulating in this respect as the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ AIGA Journal, a publication which, for ten years, under the editorship of Steven Heller, has been at the heart of American critical debate about the future of the profession. Perhaps if they haven’t already, the Design Council and the D&AD should take out subscriptions.

It may be that D&AD is hamstrung in any attempt at analysis of present conditions by its determination to represent the very different communities of advertising and graphic design. On the face of this marriage of convenience, forged in the 1960s, may seem to make increasing sense. Everyone knows that star-name graphic designers routinely work now for advertising. But if these practices really are collapsing into each other in the 1990s, or – to put it more accurately – if design, as the weaker profession of the two, is becoming in its most high-profile forms no more than the aesthetic tool of advertising, what long-term consequences does that have for the aims and ideology of design itself? In such a scenario, can “graphic design,” as profession, practice and body of thought, have a distinct and sustainable identity? Clearly there is much to be said about the matter, yet this is precisely the kind of self-searching and possibly disruptive question that Britain’s design organisations are unwilling, or constitutionally unable, to recognise, let alone address.

But our letter-writer’s complaint goes deeper than this. What he seems to suggest is that designers are part of, and therefore contributors to, the “dumbing down” of culture in the broadest sense. And British culture is changing fast. Our investigative report, “Mags out for the lads” (see page 46), details one of the areas in which social reforms not so long ago taken for granted as enlightened and necessary have been overturned in the space of two or three years by the gleeful, headlong “tabloidisation” of British media – in this case, of men’s magazines. Preparing such an article raises some interesting dilemmas which say a lot in themselves about social attitudes today. Do such representations of women really matter, or make any difference? Is anyone out there, including women, very bothered by them? Aren’t they just a bit of fun? Is it moralistic to criticise? And if there are the possible objections to the article, what tone should it adopt?

In a Western liberal democracy that takes pride in its tolerance, and regards any other point of view as hopelessly out of date, no one wants to be seen trying to impose their values on anyone else. But the ensuing reluctance to ask hard questions and the unsceptical willingness to accept current social reality as somehow “just the way things are” is an anti-intellectual position. These images, whatever else one might think of them, could be seen to constitute a very much larger imposition by the powerful vested interests that create and publish them. It is perfectly reasonable to ask why they are there, what they mean, and – the question cannot be avoided however awkward we find it – whether they are a good idea.

The extent to which the critical assumptions of Eye’s internationally minded British readers are shared by other British designers is a moot point. In many ways, British design, like Britain itself, prizes its insularity – its ability to resist incoming ideas, particularly American ones. The 1990s have witnessed a curious conjunction of cultural conservatism – epitomised by Britpop and the media desire to replay the “swinging” 1960s – and renewed self-belief. Design magazines regularly reassure their readers, on no particular authority, that London is the design capital of the world.

The theoretical ideas that emerged in American design schools in the 1980s fell on stony ground in Britain. Emigre’s smaller, more writerly format has few enthusiasts here among professionals. London has no equivalent of New York’s ultra-bookish design firm Design Writing Research, which has achieved a plausible synthesis of theory and practice (and employs a British designer). Deconstruction was toyed with as a style here in the early 1990s, though mainly in the design colleges, rather than in the world of work. It has now suffered the fate of all styles and is seen as passé. Deconstruction as a method of critical analysis, based on the study of demanding foreign theoretical texts, proved to be a non-starter. If anything, the suspicion of verbal language that has always been a feature of art-school culture has deepened in the last few years, as design students, like everyone else, become less experienced as readers and users of language. Fuse’s typographic abstractions, however well intentioned, gave further legitimacy to this view. Students repeatedly say they want to create projects that offer “experience” rather than information, commentary or critique. Language is seen as an untenable attempt to fix meaning (in this sense at least one tenet of Deconstruction has become received wisdom) and there is a reluctance on the part of many students to commit to anything as definite as a position.

An article by Cal Swann, published in the British-based Society of Typographic Designers’ TypoGraphic magazine (no. 49), has some intriguing reflections on these issues. Professor Swann’s breathtaking proposal is that, since graphic designers are obsessed with the gratifications of self-expression, the business of communication design should simply be removed from their hands. Henceforth, humanities would take care of the job. “The new communications graduate,” he writes, “must have a broad knowledge of communication theory, linguistics, semiotics and information technology, and have writing skills at the same level as the ‘graphic form’ we assume to be the knowledge/abilities base for graphic design students.” Swann’s awkward prose isn’t much of an ad for the degree of writing skill he demands, but the central idea, if not the solution, hits the nail on the head. It recognises the need (which this magazine endorses) for a firm understanding of a broad range of communications disciplines combined with developed powers of written expression. Graphic design education, as it is presently organised here, seems a long way from achieving such heights.

But let’s take an optimistic view. British graphic design isn’t so much dumb at this point as complacent and rather directionless. Deconstruction’s perhaps inevitable failure to take hold as a theoretical framework for a new graphic design has left a void. Some fill it with the solipsistic gospel of self-expression: some return to worthy conventional aims. Neither seems a sufficiently daring, imaginative or probing response to what everyone agrees is an era of extraordinary – unprecedented! – technological, cultural and educational change. What we need now, if we are to embrace these possibilities, is more thinking, more questions, more critical rigour, more design innovation, more flights into the unknown. Nothing less.

On a personal note, it is with a keen sense of regret that I have to announce that this is my last issue as editor of Eye. I am moving on to explore my interest in design and the visual arts in other areas and projects. Launching Eye, nursing it through a couple of difficult early years and seeing it thrive under a new publisher has been an enormously rewarding experience. I would like to thank all our readers, all over the world, who have given us so much support, the writers and contributing editors whose efforts consistently went beyond – way beyond – the call of duty and, above all, my colleagues Vicky Wilson and Stephen Coates, without whom it would never have been possible.

First published in Eye no. 24 vol. 6, 1997