Summer 1998

Rescue meaning

To communicate more than mere messages for a client, designers must adopt an editorial point of view

The metaphors used to describe today’s supply of information through diverse media are alarming: Bombardment, Avalanche, Overload, Deluge. If these are the terms with which the information society characterises its very core, then we must live in dangerous times. And information-stress is a certified disease among modern managers, the millennium-bug threatens to become a plague of Biblical proportions and even the most dedicated digerati get sick from the overdose of cookies and spam they are forced to swallow on the Web. So much for “Virtual Reality” – it is real, and it can be nasty.

What do designers have to do with all of this? Very little, I am afraid, because they do not control the sources of the flood. And very much, because they could help build bridges across it. It is of course a complaint as old as the discipline – that, when one looks at the generality of communication products, designers seem to be more concerned with providing cheap “eye candy” than organising content in meaningful ways. But in a world where the visual consistency of the cultural environment is as challenged as in ours, the focus on superficial aesthetics is becoming a hazard. Design serves the difference, aims at making things look different, even – or especially – if they are basically the same. More and more, the term “designer” is becoming associated with the most eye-catching, but in essence also the most ephemeral aspect of the trade: style. But what is the relationship between “style” and the content it is decorating? Or has the decoration become the content?

The 1990s have seen an intensification of research into what visual languages can communicate, or at least show. For a long time, serious designers have focused on the complexities within messages, and on how to deconstruct and reassemble these in terms of structural, formal and artistic qualities. This can culminate in very thoughtful and beautiful products, but – as those who tried to “do” the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum in one day know – an amassing of works of individually high quality does not necessarily result in a meaningful experience. Often it is the guidance that counts more than the availability of data. But how can designers be guides, if what they are doing is at best concentrating on the structural and stylistic clarity of a message as a thing in itself, unrelated to other things?

The organisation and integration of links to meaningful contexts outside the product seems to me to be the next step. One circumstance that makes us talk in terms of “avalanche” and “bombardment” is that the public eye perceives the bulk of “information” aimed at them as a solid mass. Although all these messages that are channelled through an ever-expanding array of media may desperately try to look different, they are often experienced as belonging to the numbing monotonous drone that accompanies the barrage. In a media-saturated environment such as this, undifferentiated information, by sheer mass, threatens to outweigh meaning. The responsibilities of a graphic designer in times of information overload gravitate more and more towards the rescuing of what is – or can be – culturally meaningful in public and commercial communication. A responsible way of safeguarding the message against the pull of the data-swamp is to have it act as an “agent” that links together cultural contexts and individual contents.

In order to see what this means in practical terms for designers, we have to come back to the much-debated theme of the designer as editor. What an editor of a magazine (or a newspaper or a TV show) does is to find ways to connect the disparate messages he or she is presenting. The easy (or lazy) way to do that is to pour them into the melting pot of what is called the “format” – in graphic design terms this would be the “style”. A more responsible way would be to find what could be called “links”, themes and associations that will connect a great diversity of contents and references in a meaningful manner, much like Dickens’ “links of association”, that are such a guiding concept in Steven Johnson’s book Interface Culture.

Now who will decide what is meaningful or not? This is where, in my view, the role of the designer changes most profoundly. He or she has to find additional content that will (if done well) undoubtedly affect the content and meaning of the message. The designer becomes an editor – and in some aspects, Editor In Chief – of the communication product.

Adding content to a message, in order to link it to a wider field of cultural references, is not in itself new, as is evident from the company brochures and books that for instance Dick Elffers made in the 1950s. But as a design strategy, it is becoming increasingly topical. To “rescue meaning” from the crushing weight of data-avalanche means that one has to communicate more than mere messages. Oliviero Toscani’s and Tibor Kalman’s work for Benetton and Colors magazine suggests a direction. The fact that they have both been heavily criticised for “appropriating” cultural and social contexts for the benefit of commercial public relations also indicates the risks involved in broadening the scope of references in what used to be highly self-contained fields of communication.

Linking a design to the rest of the world of messages and images requires an editorial point of view. In a sense, designers use their commissions to convey a vision of their own, an interpretation that may go well beyond the message they are supposed to serve. This may look rather parasitic, and it can lead to self-indulgent statements by designers who care more about their own agendas than those of their clients. But it can also result in a more symbiotic relationship between the message and the added content that in a sense feeds off it. It may feed back in rather nourishing ways.

In an applied art, which graphic design still is, the traditional notions of organising and enhancing a client’s content still apply – after all, it is the client who pays the bills. But there are more ways to enhance a message than make it look different from other messages. You can also show the things that are related.

“We have a confused relation to the cool, cyber, digital universe – as if it wasn’t actually a real thing within the day-to-day physical world. The contradictions of this hit me every time I trip over the broken paving stones and lumpy trails of tarmac Cable London leave in their wake.” Judith Williamson

“The logotypical codes placed at the service of public institutions and cities do not create social relations… they do not create difference, but indifference.” Gerard Paris-Clavel

“Since the collection is so large, it is the responsibility of the curators to subdivide it into smaller units which may follow the urban structure - streets, avenues, blocks, buildings, spaces - or inscribe other systems of organisation within the cityscape.” Michael Rock & Susan Sellers on their Museum of the Ordinary

“The first rule of marketing is differentiation. The identity enters the public consciousness as an empty vessel into which people pour their emotional responses and associations.” Russ Meyer, Landor

“Where Dickens’ narrative links stitched together the torn fabric of industrial society, today’s hypertext links attempt the same with information.” Steven Johnson

“As a graphic designer you are putting things into a context that can bring it to new heights. You can make some of the stupidest things look like they’re glorious – kind of what religion did for God, I guess.” David Karam of Post Tool

“While Colors was in many ways a celebration of a common humanity shared by young people around the world, it was also criticised during Kalman’s tenure for overlooking many of the complexities of cultural identity.” Victor Margolin

“In my television programmes I try to show more than the simple facts. Facts are never simple. They need to be interpreted in order to show that. And of course the interpretation is subjective, what else could it be?” Rob Schröder

As this issue of Eye went to press, Wired Ventures announced the sale of the magazine to Si Newhouse’s Conde Nast. “Si Newhouse invested early in Wired and has been with us ever since. When we created Wired nearly six years ago, we had no idea that it would ever go this far, this fast. But as technology continues to change the way we all work and live, our audience keeps growing. And Condé Nast will be a great partner to help us keep pace with that growth. We plan to stick around for a long time to come (this magazine business is addictive).”

John Plunkett, Creative Director and co-founder of Wired

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.