Winter 2004

Surfing or special effects? Design Inquiry

Summer masterclasses devoted to developing design basics are popular, but limited: after running a summer institute at Maine College of Art for ten years with luminaries such as Wolfgang Weingart and Melle Hammer, programme director Margo Halverson decided to change the rules. Instead of one instructor coaching a class full of students, Halverson invited twelve instructors and about 30 students to participate in a five-day ‘working symposium’ of workshops and discussions. The symposium topic was ‘Truth and Message’, with workshops led by Elliott Earls, Melle Hammer, Jessica Helfand, William Drenttel, Nancy Skolos and Lorraine Wild, as well as sessions led by a philosopher, a psychiatrist and an acting coach. The idea was to break down the teacher-student hierarchy and foster the ‘moments of inspiration’ that take place at design conferences – not in the auditorium, but in the hallways and bars. A few Maine moments of inspiration are recorded here:

Day One
1.1 My fears for this symposium: that teachers tend to use a bag of routines, crafted over time, like rote passages in jazz solos, to claim air space and assert authority. At what point are we discouraging students from speaking and how much are we compartmentalising?

1.2 At some point on day two of the Design Inquiry, the energy we put into staking out positions was overtaken by a spirit of making. Designers, after all, are artisans, empowered by the evidence of their craftsmanship. Once the walls started filling up with work, things started cooking.

1.3 Crescent Beach, like Nancy Skolos’s collage and wine party, was a balm for weary brains. Sunbathers and paddlers, icy June water. Trying to capture the sweeping arc of the bay, the tree-lined island and the gangly legs and sun-polished shoulders in one photograph. It is, like translation, an impossible task. My film is black and white, and the experience will be reduced; no sand between my toes, no scratchy throat, no mobile phone call to New York. But perhaps a hint that these little epiphanies are never anticipated.

1.4 Truth is constructed. But that doesn’t mean that we have to dispense with the entire practice of evaluating an argument according to the strength of its evidence. In an article in Harper’s magazine, April 2004, Bruno Latour discusses the problems of ‘critique’, or theory, particularly its inability to provide an account of the things we love. He notes that right-wing strategists use ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ to cloud the public’s understanding of global warming. The evidence supporting global warming is pretty incontrovertible, yet, as Latour notes, ‘kids learn that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint.’ He adds that ‘dangerous extremists are using the very same arguments to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.’

1.5 The other problem with theory or critique in design schools has been its ineffectiveness in providing a solid footing from which to proceed and make things. To create anything of value, you have to first make a leap of faith; choose your religion, as it were.

Day two
2.1 In the past eight years, (since Michael Rock’s ‘The Designer as Author’ Eye no. 20 vol. 5) various models have been proposed for graphic designers: as directors / auteurs, journalists, producers, and now, at this conference, designer as special effects artist? Why are designers so interested in adopting different guises and role models?

2.2 In ‘The Macrame of Resistance’ (Emigre no. 47, 1998) Lorraine Wild identified a source of the designer’s identity crisis: technology. These were also the early heady days of the new media boom, which carried the threat of the designer’s extinction, or irrelevance. Wild wrote: ‘Digital technology has driven production back in to the office, requiring constant attention. Design practice today requires the intellectual power of a think tank and the turn-around capacity of a quickie printer . . . Designers involved in new media projects often find themselves caught in team production based on the entertainment industry paradigm, where authorship is granted to the director, the producers, maybe the screenwriters, but typically not the people who create the visual nature of the product . . . Teams don’t seem to need the hand of a design director.’

2.3 Where once designers had the keys to the creative kingdom, were schooled in the ‘rules’ of the craft and spoke an esoteric language known only to typesetters and printers, they now had the inglorious honour of having their skills automated and sold in packages in computer stores. Digital technology has forced us to rethink design practice.

2.4 Five years after Wild’s essay, Ellen Lupton identified a positive effect of digital technology on design practice. The same digital tools that threatened to put the trained designer out of a job had enabled the designer to become a producer, with his or her hands on the means of production.

In ‘The Producers’ (Inside Design Now, Princeton Architectural Press, 2003), Lupton cited the critic Walter Benjamin, who argued in 1934 that new forms of communication, such as newspapers, had the potential to break down the borders between reading and writing. But for any form of communication to be truly revolutionary, it could not be owned by capital; the journalists, photographers, designers, printers and the whole ring of production had to own the means of production. Without that, the well meaning journalist could only find a place beside the cause of the proletariat, the place of ‘a benefactor, or an ideological patron – an impossible place’, argued Benjamin. (‘The Author as Producer’ in Reflections, Schocken Books, 1986.)

2.5 Today, with digital production tools and the Internet as a distribution system, designers, writers and photographers can own the means of production. When before could we reach millions of readers with a few taps and clicks? And when did the idea of authorship become so widely shared between people as on a blog? Publishing, in this sense, has become less about creating content than about creating the conditions under which content can proliferate.

2.6 Radical talk today is less of overthrowing the system than of ‘resisting’ or ‘jamming’ it – a kind of temporary state that in contrast to Benjamin’s Marxist language seems lily-livered.

Yet in this age, when grand narratives of how the world works have been replaced by strategies for how to function in it, resisting and jamming are quite natural: they suggest the idea of a pause, a crack in the machinery in which we can generate space for movement.

Day three
3.1 Participants in the evening pick-up soccer game, in Deering Oaks Park, included a bunch of tall, skinny and quick Somalians, some sluggish, skilful Latino players and bulldozer-like American and British players. Pick-up soccer is like a temporary collaborative project where all class and racial divides become irrelevant. What matters is not who you are or where you’re from, but how well you play.

As Wild noted back in 1996, the designer is increasingly called upon to work as a team member, with programmers, anthropologists, industrial designers, writers, photographers, sociologists, etc. Since few of us can write code (despite John Maeda’s best efforts) it’s up to us to talk to programmers. IDEO, the giant product design firm in Palo Alto, likes to hire people who are ‘T’ shaped; the upright figure represents the solid engineering / design background and the outstretched arms represent the collaborative, team-based skills. Architect Tom Wiscombe’s statement from the ArchiLAB Conference in 2001 suggested that, in a network society, ‘survival is not dependent on prowess or fitness in the Darwinian sense, but rather on the ability to negotiate and synergise with other bodies and forces.’

3.2 Design is increasingly about collaboration, and less and less about thrusting individual works of genius down from the clouds. But the author idea is not quite dead. In his seminal essay ‘Death of the Author’, Roland Barthes was attacking not creative authorship, but the idea that the meaning of a work was fixed by the author: ‘We now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of an Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.’ (Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, Fontana, 1977.) As Jonathan Culler noted, Barthes was an idiosyncratic author, whose work was all about ‘personal style and vision.’

3.3 Graphic design is a fast-growing activity. Everyone wants to be a designer. Why lament the fact that there are more design students than there are jobs? Why not ask why everyone wants to be a graphic designer? Design’s popularity must be something to do with the fact that it presents a new kind of authorship that tacitly acknowledges the cutting and pasting, borrowing, splicing and inter-disciplinary sampling inherent in all authorship.

3.4 I sat next to Rick Valicenti during Nancy Skolos’s collage and wine workshop. The table was full of thousands of geometric shapes cut from Domus magazine, glue and blades. In the time I’d struggled to hamfistedly glue down five shapes on a wrinkled piece of paper, Valicenti had produced half a dozen immaculate compositions, skilled, suggestive and identifiably his. No single element in his pages was original; everything he had was available to everyone else, but pervasive in his six compositions was a personal style and evidence of the experienced hand of an artisan.

3.5 In ‘The Macramé of Resistance’, Wild called for a re-validation of the designer’s tacit knowledge – the counterpart to theoretical knowledge. When we say a designer ‘has an eye’, we are referring to his or her know-how.

I think this is what Doug Scott was referring to here on Monday to when he mentioned Fellini abandoning technique in order to work intuitively.

3.6 At the 2003 Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial, the walls were crawling with evidence of the designer as newly empowered producer, returning to the art of decoration, with personality and panache: shark-pattern and ‘Stoner Forest’ textiles by Geoff McFetridge (see ‘Cool stuff’, Eye no. 47 vol. 12), guitar-shaped star constellations as silkscreened pillows by HunterGatherer, 2x4’s digital print wallpaper for the Prada store. The ideal of the anonymous designer apeing the tenets of the International Style seemed as distant as that über-design show Machine Art, Philip Johnson’s 1934 exaltation of mass produced objects.

3.7 Whenever there’s a machine aesthetic in dominance, there’s someone celebrating the hand of the human. In 1962, Ruedi Kuelling, a Swiss designer in Switzerland, scribbled out the giant letters BIC in a print ad for the ballpoint pen. It’s hardly Swiss Style.

In the 1990s, when digital tools had made it possible for anyone and his brother to ‘do graphics’, there was Stefan Sagmeister insistently but artfully deploying a hand skill that no one could buy off the shelf, with obsessive, scratchy, hand-written type. Manipulating a mouse, or Wacom tablet, and staring at a computer monitor distances the designer from his or her work; it removes the tactile. Sagmeister’s visceral, body-centred design became a kind of Viennese Actionism for the digital age.

3.8 The ‘Glamour’ exhibition currently at SF MOMA explores the revival of the decorative in fashion, architecture and design, showing buildings in which the decorative and structural become the same thing – a complete contrast to the late Modern buildings of the International Style, which ‘dressed’ buildings. The show’s curator Joseph Rosa writes in the introduction to its forthcoming catalogue that ‘digital fabrication techniques have allowed the worlds of the handmade and the mass-produced to merge, resulting in hybrid, mass-customised objects – an idea that would have seemed oxymoronic only a decade ago.’

Day four
4.1 Breakfast at Higgins Beach: out in the cold waves, clutching their boards, are the stick figures of surfers. A great deal of surfing time seems to be spent just waiting. And where is the memory of what to do when the wave swells?

4.2 To me, there was a great deal of significance in Melle Hammer’s phrase, ‘being a designer you are sometimes not aware of what is happening under your hands.’ It should be added, I think, that being a designer is about having the know-how to recognise that something has just happened under your hands

4.3 Flow, by the psychologist Mihalayi Csikszentmihalyi, identifies that magical state of creative headspace in which the conscious desire for control partially lets go, and hours pass before you realise you haven’t eaten.

4.4 Can creative states be propagated in an educational environment? I hope so. But what of those seemingly contrary synthesis skills? The burden on educators becomes profound. The dilemma is this: can a student master the skills expected of a professional in three years, while learning to think strategically, conceptually and use that knowledge in a team?

4.5 Why are designers so concerned with the professionalisation of their activity? Isn’t the great advantage of design that it is an act of moving between disciplines, that it abides by no fixed rules? Should we care about making the distinction between design criticism and design journalism?

4.6 The trouble with writing about design ‘movements’ is that, as Paul Elliman once put it: ‘It's all lies’. Design critics need to get out of that trap.

4.7 Design theory is always obliged to follow the innovations in theory in other fields.

4.8 There is no design profession. Design is only an act, which by its very nature depends on other disciplines and professions.

4.9 Design conferences, through their sheer size, are forced to professionalise the activity of design. Medals are awarded, portfolios are presented, participants are united through their business problems. But to design is to create, and creating is what designers do. A week-long symposium of 50 people set up a chance to talk, think, drink, make and collaborate. The agenda was broad and the work was unresolved, but Design Inquiry was a lot closer to a conference model for future design practice than a conventional, 3000-seater convention.

First published in Eye no. 54 vol. 14 2004

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.