Autumn 1996

What did you do in the design studio today, daddy?

Graphic designers are convinced of the profession’s importance. Now they have to convince everyone else

In the recent thriller Heat, Robert De Niro’s character asks a woman what she does for a living. She replies that she is a graphic designer. ‘What’s that?’ he asks. She tells him she designs menus and brochures and other printed matter. ‘You went to school for that?’ he exclaims. It is an anti-climactic moment in the spotlight for graphic designers, and a sobering reminder that there is a massive gap between design’s self-image and its public perception. While designers are busy articulating bold visions of the future among ourselves, in public discourse graphic design is still a dimly perceived and often disdained form of ‘commercial art’. While the images created by graphic designers live a highly public existence, discussion within the profession is often parochial and cloistered. With a consuming narcissistic pleasure, writing about design addresses designers. Thus it is no surprise that design is not better understood by the broader audiences that see it, use it and commission it.

The gap is widening: as graphic design reaches outward to claim its cultural territory, it is paradoxically moving inwards, towards a self-reflective but ultimately hermetic position. In trying to define design as an academically legitimate area of study – as a discipline – overlaps with literary and critical theory are providing a lustre of sophistication without their relevance to design being concretely established. Design currently lacks the cultural capital to draw major critics, scholars and researchers to its humble quarters. Design studies has made great strides in making itself understood by other academic disciplines. Yet in claiming graphic design as an intellectually significant activity, have we borrowed models from art and architecture, or literary studies, that are too confining? Is design studies trying, dubiously, to establish its own disciplinary credentials on the basis of research and writing from other disciplines?

Whereas specialisation implies a narrow focus on issues particular to a discipline, much recent design writing makes extremely broad applications of specific theoretical and critical texts, moving back down the ladder from specificity to abstraction. The result is a disturbing vagueness, almost as if design must be purged of its base materiality before bringing it into proximity with literary, philosophical, psychoanalytic, or sociological texts. Is it too embarrassing to move from Adorno to Photoshop? One always hears complaints about the ‘dumbing-down’ of design in journalism, but shouldn’t we be equally critical of the ‘smarting-up’ of design for academic audiences?

The bridging of other disciplines with design studies is not the problem: multi-disciplinarity is the condition of design studies, not a novel intervention to an established discourse. The discipline is all jerry-rigged, hot-wired, collaged and built from the spare parts found in the open stacks of libraries, in the flat files of design studios, and on the shelves of your local grocery store. This is why design bibliographies read like a schizophrenic’s shopping list. The question is, instead, how concretely, vividly and usefully can we make those interdisciplinary connections? How strongly can we weld the visual, physical and historical artefacts and resources of design to the practical, institutional and emotional lives of the people it affects? How can we communicate the potential of design to shape experience to the audiences whose experience we are so accustomed to shaping through the act of design? In other words, why can’t we communicate verbally what we do visually? The prolific silence of design is clearly a major factor in its cultural isolation.

Rudimentary discussion
Some of the reasons for the gap between self-image and public perception are the assumptions we make about who is listening to discussions about design. While designers are capable of making distinctions between the audiences of, for example, Eye and Graphis, this is a level of connoisseurship beyond the readership of Newsweek or The Sunday Times. There are no consistent columns or reporters identified with graphic design in British and American newspapers. The reason used to be that design was too rarefied, too little understood, and simply too ordinary to be of importance beyond its immediate professional realm. In the rare circumstances when graphic design does make its way into the general press, it is awkwardly handled. In The New York Times, the standard style is to refer to a graphic designer as a ‘graphics (sic) designer’. More confusion is sure to follow now that the term ‘information architect’ is gaining currency. Coined by Richard Saul Wurman, who migrated from architecture into graphic design, this new term capitalises on the esteemed persona of the architect. Massimo Vignelli has also endorsed the rationalist connotations of ‘information architect’ over what he sees as the increasingly fashion- and style-driven area of graphic design.

Standards of public discussion are at such a rudimentary level that writing on design in the mainstream press is incredibly unspecific. Writers and editors desperate to position their subject have to start from scratch, sletching in the vague outlines of a career, trying to make their subjects sound significant. It inevitably entails a compromise in the conception of how a design story might be covered. A lengthy 1994 profile of Fabien Baron in the New Yorker represents the limitations of this type of coverage. While humorous and entertaining, the essay portrayed the art director as a vaguely silly gadfly. Conversely, a recent story dealing with his changing status as Harper’s Bazaar is written as a celebrity exposé. A 1996 profile of David Carson in Newsweek provided, among other oddities, a referenced to Cranbrook Academy of Art as the ‘Harvard Law’ of design. While the analogy adequately conveyed the prominence of Cranbrook, the reference failed to express the school’s self-image as experimental and iconoclastic (unlike Harvard). The profile format results in the recurrent character type: Neville Brody, David Carson, Tibor Kalman and Tomato are ‘bad boy’ designers. Is it a result of how journalism cariacatures individuals for the sake of public consumption, or do designers understand themselves through the lens of the celebrity profile, cleverly providing the journalist’ ‘angle’? And if so, where are the ‘bad girls’?

When design does take centre stage, it is more often than not because it is seen as interfering with content, as in many of the reactions in the mainstream press to the book S, M, L, XL by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau. While some reviewers failed even to acknowledge that graphic designer Bruce Mau was credited on the cover with Koolhaas as co-author, reviewers who did discuss the book’s design tended to be hostile. Martin Filler, in The New York Times Book Review, began his review with a comparison between the cut of a man’s suit and the design of a book: both should be simple, well-tailored, but not too flashy. For Filler, the Mau design has crossed a boundary of visual reserve. But in the case of such an unusual artefact as S, M, L, XL design and literary form are nearly inseparable: Mau and Koolhaas are wearing the same suit. Thus even a sophisticated critic like Filler is blind to the reciprocity between form and content with regard to publication design.

Mere problem solving
If the issue of audience vexes writing about design, it is also a source of disquiet in design education. There has been a shift away from the notion of ‘all-purpose’ design to an understanding that design addresses specific communities, described in social, economic, or geographical terms. This shift has been both dramatised and occasionally inverted in the context of graduate design education. Dramatised, in that students now routinely identify their work as addressed to narrow audiences such as those defined by magazine like Ray Gun, or to a phenomenon such as snow boarding, or political activism. Inverted, in that students regularly identify themselves as the ultimate audience to which their work is addressed, invoking the model of the supposedly ‘free’ fine artist.

Designers have always has a problematic relationship to their fine art colleagues in art schools and universities. But instead of appealing to the condition of ‘art’ to raise the stakes for seriousness of purpose, the ‘art’ factor is often invoked by students as a way of sidestepping criticism. Thus when a student says that a project is ‘really about me, you know, private things’, she or he effectively short-circuits any comments that might have to do with my or your experience of the work. The appeal to the imagined prerogatives of ‘art’ and ‘personal expression’ elevates the work, but also renders it unaccountable to the ‘boring’ questions that used to dominate discussions of design. Such work fails as ‘design’, with its implications of community and audience, nor does it live up to the intellectual demands of fine art.

A recent experience with one of the most prominent universities in the US left me convinced that the academic (let alone public) perception of design has not been moved one inch further by the increasing sophistication of design discourse. I was invited to propose the establishment of a masters programme in design at this university, and my audience included a particularly unsympathetic professor of painting. My antagonist hurled familiar arguments about the intellectual shortcomings of design, about its ultimate dependence upon clients, and therefore its inappropriateness for study at advanced levels. This person, who had trained as a graphic designer before becoming ‘a creator instead of an interpreter’, believes that graphic design can never rise above ‘problem-solving’.

I told him that the field must have changed since he last checked in 30 years ago. I wanted to give him some bibliographic proof but realised his ignorance was unshakeable. The conversation was a sobering confirmation that the perception of design is changing only for a small group of designers, writers, educators and students.

The popular imagination
I found myself wanting design to be valued not for its link to the ‘creator’ model offered by fine art, but for its sheer ubiquity, for having saturated culture in so many different ways. Intellectual rigour, profundity and beauty would be nice words to attach to graphic design, but there is something to be said for bulk. ‘Is graphic design pervasive throughout society,’ asked Dan Friedman in one of his last interviews, ‘or is it virtually non-existent?’ His words dramatised how graphic design shapes experience in a way that painting and sculpture never will, while at the same time engaging a set of literacies unknown to the general public. If you accord any importance to the everyday, then graphic design is right up there with buildings, language and sex. This experiential and radically public potential of design is what makes it fascinating and worthy of study within a university or design studio, or wherever it intrudes into someone’s consciousness. Yet discussions of design are most powerful when they concretely connect visual form to cultural content.

Just as avant-garde experiments opened up the boundaries of ‘music’ to the broader phenomenon of ‘sound’, the understanding of graphic design may be stretched to accommodate the broadest engagements of words and pictures. The breadth of so-called ‘vernacular’ design, the impact of software for designing, and the gleeful mixture of words and pictures in new media, are all evidence that design is a phenomenon that has been and will continue to be carried on with or without the involvement of designers. Futurist Paul Saffo has described graphic designers as ‘idea embalmers, loving undertakers preserving bits of data like many butterflies pinned to felt in a jewel box’. If graphic design appears, from a futurist’s perspective, like a quaint pastime, what must so much recent writing about design look like? A field guide, perhaps, to the butterflies we catch with out billowing, feeble nets?

Without succumbing to the spectre of technological determinism, it is important to confront the question of how writing about and studying design advances design or the discourse of design. Can graphic designers and writers rise to the occasion of understanding design in all of these facets, rather than through the values of professionally-defined practices? Can we throw out a broader net for design history, theory, criticism and practice that engages public experiences of graphic design?

There are indications that design is in the process of becoming more visible to the general public, and that in its intersections with music, fashion, publishing and technology, it is accruing some cultural capital. ‘Visibility’ is still far from ‘understanding’, but it may be that the ‘outing’ of graphic design has to happen first. The question is whether of not designers will have a role in shaping this public discourse on design.

On all fronts – history, theory, criticism, practice – there is much work to be done in graphic design. We could adopt the model of academic and professional specialisation, or we could acknowledge that our interests in this discourse arise at the same time that the popular imagination is grappling with similar issues. In other words, our self-consciousness about design coincides with the broader cultural awareness of design. This opportunity should be a leading factor in how we elaborate the conceptual net that the future of design embraces.

Abbott Miller, graphic designer and design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 22 vol. 6 1996

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.