Autumn 1990

America: the lost decades

Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History

Design Museum, London, 9 August – 21 October 1990

Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History is a challenging book but it made a maddening exhibition. The book contains a diverse collection of provocative essays on how design and designers have responded to social and technological imperatives, a didactic time line placing design in a broad cultural and political context, and interviews with a number of significant US designers (conducted by this reviewer). The exhibition, on the other hand, was an ambitious but decidedly incomplete and curatorially misguided attempt to define graphic design through its various cultural manifestations.

This is a sad thing to say about a project of great promise that was in the planning stages for over three years and expended the energies of a seasoned curator and a group of serious writers and researchers. It is also a regrettable epitaph for the first exhibition organised by a major US museum, the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis in association with the American Institute of Graphic Arts, which sought critically to explore US graphic design as an integral applied art, not a distant relative of the so-called higher arts. I wish that as a collaborator in this project I could overlook the errors in judgment as exceptions to the rule, but as an independent critic. I see the exhibition as defined by its problems.

Paradoxically, the major problem with ‘Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History’ was also its virtue. This was the first exhibition of graphic design to be curated by one person, Mildred Friedman, as opposed to a jury of self-interested graphic designers. And it was also the first attempt to analyse the graphic design process through material products based on a distinct set of criteria rather than merely awarding beauty prizes based on politics or whim.

But while the pieces in this show represented a relatively diverse stylistic and methodological mix, the curator’s preference for the European Moderns, who had a significant influence on US commercial arts between the 1930s and 1950s, forced some major omissions and exclusions. This bias might have been an effective point of departure had it been clearly stated at the outset. But the exhibition was called ‘Graphic Design in America’, not ‘Modernist Graphic Design’ or some other qualifying title.

By focusing on a modern aesthetic that eschews illustrative design and typographic eclecticism except in the guise of Victoriana, Friedman presented a distorted picture of twentieth-century US graphic design. And to have omitted Milton Glaser’s posters or book jackets (though he was interviewed in the book) suggests a certain ignorance. Other significant illustrator / designers, including Paul Davis and James McMullan, were excluded for reasons attributed to the curator’s taste. And while that criterion can have a certain validity, to use it to exclude all but one minor psychedelic poster (a decidedly controversial, indigenous US design form) for the confessed reason that Friedman finds the entire genre ugly is surely myopic.

‘Graphic Design in America’ was over-curated perhaps in an attempt to thwart critics who might argue that graphic design is lowly commercial art. But major omissions of important commercial genres further contributed to the distortion of history. Record album design, for example, once one of the US’s most public design forms, was depicted in an inadequate display that ignored the most fertile period from the 1960s. Book jacket design was given short shrift by omitting some of the contemporary masterpieces of the form. And advertising was virtually forgotten. Rather than produce a relatively comprehensive survey that should have lived up to its title, the curator’s adherence to what one might describe as dogmatic aesthetic and ideological principles resulted in a confusing history.

Confusion reigned over the exhibition’s organisation too. While it is often refreshing to see an art show that eschews conventional chronology, in this case a thematic approach failed to provide the cohesiveness necessary for an exhibition of over 1200 pieces. Divided into three zones, ‘Design in the Environment’, ‘Design for the Mass Media’ and ‘Design for Government and Commerce’, the structure lacked the reference points needed for even the knowledgeable student of design successfully to navigate it. Why did logos for a railway company and a book publisher fall into the ‘Design for the Environment’ and not the ‘Design for Commerce’ category, for example? While I appreciate the curator’s unwillingness to accede to a conventional organising principle, the fact is that this show would have benefited from a more didactic or linear approach. Had the development of package, poster and advertising design been clearly shown, the viewer might have missed out on the sense of chaotic overlapping imagery that represents how graphic design is seen in the real world, but would at least have been given a coherent picture of how fashion and technology have changed this visual language.

There were, however, some positive aspects to ‘Graphic Design in America’. There was a lot of striking work on display, which, owing to the ephemeral nature of the designer’s materials, is virtually impossible to see in its ‘original’ form. And since the Walker Art Center, IGM Center in New York, the Phoenix Museum of Art and London’s Design Museum all hosted the show, many hundreds of thousands of uninitiated people were introduced to ideas about the impact of graphic design on society and the environment. But perhaps the most important attribute of this flawed show is that it has provided a model on which to base other graphic design exhibitions. While a show of this magnitude may not be mounted again for some time, smaller, more incisive thematic exhibitions might better represent this richly historical field.

First published in Eye no. 1 vol. 1, 1990

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.