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« The Future of Book Publishing | Main | Beyond Annoying »

October 28, 2003

True Art School Tales

A new installment in John Leavitt's ongoing True Art School Tales, his irregular, illustrated diary about life as an art-school student. John's currently studying at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. His own website -- where he shows off his witty and elegant art, as well as his prowess as a designer and cartoonist -- is here.


True Art School Tales

October: the middle of term, the time of year when a young man's thoughts turn to dropping out of school and becoming a wandering minstrel painter, perhaps.


Instead, I'm walking though the fluorescent-lit halls of the Graphic Design Department when something catches my eye. It's a poster -- the final project by some typography student. It consists of lots of angry lines and mix-'n'-match text. But the angry lines are slicing and dicing the type into ribbons. It's a nightmare; the eye boggles, as, of course, it's meant to. What next? Magic Eye ads?

I harumph and write it off to the notorious insularity of the Graphic Design Department. I move along, thinking, as I often do, that the graphics students really ought to spend some time with illustrators as well as with actual advertisers. Perhaps that way they'd learn how to really design, and perhaps they'd also have some sense knocked into them; they might learn not to force the audience to decode their work.


Then I see it -- the ugliest poster I have ever seen. Uglier by far than the one that had just brought me up short. This one consists of a series of black lines over white, with black text stuck tightly in between the lines. All the text runs together, the tops and bottoms are cut off by the black lines. It hurts my eyes to look at it.

There's no other way to put it. The text is illegible, whether from up close or from a distance. The tension between the letters and the background is tangible and makes the design painful to look at. This is a poster conveying information about an event, and yet that information is impossible to read. It's meant to attract your attention, yet it makes you want to look away. This poster fails in every way, as concept and execution. Yet it somehow it made it though the classroom process.


Something is rotten in the state of graphic design. It wasn't always like this. While my tastes run toward the 19th Century, I also have a fondness for American design before 1970. It's all so bright and cheerful, so clean and crisp. The type is easy to read and the illustrations are well-incorporated. These designs pack a lot of information into a small page without feeling cluttered or hectic. (My favorite example is a matchbook at Lilek's site here.)


But my personal favorite designs? Art Nouveau posters. The solid forms, the large swathes of black and white ... They're intricate and beautiful, as well as readable, clear, and accessible. The sins of Art Nouveau design include far too many children and messy vines, but despite these flaws it's fascinating to note that the posters remain big sellers in poster and print stores. These designers -- Mucha, Beardsley, etc. -- were clearly onto something.


The question is then, Why are the designs coming from my school's Graphics Department so horrendous?

I'm not sure, but I have a hunch, and it has to do with the fact that outside of academia, graphic designers are still on the bottom rung of the visual hierarchy. Graphic design is a craft, one with established rules and designs -- tedious, but predictable. So here's my theory: Maybe what I'm seeing is what happens when people who align text boxes all their life get a chance to go wild.


It has been my experience that letting artists go wild ends up in pain and tears. Someone -- professors -- said to these graphics students,  "Be crazy! You can mangle and cut up the text all you like!". And the result is deconstruction design. These profs are like English teachers who prefer purposely "difficult" work to relieve their own boredom. Surrounded by glossy art books about type, they're purveying delusions of auteurship.

The problem with most graphic design and advertising these days, it seems to me, is that the designers have lost sight up the salesmen's role. Instead, they've talked themselves into taking on a quasi-social, fine-arts, party-promoter role.


I was talking about this to a friend, and he reminded me of an example involving one of my favorite artists, Aubrey Beardsley. Hard though it is for a fan to acknowledge, it's nonetheless true that his illustrations for magazines, and his work done under tight restrictions, are better then his more "wild" work. (You can see an example of his "wild work" here. Here's an example of his more commercial work.) They're less confusing, less determinedly strange, and more clear. They aren't overworked, and have more life in them.

The idea that artists need few restrictions is one of those romantic delusions working rids you of. Restrictions give the work shape and form, and even better if those restrictions are based on century-long established notions of beauty. A little more honest craft and a little less would-be genius would do a lot to make design more readable and accessible.


This is a fine program, I think. On the other hand, I suspect that the Graphic Design Students have already been so thoroughly immersed in a if-you-don't-understand-it-then-screw-you mentality. Expect to see their work in your magazines in a couple of years.

--John Leavitt

P.S The Beardsley images I linked to above are at the Art Renewal Center, here. It's a wonderful site, with lots of great prints and information.

posted by Michael at October 28, 2003


The whole "letting artists go wild" thing is also exactly what's wrong with web site interfaces. HTML gives the graphic designer a blank slate for the interface, to be created out of whole cloth. And we can see how that turned out.

Posted by: David Mercer on October 29, 2003 5:11 AM

"graphic designers are still on the bottom rung of the visual hierarchy." I suppose this is true in the art world. In my world, graphic designers are godlike - the worse they are, the better their treatment. It seems as though powerful MBA types enjoy aligning themselves with “creativity,” which might be a good idea if graphic designers had an ounce of it.

You know what’s fun? Asking graphic designers to “sketch it out, just so we get a sense of it.”

I hate them. Love True Art School Tales.

Posted by: j.c. on October 29, 2003 10:07 AM

J.C What 9th level of hell do you work in where graphic designers are given respect?


Posted by: JLeavitt on October 29, 2003 6:04 PM

HMP! I guess its ok for "artists" to treat us to illustrations of women being leered at while gusts of wind blow their dresses up and reveal tight dancer's thighs all while they struggle with bags of groceries (with celery sticking out of the top)...spilling contents which defy several laws of physics in their descent... scampering puppies on leashes tripping the women.

Posted by: Ben on October 29, 2003 11:14 PM

JLeavitt: What happened to your site? I get a "deactivated"page.

Posted by: Mike on October 30, 2003 7:47 PM

How do you rate Arthur Rackham? The Beardsley print you link to "Lady in Chair with Parakeet" (budgie? parrot?) reminds me of Rackham's grecian landscapes. Where Beardsley has a blank background, Rackham has some Olympian mountains.

Posted by: Mike on October 30, 2003 7:54 PM

The whole story. I disputed a charge on my credit card bill. Turned out to be my hosting company. Suckers should use thier own name on the bill, I say. Its being worked on.


Posted by: jleavitt on October 31, 2003 12:33 AM

Rackham is a favorite of my favorite book "Pen and Ink Drawing by Watson-Gutphill". While I admire his complexity and skill....his work is often too busy and too fussy for me to really love. I'm a sucker for sold forms, big swoops, and large shapes.

There is also a fundamental moodiness to Rackham thats off putting...muted and grey and wistful.

On the other hand, his articulation in floating, up there with Boticelli.


Posted by: jleavitt on October 31, 2003 12:58 AM

I see you are not into the pleasant sorrow melancholy can bring. To lie quiet on a spring afternoon while some lady sings of deeds most sad and affairs tragic.

(I've been reading Harry Turtledove's "Ruled Brittannia", and the speech patterns are playing with my composition.:))

My problem with commercial art lies with the unseemly obsession with comic book tropes. Flash and exaggeration, when a touch of subtlety can have a subtlety the overblown could never achieve (pun intentional). If only we could expose the kids to more nature, let them learn the sublime power of a glade or dell. Show them that the natural world, directly experienced, can affect one more than even the most overwrought bit of graphic storytelling.

We are become too urban, and so our separation from the world around us becomes greater and our understanding less.

Alan Kellogg

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 1, 2003 11:13 PM

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