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January 05, 2005

Graphic Design

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Do you guys follow the graphic design field? I do, if in my usual half-assed, raggedy way. I know some designers; I've been through some histories; I have a shelf -- a short shelf, but still -- of books, some of which I've spent actual time with ... Years ago I even took a couple of graphic design courses, learning the hard way how completely I lack graphic-design talent.

I'm also a regular visitor over at the design blog DesignObserver. It's become one of my favorite online hang-outs. A classy cast of designers and critics -- including Michael Bierut, Jessica Helfand, and William Drenttel -- contributes essay-like postings and occasional linksfests. Drenttel remembers working for the late Susan Sontag as her graphic designer here.

My very favorite design critic/journalist, Rick Poynor, is a DO gangmember, though he doesn't post as regularly as I'd hope he would. (Here's a recent Rick piece for the Times of London about a graphic-design show he curated at the Barbican.) And a peppy and impressive cast of commenters kick in a lot of energy, brains, and storytelling. The designer and author Stephen Heller, whose design-history books I'm a big fan of, is a regular visitor, as are many students and professionals.

Me, I mainly lurk, though I sometimes can't resist the opportunity to leap in and play Old Crank. Typical thrust of my comments: "Cool-looking layout! Now, how about the readability?!"

Next question: do you guys have any problems with the notion that graphic-design is art? Rick Poynor's article for the Times announces that the 21st century is going to be the century of design, and waves the flag for that development. Personally, I have no trouble at all with the idea that any kind of commercial art might be discussed as art. Good lord, why should I? I came to the arts via movies, and many of the authors I first fell for were in it for the money.

These days, too, it's an open secret that many people who enjoy exploring the contempo visual realm know: the gallery-art world is so full of conceptual games-playing that its visual payoffs can be few and far-between. You can finish up an afternoon of gallerygoing with eyeballs that are still hungry. So these days, you'll often get a faster, easier, and (IMHO, of course) more-stimulating eyebuzz by looking at websites, ads, computer graphics, and edgy magazines.

I ask whether you have trouble with the idea that graphic design should be thought of as art because it comes up so often over at DesignObserver. I'm hard-put to know why the question concerns designers as much as it does. Why should anyone have trouble with the idea that the commercial arts are art? (Although Tatyana, who works as an interior designer, has a funny and practical take on the "is it art" question. I once said to her, "So you're an artist!", and she quickly responded, "No!" Tatyana finds the pretentiousness of the arty crowd so appalling that -- despite her creativity -- she'd rather not be classifed as one of them.)

In any case, to cite a few obvious examples of stuff that we today accept easily as "art" but whose roots were commercial, or craft-centric, or flat-out utilitarian: Toulouse-Lautrec and Bonnard's posters; William Morris' wallpapers and book designs; ancient Greek vases; the Cord automobile; Japanese ceramics ... Not to mention the ancient Romans, whose best and most beautiful cultural works some think were their engineering projects. How about our most-cherished Western-Civ artists, the ones we're most prone to elevate to god-like status? Well, Mozart and Michelangelo worked on commission. Our greatest architects weren't so high-minded that they refused to accept payment for their work. And what were the most influential art forms of the 20th century? Most would put movies and jazz high on that list.

Cue sound of cash registers.

I rather like the idea that much art has been created for semi-practical reasons. After all, why reserve the word "art" only for what's been created purely out of love, or under pressure from inner demons?

As for today's work ... Well, no one's going to tell me that many of the designers, photographers, and graphics people at work now aren't as talented as the best of the fine-arts artists. I've hung out with both commercial-artists and fine-artists as they worked. And, FWIW, the commercial-art people often seemed to me to be more confident -- and more interested in delivering pleasurable experiences -- than the fine-arts people did. Bless 'em all, of course, and may they create lots of delightful goodies for the rest of us to enjoy.

Besides, who knows what of today's visual work will prove lasting? I certainly can't see into the future; I certainly don't know anyone else who can either. Will the paintings of Luc Tuymans -- whose poseur-glumness I rather like -- make it into some future canon? Or will the skateboarding style-thing that photographers like Craig Stecyk and Glen Friedman helped create prove more enduring?

My own feeling is that it'd be mighty hard for a contempo fine artist to create anything that might rival in importance and influence the desktop metaphor for computers, let alone the Web. Why don't we think of the desktop metaphor and the Web as amazing cultural, and maybe even art, creations?

I also have moments when I suspect that the idea of a long-lasting canon of greatness is crumbling around us. As culture goes digital and all culture-rivers empty into the same sea of pixels, we seem to be entering an Eternal Now. Newness is all, and impact rules. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if nothing from our day lives on, at least in the textbook/canonical sense. As we please ourselves by piecing together one-of-a-kind, self-tailored media-surfing experiences, perhaps our source material will need rebooting on an annual basis. Who really knows?

Still, there's much that puzzles me about design -- or rather about the design world. I find myself frowning in confusion when I spend time with commercial-visual people, and when I leaf through commercial-art magazines. I often feel dizzied when I hang out at DesignObserver.

I find myself wondering about things like this:

  • The illustrators and cartoonists I've met have generally been affably irreverent and professional. But the graphic designers I've known have often been bratty people, full of the most unpleasantly infantile kind of "attitude." How to explain this?

  • Many commercial-arts people crave respect; they're greedy for recognition of their work and their talent. Yet no one is quicker to deny that what they do is art than they are. Huh? Are they expressing contempt for the work they produce? Are they holding up an impossible ideal of art -- presumably the usual, genius-expressing-itself-in-total-freedom thing -- as a way of ... Well, of what?

  • IMHO, part of what's great about the commercial arts is that they often fly under the intellectual radar. Free (or relatively free) from the ponderous scrutiny of self-important tastemakers, commercial artists are more likely to rock out than self-conscious "fine artists" are. There's always another job to do -- another magazine issue to knock out, another TV spot to slap together. Deadlines and paychecks can liberate creativity from the burdens of ego. Cool! Yet I've gathered that many designers aren't happy with this kind of imperfect freedom. Instead, they want their field to attract its own heavyweight-intellectual critics and commentators. Can they really imagine that such a development would lead to greater freedom than they already know?

  • Commercial-arts people -- especially graphic designers -- seem to have extraordinary trouble with the simple fact of doing work-for-hire. What's not basically honorable about engaging in honest trade? Yet many of the commenters (and sometimes even the posters) at DesignObserver agonize about doing work-for-hire. They seem to find it degrading. They ask, "Are we being sellouts?" And, "How come the client gets to interfere with my work?"

In the words of those hipper than I: WTF? But what's puzzled me most about the graphic-design world is ...

Well, it'll take a second to explain. OK, there are two things, really. One is a feeling many graphics people seem to share that (my words, not theirs) design wants to be free. Two is a conviction many of them have that something called "good design" exists, independent of the artifacts -- the websites, the brochures, the books, the TV screens -- that embody and display said "good design."

Can you buy into either of these beliefs? My own mind goes into instant WTF? mode. Perhaps I'm missing something, but as far as I can tell, graphic design and commercial art are about doing work for hire; they're about making things look better, and getting paid for it.

But, as far as I can tell, for many graphic-design people, "good design" is a crusade. They get worked-up about "good design"; for them, the "good" in "good design" is a moral "good" and not just a cool or snazzy "good." Graphic design can save the world! If graphic design could only be set free, then the world's oppressed generally will be set free too.

Skipping over the question of why making a slightly-more-snazzy rather than slightly-less-snazzy advertisement should liberate anything ... I find myself wondering: what exactly would "good design" like to be free of? The economic basis of its own existence?

I find this attitude so bewildering that I wonder whether graphic designers are initiates in a cult I know nothing about. You and I might think graphics people are visual talents hard at work selling skills, talents, time, and work. You and I might even have no trouble understanding that making the world a more attractive and comprehensible place is something that matters to designers. I'd want that to be the case. But their passion and commitment to "good design" seem to go far past this. As far as I can tell, many graphics people are driven by a hope for total transformation. They're visual revolutionaries. They've got it all: a cause ("good design," whatever that is), and a mission (setting "good design" free) ...

I was worrying at these thoughts the other day and found myself wondering, "So what's 'graphic design' anyway? I mean, hasn't someone always taken care of making an ad, or a poster, or a book? And wasn't such a person by definition a 'graphic designer'?"

It seems that the answer to my last question is "No." Evidently the person who made an ad or a book didn't qualify as a "graphic designer" until the field of "graphic design" was invented in the late 1800s. I know this because I recently read "Graphic Design: A History," by a French art historian, Alain Weill.

It's a good and enlightening little book, full of nifty visuals, as well as chockful of information and names I'm looking forward to investigating further. Weill has a suave and worldly view of history, and he's unafraid of extravagance, let alone the rhetoric of revolution. Here are a few passages from his book:

Erik Nitsche, later to revolutionize the visual house style of General Dynamics ... Working on interior decoration magazines in New York and Los Angeles, Alvin Lustig raised the art of avant-garde page layout to virtuoso heights ... Gene Federico, who created an historic campaign for Woman's Day ... Herb Lubalin did the same for Saturday Evening Post, introducing radical changes that -- though shocking at the time --helped the public to adapt to a new era in typography ...

(FWIW, here's a posting where I suggest that we enjoy the French as witty, sexy and stylish provocateurs, but that otherwise we earnest Americans should do our best not to take the French as seriously as we often do.)

What I found most useful about Weill's book was his frank account of the origins of this thing called "graphic design." And, no: the kind of product design that was done before roughly 1890 is not something that the graphic-design crowd considers "graphic design." It was ... Well, I'm not sure what you'd call it. Graphics and designs were of course being made, but they didn't yet equal "graphic design." Weill calls this work "reactionary" and leaves it at that.

In fact, "graphic design" seems to have been the invention of a bunch of ambitious people -- "true Modernists," according to Weill -- at the time of the industrial revolution: the Arts and Crafts crowd in England, the Japanese-y/Frenchy crowd in France. These were groups that were determined to "raise the status of the decorative arts."

Perhaps my mind is going. Had I not made these connections before? I did know the basic facts, if in a dim and receding way ... The late 19th century ... William Morris ... Neat-o posters ...

What I can't remember ever seeing spelled out as clearly as in Weill's book is the fact that "graphic design" -- graphic design not in the generic sense but in some kind of semi-technical, modern sense -- is, was, and has always considered itself a political/radical/fighting-the-Establishment movement. The "Establishment" here being the people and companies that make and use boring design, and boring design presumably equaling "oppression." Artsies, eh? If it doesn't look good, then it's politically objectionable.

I feel like a dimwit for having been so clueless. Wouldn't you know it: the idea of "graphic design" was born with our old friend and curse, Modernism. It had -- and in the eyes of many graphic designers still has -- a revolutionary program. Which means that, by my standards anyway, "graphic design" really is a bit of a cult. Evidently you either believe in the program and you draw your energy from it, or you aren't a real graphic designer.

So, hey, it turns out that "good design" genuinely does want to be free. That's the story, spelled out in Weill's book in black and white. In stylish black and white.



posted by Michael at January 5, 2005


Video game developers, too, are haunted by this question of, "Are games art?" Some fiercely want the answer to be yes, some no. I find the crux of the issue isn't commercialism vs. aesthetics--the two, as you point out, have been so historically intertwined that it's absurd to separate them. Rather, it's everything else vs. aesthetics. That is, games are primarily trying to be interactive entertainment and the demands of fun gameplay often conflict with the aesthetic drive. Can a game designer construct a fulfilling story while still allowing the player to interact broadly with the game world? (The answer, of course, is that "story" is an aesthetic criterion for books and film, but maybe not as much for games. That doesn't keep devs from being troubled by the matter.)

Interestingly, a lot of the characteristics you assign to graphic designers might fit game developers as well. Their holy grail of "gameplay," for instance, like your "good design." And if I were to really stretch, I might say that games have the same relation to postmodernism that graphic design has to modernism....? Uh... okay, too far.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on January 5, 2005 7:06 PM

LOL--their ambition is setting "good design" free? People really are the most pathetic and transparent of beings. We must believe we are "important" and we will INVENT it if we don't believe it is readily true. I can't just be an artistically talented person who has a knack for putting things together and, heck, even getting paid for it. It must have a PHILOSOPHY. There must be "good" and "bad" (or better still--"evil"). There must be JUDGMENT. I must be a DEEP THINKER. I can't say I painted the vase that way just coz...that's how it looked to me? My favorite truth would be if the "Mona Lisa"---looked EXACTLY like its model. It was simply a straight-up rendering.

And, the too-bad part is: by forcing a meaning and importance on every breath, I think they are actually diminishing the potential of people, not enhancing it. Sigh. One thing to remember--both Michelangelo and Shakespeare didn't just get paid---they really cared a lot HOW MUCH they got paid. And their clients did in fact have "something to say" about the final design. Ask Michelangelo about having the Pope for a client. I don't think there is much debate left about whether they were artists.

Posted by: annette on January 5, 2005 7:40 PM

I majored in Industrial Design in college for a while and then switched to what the Art School called "Commercial Design". At that time (1957-61) and place (U of Washington) my fellow design students and I didn't have any hang-ups about being trained as mercenaries. Could this have been a unique situation?

I never entered that field after graduation, so I have nothing from personal experience to say about practitioners. But I'm willing to speculate.

I blame higher education. I blame the Sixties a bit too, because the anti-materialism of the era probably juiced up the elitist art-for-art's-sake ethos of university-based art schools. I could even go on to blame snobbery and elitism in a general societal sense as well, but Friedrich is probably preparing to plough that field. And I could blame failings of some art historians to stress that art was a craft, not a calling, before the 20th Century or thereabouts.

But let me switch to that part of Industrial Design that deals with automobiles. When I was young, this was called "automobile styling". But that term apparently wasn't "serious" enough or perhaps not "professional" enough. So styling departments became "design" departments at the major car companies.

I could go on and on about how "designers" talked about the higher aspects of car shapes and of how they supposedly were making "advances" in terms of appearance. But, aside from technological factors, automobile styling has made practically no true advancements since the 1949 Ford appeared. Indeed, "design" is actually "style".

Michael's topic is an exceedingly rich one, but I'll stop here and let others chime in.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 5, 2005 9:21 PM

My father was an artist who studied art at a public university in CA in the late 60s/early 70s. I can safely say that he was pretty obsessed with aesthetics as a guide to some kind of higher 'goodness', at some kind of philosophical or metaphysical level. He believed in the primacy of happiness and not harming others, and that beauty was a signpost towards the good. Hence the central place of aesthetics!

He was tortured by having to "punt" to a commercial art degree when my mother got pregnant a number of years ahead of schedule, as he was striving towards some kind of fairly foggyily defined fine arts success. An MFA for something avant-garde was seen as desirable towards that end, and doing layout and graphic design in the family printing business wasn't what he'd wanted from his life.

Nevertheless he did his utmost to make even the most lowly job look as good as possible in the amount of time the client would pay for. In the late 70's I think he and my aunt designed and layed out (and my grandfather and great uncle printed) probably more beer and pizza ads and coupons than any other single shop in Central California.

But that wasn't what he really wanted to be doing, at all.

Of course grandma did the books!

So I got to see the phenomenon up close, and I'd certainly say it is akin to a religion. Not a bad one, kind of like Zen at it's core from what I could tell, with it's primary expression being the tortured world of Art.

Posted by: David Mercer on January 6, 2005 5:19 AM

Without getting into the specific weirdnesses of "graphic design", mightn't the idea that design is important have the same roots as the Christopher Alexander idea that people really need an environment that suits them?

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on January 6, 2005 7:49 AM

People need an environment to suit them
I thought it was a common sense, not someone's idea, Christopher Alexander or not.
I wonder at people's need to erect cult figures, on any side of the divide...

I'm at work and can't reach references I want to, so I'll comment again later tonight if you don't mind. This host of issues interests me a lot, obviously, and I have enough to say for a whole post (not as extensive as Michael, of course)

Posted by: Tatyana on January 6, 2005 9:59 AM

I can't believe I'm on the opposite side of Michael, Annette, et al., so I must be wrong. But.

I think free design makes more sense if you are looking at any part of the design world other than graphic design. You've all noticed that good software design helps you get quickly past the "I'm swinging a hammer" phase and to the phase where you want to be, the "I'm driving a nail" phase (IYKWIM).

Graphic design has less of this, but even navigating a web page, or absorbing information from a book can be eased or obfuscated, depending. Pick up one of those gorgeous Dorling-Kindersley educational books. The way the images and blocks of text are intermingled makes learning facts have all the difficulty of bingeing on bon bons.

I'm understanding the pursuit of good design to be largely concerned with this kind of marriage of form and function, all for making tools comfortable. Form and function don't follow each other, but both spring from a single grace-filled moment of intuition where a good design gets in inspiration from a useful task, but also, ideally, suggests and makes possible new uses of itself.

I can't believe I just wrote that. Yet, I sort of mostly believe it. No, it's not my religion, but I do find it somewhat inspirational.

I suppose most of the big solutions in graphic design have been solved, so you are amused by designers' hankering after an increasingly elusive satisfaction that comes from finding something that is going to change the world. I.e, you're laughing at their vainity -- indeed, their idolatry. I admit however, I have felt the temptation.

Or did I miss your real point?

Posted by: Fred on January 6, 2005 4:42 PM

Fred-IMHO, by all means, make something niftier than it was before. Even be proud of it. I don't want to make that achievement less than it is. I just don't think it should be made into more than it is.

Posted by: annette on January 6, 2005 10:27 PM

Chris - Definitely agreed on the similarity of game developers (Designers) to designers... Although I disagree that there's necessarily a conflict between story and gameplay. I would classify gameplay as the crux of the problem for any game, because no matter what the goal of the game developer is -- telling a story, developing a world, simulating an experience -- sacrifices must be made for the purpose of delivering a game.

As an amateur computer artist, I don't really have any reservations about doing art commercially -- I'm very eager to. I'm also very eager to dissociate myself from "Artists." I don't know whether this is indicative of something about [specifically 3D] computer work, that I feel it as more aligned to trade than to art. This could be a side effect of the technical mastery required to produce 3D CGI, or maybe it's just my own opinion.

I don't really have any experience with the design-school side of things, but I suspect that they are much like a cult. My experience with so-called Hypertext was, in ways, a sort of introduction to this world. Hypertext seems to be, primarily, the novel as a work of design rather than a work of narrative. I'm certainly willing to talk about "good design" and bad design, but I'm a layman who thinks that "good design" means "doesn't interfere with my use of the product," hence my dislike for Hypertext.

Some commentary, taken without permission, from one of my acquaintances who's going to a design school:

"Well, not hate, but I really do want nothing to do with it anymore. It's more the issue that I entered this program to produce, yet all I do is read media philosophy. Where is the production] I was promised. I was told this wasn't a media philosophy program. I was told it would pretty much be studio time while being educated on how to create things while also learning how to do team projects with a little MA/MS/MWhatever in Digital Media at the end.

It's not that I dislike discussing things, but the entire basis of each of these philosophy courses feels like angst layered upon pretention.

While I appreciate the history of art/media/etc, I am not an academic. Beyond that, I am not an artist. I want to design. I want to create. But I don't have some glorious grand plan when it comes to what I want to make. I'm simple, damnit. I just want to learn how to properly lay out pages and compile images/text/etc into something that is appealing.

It sounds terrbile, but I'm really just aiming to be a creative bricklayer, only instead of concrete I want to use ink.

I hate running on autopilot, and I also hate having no desire to do the work. But, well, it has no purpose for me. I don't want to say human bodies are wetware. I don't want to say things are didactic or tactile. I don't want to be able to name drop decades-dead philosophers on media when they looked at it in a manner that doesn't even hold any ground to anything anymore. If I was interested in learning the philosophy being media/art, I would have applied to a program that teachers that. You don't go saying, "It's a program that is very free-styled where you can create projects under a supervised enviornment" and then remove the entire studio part.


Teach me how to make proper layouts, not why Adorno hated even the dregs of film. Teach me how to properly set up colors for different print processes, not why McLuhan was wrong, again. Give me something to create, not another writing assignment I have no passion for."

"Professor: "Your designs that present the identities of others also give the viewers an idea of your own identity. Don't do shit for companies that aren't you unless you want to be presented as something you're not."
Me: "But then what if you can't find anyone who wants to pay you for your own style?"
Professor: "You know, you'll always end up finding people.""

Posted by: . on January 6, 2005 11:39 PM

Tatyana, you'd think it would be common sense that people need environments that suit them, but common sense is fairly rare.

Imho, we're living in an environment which is driven by two motivations--the desire to get attention (art and commerce)and the desire to be boring (government). There's a lot less stuff that provides a comfortable level of stimulation than there could be.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on January 7, 2005 11:09 AM

Nancy, I think you just provided examples of "environments that suit people", in other words, same old common sense.
Commerce (read- retail establishments)' goal is to sell - product or services, so of course they want to attract attention to what they are selling.
Government needs to show they live on bare necessities while serving the public (ha!), so the less "artistically stimulating" their offices are, the better. That's exactly what suits them.

One of the past jobs our firm was working on was writing community compound, lost-in-the-woods arrangement of individual cottages, meditation nooks, communal center and research resource. Elevated concentration of artistic/creative stimulation as ever was one - as long as that was what client clearly articulated and was willing to pay for.

Nobody conspires against innocent public to force on it the most uncomfortable and unstimulating environment ; money talk.
It's fair, it's honest and I like it this way.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 7, 2005 11:45 AM

Wow, I should put these interesting comments in the posting, and the posting in the comments. I wonder if my designer will let me do that ...

Chris, Thanks, I'm shamefully ignorant about videogames, so it's great to learn about some of the conversations that go on in that world. Fun especially to learn that games-designers have their own aesthetic sense, and their own set of aesthetic values. Seems to me, FWIW, that the electronic-games world is where an awful lot of the creativity of the younger generations is going. The games seem to mean to them something like what movies meant to my generation. And don't I feel like the world has just passed me by...

Annette - LOL, that's really funny and well-put. It seems we all need a sense of our own dignity, or maybe just to surround ourselves to one degree or another with a cloud of rationalizations and rhetoric. I don't imagine that anyone could do entirely without. I wouldn't want to have to. Still, there's also such a thing as "too much"...

Donald -- You raise somsething that's important, even art-historically important, it seems to me. Which is the determination various culture-producing groups have shown over the years to raise their status. The Renaissance guys were determined not to be seen as mere craftsmen. The early graphic-design crowd wanted "graphic design" to be something more than mere ... well, whatever it had been before. Of course, then there's the love some artists have of saying "I'm emphasizing the crafts element, and I'm a mere craftsman." If there were a way of metering this arts-vs-crafts thing, I wonder where it would be now. Any hunch? It seems to me many people are hostile to artists largely because they can put on such absurd airs, and because so much of what they produce seems to have come detached from anything regular people have any relationship with. And I hope I'm not the only person who finds it odd that there exists a "crafts" world that's entirely apart from the "arts" world. But people -- at least some people -- do seem to want to get the world to take them, and what they do, very seriously. I wonder if this is all bad.

David -- That's a great tale. And the comparison to Zen is nice too -- some people do seem to want to turn art into that kind of religion. No reason why not, I guess, although it does seem to me that an awful lot of people use "art" (as in, "what the world is preventing me from doing") as a way of torturing themselves, and maybe even putting down what they're doing. On the other hand, most of us don't wind up feeling like we're contributing what we're capable of in our jobs, and yet feel frustrated with our off-hours too. (Fatigue, family, etc.) So it's a pickle. I wonder if there's any way out of it, and fear there may not be.

Nancy -- I'd love to think there's a graphic-design equivalent of Chris Alexander out there. The field's certainly wide open for someone like that. If you run across such a creature, please let me know. Now would be a good time for someone like that to emerge, what with the basics of design being in such a state of analog-to-digital upheaval.The basics (readability, comprehensibility, functionality-but-with-pleasure) often seem to get lost as everyone gets high on dazzle and whooopdedo. In any case, it's interesting the way that certain digital-era forms (blogging, the web, etc) seem to have zoomed off. They just seem to work for people -- to be "good enough" in a way that suits the organism. I haven't seen many people thinking out loud about why they work so well, but maybe I've missed the literature on it.

Fred -- I may not have made it clear enough that I really dig design talents and following what designers are up to. What's puzzled me for years are two things: the odd sense of mission that many designers seem to have, that goes beyond just wanting to help the world be a slightly more attractive and comprehensible place. The other is why so many designers are so hard to wrestle into being useful. Maybe it's just the big-ticket ones I run into in NYC. But the ones I run into often want design values (kapow, cool, shazam) to prevail over all other values, including basic utility. I can't tell you, for instance, what a pain it was wrestling the people who initially designed this blog to give me something like what I wanted, even so far as something simple like the body-text typeface went. I wanted it big, readable, and with serifs -- I wanted the background to it to be white. I wanted the echo of book-reading, in other words. And when they finally delivered it was with a kind of sneer -- "oh, this is so uncool, and you made me do it, so fuck you." That kind of thing. I've seen that kind of "the job is destroying the beauty of my concept and my work" attitude over and over among graphics people. They want "design" to be free not just in the sense of loose and creative, but in the sense of being free from any responsibility to what the project's intent is. So I was fascinated to learn that the whole "graphic design" thing was kicked off as a kind of semi-political/semi-religious movement. As with so much of Modernism, the results of that at first seemed great -- cooler, looser, snappier, more inventive design! But as the generations went by, some people seem to have gotten more lost in the cultlike aspects of it, to the point where some of them look down on the fact of simply doing a job. They'd rather have a patron who was sponsoring them to "be creative." Wouldn't we all, of course. But most of us manage to be useful on the job, and if we have any creativity and energy left over afterwards, to see a movie or read a book or maybe do some painting on the weekends. I know graphics people who bitch about how they're being held back on the job, but who (bizarrely) won't cut loose and do their own free thing on the weekend. I guess they'd rather bitch about life than enjoy the possibilities it does offer. I'm a big fan of the DK books myself, by the way: perfect blending of design and info. I think Peter Kindersley's a genius, and a much underrecognized cultural figure.

"."-- That's fascinating that, like Tatyana, you'd rather just disassociate yourself from the whole "art" thing. I'm prone to say "it's all art" myself. But I can see your point about the way the art thing has become so ponderous, over-intellectual and annoying (as well as irrelevant) that a creative person might well prefer to give it a shove rather than embrace it. I should probably try that myself.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 7, 2005 2:09 PM

As much as I appreciate to be mentioned at all, I have other, more important reasons of not wanting to be called an artist besides hating pomposity.

Mostly, I evaluate myself realistically. In my profession whatever talent I posess is aimed to serve client's needs; architecture and interior design are on very utilitarian side of art, if there is such.
Artist (meaning 'artiste') is expressing him/her self thru their media. If I had the audacity to put my self-expression, my search for transcendent, my personal symbols into job I'm doing for a client - this client will be the last I'll ever had, and rightly so.

I hate to sound like a teaser, but I have to postpone additional in depth comments - again. There is an art catalog of organization I was going to exemplify as ideal, in my opinion, marriage between fine arts and interior design - and I only have it at home; as well as fascinating book on car design vs."styling" (among other things) of the 20's to 40's, which D.Pittenger brought to my mind.

So, more later.

So, more later

Posted by: Tatyana on January 7, 2005 4:36 PM

First, on the "is it art" thing:

Is photography art? Sure. Is catalog photography art? It can be. Is auto-parts-catalog photography art? You would probably have to have a really broad definition of "art" for the answer to that to be "yes".

Much the same applies to graphic design. The hierarchy, as I see it, runs:

1) Beautiful and functional
2) Invisible and functional
3) Ugly and functional
4) Not functional (without regard to its beauty)

As to what function, well that's up to the client. Sometimes the only function is to catch the eye, but even then you need to associate the image with the client. If its not functional, its hackwork.

In my professional career, I've almost certainly laid out over 20,000 pages of text and graphics, much of which was paid advertising. At the peak, I was laying out about 900-1000 pages every quarter, and that was only a part of my job. I know that much of my work was ugly, but we were making fairly good (and increasing) money on advertising in a periodical, so it must have been at least marginally functional.

That said, I didn't major in anything even vaguely related to design, art, or publishing (rather physics), so I have no personal experience with the environment internal to those schools.

On the third hand (let us postulate that I'm a green martian [I'm not just a geek, I'm becoming an old geek]), many of our advertising clients were exactly the sort of pretentious ... ummm ... artists you reference. (E.g., eggplant-colored business suits, deep discussions of the inherent moral and intellectual superiority of aboriginal American society, nearly opaque sunglasses at midnight ... if it weren't so absurd, it would have been sad.)

1) Most of the worst were new to the industry, and the worst of all were the new hires in large companies. People who had been around for 10 years were almost uniformly pleasant to be around. This is not to say that they were precisely normal, just that they were much better grounded than the newbies. The experienced people understood the financial realities, the necessary compromises, the required work pace, and the interpersonal dynamic far better.

2) The best and worst designers were often people who had turned an avocation into a vocation, not the products of design schools. I don't recall anyone who talked about his design training being better than marginally competent, and they were often both incompetent and arrogant. The only difference between the incompetent and arrogant professional and the incompetent and arrogant amateur was that the amateur was usually out of the industry faster. (Yet another argument against one sort of professional designers.)

Like many other things, I'd rate design as a craft first, and only the best as art. In that, it's not especially different from brick laying(or painting, for that matter). I don't intend this as a criticism of either brick laying or design; I have a lot of respect for a good craftsman. Rather, I intend it as a criticism of the sort of "artist" who can't be bothered to master his craft; craftsmanship must always come first.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 7, 2005 7:18 PM

Michael - thanks for your patient clarification. You're right, I don't meet people like you describe much. In fact, the only person I know who even comes close is ... me.

From looking at that Design Observer site, I get the feeling a lot of these people have the following scenario mapped out in their brains:
1. I create something brilliant.
2. The whole world falls down and worships me.

Here's a different scenario:
1. I create something competent.
2. My boss suggests some changes that isn't what I like.
3. I spend a long time working with the boss, figuring out on a deeper level what he wants.
4. I brilliantly create something new that is consistent with my taste and standards yet seamlessly incorporates what the boss wanted, in a way he could not have anticipated.
5. The boss says, "you knew what I wanted better than I did!"
The first scenario is difficult because it requires brilliance. The second is even harder because it requires several different species of brilliance, plus patience.

We shouldn't be surprised the second scenario is rarely realized. What's too bad is that the designer subculture doesn't encourage more designers to give it a try at least.

Posted by: Fred on January 7, 2005 10:19 PM

The Chelsea Art Museum had a tribute show in Dec 2003 for the late Claude Martel, the gifted young graphic designer from Quebec who died young--he was famous for his spreads in the NY TIMES Mag, such as the one in which Muschamp showcased all of his favorites for the Ground Zero competition.
The current darling of the graphic art world is designer Chip Kidd, who is the lover of Yale Review editor and poet JD McClatchy.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 8, 2005 10:59 PM

Anyone interested, go for it!

Date Posted: 11/18/2004 Closing Date: 07/01/2005
Title: Part-time Faculty - History of Communication Design

History of Art and Design

Art and Design
Position Summary:
The History of Art and Design Department is creating a pool of part-time applicants for Fall 2005 and future semester openings to teach the History of Communication Design and Concepts of Design.
Job Duties:
We desire qualified faculty who are capable of teaching in one or more of the following specialities:
- History of Communication Design
- Concepts of Design (readings in Design)
- Masters in Design History or Communications Design.
- Ph.D. or equivalent and teaching experience preferred.
To Apply:
Send your c.v., cover letter (indicating your areas of interest and expertise) and name and contact information of three business references to:
History of Art and Design
Pratt Institute
200 Willoughby Avenue
East Hall 250
Brooklyn, NY 11205

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 9, 2005 6:20 PM

As a former president of the leading professional organization of American graphic designers and a contributor to the Design Observer blob Michael mentions in his article, I've heard again and again the longing that graphic designers have for recognition from the larger world.

I'm not sure this is common for every profession (accountants? plumbers?). Maybe it's more strongly felt in creative professions where individual authorship provides part of the motivation and public notice is part of the reward. I noticed a letter in the letters column of the New York Times Magazine yesterday from a poet complaining that no poets were mentioned in the "The Lives They Led" roundup of people who died in the past year. So we're not the only once keeping score, I guess. No graphic designers, either, goddamit!

Michael points out correctly that the relative ubiquity of graphic design makes it possible to work in obscurity and, hence, freedom; this is truly not appreciated by most designers except for those very few who attract the kind of scrutiny they've been asking for and, sometimes at least, live to regret it.

Sadly, "making the world a more attractive and comprehensible place," as Michael puts it, is seen as insufficiently elevated a calling for most designers. Odd that most things still look so ugly and confusing.

Posted by: Michael Bierut on January 11, 2005 12:34 AM

I think to understand the mind of the designer you have to understand what many designers, ie. Stephen Sagmeister etc., believe, and that is that good design is based on concept, not style. No, a cooler layout on an add for a Big Mac is not going to do much to save the world any more than an ugly ad but using well done conceptual design for the right purpose can certanly make life better. For example; Presidential ballots in the 2000 florida election, environmental design that helps doctors, nurses and patients collect the needed information in a hospital, industrial design that makes transportation easier for the elderly and handicapped, and to give a recent example, the LIVESTRONG bracelets that (designed with concept in mind) has helped raise money an awareness for cancer.

Posted by: mook on January 12, 2005 5:11 PM

Graphic design doesn't want to be free -- it actually wants to be reasonably expensive.

My feeling is that this whole bigger/better design thing is about money. Not the "am I a sell out for taking money" concept, but the idea that Famous Artists get paid more than lowly production folks, and that many people (clients) see graphic design as production rather than art.

Clients think it's all in the software - no talent needed to create a nice looking brochure or advertisement. No knowledge of marketing, no understanding of target markets, no years of school to understand color and reading patterns -- just input a couple of data points and push a button and in 15 minutes your new logo is all toasty and mmmm-mmm good, ready for use on all your marketing materials.

But is a different thing altogether. It takes that mystery element called "talent" and it takes time (no instant button pushing in the Mona Lisa).

So of *course* there are graphic designers who want their design to be seen as something more than Joe Jones can get with a $149 product...because if a client thinks the end result should cost less than the price of some basic software we designers might as well give up and go back to flipping burgers. At least then we won't need the latest computers & software, knowledge of all the trends, information on legal issues about trademarks and copyrights, and of course a screamingly fast internet connection.

So graphic designers are torn...they know that what they provide that's of real concrete value in the world is usability and audience research and marketing knowledge...but that the only thing clients think is worth any real $$s is art/talent. No wonder we wear black and act angst-ridden! And no wonder we want our graphic design unmasterpieces to somehow be bigger, better and more impressive -- we're just hoping that at some point the client will see enough value in what we do that we can charge enough to pay our bills.

Posted by: Tamra on January 12, 2005 6:56 PM

I think the problem with a lot of designers, at least some of the ones that I know and work with, is an overriding arrogance. They are so overawed with their own talent that they are convinced they have the "One True Vision" of how things should be. Their is little room in their world for questioning and the input of clients. Thus they hate them.

For example here is the story of a designer who almost gave up the profession over one project. She had worked on concepts for a package design for months. Round after round of carefully constructed comps of beautifully designed packaging. In the end the company went with something fairly bland. She sat at her desk irately staring at the wall where the history of the project was hanging minutes away from quitting. She didn't want design to be free, she wanted to be paid. She wanted to be free to do it her way. To follow her "One True Vision."

I gave her a reality check. I pointed to the comps she had hanging on the wall and told her that no matter what the client chose to produce, you still did this beautiful work.

She decided to stay at her job.

Design that is to say the "Commercial Arts" cannot be free. There is always the person writing the check. And that person will always have veto power over the artist's "One True Vision".

I know another designer who after a client essentially re-designed his work commented "This would be a great job if there were no clients." Of course if it were not for the client there would be no job, so eventually I grew up!

Posted by: Stephen Macklin on January 13, 2005 9:37 AM

Bernard Caniffe told me that "Art" is just a word made up by rich folk who wanted to name a thing as to separate it from from the unwashed masses so that they could feel like their 'taste' is supremely elite...

and I believe him.

Posted by: Nat Bolton on January 13, 2005 5:58 PM

Just a few ideas sketched out hastily before dinner:

People keep referring to ‘Art’ as if it was an attribute of a ‘thing’ or of a class of things, that some object/discipline/activity ‘possesses’ some ‘qualities’ that make it ‘Art’. This way of thinking leads to the usual arguments about whether some object/discipline/activity is or isn’t Art. Not too long ago (only about 2,500 years ago) a bunch of people in Greece were having very similar discussions (and also using very similar arguments) regarding the status of painting. Being a society sustained by slavery it is not surprising that one of the main criteria of distinction between the arts was that of liberal/servile arts, this distinction later evolved into the Fine/Applied argument, and then into the arguments regarding the ‘autonomy’ of the art object in the 20c. In the meantime other cultures (like the Balinese) never found the need for such arguments, they simply stated that ‘they did things to the best of their ability’.

To make sense of our world we classify our experiences into a number of categories, a side effect of this behavior is the belief that somehow these categories are ‘attributes‘ of what we experience rather than distinctions made in our heads by the cognitive act, components not of the world but of our descriptions of that world. Art is one of these categories, and as such it describes not the qualities of anything but the kind of relationship that exists between someone making (and displaying) something and another someone experiencing this something. I think it’ll be more interesting to consider why we need to differentiate certain somethings by using this category, rather that endlessly arguing about their belonging in the category or not.

We relate the world in a variety of levels simultaneously, and yet we insist in reducing our experience into either/or judgements. Any given artifact can be experienced at once as Art, as Design, as Beautiful, as Functional ... because these refer to our relationship with the artifact and are are not inherent ‘qualities’ of the artifact itself. I don’t believe the acquisition of ‘autonomy’ or a denial of ‘function’ will enable Design to become anymore Art. I do believe that in recent years a growing number of people have begun to relate to Design in a different way.

Posted by: Sebastian Campos on January 15, 2005 2:50 PM

I am inclined to think on this subject as Maria Acosta sez:


"Please note that the word art is included in the definition of graphic design. People still think of graphic designers as artists. The majority of graphic designers even call themselves artists, despite the fact that nothing could be further from reality.

Artists are all about self-expression. Their only boundaries are their own skills and imagination. They deal largely in aesthetics and have the unfiltered freedom to invent new visual codes to deliver their feelings or perceptions. They choose the message. Graphic designers select the right tools for the goals of their project. They are asked to translate and transmit their messages in a clear, clever, and situationally relevant way.

While expression is the foundation for artists, it is not a priority for graphic designers. In graphic design, self-expression becomes a characteristic that must blend with the message. If style becomes too "loud" in graphic design, the work loses effectiveness and turns into noise, interrupting the communication. While artists are often problem tellers, graphic designers must be problem solvers."

Posted by: beagle breath on January 25, 2005 2:30 PM

Its curious that most don't understand the term "graphic design" Š for a profession that is concerned with communication - it falls short. Ironic that a profession that touts and strives for "good design" is based on a name/term with poor communication... "commercial art" seems to me to be easier to understand.

Posted by: bob on January 27, 2005 12:05 PM

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