Thursday, June 12, 2008

As Stupid as a Graphic Designer:
The Slippery Subject of Style.

Where do I begin?
The title of this post is a play on a quote by one of my influences and heros, Marcel Duchamp. The original barb was "as stupid as a painter". Duchamp said that he wanted to take painting out of the realm of the visual and put it "back in the service of the mind". Graphic design, despite the surplus of verbose, self-important aggrandizing from it's ranks has always underwhelmed me with its ability to "meta-frame" what it does and participate in a dialog with a broad cultural context.

The discourse, more often than not, is defined by petty points of taste and the inflated importance of ones's own milieu. Take for example the high-modernist proclamation that only a handful of typefaces are needed (because so few good ones exist). A desire for control and self-righteousness go hand in hand. Many in that camp would probably go so far as to ban the use of more than the classic cannon if they could. When I hear words like "good" and "bad" I know that the person talking stopped thinking about the subject they are speaking on a long time ago.

Talking about aesthetics, especially in the visual realm, is an incredibly difficult task. It's much easier to point your finger and make grand vacuous verbal gestures. Easier still is dispensing "good" and "bad". Asking questions and figuring out how the sub-surface mechanics of an elusive phenomenon operate is hard as shit.

Massimo Vignelli from the film "Helvetica".

vignelli from TheShermanFoundation on Vimeo.

The unfortunate side-effects of aping high culture
A core strategy within the fine arts has alway been to define an extreme position, identify that position's "opponents" and then spend a lifetime defending and proselytizing. Many graphic designers have modeled themselves on that very strategy. Stefan Sagmeister's infamous "style = fart" (which he later recanted) was a classic example along these lines. A bit of bold divisiveness with a usefulness limited to creating hype.

Last year's documentary film, "Helvetica", by taking as it's subject the typeface of the same name, calls out into the open many of design's oldest contentions, in particular, the modernist idea that design can be neutral vehicle for the delivery of meaning. Helvetica, stripped of ornament and reduced to clean, simple forms was seen as the ideal typeface for carrying out modernism's mission.

Positions on that particular brand of modernism are extremely divergent. Helvetica divides and creates ideological street fights like nothing else in the graphic design world. What constitutes a "good" typeface is as disagreed upon as what design's "mission" is. My disappointment isn't that these debates rage on, it's that the answers offered up usually aren't very interesting. Usually, they're defenses of what has become one's trademark style, delivered as lofty posturings that lack insight or usefulness.

In my favorite scene from the film Erik Spiekermann speaks with a refreshingly blunt rationality while providing some historic context on the notorious font and colorful observations regarding "bad taste".

Erik Spiekermann from TheShermanFoundation on Vimeo.

Shitting on the phenomenon that feeds you
"Style" as a psychological phenomenon and cultural mechanism remains woefully unexplored. Graphic design lives and breathes off of style yet no serious understanding of it beyond historic classifications and categorizations has been contributed by designers or design historians.

"Style" seems to be at the heart of many of graphic designs uncomfortable irreconcilables. A shamefulness about style is another thing that it has inherited from institutional high culture (museum culture) that saddles it with dysfunction and an inability to confront the subject in an open, direct and thoughtful manner.

That shame comes from East Coast institutional culture's disdain for things that are populist and narrative. I would include as things in that category mass packaging design (but not luxury), comic books, and anything rooted in character-driven, narrative art direction. The car designs of George Barris (it's unconscionable that the MOMA hasn't had a retrospective of his work) and children's cereal box designs (one of my favorite design artifacts) are two excellent examples of this.

"Character-driven, narrative art direction" is theatrical and theme oriented. I most strongly associate this type of design thinking with the Hollywood motion picture and television industries. That's right, its another East Coast versus West Coast battle.

Take for example the Metropolitan Museum's current show: Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. The show's subject, Superheros and their costumes has been wrapped and suffocated in a blanket of high-fashion artiness. It's as if they felt compelled to "doll it up", remove it's populist taint, so as not to embarrass themselves before the museum set. The result is ham-handed and classist. There is little trace left of the comic world from which these this originate. The subject of Superheros, costume, identity and the heroic in art are such rich areas for cultural analysis. What an embarrassing mess why did they bother?

The Superman, costume/alter-ego commentary from Kill Bill is brilliant insight on this topic.

I think there are some interesting parallels between Superheros, costuming and modern forms of shamanism and superpowers. (Think Madonna in the Gautier outfit with the tit cones). This subject will have to wait for a future post.

It's all about style, stupid
The structures and themes of pop music change surprisingly little. What changes is the character of the sound, the instrumentation and the approach to voicing and vocals, in short, the elements of style. This play of variations drives the creation, purchase and enjoyment of the massive volume of songs that are created and consumed. Popular music, the juggernaut of a cultural force, is largely an exercise in styling.

I like to think of culture as all the things we do after were done doing the things we "have to do". Think about all the things on Maslow's Needs Pyramid. Shelter + Culture = Architecture. Food + Culture = Cuisine.

Fashion is the style-making behavior applied to our need for clothing. Closets are added to, emptied and refilled with a relatively narrow range of variation over time, yet the sensitivity to the nuances of style is incredible.

Style can be simplistically described as "how you do, what you do". In this clip Eddie Izzard supplies one of the best explanations of "what style is" that I have ever heard. (Think about it, is there any way to quantify the value that James Earls Jones' voice brings to the character of Darth Vader?)

Darth Vader's Voice from TheShermanFoundation on Vimeo.

Signs of intelligent life
I believe that the roots of style are firmly hardwired in mammalian "display behavior" and a neurological need for the disruptive effects of novelty. Despite the massive cultural role that style-making behaviors play in our lives questions about style aren't seriously asked and intelligent answers are rarely formulated.

Why do people spend so much time, money, energy and invested value on the creation of "style"? (You can read one of my theories in Culture, Chaos, Control (and Canine Companionship).)

Despite graphic design's almost complete inability to contribute to an understanding of style on this level there are people in other disciplines that are. Product designers have the savviest functional understanding of style, one that is rooted in evolution and biology.

In 2005 Casey Carlson of 3M gave an amazing talk at the 2005 AMA conference called "Seeing The World: Experiential Design in New Product Development". (The links to the podcast are now dead unfortunately. Thanks a lot MNAMA.) In it he talked about how product designers tap into emotion by modeling designs after forms found in nature. An example he references is the menacing form of sharks and the "gill slits" that were directly applied in the designs of early Corvettes.

You don't need to teach anyone that the shape of the Corvette is menacing. Evolution took care of that over millions of years.

In his talk Carlson references George Nelson's amazing and under-read book.
How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Manmade Environment. It is a must-read for anyone in the visual arts.

Admittedly, there is an understandable difficulty in using words to capture the subtleties of style, of the visual, of the tacit, of things we are often not even consciously aware of. In this clip from "Helvetica" Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones discuss Typography's "poverty of terms". Their observations speak equally well to the broader challenge of using words to understand and illuminate visual experiences.

Hoefler & Frere-Jones from TheShermanFoundation on Vimeo.

Visual Literacy
When we process visual imagery we assert our cultural belief systems and socio-demographic baggage into the interpretation of images. With images, much more so than with words we are engaged in processes of selection and interpretation in an active creation of meaning.

On June 6 & 7 the first International Conference on Critical Literacy and Visual Culture

Kris Boyd interviewd the organizers on the Think podcast. (iTunes link). There are some interesting thoughts and examples on the use of images to quickly shorthand rich sets of association. It's the age old aphorism "a picture is worth of thousand words" but a more graphic way to think about this is the use imagery to carpet bomb neurological and conceptual frameworks.

Images and the Subconscious
When it comes to an understanding of how visual images are subconsciously processed and the role they play in metaphor construction no one has a better understanding than Harvard University's Gerald Zaltman. The image-based metaphor elicitation techniques described in How Customer Think are fascinating. His work is a bit narrowly focused within a marketing context but still worth taking a look at. See the FastCompany piece on him: Metaphor Marketing. Harvard Business School professor Jerry Zaltman makes pictures that reveal our deepest feelings about your favorite brands. Can he scan your brain and unlock the images that lie within?

Graphic Design fiddles while Rome burns
We are living in a period of phenomenal technological and social disruption/invention. With so much possibility and upheaval upon us it always infuriated me to hear graphic designers talk about how desktop technology, by putting design tools in the hands of anyone, was "destroying the world" with hideous non-professional design. (There was talk for a long time of trying to make graphic design a licensed practice, like architecture, law or medicine.) Over the last 20 years, while many graphic designers bemoaned desktop publishing or argued about fonts or fretted over what was cool there were people exploring technology, changing the world, blowing minds and reinventing "design". The work of Jonathan Harris is one of the finest examples along these lines: conceptual thinking, information-based, dynamic and aesthetically powerful. Beyond that there is a outward looking humanism to the lines of inquiry his work follows.

Relax, it's just me, rattling my sabre
30 years ago Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown published a book called Learning from Las Vegas. The book embraced vernacular architecture, was an examination of pop culture and explored the mechanics of non-professional design. Although the book was embraced by intellectual circles within architecture and graphic design, I can't help but feel like the lessons to be learned from it never really were. It became highly-revered, intellectual fodder that failed to change very much.

It often seems that the critical discourses in the design world stagnate within it's closed communities and fail to transmit beyond its walls to other disciplines to become part of a broader cultural conversation.

The Sherman Foundation (my personal obsessions manifest) exists to ask the unasked, to explore the pervasive facets of our lives that go unnoticed and unexamined critically. Style and aesthetics are two of the big ones for me.

I was trained as a graphic designer but never realy fully embraced it. You would think that graphic design, being a visual discipline, one engaged in the production of mass culture ephemera would provide a great position from which to explore what style is. You would think that graphic design would be ideally suited to contribute to a cultural understanding of the mechanics of aesthetics. But it isn't and it hasn't.

Instead, graphic design sought self-validation by aligning itself with institutional museum culture. (Think large printed tomes celebrating the work of Pentagram on the shelves of the MOMA bookstore.) Adopting museum cultures prejudices and inheriting their classist notions of aesthetics has prevented it from contributing intellectually and participating in a broader cultural conversation. Its narrow selectivity of what is worthy of celebration and consideration is stifling. A proper conceptual framework for the understanding of style should be broad enough to apprehend the work of a sign painter, ancient cave drawings and cereal boxes as well as the IBM logo designed by Paul Rand.

Give me some time, I'm working on it.


post date: 5/29/08 5:55 AM


kathleen said...

I'm going to read this at least two more times. Eddie Izzard and Jonathan Harris on the same page - my head just might explode. Good stuff.

Mario said...

This posts asks, gives some answers and gives further reading material to questions I've been pondering for a long time. About to start a graphic design course myself and having toyed with the idea of visual culture in my degree I find the ideas fascinating. Thanks for the leads.

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The chap is definitely just, and there is no doubt.