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  • Graphic Design Is Immaterial

    From a short talk presented at the AIGA FutureHistory conference (Chicago, October 16-17, 2004).

    If we were to take a snapshot of writing and thinking about graphic design in North America right now—and here I mean the kind of graphic design “criticism,” “journalism” or “history” that we find in a wealth of books, journals, magazines, edited collections, conference papers, discussions and weblogs—I think we would find that there are several recurrent themes that can, in some senses, be considered as characteristic (if not quite definitive) of this outpouring; this “discourse.” [1]

    When designers and invested observers pause to reflect on the state of this profession—or “practice,” as some would have it—the kind of hand-wringing that ensues has much to do with an abiding sense that: (a) graphic design is important, goddamn it; (b) as hard as “they” try, “they” don’t understand who we are and what we do; and (c) if only our importance was recognized by the wider world—for the right reasons, of course—then everyone would somehow be better off. Alas, this insularity is not so much imposed as self-inflicted.

    Take Lorraine Wild’s sage observation, delivered in the context of debates over social responsibility in graphic design:

    Criticism of the commercial abuse of design is always problematic: if it comes from Stuart Ewen, it’s rejected because he’s an academic; if it comes from Neville Brody, it doesn’t count because he’s English; if it comes from Tibor Kalman, it’s invalid because he is somehow tainted by his own commercial practice; if it comes from Dan Friedman, well, “doesn’t he design furniture now?”; if it comes from someone like me, it is written off because my practice is not commercial enough. [2]

    Indeed, it was only 17 short years ago that Joe Duffy declared, in the wake of his very public spat with Tibor Kalman at the AIGA “Dangerous Ideas” conference, “I don’t care what Stuart Ewen says; he’s not a designer.” [3]  Even Philip Meggs sneered at this particular messenger, neatly sidestepping whatever his actual message might have been: Ewen’s was “a passionate talk with Marxist overtones. Personally, he cut quite a capitalist image with four fancy rings and a lush Italian-designer jacket.” [4]

    As another example, take the topic of famous designers and the writing of graphic design history. In 1991, and in concert with many design writers who were intent on questioning largely unspoken cultural and professional biases associated with gender, Martha Scotford [5] tentatively ventured that there might be a canon, and that this seemed to consist entirely of dead, white male designers. Further, she suggested that this might be a problem for the teaching of graphic design. Flash forward to a copy of Print from May/June 2004, and we find an uncharacteristically testy Rick Poynor misrepresenting a perfectly sound line of inquiry with gems such as this: “Barthes, Foucault...and a platoon of feminist art historians are usually brought in ... to demonstrate how deeply oppressive it is to know the names of the people who designed the artifacts we use.” [6] (I challenge anyone, Rick included, to find a single, employed art historian who has ever suggested as much.)

    Let’s assume for a moment that this was written on an off day or was conjured up merely for rhetorical effect. Further, that it’s somehow symptomatic of something akin to cabin fever: we, as designers and design writers, have spent too long thinking about our own familiar little world at uncomfortably close quarters, with every exit door seemingly blocked, so much so that we’ve all gotten a bit unhappy.

    On that note, and with one eye on brevity, I’d like to offer up three ways of thinking about graphic design that rarely, if ever, appear in this discourse. They’re theories—abstractions—rather than famous people or important places or things designed. Hence my suggestion that graphic design is immaterial. Not that it doesn’t matter; far from it. Rather, the most important way we might think about it right now is as a set of ideas and relations, a way of being in the world, as part of a bigger picture.

    1. It’s not just what you know but who you know and where you come from.
    Garry Stevens is an architectural engineer in Australia, and the author of a recent book called The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction. What he did in this book is very interesting indeed. He took the vastly useful ideas of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu [7] and then applied them to the profession of architecture. Bourdieu had set out in the 1950s and 1960s with a whole team of fieldworkers to discover how class inequities were reproducing themselves in postwar France. He found that a key mechanism was the exercise of taste, rather than mere wealth, whether earned or inherited. (Stevens also does a great job of making Bourdieu’s writing accessible.)

    Class is fascinating because it is like the air we breathe: absolutely in evidence but utterly taken for granted. It also works in many subtle ways, all of the time. Each of us, at every moment, betrays our "class belongingness" as we gravitate almost instinctively towards similarly identified individuals through: learned body language; how one holds one’s knife and fork (the way one says “one” instead of “you”); clothes; attitude; accent; musical choices; knowledge about dead languages and dead poets, etc. Stevens calls this “a set of internalized dispositions that incline people to act and react in certain ways ... the filter through which we interpret the social world ... and the mechanism we use to regulate our actions in that world.” [8] So, class has direct, concrete effects: on who we think we are, how we behave, and how we expect to be treated.

    As an architectural engineer, it became startlingly obvious to Stevens that there was a kind of class hierarchy at play within the profession—one that held architects in far greater esteem than engineers, for example. So, one of his key arguments in The Favored Circle is that a select few architects become successful (and famous) not out of sheer genius, or even dumb luck, but because of who they studied with; by extension, those “lucky breaks”—college acceptance, contacts, internships, first jobs, career advancement—depend to a significant degree on class and taste. (Telling, too, that Stevens’s book was met with a torrent of vitriol; after all, what he’d done was nothing short of tasteless.) In this sense, “talent” can never be the only index of potential success.

    How might this apply to the profession of graphic design? Well, for a start, Milton Glaser has gone so far as to offer a notional “Art Hierarchy” of roles: “the exact order varies a bit, but those at the top are closest to God and inspire more respect.” Here it is in full:

    PAINTER
    ARCHITECT
    SCULPTOR
    ARTIST-CRAFTSMAN
    CITY PLANNER
    INDUSTRIAL DESIGNER
    GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT
    INTERIOR DESIGNER
    BOOK DESIGNER
    EDITORIAL DESIGNER
    ADVERTISING DESIGNER (ART DIRECTOR)
    CRAFTSMAN
    COMMERCIAL ARTIST

    Glaser notes: “It’s true that many of the roles can be subsumed by the phrase commercial artist, but if you describe yourself that way, you go right to the bottom of the list.” [9]

    It is of course an enormously tasteless game to play, but one could begin to build a map of who, among today’s cadre of famous designers, trained with or began their careers working for yesteryear’s famous designers or famous design studios (quite aside from famous design schools and their famous tutors). Suffice to say that Paula Scher did a good job of dramatizing this very point with her wonderful satirical cover for Print a few years back (Print Nov/Dec 1985).

    In a sense, then—and I choose my words very carefully here—the graphic design profession that each cohort of graphic design students eyes with varying degrees of ambition, glee, and dread, is not a meritocratic free-for-all. Whatever happens after school, be it fabulous success or abject failure or, most likely, rather modest advancement, has a great deal to do with their portfolios, but also where they come from, who they are now, how well they fit in, and how quickly they learn the unspoken rules of their chosen profession.

    2. It’s not this or that but somewhere in the middle.
    Around 50 years ago, during the salad days of the International Design Conference in Aspen, a motorcycle-riding, Marxist academic from Columbia delivered a speech called “The Designer: Man in the Middle.” [10]

    I don’t want to dwell on the content of the piece so much as to suggest that, whether designers have been paying attention or not, this “middle” ground is a recurrent theme in social and cultural theory. Bourdieu, for example, used the term “cultural intermediaries” to analyze a group of workers—including graphic designers—that “comes into its own in all the occupations involving presentation and representation (sales, marketing, advertising, public relations, fashion, decoration and so forth) and in all the institutions providing symbolic goods and services.” [7]

    Designers, then, operate in the spaces between production and consumption; between the spheres of work and leisure; we mediate between the communication needs of our clients on the one hand and the expectations of consuming audiences on the other. (I have argued in the past that this audience is actually secondary: strictly speaking, the first audience for designers is themselves and their peers, whether through casual interactions at work or out of the workplace; through the ongoing assembly of a fresh portfolio; or, through endless awards shows and annuals. More on this in a moment.) This, I think, is a key issue when figuring out how we as designers fit into the bigger picture. Better still, it helps to explain why graphic design goes through periodic convulsions regarding its goals, its purpose, its raison d’etre.

    “Designers, then, operate in the spaces between production and consumption; between the spheres of work and leisure; we mediate between the communication needs of our clients on the one hand and the expectations of consuming audiences on the other.”


    It wasn’t lost on Mills or Bourdieu that being in the middle creates its own peculiar problems, or what Bourdieu elegantly calls an “essential ambiguity.” While being a designer often strikes many people as a fun, cool, hip way to earn a living (something like rock-and-roll but with a relatively steady paycheck, in which one can comfortably design a website for a business one minute and a protest T-shirt the next, apparently without betraying the interests of either party), it is also, in the cold light of day, a process of economic exchange. You design an annual report for corporation X to our complete satisfaction, and we’ll pay you the going rate (more or less). Every now and then visible resistance to this rather harsh reality does surface; the two incarnations of First Things First, 35 years apart, being only the most obvious examples. Alas, they are perhaps the exceptions—glimpses into the wish-life of graphic design—that actually prove the rule.

    3. Graphic design is immaterial because graphic designers are, above all, consumers.
    In the summer of 2004 (and, indeed, 2005) I spent a week in the amiable company of forty or so other designers at Maine College of Art’s DesignInquiry, seven days spent chatting and debating and designing with folks from all over the place who had come together under the theme of “truth and message.” Peter Hall did a great job of facilitating a discussion about our role as designers. He had us begin with a set of readings that included Michael Rock’s piece from Eye called “The Designer as Author” [11], Rick Poynor’s “The Designer as Reporter” [12], Ellen Lupton’s “The Producers” [13] and Susan Sontag’s “The World as India” (2004).

    Without wanting to undermine Peter’s initiative, I do want to pause for a moment to reflect on the way in which every piece is, naturally enough, concerned with imagining an empowered (i.e., authoritative, even autonomous) role for the graphic designer—whether it be as a kind of journalist, author, producer or even translator. Call me a contrarian or perverse (or flatter me entirely, and call it dialectical), but I actually started thinking about concrete ways in which designers are decidedly unempowered, such that they might never be masters or mistresses of their own destinies—a body blow to our biggest collective fantasy. Aside from issues of class and taste and being piggy-in-the-middle—as I’ve already suggested—designers can reasonably be understood not as producers at all, but as consumers.

    In occupying the precarious middle ground along with every other cultural intermediary, graphic designers are obliged to cultivate an acute attunement to everything that is new in the world. As designers we depend, in a very real sense, on exposing ourselves to the very latest styles, movies, books, gadgets (say hello to iPod), music—the very freshest morsels that the cultural zeitgeist can serve up. Only then can we produce design work that isn’t stale. The problem, though, is that once everyone else gets his or her hands on it, it ain’t fresh no more; so off we move again. Back to that “essential ambiguity”: we want the “prestige and cultural capital” of being in the design club, but our job is also to share are the groovy ideas and things we find, “popularizing and making them more accessible to wider audiences.” [14] Herein lies the rub: the last thing we want is to be associated with the Joneses, for all their embarrassingly outré suburbanism. So, we have to keep ahead; the further ahead the better. Where once we read Wired or RayGun, we now read RES or This Is a Magazine—at least until the hoards catch up and clue in; we bought Radiohead’s (or Honey Barbara’s) first album when it came out and played it all day long in the studio, but now they’re just too popular. I’m sure some readers have rather more hip examples to offer, which is precisely my point.

    I have tried to sketch out in the most rudimentary fashion some notions that I hope will help to challenge some of our most cherished assumptions and aspirations about graphic design’s role in the world. My aim has not been to trample them in the dirt, but to suggest that the process of making them achievable must involve a more thorough interrogation of the kinds of values and ideals that can sometimes blind us to our own fallibility. The three objections I have raised are derived from a very particular source: a rich vein of cultural and social theory that may provide answers but is certainly not the only port of call. Whatever we do, we (graphic designers, educators, design writers) must get acclimatized to looking beyond our own backyard to develop an enriched understanding of graphic design in its least material forms; beyond its existence as a set of artifacts and distinguished individuals.

    Notes
    [1] The material I plowed through in order to arrive at these conclusions can be viewed here: www.mattsoar.org/SoarBiblio.html.
    [2] Wild, L. (1994). “On overcoming modernism.” Bierut, M., et al (Eds.), Looking Closer: Critical writings on graphic design, New York: Allworth Press, pp. 55-61.
    [3] “Tibor Kalman vs. Joe Duffy.” (1990). Print, Mar/Apr, 68-75, 158-161.
    [4] Meggs, P. (1990). “Is the sleepwalking giant waking up?” Print, Jan/Feb., p. 115.
    [5] Scotford, M. (1997). “Is there a canon of graphic design history?” Heller, S. & M. Finamore (Eds.), Design culture: An anthology of writing from the AIGA journal of graphic design. New York: Allworth Press, pp. 218-227.
    [6] Poynor, R. (2004). “Optic Nerve: Singular sensations.” Print, May/June, p. 34.
    [7] Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. (R. Nice, trans.). London: Routledge & Keegan Paul.
    [8] Stevens, G. (1998). The Favored Circle: The social foundations of architectural distinction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    [9] Glaser, M. (2000). Art Is Work: Graphic design, interiors, objects and illustration. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.
    [10] Mills, C. W. (1963). “Man in the Middle: The designer.” Horowitz, I. L. (Ed.) Power, Politics, and People: The collected essays of C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.
    [11] Rock, M. (2002). “The Designer as Author.” Bierut, M. et al (Eds.) Looking Closer 4: Critical writings on graphic design. New York: Allworth Press, pp. 237-244.
    [12] Poynor, R. (2001). Obey the Giant: Life in the image world. August/Birkhauser.
    [13] Lupton, E. (2003). “The Producers.” Lupton, E., et al (Eds.) Inside Design Now: National design triennial. Princeton Architectural Press.
    [14] Featherstone, M. (1991). Consumer Culture and Ppostmodernism. London: Sage.

    Drucker, J. (1998). “Johanna Drucker on Design Theory.” Heller, S., & E. Pettit (Eds.) Design Dialogues. New York: Allworth Press, pp. 138-143.

    Soar, M. (2002a). “The First Things First manifesto and the question of culture jamming: Towards a cultural economy of graphic design and advertising.” Cultural Studies 16(4).

    Soar, M. (2002b). “Graphic design / Graphic dissent: Towards a cultural economy of an insular profession.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

    About the Author: Apart from my work as a freelance designer, I teach full time at Hampshire College. http://helios.hampshire.edu/soar/
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