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So many legends, so little time. Ric Grefé
has asked me to speak briefly on the value of continuity in our
profession. Of course one could take that charge to mean the short
history of design, perhaps beginning with Peter Behrens, who is credited
with invention of identity programs and coordinating graphic and
industrial design activities. Or one might consider our history as
beginning with the first cave paintings at the dawn of history.
I prefer the longer view that relates our activity to the fundamental
needs of the human species—a species whose most distinctive
characteristic is making things for a purpose, which turns out to be the
actual description of what we do.
Any grandiosity or self-importance that this cosmic description of
our activity creates in us will be quickly erased by the discovery that
in a typical design class only 30% of the students will have any idea
who Paul Rand is and will not be able to identify Eric Nitsche or Lester
Beall, let alone Joseph Hoffman, Edward Penfield or Gustav Jensen.
Incidentally, Jensen was a mentor to Paul Rand and, Cassandre aside,
perhaps the designer he most admired, but I would not be at all
surprised if most of us here tonight have never heard of him—so much for
understanding our own history.
I have always believed that there is a psychological and ethical
difference between those who make things and those who control things.
If form making is intrinsic to human beings and has a social benefit,
then we can think of the “good” in good design having more than a
stylistic meaning. Linking beauty and purpose can create a sense of
communal agreement that helps diminish the sense of disorder and
incoherence that life creates.
The part of design that is involved in fashion and marketing has the
least need to examine and understand our history. Examining what has
happened over twenty years seems to provide enough information to meet
professional requirements, but, if our field aspires to be significant
and worthy of respect, it must stand for something beyond salesmanship.
Being a legend is an accomplishment that is hard won and sadly
ephemeral, but being part of human kind’s desire to make useful and
beautiful things links us to a glorious history.
Two weeks ago I developed a sudden, painful wrist condition. I went
to a fancy hand doctor who told me I probably had a “gouty” incident.
That’s not “Gaudi” the great Barcelonian designer and architect. It’s
gout, as in those 18th century engravings of rich, fat men with inflamed
big toes. My wrist is fine, but while I was in the doctor’s office I
noticed a document on his wall called “What A Surgeon Ought to Be”
written in the 14th century. I’ve changed a word or two but it seems
like good advice for our profession.
This essay is part of "Centennial Voices," a series initiated as part
of AIGA's Centennial celebrations to spark conversations about the
past, present and future of design within the design community and
Section: Inspiration -
critique, culture, technology
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