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Post-nostalgia stress syndrome for the 1990s—a curious love/hate
relationship with grunge type—is finally kicking in just as the
first decade of 2000 is coming to a close. Nostalgia is so last
century. It is time for design pundits to start looking forward,
but not before looking back at the past 10 years in order to neatly
categorize and define the design aesthetic of the era (assuming
this can be labeled an era). Actually, I'm putting my dibs in to be
the first to offer some viable categorization. I know it is
cheating to do so before 2009 is officially over.. What's more I
hold that fairness is not an issue when staking out one's
pundit-turf. So let's begin….
Hannah's hand-drawn lettering for the Starbucks Birmingham
International Jazz Festival 2005 (left) and the book Telling Tales
The millennium began tumultuously with the contested election of
George W. Bush. The nation was in fairly good economic health when
Clinton left the White House, and graphic design was rolling
merrily along with plenty of work for everyone. Stylistically,
designers had just emerged from a period of hyper-experimentation
that pitted old modernist verities, such as order and clarity,
against computer-driven chaos, which some called postmodern and
others (myself included) sarcastically referred to as “ugly.” Yet
from a more sympathetic and reasoned perspective “The early '90s
was an extraordinarily fertile period,” wrote Ellen Lupton in a
recent article on printmag.com. It continues: “In the U.S., a
far-flung vanguard had spread out from Cranbrook and CalArts, where
several generations of designers—from Ed Fella to Elliott Earls—had
embraced formal experimentation as a mode of critical inquiry.
Emigré magazine, edited and art directed by Rudy
VanderLans, provided an over-scaled paper canvas for
experimental layout, writing and typeface design.” And let's not
forget David Carson's stinging jabs at typographic propriety. He
significantly influenced a generation to embrace typography as an
Ed Fella's handmade typographic work for AIGA from 2004 (left)
and 2006 (right).
No matter which side of the aesthetic or philosophical divide
one was on, this was a critically exciting time to be a graphic
designer. Although the computer was the dominant medium, during the
early '90s designers were transitioning from the hand to the pixel,
experiencing all the visual quirks and anomalies that came with
technological unease. By the end of the decade and the beginning of
the 21st century, despite the Y2K-end-of-civilization hoopla, the
computer was firmly entrenched in the lives of designers, and not
only was there an aesthetic calming down, but a frenetic media
migration. Designers were relying on the computer not only for
clean, crisp and flaw-free print work, they were turning from the
printed page to video, audio and other motion and sound formats.
Mastery of the computer's options meant that by the end of the 20th
century a new generation of designers were commanding much more
than merely Illustrator, Quark and Photoshop programs—they had
figured out how to wed technique to concept, and produce design
that often had an exterior life other than the client's message.
The earlier grungy experimentation gave way to a new clarity and
rationalism—even a new minimalism began to take hold with the
return to Helvetica and other emblematic sans serif faces.
So, arguably neo-modernism of the kind practiced in, say,
Wallpaper* magazine, which launched in 1996, was the
defining style of the decade. But actually that was not the case.
Eclecticism was still in force, and while some designers were
out-of-the-closet modernists, others followed an expressionist
model. (You want names? Just look at the AIGA Design Archives for the
evidence). But eclecticism is too broad a notion to be a
decade-defining style. The '90s were clearly the digital decade
with all that that represents—an evolution from embracing digital
mistakes to practicing digital precision. Axiomatically,
generations challenge one another. If the '90s were devoutly
digital then, the 2000s should be the “anti-digital” decade.
(From left) A hand-lettered illustration for Ecojot journals by
Williams; and wood-block lettering by Ross MacDonald for
the book Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America (both
Where's the proof, Mr. Pundit? Anecdotally, I draw the
rationales from students entering the MFA Designer as Author
program I co-chair (with Lita Talarico). When asked why the first
wave of students entered from late '90s through mid-2000s, the
answer was, “To get back to the hand.” Now, this does not mean a
total rejection of the computer (for that would be professional
suicide), but it does mean that the craft aspect of design was
lacking in their formal educations and practices. With the increase
of the D.I.Y. sensibility, with renewed emphasis on “making things
from scratch,” designers were feeling a need to make physical (not
virtual) contact with their materials and outcomes. It is no
surprise that sewing and scrapbooking emerged as popular hobbies,
but it was somewhat novel that they were integrated into the
graphic design practice.
Over the past five years I co-authored three books that support
this “anti-digital” claim: Handwritten (with Mirko Ilic) and
New Vintage Type and New Ornamental Type (with
The first is totally focused on typography done by the original 10
digits (although unavoidably scanned for the computer). The other
two books revisit older styles and eras, and a good amount of the
material is generated by hand with a D.I.Y. underpinning.
Consistent with this assertion, hand typesetting, letterpress
printing and silkscreen techniques are on the rise in schools and
workshops. And speaking of workshops, as a thesis one former MFA
Designer as Author student established the Dirty Weekend, a series of
three weekend sessions that focus exclusively on painting, carving,
cutting and printing by hand. Recent turnouts at the Art Directors
Club in New York have also proved that the hand is at least as
mighty as the pixel.
(From left) Cover of Steve Heller and Mirko Ilic's book
Handwritten (2006); and Jon
Gray's book jacket design for Everything Is Illuminated
Why call this trend anti-digital? Isn't it just an alternative
to the dominant medium, but certainly not a substitute for it?
Perhaps. But since pundits like to sum up moments—especially
decades—for purposes of further debate, I will refer to the early
Oughts as “The Decade of Dirty Design” until someone proves
Was the pen any mightier than the keyboard? Print history scholar Collins considers whether or not the medium has changed the message.
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Section: Inspiration -
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