Graphic Masochism

There’s a scene in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows when Toad’s canary-colored, horse-drawn caravan gets swept into a ditch by a car—the first he’s seen. Toad, instead of cursing the crass, destructive vehicle, stands in the ditch going “poop poop!” in bewildered admiration. From that moment on cars, the very thing that threaten to crush him, become his fetish, his obsession. Designers working at a certain distance from what art critic Peter Fuller called “the mega-visual tradition” know exactly how Toad feels. That distance could be defined as “not close enough to be forced to comply with power’s mores and codes, but not far enough away to be able to ignore them either.” The ambivalence we feel when we're at that kind of distance from something big, brash and powerful is often expressed as irony. Irony might seem like a clever and thought-out statement about power, but it expresses something much more complex and dynamic: confusion, ambivalence, fascination, love-hate, dissatisfaction with where and who one is, desire for self-escape, even self-destruction.

In an interview with Rick Poynor, Peter Saville described how the look of his Republic album sleeve for New Order summed up his ambivalent feelings about the look of Hollywood: “I'm not so enthusiastic about Hollywood from an image point of view. Republic was styled in a way that was both a parody and also a tribute to that look.” Irony, distance and ambivalence are so much a part of postmodern design that we tend to overlook the fact that this “design about design” is also “design about power” and, particularly, about the designer's relationship with it... and with himself.

Meta-design is a continuous commentary by designers on design, through design. If the distance implicit in all commentary allows the designer to criticize the design he's parodying or appropriating, it also allows him to criticize himself and his role in society. The designer is both satirist and self-critic, sadist and masochist. Since the mega-visual tradition is so, well, mega, the individual designer is bound to look rather small beside it. There’s lots of description out there of designer hubris—the individual designer taking on power and, apparently, “winning”. There’s less on masochism, the opposite (and normal) state of affairs, where the designer is defeated by the system, internalizes its aggression against his originality, and perhaps makes something even more original as a result. I thought I’d make a tenuous stab at defining some instances of this elusive but pervasive phenomenon. Here are four instances of “graphic masochism”:

1. “I’m taking you off the case, you’re getting too close.” Like the cliché TV cop who takes the case too personally, the designer makes an excessive, futile, counter-productive investment in his work. Working around the clock, sacrificing mental health and personal life, he goes far beyond the call of duty, working fetishistic love, subtlety, skill and textural richness into products for which these qualities are surplus to requirement. This is the best sort of masochism, born of high standards and ideals. Pain is a byproduct of pride, and comes in the form of pointless effort combined with a willingness to face inevitable disappointment—the moment the job gets taken out of the designer’s hands, botched with a barcode, banalized, diluted.

2. “It was parody, your honor.” Like a Catholic or a farm worker during the Cultural Revolution, the designer can use design to “confess the sins of designers” or “resolve design contradictions”, indicting himself as well as the fellow designers he’s grassing up for their ideological impurity. A gesture as simple as adding drop-shadow to some lettering may contain multiple, multi-directional indictments. Drop shadow is a “design crime”, so by using it our designer becomes a “design criminal”. In court, though, he uses the defense of parody: he was indicting vulgar commercial graphics, satirizing their idiocy. Those “designers” should be in the dock, not him! Freed without sentence, he gives an interview to a design magazine in which he confesses another motive: his drop shadow lettering was self-criticism, a challenge to his own boring habits, his bourgeois good taste. He wanted to pay tribute to his enemies, the “design criminals”. He wanted to pay homage to the brash energy of their supermarket style. He hates himself, but in a creative way!

3. “You used your three wishes for that?” This is the masochism of voluntary self-restriction. Given carte blanche creative freedom by an enlightened, design-savvy indie company, the designer nevertheless hands in something that looks exactly like the constrained, constricted, commercialized and constipated work he would have been forced to make for some narrow-minded, money-grubbing major. He cuts off his own nose to spite his face (and perhaps because he wants to signal to the little town of Freedomville that he's heading for Powertown, where nobody has a nose, and money has no odor).

4. “I'm getting into folk art.” A few years later, after bad experiences in Powertown (which at least employs professionals like himself), our designer, filled with loathing of himself and the industry, feels a gathering nostalgia for some sort of imaginary unspoiled folk design. He starts to admire, collect and emulate all that’s naive, generic and “undersigned”. gushing over the raw doodlings of amateurs and folk artists. His Golden Ageism might be Prinzhornian (revolving around homemade zines and the primitive schizophrenic scrawls collected by psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn) or Procrustean (an admiration for industrial generics, ranges of mass-produced goods with a cheap, utilitarian, once designed-never-changed, one-size-fits-all kind of design). Whatever “other” our designer chooses to fetishize, though, it has to be a club he can’t join. A nice wooden club he can use to beat himself—and design—into shape.