Kathy McCoy: Where Did All the PoMo Go?

Filed Under: Inspiration , history , Article , Voice , interview

Heller: You spent the better part of a generation at Cranbrook overseeing a hothouse for design experimentation—everything from typography to imagery. Whatever one calls it today—PoMo, deconstruction, or new wave—the work that emerged from Cranbrook was unique for its time and defined the design of the times. Before we talk about today's hothouses, or lack thereof, how do you feel that particular moment in design history has impacted this particular practice of design?

McCoy: Any design always lives within a historical context, a continuum of development. Everything that has come before this moment impacts current practice, intentionally or inadvertently. So Cranbrook’s “hothouse experiments” are embedded in what goes on today. They're part of the knowledge base for today's practice.

But the extent that those experiments affect today's work is open for discussion. We weren't working in a vacuum at Cranbrook. We were part of a whole environment of writing, thinking, discussing and publishing that was going on in the U.S. and Europe in graphic design and also architecture and industrial design. This all took place over a long time. I was at Cranbrook for 24 years and our work and influences went through a lot of changes. In fact, there were several distinct periods of experimentation. You were kind enough to invite me to speak about this at one of your “Modernism & Eclecticism: A History of Graphic Design” conferences in the mid-1990s.

Heller: How have those changes, those experiments, morphed into today’s practice?

McCoy: Designers all work off past influences. For instance, I’ve been reviewing a number of web design firms' work as part of a consulting project. What you describe as “PoMo”, “Deconstruction” and “New Wave” are embedded in all these studios' design forms. Are these designers aware of the sources of the forms that they use everyday? The best of these designers could probably write insightful essays analyzing their antecedents and influences and how they build on them. But other designers probably don't have a clue where their forms are coming from. Many simply apply a catalog of derivative visual moves that they absorb from the media that surrounds us all. In fact, we all do that to some extent, either intentionally or inadvertently—we live in a visually charged atmosphere, it is in the air we breathe.

Heller: So much Cranbrook design was built on the foundation of literary theory. In a blog someone recently suggested that “design theory,” which was taken to be post structuralism and deconstruction, had played itself out and was therefore no longer useful. Would you agree?

McCoy: I don’t think any design theory can “play itself out.”

An architectural theorist once told me that much of the physics theory that takes astronauts to the moon is obsolete, or at least has been eclipsed by newer theoretical work. But it STILL gets us to the moon.

Think of the theory that we have in communications design, from color theory to semiotics and rhetoric. Even though there might not be astounding new work produced off of Josef Albers’ or Faber Birren’s color theories, we still teach them and they provide extremely valuable frameworks for working with color.

Theory doesn’t just catalyze the current moment’s new work. Each theory eventually joins the bedrock foundation of our discipline, and every new movement stands on its shoulders. Graphic design won’t be a true profession until we finally understand the full role of theory.

Heller: Okay, but, along those lines, is the same intensity of experimental work being done today? I would say no. But I'd also say I may be jaded by the past. Do you believe that experimentation—testing the boundaries, developing new forms, creating new ideas—is alive and well?

McCoy: Previous avenues of experimentation have cooled off—or rather, I would say that those territories of inquiry have been widely explored and many “results” have been documented, disseminated and absorbed into design's body of knowledge.

Today, I think there is just as much exciting new work being done. The explorations are different now—as they should be. It is a different time with different influences. To identify where today's groundbreaking work is going on, we need to ask what the new conditions are. New work comes from new conditions—social, political, intellectual, economic and technological.

For me, most of the important new work builds off technological innovation. Much of the new theory is in response to new technology. Although there is a good deal of experimentation with form, it’s not about defying conventions and disobeying the rules of refinement as in previous work. “New wave,” “postmodern” and “deconstruction” experiments were shocking, often deliberately so, and created controversy. (I still find those terms unsatisfactory, although I don’t have any suggestions for better terminology?)

Heller: So the visceral shock of the new is old hat?

McCoy: The significant new work isn’t calculated to be shocking, and it doesn’t seem to outrage design traditionalists—although it may baffle many of the less technologically adept. It doesn’t “test boundaries” because the boundaries have vanished, vaporized by technological change. There are no rules to break because there are no rules yet. Instead, experiments search for and propose paradigms to guide us as we design in these new communications media.

Designers are exploring motion and sound, and interaction with the audience. Much of the experimentation is more conceptual. “Experience design” explores how to connect with audiences in time-based nonphysical media and interactive communications spaces. Although there are lots of juicy formal experiments that are more sensual than print could ever be—a great movie title washes over us and transports us with its multi-sensory spectacle and story—there is also a lot of very serious-minded experimentation that involves information theory, cognitive psychology, ethnography, code-writing and heavy-duty computation.

Heller: I agree that technology is the major stimulus – it always has been from the days of Guttenberg to digital media. What then are these innovations producing?

McCoy: Digital technology and time-based media give graphic design interactivity, motion and sound, and employ vast amounts of imagery, both still and moving. One major change is how typography has come to life. We are seeing wonderful examples of time-based typography telling narratives through both verbal and visual means. Our 35-year effort to integrate the verbal and visual—type and image—is now possible through software innovations and a wide range of media channels from broadcast graphics and movie titles to exhibitions, websites and software interfaces. It’s a media soup that blends and crosses all conventional categories.

Heller: Does this imply that to do meaningfully adventurous work, print is no longer the medium?

McCoy: Good question. Yes, today there is probably less ground-breaking work in print than in digital multimedia. But there are some really great cross-overs and influences between digital and print. I see digital multimedia ideas and sensibilities influencing print—for instance, Elevator’s VH1 media kit uses lenticular technology to make a hand-held “print” piece behave and feel like a movie narrative. (www.elevatoraccess.com/work/index.shtml)

I believe that interactive electronic media will up the ante for print design. Audiences are getting hooked on digital media’s interactivity and will expect to be in the driver’s seat in all forms of communications. Of course, a lot of print media already incorporates many interactive elements—for instance, you can read a news magazine in any order you want, surf through the departments, and read to your preference of depth. But print media can be more interactive and I think we will see designers taking electronic interactive strategies into the physicality of print increasingly.

Also, communications programs often require a wide variety of media channels. There are really rich examples out there of ideas that originate in one media being reinterpreted wonderfully into other media, including print.

Heller: When Cranbrook was at its peak, youth culture demanded a break from the status quo. Is this the same now? Is the current academic, and ultimately, client-driven environment inviting experiments of any kind?

McCoy: I don't think youth culture was much on our minds at Cranbrook. The students weren't that young—Cranbrook is a graduate school and most of our students were 25 to 35 years old. Much of the published design work executed by our students was for cultural institutions with mature audiences. But Cranbrook experimentation probably influenced a lot of the commercial/professional design projects for younger audiences. I recall Campbell Ewald, Chevrolet's advertising agency, asking Ed Fella c1976 to design their car catalog in “that New Wave style” in hopes that Chevrolet would appeal to a younger market. And David Carson sought out Cranbrook students' experimental fonts for use in his youth-culture publications.

Electronic gaming enabled and disseminated by the Internet is a youth-culture phenomena that is adding energy and ideas to design now. I see it's influence in really interesting work by Elliott Earls at Cranbrook (www.theapolloprogram.com) and Rafael Fajardo at University of Denver (www.du.edu/~rfajardo/juego/lamigra.htm).

But clients of all kinds demand time-based and interactive design, including E-commerce, all kinds of corporate communications, trade shows, entertainment media, cultural and educational institutions. Much of it is quite edgy.

Heller: I agree that Earls has long moved in fascinating directions—wedding design, art, and performance—that push authorial boundaries. But does this have appeal, or relevance, outside an insular vanguard or followers thereof?

McCoy: Hindsight will tell–it is still on the edge and is not exhibited through conventional channels. At this point it’s known only within a subculture, as it always is with the avant garde. I am guessing that there is a significant new communications avenue developing in this arena that we will understand better in coming years as it finds its way into mainstream applications.

Heller: Have we reached a dead-end or merely a cul de sac in how far graphic design and typography can go?

McCoy: Absolutely not! Digital technology and time-based media give graphic design interactivity, motion, sound and access to vast amounts of imagery. Typography has come to life. The theory, methods and formal skills we must impart to students in graphic design undergraduate education have doubled or tripled.

We have a serious exploration ahead of us before we begin to get our arms around this vast new territory. Design needs new theories to understand all these new possibilities, new methods to guide our processes, and the possibilities for formal experimentation are wide open. And we need a new name – graphic design just doesn't begin to describe communications design in this digital soup.

We also need new media venues to "publish" design experimentation, since print media does not reproduce or describe most of this work very well. The content of our established professional magazines may not be accurately reflecting the experimentation that is out there. We are seeing Internet sites begin to fill this role, creating some interesting subcultures. Matt Owen's Volume One (www.volumeone.com ) and Elliott Earls’ Apollo Program are early examples. "VOICE" is another aspect of this phenomena, of course.

Heller: Is there a venue like Cranbrook, whether a school, workshop, or Samizdat somewhere, that is percolating with this experimentation? How and where is this happening?

McCoy: I think it’s happening everywhere in more places than one could name. Communications design is VERY decentralized now. It used to happen in key locations one could list. In Europe in the early 20th century – the Bauhaus, Russian and Holland; then Ulm, Zurich and Basle. In New York for 25 years. In the 1970s Cranbrook and other locations proved that it could happen in more remote locations – in California and even the Midwest! Now it can happen at the South Pole, thanks to satellites and the Internet.

Heller: Have you seen or experienced design that gives you the same rush as you got when the Cranbrookians were initially producing?

McCoy: Hmmm . . . the initial rush. Always a great thing. I have to say that at Cranbrook it usually took a bit of hindsight to let the dust settle before it became clear what significant innovation had actually been produced. I learned not to judge too quickly, in the crit or the semester-end review. On the other hand, I do recall crits where I was just amazed as the students pinned their pieces to the crit room wall. Yes, I do see work that excites me and points to new directions. Most often I see it in the digital realm, in time-based media and on the web. Almost always it involves motion and sound.

Heller: Motion and sound are indeed exciting (albeit still novel), but to end our discussion give me two examples of work that you believe will, or should, be a paradigm for the next “big” thing?

McCoy: There is fresh work all over the Web, where it’s quite affordable to “publish.” Because it is decentralized with no “official” hierarchies, I hesitate to name anyone or any one project as a paradigm of practice. There are so many people and schools (and even little kids) experimenting—a lot of collaboration and much of it crosses professional boundaries. Many are graphic designers, but also industrial designers and architects are physicalizing digital media and challenging audiences to interact and participate. Summer Powell and Liisa Salonen of Elevator (www.elevatoraccess.com) are graphic designers that collaborate with all kinds of designers. Check out “Techtoos”, their technological tattoos. Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger of Antenna (antennadesign.com) apply their industrial and interaction design expertise to interactive installations, including “Cherry Blossom” at the Cooper Hewitt. Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of Asymptote (www.asymptote.net) and Mikon Van Gastel at Imaginary Forces (www.imaginaryforces.com) are doing important work. Some of these projects are self-published proposals, some are gallery installations, but a significant amount of ground-breaking work is for mainstream clients.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com