GRAPHIC DESIGN IN AN AGE OF ANXIETY

13 November 2006
David Crowley
David Crowley

Graphic design then ...
A few years ago it was perfectly clear what it meant to be a graphic designer. He or she was a specialist who used expert knowledge of type, print and markets on behalf of commercial clients, government agencies or anyone else who chose to commission them. And designers worked hard to insinuate themselves into the commercial world. As technocratic specialists, graphic designers invented their own jargon. Meeting a client involved a lot of discussion of 'problem solving' and 'the design process.' Corporations felt happiest when employing these arty types if a designer's work had been endorsed by professional bodies like D&AD (British Design and Art Direction) or AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts). Medals at an international competition lent a shine to a designer's portfolio and reassurance to their clients.


For a large corporation, worried about maintaining its place at the top of the food chain, a successful and skilled designer offered the illusion of reducing the risks attached to commerce. The designer was, in fact, just one of a phalanx of anonymous consultants used by large businesses to massage the market and maintain their identities. Major corporations turned to designers to do more than simply address potential consumers: a new corporate identity, like some kind of magic elixir, could renew a business in the eyes of consumers, employees and shareholders (or even voters, as so many political parties believed).

For a long time graphic design was a field without a great deal of controversy. One might even say that it was even a field without politics. To sign up as a graphic designer was - at least in Western Europe and North America - to endorse the status quo. Designers who took an ethical dislike to commercialism only avoided the immorality at its heart ('I won't work for tobacco firms').

Even graphic design's preoccupations with style and surface in the late 1980's and early 1990's, typified by the baroque experimentation with type and legibility by designers like David Carson, did not depart greatly from the profession's appointed role as technocrats. After all, the bravura demonstration of mastery over software or the claim to lead style still marked out the designer as an expert. In the world of fast-changing style, what better way to persuade a client that you - the designer - are an accurate barometer of taste and fashion? In a fiercely competitive marketplace, as it is often remarked, the distinctions between products often reside not in functional differences but in the realms of appearance.

Packaging, logos, advertising and branding invent such differences.
Even though graphic design imagined itself as being distinct from advertising (and graphic designers liked to view their work in more elevated terms, as a cultural activity rather than a commercial one), the difference was often hard to distinguish. This illusion has become almost impossible to maintain as advertising has crept into all realms of culture. With more than a little hubris, for instance, in the 1980's writers on graphic design were keen to claim entire cities as 'graphic environments,' as architects adopted spectacular forms for their buildings and billboards swelled to cover entire elevations.

Today the banal truth of this statement is revealed by the spread of 'ambient' and 'guerrilla' advertising: the former appearing in the least expected locations such as the backs of car park receipts and on the hanging straps in railway carriages, and the latter as esoteric visual jokes or pranks. As design critic Rick Poynor put it provocatively in the late 1990's, 'Design is Advertising.'

... and now?
Compare the image of designer as professional specialist with that of another emergent today. The design press and the glossy books surveying the field is increasingly profiling the output of what Andrew Blauvelt, writing in Emigre, has called, 'critical designers,' who are 'sceptical of the conventional role of design as a service provider to industry.' Eschewing this role, many designers have sought out unorthodox clients that will support left-field thinking or have become producers in their own right, even authoring the messages that they communicate. One recent book by John O'Reilly simply describes this phenomenon as 'No Brief' design.

Groups like Foundation 33 in London - to cite just one prominent example - have attracted attention for unorthodox work, much of which has been self-generated in the 'No Brief' vein. A London-based design studio, established in March 2000 by Daniel Eatock, a graphic designer, and Sam Solhaug, an architect, Foundation 33 has produced a diverse range of ideas and things including short runs of furniture, 'Utilitarian Greeting Cards,' high-profile advertisements and promotional material for Channel Four, a British television station, as well as objects which seem to baffle business-minded designers.

In 2001 studio members photocopied an entire dictionary producing a stack of more than 1500 A4 pages: an abstruse 'hand-made' comment on the value of words. Foundation 33's thinking appears to owe as much to the list-making and relentless recording of 'Systems art' associated with figures like On Kawara and Sol LeWitt in the 1960's as traditional graphic design thinking. And in one prominent event, the studio set about creating a record-breaking limited edition artwork (one million signatures on a postcard bearing the legend 'The world's largest signed and numbered limited edition artwork') to promote a new channel Four programme called 'The Art Show.'

Much new work sets out to eschew the traditional assets of the designer; technique and expertise. Recent interest in systems and lists, and the rediscovery of Helvetica as an 'one size fits all' typeface reflect the interest of a new generation of designers who often want their work to appear artless and impersonal. Another variation on this theme is the interest in the visual forms of everyday life. Letterbox, for instance, an Australian company specialising in the design of type, issues an occasional publication, Ampersand.

In issue 4 (2001), they asked 600 seven to fifteen-year old children to draw the first corporate identity that came into their heads. The results, perhaps not surprisingly, reflected the deep penetration of international brands into our consciousness. If design in the 1990's has become widely associated with a kind of 'narcissism' which understood style as an expression of personality, Foundation 33's utilitarian greeting cards and Letterbox's visual ethnography reflect a new taste for underdesign.

Many 'No Brief' works claim design as thinking rather than as style. This mood was captured by Dutch designer Mieke Gerritzen in Everyone is a Designer!, a theme issue of Emigre in 2001. This noisy and breathless design - with the appearance of banner advertising on the internet - mixed aphorisms and slogans. (Rather like the cacophony of the Internet where the skills and principles of the designer seem to have been lost in the rush to communicate). The title of Gerritzen's publication makes reference to a well-known saying of Joseph Beuys, the German activist-artist; 'Jeder Mensch ein Kunstler.'

Perhaps, following Beuys on art, she seems to be suggesting that the Internet has the potential to liberate our consciousness and democratise our notions of who a creative designer might be. However, no clear voice or statement emerges from Gerritzen's pages: the slogans and aphorisms battle against one another. Everyone is a Designer! perhaps more than any other intervention into the debate, suggests that graphic design is experiencing a crisis of authorship. What it means to be a designer no longer seems certain.

So what has brought this crisis to a head? Some causes of this new scepticism are not difficult to plot. The late 1990's saw an outpouring of anti-corporate dissent crystallized by Naomi Klein's 2001 book No Logo and reflected in the success of Adbusters, the Canadian 'culture-jamming' magazine that is best known for its enthusiasm for 'subvertising.' Although the focus of this attack was on the actions of corporation and the ubiquitous creep of advertising, graphic designers came under the spotlight as 'image-makers for the democracies of false desire.'

Prominent designers queued up to express mea culpa in print. 'First Things First 2000,' a manifesto which appeared in half-a-dozen design magazines in North America and Western Europe, protested the narrow horizons of graphic design in the consumer society: 'Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact.'

Others - most famously American Shawn Wolfe - used their skills to satirize consumerism. He made an early intervention in the mid-1990s when he produced promotional material for the 'Remover Installer,' an oxymoronic tool that holds the promise of usefulness while providing no tangible benefits. This was Wolfe's comment on the impossible promises that advertising makes to consumers.

As more reflective members of the profession began to worry about graphic design's service-role, 'the how' of communication has come to seem less important than 'the what.' The stream of exhibitions, t-shirts, web-sites and, most strikingly, a tidal wave of small, independently published and often irregular magazines can be explained in terms of this anxiety. Self-publishing offers the promise of freedom of expression, even, it seems, when some graphic designers only want to talk to each other.

Ultimately, 'No Brief' work raises a question about the definition of graphic design in a changing world. Is it a category of objects, a set of techniques or an approach? The practical realities of making a living means that this circular question cannot be squared neatly.

Some designers have to subsidise their 'own' experiments by working for commerce. Shawn Wolfe's website cites an impressive roster of clients including Sony and record companies like Def Jam. Another - perhaps more cynical - view is that 'No Brief' work and manifesto-writing often function as self-promotion. Both can broadcast an attitude, even when the attitude appears to be an anti-commercial one.

In an age when large sections of the population view advertising with cynicism - particularly young media-savvy consumers - strategies which borrow a little anti-commercial rhetoric may confer products a market advantage (witness American mega-corporation Coca-Cola's slogan 'Image is Nothing. Thirst is Everything' for its heavily marketed Sprite drink).

This apparent paradox is best illustrated with 'Cash Perfume - the scent of money' and 'EU de toilette,' widely-published and much-exhibited projects designed by Christoph Steinegger, a figure associated with the Vienna-based Sabotage art group. Cash, a perfume packaged in a battered atomiser and delivering the smell of a freshly-printed $100 bill, and 'EU de Toilette,' the scent the now abandoned Franc, Schilling and Deutschemark infused into a new 10 Euro note, can easily be read as a political comments on the nature of success in the consumer society. Yet at the same time Steinegger works for Buro X, a large design consultancy in Austria and Germany that includes amongst its clients BMW, Nestle Chocoladen and Rothmans - companies which rely on the stimulation of desire for their high market position.

The fact that these projects have earned Steinegger awards from the Art Director's Club of Austria and other bodies promoting branding and advertising would seem to suggest that he is less an enemy of consumerism than one of its sharpest operators. The question to be asked of this and much other 'No Brief' work is not just 'what is being communicated?' but also 'why?'




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David Crowley

David Crowley is a graduate of the Royal College of Art and the University of Brighton. He also studied at the Cracow Academy of Art in Poland in the 1980s. He taught at Staffordshire University and the University of Brighton before joining the RCA in 1999.

Deputy Head of the Department of Design History and Senior Tutor in the Department of Historical and Critical Studies, he teaches aspects of cultural history in the nineteenth and twentieth century with a particular focus on the way everyday objects are inscribed with ideology.

His courses, taught as part of the History of Design programme, explore the way in which currents like nationalism shape material culture. He has been the recipient of research grants from the British Council and the British Academy.

2+3D - grafika plus product
"2+3D - grafika plus product" is a Polish quarterly devoted to graphic (2D) and product (3D) design. The first number appeared in October 2001.

In each issue we present a profile of a designer, a known designer or a promising young professional. We follow current activities in that field: exhibitions, competitions and conferences from all over the world with the special attention paid towards Polish events and from the Central and Eastern Europe. We also present design theories and chosen subjects from design history.

We publish material devoted to graphic and product design, not only industrial design but also craft and unique, paying attention to its relation to the environment and users. We also present all the topics from other disciplines related to design such as: art, sociology, psychology or ethnology this in time provides inspirations or help to solve design problems. The articles in 2+3D are in Polish with English summaries.