08 November 2006
Veronique Vienne
Veronique Vienne

There is a good reason why most of us are afraid to speak in public: spoken words are a lot less reliable than written ones. At the 2001 Illustration Conference, held in Santa Fe, one of the attendees refused to voice his difference of opinion by coming up to the podium, as it was suggested because, he said "he was not good at the microphone." Instead he handed out pamphlets in the hallways. It caused a major brouhaha.

Thank heaven's words on a page can still get people upset. Not everything in life can or should be turned into a sound bite. Some ideas work best on paper. As an author who is often invited to speak at conferences, I know for a fact that writing is not the same thing as talking. "But your message would have such a wide appeal with live audiences," said my publisher when I turned down her suggestion to go into the talk show business. Not so, I replied: The medium is the message and my medium is a graphic device.

Long live the poster, the manifesto, the pamphlet, the declaration. The power of graphic expression resides in the zone of silence that printed matter generates. Notice how quiet you are as you read these words. There is a small island of stillness around you. The main function of signs on a page is to give you time for reflection.

I was interested to read the advice that guerrilla poster artist Robbie Conal gives to volunteers who plaster city walls with his controversial political portraits: If people ask you what you are doing, he said, "don't talk too long and don't argue. Give them a poster." In other words, let the image speak for itself. In the same spirit, San Diego graphic prankster Shepard Fairey created an icon that defied commentary: the stoned-faced Andre The Giant. Farey's now famous stickers, featuring the cryptic likeness of the mysterious hulk, carried no ostensible message they were only culture-jamming artifacts.

Beware of newscasters and talking heads: their job is to make ideas sound inoffensive. Paradoxically, the minute a book, an article, a political report or a scientific paper are presented on television as part of the "news," they loose their ability to provoke new thoughts. They become part of the oral culture here today, gone tomorrow. By assuming that we are too busy to read, talk show hosts and TV commentators turn us into an illiterate audience one much more vulnerable to corporate indoctrination.

Graphic expression is still the best way to communicate ideas. That s why design conferences can be so disappointing. When we talk about design in front of a microphone, we run the risk of undermining the very authority of our profession. Even the most brilliant speakers cannot match the power of apiece of paper on which something is printed. Case and point: the First Things First Manifesto, initially written in 1964 by British designer Ken Garland, and signed by 22 visual communicators. Revised in 2000, it was published jointly by a number of design publications worldwide, including Ad busters, the AIGA Journal, Blueprint, Eye, Forms and Items. Today, the stern 300-word document still manages to excite, offend and inspire the graphic design community.

The graphic language has a long history as a subversive tool. Its counter-cultural past still lingers in our collective memory. So much so that today the graphic vocabulary of controversy is a popular form, pressed into service even for the non-controversial projects of ultra-conservative clients. Paper mills, for instance, hype their sample books to look like avant-garde manifestos. Trendy magazine layouts impersonate underground Agit-Prop art. And annual reports for financial institutions borrow their typographic style from radical political posters. Are we simply nostalgic for the days when the printing press was an instrument of social progress? Or are we in fact getting ready to reclaim the power of a medium that launched so many revolutions?

About this article

This article is reprinted from Graphis magazine, with permission.

About the Author
One of Veronique Vienne's earliest childhood memories is staring at the oversized "DEFENSE D'AFFICHER" (Billposting Prohibited) signs that used to cover the walls of Paris, her native city. Trying to deter people from posting signs by posting even bigger signs always seems preposterous to her. So, she wasn't surprised when during the 1968 Paris students uprising protesters scribbled on walls the now famous "It's forbidden to forbid" maxim. Written words are powerful tools of dissent, their impact often more lasting than spoken words. In her column, The Art of Saying Nothing, she explores why, in the age of mediatized sound bites, graphic expression still has the power to both disrupt and inspire. Veronique Vienne's latest book, Something to be Desired, published by Graphis, is a collection of some of her essays on design. She is also the best-selling author of The Art of Doing Nothing, published by Clarkson Potter. A contributing editor to Graphis, Veronique writes for a host of other magazines, including Metropolis, Adbusters, House & Garden, Aperture, and Travel & Leisure.

GRAPHIS magazine was founded in 1944 by Walter Herdeg and first published in Zurich, Switzerland by Graphis Press. In 1986, B. Martin Pedersen purchased Graphis Press, expanded the U.S. presence of the company and relocated its headquarters to New York City. GRAPHIS has maintained its reputation as the premier magazine covering all areas of graphic communication including design, photography, architecture, advertising and product design worldwide.
In addition to GRAPHIS magazine, Graphis Inc. also publishes a series of annual and bi-annual books, each of which handsomely presents the most innovative work produced internationally in fields such as graphic design, photography, advertising and corporate identity.