By Anne Burdick
This article was first published in 1992 in
Emigre 24. It was presented as a special insert designed by the author.
Adventures in the Skin Trade
"A 15-year-old girl has filed a $50,000 claim
against the Burbank school district for suspending her because the sweat
shirt she fashioned to mourn a slain classmate was imprinted with Old
English-style letters that school officials regard as gang
symbols...," the Los Angeles Times recently reported. The cover of the Constitution is printed
in the same lettering, the student's ACLU lawyer observed.
"'We thought that was the nicest looking writing. Even
Disneyland uses it on some of its signs,' the girl's mother,
Ruth Cisneros said... 'How can they object to a typeface and not the
From the Halls of Justice to Sleeping Beauty's
castle, forms gain their meaning through cultural agreement, rather than
through an intrinsic nature of their own. Within each new context, Old
English lettering becomes a stylistic signifier, encoded through its use.
"Gang style" or "Authoritarian style" or
"Storybook style" are descendant mutations of textur, a calligraphic writing
style prevalent throughout much of Medieval Europe. In the Gothic era it
served a functional purpose; its compact design helped conserve the
expensive parchment of the educational and liturgical books produced in
Historic forms are up for grabs. As the pace of our
culture accelerates, surfaces are stripped away, their skins lifted,
reapplied and reassigned meanings with increasing frequency. In this
cultural condition, graphic design is both participant and product. In
practice, the design profession embraces stylistic fashion and fleeting
design stars. Yet at the same time, the rapid turnover dizzies the Rational
Functionalist in each of us; the apparent reign of surface style leaves us
on unsure footing.
Style is viewed by many as a shallow obsession with
disembodied surfaces. However, our activities as designers are based on
style's function as a cultural communicator. A recent Domus article entitled
"Applied Style vs. Intrinsic Style" makes the distinction
between style as a "natural" outgrowth of internal parameters
(a legitimate or appropriate style) and style as an empty skin merely
that develops from within is considered pure, while style applied from
without is presumed to corrupt the marriage of content and form. Such value
distinctions overshadow the issue of how style moves within the culture and
In a more neutral realm, style refers to the way in
which form is handled. A vocabulary or set of formal characteristics
constitutes a particular style, recognized most frequently in retrospect.
Style itself is the visual language of a culture: in fashion, in consumer
goods, in art, in literature, in all media. Style is ephemeral; it is
timely. To be "in style" is to embody the influences and values
of your time.
The presumed legitimacy of so-called intrinsic style
has been absorbed into the prevailing value system. Graphic design is an
amorphous profession. Its membership includes storefront sign painters,
Madison Avenue art directors, designers with graduate degrees, and desktop
publishers, perpetuating the need for a quasi-professional value structure
to elevate status and salaries for those on the "high" end.
Living and working as we do in a culture dominated by industry, this
structure has transformed over time to suit those needs. Commercial
relevance has caged our self-definition. To openly embrace our very own
sumptuous surfaces solely for their formal qualities dilutes the authority
we have contrived through the mandates of Rational Functionalism. This does
not keep us from making decisions based on aesthetics alone, it just means
we keep quiet about it.
However, good looks aren't enough. A value system
can sustain (and confine) the internal dialogue of our profession; it can
construct a framework for our decision-making, a structure we can work for
or against. For the most part, current ideology relies on an oversimplified
variation of Modernism: rational, functional, socially responsible. While
these values have their merit, they can at times limit the discussion. In
the recent AIGA Journal on Modernism,(3) Kathy McCoy, Dan Friedman, and Massimo Vignelli, in spite of their
differing viewpoints, all make note of the disparity between the complexity
and richness of the original Modernist ideologies and what has become
merely an applied Modernist style. Yet the real contradiction lies between
stripped-down Modernist precepts in theory and that which the profession values in practice, where formal novelty is
most frequently rewarded, and each new fashion is consumed and spent
overnight. As our ideals wither in the face of this dilemma, style itself
becomes the scapegoat and the discussion grinds to a halt.
Form Follows Fashion
Wolfgang Weingart participated in the revolt against
the strict minimalist approach of his Swiss predecessors. While his work is
considered within the Modernist idiom, his experimentation with form and
structure rejected the "neutral envelope" approach of
ostensibly objective form-making in favor of intuitive choice and personal
expression. When visiting CalArts in 1991, Weingart commented with disdain
that he was no longer in fashion, as though whatever had replaced him as
current design-of-choice was merely a trend somehow not as worthy as the
trend he once embodied. Did he mean that the visual expression of his ideas
had lost its power to communicate as time had altered its context?? Or were
the ideas themselves no longer popular? Or was it just that designers had
seen the style of his work for too long and now looked to something new,
out of boredom alone? I asked Weingart if he could elaborate on what
appears to be a preoccupation with formal fashion (style) within the
graphic design profession. What is this affliction that makes graphic
designers crave perpetual stylistic (r)evolution? Weingart evaded the
question inhibiting inquiry into a realm that makes most designers uneasy.
Weingart's reaction is not uncommon. I, myself,
am reluctant to scratch the surface of most graphic design for fear of what
I won't find underneath. In the world of so-called legitimate style,
"trendy" is a death sentence. When stylistic change in graphic
design is tied to the rapid turnover and imitative nature of fashion, we
begin to suspect that our work is merely shallow trend-following and empty
"I make solutions that nobody wants to problems
that don't exist."
—Alvin Lustig, Nine
In the fall of 1991, Nancy Skolos and Tom Wedell
presented their work to the students at CalArts with a reserve common
throughout the profession: the design conglomerates of the 1980's
have diminished, out of necessity, to the small offices of the
1990's. With refreshing honesty, Nancy Skolos presented a gorgeous
brochure that she admitted had unfortunately led to a decrease in sales for
the client. That it was presented to an audience of designers for its
formal qualities says that Skolos Wedell considered it one of their better
(looking) pieces, in spite of the fact that it did not
"function" in a way that was meaningful for the client who had
commissioned it. When asked what was the purpose of graphic design, if not
to aid marketing, Nancy replied, "I don't know... to make the
world a better place?"
Alleviating the contradictions of an oppressive and
stratified modern society through design was a major impetus behind much of
the work and theory of the Bauhaus. However in 1992 America, a graphic
designer is most frequently expected to increase profits, not to dissolve
class barriers. As the United States crumbles under deficit budgets,
military muscle-flexing, and an impoverished infrastructue, that old
Modernist desire for an improved world certainly exists. And it is a noble
cause. However, gorgeous graphic design, regardless of its efficacy for the
client, may or may not contribute positively to the world as a whole, (its
content helps determines that answer), but it does enrich the visual
vocabulary of the profession. And yet we seem to feel uncomfortable
embracing that as a valuable contribution in and of itself.
We take pleasure in style. We thrive on form. The
content of our work is for the most part predetermined; we design to
indulge our obsession with the visual. Our integrity
is compromised by clients who want larger
point sizes or a different color palette. We demote to "job"
status the projects that fall short of our aesthetic expectations due to
budget constraints or client-imposed parameters. This becomes the
"bread and butter" work. While potentially functional, it is
witheld from slide presentations for purely aesthetic reasons. Meanwhile,
we seek out paper company promotions or clients whose projects allow more
creative freedom: these are the projects we finesse into the wee hours of
And these are the projects upon which our reputations
are made. They win the awards, the professional seal-of-approval that in
turn guarantees we will be asked to lecture, to show this very work and to
judge the work of our peers in the next design competition. That this work
is rewarded on formal terms alone exposes our obsession with its surface
value. Functionalist ethics no longer apply. How could they, when the work
is judged out of context, in split-second time, by criteria that goes no
further than immediate impression?
To admit that graphic design is bound to personal style
and fashion as much as to client communication; to reveal that our system
of professional recognition says one thing (appropriate communication)
while acting out another (beautiful, cool, gorgeous); to confess that we
revel in expressive artifice might be considered self-defeating when
attempting to justify design's relevance to industry. Yet in the
internal dialogue of the profession, these acknowledgements are necessary
when assessing the forces influential to our work. Communication, client
needs and content have an indispensible role in what we do, but they tend
to dominate most discussions. Few attempts have been made to evaluate what
we suspect is an obsession with stylistic fashion, although its prevalence
is frequently denounced. To understand the reciprocal relationship between
style and culture and graphic design, it is helpful to examine it from a
historical perspective, as well as to analyze its contemporary incarnation
as what Neville Brody calls a "voracious animal...consuming
we need to do this without losing sight of the aesthetic pleasures, as can
happen when deconstructiong sex or humor.
"That which we call typographic style is first
and foremost determined by our way of life and our working
—Jan Tschichold, On
"...the history of modern design is very much
about a history of style developing independently of ideology."
—Dan Friedman, Modernism:
Style vs. Ideology, 1991
Timeliness vs. Timelessness
Style has been a communicator of cultural values ever
since the earliest societal structures gained complexity. In the late
Middle Ages when merchant class purchasing power increased and previously
exclusive images of wealth and power, clothing and material
possessions, could be purchased by non-aristocrats, style became an
exchangeable commodity of social status. The "democratization"
of elite images of wealth exploded with the rise of industrialism and mass
production by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Imitations of
aristocratic style became affordable for the burgeoning middle class.
Extravagant fake ornamentation came to replace quality and craftsmanship in
conveying the value of material goods. "By the 1830s, the term design
was assuming a modern definition, describing the superficial application of
decoration to the form and surface of a product. The notion of decoration
was becoming more and more distinct from the overall plan of production.
This separation of form from substance became a characteristic paradox of
Increasingly, the image gained currency. The rise of
photography and chromolithography contributed to the growth, power and
proliferation of the disembodied image. "Freed from the encumbrances
of matter, the look of the visible world could now be easily, and
inexpensively, reproduced."(6) As images of style became something one could acquire,
their perceived meaning, the signifieds of their original referents, became
the real commodities.
As a reaction to the stylistic free-for-all that
painted the face of the Victorian era, the designers of De Stijl, the
Bauhaus, Constructivism and others sought to reinstill meaning into form,
or rather to create form that held intrinsic meaning; to sweep clean the
immoral application of meaningless decorative pretense. Many aligned
themselves with engineering, mass production and socialist politics. The
visual embodiment of their revolutionary ideas were, for these designers,
fundamental and universal. At the same time, "...for most, an endless
obsession with pure form, in spite of (or oblivious to) any clear ideology
was considered a sufficiently noble endeavor."(7)
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the American
marketplace presented a different set of criteria for both the motivation
and the evaluation of form-making. By the 1930s, design had become an
effective tool of commerce and was shaped by the competition of the
marketplace and the drive for profit. (This was, of course, taking place in
Europe as well, only to a lesser degree. In Europe it was not uncommon to
have national boards whose sole purpose was to promote good design.
Whereas, "...in America the very notion of privileging
'aesthetic' principles over considerations of market demand and
'popular' taste tended to be regarded as an expensive
While American designers were committed in their rhetoric to the
rationalist and functionalist foundations of Modernism, "...the
U.S. designers lacked...the political and social idealism that inspired
their European counterparts and soon their slogan 'styling follows
sales' had replaced the more purist 'form follows
Corporations utilized planned obsolescence, with
unabashed honesty, as a marketing tool to stimulate shrinking markets of
the Depression. Manufacturers were no longer content to control only the
means of production. In the search for ever-expanding markets, their
influence spread through the shrewd use of advertising and design into the
realm of consumption, by promoting a culture of wasteful excess in which
the lifespan of material goods became increasingly shorter, diminishing
ultimately to one of disposability (a strategy which created many new
opportunities for the budding design profession). This "dynamic
obsolescence" embodied the ideals of change, progress, and upward
mobility; conspicuous consumption posing as the American Dream. "By
the early 1920s, the advertising industry had begun to publicly define
itself as both 'the destroyer and creator in the process of the
Many of the avant-garde designers from Europe were
thrown into this new arena. While their ideas influenced American design
education, their impact was felt primarily through the influence of their
styles, re-contextualized and de-contextualized within the American
marketplace. "Agha paints a pessimistic picture of the acceptance of
European designers, stating that they were used because they could produce
'Attention Value, Snap, and Wallop; while in their spare time they
were allowed to indulge in innocent discussions about the Machine Age,
fitness to function, and objectivity in art.'"(11)
"History is no longer 5, 10, 15 years ago.
History is last week."
—John Weber, in discussion at CalArts, 1992
If we fast forward to contemporary America, where the
image has come to replace not only specific realities but, increasingly,
verbal communication as well, we see that style has begun to feed on
itself, entering into a monologue of self-reference. In the ensuing
procession of stylistic simulacra, forms give their original meanings the
slip. Imagine, a type style that began in an ascetic cloister now signifies
both an urban street gang and State power. Increasingly, "...objects in practice become
signs and signs objects and a second nature takes the place of the
first—the initial layer of perceptible reality."(12) Specific styles refer
only loosely to their origins, if at all. And stylistic change itself acts
as a signifier for progress and evolution: the most recent (regardless) has
become synonymous with the best, a legacy of planned obsolescence. While
the condition itself is not new, it now moves with unprecedented speed.
Styles are assimilated overnight in the search for the
"ever-evolving new." Not only is real history up for grabs, but
also each and every new look as it originates, surfaces, and is instantly
sucked-up, at which point it is deemed "history." Its very
existence guarantees its death. "Style is something to be used up.
Part of its significance is that it will lose its significance."(13)
We live in an era of sound bytes and hyper-time. The
immediacy of television, satellite connections, fax machines and phone
modems has propelled our reality into hyperdrive. These technological
advances when combined with the American values of freedom of consumptive
choice, upward mobility, and progress through rapid turnover, in part a
byproduct of consumerist growth strategies of 20th century commerce, create
an insatiable appetite for the new. "Roland Barthes called this
a madness for perpetual novelty where 'the new' has become
defined strictly as a 'purchased value,' something to
Graphic Design: Feeding the Fire
As graphic designers, we are not necessarily
predisposed to chase after fads; those who do are participants in (victims
of and part to) a hegemonical social condition that demands and consumes
anything new. The pressures of neomania are compounded by the design
establishment's system of rewards and rhetoric. Competitions tend to
take only a quick glance at the surface of work and publications most
frequently give recognition to those with a unique personal style (and
those best at self-promotion) while educators focus on appropriate
communication and function. It is a mixed message that can leave designers
unclear about te impetus and impact of their work.
We are all familiar with the transformations of April
Greiman's work. These developments grew out of her personal
experience and interests more directly than from specific client
applications. (Designers with a singular vision tend to seek out clients
for whom their inclinations are most appropriate, be they architects, rock
bands, or corporations: the inverse of "In the beginning was the
Client..." correct functionalist behavior.) Greiman's
considerable notoriety did not arise because of the legitimacy of intrinsic
design solutions she invoked, or because of the function of her work. It
was her style.
Certainly recognition has its limitations: a
designer's lifespan is getting shorter by the minute. When Jonathan
Barnbrook came to visit CalArts in 1992, he showed work he had done since
leaving the Royal College of Art. His portfolio included a Call for Entries
for the Designers & Art Directors club in Britain which he produced
just two years after his graduation. Barnbrook represents a recent British
phenomenon: the student star. It is difficult to imagine the American
design community embracing such a young designer. He confessed he had been
selected by the D & AD in an attempt to boost their
"hipness" ratings. At the same time he expressed a real fear
and loathing for the Graphic Design Pop Star treadmill—and with good
reason. "I'd hate to think I'll be a has-been in ten
years." That's a realistic fear, considering his almost
instantaneous stardom. Prematurely it would seem, once designers gain
recognition they are perceived by some to be "history": their
newness has worn off.
Thankfully, the reign of a small and entrenched design
aristocracy is fading. Invigorating new voices are necessary, but the rate
at which styles and stylists are being gobbled up and spit out reflects
more than just growth within the profession; its pace is in synch with
Neville Brody's stylistic overhaul from his early
work for The face,
bold and hyperactive, to his later work for Arena, a stripped-down Helvetica and grid-based design, came out
of necessity. His early look had such explicit characteristics that the
stylistic signifiers that made his work unique were easily consumed.
Alternative work feeds the mainstream, its daring diluted through
asssimilation. To avoid being eaten alive, Brody was forced to start anew.
The media overload of daily life propels our visual
vocabulary. For many, the spectacular environment is a point of departure.
But for others, skinning existing formal styles can be a shortcut to
instant relevance. (Witness the proliferation of bold sans serif type,
tightly kerned—it's everywhere! Very shortly, though, its
omnipresence will be its demise.) Design annuals do their part by providing
reproductions of only the surfaces of winning work, minus context,
audience, or parameters. They foster an environment of superficiality.
Without an understanding of the motivation behind the appearance of a
piece, and why it is considered successful, it becomes much easier to peel
back the surface skin and reapply it elsewhere.
(Please note: this is not an attempt to define or
qualify influence, historical or stylistic quotation, and general fashion
trends of which we are all participants—this is a slippery area, and
one in which it is difficult to draw definitive boundaries.)
Some designers look to the established stars to
foretell the future. When Neville Brody made a presentation at the 1989
AIGA Conference in San Antonio, he spoke about creating original solutions
from familiar ingredients. Apparently oblivious to the content of
Brody's talk, a spectator actually raised his hand and asked,
"So what's the new hot typeface for next year?"
Here's the paradox: while an overt personal style
is easily skinned, it is also most frequently recognized, rewarded, and
published. Since graphic design is not necessarily a lucrative profession,
recognition is the primary reward for many; it validates our work in the
eyes of our peers and potential clients. At the same time, once noticed,
the countdown begins. On the other hand, if the style in work is subtle; if
it requires deciphering, engagement, or worst of all, Time; while it may
slip past imitators, it also risks being overlooked by the rewards system.
Ironically, the same is true for the work of good marketing servants (the
real functionalists!), who, chameleon-like, remain relatively anonymous in
their work (the appropriate is not always the most innovative). Thus, the
current reward system strengthens the craving for a stylistic
"ever-evolving new" and forces the concerns and interests of
the profession to the surface level.
Time for Change
Surfaces come and go. Meaning is in a constant state of
flux. Weingart's approach, his spirit of rebellion, and his use of
intuitive decision-making still resonate, but unfortunately, his formal
vocabulary is burnt out. Whereas the look of Kathy McCoy's work
continually transforms while she holds onto a belief system that is
essentially a set of professional ethics. She is openly nourished by new
influences: linguistic theory, the vernacular, MTV or Photoshop. Her formal
vocabulary is broad and changing so her work always appears fresh. Ideas
have more staying power (but are by no means timeless) while forms have an
increasingly shorter life span.
If we accept that the nature of graphic design, like
style, is ephemeral, and, like Old English, carries meaning via context,
changing concommitantly with cultural shifts (whether or not our ideas,
process, or values also transform) then our formal styles should respond
with fluidity over the span of our personal continuums. Each new step in
the continuum is not necessarily better, maybe just different; at once a reply to the
work that preceded it and a manifestation of the cultural forces that shape
the new environment. The motivation for change is multi-layered: personal
growth, new influences, shifting contexts, and social and economic
conditions contribute. As these conditions place pressure on our
performance, it is important to recognize them for what they are, and to
assess how they influence values we accept as natural.
It is time to take stock of the contradictions between
design rhetoric and realities. Well-intentioned designers wishing to make a
positive contribution to the world begin to feel like decorators rather
than communicators, when work is evaluated in functional terms (where
function = market share). Many are, but is that inherently evil? Are
aesthetic contributions enough?
The current challenge, then, is to address the
realities of neomania without being seduced by it; to understand the impact
our shifting culture has on both the aesthetic milieu and self-defined
value system of our profession; to honestly analyze the forces overlooked
by early Modernist philosophies: the personal continuum and the reign of
style; and to reevaluate a rewards system that is both superficial and
near-sighted. Acknowledging these realities leaves us in search of a better
answer, preferrably a set of answers that are not so sweeping and concrete
that they cannot shift with time and can therefore connect more closely to
individual concerns, not pretending to answer universally. A set of
ideologies that accepts and analyzes rather than disdains and dismisses the
shifting nature of style and the value of aesthetic pleasures may lead to a
more realistic connection between theory and practice.
1. "Girl Says School Violated Her Rights." Los Angeles Times Valley Edition,
February 8, 1992, p.B3.
2. VittorioMagnago Lampugnani, Applied Style vs.
Intrinsic Style," Domus, February 1992, p. 734.
3. AIGA Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, 1991.4.
4. Neville Brody interviewed by Rick Poynor,
"Neville Brody," Eye, Number 6, Volume 2, 1992, p.8.
5. Stuart Ewen, All
Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, New York: Harvard Books, 1987, p.33.
6. Ewen, p.25.
7. Dan Friedman, "Modernism: Style vs.
Ideology," AIGA Journal, 1991, p.6.
8. Dick Hebdige, Hiding in
the Light, London: Routledge, 1984, p.60.
9. Penny Sparke, Design in
Context, Secaucus, NY: Chartwell Books, 1987,
10. Ewen, p.242.
11. J. Abbott Miller quoting M.F. Agha, The abc's of (triangle, square, circle): The Bauhaus and
Design Theory, New York, NY: The Hern Lubalin
Study Center of Design and Typography, The Cooper Union, p.43.
12. Dick Hebdige quoting Levebvre, 1971, p.17.
13. Ewen, p.52.
14. Ewen, p.51.
Anne Burdick, is a designer, writer, and educator who
lives in Los Angeles.
A Selection of Essays from Emigre Magazine
By Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 11.
By Anne Burdick. Published in Emigre 24.
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with Steven Heller
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with David Shields
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with Edward Fella
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with Mr. Keedy
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures
By Andrew Blauvelt. Published in Emigre 32.
Discovery by Design
By Zuzana Licko. Published in Emigre 32.
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures
By Andrew Blauvelt. Published in Emigre 33.
An Interview with Rick Poynor
By Mr. Keedy. Published in Emigre 33.
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 34.
Copping an Attitude
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 38.
Graphic Design and the Next Big Thing
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 39.
That was then, and this is now: but what is next?
By Lorraine Wild. Published in Emigre 39.
Graphic Design in the Postmodern Era
By Mr. Keedy. Published in Emigre 47.
Skilling Saws and Absorbent Catalogues
By Kenneth FitzGerald. Published in Emigre 48.
First Things First Revisited
By Rick Poynor. Published in Emigre 51.
First Things First Manifesto 2000
Various authors. Published in Emigre 51.
By Jelly Helm. Published in Emigre 53.
The Emigre Legacy
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 56.
By Chris Riley. Published in Emigre 59.