Where’s the party? (Still searching.)

By David Cabianca

This is a revised and expanded version of a letter that appeared in Emigre 69 and the catalog to Emigre in Norfolk, an exhibit at Old Dominion University, October 1-November 6, 2005.

For more than twenty years, the best parties have been at Rudy and Zuzana’s house. In attendance were friends, family, gate-crashers and even - like me - a few stray dogs. As always, the revelry wound down and everyone ended up in the kitchen rummaging around to satisfy an afterglow hunger. Then the real debates began. These semi-lucid (of course, there’d been a lot of drink) discussions got very personal and rowdy - often pissing off the proper neighbors with real jobs (just check the “Letters” section of any issue). This unruly group shared a disregard for authority. Just what was this thing called “graphic design” that required such decorum? When does graphic design happen? Why does it look the way it does? How can one define “beauty"? What’s the significance of different modes of practice? How does graphic design resist merely packaging culture and actively take part in critical analysis? Unruly questions. Impertinent even. Graphic design is the perfect commodity fetish: multiple, easily consumed, and disposable. Perhaps this is our strength.

The practicing of design and of design theory are emerging as equally distinct, equally legitimate concerns of the graphic designer. Examples abound. Recognizing that graphic design encompasses specific ways to see the world, North Carolina State University recently reorganized its PhD in Graphic Design into seven areas of interest.1 The editors of Dot Dot Dot state that “whatever we decide to include makes it a graphic design magazine, if that’s what we still choose to call it.” 2 Speaking of Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen’s work, Daniel van der Velden states, “Mevis & van Deursen demonstrated the merits of graphic design on its own, neither as a service to the public nor as a lesson to them.” 3 Mevis himself acknowledges that designers think visually when he adds, “I formulate assignments that allow students to address the problem by finding their own content.” 4 And Louise Sandhaus claims “Writers use verbal language. Graphic designers use visual language. Graphic design deserves to be recognized as equally capable of representing thought through sophisticated and engaging visual form.” 5 Unruly and impertinent. Graphic design is bustin’ out all over.

But these statements are simply too off-the-cuff. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Emigre was shaping content and probing the limits of graphic design decades before the thoughts noted above. In fact, Emigre has always existed five minutes (at least!) into the future. On its pages we found bitmap typeface designs (before retro-nostalgia repackaged them); PostScript design innovations (“wedge serifs” to reduce file memory size before the advent of cheap RAM); Ed Fella and Dutch design (before they became The Next Big Things); critical inquiry (before one could obtain a PhD in graphic design)...and now, what’s next? Emigre - and, by extension, its editor of 21 years, Rudy VanderLans - has done pretty well in divining the winds of the discipline’s direction. He’s unique among journals not only because of the length of his tenure, but also because of the transparency of his editorial style.6 The Dutch have a term for this phenomenon: “open gordijnen” which simply means, “open curtains.” It refers to the Dutch habit of not drawing their window curtains - even at night. “By keeping the curtains open, we would show that we were indeed still humble and have not wasted our money on the vanities of life.” 7 Rudy’s own openness was present in each issue. His voice could be found in the introductions, interviews, or by his choice of content - including the always rambunctious and entertaining “Readers Respond.” Rudy formed a relationship with his audience and Emigre gave theory and criticism a home.

We might debate origins, but there’s a reason graphic design emerged as a distinct profession concurrent with the development of modern industrialized production (for example, the Bauhaus categorized classes in typography and advertising as “workshops"). In 1922, when William Addison Dwiggins effectively relabeled his previous occupation from “commercial artist” to “graphic designer,” he ushered in a perceptual shift that reached far beyond a change in his business card: His act initiated graphic design’s transition from a Bauhaus-like vocation to a university-led discipline. It was no accident that Dwiggins made his observation during a time of great American economic and technological expansion, a period that coincided with the introduction of assembly-line production and the mass production of consumer goods. Mass production demanded the standardization of products for purposes of efficiency and volume - two factors that design is well-suited to affect. And for design, the increased access to an audience resulted in a corresponding increase in the amount of information that needed to be distilled for purposes of communication. Graphic design satisfied a need.

But the question remains, “Can a word initiate change?” Communication and its corollary, interpretation, resides in the nuances of language. The effective use of language cannot be dispensed by the rigidity of learned technique but is instead tempered by the elastic nature of activity. Dwiggins’ action reveals the authority with which language shapes (our) discourse. His words precipitated a shift in the focus of our thinking from a service (subject to the instrumental practices of capital) to a discipline (with its own forms of communication and techniques for representing knowledge). For our generation of designers, our perceptual shift is marked by the year 1984, a date that includes the release of the first Apple computer and the inception of Emigre - our Dwiggins. In fact, Zuzana’s latest release Puzzler, does not simply reinvent “geometrical spinach” in form (another term coined by W.A.D.), but also reconfigures their point of reference from mechanical to digital. Dwiggins conceived of his printer’s ornaments to contrast from the sedate traditions of the decorated manuscript letter, a separation from the past reinforced by the clarity and vitality of shape Dwiggins discovered while hand sculpting his marionettes, creating his “M-formula.” Zuzana’s references are a product of the digital age. Her influences derive from “the abstract dot compositions of blown-up halftone photographs [and] the interference patterns of superimposed grids known as moiré.” Of course, type designers have always been early adopters of technology, but Dwiggins and Zuzana are unique. Technology, in their hands, is used as a tool to reinterpret form rather than as a graft imposed onto existing form. And while the personal computer reconfigured the technology of our practice, Emigre reshaped the form(s) of our discourse. Communication is now only a fraction of the task set before graphic design. Both authors and graphic designers communicate by representing worlds. The author uses language - burdened with the thickness of history and culture - to create a reality that exists in the assemblage of words. The graphic designer uses both words and images - burdened with the relative thinness of its own history and culture - to present reflections of our world. But in an effort to examine its understanding of itself and the image it creates, literature has evolved the tools of analysis and criticism to a meta or institutional level while graphic design still struggles to find a place for criticism. Graphic design needs more authors, but it also needs more literature: articles, exhibitions, catalogs, academic conferences, university courses... (Rudy, when can we expect The Emigre Reader 1984-2005 ?).

Contrary to popular professional opinion, graphic design is a cultural enterprise. It does have a place in museum collections. It’s not singly the wrapping of a product or the structuring of information, i.e. a service industry. That graphic design is a cultural artifact is demonstrated on the pages of the magazine itself: Emigre means something - and not because it resides in the collections of major museums. It represents an idea - which is why it resides in the collections of major museums. In the summer of 2005, when the Centre Pompidou staged D-Day, an exhibit highlighting the state of contemporary design, the curators turned to Emigre to represent graphic design. And given that the magazine’s latest (last!) incarnation is in essence textual, its form bodes well as an indication of the thoughtfulness we can expect from future design practice.

Creating representations is what graphic designers do. We give form to verbal and graphic ideas. A representation is bound up with the reflection of how society projects itself and Emigre has played a part in that reflection. Steven Heller’s words were prophetic when, in 1987, he stated, “Emigre is setting a viable standard for the new tabloid. Perhaps Emigre will leave lasting contributions not only to design history but to our culture as a whole.” 8 In graphic design, the representation of an idea is perhaps most notably found in the profession’s current infatuation with the concept of “branding,” but Emigre engages a significant difference. Branding is the purview of corporate America’s attempt to instill itself as an originator of culture and not simply its financial patron. A brand desires to achieve a static representative value in the public’s mind. In contrast, while Emigre has always sought out graphic design’s relationship with hard-edged theory and criticism, it has always been dynamic, open to change and challenge, and unafraid to venture into areas of risk. Emigre believed in an intelligent, adventuresome, and engaged audience, an audience ready to come to terms with understanding itself and its times, to question received wisdom and consider new possibilities. And, above all, it sought to thoughtfully enhance our profession.

As Emigre shifts into history the parties will continue, albeit at a new address.

Thank you Rudy for being such a good host.

1. The specific areas of research interest are: Design for Learning; Design for Health and Well-Being; Design for Sustainability; Design and Technology; Design and the Urban Context; Design Methods; Design History and Criticism. I was first made aware of this information at AIGA’s Schools of Thoughts 2 conference in Los Angeles March 4-6, 2005, and this was in turn kindly elaborated upon by Meredith Davis, email correspondence with the author, May 9, 2005.
2. Peter Bilak, “An interview with Peter Bilak,” Emigre 67, 2004, 26.
3. Daniel van der Velden, quoted in Emily King, “Graphic interpretation,” Print magazine, May/June 2005, 56.
4. Armand Mevis, ibid., 55-56.
5. Louise Sandhaus, quoted in “Graphic Design,” Step Inside Design, May/June 2005, 108.
6. This statement is not meant to minimize the work of guest editors (Andrew Blauvelt, Anne Burdick and Jeffery Keedy), designers, assistants, copy editors and distributors - all of whom contributed to create a quality journal.
7. I would like to thank Catelijne van Middelkoop and Ryan Pescatore Frisk of Strange Attractors for bringing this expression to my attention.
8. Steve Heller writing in a 1987 I.D. Magazine review and quoted in “An interview with Steven Heller,” Emigre 30, 1994.

I would like to thank Kenneth FitzGerald for his comments on an earlier draft, and Tiffany Wardle for graciously providing me with a copy of her dissertation on W.A. Dwiggins.

David Cabianca teaches graphic design at York University in Toronto, Canada. He holds masters degrees from The University of Reading, Cranbrook Academy of Art and Princeton University.