An Interview with Steven Heller
By Michael Dooley
This interview was first published in 1994 in Emigre #30.
Michael Dooley: Since you work full–time as senior art director of the New York Times Book Review, how do you also manage to find time to teach, do symposiums, edit the AIGA Journal, be active in that and other organizations, plus write all your books and articles?
Steve Heller: I’m a workaholic, so I make the time. I get to the office at 6 o’clock in the morning, I write for three or four hours, and then in the course of the day I’ll turn on the computer and look at what I’ve done.
I also rely on good editors to make me look good; to clean up my messes, as it were. I couldn’t do half of what I accomplish without terrific collaborators. Seymour Chwast is my primary co-author; Louise Fili and I have been working on books together recently. And on other book projects I often bring in researchers who frequently become so integral to the whole project that I invite them to become my co-authors.
MD: Did you know your “Cult of the Ugly” article for Eye magazine (No. 9, Volume 3, 1993) was going to be so controversial?
SH: Let’s put it this way: I didn’t really realize to what extent there would be acrimony. It’s become a coastal thing, and I had no real sense of that.
Eye received eight letters, quite a few of them essay length, and various phone calls, more response than Rick Poynor has received for any other single article. This was pleasantly surprising. You see, I try to encourage letters for the AIGA Journal, and it’s rare that I get them. Marty Fox says that if Print gets two or three letters about an article, that’s a lot. It’s kind of discouraging to think how few people respond.
I’ve heard from people who didn’t write letters, who said they appreciated the article, that the article had echoed their feelings. I’m happy if somebody approves, but I’m just as happy if somebody can find the holes in my argument.
When somebody writes a letter, I respond. When I read the letter Joani Spadaro – who’s responsible for Output – sent to Eye, my first response was to go to the typewriter and start pecking out some sort of pedantic response. But then I realized I really prefer to talk. This isn’t a war, for godsakes. It’s an exchange of ideas and there should be an attempt for me to change somebody’s mind if I feel strongly, or for them to change mine. So I called her and we talked about it and it turned out Joani and I could find a common ground, and I asked her to write a story about Output for the AIGA Journal.
The reason I wrote the article was to expand critical discourse, to see how far I could go with it and how far people in the field would accept it. Coming from a political background, what I’m interested in is what we are saying through these various graphic machinations, stylizations, and experiments. Is the experiment ultimately worth the effort? Am I being given information, art, or artifice? Graphic designers are not going to find a cure for cancer, but are we going to find ways of communicating so the audience that needs to understand the messages we present will understand them? And that’s my biggest gripe with the design vocabulary I critiqued in the “Ugly” article. In the final analysis, we’re ultimately dealing with artsy-fartsy stuff here.
MD: As an example of what’s being said, you wrote about Output #2 that “the lack of any explanatory precis . . . leaves the reader confused as to its purpose or meaning, though its form leads one to assume that it is intended as a design manifesto . . . ” But the text in Output that begins on the first page and jumps to the other side is clearly labeled at its end as a “manifesto – diagram experiment.” The statement reads: “Process of taking information from all the possible stimulus. Info coming from various technologies at different speeds and types of presentation causing . . . the random or conscious ordering of that information into a personal meaning and exploring the process or structure of that ordering or meaning. Diagraming. Taking information (trash) and by reordering (measuring) it becomes something new. Diagraming the process in which that new meaning was achieved.” All that was set out in the beginning.
SH: I was so blinded by visual noise that I didn’t see it. What they were saying was so inaccessible to me that it didn’t matter whether an explanation or disclaimer was there or not. I just felt much more effort was required on my part to get into what they were presenting and then stay with it than I wanted to invest. If there was a signpost, I missed it.
MD: There were others, such as the snippet “ . . . only probabilities of states and events could ever be known with certainty, and the very act of measuring and perceiving these probabilities entailed altering them.” And there are funny little bits, too, like “defective machine instructions” and “Order Out of,” which for me was a disorderly way of saying “out of order” or “Order Out of . . . chaos.” My favorite bit was “Building a Lost-Cause Portfolio.”
I saw value in the students accepting accident in a way graphic designers haven’t been trained to do, and to pick and choose from these random occurrences. Would you grant that these students may have been attempting to further the evolution of graphic design rather than furthering the cause of ambiguity and ugliness?
SH: I’ll concede that, but then what is the ultimate outcome? What is the ultimate output? I felt the ultimate output was students playing around with style.
But allow me to backtrack for a second. Output isn’t what prompted me to write the article. Output became a lynchpin for a discussion of stylistic abuse. I accept that it’s done by students, and that it’s from an academy where this kind of experimentation is done. And I accept that a student publication has to be given license. But ultimately, I thought that Output was an output of conceit, an outpouring of it. In terms of the kinds of work that have come out of these hothouse environments, Output was a mediocre attempt.
In one sense I feel the word “experiment” is too broad. Design experimentation is taking license with what we’ve come to expect as conventional experimentation, where there are certain controls in place. If it fails, you learn from that failure. There are limits to what graphic design says and does. What I was trying to say is that those limitations need to be respected. It’s hard to push the limitations of graphic design into areas that are going to be, in my opinion, either misconstrued or irrelevant.
MD: Who determines these limitations?
SH: The marketplace determines what the limitations are.
I think we could argue the merits or demerits of Output for a while and actually you might convince me I was wrong. Which would be fine. But what forced me to address it as a topic for criticism was not my knee-jerk response when I received it in the mail, but the fact that it was released to the world. It was no longer cloistered behind the academic walls. It was released as a document of what design is about today, what design education is about today. And in that context it’s perfectly valid to criticize it, not as a student publication, but as a manifestation of what’s occurring in graphic design.
MD: It was put into that segment of the world who’d recognize Cranbrook as its source.
SH: It went out to the AIGA and ACD members, but the AIGA is made up of 8000 members, and quite frankly, most of those members are not involved in the Cranbrook experience. And many of them, if you stop and talk with them – and I do because I go around the country – have no sense of what this is all about. I’m not saying one has to appeal to the mass, because we get enough mediocrity in our lives, but just because it’s an experiment shouldn’t mean it must get kid glove treatment either.
MD: As far as whether Output was political or just artsy-fartsy, I got the sense it was a critique of the media, of the glut of information. They incorporated a PayLess store logo and fragments of instruction manuals and various other elements the way Robert Rauschenberg would layer newspapers and objects from the street in his assemblages.
SH: Rauschenberg’s work was “ugly” 40 years ago, but it was also radical and trail blazing. I’m aware of that. As I pointed out in my article, there are many valid circumstances when “ugly” is a viable code.
It’s funny, I remember having a conversation similar to this with Ruth Ansel, who actually got me my job at the Times 20 years ago. She was the art director of Harper’s Bazaar with Bea Feitler, and later the Times magazine. She was also a very good friend of Andy Warhol and a number of the artists of that movement, including Rauschenberg. And we used to get into these outrageous fights. We used to argue about Roy Lichtenstein, because I resented his objectification of the comics. I felt he was just co-opting comics. Lichtenstein was making comics into “high art” and at the same time rejecting comics as real art, a manifestation of mass culture. Ruth and I used to scream to each other. Her take was, “We’re not talking about content, we’re talking about process; the process is the most important issue here.” We’d get into these discussions about the validity of printed work. I used to argue somewhat naively. I’d seen his work in books, and the books, of course, take away the monumental nature. And she would counter, “Have you ever seen a Lichtenstein painting?” Well, I hadn’t, but for me it didn’t matter. But since then I’ve read a lot, seen a lot of the work, and I’ve interviewed Lichtenstein, but I still have the same feeling.
MD: Again, I see political statements in Lichtenstein’s work, most obviously in his war comics, which critique the mass media’s ability to distort reality and flatten experience. When I went to his Guggenheim retrospective, I was particularly impressed with his paintings of printed reproductions of mirrors. When you stand in front of a mirror you expect to see your reflection; here you look, and all you see is the artifice, the benday dots. It’s as though your existence is being denied. It was chilling. You’ve never gotten a similar feeling from looking at his canvases?
SH: No, but I think we all have agendas, particularly in terms of art. Art is supposed to be a kind of blank canvas. When you stand in front of a painting, it’s blank in the sense that you bring your experience to it. I think I need a mediator to appreciate Lichtenstein – somebody like Leslie Fiedler – because he hasn’t left me any entry points. I need my hand held.
MD: The Lichtenstein show is also a good example of how people who begin as revolutionaries – designers included – can easily fall into facile recycling, opting for the comfort of the formulaic and routine. For instance, I’m much more excited about the vitality of Paul Rand’s work from the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.
SH: I used to think it was axiomatic that anybody’s early work was terrific, but that’s silly. I’ve always loved Philip Guston as a painter because towards the end of his career he just switched. He became a cartoonist. The paintings that Guston did were cartoons, they just happened to be on a huge scale.
I’ve been doing a history – which I hope will eventually be published – of avant-gardes, about how graphic designers have attached themselves to, and have been nourished by, progressive art movements, what they’ve used of them and what they’ve given back to them. Output, and a lot of Cranbrook work I’ve seen, reflects that sensibility. Yet it’s treading on trodden ground. It’s reinventing the wheel. Frederick Goudy said “Some of those old guys stole our best ideas.” And Milton Glaser has said “Every generation has to make its own discoveries, even if they’re old discoveries.” Which is fine.
My own history has been rediscovering precedents and then incorporating them into myself. But when I did work that I considered to be my “student” work, I was happy to have somebody criticize it on a level that said “Well, it’s student work” or “He’s a young kid and he’ll develop.” But I also wanted a reality check, I wanted to know how it functioned in the marketplace.
MD: To the extent the students wanted to operate beyond the Cranbrook vacuum, to take their experiment – valid or invalid – and send it into the design universe, is it possible they share your agenda for expanding the discourse?
SH: Yes, and then it’s subject to criticism. It’s subject to attack or praise.
MD: I’m not advocating the elimination of criticism.
SH: No, I understand: you’re advocating criticism from a position of knowledge.
I think there’s a danger of being in the in-group. Which is not to say being “in” and having knowledge is going to stifle significant criticism, but there is a problem in being too intimate with your subjects. Take the art critic Clement Greenberg. As the spokesman for Abstract Expressionism he did more harm than good. He made a radical form into something that could be easily digested by Corporate America, and ultimately it became a kind of official art for Corporate America. As a style, as a process, it didn’t have to say much of anything, as opposed to more political manifestations that were unpopular during the same period because of the Red Scare.
MD: I looked at your article as another manifestation of certain people in the “out” group, if you will – such as Paul Rand and Massimo Vignelli – who are erecting barricades because what they’re seeing now is not what graphic design has always been. But I’m amused when I read essays from Rand’s book, The Designer’s Art – some of which date back to the ‘40s – with comments about “The impossibility of typographic objectivity” and how “The function of readability is often taken too literally and overemphasized at the cost of individuality” and “If necessary, if the grid system isn’t working, just abandon it completely, throw it out.” Talk about old guys stealing your best ideas! Don’t you think it’s important for critics to get beyond the barricades, to acknowledge that some of the people they’re attacking might actually be standing on the shoulders of giants?
SH: Yes, but it’s also important to be behind the barricades.
Output reinforced what I was feeling in terms of the irrelevancy of the “theoretical,” an overemphasis on, and misappropriation of, literary theory to explain design. That situates me in the pragmatic school of design, where theory is less important than instinct.
And I think my perspective on Output represents how certain graphic designers who are working in the marketplace feel about the perpetuation of this kind of work. I think I represent a certain viewpoint that’s skeptical. And that’s not to say I’m right. It’s not even to say I’m enlightened. It’s just to say that too few people are willing to say anything about it in public.
MD: Let’s move from students to teacher. You wrote about how Lorraine Wild mentioned that Ed Fella’s work ranges from low parody to high seriousness, and you countered with “The line that separates parody from seriousness is thin, and the result is ugliness.” I’m not quite sure what you meant by that.
SH: I meant that I felt as though Fella was making a commentary on Modernism, on canonical design, but ultimately he went too far in the other direction. I wouldn’t call it reactionary, but it is a reaction to conventional design practice. So what might be read as parody can also be read as extremism.
Can I jump back? I’m going to tell you this just so you have a perspective of where I’m coming from in relation to that question. Whether it holds water is another issue.
I started out in the underground press, and it was a remarkable experience. For me it was graduate school. It was primary school. At my first full-time job, the New York Free Press, I learned paste-up and mechanicals and all that. It was a slightly more conservative-looking journal than the anarchic East Village Other, Rat, Barb, Bird, or any of the other leading papers. When I learned how to manipulate design tools, the first thing I did was clean it up. I removed the anarchy – but, I hope, not the energy.
Originally I worked with – and learned from – a designer who took galleys of type and cut them and fanned them out. He was coming out of the Beat esthetic of concrete poetry and the kind of ad hoc books they’d do down on the Lower East Side of New York when it was a hotbed of Beatdom. And I just couldn’t stand it because my feeling was, even then, as naive as I was, that I wanted to reach people who were not already converted, or hip-literate. I wanted to make something that would have some relevance outside the community of which I was a part. I wanted to have relevance to people who couldn’t read our signs and symbols. So that’s what I did. And I went on to do that at other underground papers which I designed.
I hate to admit it, but I hated psychedelic art in those days for that very reason. I was looking at it myopically. I simply dismissed it as uncommunicative and I was wrong. A number of years later, I reacquainted myself with Victor Moscoso, and finally understood what he was trying to accomplish, what he did accomplish, and how truly remarkable his particular approach was. Maybe over time I’ll feel that way about Ed Fella’s work, particularly because I think he comes from a similar background. What he’s doing has relevance, but it has relevance to a small segment. And that’s fine. I see Ed Fella as sparking, and perhaps stimulating, students to do what he’s doing, and it’s not necessarily their vocabulary. Therefore, it becomes style, it becomes a trivialization of what he’s doing. And ultimately, when other, less committed, people adopt it, “ugly” becomes a trendy conceit.
MD: You said in the article that, as a model for commercial practice, Fella’s work is “a dead end.” How is it a dead end if he’s influenced Barry Deck, David Carson, and Rick Valicenti?
SH: Valicenti is an interesting case, because I think he’s mainstreamed, and ultimately trivialized, the form. It’s become an “instant artifact.” It’s fun to look at, but that’s surface. David Carson, on the other hand, has imposed a vocabulary on a group of people who accept it, just as the psychedelic artists imposed their vocabulary on their constituents.
MD: Why did you choose Paul Rand as the designer to hold up against the “new young Turks?"
SH: I chose Paul Rand because he represents the canonical approach. And he was one of the creators of the canon that graphic designers have lived with, and lived by – and now rebel against – for almost 50 years. He’s also probably the most articulate spokesman of that approach. Although I didn’t start my career doing what he does, and I probably could never do what he does, I still have a tremendous respect for his work and how he articulates his design “truths.”
MD: When you say he’s an articulate spokesman, I assume you’re not referring to the cranky and closed-minded character profiled in the recent I.D. article.
SH: Paul and I talk a lot on the phone, and he says things that drive me up a wall, but when you scrape off the crust, there is real meat. He’s a true Modern, an iconoclast who has real wisdom and passion. When he writes, he makes 57 drafts. When he speaks, he speaks like a street kid. That’s what he was. That’s how he grew up. And yes, he has many prejudices, born of his upbringing. But these prejudices have formed his being, they formed his personality. So when I say he’s articulate, when we’re talking about art and design, he’s a fount of inspiration. And I wish more people could hear him in that context, and not write him off as a reactionary.
MD: You wrote that the difference between Paul Rand and the Turks is that his method was based on ideas that have held up under close scrutiny over the years. Isn’t it disingenuous, fatuous even, to assume that the work of these designers you consider ugly now will not hold up, will still be considered ugly, fifty years down the road?
SH: It’s possible. When you’re making an argument of this kind, there are certain things you say for effect.
At the time I wrote that piece I was certainly hoping their work would meet with critical disfavor because the overall approach, the overall message that I’m getting from what’s produced at Cranbrook, for example, is too introspective, too indulgent. And I feel that, whether we’re talking about the originators or the copycats, ultimately we’re just talking about style, which is totally irrelevant.
The real priority is not how something is presented, it’s what’s being said, and what impact that statement is going to have on you and me. I co-edited a book with Karrie Jacobs, called Angry Graphics, and there’s a lot of ugly design in there. But when it gets a message across, esthetics are unimportant. Maybe I’m talking about “message” the way some people talk about style or fashion, but ultimately that determines how I view graphic design.
When I write about political phenomena from the point of view of graphic design – like the article I did for Print on Neo-Nazi iconography – it’s never enough just to talk about the graphic design. I also have to deal with the issues behind those graphic characteristics. What do they represent or symbolize? And why are they formed in that particular way? Once you discuss design in terms of message, you must admit that we have an awful lot of power when it’s manipulated in the right way.
MD: In the “Ugly” article, you wrote that the young Turks weren’t engaged in viable visual communication, they were just a blip or tangent in design history. But back in a 1987 I.D. piece, you wrote “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.”
SH: I speak well out of both sides of my mouth, eh? Well, I’m not going to answer this question directly, so don’t hesitate to ask it again.
When I wrote that piece about Emigre – and I was writing it in the context of culture tabloids – I stated that Rudy took a bold step. He went out in the world and, at his own expense, he carved a niche for himself. His magazine reflected a certain viewpoint and a certain passion that I didn’t find in other culture tab magazines. I didn’t necessarily agree with what I was reading, but I respected him and admired his passions.
In this sense I still hold Emigre in high esteem. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m enamored by the forms, or even the ideas all the time. I’ve read all the issues of Emigre, and there’s an element of sophistry in the long-winded interviews that drives me up a wall – much like this interview might drive some readers to despair. Rudy should cut back some of those interviews. But I still admire him and his effort, and many of the issues he’s produced.
MD: I guess I will have to ask you again. When you said Rudy’s work isn’t viable . . .
SH: Well, I didn’t say Rudy’s work isn’t viable.
MD: You had grouped him with the Turks: “It could be argued that the language invented by Rand’s ‘Bauhaus Boys ’challenged contemporary esthetics in much the same way as VanderLans is doing in Emigre today. Indeed VanderLans, and those designers whom Emigre celebrates for their inventions – including Cranbrook alumni Edward Fella, Jeffery Keedy, and Allen Hori – are promoting new ways of making and seeing typography. The difference is that Rand’s method was based strictly on ideas of balance and harmony which hold up under close scrutiny even today. The new young Turks, by contrast, reject such verities in favor of imposed discordance and disharmony, which might be rationalized as personal expression, but not as viable visual communication, and so in the end will be a blip (or tangent) in the continuum of graphic design history.”
SH: I’ll recant in terms of Rudy. I’ll recant in terms of Emigre as an entity. I feel it is tangential in one sense but it’s also a significant piece of design history.
MD: So you didn’t mean to include him in the grouping?
SH: Well, I didn’t mean to dismiss him.
MD: Do you think it reads that way, though?
SH: Yes, counselor, it reads that way.
But Emigre contributes to this cult of ugliness. And yet Rudy created a forum in which we can see work that’s not going to be seen in CA and will appear in Print after it’s proven it has legs, if at all. And so Emigre is extremely valuable. But I question the viability of a number of designers he’s presented. I question whether they’re integral to pushing the design language or simply blips on the screen. Emigre has established these designers and given them a niche, a pedestal, and influence. It would be impossible – indeed, irresponsible – for any historian to ignore them all. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be discussed in celebratory terms, though. Neither newness nor experimentation is, a priori, a virtue.
The bottom line is that Rudy’s publication is a forum for his ideas, or ideas that are kindred. But I don’t think over the course of the years he’s brought in, on the extreme side, Paul Rand or Massimo Vignelli.
MD: Rudy’s never denied that he’s being exclusive. He’s been quoted as saying he wanted to stake out his own territory, since other magazines were handling established designers quite nicely.
SH: That’s fine. Rudy’s narrow focus is what makes the magazine. He has a point of view, a constituency, and designers he favors. My ministry is to be more inclusive, that’s all.
Not that I haven’t considered exclusivity. When I started at the AIGA Journal I thought I wouldn’t include any of these academics who deal with theory, post-structuralism, and semiotics. I’m just sick of that, I can’t get through it, it’s impossible to read. That theoretical construct isn’t meant for graphic design as most of us practice it. And then I realized, three issues down the road, “I’ve got to.”
As an editor, I’ve got to make it accessible. I’m going to say to an academic, “If you want to do this footnoted, at least take out some of the ninetytwo cent words. You can still present your thoughts without going into jargon.” Ultimately that’s what the issue became for me, jargon versus accessibility. And jargon is often a veil for undigested thoughts.
MD: You ended your defense of Rand in the AIGA Journal by writing “The contentious portion of Design, Form, and Chaos serves as a coda to an era by one who’s lived through the profession’s evolutions and revolutions.” That sounded to me as if you believed the evolutions and revolutions are over.
SH: Good point. I wish you had edited my piece. What I meant was that he’s lived through revolutions. I don’t mean that change has ended in his lifetime. But he’s lived through important stages of design history.
Incidentally, I concede that what’s being done in Emigre has a great deal of validity in what’s going to be the next era of graphic design, about which I think Modernists, eclecticists – and perhaps even some of the Emigre-ists – have no real conception, something that’s not so much about the form of graphic design as we know it but how it will “interface” with other media that are emerging, such as CD-ROM and interactive television.
I also believe our current disquiet is really the predictable fin de siecle confusion.
MD: My confusion comes from the fact that most of the examples shown in the article had their own validity. The cover of Hard Werken, a culture magazine for young people that had interviews with avant-garde bands, was as appropriate to its audience as Rand’s 1946 Jazzways cover was in its time. And Menno Landstra’s Best Book Designs jacket wasn’t Classicism, but it seemed to me to be a witty joke on Classicism. Why aren’t you considering that these designers are dealing with form following function in a different way, and for a different audience, than we’re used to?
SH: Maybe I don’t care about the audience. LushUS, which was used on that book jacket, is an abominable typeface. It’s . . .
MD: . . . vernacular carried to an extreme?
SH: . . . vernacular carried to stupidity. There are certain lines I draw in the sand. And for me, Keedy’s LushUS is a line I drew in the sand. It ain’t funny. There are certain extremes that are unnecessary, or too ingrown. Design for design, and so what?
And yet, my article in the Lift and Separate catalog was set in a Keedy face, Manu Sans, and I actually like the way it was used. You can tell him that.
MD: I wouldn’t want to ruin your image.
SH: Please, ruin my image!
MD: There was another font designer, Frank Heine, whose promotion ad for Remedy was shown in your article. The font itself is light and lively and swirly and curly. Don’t you think the look of the ad and the text reinforce the message?
SH: Maybe you have perhaps a healthier approach to all of this. Maybe I am an old fuddy-duddy. The bottom line, however, is about the misuse of style. You don’t have to accept that, but you must accept that I’m more interested in politics than esthetic or anti-esthetic concerns about design.
MD: I didn’t see the political issue being addressed in your article. It dealt with form following function and, of all the “ugly” design work, it singled out only Art Chantry’s “tool kit” poster for the Center on Contemporary Art as being appropriate to its context.
SH: You’ve done a great job preparing for this interview. But still, you have to know all the things I’ve written in the last few years, because each article, essay, and book adds up to a point of view. I don’t write in a vacuum. I don’t decide to attack style today, and write on quantum physics tomorrow. My choice of topics, although often eclectic, is usually rooted in the politics of mass communications, and the mass communication of politics. For me, it all has a political underpinning in the sense that we are driven – at least, I am driven – by political forces. I’m particularly interested in design being an effective tool one uses to convey information, messages, and sermons too.
I wrote the “Ugly” article because I saw a dead end approaching in what was becoming an ossified style of the ‘90s, and didn’t see it as a manifestation of anything political or social or cultural, at least that I could easily put my finger on.
MD: Not political, perhaps, but certainly cultural.
SH: You can isolate certain passages of my text, but overall, I was talking about “ugly” as a code, and the code isn’t something I object to. The bottom line was the adoption of the vocabulary, of the language, into something that ultimately becomes trivial and trivialized once ideas become mainstreamed, once new ideas become old ideas. That may or may not have been clear to the reader, but it’s certainly clear to me.
MD: Rudy mentioned that, after he came under attack by Massimo Vignelli, you suggested he take Vignelli out to dinner – kiss up to him more – and maybe Vignelli would like him a little better.
SH: No, I didn’t say “Kiss up to him.” I said “know your enemy.” As the Godfather, Brando said something to the effect of love your friends, but embrace your enemies. I suppose Profacci might have said the same thing.
MD: Rudy took it to mean Vignelli would be more open to his work.
SH: Probably he would be, but it doesn’t mean kissing up to Massimo. Massimo is human. If he likes you, perhaps he’ll take down the barriers and explore what you’re doing. That’s all.
It’s a simple matter of whether we enjoy having these little tensions – because it’s fun to argue – or we understand what everybody else is doing. In this case, we’d accept criticism, not in vitriolic terms, but in terms of how one person with a certain set of values and experiences understands other – perhaps radical – approaches to design work. So what I said to Rudy was “You should probably get to know each other because you already know Massimo’s philosophy, but Massimo doesn’t really know yours.”
MD: To what extent does friendship – or sycophantic behavior, for that matter – play a role in design writing or design criticism?
SH: I feel that in any design writing, in any design criticism, sycophantic behavior plays a role. There’s an architecture critic I know who had a famous architect design his home. Isn’t that a conflict of interest? Well, yes it is, and one should not do it if one is placing oneself above the fray or as a mediator of taste.
But critics do have their preferences. I have preferences, and many of the people whose work I prefer I also enjoy talking with. This is a small profession. The few design critics are also designers, so naturally they know many other designers.
That said, I’d also point out that I don’t write nearly as many profiles as I did when I began because I prefer critical analysis of phenomenon.
MD: I’m thinking specifically of Art Chantry, the only contemporary designer you praise in your article.
SH: I know Art Chantry, though we’re not bosom buddies. I respect some of what Art does, and I have problems with other things. But I admire Chantry, not for deliberately busting canonical conventions, but for elevating street art from its artlessness and so doing, making it more viable as a communications tool.
I suspect knowing Art Chantry helped form my opinion of his work, but I became acquainted with him because I responded to his work. I believe I can maintain objectivity.
My judgment of Chantry tends to be more positive than that of Jeff Keedy, whom I didn’t know until recently. But I’m not sure where we go with that. Does that mean we have to live in a vacuum or does that mean we have to become knowledgeable to a fault about everyone we’re discussing?
I called up Jeff Keedy after the fact, and we shared our views. He gave me a copy of Fast Forward, a publication and disk by his students at CalArts. And I’ll concede that maybe what’s being done for Keedy’s class is a terrific way of preparing students to open up their minds to various possibilities before they have to get sucked into the commercial arena. But I still have trouble with the work itself. It’s pretentious, full of conceit, and resolutely derivative.
That said, now that I know Jeff, I believe he’s dedicated to his design and I’d like him to write for the AIGA Journal. But from the few conversations we’ve had, and from the evidence that he’s given me, I still haven’t changed my mind in terms of the “Ugly” article.
MD: Is it pretentiousness that draws the demarcation line between Keedy’s work and true vernacular?
SH: I don’t even want to talk about it in terms of vernacular. Graphic design is vernacular! Let’s return to what I said in the beginning. I looked through that issue of Output and what did I come away with? Faux rhetoric. Nothingness. Conceit.
MD: Why didn’t you get in touch with some of the young Turks?
SH: Because my “Ugly” piece was not reportage. It was a critique.
In my article, I criticized Carlos Segura’s How brochure for being stewed-over hothouse design. He wrote a letter to Eye arguing that I don’t really know what they’re doing because I never spoke to them. I don’t know what their motives or intent was. Well, when I’m reporting on somebody’s work, I want to know everything I can about them, but when, as in this case, I’m looking in from the outside, if you will, I don’t think it’s important to know what the motivations were. It was a promotion piece for How. It was trendy, it was obtrusive, it was laden with cliches. I think one can build a critique upon that evidence, and one can also make judgments based on one’s own experience and one’s own understanding of medium.
My “Ugly” piece was a critique about phenomena I could see. Maybe it fails because I didn’t speak to them, I didn’t explore their motivations, and then be in a position to say “In spite of all this, I still feel the way I do.” I’m willing to concede that might have made a more convincing argument. However, I don’t necessarily think I’d do it any differently if I was writing it again.
Two years ago I reviewed Time magazine’s redesign for Print. I didn’t talk to the designers, but drew conclusions from the evidence, and compared it to previous formats. Michael Rock spoke to the designers for an article in I.D., and although it was a good piece, I believe his criticism was actually less incisive and effective than mine.
MD: The reason I’m asking why you didn’t speak with the Turks is because the lead paragraph in your “Ugly” article led me to expect more of a dialogue. You wrote “Ask Paul Rand what is beauty” and you quoted Rand, then you suggested asking the Cranbrook students the same question. But then the answers were just your assumptions and extrapolations.
SH: It’s a valid point. Again, maybe you should have been my editor.
I learn from everything I do. And, I hope, from how others respond. If you think you’re talking with one who thinks he is God, trust me, I don’t. I learn every step of the way. The reason I started writing was really to learn, and then share what I’ve learned with others. But what’s important is what are the effective ways of writing criticism for this field. That’s what it comes down to. What you’ve suggested to me is that maybe my method is not as effective as I had hoped.
I had something I wanted to say. I said it. Maybe I should have done more homework. Maybe not. I tried to explore this issue in a piece I wrote for the AIGA Journal on the merits of criticism, where we go with criticism, and what the graphic design profession needs in terms of effective criticism, coming from the position that, until I did it, there was virtually no criticism in the profession. And there’s still not all that much written. So it may be time for other people, such as yourself, to not only carry the baton but go to the next intellectual plateau. And that’s perfectly fine with me.
There’s a little part of me that feels as if I’ve got to defend what I’ve written and another part of me says, “What’s ultimately important is that I have the ability to communicate ideas and encourage debate.” I enjoy exploring different avenues and subjects, and that to me is the most important thing. I don’t have to defend the “Ugly” article. If readers think it’s full of shit, so be it. If they’re correct, I’ll try to do better the next time. But as of now my opinion hasn’t changed much.
I have a drawer full of stuff that defines what’s been going on in design during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I recently received Output #4. Now, when I first saw it, I thought “What’s the difference between that Output and Octavo #7?” It’s fun to look at, but it’s cursed by sameness.
I guess the problem – it’s a problem with graphic design in general – is when something becomes appealing, a hell of a lot more of it gets produced by others and so the originator’s work tends to be diminished in relation to the copycat’s work. And you can see this throughout history, whether it’s the history of art or the history of design. There are certain copycats who do it quite nicely, but in our culture, when something is overused it gets spit out and you forget about it, even if what you’re spitting out is truly valuable. Separating the wheat from the chaff and keeping the chaff is an American pastime.
Anyway, I look at Output #4 and my knee-jerk response is “Oh, God, another challenging puzzle! And I can’t spend my day looking at this when I really want to read the newspaper about the Neo-Nazis in Germany!” I’m being a little ridiculous here, but I did start reading part of it. And I have to say that some of the little sound bites were interesting – just as you were reading me those sound bites from that other Output – but it asks certain questions, then doesn’t go any further! I feel as if I’m being teased.
And I can’t point to the issues that these students are trying to grapple with. When I read a book and it’s done in the traditional manner, I can underline things. But with this design, they’ve already underlined it for you but it’s not necessarily the underlining I want. It’s like reading a dyslexic “Cliff Notes.” At least the “Cliff Notes” have a linear progression.
MD: Your objection brings to mind what Chuck Byrne said in my Print article on Emigre, how younger people have no problem with this new form of reading, whereas graphic designers – who’ve been trained as to how people are supposed to read – are freaking out because their yellow highlighter can’t cope with it, or their linear-progression mind can’t cope with it. To get Macintosh- and MTV-generation people to pick up a magazine, it needs to look like something they’ve never seen in print before, such as what David Carson is offering them.
SH: But they also need to be able to pick up the Signet Classics or the New American Library. It’s still important to accept and appreciate the classics, and to try to integrate them in some way into one’s life.
MD: Is part of the reason designers are digging in their heels because they actually believe that somehow Classicism is going to go away?
SH: No. I don’t think that’s why they’re digging in their heels.
MD: You don’t think that maybe part of it is that they’re fearful . . .
SH: Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m fearful, in light of what goes on on the screen, that certain sensibilities will disappear, certain sensibilities that are not archaic, because they’re appropriate to their subjects. And I want classic models to be in the minds of students, whether they practice it or not; I want them to accept it and experience it.
MD: I wouldn’t have nearly as many problems with your article if the examples you chose had been inappropriate to their subjects. Fella’s art gallery poster and Heine’s self-promotion – they fit.
SH: That’s true, but the examples I used are there not because they aren’t appropriate to their media but because I determined them to be part of the “ugly” esthetic. You’re right, I could have tried to find something where the examples were inappropriate, and that would have made my case a little better. I didn’t.
MD: Well, whatever reservations I have about your article, I’ll never cease to be amazed at your volume of output. I don’t mind telling you I’m very envious.
SH: At times I wish I did less output and put more effort into flawless work, but that’s not me. I can’t do less output. It’s the only way I can justify my existence. But certain things suffer. Of course I’d hate to think the “Cult of the Ugly” article was one of them, because I did spend considerable time thinking about it, writing, and – thanks to Rick Poynor’s brilliant editing – rewriting it. But I reach a point in all my projects where I just have to cut off. I just have to say “It’s over, it’s through, however it’s accepted or not in the marketplace of ideas, that’s it, and goodbye.”