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 message?’”1
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 monastic scriptoria.
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 applied.2 Style 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 the profession.
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 form-pushing.
“I make solutions that nobody wants to problems that don’t exist.”
—Alvin Lustig, Nine Pioneers
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 the morning.
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 itself.”4 Yet 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 conditions.”
—Jan Tschichold, On Typography, 1952
“...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 nineteenth-century industrialism.”5
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 indulgence.”8 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 function,’”9
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 ever-evolving new.’”10
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 phenomenon neomania, a madness for perpetual novelty where ‘the new ’has become defined strictly as a ‘purchased value, ’something to buy.”14
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 treadmilland 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 consumerist culture.
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. Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, “Applied Style vs. Intrinsic Style,” Domus, February 1992, p. 734.
3. AIGA Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, 1991. p.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, p.49.
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 Herb 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.