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|On Overcoming Modernism by Lorraine Wild
'To those who wish to respond to the new art, we say that it is not enough to stare at it with one's eyes; one's whole head must be turned in a different direction.'
What were you doing the day the newspapers featured that picture of the flag coming down all over what was the Soviet Union? I was on the phone going over type changes with an editor on the other side of the continent, for a book that was being printed on the other side of the globe. Had I done this project justice? Will someone in the future be able to look at this work and see all the effort and desire that went into it? Who can possibly answer these questions, as enmeshed as we are in the speed of communication, the technology, the information overload, the conflicting ethics and values of our present condition.
To what degree are each of us futurists? To what degree are each of us hopelessly mired in the day-to-day?
We know, intuitively, that our personal struggle with idealism and pragmatism is affected by the values we bring to our work and the context in which we create it. The uncertainty of values in contemporary graphic design practice and the discourse that surrounds it now (and probably will through the '90s), has led to a notion that there has been a loss of consensus as to what constitutes 'good' design. The shifting nature and context of our activity as graphic designers is now often described in terms of loss. What we have definitely lost is the ability to lean on the principles of Modernism to regain that consensus. This presents a conceptual challenge to graphic designers, because the ideals of Modernism, especially those having to do with universality, objectivity, timelessness, 'problem-solving' and social values, have been the wobbly base upon which the professional identity of the graphic design community has traditionally rested.
A sense of confusion and rancor has crept into discussions about contemporary graphic design practice, questioning the meaning of graphic design that does not conform to the rules that embody the myths of Modernism. These discussions often split along generational lines, with an old guard (those who believe in the Modernist credo, even if they do not actually practice it) often demanding an allegiance to Modernist ideals and forms. The frequent reference to a unified Modernist past and its subsequent dissolution is important because those terms may well end up delineating how the new guard will be able to think through this confusing present to find the future of design.
Age of discontent
In recent years universality has collapsed into multi-culturalism, focus groups, zip-code clusters, etc.; objectivity has collapsed into subjectivity, at the same time as the author and the subject, or both, have been declared dead in some quarters; and the optimistic march of progress has been canceled. The linear is harder to detect and the simultaneous has become habitual.
All of these conditions are symptoms of what is called post-Modernity. But this term has not been very appealing to graphic designers; the 'post' part of it seems to imply exhaustion, decline or missed opportunities. There is also the lingering confusion of post-Modernism with a conservative, historically allusive style that characterized much architecture and graphic design of the 1980s. Some still confuse nostalgia with the sum total of post-Modernism, because a few earlier interpretations of post-Modern theory (such as Charles Jencks' use of semiotics to elevate the stylistically eclectic work of Robert A.M.Stern) were used to support the growing conservatism of the 1980s.
Another characteristic of post-Modernity is the intellectual acknowledgment of the existence of many modernisms -- a range of strategies, from the merely aesthetic to the attainment of social reform (or complete revolution). Some Modernists, such as Heartfield, were extremely temporal, and posed direct challenges to the political status quo; other Modernist, such as Mies van der Rohe, searched for an aesthetic absolute that would transcend the particulars of context and politics. Some other Modernists, such as El Lissitzky or van Doesburg, did both. But recent attempts by graphic designers to declare the definition of Modernism as a successful search for either aesthetic absolutes or social reform are symptomatic of the alienation of those who want to avoid the complexity of both the past and the present.
The influence of Modernism on American graphic designers may have originated in the work of the European Futurists or the Constructivists or the designers of the Bauhaus, but the social utopianism of the aesthetic that accompanied early Modernism never reached the United States. Indulging in sloppy thinking, fake history and romance, we attribute a fantasy of ethical accomplishment to Modernism as a reaction against the uncomfortable unknowns of post-Modernism. Some design fields have recognized this, but not graphic design. 'Design is communication'. 'Design is problem solving'. One hears these clichés repeated endlessly, the mantra of the graphic designers stuck in the denial and anger phases of mourning for a time when we thought that the values by which we lived and defined ourselves made sense in the larger world.
Despite those who would attribute functionalism solely to Modernism, functionalism can be seen as inherent in the definition of design itself; a series of actions taken to produce a desired effect. It may be time to detach the notion of function from the failed ideology of Modernism in order that function might regain its simplicity and clarity as a design value. Weren't pre-Modernists such as Gutenberg or Diderot or Benjamin Franklin rational functionalists? Recent design historians have clarified that under Modernism, function (or simply the imagery of function) was more often dedicated to the production or distribution of an artifact than to function dedicated to the object itself. Yet graphic designers persist in talking about function as our invention, a gift we generously grant to our audiences.
Another aspect of Modernism some would like to retain (even if it is deeply misunderstood or misinterpreted by those yearning for the old days) is a defined visual style. The aesthetic security of the International Style is now missed by many of those who functioned well within it. They are attempting to revive Modernist conviction now that so many other aspects of design practice affecting form have been destabilized.
First and perhaps foremost, the complete rethinking of the production of printed materials wrought by digital technology has thrown graphic design's identity as Modern into question. The computer has affected all design practices; CAD programs are now commonly used in architecture and industrial design. The professional identity of graphic design developed at a time when the conceptual processes of layout and form were separated from the setting of type and print production, but current technology reunites those activities, and what should be merely convenient or even liberating turns out to be traumatic.
Understanding Modernism's mystique
The computer has also had a greater effect on the quality of the products of graphic design than on the products of the other design fields; for example, computer-aided rendering of buildings look 'different' than hand drawing, but building in their form remain largely unaffected. But the evolving technology of electronic typesetting has taken its tool on the quality of typesetting, and a set of standards inherited from metal typesetting (which were already altered significantly during the change to 'cold' type) have been shaken.
But in the midst of this perceived decline, new developments in digital typography have brought about an explosion of font design, and the energy coming from small font publishers and distributors has enlivened typographic design. Those who are not terrified by the new typographic technologies are using them in all sorts of ways, as an opportunity to reinvent type aesthetics in response to the technology itself. Unfamiliar forms of work produced in response to major changes in technology are often classified as 'ugly' because of their formal strangeness, and interpreted as evidence of aesthetic malfeasance, the obliteration of standards and practices of craft. It is a functional Modernist impulse to submit aesthetics to the demands of the machine, but in this case the subject of the technology is dematerialized, infinitely variable; the resulting aesthetic mirrors those same qualities, and the Modernists are confused!
Berkeley architecture professor Mark Treib has pointed out that the essential difference in the professional status and relative levels of security between architects and graphic designers can be traced to the existence of regulated contracts in architecture and the contrasting free-for-all of graphic design practice. Architects, notes Treib, are contractually bound to be the representative of their clients in relation to the contractor or builder. Treib suggests that the lack of craft attached to function in graphic design (printing being simpler than construction) has always contributed to a more tenuous relationship between graphic designers and their clients. If Treib is right, that tenuousness would have to be on the verge of obliteration since the production-related reasons for any client to hire a graphic design consultant are decreasing steadily. Obviously, fear of unemployment is driving graphic designers crazy.
During the '80s we had to endure such inanities as Michael Peters' declaration that only big offices could offer legitimate design services; small offices were primitive and doomed to fall. At the same time, design educators suffered a barrage of criticism for not preparing students as entry-level employees for big offices. Criticism of the commercial abuse of design is always problematic: if it comes from Stuart Ewen, it's rejected because he's an academic; if it comes from Neville Brody, it doesn't count because he's English; if it comes from Tibor Kalman, it's invalid because he is somehow tainted by his own commercial practice; if it comes from Dan Friedman, well 'doesn't he design furniture now?'; if it comes from someone like me, it is written off because my practice is not commercial enough.
Our current recession grants us all a moment to reconsider our positions in light of history and the inexorable present. Speaking for myself, trained in vestigially Modern ways but practicing during this period of great flux, exposure to the current level of quandary and challenge in the design office and the classroom is, I believe, enough to drive anyone back into pipe dreams of old Dessau. To accept that design is complicit in our real environment is to reject the myth of the designer as disinterested genius or moralist super-hero. As difficult as it is, we must keep questioning preconceived notions of what good design is. This does not mean that we must reject what history we have, or that we must decline the pleasures of formal innovation. It does mean that we must become honest about the work we choose to do, the forms that we give to it, the circumstances under which we produce and how our work actually functions in the world.
The inability to describe a set of universal formal guidelines for 'good' graphic design should not be seen as a handicap (even if it often feels like one). This condition offers us a 'window of opportunity' in which we may be able to address some of those other issues that so many educators and practitioners pay lip service to but are still so easy to ignore as long as we can be distracted by the more immediate gratification of form. This is not to denigrate form. If the audience has changed and the production has changed and the messages might change, wouldn't common sense (dare we call it functionalism?) suggest that aesthetics are a tough call. As the educator Jacques Girard states about critiquing work in the classroom these days, 'Someone who refers to a design as beautiful, ugly, good or bad is not talking as much about the object as about himself'. Appropriateness cannot be held up as a value in and of itself without looking closely at the situations to which we pledge our obedience. And, under the current terms of our existence, there may only be particularly appropriate formal solutions instead of general ones.
For a few years now some designers have been using the metaphors of language to describe the workings of design. Actually this is not new, as some members of the old guard are always quick to point out. Yes, they taught semiotics at Ulm. But their understanding of semiotics was still affected by late Modernist design theory that trained them to look for universal signs; the interpretation of semiotic theory is significantly different now. Another linguistic theory that may lead to the development of new paradigms for graphic design is the use of rhetorical concepts as a framework for design analysis. Again, this is not a new idea in design studies, but timing is everything. In the past, academic problems in graphic design studies that used rhetoric as an analytical tool were often contradicted by the combination of expressive linguistic analysis with 'objective' Modernist typography. You didn't know what you were looking at. The revival of interest in rhetoric now comes at a time when we may be less concerned by the split between expression and objectivity.
Reception theory, another post-Modern construct, is a revision of Modernist notions of function, use and meaning. The prospect of graphic designers starting to think about meaning as a result of situations of use is a challenging one. Graphic designers have not had to live with marketing the way industrial have, and market testing or legibility testing are often seen as pernicious activities that only reinforce the obvious, So how do you build alternative understandings of use or performance in graphic design? I doubt that the practice will ever be quantifiable in any way, but I'm sure that any understanding that evolves will be particular and local.
The pressure on the young designer today is not to become a star, a master or mistress of the universal, but to become a participant in communication process, a co-conspirator, a co-author, maybe even an author/designer. This is why the development of the personal voice or agenda has emerged as an important new aspect in the training of young designers today. Their educational experiences should equip them with this expanded, much more accountable role that will be demanded of them if they are to retain any validity in a new context.
But what about the old folks, the old guard, or those of us who straddle the two guards? We are the ones who, in the last 15 years, have complained that graphic design had an inadequate body of theory and history to guide its own development; but ironically, as more theoretical and historically informed ways of thinking about graphic design have evolved, our heroic Modernist dreams have gone to hell in a hand basket. We're distressed, we're unhappy, we're in pain! What should we do?
Calling Dr. Freud
When I encountered Miller's thesis, I thought that I had stumbled upon a good psychoanalytic paradigm to explain the inability of graphic designers, particularly American ones, to withstand the vicissitudes of history and theory in our collective unconscious. Our old guard fought battles for us dedicated to the ideology of Modernism; the audience, in the role of parents, didn't buy the story (for their own neurotic reasons) but they rewarded many designers by using them up, ignoring their ideals, paying them for their style very, very well...but still never granting those designers the same level of status and glorification reserved for artist (even much more mediocre ones). Thus in our old guard we frequently encounter bitterness despite lifetimes of success, a lack of generosity towards new work or new designers, defensiveness, the desire for control, and worst of all, the attempt to dictate the intellectually pathetic idea of a singular history. Consider the recent spectacle of several of the most highly regarded names in graphic design excoriating the Walker Arts Center for daring to assemble an exhibition titled 'A History of Graphic Design' (note: not 'The History'), which, they thought, failed to pay suitable homage to their accomplishments.
When graphic designers complain that their parents don't understand what they do, it used to sound like an innocent little joke, repeated to reinforce group identity; now it takes on a sinister tone, like a symptom of disease, grounds for professional counseling. Remember, admitting that there is a problem is the first step to the road to recovery.
Adapted from a talk given by Lorraine Wild at the symposium 'The Edge of the Millennium', presented by Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design, Smithsonian Institution. The presentation, and others from the symposium, will be published in the Cooper-Hewitt's forth-coming book 'The Edge of the Millennium'.
Lorraine Wild is the former director and current faculty member of the visual communication program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. She is also a principal of the graphic design firm Reverb, whose clients include The Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities, the Architectural Association, London and Now Time, among others.
Editor's note: Reprinted without permission for my Art 494 Special Topics: Visible Language students from:
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