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The Jules Collins Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University is exhibiting “Visual Memoranda: The IBM Poster Program, 1969–1979” from April 12 to July 15. The posters are office messages produced for internal consumption. Robert Finkel, associate professor of graphic design, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, says: “We have created a companion website, visualmemoranda.com, that goes into further detail about the poster program, biographies of the designers, and has a gallery with over 100 posters. The current exhibit at Auburn has a selection of 20 posters and Rand’s “Eye,Bee,M” on display.”
Plans after the current run is for “Visual Memoranda” to travel. The gallery developed the framing system to be easily shipped along with the wall labels. I asked Prof. Finkel to discuss this collection of IBM material created by in-house designers under the spiritual auspices of Paul Rand and Elliot Noyes.
What is the goal of your exhibition?
To improve the visibility and understanding of the exceptional level of work that staff designers executed at IBM during this era. While Noyes and Rand were the heralded ‘spiritual leaders’ and ‘last word’ on what was good design, IBM’s immense resources also enabled their hiring of some of the most creative and skilled designers for their internal design centers. It is not lost here that these posters represent the most mundane content and context zones for visual work (campus bulletin boards and water cooler fodder). White, Anderson, and Bluhm (and the printers who produced them) took on the challenge of ‘pedestrian work,’ employed Rand’s wisdom and approach, and elevated these messages into highly communicative art.
How did you assemble the material?
In 2016, John V. Stram, IDSA a former industrial designer at IBM, gifted 80% of the posters to Auburn University faculty. The remaining 20% are on loan from Tom Bluhm, the last of the three staff designers featured in the exhibition still living. In October of 2017, associate professor Shea Tillman interviewed Tom on video in his studio in Vernamiège, Switzerland. As a part of this archival research, individual posters were reviewed and rich commentary provided by Tom. In addition, Shea conducted phone interviews with the children of Ken White and John Anderson. This information may be assembled into a publication and/or produced video in the future.
Curation of the current exhibition was based upon a variety of visual solutions, diversity of content/message, and a representation of designers weighted in favor of the leader/mentor of the group (Ken White).
How have the students responded to this work?
Since many of the posters are influenced by International Typographic Style, students have been able to analyze primary sources of design that highlight the role of International Typographic Style within a corporate design context. This has led to discussion of viewing the work and International Typographic Style beyond a surface aesthetic but as a visual problem solving methodology. Notably, a single poster was typically designed and printed within a week. Systems of efficiency—both for the designer and the printer—were necessary.
Students have also commented on the range of visual solutions within the poster collection that the three designers would explore. This has underscored the idea that graphic design is a discipline of visual problem solving and that as a designer one should be open to exploring different techniques and processes in the service of the message.
Contrasting the posters with the day-to-day design needs of IBM (newsletters, binders, etc.) has shown that self-initiative, personal intuition, curiosity, and Rand’s “play instinct” are critical to one’s creative practice.
Lastly, it has brought up discussions about in-house design career vs. agency or freelance. A contemporary example being the internal visual communication that emanated from Facebook’s Analog Printing Lab.
Does Rand still have resonance as a designer, as a thinker, or what?
I still think the clarity with which Rand expressed his ideas visually and through his own reflective writing serves as a reminder that design is a branch of communication. At the core of this is intention and purpose—everlasting skills for any designer to refine. Bluhm quoted Rand as saying “The most pedestrian jobs are the most important a designer will ever do.” Does this quote align with Rand’s thoughts that everything is design and all design matters, or was this simply a means of keeping the ‘internals’ motivated?