Design at the Crossroads

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By: Tom Vanderbilt | July 23, 2012

The British designer Jonathan Barnbrook’s 2010 visual identity for the Biennale of Sydney

The final work displayed in “Graphic Design: Now in Production,” housed in the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s temporary quarters on Governors Island, is the designer Ji Lee’s World Trade Center Logo Preservation Project, a photomontage of the Twin Towers’ appearances across any number of New York City awnings, hoardings, and delivery vans. Sometimes depicted as the most leftward part of a lengthwise representation of Manhattan, elsewhere framing the center of a not-to-scale reconstituted skyline, or even blending into letterforms (e.g., the first two t’s in “Manhattan Mini-Storage”), the towers once served a yeoman’s duty as almost invisible icons. Now they stand out for their absence, and their appearance on a random deli (most of these signs predate 9/11) pricks one’s attention, per Roland Barthes’s punctum—the way, for example, the hammer and sickle in the Aeroflot logo does. (As the recent book Made in Russia notes, the company attempted an overhaul, owing to the symbol’s world-historical baggage; apparently, institutional visual stasis dies hard).

I read the placement of Lee’s work as a kind of graphic reintroduction portal to the city, for the striking thing about Governors Island, a transitional, semiderelict place with a military past, is the near-complete absence of signage, logos, graffiti, posters, brands—the whole landscape of graphic design. In New York, this is as close as you get to a state of nature. And that makes it an ideal vantage for “Now in Production” (as does the show’s warehousey white-box environment—a former munitions depot—in lieu of the more spatially cloistered environs of the Carnegie Mansion). It’s a sort of cleansed visual palette, underscored by the ferry passage.

Graphic design’s ubiquity in our lives—is there any creative human endeavor our eye is more exposed to, down to these very letters?—speaks to the challenges of mounting an omnibus exhibit. There’s the “when”—the curators, Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton, picked the year 2000, an epoch marked by “the increasingly open nature of design practices and the open access to tools that reign supreme.” Then there’s the “what.” “A second major challenge,” they write in the exhibition’s catalog, “is deciding where to draw the lines around a field such as graphic design. The forms of graphic design proper are endless.”

Indeed, as the show chronicles, there’s nary an activity nowadays that’s beneath a well-executed graphic identity. Even organizations that technically do not exist still visually codify themselves; Trevor Paglen’s Symbology project explores some of these “black-budget” defense units whose members zealously guard their secrets yet create boastful, meaning-laden heraldic badges. We take it as a tautological fact that black-metal bands—see Christophe Szpajdel’s work for Sadistik Distortion and Macabrum, among others displayed here—no less than multinational corporations, should have well-considered logos, with their own logic and resonance. (And it is a project for some future typographically inclined cognitive neuroscientist to chart the process by which typefaces can invoke feelings; black metal’s gothic dread has long since crossed into knowing camp.) Individuals also need branding these days, through the constant bonsai pruning of online identity—the Twitter badges, the Facebook walls, the Pinterest collections—a fact wonderfully satirized by the “Christopher Doyle™ Identity Guidelines,” in which the eponymous designer lays out the appropriate “clearance space” and “color variations” for his own stubborn frame.

Christopher Doyle™ Identity Guidelines

To make his Felt-Tip Print, Daniel Eatock balanced a piece of paper on the nibs of Pantone pens.

The perils of getting it wrong are evident in a cleverly populist 3-D adaption of Armin Vit’s and Bryony Gomez-Palacio’s Brand New website, where participants are able to vote on corporate logo changes. (Visitors to the exhibition can place chips in a “before” or an “after” slot.) While this exercise gets into the sticky wickets of taste, most of the voting I saw was pretty lopsided. People hated the New York Public Library’s new logo (too abstract); ditto the rebrandings of the Library of Congress and of SyFy—“in space, no one can hear you spell,” one commenter put it, reproduced here in wall text. There’s such a howling pointlessness to some of the logo reiterations that one is left to wonder what demon meeting, what rogue memo, spawned such interventions. Blauvelt, commenting on the 2003 book Logo R.I.P. (a compendium of dead brand identities), observes, “paradoxically, could the desire we feel to preserve these icons be the result of the same love engendered through the mechanisms of branding, which in turn feeds the destruction of these logos in the first place?” Or should we think of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who described capitalism’s process of “creative destruction”? Capitalism, he wrote, “is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary.” One thinks of the supermarket-shelf refrain: “New look! Same great taste!” To which I always want to ask: Why are you telling us this?

“Now in Production” is that most rara of aves: a big, sweeping, categorical, world-historical-moment-defining graphic design show. In its zeal for curatorial catchment it gets a lot in its net—the things you’ve already seen too much of, the things you’ve never seen. I thought the treatment of film titles rather desultory (a continuing, seemingly acontextual loop that I never quite knew how to jump into). I did appreciate, however, the space given to magazines, but was unsure whether this represented the last gasp of creative energy before death, or the seeds of some new efflorescence. One might say the same about graphic design itself. At the press preview, one included designer mentioned that he couldn’t imagine the show being repeated in another ten years. Then again, a similar feeling might have been expressed at the dawn of Macintosh desktop publishing, or of movable type for that matter. Periodization is always difficult—much of what we think of the ’60s, in terms of social protest, actually occurred in the ’70s—and so is “presentism.” That is, perhaps we always think we’re living through the end of an era.

Christopher Clark, Web Typography for the Lonely: Cluster

Sarah Illenberger’s “Die Grosse Sex Umfrage,” for Neon magazine

One clear prognostication in the exhibition, however, is that increasingly what graphic designers are designing is raw information, helping to pin some meaning on the petabytes of data that course through the culture. “Today’s information designers,” goes the wall text, “serve as storytellers, journalists, and translato
rs, seeking to organize data in understandable, engaging, and memorable ways.” And Kai Krause’s The True Size of Africa packs a data-viz. wallop: the U.S., China, India, Japan, and Europe, all positioned to fit within the outline of the largest continent. This should immediately be posted on the wall of every classroom in the world, including those in Africa. Nearby, a video screen shows Hans Rosling at the helm of his TED-famous Trendalyzer, while another video depicts a talk at London’s RSA being “video scribed”—a sort of real-time graphic transcription. I get the sense that there’s an information anxiety at work here. In the face of ever more data points and streams of information (much of it self-generated, and raised to an art form in Nicholas Felton’s annual reports), knowledge often seems ever more elusive, requiring some kind of mediation, as if mere numbers or words were not to be trusted.

But how much are we to trust the interpretation? David McCandless’s Mountains out of Molehills compares the media coverage of certain hot topics to the deaths linked to them. As the title indicates, this is meant to dramatize the well-known folly by which shark-bite stories radically outnumber, say, the vastly more common, and more dangerous, slips on stairs. And at first, it seems dramatic: Look how much ink was spilled on the millennium bug! But in unpacking the infographic, there are a few complications. For one, there is a general correlation between number of deaths and media coverage. People wrote more about swine flu than about mad-cow disease. Second, some of the media scares are about things like violent video games, which have zero deaths attributable to them—but is death, if it could actually be attributed directly to a video game, even the correct metric here? Couldn’t there be other important concerns, harder to represent with data? As they do with logos, book jackets, or film titles, graphic designers can spin instant, seamless narratives out of data. As Peter Hall observes in a catalog essay, “each step of this process involves decisions about what to omit and what to prioritize. Yet the end result, the visualization, carries an authority, timeliness, and objectivity that belies its origins.” In other words: new look, same old problems.

Top photo courtesy Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Second photo courtesy Project Projects. Other images courtesy the artists and Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

article is from the August 2012 issue of Print

This article is from the August 2012 issue of Print, which is devoted to trash. You can also view the table of contents, purchase the issue, or download a PDF version.