Design as Dictator

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By: Rick Poynor | November 8, 2010

Is it time to put away the apps and leave a bit more to chance?

Illustration by Philipp Hubert

A few months ago, I arranged to meet a designer friend to go to an art opening. Neither of us had visited the gallery before, and I had looked at a map to memorize its location. Within moments of setting off in the correct general direction from our meeting point, my companion pulled out his iPhone and started using a GPS app to map our route. So there we were, two fellows, both with years of experience of finding our way around big cities, following the instructions issued by this handy little gadget.

Now, I recognize that many people would regard this as completely unremarkable. You have the phone. You have the app. Why wouldn’t you use it to lead you to wherever you are going? We’ve already grown accustomed to doing this in cars—even cab drivers use GPS now. But it’s curious, isn’t it, the way we so willingly give up small areas of responsibility, things we know how to do and always did perfectly well in the past, to this new technology? Of course, it was always possible to get lost without a map so a device that ensures you will never lose your way is a convenience. But is that really what it’s about: eliminating the small effort involved in finding a destination, removing any potential risk of difficulty or digression along the way, and maximizing our place-finding efficiency?

It would stretch credibility to say that we consciously want to hand over control to technology, though sometimes I wonder. Perhaps the explanation for the rapid normalization of this behavior is simply that we love the gadgets and can’t resist opportunities to use them and show them off. Nevertheless, the effect of deploying the iPhone in this way is to surrender a small piece of personal decision-making to a machine, only one example of our burgeoning dependence on these tools.

There are two links here to design. The first comes from the fact that graphic design as a professional activity is now so heavily invested in technology, so utterly dependent on it at every level, that non-digital design is unthinkable. The designer has become an operator. (My designer friend was, in that sense, simply taking his work home with him.) The second link is that design, as a discipline based on the idea of planning, is itself a technique for imposing organization, structure, regulation, and control.

Typefaces are the most elementary example of this regulatory aspect of graphic design. By regularizing the shapes of letterforms, typefaces make words easily transmissible, with enormous benefits for society. The grid is another example. By giving the page a regular underlying structure, grids allow the relatively simple creation of complex assemblages of data, rendered into clear and consistent form by typefaces. These are unarguable developments of enormous utility and value. As graphic design developed, the visual consistency it was capable of delivering began to be applied more widely. With the arrival of the corporate identity manual, an urge to impose control that goes beyond mere utility becomes apparent. The manual offers an idealized vision of reality: the company’s image must be presented in this way and no other. Employees are charged with ensuring that the rules and guidelines laid down by the designers to maintain the company’s visual identity are followed at all times.

When I first learned about the existence of corporate identity manuals in the mid-1980s, they fascinated me: They appealed to my own controlling tendencies. I worked as an editor, and editors are also engaged in ensuring that textual material conforms to precise editorial conventions. Historically, editing and graphic design, with their shared understanding of typography, evolved as two sides of the same process of communicating via print. There was something strangely satisfying about the idea of specifying in exhaustive detail all the ways that a company’s logo, colors, and other visible signs could be used on printed material, buildings, and transportation. It seemed perfectly benign, nothing more than a reasonable demand for public and internal clarity, a kind of corporate good manners. I could also see why designers loved putting together identity manuals—the ultimate expression of their hopes for the project—and why they admired exceptional manuals designed by their colleagues.

That was a long time ago, though; a time before branding became the master narrative, talked up as the great new panacea for business by a legion of chancers and word-spinners who might once have been hawking snake oil. The more designers repositioned themselves as branding experts, the less sympathy I felt for their mission. Design was indisputably about control now—the control of audience perceptions, emotions, and reactions—and this control began with the bondage of design itself.

These thoughts have been with me often of late, as I worked on an exhibition called “Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design.” The exhibition’s premise is that a kind of alternative tradition influenced by surrealism exists within graphic design, though it has never received much attention. This is a kind of graphic design without limits, one which possesses the same power to involve and disturb us as does art, while remaining, unequivocally, graphic design. What you won’t find in any of this work is an indication that it has been moderated by an intermediary professing to tell the designer, from some supposedly superior vantage point, what’s most suitable for the viewer. The designers simply interpret the subject in their own way and then viewers are left to make up their minds. This process leaves everything to chance. People might not understand or like what they see. But if they get it, their responses are likely to be immeasurably stronger. They have the satisfaction of knowing that they have been addressed with honesty, intelligence, and passion.

I’m not suggesting that all design could be like this. But I do argue that more of it could be and should be. Design has become much too closely aligned with interests that seek to neuter and control it for purely money-making purposes. Designers, by temperament obsessed with control, have been much too ready to comply. Within graphic design, there has always been a tension between its commercial applications and its cultural possibilities. Many designers have felt uneasy about the uses to which their work is put. The desire to resist, to configure design in alternative ways, can be seen in Tibor Kalman’s subversive notion of “undesign”; in Adbusters’ proclamations of “design anarchy”; in the Dutch design team Metahaven’s concept of “uncorporate identity”; and in the periodic invocation of the term “anti-design”—first used in Italy in the late 1960s and most recently revived by Neville Brody, a designer prone to expressions of public ambivalence, for an “Anti Design Festival” in London, in September 2010.

Technology is turning us into switchboard operators in the communication networks of our own lives. Far from encouraging a sense of freedom, graphic design is implicated every step of the way. Why does everything have to arrive through a screen? Does it really make life richer and more interesting? Why not try rejecting the templated experiences, the social media, and the patronizing attempts to involve us in prescribed interactions? Unplug, disconnect, wander at random for a while, submit to app-free chance, rely on your own unmediated instincts and non-digital perceptions, and see what comes along.

Immerse yourself in the blissful liberation of going off grid.

This article appears in the October issue of Print.

Rick Poynor is a British writer, editor, lecturer, curator, and founder of Eye magazine. His latest exhibition is “Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design” at the Moravian Gallery in Brno in the Czech Republic. Philipp Hubert is a German graphic designer based in New York. He is co-owner of the graphic design studio Visiotypen and he loves llamas.

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