There was a time when I was obsessed with the new. The most obvious reason for this is that all journalists are obsessed with what’s new(s). That’s our job. It doesn’t matter how great today’s story is; tomorrow there must be a new one, and another, and another. None of this would be necessary were it not for the reader. Whether the new is earthshakingly momentous or a passing trifle, readers want to know about it, and if you aren’t there to bring it to their attention, what are you there for? Newspapers, magazines, online publications, and blogs are giving their audiences what they want. Not for nothing was “new” long ago understood to be one of the main hot words in any communication.
It was exciting to engage in the battle—first as a writer and then as an editor—to hunt down and deliver the new. The aim was to find it first, then to tell it and show it better than your rivals. It was also to try to distinguish between developments that were genuinely new (because they contributed something we hadn’t seen before) and those that were merely novel (superficially different, but familiar at the core). If you could do that, your publication would have an edge. Readers would understand that this was the real new, not just the old new dressed up to give it new life.
As subject matter, graphic design provided a never-ending river of newness. Or so it seemed in the late ’80s to mid-’90s—the years when I was most actively chasing the new and was most impatient with anything that didn’t meet the brief—because this was a phase when graphic design was constantly coming up with remarkable new things. The field was in turmoil, and the nature of this newness—the challenge it posed to old ways of thinking and working, the dismay, disapproval, and fierce commitment it generated—made for the most compelling kind of news. Designers wanted to know where we were going and what it all meant.
Yet there comes a point when endlessly chasing the new can start to seem like a hollow pursuit. One thing you might then start to wonder is whether all the effort that goes into this search might be better directed into trying to gain a deeper insight into what you have already discovered. With its urgent demands for our attention, the latest piece of shiny, unmissable newness tends to push aside the last new thing we were persuaded to care about by the news cycle’s relentless churn. More information doesn’t necessarily add up to greater understanding. Sometimes it just gets in the way.
Some of these thoughts were running through my mind as I turned the pages of Contemporary Graphic Design, put together by those indefatigable survey compilers Charlotte and Peter Fiell. Four years ago, the Fiells produced a similar volume for Taschen—that one was called Graphic Design for the 21st Century. Has so much changed in graphic design since then to make necessary another huge book of pictures, organized alphabetically by designer, with only the most cursory and unprobing of introductions to set the scene? Contemporary Graphic Design is “new” in the sense that we probably won’t have seen a lot of these images before, but is it actually new? Does it reveal and explain something that we didn’t know already? The question seems to have given Carlos Segura a moment of doubt when he was asked, like all the contributors, to provide a few words to introduce his way of designing. “I don’t have a new approach …still the same old one,” he notes apologetically.
Even though I don’t really believe in the new anymore, and I don’t have high expectations of finding it in a volume so obviously put together for commercial reasons, I still felt a sense of anticipation. Perhaps there would be work by someone I had never heard of that takes design in an unexpected new direction. In 1996, in an essay for Émigré titled “The Next Big Thing,” Rudy VanderLans reflected on the prolific visual experimentation of the previous few years. “Picturing what has passed before us,” he wrote, “I cannot for the life of me think of what it could be that hasn’t already been done.” The sense that graphic design had reached some kind of postmodern terminus of style beyond which it wouldn’t be possible to travel has persisted for more than a decade now.
While graphic designers remain conflicted about the whole issue of style, worrying that it is trivial if not actually immoral to be preoccupied with surfaces, the expressive manipulation of form has always been central to what graphic designers do. Take that away—as some of the more disenchanted or fastidious designers tried to do in the past decade—and you are left with a dry, threadbare “conceptual” design. “My objective is to go beyond the surface, presenting dematerialised concepts and ideas within the context of art and graphic design,” British designer Daniel Eatock tells the Fiells. Eatock’s rigorous purification of “superfluous elements” is witty and has genuine human warmth. But while it works for him, as a way forward in any larger sense it is surely a dead end, although it does at least avoid the snare of being merely trendy.
A great deal of contemporary graphic design—if we are to take the book’s title and survey purpose at face value—seems to aim no higher. The work juggles fluently enough with the codes that signal “now” and “fashionable” to the digitally oriented young consumers at which it’s aimed (dolls, doodles, cartoons, stylized foliage, retro type, friendly monsters, whimsical ornaments) but the combinatory aesthetic has been around since the era of Victorian collage and is easily achieved on screen. Young American design seems especially prone to this tendency. The book does contain work by a number of well-established older designers: Pierre di Sciullo, Philippe Apeloig, Peter Saville, Jonathan Barnbrook, Rick Valicenti, Stefan Sagmeister, Ralph Schraivogel, Irma Boom, Karel Martens, and Jan van Toorn. Aside from pieces by M/M—the dullest projects by the arty Parisian duo I have seen anywhere—much of the work is exemplary, but we didn’t need this book to tell us about it. These bodies of work are already familiar contributions to the story of the last two decades of graphic design.
There are, however, examples from a few lesser-known figures who extend graphic form in original directions, though even this work I had seen elsewhere: Dutch designers Maureen Mooren and Daniel van der Velden’s covers for Archis magazine and posters for the Holland Festival; Swiss designer Martin Woodtli’s posters for the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich—in the late ’90s, Woodtli worked in New York with Sagmeister and David Carson; and pieces by the French designer Toffe (Christopher Jacquet). Can it be a coincidence that all four designers provide subtle and interesting rationales that display a degree of self-aware-ness as noteworthy as the work that arises from their ideas? Many of the statements supplied by other designers are, to put it politely, less than original.
Toffe’s work is particularly intriguing. He is in his early 50s, and his work possesses a kind of meticulous anarchy. He unites diagrammatic computer-drawn elements with simple patterns and textures, and his use of type is equally precise and playful. “My graphic production is political and utopian,” he says, as only a Frenchman could.
When you encounter work such as Toffe’s, which has the benefit of not having been reproduced to death already, it becomes clear that new elaborations of graphic form in the service of worthwhile ideas are possible even now. To uncover them, what we need is not the include-anything-and-everything approach taken by Contemporary Graphic Design and similar publishing efforts,
but a more refined, exacting, and curatorial sifting of graphic output. The problem that graphic design presents is the ceaseless, overwhelming flood of fresh things: That is the nature of communication. We need toweave finer critical nets to capture and isolate what is truly unfamiliar. If there was less to see because we took the trouble to exclude the endless, unrevealing duplication, there would be more to talk about.