Michael Bierut | Essays

Graphic Design and the New Certainties

Graphic designers claim to want total freedom, but even in this intuitive, arbitrary, "creative" profession, many of us secretly crave limitations, standards, certainties. And certainties are a hard thing to come by these days.

I was reminded of this by several presentations at the AIGA's "Power of Design" conference in Vancouver a few weeks ago. Katherine McCoy's talk began with images of one of her own early projects, a corporation's rulebook for their janitorial crew. Kathy worked at Unimark at the time, and the piece was a classic example of High Modernism: sans serif typography on a three-column grid, subheads flush left in the first column hung beneath 1 point rules, geometric icons and diagrams. Emil Ruder would have been proud. Kathy showed it to set the stage for a thoughtful presentation that urged designers to be more sensitive to the vernacular of the subcultures with which we communicate, to not force Ulm and Basel down the unwilling throats of people we would never bother getting to know personally. The implication was: can you believe we used to believe this kind of stuff?

God only knows what all those janitors made of all that Swiss modernism. Moreover, Swiss modernism is so dead that I'm not even sure what those twenty-somethings in the Vancouver audience 30 years later made of it: probably they were wondering "Who is Emil Ruder and why is he ripping off Experimental Jetset?" As for me, I was remembering -- with no small amount of longing -- those days when everything seemed so clear. Working for Massimo Vignelli in 1980, I had no doubt whatsoever that the purpose of graphic design was to improve the life of every person on earth beyond measure by exposing him or her to Helvetica on a three-column grid. That was certainty, and it made design into a crusade.

But that certainty wasn't long for this world, and it was replaced by a series of others with ever-shorter shelf lives. For instance: the purpose of graphic design is to provide graphic designers with a medium of self-expression (great for designers with something to express, not-so-great for designers with access to a lot of Photoshop filters). Or, the purpose of graphic design is to change the world by subverting the goals of its corporate patrons (Tibor Kalman, we hardly knew ye.) Or, the purpose of graphic design is to provide a medium for designers to act as "authors" (see the previous two certainties). For what was great about Swiss modernism was that anyone could do it. You didn't have to have an authorial point of view, political conviction, or even be particularly talented.

But at another presentation, I glimpsed what perhaps will be a starting point for a new certainty, perhaps the ultimate one. Michael Braungart, author with William McDonough of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, talked about how graphic designers are contributing to the destruction of the environment. Braungart is not a designer. He's a chemist. At one point in his presentation, he displayed a chart that described the precise amount of toxic elements in a single ink color. You felt the audience, 2000-plus strong, draw a collective breath. Here, at last, was true certainty: the promise that every piece of graphic design, each an amalgam of dozens of arbitrary, intuitive, "gee, this looks right to me" decisions, could be put into a centrifuge, broken down into its constituent parts, and analyzed for the harm it could do to our environment.

Of course, with certainty comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes power, which, after all, is what those 2000 attendees had come to Vancouver to find out about. And what greater power than to discover forensic proof that even this seemingly harmless profession has the capacity to inflict damage, as well as to do good? Now we can think, as did J. Robert Oppenheimer upon seeing that his atomic bomb really worked, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," each time we specify PMS 032. And, like Oppenheimer, we may find that power isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Posted in: Business, Education , Graphic Design

Comments [12]

I saw Katherine McCoy's "janitor presentation" in Nagoya, Japan, at the Visualogue conference, and it was quite an eye-opener for I'm sure most of the audience. It did make me aware on the importance of the consumer, of his/her reaction to "our" end product.
Usually the farthest we go in worrying about how the things we design is "this 7-point type is not very easy to read, but whatta hell". We should take a moment sometimes to consider the other implications of our activity... From the spending/waste of ink, and paper!, to the absurd amount of electricity we consume everyday, to the damage we cause to other people's eyesight. Perhaps graphic design is not so harmful as we like to think it is. Just remember, reduce, reuse, recycle. This usually applies to a lot of things, and maybe graphic design too.
Frederico Duarte

Michael, thank you for the post and your analysis. It really is appreciated.


- Me: not a twenty-something, but close enough to still be an honorary, schooled at Cooper Union (modernist curricula), un-schooled at M&Co.
- I read Cradle to Cradle about a year ago.

I did not attend the Power of Design conference, but was aware of its agenda. And I noted the conference's thematic undercurrent of "sustainability" with some apprehension.

Don't misunderstand though—I believe that Cradle to Cradle is a radically important text. It and the Sustainability movement will (hopefully) alter our social fabric in years to come. However, I do not believe it is the next certainty that many in our profession seek (and I believe you failed to include the design of the "experience" in your short history of design -isms. I was glad to see that one go).

I have come to believe that the ideas presented in Cradle to Cradle will come to play a similar role to that of another key text, Donald Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things." Like sustainability, usability is an adjunct concept to the practice of graphic design. It enriches our discipline, but it does not subsume it.

I cannot believe that Sustainability is the ultimate certainty, and I would doubt that most architects (for whom this issue already seems to have been largely embraced and codified) would accept this suggestion. The rebuilding of ground zero will not solely be an issue of sustainability, nor should it be. This is obviously the most extreme of examples, but it helps to focus my argument.

Even as architecture has captured the world stage, it does not appear to have lost sight of its most basic roles. Alternately, as the profession of graphic design searches for new certainties, I wonder if we are losing sight, or moreover, if some of us WANT to lose sight of our history and our historical value.

I am a bit ashamed to end this way, but "American Institute of Graphic Arts". I won't stoop so low as to quote Paul Rand here (sorry JH) but you know what I am saying...
Is Swiss Modernism dead in the sense that we have nothing to learn from it? Why has creativity become so discounted a worthy service? (If we call it Innovation will that make it ok?) And is there really nothing left but pastiche?

Hal Siegel

Wasting energy? Paper? The last time I checked energy wasn't in limited supply or paper for that matter. Trees are a renewable resources and as soon as electricity and gas are in short supply (a gallon of milk cost more than a gallon of gas) come inline with other "necessities", then maybe we'll start thinking that we need to "conserve". No, I don't drive an SUV either. Too many do gooders and not enough doers!

Forgive the bewilderment of an outsider (but a fan!) for a sec ...

I follow graphic design a bit here and there, and confess that for the life of me I have no idea why there's so much agonizing in the field about "the purpose" of graphic design. Isn't the answer easy -- something along the lines of, "to make material more presentable/attractive/effective than it would be if a graphic designer weren't hired?"

Why all the soul-searching and debating over "a purpose" that might be larger than that one? Doesn't that start to move the debate out of the realm of design and into such realms as politics, if not theology? And why would designers (in my experience, generally not all that well read on politics and/or theology) be lusting for such conversations?

You mean, it isn't enough to use your talents to make material more effective and attractive than it'd otherwise be?

So I'm guessing that it really boils down to a couple of questions:

* Given that graphic design is a wholly commercial field, how do arty people get their rocks off and feel subversive even while selling their skills to companies and corporations? (Quick response: you mean it isn't an honorable thing to do to do honest, skillful work for hire? Why not?)
* How are judgments made? What does it mean for a design to be effective/attractive/etc? (It's kind of up to the client finally, isn't it? Is that a bad thing?)
* Given that it's a commercial field, given that you're doing work for hire, where do new styles come from? How to keep the field alive and cooking? (Good question.)

I dunno. Seems to me like a lot of graphic designers mistake what they're doing for something like pop music, and are doing their best to have the kinds of debates that suit (sometimes) the pop music field. But pop musicians are creating art-and-entertainment and hoping crowds will want to buy it. They aren't really doing what designers do -- they aren't doing work for hire and selling a service.

Is there a dream behind all this of "being creative" and somehow getting subsidized for it (and all the while looking down on the patron for not being as creative as the designer)?

Forgive the naivete -- genuinely interested in being enlightened on these points.
Michael Blowhard

follow up to m.blowhards post (quick because i'm under the gun right now)

Michael, I think you've confused commercial art with graphic design. To clarify...

We'll call commercial art something that sells. A billboard, a press ad... whatever. This is the stuff that's largely client driven. It's primary purpose is to entice and shift product.

Graphic design is something that informs, educates or generally improves the viewer's existence. Let's call it a well thought out set of signs that lets you get to your flight on time. Those universal symbols that we take forgranted. the label on the pill box that stops you taking too many, or not enough.

These later things aren't there to look good or satisfy the client. There are cultural concerns here that completely negate the client's preference.

With the first section ("commercial art"), Designer's are part of the selling chain, so questions like "Am I happy to promote the product of a company that uses sweatshops?" "Is it right to create a campaign for liquor aimed at youth audiences?" tend to pop up.


As a designer, How can I employ my skills to address the social concerns I have? Time to use some creative thinking to address some of the bigger issues. (see Stefan Sagmeister)

Yeah, it's my job, but there is a middle road. I'm not happy to be some yes man and skate through my career without making something meaningful of it for myself, and more importantly others.

I'm looking to help people out mate, not look down on them.
Gary Schmidt

Really? So I'm mistaken to think of the people who designed my website as graphic designers? And to think of the people who design book jackets and menus and CD covers and print ads and movie title sequences as graphic designers? They're commercial artists instead? Butbutbut ... I've got books and magazines about graphic design, and they're full of book jackets and title sequences, etc. So I'm being misled?
Michael Blowhard

Michael Blowhard makes some deftly troublesome points. Looking at design from the outside, from a non-designer's point of view, why should it be any more than he suggests - a service to clients which can be honourably fulfilled? (Or not.)

Designers on the inside and fellow travellers like me are convinced that design can be and sometimes should be more. But we have so far not done a terrifically good of job of making a public case for this that sticks. That said, there is clearly a growing wider awareness of design's large cultural role as shaper of our world. This blog is based on the conviction that these are issues we should discuss with design's viewers and users, not just with each other.

Design's professional uncertainties are unusual, though. Do dentists agonise about their calling like this? Do hotel managers? Do bus drivers? One essential difference with design is that it's a form of public communication, and that takes us into questions of identity, representation, the public good and, yes, even politics. These are not neutral issues. The designer who wields the power of public communication but doesn't pause to think about such matters is a slightly alarming figure. Those who do often find they have a point of view. They question their role. They sometimes find themselves at odds with their (potential) clients. They struggle to find places where they can reconcile the service and personal aspects of the job. And this is to say nothing about design's historical legacy. Any educated designer knows that the idea of social influence, and certainly social responsibility, is threaded through the evolution of design in the 20th century.
Rick Poynor

Ah, that helps, thanks.

On the creative-agony front, and FWIW, I used to agonize more than I care to remember about my on-the-job input. Its effect, what I could bring to it, what impact it might have, why the bosses didn't recognize my genius (oops, scratch that: ego occasionally does get loose) ... Then I had a bit of a crisis, got out of the content end of the biz, and signed on as a time-clock-puncher instead. Now do what I laughably think of as my creative work for myself, for no pay, on my own time. And I'm feeling much more cheerful these days. Hey, it worked for me.

As I say, FWIW. Love your blog, by the way. Looking forward to much more.
Michael Blowhard

Thanks for the great exchange everyone.
Ben Weeks

Why is creativity being shelved for "more important issues". There is a human desire for aesthetics and creativity. Designers have a more defined awareness of it. It is a necessary ingredient to the practice of design. (read Virginia Postrel's, The Substance of Style)

It is not the only ingredient. We have social responsibilities. I've also read the McDonough book and I work in a profession that reads it like the Bible. Valid ideas indeed.

And, as Mr. Siegel pointed out, clarity, function and communication are part of what we do.

I'm pleased with this elightenment that seems to be taking place within the AIGA. However, I don't understand the manic pendulum swing. Sustainability is important. As are form, function and pleasure. Why must we choose or elevate one above another?
Michael Hendrix

Well, this topic has been dead for a year, so I'm right on time I guess. I read this thread while researching a paper, and found it to be particularly interesting.

I'm graduating from a decent midwestern design program (Columbia College Chicago) this June and am just now picking up some (dreadfully boring) freelance work, so I feel, for the first time, like a working designer. The program at Columbia is a pretty good balance of theory and craft, and thanks to a few especially enthusiastic members of the faculty I've been exposed to Emigre, the Looking Closer series (thanks, Mr. Bierut), designobserver, et cetera. I don't claim to be a voracious reader of design criticism (though I do read Emigre cover to cover) but I think I have a handle on some of the issues we face, and it's helped me keep my process and point of view flexible.

Anyway, I read Mr. Bierut's post and was a little bewildered.

After pointing out the fact that the life spans of "certainties" were being shortened, he proposed a new (and possibly permanent?!) "certainty": Design can be harmful to the environment.

Well, call me jaded, but... I don't buy it. Nearly every profession produces toxic waste in some form, and while the pollutants produced by the use of inks and the manufacture and "recycling " (aka shipping to China and dumping in a landfill) of our beloved Macintoshes is nothing to sneeze at, how does that relate to Ms. McCoy's talk about the death of the "certainty" of Swiss Modernism? It just felt a little shoehorned, that's all.

Anyway, the real meat of the thread came from Mr. Blowhard and Mr. Poyner. I would like to add this, in response to Mr. Poyner's comments.

As designers maybe we may have a greater sense of social responsibility than some, but it's not that cut and dried. Hotel managers, for instance, also contribute to the good and ill of society. They often work for socially and economically irresponsible corporations, and I don't doubt that many of them know it. Retail apparel employees (which I used to be) also feel ambivalence about their place in the "machine", and wonder if they're not partially responsible for exploiting all those kids in the South Pacific. People who work at large corporate law firms (which I currently do) may feel a pang of guilt when a major corporate client get away with bamboozling stockholders.

I guess my point is this: People in other professions do indeed agonize about their role in society. They are not, however, professional communicators (or whatever), and thus they chatter about it less.

We are not unique, but we have a tendency toward navel gazing.

The flip side of that is, so what? Navel gazing can be very useful, and while Mr. Blowhard raises excellent points about designers' obsession with self-analysis (self-importance?) I'm glad some of us are interested enough to DO the analysis. It makes the job interesting.

Anyway, thanks again for an interesting thread.
matthew hale

Matthew, thanks for the response. It's an old thread, but the same issues seem to keep coming up.

Rereading all this, it seems to me that "certainties" may not have been the best word for what I was trying to say. There was an undertone of irony, or perhaps cynicism, that I suspect didn't register with some readers.

Nonetheless, in the 25 years I've been practicing, the concerns of the design field (above and beyond the supposedly simple task of making things "more effective and attractive," to quote Michael Blowhard) have shifted to and fro.

In the middle of last summer, for instance, I knew a lot of designers who had decided that design's new role was to be an powerful tool to shape political thought. (Me too -- it seems like a dream now.) A lot of them were Democrats, so I guess we're on to the next thing now.

A recent post at 2Blowhards might be worth checking out as part of your research.
Michael Bierut

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