Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Crisis of Intent

Schrager detail

Victor Schrager's photographs currently on view at Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York are dream-like and unsettling: richly saturated, they're a cross between the urban drama of a Hugh Ferris drawing and the sobering stillness of a Gerhard Richter painting. Are they landscapes? Portraits of cities? Architectural constructions? In truth, they're books, photographed at exaggerated angles and with dramatic lighting, densely rendered yet mysteriously stripped of any apparent meaning: after all, the titles are obscured, as are any typographic or, for that matter, communicative details. Of course, this is art photogaphy, subjective and impressionistic—hardly the terrain of communication design. Or is it? Somehow, despite their apparent obscurity, Schrager's images are anything but anonymous. They're timeless.

Seems to me there's a lesson in this.

Occasionally, it seems, there's an ineffable sense of impending doom to making design: you think it, you create it, you disperse it and then ... where does it go? Typically, it has a slow evolution, an embryonic migration from idea to thing, or from a single thing to many things. Or it splits, mutating into sub-particles of things. Or it boomerangs back in some way, informing the design of yet another thing. (We call this progress.) Sometimes, design extends its abbreviated journey from thing transmitted to thing received, but in general, the designed thing is intended to have a rather targeted life. Over the course of the past century, it might be argued that design which endured often did so because of its appeal to a kind of basic homogeneity: in other words, it achieved timelessness by removing itself from the specific. Consider the Swiss-born Adrian Frutiger's design of Univers; the Italian-born Massimo Vignelli's identity program for the US National Park System; the Uruguayan-born Edward Johnston's type design for the London Underground— updated not long ago by the London agency Banks and Miles but, to the average person, fundamentally unchanged from its original inception in the 1930s. Empirically, these examples testify to the great modernist paradox: or, why the international style was, of course, not "international" in the least.

Timelessness through neutrality? I'm not so sure.

Over the years I've been teaching, I've occasionally seen and listened to my students argue on behalf of obscurity in their own work, pushing for a kind of cryptic obfuscation that forces the viewer to work harder, thus achieving, in the end, a greater sense of reward from having "gotten" a message. In the past, I've cringed inwardly and tried to talk them out of it. ("I think I'm on the right track," a student confessed to me several years ago, "but I'm not sure whether or not my work is subversive enough.") Designers (and not just my students) often equate political action with political design: it's didactic and intentional, provocative and discomfitting. We use our skills to put words into action, and more often than not, that means putting words into type. But is that the best way to engage our public? Is it the only way? In a complex world, do we urge clarification at all costs, or do we strive to create work that attains a parallel tone of complexity and, in so doing, end up contributing something of greater texture, and ultimately greater (read "longer-lasting") value in the end?

This week, I divided my time between installing an exhibition and reading my students' thesis drafts. I thought about clarity and readability, about whether or not my labels were large enough, about em-dashes and non-aligning numbers. I did not think about the world beyond any of this, even as I read about Ralph Nader and Haitian Rebels and The Big Rip. But when I looked at Schrager's photographs, I stopped and thought about all of these things. And it's going to change the way I work.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Education , Graphic Design, Photography, Theory + Criticism

Comments [6]

Nietzsche once said, "we should not wish to divest our existence of its rich ambiguity."

Schrager seems to approach this textured in-between...the play of information vehicles as they gain and lose meaning by colour and shadow...the limit of vision like the trembling of light above a candle's flame. I think we as students are always pleased when our designs unfold with some delightful subversion, but I concur here not all should be meant for unpacking...

Some design will spark a deep, subtle chord to sound that may never rise to the surface of language and critique and yet cuts a new facet in our ways of seeing.

Well, I'd have to argue that a lot of art photography can be conceptual and communicative, as can painting of course.

The simplification of real forms until they reach a point of near abstraction does breed a calmness that is refeshing.

Many designers/design students today feel a strong urge to put their personal stamp on a project that can I think swamp the message and distract the audience. And in some cases the language they use graphically could only be interpreted by other graphic designers!
somehow the simple solutions can seem too easy to them.

More designers also want to control the full image aspects of the brief, with no collaboration with photographers or illustrators, so they can truly claim ownership of the whole job. This can be a mistake I feel as it prevents a major role of a designer which is that of the objective 'art direction' of the brief, and it is harder to be objective with the 'all in one' brief to print approach. Collaboration can breed clarity.

After seeing Victor Schrager's (whom I hadn't heard of) images (which I hadn't seen) and your reference to them as "Architectural constructions" I thought you might find this interesting.

In Mexico City there are these big "towers" called Torres de Satelite, built by Mexican architect Luis Barragan (although Mathias Goeritz will be first in line to debate credit, but that's another story altogether). Anyway, what is really cool about these towers, and what I saw in Schrager's images, is how when viewed from different angles they have completely different shapes and, possibly, meanings.

From tall, slim and elegant
To short, pudgy and wide
To flat, flat and flat

If there wasn't so much noise behind the towers, and if they were a bit blurrier they look a lot like the books on Schrager's images.

Armin, those Barragan images are fantastic. It would be remarkable if Schrager wasn't aware of them, although these kinds of coincidences happen all the time.

Jessica, I was really surprised by your last sentence: "And it's going to change the way I work." Quite a statement coming at the end of some pretty cerebral observations. Can you talk some more about this?
Michael Bierut

Much as I am praying I am too young for a mid-life crisis(!), I found that I was thinking about these images days after seeing them—much as a plot of a novel stays with you after you close the book, I guess.

What it made me think was that this kind of memorable experience shouldn't have to be at the expense of the immediate: in design terms, I'd like to think that you can solve a problem but also transcend it, and that this implies a different approach to the work. This is not about authorship or even about designers presenting themselves as artists, but it is about a kind of inflection in the work. So although I have long been an advocate of clarity (and to a certain extent, this remains, I think, an imperative for any designer) I think there is something more to be made of the process by which we work, the harnassing of the imagination, the awareness that what you make can not be so specific as to nullify its purpose an instant after it is created. On the contrary, there may be more of a contemplative aspect to "reading" messages and "experiencing" design that is not as much a part of our process as it deserves to be.
Jessica Helfand

I had not been aware of the architecture of Luis Barragan but I am delighted to see it now. Thanks.
Victor Schrager

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