Michael Bierut | Essays

The Idealistic Corporation

"Atoms for Peace" poster for General Dynamics, Erik Nitsche, 1959

Last week, fellow Design Observer author Rick Poynor and I had a rare face-to-face meeting at a forum in London sponsored by Creative Review. The topic was "What is Design For?" and obviously there was a lot more to the subject than we could handle in one evening.

What kind of work do we do? For whom do we do it? These are the fundamental questions for practicing designers, and it's tempting to reduce the options to a depressingly simple choice: do commercial mainstream work that may have an impact on the mass market, or do what Rick calls "independent" work: projects of a more personal nature that may never extend beyond a small, specialized audience of connoisseurs. In other words: sell out, or resign yourself to marginalization.

But it wasn't always so.

The years following World War II were giddy ones not only for American designers, but for the corporations that employed them. These were the days of "good design is good business," to quote the emblematic business leader of the age, IBM's Thomas J. Watson, Jr. And what is striking today about these postwar design patrons is not just their willingness to use good design to advance their company's commercial aims, but their seeming conviction that design could do more than simply move product: it could make the world a better place. Watson's counterpart at Container Corporation of America (CCA), Walter Paepcke, wrote in 1946:

[A]rtists and businessmen, today as formerly, fundamentally have much in common and can contribute the more to society as they come to complement their talents...It should be made easy, remunerative and agreeable for the artist to 'function in society not as a decorator but as a vital participant.' The artist and the businessman should cultivate every opportunity to teach and supplement one another, to cooperate with one another, just as the nations of the world must do.

Just as the nations of the world must do! Paepcke put his money where his mouth was, commissioning dozens of artists and designers to create advertising and design for CCA, and starting the International Design Conference at Aspen, conceiving it as a summit at which business leaders and designers could meet, share ideas, and, presumably, plan together how to save the world. Herbert Bayer's extraordinary World Geo-Graphic Atlas, which Rick would like to see displayed at MoMA, exists thanks to a commission from CCA. In its foreword, titled "Why Container Corporation Publishes an Atlas," Paepcke writes, "We, in Container Corporation, believe that a company may occasionally step outside of its recognized field of operations in an effort to contribute modestly to the realms of education and good taste" and "It is important that we know more about the geography and the conditions of life of our neighbor in the world so that we may have a better understanding of other peoples and nations."

Paepcke was by no means alone. Watson's IBM not only commissioned graphics from Paul Rand, products from Eliot Noyes, and buildings from Eero Saarinen, but extraordinary exhibits by Charles and Ray Eames like "Mathematica" which could have had only, at best, an indirect influence on the corporation's bottom line. "How much business did a good-looking exhibit attract to the IBM Company?" asked Watson. "These are intangible things that we believe are genuine dividends of a good design program."

Other notable examples include General Dynamics and their long-term relationship with Erik Nitsche which produced his masterpiece volume Dynamic America, as well as the ultimate expression of corporate munificence, Cummins Engine Company's hometown of Columbus, Indiana. There the visionary CEO Irwin Miller transformed a southwestern Indiana city into a virtual demonstration laboratory for design in daily life. A church by Saarinen, a firehouse by Robert Venturi, an elementary school by Richard Meier and a newspaper printing plant by SOM's Gordon Bunshaft are among dozens of buildings there built in the second half of the twentieth century that can be visited today with the help of a tourist guide designed by...you guessed it, Paul Rand.

In 2004 America, one is hard pressed to find counterparts to Watson, Paepcke and Miller. After the tumult of the late sixties, Watergate, stagflation and Reagan-era deregulation, corporations are no longer looked to for civic leadership. Offshore "outsourcing" makes the Columbus-style company town seem like a paternalistic anachronism. The inefficient realms of "education and good taste" no longer tempt rigorous CEOs with their eyes on the bottom line. Even Thomas Watson's heir apparent, Steve Jobs, limits his passion for design to stuff that sells product; Apple's dazzling contribution to civic life is the Apple Store, where you can go have a social experience that has solely to do with buying Apple products.

Is all hope lost, then? Here is some optimism, perhaps perverse, from a surprising source. "I offer a modest solution: Find the cracks in the wall," wrote Tibor Kalman in his valedictory monograph. "There are a very few lunatic entrepreneurs who will understand that culture and design are not about fatter wallets, but about creating a future...Believe me, they're there and when you find them, treat them well and use their money to change the world." Wishing will not make it so, but Kalman knew that the search itself was fundamental to the design process. The more of us out there looking, the better.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, History, Technology

Comments [15]

Information Ecology: Bayer's Book of Maps: some info on Bayer's work

I think Bayer's atlas is a piece of work worth taking a closer look at, as it's a great example of a designer functioning as an interface to information - and after all, information seems to be what this era is all about.

Issue 49 of Eye magazine had a nice article discussing "the challenge of 'information visualisation', the process of revealing useful, easily grasped insights by transforming abstract data into visual and manipulable forms" (Macdonald). Though I ultimately found little of the work presented to be all that compelling, it did highlight, what I see to be, an interesting and necessary evolution in the role of the graphic designer. This evolution (though more like a branching) marks a shift from designer as facilitator to designer as interface/architect (if that makes any sense). It marks the designer adopting a more forward-thinking atitude of a technologist while retaining the package of graphic design. And it's this futurist outlook which made the day and age of Walter Paepcke, and his contemporaries, so wonderful.

Graphic design is just a bit too complacent these days - willing to add to the pile, but not necessarily push it forward. Instead, rather than functioning as someone who adds value to already presentable information, the graphic designer has to try to serve as a gateway to previously inaccessible information. The graphic designer has to concern himself, more so, with inventing new paths of communcation rather than optimizing existing ones - as I feel is this case today.

>In 2004 America, one is hard pressed to find counterparts to Watson, Paepcke and Miller.
I think that people like them do exist. Its just that they're not looking explicitly for graphic designers, because graphic designers aren't fullfilling the role they need them to.

note: for some reason the preview script is removing my link targets (i.e. target="_blank" ), so links will open in the same window.

Interesting thread. Quite reminiscent of issues raised by the "First Things First 200(1?2?)" manifesto. I think the solution of looking for the 'cracks in the wall' is a nice one, albeit quite idealistic and, for the most part, not very well-paying. The idea of graphic designer as 'information architect' is not only not new, but in fact, a quite limiting conception of the graphic designer's role. 'Creating new paths to information' is not quite the same as creating meaning through interpretation and contributing to human culture, which is a bigger challenge.

To me, it seems that the challenge is to find a group of projects, whether through a permanent job, freelance, or a mixture of the two, that allows a designer to pay the bills, live well, and sustain engagement with one's profession. To me, that would include a mixture of well-paying, commercial work, and lower-paying, culturally-oriented work. For better or for worse, however, it seems that these days, meaning and value do not go hand in hand with money. I see compromise and complexity as an integral part to this profession, which seems to lead to both frustration as much as it leads to possibilities and different ways of approaching things.
Manuel Miranda

Hmm...creating new paths to information seems like it would imply that certain paths already exist. My interest is to see graphic designers look for paths to information, to which no paths previously exisited - thereby "contributing to human culture" by supplying it with new information. No, this is not a new idea at all, but one I rarely, if ever, see executed. Ultimately, I don't want graphic designers to become 'information architects', because that's not their job. (Mind you, I am not redefining what graphic design is.) But I would like to see graphic design expand into that realm, because I feel buisness leaders would be very much interested in such trends.

Manuel, with respect to reigniting the buisness world's interest in graphic design and finding design patrons (which is the challenge/concern I see Michael Bierut presenting): I don't think finding a group of existing projects that will pay the bills is going to get you anywhere. And with respect to the "bigger challenge" of "contributing to human culture", I feel the same holds true.

You seem fine in accepting that "meaning and value do not go hand in hand with money", but as a promising and talented designer (based on what I see in your portfolio), I encourage you to try and change that so they can.

When people design for "good pay", I've always assumed that they meant significantly more than living wage. What's the lowest anyone has ever gone trying to carve out a niche that floats your boat culturally, politically, and economically? Below minimum wage? Welfare? How scared am I supposed to be?

I would like to observe what lies in between "selling out" and being marginalized. A simple transcendent idea expresses what is needed to overcome the effects of marginalization; In order to get something, you have to give something up. James Victoré—whose ways and works are integral to change in visual communication—gave up his education at SVA; Jonathan Barnbrook, having such a focus in his interests, suffered during his beginning years as clients were hard to come by; Armin Vit puts late nights and lunches into Speak Up not because he's paid to, but, because he has a healthy, general interest in what we do—his determination to not only break a language barrier but to exceed it, has positioned him in our community with a powerful voice. A quote from the independent film written and directed by Richard Linklater, Waking Life, helps me to close this observation.

"So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential. The answer to that can be found in another question, and that's this: which is the most universal human characteristic: fear or laziness?"

I would argue that Rick's use of the word "independent" to describe a way of working does not lead to being marginalized. Independent is different from the more common term, freelance, where freelance is—in my opinion—more susceptible to both selling out and marginalization. I believe the three individuals mentioned above are what Rick seeks to define.

Cheers Michael and Rick for a great discussion Tuesday.

It is good to continue asking "What is Design For?"

The corporate model of design is simply one that designers have been socialized to believe in. IBM may have supported the work of iconic 20th century designers, but one must remain aware of and highly skeptical toward the depredations of corporations. I cite Edwin Black's 2001 IBM and the Holocaust as sufficient evidence.

Other voices, notably Victor Margolin's recent Archeworks paper "Healing the World: A Challenge for Designers," convinces me that the change is already underway. Pursuing non-corporate work won't long be the only route to social relevance. The worldwide accomplishments of civil society will drag designers in its wake whether or not they want to go.

Marginalization? That's only a word used by those in power who are destined to soon lose it.
david stairs

"Good design is good business" may have been more true 40 to 50 years ago, but I would say that the converse, "Good business is good design", is probably more relevant today to young designers. Since most interesting work in the USA happens in the private sector, one needs entreprenurial skills in building a clientele, looking for opportunities (or cracks), and managing money to make possible what one desires to do. Unpaid cellphone bills, intermittent hijacked wireless access, late rent, and defaulted student loans do not create the best working environment for graphic designers.

Being in school, I have the luxury of taking on projects that basically pay nothing, but present an opportunity for some interesting work with some distribution. However, since I will want to live in New York, and I will have student loans to pay off after school, I will need jobs or projects that provide the 'bread and butter'. Will this prevent me from doing culturally relevant and meaningful design? No, I don't think so, but that will be a battle that I will have to choose. There is no welfare state, and the USA no longer has a good reputation for public funding of the arts, so tactical thinking in how to manoevre in the current climate is necessary. A clear personal vision that allows one to see those opportunities is what I think Michael Bierut is referring to when he quotes Tibor Kalman. Design that contributes meaning to the world, whatever that may be, is important, but I believe being happy with one's profession is even more important, and earning a sustaining, living wage that allows you to send your kids to college contributes a great deal to that. Designers aren't artists, or at least I don't consider myself an artist, and I personally do not think that graphic design is worth starving for. (Working hard and staying up late for, yes; not quitting smoking and eating badly for, yes; prematurely graying and having no social life for, er, maybe; but starving for, no.)

Regarding the myths of the renegade designers who never 'sold out', many of those people had day jobs they didn't highlight in their resumes, or they come from rich families, or they come from countries with socialist values. Or they had 'stock options'. To use the comparative example from the literary field, both Joseph Heller and Salman Rushdie wrote advertising copy for years and years, though their reputations as writers are based on their novels. Yes, I think you do have to give up things to gain things, I very much agree with that, and maybe that thing to give up is a purely idealistic, uncorrupted notion of the world.

Well, those are just my two over-generalized, extremely subjective cents.
manuel miranda

I can't help but wonder what you might make of "The Power Of Design". I was surprised to see Design Observer silent (unless I missed something) on a BusinessWeek cover story (!) on the evolving nature of design and what it is for.

Yes, it would be easy to dismiss the article as a mere advertorial for IDEO, but they and other firms focused on "innovation" do seem to be attempting to change design and its perceived value. While my knee-jerk, New York reaction is an extended eye roll at the notion of "experience", IDEO seems to deserve at least a nod, no?

And while Tibor's frustration with design led him to opt-out (if memory serves, his title at Colors was Editor-in-Chief, a far cry from Creative Director or even Creative Troublemaker), IDEO and others seem to be trying to stay the course, and to find new points of commonality and shared intentions with Corporate America.

I am all for the search for lunatics with fat wallets (not quite what Tibor said, I know), but lunatics aren't necessarily pleasant to work with, so perhaps some other strategies are called for as well? Physician, heal thyself?

ps--I was tempted to draw some analogies to the impact of the Sustainability movement on architecture, but I think that ground has already been well tread on D.O.

Hal Siegel

Hal, the IDEO story is an interesting one, but there are many firms out there who have prolonged and rewarding relationships with corporate clients. For me, the unique thing about the "idealistic" postwar American corporate mindset was not the "design is good business" equation, but the more daring presumption that corporations had a responsibility to use design not just to sell their products or burnish their images, but to improve the world in some way. The few companies that take this position now -- Benetton is one of them -- are seen as sinister and manipulative by many, rather than benevolent. What once was mainstream is now eccentric: hence the quest for Tibor's lunatics.
Michael Bierut

Michael—I agree that it was a unique and daring period. However, rather than resigning ourselves to finding the cracks in the walls, I believe we must change the game.

I can't imagine that a man such as Oliviero Toscani believes that he is using design to improve the world in some way. That is a quaint, charming notion. No. Benetton is using media. It is using advertising, and its other channels of communication.

So perhaps there are a even a few more lunatics out there looking to affect change and improve the world through design than we realize. But perhaps they've come to believe that a really lovely poster or brochure just doesn't get quite the same mileage that it used to in a culture dominated and defined by media. Maybe they just don't call it design anymore.

My point is that we designers have had a large hand in creating this image economy. Now we must unmake it in some manner. I seem to remember Tibor and Karrie Jacobs saying something about toasters and "the end" and starting over...

Hal Siegel

My point is that we designers have had a large hand in creating this image economy. Now we must unmake it in some manner.

And you'll do this how? Via graphic design?

No, the problem is more focused than this, and it has to do with Tibor's view of corporate power. As he makes clear in his introduction to Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist, his strategy depended on finding "lunatic entrepreneurs" who could be persuaded to stump up the cash to support good causes. "The agent of social change, at least for the immediate future, is the corporation," he told Wired in 1996. In his book, he suggests that "you can be political only when you're privileged, whether you're a student or whether you are wealthy and successful,". It's understandable that someone with Tibor's ability to sweet-talk the powerbrokers would feel this way, and his own life followed this pattern. It was hard, too, to argue with him when he said that "No one gets to work under ethically pure conditions."

Nevertheless, as a view of the sources of political dissent, this credo is thin, to say the least, and as the basis of a design strategy, it's much too ready to accept unchallenged the status quo of corporate domination. Most corporations are not going to be amenable to Kalmanesque forms of infiltration. Does that mean we simply ignore them and leave them unchecked?

This has become a burning question. From Eric Schlosser's horrifying Fast Food Nation to the murky morality of Enron's spectacular collapse, there is ample evidence that we need to rethink the relationship between the commercial and civic realms, between business and the state. As Tibor correctly identified, designers can endorse the system through their work, or they can try to find a position of critical leverage. Recently, I came across a website inspired by him called "Undesign," suggesting that some young communicators - they call themselves "undesigners" - are taking his ideas about design's responsibilities and his way of working to heart. The site is positive, thoughtful and captures his spirit, and it reminded me once again how good it was to know him. Now, more than ever, design needs more of his kind."

Copyright Rick Poynor 2002. First published in Print LVI:II, 2002
Hal Siegel

There are more than a few companies and even entire industries that make money directly and sometimes solely due to good graphic design. In this "image economy" that we've created, design sells. Why would designers complain about this? The proliferation of logo and design driven lines of t-shirts is perhaps the most pristine example of design as a commodity. Projects like threadless.com (among tons of others) offer designers a way to sell design, free from the influence of a client or the constraints of any real product differentiation (unlike a business like, say, selling cars where engineering dictates most of an enterprise's success or failure).

I'm surprised that this category has been left out of this discussion - designer as client, selling design directly to consumers. The image economy presents designers with this exciting fact - people like design (to wear or display somehow) and we're increasingly able to provide them with designed products without the huge barriers to entry that used to exist. Designers are releasing more books, selling more of their own t-shirts, and building increasingly profitable independent website enterprises, to name just a few areas where designers exist without clients to mediate their work for consumers.

Unlike in the corporate world, design sold to consumers is judged purely on its own merits. A designer selling t-shirts amidst a sea of other t-shirts has nothing to rely on (in an ideal world, at least, which of course we don't live in) than his own designs. If your shirt looks better than the next shirt, the consumer buys yours. You make more money. T-shirts are all (more or less) the same, so consumers literally have nothing else to go on besides the design. Again, this is in an ideal world...in reality, distribution, politics, the elusive "cool" factor and other influences can dictate consumer tastes even more profoundly than the actual taste of the consumers. But even with these other influences, the design is still the "main thing."

If designers are to change the world through commercial art, then selling it themselves seems to be the best way to do it. It stands to reason that removing as many non-design influences as possible will allow and encourage a purer form of design business. The best design wins. Period. Of course, this assumes that we're talking about graphic design as commercial art. Unpaid graphic design, work done solely for reasons of expression and visual innovation occupies another facet of this discussion entirely. But isn't that kind of work really just image making, no different than any other form of fine art? The fact that art-design uses typography and Macintoshes to create visual works doesn't make it accountable to money.

"2004 America", per Michael's original post, was evident in the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times (June 20th). The article by Robin Pogrebin, aptly titled "The Incredible Shrinking Daniel Libeskind", outlined the architect's travails with regard to his design for Ground Zero. Aside from the political wrangling associated with such a grand and emotionally charged project, the account is a clear indication of the circumstances faced by designers today. More than Omar's "inventing new paths of communication" and Manuel's "creating meaning through interpretation and contributing to human culture" is the urgent need to recapture the lyricism conspicuously absent from the agendas of those who commission design.

The rift between designers and clients is perpetuated by a distinction that is continually made between creativity and practicality and is epitomized by what transpired between Libeskind, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Larry Silverstein, and George Pataki in 2003. The first round of proposals for the Ground Zero Memorial were "generally deemed uninspired". Libeskind, who was to serve as a juror in the second round, submitted winning design proposals that led to his being generally considered "something of a savior." Of particular interest was Libeskind's gradual demotion from prophet to a mere facilitator: He is now a collaborator to lead architect David Childs - presumably the man to make Libeskind's vision a reality.

There are three reasons that may have led to Libeskind's current supporting role: he does not have much of a history working with city developers on projects of this magnitude, maybe he knew enough about the politics involved to accept his fate, or that he's more of a visionary and not very practical. The latter is telling since, in this context, practical is synonymous with "profitable". It is clear that elements of Libeskind's designs are dramatic (his Wedge of Light which involves building the site so that every morning of September 11th, "'the sun will shine without shadow'"), emotional (visitors would have been able to descend 70 feet into the Trade Center foundation), and patriotic (his spiraling Freedom Tower is a reference to the Statue of Liberty). Given the poignancy of his original design and the magnitude of September 11th, it is appalling to see it diminished by concerns as prosaic as profits, not to mention Pataki's absolute need to break ground by July 4th - just in time for the Republican National Convention.

Thanks to the non-transcendent inclinations of "pundits and architectural experts" the Wedge of Light is now a Path train station, the memorial is 30 feet deep to make room for tour bus parking, and the Freedom Tower will likely house office spaces for rent. This subsequent watering-down of Libeskind's design is yet another testament to an unrelenting bottom-line orientation. As such, it is difficult - perhaps near impossible - to raise public consciousness, to enlighten, to move, and to alter an often artistically unsympathetic climate simply because big business almost always sets the tone. Libeskind's plight proves that even in the presence of a good idea, designers are no more than facilitator-appendages which prompts me to ask: Is business good for design? (But that gets into murky waters.)

We need to take a long, hard look at ways of educating the businesses for which we work. More than that, we need to develop a means of infiltrating the spaces in which our commissioners thrive with the visionary and philanthropic qualities that make design culturally and spiritually significant. Watson, Paepcke, and Miller are gone and all we have left is to find that happy medium.
Anthony Inciong

Jobs | July 16