Michael Bierut | Essays

The Obvious, Shunned by So Many, Is Successfully Avoided Once Again

Spread from I.D. magazine, July/August 2005, art directed by Kobi Nenezri, photographed by Yoko Inoue

Does anyone devote as much energy to avoiding simple, sensible solutions as the modern graphic designer?

Among the design professions, graphic design is an embarrassingly low-risk enterprise. Our colleagues in architecture, industrial design and fashion design are tormented by nightmares of smoldering rubble, brutally hacked off fingers, and embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions. We graphic designers flirt with...paper cuts. Thus liberated from serious threats, we invent our own: skating on the edge of illegibility, daring readers to navigate indecipherable layouts, and concocting unlikely new ways to solve problems that don't actually exist.

Our daredevil ambitions are never so roused as when we're our own audience. The latest case can be found in the new issue of the otherwise exemplary publication I.D. There, faced with the seemingly simple challenge of faithfully reproducing the winners of their annual design competition, the magazine's creators have opted to take the hard way out. Swerving wildly to avoid the obvious, they've driven right off the cliff of coherence.

Let me say this straight out: I love I.D., I really do. Julie Lasky is a great editor — and a Design Observer contributor to boot — who has produced some of the best issues ever in that estimable journal's long history. But the visual presentation in I.D.'s 51st Annual Design Review is just plain nuts.

The issue is taken up by descriptions and photographs of winners (Best of Category, Design Distinction, Honorable Mention) in eight categories (Consumer Products, Graphics, Packaging, Environments, Furniture, Equipment, Concepts, and Interactive). The descriptions make good reading. The photographs are, well, problematic. Most of the winners are pictured not in isolation but in situ, the situ in this case being the other winners. This means that the reader is faced with page after page of stuff piled up all over the place, handsomely photographed in that flatly-lit deadpan way that's been so popular for the last decade or so, each flea-market-style composition daring us to guess which of the many things shown is actually the subject of the photograph.

As a graphic designer myself, I know how this happens. Every edition of the annual design review presents the same problem. Every year, dozens of products, packages, chairs, posters, books, and devices win I.D. awards, and every year the readers want to know what the winners look like. Simple descriptive images: well, that's been done, right? So obvious! How about if we evoke the confusion, the ennui, the sensory overload of the judging process itself? A daring choice! Does it work? Not really, but as Dr. Johnson said of a dog walking on its hind legs, we're meant to be surprised not to find it necessarily done well, but simply done at all.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Rick Poynor lodged a similar complaint on this site against Recollected Work, the new monograph from graphic designers Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen. The book consists largely of page after full-bleed page of piles of their work, cropped, partially obscured, more or less incomprehensible. To quote Rick: "Seventeen years of work blurs together, like grubby laundry turning over and over in a washing machine. Nothing has any space around it. Everything becomes flotsam. Any sense of development is erased." And that's putting it kindly. Of course, they could have just lined up all the images, foregoing the cropping, proper borders all around — insert sigh here — but that would have been...you know.

And then there was another incident back in pre-September 2001. In those more innocent days, the U.S. graphic design community was embroiled in a gigantic debate over Jennifer Sterling's design of the annual publication of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, 365: AIGA Year in Design. Sterling's design approach had been reliably iconoclastic, cropping posters, showing fragments of books and packages, and generally rendering the work unintelligible. An astonishingly long (for those days) thread piled up on AIGA's website with complaints about Sterling's hubris: you would have thought she was blowing up Buddhas in Afghanistan.

I myself have been guilty of this same kind of straining for novelty. Asked to design a catalog for the AIGA Fifty Books of the Year show back in 1995, I was determined to do anything to avoid shooting the entries on with a flatbed camera on a clean white background. Like laying out cadavers at the morgue, I remember sneering to a colleague. Instead, we brought in Victor Shrager, who lovingly photographed the books in unlikely, if beautifully lit, positions. I fondly remember one shot showing Paul Rand's From Lascaux to Brooklyn masterfully astride a supine copy of David Carson's The End of Print. Flipping through it today, I admire Shrager's beautiful pictures and wonder what those books actually looked like.

Graphic design is easy, of course, so we kill ourselves trying to make it hard. I should have remembered a lesson I received at one of my first job experiences, a summer internship in the design department at WGBH-TV in Boston. I had been assigned a rare design project. Given my status — I was the most junior of three interns — it was probably something like a hallway flyer for the annual blood drive. I labored over this 8.5 x 11 inch opus all day, never forgetting what I then held as the twin tenets of responsible design practice (one, create something absolutely without precedent; and two, demonstrate to onlookers how clever I am). Given my predilections at that point in my nascent career, this probably involved merging the home-grown rigorous modernism of Lester Beall and Will Burtin with the formal experimentation of Wolfgang Weingart and April Grieman. My only inhibition was the lack of a Macintosh computer, which would not be invented for seven years.

Late in the day, the station's head of design, the legendary Chris Pullman, came by my desk. "What's this?" he asked. Breathlessly, I described the visionary thinking that informed the yet-unfinished masterpiece before me. Pullman stared at the mess for a moment, and then his face brightened. "Hey," he said, as if a great idea was just occuring to him. "Why avoid the obvious?" He then took away everything but the headline: GIVE BLOOD NOW. "Try that!" he said cheerfully, walking away.

Poor, poor Obvious. Come sit by me. I'll be your friend.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [59]

Ah, the designer who wants to be noticed, so they mess with the project and stand in front of the content doing beautiful but intrusive gymnastics, all the while screaming "I'm so damn smart!" Designs like this strike me as one of the worst affronts one designer can perpetrate against another. Assuming it wasn't purely an spatial decision.

I agree with the statement that "Graphic design is easy, of course, so we kill ourselves trying to make it hard," but only if shortest-path completion of the project specs is the only goal. Logos are a good example of design where the greatest solutions often appear simple but involve going through every obvious and played-out solution there is and looking beyond them; taking the cliché to the next level or cutting to its core. In short, I don't think the above reality is a bad thing at all, but it should never get in the way of content and purpose to such a degree that both are destroyed and/or left unaddressed. Unless disrespect is the intent (or space constraints demand it).
Chris Rugen

One might suggest that "the obvious" could include, say, black type on a white background for a web page consisting of all text. You know, focus on the writing and stuff?

Hear, hear! ... but this reminds of the thread here in which Venturi was attacked as a philistine for wanting his book design to represent the aesthetic he was presenting.

Tangential question: Full bleed is good for our ADD era, and most magazines and books use it, no? But isn't that usually at the expense of the photograph?
john massengale

Michael, twenty-four hours more and I would have had an eerily similar critique on Speak Up. I have praised I.D.'s design for the longest time and is one of the magazines that I most look forward to to seeing waiting for me in the staircase of my apartment. When I glanced at the first spread of Design Distinctions for the first category (consumer products, right?) I balked. I couldn't believe it. I then made it to the Graphics section and I was terrified by then. How could this happen? It's rather unfortunate... I mean, props for thinking outside the box and whatnot but this is a problem that didn't need a solution. It is what it is. If I had paid a $100 (if that's the fee these days) I would have been really dissapointed to see my work amidst Rachel Weisz' cleavage (see the film company stationery entry) and four other entries. A couple of guys who should be really happy are Colin Metcalf and Kevin Grady of GUM - their entry appears in almost every single shot. And showing the logos in a piece of paper hanging from the wall in the background, not good. (Oh, and FedEx Kinko's? Award-winner?! Yikes. Yikes, I say).

On my second read I then noticed that there were some diminutive hairline arrows pointing to the entry you were supposed to be paying attention too. And I only discovered those because I thought it was a crumb from the delicious cupcakes I was enjoying at the moment.

Oh well. There is always next year.

Maybe we graphic designers complicate and avoid the simple solution to pad our egos and to justify the fees we charge our clients. How many times have you heard a non-designer make the statement, "I could have done that!" or "You got paid to do that?!"


the hand held work / casual digital photo trope has been around for a little while. creative review's recent annual did a similar editorial where each featured work was hand held. a recent swiss design annual went so far as to model the awarded work. 2x4's old site showed their work in a similar way as well. so my criticism wouldnt be that it was messy or experimental, but more that it was actually not so original, but more of a slightly post-early adoption use of an existing trope (something i cant claim im not guilty of). ibut it still registers a certain 'coolness' factor, which is fine by me. thats my read of it.


also, one could make a strong argument that collecting all physical examples of the featured work, taking a series of digital photographs of all of them in one place, then placing all the photos from the same folder on your computer is much much easier than having all awardees of the work prepare photographs and digital files of their photographs, prepare digital files for reproduction of their work, email it to the magazine featuring it, deal with file size limitation issues with email programs, deal with ftp, have the designer at the magazine collect all of the work, make sure that all the work is of the same resolution, figure out other people's weird filenaming conventions, etc. just taking digital photos and placing them the way they did seems to be a much simpler solution than all of that (though given the aforementioned 'cool' DIY factor this trope connotates, it may not have been that easy given color correcting and all that).

I too was taken aback when I saw how they presented the work. This is just like the photograph of the designer holding up their poster phenomenon.

Well, I've decide that when I put my senior portfolio together I will shoot all of my pieces with a few fresh cut flowers on the side.
D Heffron

The opposite tendency to just show the ef'n thing can be troubling as Michael has indicated in his post. As a designer, this often tends to be my preference simply because I have a difficult time justifying to myself why I would obstruct information when I could clearly and simply present it instead. Often times, though I end up in underwhelming territory with this design approach. The tricky thing is to be both playful and clear particularly when working in such an established proffession and medium. Often times, it's either too simple or too playful. Arg, I say, Arg.

Armin- Do you have any of those cupcakes left? Cause there's no sense in wasting them....

Manual- Nice comparison to 2x4's old site. Beat me to the punch.

Dear Michael,

You talk about a "sensible solution" to this age-old conundrum, yet you don't really say what that is.

The challenge of designing for graphic design is a terribly complex and meta idea--How to design a layout to show a layout? How to re-focus pieces of graphic design--initially created to engage a public or specific audience--for an audience of designers? (Which is not the object's original intention.)

The photographs in I.D. are a simple solution to a problem that very few art directors address: how to faithfully show a piece graphic design, not as a floating idea in a Quark spread, but as a printed object, tactile and tangible. The objects are shown in direct scale with each other, the objects themselves in direct scale with the hand holding it. There's something intuitive, human and almost... obvious, about this treatment. Yet very few art directors seem to think of the importance of context and scale. In this way, you are wrong to merely read this approach as a matter of style. It's as much a technical issue as it is a stylistic treatment.

It would be far more productive to try and battle the scale-less, context-less treatment of that is the preference of so many graphic designers. Nothing exists in white space. Why do designers insist on putting it there? As we know, design is never in insolation, always in situ.
Andrew Yang

It's a shame to group the efforts of Armand and Linda with those of the ID Annual. The former have an honest intention towards experimental processes (and don't express any desire that the pieces appear readable as individual). The latter, if economy was their goal (see Manuel's list), fails. Printing costs alone defy any such attitude... If it was to project the emotion that one feels when judging a sea of work, it should have been a fold-out cover with a photo of all the work submitted. Then the process of the judge would unfold with the pages as it became concisely organized and sorted in a temporal turning of pages.

The photo reminds me of the Arch&Design curation at the MoMA...a strange jungle of posters and lamps and chairs (oh my)

Kobi must be out there somewhere. Would love to hear from you.
Andrew Breitenberg

> You talk about a "sensible solution" to this age-old conundrum, yet you don't really say what that is.

Andrew, see any previous Annual from I.D. They have done a fine job in the past. I think last year's annual employed the same simple photographic style with the objects placed on tables and shelves. It gave a pretty good perspective of what was what.

> Nothing exists in white space. Why do designers insist on putting it there?

Because it's a design annual. A showcase of each piece. Not a context builder. The context of a design piece in an annual is exactly that: A design piece in annual. It's not white space, it doesn't float meaninglessly on a page. Its sole purpose is to be clear enough so that I can judge the piece on its own. For most of the winners, you can go to a bookstore or a boutique shop and see them, hold them and put them next to each other and see it in context. Also, how valid of a context is it to have a logo printed on a piece of paper hanging on wall, next to a copy of AIGA 365, a calendar by KarlssonWilker and museum brochures from the Walker?

To second Andrew's comment. I can typically only read a couple comments here (similar to MetaFilter) because the reversed out type causes a lingering, painful vibration when I leave the site. Can you explain in simple and rational terms your logic for such a combination?

Likwise, your column widths are relative, which means my largish monitor throws back what looks to be 100+ characters. 10/14 is acceptable even for tight resolution, but between the excessive line length and dark background, it appears someone decided to get a little too clever.

I'm not trying to be too much of a smart ass here, but I honestly skip coming because of the color issue. How about at least a toggle option for a style sheet that does the reverse. And how about a thread about the color decisions? I'm really curious because I can't think of another blog that displays text on a dark background that one wouldn't look at and think immediately was amateurish from a design perspective.
n musolino

>Also, how valid of a context is it to have a logo printed on a piece of paper hanging on wall, next to a copy of AIGA 365, a calendar by KarlssonWilker and museum brochures from the Walker?

Armin, isn't that the whole point of being in an annual--to see your work next to your peers?

Andrew Yang

ID is an industrial design MAGAZINE with a sense that design is functional. So, I agree with Andrew on this. The pictures are far more engaging and talk to me a lot more about the editing process, which is exactly what the ID annual is about. It's not Print's Regional Design Review. I could have perhaps used MORE pictures of the work, but only in perhaps a multimedia format where I could see the work in 3-D and rotate the individual pieces.

For 2-D the current ID layout works well for the way I read the magazine (and the way I think it's editors intend): as a magazine about design function and design process. Perhaps the problem is here that people are thinking of the design review in terms of an annual portfolio and not in terms of a magazine designed to generate narrative and visual interest.

Michael, your Pullman anecdote reminded me of my first real design job at WGBH (3 or 4 years before you, I think)--the Petty Cash Voucher. Like you, I really wanted to be original, make a statement (although I think the influences I was trying to merge were Weingart and Müller-Brockmann). When the piece was done, I proudly showed it to Chris, who merely said, "Ah, the Pretty Cash Voucher."
John Kane

> to see your work next to your peers?

Yes, but that doesn't mean I want to see my work literally next, superimposed or bundled upon to that of my peers.

Not actually having read the current issue, I know the type of design you're talking about. Unfortunately, this is just like anything else... It's a pendulum that swings back and forth, between outrageously messy and boringly clean.
I think we just have to accept that we cannot really have one without the other, just like there's no good design without bad design.
Peter Sjöberg

Initially, I thought, boy this is a bit confusing, what is happening here?...and then as I looked closer. The bubble thought for the moment was !!! ... It's all the winners lumped together?!?

Once I figured out what was happening, I was totally fine with it. Impressed, even. Sorry if I'm not in the majority. But to tell you the truth, I haven't looked so closely at a "annual" design review in years. Usually I just flip through and look closely at the the pieces that catch my eye. But this time, I really looked at everything. Then I went back a second time to figure out how the photographs work together and what may have changed in each frame. I think it really gives a sense of scale to each piece as well.

I completely understand the argument that is happening here. But this isn't anything like Sterling's AIGA book. She actually changed the design of the winners work by placing the importance of her design above those of the winners.

Would it have made more sense to have each piece photographed on a white background? Of course, but then we wouldn't be having this argument. I appreciate that the boundaries were pushed.

My two cents goes into Micheal's piggy bank. The message is important. If your design is diluting/clouding/confusing that message, you, as a designer, haven't done your job.

Just to play the devil's advocate though, I'd also add a caveat. To keep creative juices flowing, it's important for us to innovate and experiment when we have the opportunity to - which isn't all that often - as such, I too applaud the fact that they had the balls to do that, knowing that they have a design sensitive audience.

Does that mean I'm sitting on the fence? No, not really. I see the reasons for the experimentative design, and respect them, but am conservative enough to still say that you've got to respect your content. Don't dilute it.
Andy Malhan

When I saw the first spread, I did notice the little arrow, pointing at the object in question. But I first thought that the other items on the shelf, in the background, were items that hadn't been picked! The losers in the background... wouldn't that evoke the confusion of the judging process itself?

I'm a bit torn here. I just returned from DesignInquiry a few weeks ago where I feel like I finally broke through design depression, hampered by singular emotion and near-swiss layout for everything I did.

Post DI, I feel like it's ok for a layout to have emotion, to have soul. That doesn't come from level type and "nice" design. I have (or have seen) some prior issues of the ID annual and have to say that a lot of the time, it's just "nice" "good" design.

I normally side with Michael and Armin, but this time I can't agree. Seems to me like we need to stop taking ourselves so seriously (interesting, isn't that what Michael was saying, yet I come to a completely different answer). Oh, yes, an annual is about the pieces featured, not the annual itself. Well, to a point. But there's something more human about this approach (sure maybe the miscellaneous body parts have something to do with it). I find it refreshing to see something that's not "perfect."

I imagine that my first reaction, if my work were featured in this annual, would be to gasp in shock that things had been handled this way. But then my more reasonable self would step in and think for a moment: maybe this isn't so bad. Perhaps I'd be relieved that I was in an annual that wasn't the same ol' thing.
Andrew Twigg

I somewhat agree with what Andrew Yang is saying (quite a few posts up). Design annuals are put together for a designer audience; however, what is lacking is a rational on why the winners are winners. It should not simply boil down to judge(s) taste. I need a bit more.

By choosing a 'first place' piece of design work, the publication is claiming that this piece of work is good design. Do the judges go out and put the designs to the test? Do they take the latest, greatest poster design and pin it on a wall and see if anyone reads it, let alone understands what the hell is going on? What about packaging design? Yeah, the first place winner may have a visually stunning piece of work, but what about the instructions? Try reading the recommended time for cooking your pasta just after you cut a bunch of onions.

I haven't learned much more than who likes what from a design annual. I think design annuals should point out good practice in design and say why - not just that the design is appealing to the eye. Again, design annuals are put together for a designer audience. Shouldn't they contribute more than choice picks of mis-scaled representations of design proposals?
nick giusto

I want to agree with Virginia. And to encourage Andrew Twigg to embrace his ambivalence.

I thought the presentation in ID this month was fresh; that the work had some relative scale (something almost always missing in annuals); that it placed individual designs within a larger context of award-winning work from this year; and that it was a successful editorial conceit giving the issue an overall visual coherence. I'm a reader of precisely for their editorial presentation — not so I can see isolated and respectful images that please the winning designers.

I'm always surprised, as an editorial designer, that so many designers are so precious about their own work, actually desiring it to be presented in the most mundane and straightforward manner. Radical in their work for others, many designers become reactionaries when it comes to their own work. If one applied the same criteria to photography, we'd never see a cropped photograph in a magazine. One can argue this point in the case of "a design annual," as so many did about Jennifer Sterling's brave and controversial AIGA annual a few years back. But ID is first and foremost a magazine, not a house organ for designers.
William Drenttel

Doesn't it come down to editorial purpose?

If the aim is to document and analyse the work with the hope of understanding it better, then the question to ask is: does this way of presenting the visual material help this process? If you incline to think it does, then how exactly? What does it tell us about particular pieces?

If the aim is merely diversion or entertainment with no real attempt to understand the work, then it hardly matters how the work is presented. All that counts is the visual effect. Any visual device is OK so long as it gets the reader's attention and affords some passing amusement.

I don't think anyone has mentioned the editorial that does with the pics. I haven't seen the issue yet. Over the years these write-ups in I.D. have been good, sometimes among the best of their kind. How do they measure up this time? How do they work with the images? I don't see how you can reach a measured conclusion without assessing their relationship. This is not just a visual question.
Rick Poynor

When I tell non-designers what I do for a living they are confused when I say that the most important part of my job is in making things legible. "Well, of course", they say, "but that isn't really the design part is it"? Then I have to explain that yes it is a major part of what the designer does.
Nevertheless, I am always looking for fresh ways to present new material and I like the fact that ID pushed the envelope here. If they don't—who will? I will go out and buy this issue asap.

Michael has cast this discussion, and his criticism of ID, as a design problem with an easy solution. Why can't these idiots just get it right? It's so easy, so Obvious.

I think there is another, implied, issue in this discussion: the desire by designers to "control" their own work. How it's pictured. How it's written about. Whether the work is provided to a journalist who might write a critical perspective. As a rule, designers control, or would like to, how their work is pictured. Hence, the outrage in comments to this post.

One of the reasons there is little good design criticism of contemporary design is that designer's control the work. If you are known as a journalist with a critical edge, try getting a designer to agree to give you images of their work. Why should they? You might write something negative.

It's hard to access contemporary design independently — it's not in archives or libraries. So a writer is often dependent on the designer for the images that show the work. What we know of most contemporary architecture, and especially interiors where permission is even harder, is a heavily edited viewpoint shaped by the control of the designer and their mafia of favorite photographers.

Not commented on in this tread is the way many environments, equipment and concepts are photographed in this issue of ID. That new Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105 Printing Press looks really good in its supplied press photographs. All those architecture projects photographed by the likes of Michael Moran, Richard Barnes and Todd Eberle look really good too.

Here, the opposite problem arises — that the projects were judged based on photographs of the designs, as supplied by the designers. And, of course, no designer would submit a photograph of their work that did not look great. So when a judge commends the new Heidelberg press ("I've seen a lot of machines in a lot of factories and this is really beautiful."), the designer who hired the photographer should be really pleased. But I'm not sure what it says about the machine itself.
William Drenttel

Bill, I have to say that I have never found it a problem to get hold of pieces of graphic design for independent review and for possible inclusion in books or magazines. Most designers are happy to supply samples so long as they are not down to their final file copies. When it comes to permission to show work in books, very few designers have said no to me. On the whole, it's the bigger companies, where there is more at stake commercially (they think) that are most likely to be squeamish about this. Rightly or wrongly, though, there is less call to show this kind of more commercial work in books in the first place.

Who are these critical journalists who just can't get hold of the stuff?

Surely in the case of I.D. they did have access to actual printed copies of graphic design for judging? Aren't these what they photographed in the magazine? Larger manufactured objects are another matter.
Rick Poynor

Rick, to answer your question about the editorial content of this issue of I.D. (which I glancingly allude to in my original article), it's up to their usual high standard.

I don't have any objection to finding new ways to represent design artifacts in reproduction. However, I find the visual conceit in this issue rather thin. It seems to simply be an attempt to evoke the judging process itself, from the unopened boxes of entries that appear on the opening page, to the tableau of judges in mid debate, to the resulting shelves of selections lined up with their mates.

There are some amusing variations. In the graphics, section, the Best of Category is photographed alone, held like an offering in some anonymous person's hands. The Design Distinction winners, one level down, are held in someone's hands (someone who owns the same exact Banana Republic shirt as me, by the way) but with the other winners in the background. The Honorable Mentions, in effect the third prize winners, are pictured just laying there amidst their fellow runners-up, held by nobody. Sad!

As Armin pointed out above, there are some advantages to missing the grand prize in this situation. My partner Paula was quite pleased to see that her entry, America (The Book) had won Best of Category and thus received the full page mit torso treatment. Then I pointed out that her entry appears only in one picture, where my less vaunted Honorable Mention appears in twelve pictures, albeit in most cases only slivers.

I do agree with many of the writers on this thread that it is interesting to see the work in context. My complaint is that the context of the judging process isn't particularly enlightening.

Wouldn't it more interesting to figure out a way to shoot each of the winners truly in situ? Shoot the Liberty Chair in the office of someone who owns one, the Kinko's logo on an actual storefront, the get-out-the-vote poster on a telephone pole in Dayton. That would truly be design in the real world.
Michael Bierut

A related question: Why is it so often true that the worst building on a college campus belongs to the Architecture Department?
Michael Blowhard

And let me put in one more vote for non-reversed-out type on DesignObserver. Come to think of it: serifs would be nice too. Isn't it a basic rule of old-fashioned design that if you want people to read a lot of text, you better give 'em serifs?

When did serifs become un-cool, by the way? And why? Subjects for a good DO posting ...
Michael Blowhard

This is one of those posts that tickles a little, simply because I can identify with it so consistently; the problem with the obvious is that it's been done.

Repeatedly, incessantly, and often beautifully.

As a student, I take the opportunity to invent (or attempt to) whenever I can, yet it seems to consistently obscure good design or concept.
Although I haven't bought the last I.D., I received my copy of Mevis and van Deursen's monograph and found that I would have really liked to see the obvious. In fact, all of my favorite design books prominently feature the obvious, and all of my favorite designers prominently use the obvious. But it's exciting to avoid it like the plague, isn't it?

My worst avoidance of the obvious was when I overdid it at the hands of another WGBH Design Director, Doug Scott. In his History of Graphic Design class, I was assigned a essay/poster on the Fourdrinier papermaking machine. Obviously, I would have to circumvent all the requirements, and make this a rather monstrous three-dimensional roll of essays, illustrations, and bad ideas. Only when I realized that this obscured and interfered with the material did I redesign the entire thing.

I'm a little bit happier with the poster now, but much happier with the fact that I learned to be careful when reinventing the obvious.
Nikolay Saveliev

Two a propos quotes from that great traditionalist Leon Krier:

"As long as artists arbitrarily assume the right to decide what is or is not art, it is logical that the public will just as arbitrarily feel that they have the right to reject it."

"As is the case with all good things in life -- love, good manners, language, cooking -- personal creativity is required only rarely."
Michael Blowhard

The winner's page sort of points out the weakness of the design. In contrast to the cluttered runner up pages, the winning designs are presented alone. It's as if the winning designs were intentionally removed from the cluttered runner up pages in order to be seen.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent article on, "The Miseducation of Artists" by Laurie Fendrich. Unfortunately, it can't be accessed online w/o a subscription. Perhaps DO can get permission to post the article?

Though straying a bit from the article, I'd like to answer Michael Blowhards quiestion/comment on serifs here on DO:

Serif typefaces suck bigtime when used as body copy on the internet because the low resolution of computer screens.
And no, serifs has not become "un-cool", quite the opposite I'd say...
Peter Sjöberg

I couln't agree more with Michael. That's when design takes itself more important then the content featured.
What about mentioning some samples where it is done very well--not avoiding the obvious. Such as 365:AIGA Year in Design 24--the one with the fuzzy orange cover--so smartly designed by COMA (Cornelia Blatter & Marcel Hermans). Featured and "held by nowbody" in the present graphic design Honorable Mention section of I.D.

Annuals: Our shop did the collateral for this past year's local ADDY awards. Unlike previous winners' books, ours had no cutesie, clever theme. It featured the work big on white (like CA), with a very small (tasteful) drop-shadow. Its simplicity was beautiful. And it was highly legible.

On the other hand, I was looking at Sterling's doorstop of a tome a couple weeks ago. So, the winning work isn't so legible. Her design of the book is fantastic and it makes flipping through its pages great. And (I think) it maintains respect for the work, even if she integrates it with her own design. Here's to taking risks.

Type Tangent: I learned from the AV guy running the slides at the awards dinner that when it comes to tvs, monitors and things that emit light, the reverse of print is true of legibility. White type on 70% to 80% black is the best for reading. However, If the type is too thin (serifs) or the ground is too dark, then you start getting the vibration thing (not good). So looking at black type on a white screen is harsh on the eyes. I found this very interesting. I guess you could make the argument: people read best what they read most. The verdana seems tight, but this may be due to the inadequate leading. I made the text pretty big, turned down the brightness and that helped. Read on MacDuff.

Occam's dull razor: I realized earlier today, while mocking-up an exceedingly far-fetched, fancy, folding folder, that I'm a primadonna. Welcome to the club, I guess. An appropriate post.

well, it seems to me that design annuals and publications that have design contests aren't showing anybody any design at all. what they are showing everybody are the WINNERS of the some sort of bogus "design contest". so, why not show them? i think it's especially good to show them on a table top with all of the other "winners" alongside. it shows some sort of weird context that the "judges" have to deal with as well. these things aren't viewed alone and aren't viewed in depth when the 'judges' examine them. they are viewed in a random selectionof whatever is entered. it's a chaos and represents almost nothing. it's a quick first-impression beauty contest at best. a year from now, that issue is in the shredder and no one cares. how many designers go back an look at old design annuals from, say, five years ago? but they will all eagerly view the next batch of "winners". so, it's really not at all about design, but some sort of reality show version of design.

so, why not do the obvious and show the pile?

(interesting word, "pile")
art chantry

I know I'm at the stage where I'm just trying to get into one of those things at all. When I do, they can lay it out however the hell they want to.

Everyone has a different appetite when it comes to the cliche-to-innovation buffet. I don't think I'd enjoy foie gras chocolate, but it certainly is memorable and interesting. But if it does taste good what's the point.

I like what Bill Bernbach said: "Just be sure your advertising is saying something with substance, something that will inform and serve the consumer, and be sure you're saying it like it's never been said before."

Tom Newton

In response to art chantry, "how many designers go back and look at old design annuals..." I look at them every other day. If you want to be good, you study from the best. Since an awards show should reward the best(that enter), you're bound to find some good work in there, no matter how it's shown. I must say though, most annuals I pick up have been given very little consideration, from a design standpoint. As a student, I have witnessed the reputation certain agencies receive in my design department due to their long list of awards. What do awards really mean, when it's difficult to find information on who even judged them? Doesn't that matter? This was my first year serving as a judge's assistant in an awards show held in CT. They certainly are a hell of a mess. I believe for students the scariest part is that there are soo many shows, which one do I enter to become famous? But, in all reality at the end of the day they will mean nothing to some and everything to others. But, for me as a student the show annuals mean a whole lot. It displays work from the some of the firms I might want to work in the future. Michael Bierut: I believe there is a big difference between I.D.'s annual, or GD USA which is in a magazine, and say N.Y. Festivals, or GRAPHIS, or AIGA's which are in a book form. A magazine will most likely have less work, which means, more time can be spent on the layout. Though, if you consider GDUSA's last annual it was awful. 3 million pages long, and with little, tiny, fraction sized photos. A book which takes longer, will have a template and just have images plugged into it(thrown). A magazine will be more concerned with each photograph, where other (book)annuals will not have as strict art direction due to the high volume of work. Right now, as a student, it's research material, to others it's fame.
Gavin Wassung

perhaps i should not have said "five years old". but, i was trying yo pick a timeframe that would relate to the readers of this site. i look at old design annuals a great deal, but they are annuals fromt he 1960's and older. i threw away all of my design annuals from the 80's and 90's. i don't look at contemproary design annuals at all any more (unless it's to see if i got anything in).

so, my point is, that i really do believe that most designers don't look at recent annuals to study "good" design (whatever that is), and seldom look at older annuals, if they even have access to them. magazine contests suffer an even worse fate of immediate obsolesence. there is a sort of "designer" that looks at old design annuals to steal ideas, but that's a different story.

design 'contests' are simply promotional tools to promote active designers while they generate needed income to keep the design journals alive to promote more significant work. good and/or significant lasting design has little to do with these contests and seldom actually makes it into the ranks of the "winners". these contests serve a purpose, but that purpose has so little to do with design that the idea of presenting them in the way ID chose to present the winners is far more real than, say, the CA annual. it may not be as pretty, or as "designerly" as we aesthetes may desire. but, it has far far far more TRUTH.

don't get me wrong, i've participated in hundreds and hundreds of design contests (as judge and entrant) and i have spent a huge amount of money on them and have benefited greatly (hundreds of awards). but i do see these things for what they really are, i have no illusions about them.

art chantry

What a sweet essay!
It hits the jugular of what was wrong with the way I approached graphic design at art school and my early years in the profession. I wish I could have nailed the pathology back then so clearly: It wouldn't have taken me so long for me to climb out of my valley of confusion.


Thoughtful thread. But consider the fact that the issue may not be obvious vs. non-obvious, but instead important vs. unimportant. I keep wondering when graphic designers will stop waiting for clients to be switched on and instead create their own valuable problems to solve... No matter what their specialty, designers ought to care most about their impact, not their novelty.

Here'e a thought experiment for you: what are the ten most important issues that powwerful graphic design might affect?
Larry Keeley

Let me start off by saying I don't think I.D is a particularly good magazine. It's OK looking with competent, grammatically correct writing, but it's just not particularly insightful or beautiful looking (Why does every American designer feel the need to kiss I.D and Print's ass? So they TOO can be possibly featured? Have some balls people). Having said that, I applaud their presentation here - and I also applaud Michael Bierut's willingness to question them, though I totally disagree with him. I think he is judging the whole thing purely on looks - but not aesthetics. I have a problem with these magazines for the same reason I don't particularly care for the white walls of a gallery. The gallery wall is meant to be an objective space, so it doesn't interfere with the art; this is even the real reason runway models are scrawny, so their figure doesn't detract from the clothing. Objectivity is a nice idea - for a computer. Objectivity is cold and boring, and in human beings, a myth. These magazine aren't really objective of course, they just perpetuate a myth of objectivity. In reportage this is why most journalism is bullshit, because it performs on a platform of objectivity - which of course is a lie. Therefore, they are more inclined to lie, and to believe their own lies. People trust in this at their peril. These magazines are as guilty in the subject of design as the worst news outlets are. I.D's design is usually an objective space supposedly to more accurately present work. This kind of magazine design sucks the life out of it's subject just as a gallery does - turns it into a sacred object rather than a piece of art full of life, or part of life. Therefore, I am more inclined to have faith in the opinions of someone who is honestly subjective. In this I.D spread, there is a subjective space that brings the work into life and gives some clues about the process of selection. Most American designers are either obsessed with objective space or suffer from just trying to make things look cool - but here there is evidence of honesty, conceptualism and philosophy.
Ralph McGinnis

Hi. A few things...

First, I would like to wholeheartedly agree with Mr Chantry's comments. I.D.s design annual commemorates the achievements of those designers who chose to drop $100 per entry for the opportunity of having their work reviewed, critiqued, and hopefully chosen for publication, by a panel of respected colleagues.

As such, it seems nice and honest of the photography to show the work in the context of the reviewing: that is to say a gallimaufry of unrelated work, whittled down to a small pile. (Some categories are not well-served by this approach: the three Equipment "tabletop" photos are entirely interchangeable.) Page 59 precedes the action and features a large photo of the accumulation of boxes which carried entries to I.D.s offices. This image sets the context nicely.

I'd like to respond to Mr Wassung's comment: "I look at [old design annuals] every other day. If you want to be good, you study from the best." My advice for Mr Wassung, who identifies himself as a student, is to study not the work itself, but to study with the people who make the work. Watching Roger Federer play tennis will not make you a better tennis player; taking lessons from him possibly will, should you have the talent. Don't look at the annuals. Make work from your experiences and pleasures. When you graduate, go and work with the best designers who will have you, and sit and work with them. Learn from them. Learn for yourself how to be good, because good comes from within.

As for the obvious and preferred display of graphic design in an annual... Ugh. Little thumbnails of cover and two representative spreads, with a tasteful little drop shadow - usually added post-photography in PhotoShop - don't say anything about the work. It's like a 30-second television commercial for a 2-hour movie; intended to excite the viewer and galvinise them to drop $10 on a ticket to see the other 119.5 minutes. These commercials are all formatted the same way: show the funniest bits and the biggest explosions. If your film is a period drama, replace the explosions with decolletage. If there are no funniest bits, don't bother advertising, and just send the film straight to Sunshine or Film Forum.

The I.D. review seems to acknowledge the impossibility of doing the work justice, so it abandons any attempts at being precious, and presents something like the experience of judging: either interacting with the object or viewing it.

Of course, I lost it when I came across this passage concerning the entry of Glenmorangie's "Drink me" vodka packaging: "All the judges missed the literary reference..." Perhaps this is why design is in the state it's in: because nobody knows anything anymore.

With respect,

opinion- the compulsion is a simple case of "ghost in the machine" so to speak. design can be tremendously boring. endlessly primping and pimping other people's products and services in sensible ways can leave you feeling empty. the designer wants always to assert his/her "artistic" vision rather than simply doing what's best for the project. most natural thing in the world since what is -truly- best for the project is seldom what's gratifying for the designer. there are exceptions of course. can designers dissolve their artistic ambitions and ego in a zen manner to always focus on what's best for a client? nope. we simply can not sustain that way of working without losing whatever spark of creative fire keeps us at it. bad decisions and the resulting bad design are by products, inherent in a system which pits goals of clarity and functionality against the creator's urge to be an artist, a standout, or a revolutionary.

This may have echoes of Art Chandry's comments, and I apologize if I seem repetitious... I wrote a defense of Jennifer Sterling's design of the AIGA 365 annual which appeared in the academic (horrors!) journal, Design Issues in 2003. Basically stated, I applauded Sterling's involvement in the active interpretation of the information, one which took us along for the ride.

But I find it incredulous to assume that a single piece of design is considered representative of a lifetime's work. Graphic design is too recent as a discipline to make that kind of statement. Proof of this is the fact that the majority of designers consider annuals to be some sort of "public record" and should be handled with some sort of "neutrality" (as if neutrality itself were not already a loaded category: The moment modernism could be recouped as a historical style, modernism became a statement and "neutrality" went out the window... but I digress). There are too few designers that have taken to interpret design as a mode of communication, as a statement. This was the point the historical avant-garde sought to make in the 1920s and '30s. Our society has changed since then, so why not consider new forms (if we truly want to echo the methods of the Modernists)? Statements in the arts take a lifetime to achieve and cannot be gleaned from a single piece in an annual. These are only the faintest of hints.

When I see a piece by Mevis+van Deursen, 2x4, Fella, Greiman, Blauvelt, or Valicenti to list a few, I know that I am looking at a continuity that stems from their attitude toward contemporary society—its visual and textual culture. I am aware of this because I have taken the time to be interested in their work, and more precisely, the meaning behind their work. Whether Rick Valicenti were to address an art catalogue, essay in Emigre or license plate, his output is consistent with his position on graphic design.

Annuals are best served by letting the award-winning firms take their kudos (which are usually textually listed on their firm's accomplishments anyways) and allowing the annual designer to do what expands the possibilities of design. Trade journals are geared toward an audience of visually and textually astute designers. After all, what appears in an annual is just one representation of a work—hopefully just one among many.
David Cabianca

god no, please leave the reversed-out type (much easier on the eyes!). If I have to look at another black on white-hot-center-of-the-sun website I think my eyes may pop out of my head...

Having said that I can't say I'm a fan of the stacked on the table business. It's kind of like going to an art museum and seeing the paintings "cleverly" stacked on a table for you to sort through.

This reminds me of the design of the catalogue produced by the DC Art Directors Club a few years back for its annual awards: The designer decided to show how cool he was by substituting flourescent green for yellow--the result being that no one's work was shown with accurate color. WHY????? As a designer, I give a lot of thought to color palettes; to have that negated by someone trying to show off....argh
Chris Raymond

in response to Larry Keeley's post

You make a very strong point.
Graphic designers are in a good place to make a big impact, but it's true, almost no one does. It'd be cool if more designers had the balls to step out of line. The first stuff that comes to mind is charity work. If a designer believes in something, they'll probably do a more emotional (hopefuly better) job. Some war time design also comes to mind, but beyond that, ways of doing important work seem few and far between in a corporate driven world. I'd be interested in potential avenues for more 'important' work.

Ok, I just saw this firsthand today. I've been following this thread for a time, all the while disagreeing.

So much of what we do as designers involves making things seem obvious when they aren't. We go to great lengths to make seemingly easy connections with an audience. None of the things we do are inherently obvious. The accepted rules are often rules simply because that's what's been done for years.

So, I fail to see any problem with a designer looking to further explore or expand that vocabulary. I think this is a great solution to the design problem (blasted homonyms!) presented.

After looking through the issue, I did have some issues (homonyms again!) with the execution. The arrangements of objects on the tables or shelves could have more clearly indicated which were being showcased. Where this really fails, you get the sort of stopgap arrow pointing out the correct object. With the printed pieces, some of the photos seem to be blurry so that it's tough to get a good look at the featured piece.

But those problems are just with the execution of the solution. All in all, I fail to see the fault in not going with the most obvious solution to some design problem. Who's to say what's the most obvious solution? Is a coated stock more obvious than matte? What about 4 color vs. spots?

This blanket "obvious" is also problematic. It seems to assume that the design problem for every situation is to simply present the content in the most stark, straightforward manner possible. This has been touched on above, but the objective here probably wasn't that - and, here I'm assuming, it probably wasn't to show off as some might cynically assume.

Thanks, Eli, for picking up the conversation.

One model for doing important work is Tibor Kalman, a guy with a great revolutionary sensibility whom I miss very much. I remember a time when we invited him to address a group of designers in Chicago--500 people showed up to listen to him. One question that came up was: "What do you do if you want to do great, pathbreaking work, but the client says their whole budget is, like, 75 bucks?"

Tibor said "You do pathbreaking work for $75."

Like Chris Alexander, he taught us that the budget can be unrelated to the importance of the work if you bring a great sensibilty to it. He was also in the habit of being his own best client.

In terms of getting started, I suspect the best place is to plumb the depths of your own passions, especially to find something you are outraged by: the lack of vision that prevails around the environment; the Bush administration's approach to about 25 major topics; extremism in all its forms; whatever gets your goat.

As a graphic designer then you work to make a powerful, thoughtful, compelling message about it. My guess is that, over time, those passionate messages you do principally for yourself will start to become: a) the most remarkable elements of your personal portfolio, and b) the biggest draw you have for business development.

One last stray thought... This thread begins with Michael's lament about the obvious having power. I tried to jujitsu the momentum of the thread to powerful work having power. In case it is non-obvious there is a string of logic that connects both arguments directly. It goes like this:

If I am a designer I want to do good work, especially work that expresses my personal vision.

If I do enough of that I will be visible and famous.

If I am visible and famous I will get more work.

As I get more work I will get more money and have more impact on the world--and that will make me fulfilled as a designer and a person.

My suggestion is cut all the middle steps out of this logic train. Focus whenever possible on the smallest number of projects that have the greatest impact. Believe it or not, the money and fame (if those matter to you) will follow.
Larry Keeley

Having never been a judge for a design competition myself, I thought the ID presentation was probably a realistic depiction of what the judges experienced in trying to find a "winner". I wish more design editorial would try something to improve on what has been done in the past award annuals. I don't understand why things need to stay beige for the sake of comfort.
Michael Surtees

When I was in architecture school in Philadelphia, Robert Venturi was having a hegemonic moment. Working in that mode, two of my friends and classmates, Michael McDonough and Benjamin Kracauer started a punk band called The Obvious. Better than their music, I thought, were their neo-Beatles buttons, which said, "We're 2 Obvious." (The Beatles had We're 4 Beatles.)
john massengale

Reversed out type (light colored text, dark background) works on the computer screen so you do not have the bright white background blasting in your face. This page still vibrates and hurts my eyes like crazy though, which is a shame because of the great content and thoughful comments. I just forced myself to read through most of the comments on this page, but I must now stop, and sop up the blood on my keyboard from my pained and bleeding eyes.

One day the husband of a woman who was sitting for a portrait by Picasso dropped in on the artist at his studio. "What do you think?" Picasso asked, revealing the nearly finished canvas. The husband cleared his throat, stalling for time in which to think of a polite response. "Well," he said at last, "it's not how she really looks." "And how does she really look?" the painter countered. Refusing to be bullied by this fierce artist, the husband reached into his wallet and produced a snapshot. "Like this," he said. Picasso studied the photograph. "I see," he concluded. "Small, isn't she." - p.7 "Uncommon Genius" by Denise Shekerjian.
Ann Enkoji

It is interesting to see how people can't even agree if this site is readable or not.

Has anyone tried figuring out what they themselves think, after reading posts on this site? That would be a good starting point (even for the AV guy). I personally find that small white text on dark backgrounds tend to bleed real easy, simply because the text on screen is the main lightsource (this is especially true with very little ambient light). I'd like to think that when writing dark text on white backgrounds it would be even worse, but my own experience is different. I personally believe that the eye relaxes most when reading screen-based text that is dark grey on a light grey background. This goes against the practice of trying to heighten contrast in the letters as you would in print, but promotes less strain on the eye.

Re: this I.D. discussion; The initial post more or less implies that there is no room for forward thinking, taking chances, evolving. What if the previous designs of the Annual weren't actually the best ways to convey that specific information? What if Kobi's intentions weren't to take centerstage at the expense of the winning artwork? I look at it like I do web design - everyone thinks THIS IS IT, but we haven't even started yet. It is all part of a movement forward, even if it seems to be the other way around. Shaping what stuff will look like in the future - just like decades of brainwashed design students have shaped what stuff looks like now.

Jobs | July 19