Michael Bierut | Essays

The World in Two Footnotes

Are you an Agent of Neutrality? Or are you an Aesthete of Style?

Eye number 53 (Vol. 14, Autumn 2004) is a landmark in the history of that irreplaceable publication. The theme is "brand madness" and editor John Walters introduces the topic with a tongue-in-cheek essay that cheerfully reveals a new Eye slogan ("Love critical writing! Love Eye!") but concludes on a queasier note: "Personally I hope never to use the 'B' word again. In the course of editing this issue, I have literally typed it out more times than I have had hot dinners -- and that can't be good."

At the core of the issue are a group of essays by by Rob Camper, David Thompson, and, in an impressive coup, respected theorist Terry Eagleton, who has been persuaded to turn his attention to Wally Olins's On Brand. (He pronounces it "a slick account of a supremely shallow phenomenon.")

But the article I was most intrigued by was "The Steamroller of Branding" by designer, teacher and Eye creative director Nick Bell. In it, Bell mounts a provocative attack on the encroachment of branding into the world of culture, where museums and performing arts centers increasingly present themselves using the same visual tactics as major corporations and consumer goods companies. Most interesting of all were two footnotes that Bell tosses off almost casually discussing the concerns of two types of designers: the "agents of neutrality" and the "aesthetes of style." Bell's descriptions are so acute that I've asked him for permission to reprint them here.

The agents of neutrality
Those graphic designers who see no role for self-expression in design. For them the graphic designer is a passive mediator of the client's message and is charged with the responsibliity of communicating it with clarity and precision. Unfortunately passive often means mute and can lead to an absence of 'point of view'. Get very excited by regulating systems such as grids, identity guidelines and manuals. Love following orders. Have a positive view of limitation and are lost without it, which leads them to being dismissed (sometimes unfairly) as 'jobbing designers'. Theirs tends to be an apolitical stance which makes it easier for them to practice their discipline for all types of client irrespective of sector without too much soul-searching. Contains a large number contingent of neo-Modernists now that Modernism is merely a style. Tend to view content as something that is delivered by others and must not be questioned.

The aesthetes of style
Those graphic designers who are consumed by the formal aspects of design. Tend to practice design for design's sake and see every project as an opportunity to produce beautiful design. Often guilty of underappreciating the client's point of view or at least seeing their involvement as problematic. View visual expression (often their own) as the most important ingredient in design. Harbour a point of viewbut one which is often meaningless outside their own profession. Complain of being misunderstood or underappreciated. Some hate to be constrained by grids and identity guidelines whereas others amongst them have embraced it and that is when they turn on the style. Get turned on by Pantone flouro' colors, spot varnishes and foil blocking. Not known for their awareness of ecological or sustainable production methods. Theirs tends to be an apolitical stance which makes it easier for them to practice their discipline for all types of client irrespective of sector without too much soul-searching. Contains a large number contingent of neo-Modernists now that Modernism is merely a style. Tend to view content as something that is delivered by others and it will only be questioned if it gets in the way of producing something beautiful.

In two footnotes, Bell has neatly nailed the choice that many designers feel they face. They can choose to become the passive, "objective" voice of their clients, or they can be creative fountainheads, beholden to no one but their own imaginations. These two types of designers are widely viewed as polar opposites and mutually antagonistic: the Aesthetes sneer at the Agents for selling out to big business; the Agents dismiss the Aesthetes for their self-indulgent immaturity.

This divide has been observed and debated for years, if not decades. But Bell's skill is the way he slyly delineates not the differences but the similarities. In his account, both types of designers are willfully apolitical and, tellingly, uninterested in the content of the work they undertake. In short, a pox on both your houses. As we've seen here at Design Observer in the past, designers (and perhaps all of us) resist binary classifications. Yet surely we would all have to concede that Bell's group portrait as diptych that has more than a little truth in it.

But the choice is a false choice. Bell has a prescription: "It's quite simple, it's been said before and so many times that it has become a cliché. And that is to design from the inside outwards." He is talking specifically about designing for cultural institutions, but the advice is universal. "The practice of corporate identity design" -- and here I would add graphic design in general — "must be inextricably tied to the content it is supposedly serving; make content the issue and resist making design the issue."

I have never met a designer who would deny the importance of content. Yet "making content the issue" takes real humility and self-effacement, qualities that are sometimes in short supply in the ego-driven world of creative production. Designers are more often tempted to serve more urgently demanding gods: their clients on one hand, their inner muses on the other. What the world demands, however, is something more. Call it content, call it substance, call it meaning: it is the too-often-forgotten heart of what we do. It is the way out of the binary world that Nick Bell describes so well. It is the third choice. Choose content.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design

Comments [29]

Perfect timing on this. I'm in a bit of a dilemma myself with this very idea. Except its a slight twist. My client wants a very edgy and flashy style, but her content is dry and the writing is not of the same style as she wants the design.

Part of me just wants to create really beautiful and flashy layouts because i know it will look good and will in fact be good promotion for myself. But the other half realizes that as a designer, I should be honest with the viewer and align the design and content together.

Obviously, no answer will be perfect, but I'm glad that we are at least recognizing that other designers struggle with this as well.
Derrick Schultz

Excellent article with a hilariously scathing portrayal of me and most designers I know.

But does humility to content further relegate designers to the shadows of society? With all the bellyaching over our perceived importance to clients and society in general, are we as a community prepared to step back and let content take the front seat? Some would argue that our egos are the biggest obstacle to getting more appreciation in society. Are we getting ahead of ourselves, or is something like this actually possible on a larger scale?
James Song

I think it has a lot to do with the education & experience of the designer in question. If one does not know the rules, then they cannot play well, if at all. Creatively 'breaking the rules' is not even a possibility.

In social circles, we joke about being Aesthetes of Style, but realize that we have to bend to client's wishes to survive in the marketplace. I've observed that seasoned designers know best how to educate their clients and when to simply not bother with them.
Ben Bertrand

Ah, poignant. I've always felt like an island of neutrality in a sea of aethetes (::cough::design snobs::cough::). I've always been "customer-focused," incorporating as many of their preferences as possible. I usually refuse to touch the content. Rather, I design the container for the content.
John B

resonant notions of design have never come close to even considering the binary-they begin with multitudes and work outwards from there. the swedish for designer is formgivare, which means giving form, giving meaning.

perhaps too much meaning is being given to that which doesn't warrant or deserve it; and perhaps that is where the problem lies.

and then-if the above is the case, then wouldn't making "content the issue and resisting mak(ing) design the issue" mean that the majority of design that surrounds would be cold, heartless and empty? if we were to deal in truth, that is?

and truly, then, wouldn't the design that offered a glimpse into unfamiliar facets of human experience (from the inside out) seem like glimpses of the aleph, strange, half-seen, near unrecognisable images that would shift and change upon each viewing, and upon each viewing seem like riverway memories of our own lives, loam and water: while the things more often seen grate like the alienating sound of one's own voice lieing in agreement to shore up as at the same time in the mind is a wrenching guilt flecked shame at another lost moment.

perhaps too much meaning is being given to that which doesn't warrant or deserve it; and perhaps that is where the problem lies.

The statement puzzles me. Who defines this boundary of the deserving? Shouldn't everyone have access to the tools for clear communication or form giving?
Michael Surtees

What has become of the Designer as Author? Is this notion to be limited on the one hand to self-initiated projects made for art galleries such as Bruce Mau's Massive Change on down to boutique stationery at Kate's Paperie, and on the other to designers' monographs on their own work? The latter is rather too literal a reading of what it means to be an author, certainly. But if this is the spectrum within which designers are allowed/allow themselves to generate meaning (almost said "content"), then we as a profession in search of respect and self-respect are indeed in trouble. The moment one starts to distinguish between form, content, and meaning, you're on the way to either one of Bell's characters, I think--which one is simply a matter of temperament.

One source of the trouble is the divide, which may be blurrier or more scattered in graphic design than in advertising, between the words and the pretty colors. But another source is maybe human nature--some people, even graphic designers, are happy to be given specified tasks, or happy to execute another's idea. This is, of course, fine. But it seems likely, or at least possible, that a fusion and overlap and combination of words and pictures--in other words, as much expression of ideas in whatever language--will produce better meaning. Better in the sense of richer, more emotionally and intellectually nutritious, more useful rather than less, more lasting rather than merely expedient.

Down with Lorem ipsum! Down with FPO! Up with real!

well said graham, i wonder, if design has been painting the face of heartless communication with no real meaning, then is it accurate to identify contemporary design (neo-modernism) with the absence of meaning, and therefor anything produced in the same style would also be devoid of meaning regardless of the actual content? isn't the design just as much "content" as the content? is the unrecognizable image the only way to communicate?

I'm not sure the solution is to demand that more designers function as authors -- nice work if you can get it -- but rather to suggest that more designers simply attend more sympathetically to the content of the projects they're undertaking.

This means, if necessary, pointing out to clients that what they have isn't worth designing, and (assuming they have a message worth conveying) actively collaborating with them to devise content that will more effectively support that message.

I am frankly suspicious of the "designer as author" trope: often, its main purpose is to keep that white-hot spotlight on the designer.
Michael Bierut

Surely what you need to break out of this "binary concept" is to to find out more about the client. If you can understand the client's business, you can help shape the content and therefore the form.

My experience is that often a client develops a brief based on their solution to a problem. If you can find out what problem they were trying to solve, that's where it's possible to add real value (can you tell one of my clients is a management consultancy?) by developing a solution that is neither an "agent of neutrality" or an "aesthete of style".

As a self-employed designer I find it extremely difficult to get to this stage with a new client (it might help if I had the reputation of Pentagram), but once I have completed a couple of jobs I find that I understand their business better and they trust me more, so it's easier to dig deeper into the client's mind/business.

But it's very hard as an employed designer to get a feel for a job when the client is shielded by account managers. What then? You're forced to fall back into one of those positions - "Can I get a piece for my folio out of this, or shall I just fulfil the brief and get the job done?" Especially with the senior designer/account manager banging on about the amount of time you can spend on the job.
harry sutherland-hawes

I am frankly suspicious of the "designer as author" trope: often, its main purpose is to keep that white-hot spotlight on the designer

This seems like quite a weird statement to me. Perhaps if it were accompanied by some kind of byline ("Written and designed by ...!!"), but as witnessed here, many designers are also good thinkers and writers. You sit down with the client, learn all about their business, their audience and their objectives ... if you could, why wouldn't you write and design as a cohesive thread?

I'm not saying we all should enter writing programs and add writing as the wafer thin mint to our already obese bag of necessary skills, but if we can, and we enjoy it, I really believe that the designer-writer is the most valuable contributor to the project.

Where's the ego in that?

I can't count the number of times I've persuaded a client to let me rewrite or edit their copy, and the results were always better, for the design and the client.

In Steve Heller's Education of a Typographer someone wrote (forgive me I don't have it with me) that they always get their students to write the copy for the pieces they design; that it gives the student more connection with and more respect for the content. I did this with my students, and I was amazed at what a difference it made; how much more appropriate their design decisions were ... and those who, for whatever reason used dummy text, were easily the least interesting or compelling solutions.

None of this negating the value in working directly with a good writer, of course.
marian bantjes

While it can be valuable to play the role of devil's advocate, isn't the statement -- "The practice of corporate identity design must be inextricably tied to the content it is supposedly serving" -- really overstating the obvious?

Maybe I'm traveling in the wrong circles. Or maybe you should color me PMS Naive. But it just seems that this is framed as a Design 101 issue.

The discussion of "content" can go way beyond "include it vs. ignore it" to much more challenging ones that examine the ramifications of that content, and how design/form can enlighten it, obfuscate it, or twist its meaning.

I certainly don't mean to knock Mr. Bell's attempt to correct a perceived imbalance in the design field. Critique of our fledgling field can do us good. But I do wonder if the discussion of content needs be be ramped up to another level.
Daniel Green

The way I've understood the Designer as Author is not as a copywriter but as the originator of content at a fundamental level. This way it is neither masturbating a designer's 15 minutes nor beefing up a client's message but being the client (or making "society" the client) and using design tools to create a work.
Jordan Winick

A number of designers are terrific in constructing form but deficient when it comes to engaging with content. Which is ironic considering that it is content that underpins the relevance of our work to the world at large. I second j'aime wasabi's position: the deficit is best mitigated when attacked on the student level. Yes, I know this is an issue that's been parroted for years and years now (and I'm sure everyone's already sick to death of hearing this), but Mr Beirut's post once again brings to light the need for a more rigorous liberal arts curriculum in graphic design education.

No, I'm not saying let's train students to become smart-ass designers who produce their own ironic posters and publish their own egghead magazines (though I find nothing wrong with that) -- I'm saying let's train students to become designers who are thoughtful and sensitive to the content they work with. We need designers who understand how language works: how language is used to either ellucidate or deceive. We need designers who demonstrate exceptional comprehension: designers who are able to flesh out the meaning from the morass. We need designers who question everything: designers who not only ask "how?" but also "why?" In short: what our industry needs, I suspect, are more designers who carry an understanding of their place in the world and an awareness of their responsibility to the people they communicate to. All of this is just restating the obvious, really, but the fact of the matter is that there are that many designers who are oblivious to the obvious.
Josef Reyes

I think Graham's quoting of the Swedish term, 'formgivare' is the most relevant statement here. "Designer as Author" seems to be thrown around a lot, and it seems to be understood that for the designer to be an author, he or she must create content on a linguistic level, then design it. I don't think that is a completely correct usage of the term, or at least it is not the only way to see the designer as an author. The term "Designer as Author" originated from Michael Rock's essay of the same name. The idea of the author is questioned, using Foucault and auteur theory as a critical framework through which to examine the term author and its relationship to graphic design. An interesting statement from this essay is that Rock likens designers to filmmakers. Filmmakers are often given a script and a set of requirements (such as which actors to use) defined by a corporate body (the film studio), and from these givens, the filmmaker must elevate "what is considered low entertainment to the plateau of fine art". Auteur theory also states that to be considered an auteur, there are three requirements: technical expertise, a signature style, and a consistency of vision and interior meaning. From this essay we see the original use of the term.

This is similar to the designer. The example of an organization's monthly calendar of activities fits. The script is given -- names, dates, events. How is meaning constructed through typography, imagery, and materials that is relevant to the content of the calendar? i think that is where design authorship lies. Often the imagery is already a given, so the designer's choices lie in typeface choice, configuration of type, configuration of images, and sometimes materials choice. How is meaning constructed from the choices made in the configuration? People think straight information is cold, and that imagery is warm, but I dont necessarily think that that has to be the case.

The designer gives form, and in the configuration of work lies the meaning. Is it a meaning that the public gets? probably not, at least on the surface, but of course, we all know that typeface choice, imagery, and placement all have a subtle effect on the viewer. A word document of the calendar, vs. a calendar whose configuration is influenced by the content are two very different things.

Formgiver is a good word. There is meaning in form. Maybe it doesnt operate on a linguistic level (which is where most people using the "designer as author" term seem to think where content needs to originate from) but it is on a level of signs and therefore meaning.

Mevis and Van Deursen have a very consistent output. The works are diverse in terms of content and form, but there is definitely a consistency in their work that seems to qualify them as authors. and they never (or at least rarely) write their own content nor do they create imagery. Their work is basically a set of decisions (typeface choice, configuration, image sequence, materials) that form something that over several works, definitely shows a consistency of vision.
Manuel Miranda

to add a little more rambling:

i dont think there is any such thing as 'neutrality'. the choice to be neutral is still an active choice. and everybody has style. sometimes it is more flamboyant, sometimes it is more reserved. but style is a consistency of choices made within a given set of limitations. style is different from creative indulgence. its a reflection of the designer, or the person, and what have been his or her influences in life, visual and otherwise.
Manuel Miranda

I interpret "designer as author" -- perhaps too narrowly -- not as a designer doing the copy for projects, but as the designer conceiving, directing, editing and writing entire projects from start to finish.

I have no objection to this, obviously, but I do not find consider it a realistic prescription for what is truly wrong with the way design is practiced today. A good designer should be able to get completely engaged with content without necessarily generating all of it singlehandedly.
Michael Bierut

I struggle with the issue of designer as author, on one hand, as was mentioned above, there is no way to avoid the influence of the creator in the work, it has to be created by someone, and that person should not feel ashamed that he has created something. I find it odd that we would want to remove ourselves from the process, there is value in the individual perspective, i'm doubtful that a designer can be anything to all clients—no matter how much he or she focused on the client message. Further I don't believe the designer who claims that this has been the case in their experience. While I don't deny their experience I believe in a world outside of it.
It seems that collaboration is being strongly advocated, rightly so I suppose, and along with that the designer needs to check his ego at the door. maybe Michael the designer as author because the recipe calls for 3 cups of ego? couldn't we be responsible with clients to create meaningful design. design with a message and formal exactness? and at the same time couldn't we broaden the evaluation of meaningful design to include emotional communication? the successful designer would be recognized not only for his adhearence to the intellectual communication goals of the client, but also for the effect of his or her work on the end user. would an effective designer communicate intellectual messages for the client and create an emotional response in the audience? Maybe it is after the designer has finnished his or her work that they must check their ego and allow the audience to understand the work how they chose. A combination of the collaborative designer and the designer as author.

Much of this discussion (and Bell's original suppositions) seem also to cut to the quick of a similar discussion held on a neighboring blog: are we designers or artists, or something in between?

Bell's categories balance on the pinpoint of individual expression - particularly in its presence or absence in the pursuit of design, neutrality or aesthetics/style based on the relative quantity of it.

Our profession seems caught in the polarity of our relationship or divorce from a defining source: art and its history - not least of which in the sense of our Modernism: are we willing to accept the trope that art is at its base reliant on self-expression, and as such willing to pursue design as an echo of this origin? Or are we pushing to pull design out of its initiating context and mold it into form reliant on / based in content?

I sense that our roots are showing a bit flagrantly in the mention of ego-expression in regards to design - enough of us seem to want (or simply professionally rely on) the same name recognition that working / exhibiting artists depend on to keep their produce in the public, purchasing, displaying sphere. We could easily and quite successfully vanish behind / inside the results of pursuing design for content's sake rather than its own, but would we continue to draw work from the public?

Or would we simply have to make the brash, artistic leap of putting ourselves out their through our means / media and seeing both what's made of it and who makes something of it?

"Designer as author" seeks both this and an accreditation of designers as individuals so content-intimate as to know the appropriate / pertinent visual facing for various meanings.

And on this, are we formmakers or do we adequately reveal meaning?
p. berkbigler

I agree.
It stems down to us taking ownership of our work. The complete commitment to the problem and the solutions.

I really do not like what i call the "technical" designer, and i met quite a few in my school. Those who have expertise in software or the technique but rarely give a thought about concept.

Design is a process, we should honor it. Do away witht he templates and trends , the fast foodification of design is wrong.

It's midnight, i rambled but i hope it made some sense.

Thank You MB for yet another awesome post.
Aashim Tyagi

Reading all of these posts I can't help but draw a couple of conclusions about the state of design and of designers, and the general state of the work designers do.

The fact that Nick Bell chose to illustrate two polarities of design archetype opens up the door for us to talk about these issues (pardon me, "engage in diaglogue"), but we all know it's not that simple (and if we didn't know it coming into this thread, I think we know by now). This is where I feel the dichotomization has served its purpose: to get us talking.

The problem in design extends beyond a desire to "communicating (the client's message) with clarity and precision" or "(viewing) visual expression (often their own) as the most important ingredient in design." To me, the problem stems from being out of touch with the reality of graphic design and being a graphic designer.

The designer who believes they must elevate the client's message and communicate it with clarity - and I think we can all read between the lines that Mr. Bell is suggesting these designers believe there is an (empirically superior? logically positivistic?) solution - has their eyes closed to the reality that each designer brings a different experience, language, method, eye to the table. They ignore that communication isn't perfect, that each audience member will interpret the given design, that what signifies "X" to one person may signify "Y" to another.

Meanwhile the "aesthete of style" ignores the want/need of the client for a conscious interpretation of content. This designer ignores that, although communication isn't perfect, there are overarching ideas which can be effectively communicated, and that they can do more than just add style to communication, that their very work - which is unconcerned with content - changes what is being communicated, whether they like it or not.

And the rest of us, who lie between the extremes (hopefully??? most of us?) probably find ourselves in some kind of balancing act, trying to maintain integrity of both elevation and style. But this isn't the problem. The problem lies in insecurity and lack of knowledge. Absolutism stems from an inability to see the alternative; it comes from ignorance of the options and the lack of confidence to figure it out. And problems arise when we are more concerned with ourselves than with the client - even if we believe we're acting in the client's best interest.
Andrew Twigg

Wow, spot on post. A few thoughts:

1. In a broader (if less specified) light, I think Bell's categorization of designers is representative of a "binary classification" of workers in a market economy overall, and isn't just limited to graphic design. Using Bell's model, there's:

A. The dedicated employee, whose work is focused strictly on fulfilling the needs and ambitions of their employer, and whose professional energy rarely strays outside of that arena. (Popularly -- if derogitorily -- regarded as the "company man"... or woman.)

... vs. ...

B. The renegade maverick -- often an entrepreneur -- who follows his or her own vision, going so far as, in extreme cases, creating a market where one hadn't previously existed. (Popularly regarded as the "new American dream".)

So it's "The Office" vs. "American Chopper," in cable TV terms -- or, in boring socio-political talk, collectivism vs. individualism, I guess.

I imagine both camps are fundamental and equally necessary in a free society, whether in design or any other field: while the latter ethos drives innovation and competition, the former is the backbone of our economy and industry.

2. I'd assume most designers lie somewhere between those extreme poles in Bell's spectrum, given that both factors are essential: being able to do work and get paid by a client is why we need them, and being able to apply design solutions for their business (and our own edification) is why they need us.

So I see this as very much a yin-and-yang relationship, and most of us happily have a foot in both camps.

As far as the problematic aspect of this -- that designers never look beyond this duality, hence the apolitical and inward-looking stance -- I really think that's applicable to almost any profession. Even fancy cultural critics.

All I know is that most of my designer pals -- and seemingly everyone who posts to Design Observer -- have dizzingly sharp intellects, an exceedingly savvy political astuteness, and a general and multifaceted interest in and awareness of the world. So we can't be all bad.

I mean, seriously: isn't Bell's portrayal of each designer's personality traits something of a caricature?

3. Regarding the content issue, "the prescription" to the problem:

Forgive me for liberally paraphrasing by memory here, but in a piece with Stefan Sagmeister in I.D. magazine, when asked what might be the overiding graphic innovations and trends of the first decade of the 21st century (as layouts had been in the '80s and type in the '90s, according to I.D.), he stated that he hoped new means of producing and presenting content would take center stage, that designers would foresake "style games" for the greater challenge of bringing ideas to life and making them functional and meaningful.

This, I believe he said, was the key to making the general public more understanding and appreciative of graphic design, and how it would make a truer and greater impact in people's lives. (Or something along those lines.)

That sort of thing has certainly been discussed before -- and such sentiments were really being bounced around for months after Sept. 11 -- but it's especially come to resonate with me in the last few years.

Exactly how we bring content to the forefront, and what that actually means, is still a bit up for grabs, it would seem. But maybe now, with all of the technological solutions any designer could have ever asked for at our fingertips, this is the direction in which our field will evolve for greater relevance and actual real-world effect.
Jon Resh

I think what Bell hits on is the American (if not human) tendency to divide things into 2 mutually exclusive, competitive sets. Look no further than politics--the vote gets tallied and we immediately assume that the red states are foreign countries as compared to the blue states, even though reality dictates that most people are at best lukewarm on the administrations plans.

So sadly, things aren't so clear-cut.

I've never understood the "designer as author" argument, simply because its been waged in a manner that makes it look like the designer depends on the attention or right to create content. This shouldn't be. We're living in an age of raw data; most of what you get from your clients in a creative brief is akin to stereo instructions in terms of dramatic impact and sheer volume. Doesn't matter what type of client, this is just how it goes. Its our job: turn the gook into something with meaning.

Both types of designers described here can do that, and to great benefit for their clients. Emphasizing style only gets tiresome mostly for the other creative types who see the work consistently in the books or wherever else. If it works it works. Peter Saville, CORE, David Carson, Jonathan Barnbrook have all done the same damn thing for years for vastly different types of clients...and their work is great, and it does good things for people.

Bill Cahan's studio's portfolio looks pretty schizophrenic. So does "Michael B.'s" for that matter. They both do highly effective work. They both take a pretty distinct point of view too.

A designer's job is simple: take data, create meaning from it, and derive value. There's no one right way to do it--the only mis-step you can take is NOT clearly articulating a position, NOT saying anything. There are many ways to speak to someone, shouting and whispering can be very impactful in the right context.
Bradley Gutting

I would like to respond to Jon's mention of Stefan Sagmeister's quote. This is an opinion that I have heard consistently since the turn of the millenium, and I think it misses the fundamental issue. For me the question is not style or no style the question is what style do you choose.
There is no way for the graphic designer to disengage with style. the medium is the message. If it weren't, then everything would be typeset in (your font of choice) and we could all go home. If its content you want to convey, Language is the best way to do it, which puts us out of a job. Unless Stefan is recommending that we should all become type setters and nothing more.
What we really need to focus on is how the visual language we use is communicating, and forget weather it has style or not. That argument (as I hopefully have shown) is irrelevant. We dance around the question of what visual elements are saying, and worry about weather the content is communicated. I would like to talk about how design communicates rather than if it is communicating or not.

This is maybe a late clarification, but when I first mentioned the designer as author notion, it was certainly intended along the lines of designer as originator of content (words, pictures, form), which is not too much of a stretch from "attending more sympathetically" to the content of a project. Content is a pretty broad word anyway, and the content of a logo is certainly different, and requires different attending, than the content of an annual report or shampoo bottle.

But, moving things along, it's probably worth noting at this point the sentence in Bell's article that immediately follows the one with the 2 footnotes. Bell writes, "There is, however, a third faction whose voice tends not to be heard amid the clamour of modern communication business: namely, ' the champions of diversity.' In other words, those graphic designers who are prepared to defend the rough terrain of content from the steamroller of branding and corporate identity." Which pretty much clues you in to Bell's point of view. The article diverges from the overall jist of this post, but it's worth mentioning. Bell's general argument is that branding design for cultural institutions should be different (but is becoming less so) than corporate branding because cultural institutions come with content built in. A Picasso, a MoMA, a Kurosawa retrospective--these things have content; a corporation does not--roughly. Bell has a great line near the end: "The trouble with corporate identity is that the way it is usually practised makes no distinction between inventiveness and invention." Corporate identity, in other words, has no inherent content, nothing to build on in the way a museum does. All corporate content is added-on strategy, slogans, marketing--and design. All this leads by a strange logic to sort of indicate that designers are in fact doing some content-making when doing corporate identity. They're simply making something out of nothing.

I posted that article on the wall of my school, but then in conversation with a friend (Joana), we wondered if instead of two footnotes could there be three (if not more). The third is the graphic designer that is so compromised with ethics that misses the point, he fails to communicate. He see problems in everything and can´t work with Lightness (definition of Italo Calvino).
This ethic obsessed individual, looks like the oposite of Agent of neutrality.
Now, there is three footnotes, three islands that share content in their geometrical center. Each movement that starts from this footnotes in direction to the center is a way to make "content the issue".

...For me the question is not style or no style the question is what style do you choose... What we really need to focus on is how the visual language we use is communicating, and forget weather it has style or not...

That's a good point, John -- and I think it's actually in the same league as Sagmeister's sentiments. In either instance, a more effective -- and, I'd like to think, more true -- presentation of ideas is the shared aim.

...There is no way for the graphic designer to disengage with style....

Indeed. Even stark blandness, or the total absence of technique and treatment, has some meaning and context to it.

Again, because I don't have Sagmeister's quote in front of me, I want to be careful not to speak in error. My original statement was my recollection and interpretation of what he said -- so if it happens to be incorrect, blame me and not him!

Anyway, I got a full day of layouts ahead of me, and I'll keep all of these interesting ideas percolating in my head as I plow away today -- and try not to be too much of an "aesthete of style" nor an "agent of neutrality," but just a nice guy working hard, smart, flexibly and ethically. That's the biggest challenge of all!
Jon Resh

Thank you Jon, I was not speaking against Sagmeister, or your quote and or misquote of him. I am interested in the issue more than an attack on any individual. Looking at Sagmeister's work I think he is one of the best examples of a designer who has a unique voice, and treats visual elements as an integrated part of his communication (content).
I think my comment was directed more toward the two types of designers mentioned in Bell's footnote. An attempt to call attention to the issue. For me its another way of naming the problem, that makes the issue more clear, but I suspect that the problem remains the same.

Dear colleagues, dear Michael and Marian

I do support the idea that content plays a major role in nowadays Design practice (thank you!!!!). The B_ word arrived here in Brazil as a new trend and suddenly became a meaningless word, due to the indiscriminate use of it. To help our clients understand that identities, as we see it, are a combination of content and form, we divided our process of design in two steps: Design of the Content and Design of the form. We do believe that, in the first step, we must give form to the content and, only then, give content to the form. "What to say", in the first moment, and "how to say it", in the last, both as design subjects.
Ronald Kapaz

Jobs | July 19