Lorraine Wild | Essays

Wassup, Beatrice

Poster designed by Beatrice Warde, 1932.

Like many a designer from coast-to-coast, I've been mulling over the Business Week design-for-free debacle, discussed extensively on this site. It has made me realize that the problem with AIGA's ethical standards is that we do not really share a general description of what designers do, how they regard themselves, or what they stand for. Consequently, it's difficult to apply ethical standards to quicksand. I've heard endless definitions and descriptions: I can recite them all, and on any given day I can identify with one essentialism over another: e.g., "Today, I'm a conceptualizer." I can even be swayed by the argument that, in fact, we work in a moment when graphic design is devolving as a practice identifiable by any common standards.

It makes me think of a woman who I have always found completely annoying in her assuredness — Beatrice Warde.

I have always found her "Crystal Goblet" essay to be the epitome of everything that's pretentious and wrong with the practitioners of conventional typography (but not typography itself). Nonetheless, I have always envied her writing: in particular her famous 1932 broadside type-specimen for Monotype's Perpetua Titling, titled "This is a Printing Office." In fourteen lines, she sums up the critical cultural and social significance of offset lithography with words so powerful they could bring one to tears until one remembers that it was written to pitch a font. She proclaims that the greater culture depends upon the communicative and preservative aspect of printing, and that there is an integrity to the relationship of the printer and the printed word to society. Many designers know and love this piece of writing; it sticks in my mind because I see it frequently, hanging on a wall in the office of my favorite pre-press magicians in Venice, California. The irony of Warde's words floating over a space where a lot of our conversations are dedicated to using software and those infinitely manipulatable pixels to either improve or delete reality is simply too sublime. And, of course, the presence of "This is a Printing Office" in that environment only delineates just how defunct it is, but that does not make me love it any less.

But back to the Business Week thread on Design Observer: I've had numerous dinner-table conversations with colleagues about how this mess taps into this issue of how designers positively define themselves, what they see as their own essential characteristics, and how they might describe the value of what it is they offer. Being that it is summer, my mind is more attuned to games: so I decided to try to use Ms. Warde's statement as a template for a new succinct description of my own reality. Of course, what I recognized immediately is that everything is more complicated today!



Outpost of civilization, yet somehow central to it.

Refuge of content against the ravages of time,
too many meetings, or servers going down.

Armory of fearless making against whispering theory,
despite the impressive stockpiles of books and magazines.

Incessant conceptualizers of trade, dubious strategists of branding,
architects of information (though we hate that term),
stubborn interrogators of which first things actually go first, if any;
what to bill for that job, and if we are artists, or what.

Committed to research, whatever that may be,
and the same goes for entrepreneurship.

From this place words and pictures may fly abroad,
not to perish on waves of indifference,
not to vary with the client's hand (unless you give them the files),
but fixed in time by form, by people who have eyes, dammit,
(and who are overloaded by production details that used to be handled
mostly by the folks over in the printing office, but now, whatever),
verified by pdf file uploaded to your ftp site.

Friend, can you remember that feeling of standing on sacred ground?

This is a graphic design office.

OK, perhaps this is too cynical (or "reality-based"). Beatrice Warde did not go on about the problems with rush jobs and too many rounds of typos and clients who did not recognize real artistry when they saw it — all problems that not only go back as far as 1932, but pretty much are in evidence within a year or two of the invention of movable type. The next day — and maybe it was a better day — I thought I'd try again with more positive spin:



Bastion of communication. Civilized? Well, it depends!

Refuge of content against the ravages of time,
and we mean it, though we will keep time sheets.

Armory of fearless making against whispering theory,
and the deep baloney of strategy offered without anything to see.

Energetic conceptualizers of trade,
architects of information (though we hate that term),
ceaseless interrogators of which first things actually go first,
cajolers of clients and their eccentricities.

Committed to research, as we did for our thesis projects;
we've come around to entrepreneurship,
and we may or may not demand to be taken seriously as artists.

From this place words and pictures may fly abroad,
not to perish on waves of indifference,
not to vary with the client's hand (unless you give them the files),
but fixed in time by form, by people who pay attention and care,
whose egos are involved in ways that cannot be entirely explained
(despite the overload and the e-mail,
and the fact that we may not even be printing anything anymore)
and produced at dizzying speed....

Friend, it's all good! You stand on sacred ground.

This is a graphic design office.

Well, I don't know. I think my exercise demonstrates that there is nothing much I can do to demolish the starchy rectitude of Ms. Warde's determination. There is something just so right in the 20th century industrial hiaku of her statement, despite the fact that almost nothing she says is relevant to the way we work today. I invite all readers to try their hand at cracking her code, and obviously I welcome all amendments. Whether we end up with a new coherent statement offered as public service, or something more akin to Jack Handey's "Deep Thoughts," may be beyond our powers as individuals to affect. As we surf the waves of 21st-century design practice some of the swells may just be bigger than we are.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, History

Comments [11]

this? is
graphic design?
crossword of civilization
subterfuge of all that's art
adjoining the ravages of time

artillery of precision articulation
up against ubiquitous disinterested apathy and such

incandescent torch of trade

from this thing, symbols may form and follow
not to cover some wanting surface
not to glorify some draftsman's hand
but systemically freed from templates and specification

friend you stare at a sacred code
this is graphic design
Andre SC

Quick, cheap or good: pick any two.

Keepin' it real...
m. kingsley

first things first... lorraine, thank you this really really special post. may i be the first among us to suggest your post and your definitions of what we do, along with all of the posts yet to come, be typeset by the talented among us and printed on quality paper made by the patron/distributor, who, by approving the investment in high production value assets like this virtual conversation cum promo disquises well packaged promotional efforts as publishing. i hope to be on the horn first thing tomorrow with my friends at gilbert paper before one of our design colleagues pitches this killer conceptual strategy as evidence of their service potential to one of the remaining three paper companies. of all the people i know, you know i'm serious while making me feel safe in my delight of this work-a-day notion! thanx, lo.
rick Valicenti

you got me.
first, the cynical:

this is a communication design office

intersection of interpretation

refute of all the arts
in favour of computer skillz

cabinet of half-truths
and focus-group whispers

incessant trumpet of trade

from this place catch-words may crawl
not to succumb to close inspection
not to move the heart or soul
but dazzle with FX on short-term memory

consumer, you stand on shifting ground

this is a communication design office
marian bantjes

and now the personal:

this is an artist's studio

canal of experimentation

refinement of many arts
in dependencies on time

castle of furious hope
against creative block

intermittent trombone of craft

in this place words may find a home
not to drown in curious oceans
not to waste in graphic deserts
but in timely proof, be verified in fixation

love, you lie with obsession found

this is an artist's studio
marian bantjes

this is all very american. and pretty useless to an historical perspective of warde's words. which, as british humor suggests, are not half as pompous than the following rearrangements. behind fine metaphors, I still can see a pragmatic approach to design and printing. One which is still valid today.

A posting about graphic design, typography, clarity of message. And yet comments so lacking in that simple typographic and grammatical aid — the capital letter. Don't just reach for the lower drawer, but open that upper drawer once in a while and you'll find a whole case full of traditional Roman letters.

I agree somewhat with the previous comment. Although clearly her statement of intent and purpose, these words are meant to lead, and to inspire. They are no manifesto, or rule book. Good æsthetics, like good design, like good writing, like good philosophy, is simple in its goals of showing truth and beauty, be it metaphorically or directly. I fail to see why people get so worked up about the rest.

As a Frenchman might say, "it may work in practise, but does it work in theory?"

This is a graphic designers computer:

Anchor of culture

Marker of the tides of art
Constantly shifting with time

Boldly proclaiming trends anew
None shall whisper any longer

Works of art may be produced
on any medium, regardless
to persuade and woo even the untrained eye

Here you may see what makes the world go round

This is a graphic designers computer.

Was Ward in fact the Benny Hill of typographers? I thought most Europeans gave up on truth and beauty long before us Americans did.
Bernard Pez

Ask questions
Assess needs
Listen some more
Ask more questions

Strategize and analyze
Sketch, Design, review and revise
Repeat as needed

Present and Listen
Respond as needed
Repeat as needed
Jason Tselentis

I like the original the best still. It's clearly difficult to match. Maybe part of it is how the type is set. It's an extremely idealistic bit of writing but it also reminds me why I love doing this kind of work independently. Though the semantics have evolved, the essence-under the best of circumstances remains the same.
ben weeks

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