David Cabianca | Essays

Why History? Why Bother

I am a junior faculty member now teaching graphic design but I began my studies in architecture. Today, working towards my tenure requirements at a large university, I am asked to provide some biographical information whenever a piece of my writing finds the light of day in a publication, however infrequently that may be. This request always makes me uneasy because I am aware of the contrast between how this information is written for architecture and graphic design audiences.

Architects list accomplishments in their biographies: the names of building projects, completed and uncompleted; competitions entered, winning or nonwinning entries. Graphic designers provide client lists.

When I try to recall the credentials of a number of respected architects, I could not tell you the name of more than five clients of canonical buildings, perhaps the obvious ones: Mies: the Farnsworth House, the Seagram Building; Le Corbusier: the Salvation Army Building; Gehry: Disney Concert Hall Hadid: the Vitra Fire Station. But of course, I am still identifying these clients with their respective buildings. What comes to mind at the mention of "Farnsworth House" is not Dr. Edith Farnsworth, but the image of a sleek, glass box on stilts set in a pristine wooded area west of Chicago. Mies' accomplishment was to create a living space set apart from but transparent to its natural surroundings, the seasons and the weather. Dr. Farnsworth was important to the project, but the Farnsworth House was part of a formal exploration already well underway within Mies' architectural oeuvre.

Architects are revered for their accomplishments. Graphic designers are revered for whom they have serviced. What does that say about the respective professions? More telling, what does it say about the respective disciplines?

In any profession, a practitioner operates according to certain expectations and obligations of conduct; in any discipline, the expectations and obligations of professional practice are contained within its limits but also exceeded by creative invention. A discipline tolerates a practitioner's explorations to expand the limits of the field beyond the obligations of client responsibility. Returning to the observation that sparked this essay, the difference in respect garnered by "accomplishment" and "service" is a reflection of the difference between how the professions of architecture and graphic design are practiced. However, when we consider the elastic potential of a discipline, if practitioners cannot see beyond the limits of their own profession, their disciplinary vision is short-sighted, or worse, stagnant. Graphic designers provide client lists because these corporate names implicitly reflect the scale of budget, and in the corporate world responsibility is often measured by the size of the budget that an individual controls. Architects list buildings in their biographies because they are measured by the success of their work: whether the control of space, the use of materials, the resolution of the detailing, and even the sensitivity to its site — to name just a few of the architect's concerns — are innovative, provide pleasure, and serve their intended purpose well.

As someone who was first educated in architecture, I consider the practice of making to be a dialogue with those who have preceded me. I see history as a source of precedent and repository for meaning. For example, when one works in the vein of Modernism, one is drawing upon the beliefs and optimism that was first explored so well by Mies, Le Corbusier, Wright, Taut, et al. But these explorations are still ongoing. These dialogues with the social problems of increased urbanization, the rationalization of living, and the debasement of the spirit are still with us today.

For instance, when Steven Holl designs a building, he is concerned with the visceral response of our body's experience to the qualities of light, the tactile exposure to materiality, the orchestrated movement of bodies through space. These preoccupations serve to combat the pressures of contemporary society by demonstrating that architecture isn't purely about providing clients with a "proper" corporate face. Holl's work is original, but it is also in a dialogue with the work of architects from Carlo Scarpa to Hans Scharoun to Adolf Loos.

Architects use historical precedent to advance their own thoughts and explorations with many of the same social, cultural and philosophical issues that have plagued society for a very long time. This on-going, long-term preoccupation of architects whose lines of inquiry are greater than those which can be answered in a single building, helps explain why the work of someone like Holl, always looks like a building designed by Holl, even though the programs of different buildings (the needs of a residence, versus a casino, versus a museum, versus an office building...) are each radically different.

But graphic designers prefer client recognition over accomplishments. They locate themselves within the ethereal and diffuse terrain of corporate branding, and the effect is to foster disciplinary amnesia whether by intent or not. Is it little wonder, then, that graphic design students take little interest in their own place among the accomplishments of their design predecessors? To students (and then, after graduation, to the profession), history is academic — "history" is a required school subject that has minimal relevance then or later. (Note to self: Maybe I should rework the syllabus of my "History of Typography" class into a "History of Clients"?)

When a graphic designer sees a piece of design and says, "Oh, that looks so '70s," or "That looks like what [insert name here] did in the 1960s," it is an attempt to place the work relative to his or her own frame of reference. The effect, however, is to dismiss an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with history. I really don't care if a piece of design looks like something that someone else did. I am concerned with whether this new interpretation says anything about the human condition now. I want to know whether new work can tell me about how we see ourselves today.

But the human condition is vast, greater than what history can tell us. Architects understand this. That's why they take courses in philosophy, women's studies, gender studies, comparative literature, African-American studies, and more, throughout their education. They are able to make connections between what they do and other repositories of knowledge, other disciplines. When we cross architecture with disciplines external to it, we are presented with the opportunity to reexamine old knowledge and assumptions. This reassessment allows us to question tradition and create new practices. Loos didn't have access to courses in African-American studies. But what if he did today? Just imagine what wonderful architecture he could dream up now. A dialogue with history allows us to build upon accomplishments and ultimately, by contributing something new to the discipline, to contribute something positive to the human condition.

When, as graphic designers, our world is limited to solely to a strict diet of graphic design assignments and corporate formalities, our vision of practice is limited to "That looks so '70s," and neither of us — not the designer nor the designer's audience — has learned anything about themselves.

David Cabianca teaches graphic design at York University in Toronto, Canada. He received masters degrees from The University of Reading UK, Cranbrook Academy of Art and Princeton University.

Comments [59]

I offer one important distinction in this discussion:

Architecture is real and long term. Design, especially in the Web world, is virtual and short lived.

The distinction speaks volumes for me about why designers list clients and not individual accomplishments. No one remembers or can easily locate or interact with that great Web site from 2001. Only the client has staying power in the Web world, hence the client list.

When you use the great web site from 2001 as a discussion of information architecture is it important again?

What is the distinction between information design and information architecture on the web? It would have to include the internal script with the decor and text.

There are greats among graphic designers, moreso if you look to other places and their approach to visual communications, who have those conversations with philosophers and history more than just clients.

Like Mike in the previous post I think this article lacks an understanding of the very different nature of work between architects and graphic designers.

Architects list buildings because they are present and lasting in the physical world, anyone could theoretically hop on a plane and go see an architects work anywhere in the world, and that building, if successful, will stand for many years.

Graphic designers on the other hand work almost entirely in an ephemeral world. What we design one week could be printed distributed and gone the next. Also much of our work is produced in a business to business area where only a small group of individuals is able to view it.

Therefore it would be impossible for me to tell someone I did the Pepsi brochure in my list of works, for example, because by the time it was published in an article Pepsi could have easily redesigned it using someone else, and my version would be impossible to obtain.

Also designers list clients not because of budgets allowed (I would think many large corporations are just as stingy with money as smaller ones are) but because as designers we attempt to cultivate long standing relationships with our clients. Architects on the other hand are brought in to work on a project and once it is completed they move on, one would not ask an architect to knock down and rebuild a building every year, but as designers we do that sort of work all the time. Clients are the most recognizable face of our work and listing them provides the clearest example of the type of work we do since actually showing work is often impossible.

I would also like to disagree also with comments about graphic design's lack of historical interest. Any designer who wants to do work worth anything should be intensely interested in the work of his predecessors. Typography is a art form that stand on hundreds of years of development, and any designer worth anything could tell you about the work of Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, or even David Carson and how it influences them.

Perhaps we seem a little less interested in our history because returning to my previous point our work does not have the lasting quality a work of stone and mortar does. This is because nothing is held sacred in the world of graphic design. Even the most famous designers in history, like Paul Rand's UPS identity for example, cannot escape their work being reviewed and changed even for a superficial a reason as a company hiring a new marketing director who just wants to shake things up.

As for our lack of varied coursework, I will have to admit that this point is partially true. Many design schools are part of art schools which make the mistake of focusing too much on art in a vacuum. In addition portfolio centers magnify this even further letting designers indulge in their artistic sides while ignoring that our work even as students should function and communicate and be based on solid research, not just look pretty. I myself am a student in a design program at Syracuse University, a school I chose specifically because I wanted a more varied experience and coursework in my education. I believe a liberal arts education for designers is just as important as learning how to properly kern type, because design is as much about absorbing everything in the world around you as it is about visual expression.

Sorry for the long post but I just had to respond to every point from this article. Congratulations if you made it all the way to the bottom. Looking forward to reading anyone else's thoughts on this topic.

This is because nothing is held sacred in the world of graphic design.

We can say that in our culture where graphic design relies heavily on text, visuals and logos. If I travel to an Islamic culture for a short visit, which I did through a click on the web to a designer site, they have a reverence for typography, better stated: calligraphy, as a "transmitter of knowledge."

If we recall the entire history of the printing press and the history of graphic illuminations, graphic design can take on new meaning outside of clients.

graphic design is fundamentally ephemeral, we use it to communicate, and when it is done communicating it falls to the back to make room for something new.

it doesn't belong on gallery walls or under glass.

some of us, big fans of graphic design, see past its transience, and use the knowledge from the past to inform the future. we collect & hoard graphic design, we are few & far between.

its nature is not pristine & immaculate. it comes and goes as we need. it should be touched, fingered, used, & even abused. graphic design is not ours as a designer, it is for our audience.

personally, i believe we should be listing causes that we have helped & worked for/towards. but not everyone designs for things that need it.

As a graphic designer, I feel we are viewed less as professionals than architects. Because our work is so ephemeral, our impact is seen as less meaningful and therefore needs to have less staying power (less cultural impact, less of education, etc.) while doing 'just enough' to please the client.

Ironically, it's interesting to see that while graphic designers have many more chances to make a graphic and cultural statement than architects, there are less of us who are aware and willing to do so.
I think part of the reason for this lack of awareness (at least for me) is the lack of graphic design critics. Last year, I attended a class called 'Contemporary problems in Design,' and while this class was quite useful, much of the course material addressed design from a broad standpoint (industrial design, environmental design, etc) leading me to believe that there are not many graphic designers who consider these issues when in practice (except for Stephen Heller, of course).

I agree that our work is ephemeral, but in the end it feeds back into culture and, if interesting enough, has just as much staying power as any building would have. What about the I (heart) new york symbol? Is that not a part of the visual culture that we recognize, recycle, and reinterpret in our work? In fact, even the phrase 'I (heart) something' is now commonly used in dialogue I have with my peers.

But the human condition is vast, greater than what history can tell us. Architects understand this. That's why they take courses in philosophy, women's studies, gender studies, comparative literature, African-American studies, and more, throughout their education.

I think a lot of graphic designers are very well versed in other subjects. In fact, the York/Sheridan program requires that a number of humanities, social sciences and natural sciences be taken to complete the degree. What I think is lacking (in the York/Sheridan program) is the fact that many of us don't know how to apply our non-design classes to design because we don't have the visual vocabulary and understanding needed to translate our knowledge into our designs in a meaningful way (we may know Beckett's writings, but how does that relate to graphic design?)
Edrea Lita

Why do graphic designers feel so inferior to architects? (David seems especially dissatisfied, because he has a past connection, perhaps idealized, to that more esteemed field.) The Mies van der Rohe's and Steven Holl's of the world are hardly typical practitioners of the art. Young graduates of architecture programs, no matter how many courses in philosophy and African-American studies they may have taken in school, are unlikely to have a list of skyscrapers and private homes on their resumes any time soon. Indeed, even architecture faculty at most schools are unlikely to have a long list of buildings after their names.

Owing to the cheaper, faster, less litigious nature of what graphic designers do, our young 'uns are more likely to get right into the field and do creative work quickly—even it it's just a t-shirt or a cafe menu. At the highest end of achievement in graphic design, I believe we do have practitioners who are known for what they have done, not just who paid them, such as Paula Scher, Matthew Carter, Bruce Mau, Milton Glaser, Bruno Munari, John Maeda, and many others.
Ellen Lupton

Architects are revered for their accomplishments. Graphic designers are revered for whom they have serviced. What does that say about the respective professions? More telling, what does it say about the respective disciplines?

Frankly, this statement, which is cental to David's argument, is bullshit. I don't mean to drag this conversation down, but I can't think of a more appropriate word. It would be difficult to understand the arrogant and lazy misunderstanding of the field on display here if it weren't for the revelation that the author has an architecture background. Typical, just typical.

Paul Rand is revered not because he worked for ABC or IBM but because he designed their beautiful, enduring logos. Saul Bass is not famous because he had Alfred Hitchcock for a client but because of his groundbreaking titles for Vertigo and Psycho. We don't value Jan Tsichold because he spent a few years at Penguin, but because of his advocacy, in turn, for modernist and traditional typography. I could go on and on here: Josef Muller-Brockmann, Armin Hoffman, Paula Scher, Robert Brownjohn, Gert Dumbar, Art Chantry, Irma Boom, Vaughn Oliver, Chip Kidd, Woodie Pirtle, Tibor Kalman, Milton Glaser, Stefan Sagmeister, etc., they are all "revered" by the profession because of their innovative work, not because of their clients.

If David's assertion were true, there would be no market for designer monogaphs. There would also be no design competitions, no AIGA lectures, no exhibitions like Graphic Imperative.

Sure, some designers put their client lists front and center: some see their practice as a service. Others list clients in the culture and entertainment industry as evidence that that their work pushes the envelope. Regardless of the reason, listing clients serves as a convenient shorthand for designers who have hundreds of projects under their belt. (In contast, this year's National Design Award winners Diller Scofidio + Renfro have a single major commision completed in the United States.)
Jose Nieto

I think I may have not been sufficiently clear about my point in writing the column. I recognize that the two fields operate in different ways, hence the note that there is a "difference between how the professions of architecture and graphic design are practiced." I was not trying to conflate the two, nor elevate one above the other.

What I was trying to address was an absence of curiosity — for a lack of a better word — that I have encountered about one's own practice (in graphic design). That lack seems to extend from an engagement with history through to an engagement with contemporary practice. Perhaps this notion is regional and not an issue in New York, Los Angeles or Baltimore, I don't know. But I was attempting to theorize this absence.

I have a feeling, however, that I am not alone in thinking that a perception of graphic design exists whereby as long as the work can communicate a message, there is no need to be aware of what has been done before, or what other designers are doing today.

My second point was that a knowledge of history is not sufficient to maintain the vibrancy and dynamism that contemporary practice demands. New knowledge allows us to reexamine the past and in so doing foster a dialog. Edrea is a current York/Sheridan student. She is fabulously bright and I am very lucky that she is currently taking two of my classes. However, the comment that many of us don't know how to apply our non-design classes to design because we don't have the visual vocabulary and understanding needed to translate our knowledge into our designs in a meaningful way (we may know Beckett's writings, but how does that relate to graphic design?), proves my point. Knowledge outside of one's immediate field is perceived as academic. A professor of philosophy isn't going to teach graphic design, and nor is a graphic design instructor going to teach a class in philosophy. Education partially relies on an individual's desire or curiosity as well as effort to do the mental gymnastics needed to make the leap of integration. But I think I may be asking for too much.
David Cabianca

I was not trying to conflate the two, nor elevate one above the other.

David, a little intellectual honesty would be appreciated. Of course you were trying to elevate architecture over graphic design. Why else would you draw such a comparison?

Look, I'm sorry that your students are failing to value design history, or that they do not know how to apply a liberal arts education to their practice. I think it's silly to try to define the discipline from such limited experience. Here in Boston I've found students who are hungry for a historical context, who are constantly drawing from culture, art, philosophy, and science in their work. Sure, you always have the knucklehead who can't look a anything before 1999 without ironic disdain, and whose idea of cultural context is Nick @ Night. For every one of those, there's three students who give a damn, who make a teacher's effort worthwhile.
Jose Nieto

Hail Mies, full of grace...
oh sorry, I got a little carried away there.

David, you have given us what I think must be the most pious prayer to architecture ever written by a graphic designer.

The problem, however, with this particular type of piousness is that by buying into it you completely cede the right and responsibility to recognize your discipline for what it is.

I think this article neatly illustrates a central problem in graphic design, namely that many members of the profession engage in way too much indulgent self-mutilation. Architecture's tendency to bully the other design disciplines is a direct result of the willing audience these designers provide.

Ok, graphic designers, let's just get one thing straight:

Architects are definitely not gods in any remote definition of the term.

Graphic design should be something that graphic designers take part in on their own terms.

Architects are revered for their accomplishments. Graphic designers are revered for whom they have serviced.

They are? So you mean the corporate identities that Paul Rand and Futurebrand designed for UPS are "revered" in same way?
debbie millman

I could have used literature or painting for purposes of comparison, but since this is a design blog, I thought those types of references would be too obscure. Additionally, the relationship that a architect has with a client is closer to that of a graphic designer in terms of being in hired to provide a service. But that notion aside, the technique of using comparisons for learning purposes is still a valid one; it is a method which allows one to highlight the particularities of a given discipline in terms of overlaps, gaps or differences for example.

I think that the use of "communication writers" for purposes of comparison is an interesting proposition, and one which would yield different — and apparently from the nerve I seem to have touched, probably just as contentious — results.
David Cabianca

As a young professor, I'm in the midst of only my second try at teaching graphic design history this semester and still coming to grips with teaching towards what I know of my own perspective on graphic design when I was an undergraduate student: that it was somehow a field that seemed only to have about a 5-10 year history to it. This perspective simply demonstrates my own ignorance and naivete as an 18-21 year old as far as graphic design's lenghty interaction with art and world history, but I continue to keep it fresh in my own mind to make sure I have some sense of who I'm likely speaking to in my classroom.

I'm struck by three essential student personalities that seem to begin the study of graphic design:

A. Those who would like to be studio artists but have somewhere gotten the impression that graphic design is a more consistent professional means of living as an artist.

B. Those who have decided they want to produce one of the following when they "grow up:" web sites, posters, album covers, t-shirts, or packaging.

C. Those who don't quite know what they're doing in design just yet, but have either been recommended into it or temporarily landed here en route to what they think might be their real love.

It's seemed that only the "B" category of student is initially responsive to an introduction to design history and learning about any practitioners that have come before them. The other two are generally tending to handle design history in the same way most high school / college students handle other history studies - as a hoop to jump through and a class to simply scratch off their list of requirements.

Overwhelmingly, the "I want to make art but make sure I make money" attitude seems to produce design students who are more initially interested in learning tips to speed their use of creative software than they are curious about how they might use type and image to visually communicate anything to anyone.

But I raise all of this simply to say that as educators we have our work cut out for us in seeking to provide better definition for what's possible in design and as a designer. It remains my belief that presenting the history of graphic design as a study of human communication in addition to its role as a creative art enables our students to understand it as far more than a simple commercial practice that continues to support many practitioners.

I would hazard that practicing architects are far more familiar with the end clients of particular projects than academics. I don't mean to say this harshly, but the vicissitudes of professional practice mandate it.

Many notable houses are named by there owners -- what more do you want? If you understand the relationship of Frank Lloyd Wright and H. F. Johnson (or Frank Ghery and Peter Lewis), the simply appellation of a name to a house is far more nuanced, the same way a graphic designer with some understanding of history might think of relationships like Rand and IBM.

Others are not for any number of reasons, but one good example is the Stretto House, where the client requested anonymity. But I could find out the client in less than three phone calls (and none of them to Holl's office).

Graphic Designers (again practicing) list clients rather than projects for many reasons: one, because they tend to be more fleeting -- recognizable names are helpful in securing work, even if there is no evidence in the world of what you did. Another is it seems garrulous to list 100 discrete projects completed for a single company.

I suspect Loos would have had little interest in African American studies -- the proclivity in many African culture for body marking and modification would not have sat well with a man who believe an unjailed person with tattooes was simply a criminal yet to commit a crime.

I don't know that your thesis is terribly awry, but aside from being the usual call for designers to read more books, and perhaps to stop making lists, I'm not sure it adds much to the dialog.

miss representation

[Aside: Loos designed a house for Josephine Baker which was never built. Model shot and floor plans here.]
David Cabianca

David Cabianca makes some good points with his comparison of architecture and graphic design. Here are two factors behind the differences he observes:

. Architecture is a much older discipline and takes itself far more seriously - often too seriously, but that's another discussion. Architecture has had centuries to develop a strong sense of history, professionalism and ethical responsibility. In terms of life span, graphic design is an infant compared to architecture - our field only began to define itself after WWII.

. Architecture students are considerably more academically oriented; only academically successful high school students are admitted to architecture programs. Architecture curricula are challenging, and include math, engineering and physics. Unmotivated architecture students fail. But, as noted in earlier postings, so many graphic design students come into the field with far less commitment, academic success and self-discipline.

Ellen Lupton's question "Why do graphic designers feel so inferior to architects?" is a good one. It probably has something to do with the previous two graphs. We have quite a way to go as a profession (but we're on our way).

We can't even agree that we ARE a profession. So often we hear our own practitioners and educators refer to graphic design as an "industry." Here is another useful comparison to architecture - how often do we hear architects referring to architecture as an industry? Or doctors and attorneys referring to their professions as industries? There are industrial aspects to building, medicine and law, but those at the top of each of those fields are "professionals." We are less clear on where we stand in communications media production.

I find David Cabianca's points well taken, although I hesitate to say this, given the rather nasty personal tone of some previous responses. This is only the second Design Observer string to which I have contributed, but the personal attacks in many contributions in both strings is not only appalling but unproductive. Let's do better.

Katherine McCoy

what are the most intellectually thoughtful / heavily researched graphic design projects you know of? and who wrote a philosophically insightful book about it so i can make sure it's in my library.

I responded forcefully to David's central thesis (about designers being known for their clients, not their accomplishments), and perhaps phrased my comments in a way that could be construed as personal. That was not my intent: I apologize if I came across as "nasty." Perhaps I was reacting to the line "for whom they have serviced": it made my profession sound a bit like prostitution.

My point was a simple one: graphic design may be a younger profession, without a serious academic infrastructure, but it has nothing to envy architecture. In some ways, our contribution to the culture if far more ubiquitous and significant than that of architects, even if it doesn't have a choir of tenured professors singing its accolades.

Obviously, there is much to be gained from a sustained dialogue between graphic design and architecture, just as there would be between graphic design and industrial design, anthropology, mathematics, literature, economics, biology, etc. But it needs to be a dialogue, not a genuflection.

By the way, Katherine, the fact that some people speak of a graphic design "industry," a term I've heard only from mill reps, doesn't cast doubt about our standing as a profession. I'm sure that marketers of CAD software or t-squares speak about architecture in similar terms.
Jose Nieto

It's quite possible that there are maintenance crews in buildings and city halls that question the wisdom of architects. Whereas for that of questionable graphic designs, pages turn much quicker than stone tablets in all that ephemera.
design student

all I can make out of all this is, architecture seems to be recieved immediately by the general(majority) public, communication design on the other hand has become apart of our daily dialogue making it harder for the public to seperate from lets say in this case, a building, however I would say that this very fact is what makes our profession so interesting and enduring, not all types of appreciation are published and communicated in the same way.

that being said, I dont quite understand if this article is trying to prove something or simply raise questions about how we view our profession as designers.... on a side note I agree that yes we do need these client lists as a way continuing to do what we love, the results that communication design has rendered throughout history has never been immediate, it has rather contributed to a long visual process that continues to refine the way we communicate....

the student

Jose, I think our profession does have a bit to do with prostitution. One big difference between what architects do and what graphic designers do, is that we are directly responsible for shaping the communication corporations use to influence the populace. Architects may be responsible for designing an impressive structure to highlight a corporate presence in the cityscape. But that's a much more tangential contribution to the success of the corporation than designing communication aimed at influencing people and building the company's bottom line.

I don't mean to be aggressive about this. It's pretty old hat anyway, isn't it? But this aspect of our day-to-day reality often gets marginalized in these discussions, and it's just as well to own up to it.
Michal Pesar

I have to admit that when I first read this, I vomited a little bit in my mouth. However, as Katherine McCoy noted, David Cabianca does bring up an interesting comparison between architecture and graphic design. It is not the fact of comparison but the nature of it that bothers me.

As others have stated, it seems a bit short sighted to suggest that graphic designers are only known for who they have served, not what they have made (e.g. Scher, Carter, Mau, Glaser, etc. etc.). Further, the notion that architects are somehow more committed to a richness in process and interest in history is just not true. Isn't that romanticizing architecture and discounting graphic design a bit too much?

In any case, I am interested in continuing the conversation regarding the two observations that Katherine McCoy made, and Ellen Lupton's question, "Why do graphic designers feel so inferior to architects." It has everything to do with the culture surrounding the profession and the kinds of students each attracts, but I would also add that it is fundamentally about the artifacts each profession makes. As long as graphic design is thought of as making posters and logos and cd covers, we're going to continue being seen as an "industry".

I think there is great work going on in many universities in terms of infusing graphic design with a richness in process, context and history, but not enough in giving students the freedom and agency to expand the scope of graphic design activity in terms of what we produce.

I had an architecture professor once who told me that she firmly believed that there is a difference between the notion of "building" and of "architecture", that the latter aspired to be something more than simply providing shelter. This is where I think a productive conversation about graphic design + architecture should take place--how can graphic design become more than its commercial application?
Jimmy Luu

I wonder if the alleged tendency for architects to be more comfortable with and interested in their history might, if true, have to do with the daunting scope and investment involved in the architectural project, at least at the high end. Could it be that the ability to allude to historical precedents, and even to seek inspiration and confidence in them, might be a source of the courage needed to propose a design vision that will need buy-in by numerous parties (client, bankers, engineers, city administrations, builders, et al.)?

It may be that graphic designers, whose work isn't ordinarily earthshaking in the same way that a building might be, aren't subject to quite the same pressures to seek support (and even solace) in their history. I don't say this approvingly — I am inclined to history myself, even though I'm never quite sure what properly constitutes that history.

In this way, the discussion seems to me to touch on a theme that appears frequently on Design Observer, that is, the place of discourse and language in design practice. I'm thinking here of two posts by Michael Bierut — This is My Process and On (Design) Bullshit, and the lengthy and interesting discussions they prompted.
John McVey

Client lists act as a subtle, albeit crude, code. On one hand they signal to potential clients a designer's credibility; a designer who is linked, however ephemerally, to a company of perceived worth provides a kind of reference of capability and desirability ("They worked for 'X' so must be good. We want to be successful like 'X'. We'll use that designer too").

On the other hand, to a community of designers, it intimates success in landing a 'name' client. It suggests a type of authenticity ("They are famous and rich with such high profile clients.").

Both suggest success by association. It's all froth and nonsense of course, but as designers we often fall victim to the same gossamer we weave to seduce consumers...

As to squabbles about industry vs profession, architecture vs design, visual communication design is still in the throes of 'becoming'. It is all to the discipline's good to posit ideas, as David has done, to generate vigorous discussion about framing its future.

In my experience, students fall into two broad categories:
1. those who wish to undertake a more vocational path;
2. those who are prepared to engage in a more abstract journey.
One does not privilege the other, though I feel the former may have an initially easier transition into current professional practice. Both curiously tend to accept 'what is' in their chosen profession rather than positing 'what might be.'
Jennifer Williams


I was being a bit glib when I made my Loos comment, and I couldn't really say if I recall anything past the title of "Ornament and Crime" -- though ten seconds of research reveals that he did manage a snide comment about Papuans.

But I never said Loos was a racist -- only that based on his published writings he may well have rejected the benefits of multiculturalism we accept as a standard in education.

Perhaps you could circle back and address why not knowing the names of patrons and clients for major works of architecture translates into a lack of historical knowledge or interdisciplinary thinking in graphic design?

But if think it's clever to toss out a single commission as evidence of one's point, then here is what must be overwhelming counter-point:

The AT&T Building, Lever House, The Pan Am Building, the Chrysler Building, The Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History, The Scholastic Building, the Swiss Re building, the Lloyd's Building, the Heidi Weber Pavilion, the Carson Pirie Scott building, the Peak (unbuilt, yes), Lovell House, Penn Station, the High Museum, the Frick, the Guggenheim and the Morgan Library.
miss representation

miss representation, I am sorry but I am not sure I understand your request. I pointed out the Baker House because I thought it had become relevant.

I don't think graphic designers need to know about architectural history. I do think they need to know about graphic design history. But that notion knowing one's roots extends to any discipline when one wishes to build upon the shoulders of giants (to invoke an architectural metaphor). Graphic design has a number of issues that are particular to it that perhaps affect its capture for historical discourse: its ephemeral nature, its directness of communication in denotative vs connotative terms [somewhat what has been touched upon in architectural terms as "building" vs "architecture"], as well as the fact that we don't publicize our "unbuilt" works.

In fact, for both disciplines history is taught in terms of developments and accomplishments in addition to social and technological factors, but later, during practice, there is a divergence that occurs which is reflected in the difference between bio lines of architects and graphic designers. I happen to think that divergence is very interesting. I don't have a definitive answer for why it occurs, nor for what affect it has on the thought process or the discipline in general, but this column was an attempt to speculate.

My attempt to speculate was not meant to denigrate what practitioners do.
David Cabianca

Well, here's another speculative question: if cross-disciplinarity and collaboration are values that design is supposed to embrace, then why wouldn't a designer's list of clients be of interest? I guess one of things that strikes me in David's post is his inference that a client list belongs to the realm of the mercantile. When I look at my own list, I see at least some people who I regard as co-designers as a result of our long-term collaborations.
lorraine wild

I think it is a bit too black and white to state that architects do not list clients just as it is too easy to say that graphic designers do not list projects. A quick perusal of the web sites of most designers and architects suggests that they list both; particularly the larger firms. I also recall that Phillip Johnson, an architect who could list both projects and clients with ease, enjoyed telling everybody that he was a "whore", suggesting a richly formed self-realized sense of sympatico between himself and the hoi-polloi professionals serving moneyed masters. On the other hand, Phillip knew better than anyone that he was no Mies van de Rohe.

As Phillip no doubt understood, in the work-a-day world of architecture, your list of experience, i.e. clients worked for, is just as important as the last project completed. Most architecture, like most graphic design, is service based and what increasingly marks the architecture profession as a profession is not only the grand dialogue of history but the ability to describe, market, indeed brand and implement ephemeral services. All the big firms rush to do it. Several have hired Bruce Mau to tell them how to do it.

Indeed, contemporary clients for architecture are wary of claims based soley on the Vitruvian notions of "firmness" and "delight" extolled in this post. No surprise, most emphasize "commodity". Corporate architecture practice is very good at addressing the primacy of this concern. For better or worse, much architecture is also limited in duration. Rem Koolhaas both laments and celebrates global junk space. I could draw a very rich picture of how architecture practice and professionalism looks more and more like a caricature of graphic design professionalism. Except that I do not really think that graphic design nor architecture practice is a caricature for those who care, whether the scribe writing on wax tablets or the kid kerning on computers.

I am sure that David Cabianca would agree that to lump all graphic designers into the service oriented soup of practice is unfair just as it is problematic to assume that all architects are in conversation with two millenia of history. There is afterall a point to this post - the humanities are important and interdisciplinary studies and thinking are an essential part of education. True enough, but the problem is that this point could be made for any life path in a civil society, whether homemaking, auto repair, or indeed graphic design, architecture, or politcs. Isn't it too bad, indeed tragic, that George Bush was a "C" student at Yale? If only he had taken a class with Paul Rand!

Bloggers should lament the negative tone of many posts in the blogworld, many of them are not meant to be constructively critical but simply dismissive - in this case however I think the swarm of negativity may be pointing towards some kernal of truth. Graphic design seems more OK than the DOA suggested.

Finally I do not think the Steven Holl's or Frank Gehry's of graphic design feel at all inferior to the Bruce Mau's or David Carson's of architecture.

John Kaliski

Lorraine, yes, I suppose that client lists are associated with the mercantile. That is part of how graphic designers practice and present themselves. I am not sure whether you believe that that is supposed to be a bad thing, I know I don't. What I was speculating on, is my impression that the focus on clients in bio lines diverts attention from the physical works of design to something which is quite detached from the world. Clients are important, but the listing of "Nike" conjures up a brand association, not the experience of the client's relationship with the designer. And to break it down further, very often a designer is working through many layers of approval toward the final design, thereby increasing the distance between the final work and the company name.

Now is this ethereal aspect of clients a bad thing? I guess not for the practice of graphic design. It is, after all, supposed to be ephemeral.

It has become clear that this blog post has become a lightening rod for animosity among many established and emerging practitioners and educators. I guess that the position I was trying to express was probably best reserved for a long, drawn out essay rather than a "punchy" blog post. This seems to be the case particularly since the discussion seems to be about defending clients and accomplishments rather than probing the differences in conceptual attitudes that give rise to, and are affected by, the respective differences in bio lines.
David Cabianca

what are the most intellectually thoughtful / heavily researched graphic design projects you know of? and who wrote a philosophically insightful book about it so i can make sure it's in my library.

Isn't every graphic design carefully researched? When I was just a student in rinky dink junior college Adobe Illustrator Class 101 and assigned a clock project to be used as a direct mail card for a garden nursery (had I finished school and sold my work), I researched insightfully the work I did. A clock with tulips leads to understanding Mr. Bezier's mathematics, harmonographics, physical resonance, the path finder tool, the difference of one point and two point curves, the history of Turkish tulip trade in Europe, etc. Again, it was just an assignement in class due the next week, no real client. My school made a copy of all my research, too, because i had to document my homework. Isn't this the same with a four year university degree? Isn't this the same for working for a client? How else would anyone get any passion and understanding from any job? And that's all an architet or a graphic designer is, just someone doing a job.

Doesn't every graphic designer go after every project with such fervor?
dropout student

This seems to be the case particularly since the discussion seems to be about defending clients and accomplishments rather than probing the differences in conceptual attitudes that give rise to, and are affected by, the respective differences in bio lines.

David, the point is that many of us do not buy that central premise -- that a difference in bio lines means a different conceptual attitude. Why would we want to probe what we think is incorrect? I don't think anyone would disagree with the assertion that architects and graphic designers think differently -- that's pretty much a given. The point is that that difference does not arise because graphic designers having a more mercantile orientation. The run-of-the-mill architect, I'm sure, is just as concerned about his/her client list as the run-of-the-mill graphic designer.

I also have a problem with the way you've framed this discussion, comparing star architects (Le Corbusier, Gehry, Hadid, etc.) with a generalized profession called "graphic design." In fact, you do not mention a single graphic designer by name. If you want this argument to be taken seriously, you need to be as specific -- and knowledgeable -- about graphic design as you clearly are about architecture.
Jose Nieto

As a graphic designer who works for a large, international architecture firm (I'm also married to an architect) I offer another perspective. Don't forget that there is an area of graphic design that lives in the built environment: architectural signage, exhibit design, environmental graphics etc, much less ephemeral than print or websites. We work arm and arm with architects and interior designers on a daily basis. Sure, you'll find those who snootily insist that they know better, but most respect the areas of expertise we possess. We are all working together to offer our clients a multidisciplinary approach to design.

And research is a huge part of our process to say the least.

design research:

Honda's Asimo climbing a staircase designed by Jacques-François Blondel and the lady of the house shedding a tear as she sweeps up the brochures advertising the event.

The service of clients by a designer is an exact parallel to the accomplishment of buildings by an architect. When my firm offers our client list, we demonstrate whom we have successfully serviced, i.e., provided design for and--ideally--helped with their brand process over the course of the relationship.

Two, five, seven years serving a client as the business grows, goals shift, and regimes change is a pretty major accomplishment in my book.

Maybe if more designers learned to look beyond the current project and toward the bigger, longer-term picture of the company as a whole we'd all appreciate a greater sense of history.
Brent Stickels

"It has become clear that this blog post has become a lightening rod for animosity among many established and emerging practitioners and educators."

This is an accurate assessment. I think it has much to do with the overall tone of the column. I am not an architect or a graphic designer, but I could still sniff out the scent of disdain all over this piece. Perhaps next time you should be more diplomatic with your choice of words. As for the argument at hand, rather than bitterly arguing on the differences between the two design disciplines, maybe bridging the gap by identifying similarities would be more beneficial (and more interesting I think).

Yes, there is a certain amount of disdain, but this has been around forever, and reflects the "animosity" that has always existed.

Look, these two professions are very similar, and yet fundamentally different. Graphic designers and architects can have the same approach to their work, but architects build objects that last for more than few years and designers are lucky to build ideas that may last a few years, or may change with the next product release.

Like it or not, there exists the question of permanence.

Occasionally there is an artifact brand or logo that survives, and this can thought of with the same reverence as a famous building. Certainly it can have a similar cultural significance. But us designers are forever aware that our work can be swept away instantly. That has to have some bearing on the process. (Some of us secretely like that aspect - who doesn't imagine doing the last thing differently -- only better this time! And I won't have to wait 10 years to see it!)

Also - this doesn't make sense to me:

Architects are revered for their accomplishments. Graphic designers are revered for whom they have serviced. What does that say about the respective professions? More telling, what does it say about the respective disciplines?

When I think of Mies van der Rohe, I think of the Farnsworth House. When I think of Milton Glaser, I remember his iconic posters - I don't think of who the client was, or who was on his client list at the time. Isn't this the way it is with all of our historical figures? In any case, why use canon as an example? I could just as easily do this:

Mies = Farnsworth House

Rand = IBM

I think for everyone else, those of us who are not part of the elite, we demonstrate our credibilty by listing the clients we've held on to and occasionally the projects over time -- as Brent says above, it's the only thing that has a chance at lasting as long as a building.
Ken Soto

i wouldn't mind being intrinsically involved in the content designs of a culturally weighty book that became part of the permanent collection of national libraries throughout the world and would be canonically referenced throughout the passage of eras. so esteemed that even national museums got a piece of the action and requested copies for their archives and stores. library of congress. library of alexandria. smithsonian. moca...

it was put on reading lists from high school to college and spent some time on oprah's show. and to hear the president of something refer to it endearingly. of how it was a salient book in her formative years. that it altered the course of her life and eventually the course of a nation...

and when humanity expanded to go where no man has gone before, the astronauts took a copy onto their spaceship. and the aliens saw it and went "yes, that is a good book where can we get a copy..."

or if i had the disposition to create an interesting body typeface. that could last...

I would argue that this issue is DOA.
Architecture is design. Graphic design is design. EGD is design. Typography is design. ID is design. Get it? The separation of design professions by practice, histories, or theories is so 20th Century!
I argue that it is really important that we designers not fall into the snobbish traps that fine art and historians have tossed so many. Including design.
We all design for humans, unless there is an alien out there?
David, I think you are really not seeing the full power and extent of visual communications. I don't even know where to start.
Katherine, humans made images and stories in caves long before architecture! Also, who really knows if the temples of ancient cultures were built as buildings or support for the stories and images on the walls, floors, and ceilings?
At the very least, the builder, the painter, and the story teller are equal and have been for thousands of years.
Design Professor

though intellectually i will probably be far behind of the people who have commented on David's essay, since i had to lookup the word "ephemeral" in the dictionary to figure it out,
having said that however i had the absolute pleasure of having David as typography teacher for an entire at OCAD, i believe it was his first attempt at teaching yet far better and more satisfying than many other design profs at ocad.

his attention to detail is impeccable, so few have the gift. What i learned was true beauty of typography, and i grew to appreciate it, and everyday i thank him for that.

many "academic" design teachers, teach based on experiences rather than the true heritage of design, as to what works and what doesn't is all about what they think at the end. it's us against them and though we, the students, truly believe we are right in some cases we never manage to win. which brings up the notion of the role of a graphic designer plays when comes dealing with clients, how much of the works ends up being ours and how many of the ideas we can sell to the client.

so are we trying to progress in designing for the sake graphics or in other words are we building buildings for sake the sake of the environment and space or for the sake of the budget? there seems to be a clear difference as to what money can do.

***Due to stupidity of a few we lost David to another school, and i can easily say we never recovered.
Bamdad Azizi

While I do think some readers have gone a little overboard in their sensitivity to the issue, I think David's post makes a critical oversight:

While any designed product, whether a building or a pamphlet, reflects its designer, the truer aim is to reflect the user. Why haven't you taken this into account when considering the bio? It too is a designed product. When taken in this context, you can see that David's assumption that "...graphic designers prefer client recognition over accomplishments" has assigned too much of the motive for the bio to the designer/architect, instead of the intended audience.

An architect's bio is more focused on the end result, because their clients want it that way.

A graphic designer's bio, in contrast, is more focused on the client list - because graphic design clients want it that way - it has very little to do with the designer.

This shouldn't be surprising at all - people have been clients of architects for far longer than they have been clients of graphic designers - it is a practice much more tangible and recognizable to the general populace. Most people, often even people that make decisions about which graphic designer to hire, don't have much understanding about graphic design - so it makes sense that they might ask for a client list instead.

I'm rather surprised (well, maybe not) at the tone of some of the responses to David's article. I wonder why the two professions I chose to work in, design and academia, are so full of people unwilling to keep an open mind. Funny that. You'd think the reverse would be true.

Anyway, here's my two penn'orth. I was thinking about this while doing a hundred other things so excuse the roughness around the edges and the off-the-pointness of it all...

I wonder if the difference between architecture and graphic design in this context is that architecture operates within an 'interior labour market' (ILM) while graphic design is largely reliant on an 'exterior labour market' (ELM). (I get these concepts from a paper by David Guile, Journal of Education and Work, Nov 2006)

The creative sector within which graphic design operates is one where work is bought and sold often in the short term. Even when clients have long relationships with a designer or design house the relationship is always assumed to be one that can be ended at any point, and is constantly reviewed.

With architecture, the relationship with the architect is different. It is longer term for one thing, and you're pretty much stuck with them once you get started, so you want to look at their physical track record more than in graphics. But the important thing is that architects more often progress up the career ladder within firms and within the industry (i.e. most people within architecture are employed several degrees of separation from the client). There is also more dipping in and out of a project, offering specialisms to different ones rather than working on one at a time.

Therefore the career progression of an architect is project-based, not client-based because of a) the different timescales involved, b) the different relationship that exists between a client and an architect (who is the client? Who is the point of contact? Who is the 'architect'?)
Case in point: I met the guy who 'built' a Frank Gehry building up the road from me the other day - he was the client's contact and will get future work quite differently from how a graphic designer will. This chap can't put the building in his portfolio and say 'I designed that' but he can say 'I built that'. He won't be employed by a client based on his work on that project, but he will be employed by a firm given the job of building something else because of his involvement. That's what I mean by an 'internal labour market' (re-reading this I don't think the point is clear but give it a go, you'll see what I mean!).

Graphic designers operate differently. The problem is there's no one way in which designers operate. I was an in-house graphic designer, so I didn't pitch for work, and I did everything from writing copy to art-directing photography and even lifting boxes of leaflets of the truck...

I've just finished some research into how graphic design as a profession is portrayed by the media and by the industry (and academia) and it bears little relationship to most people's actual experiences, and certainly not my own!

Other things I thought about - the old 'Paul Rand did wonders for IBM' argument. Sorry, but I wonder why we get that the wrong way round? If IBM had gone under six months later would we have said he ruined them? No.
IBM did wonders for Rand, not the other way around (and Jose, Saul Bass's titles wouldn't be so famous if the films had been forgotten), and the whole client list thing is partly a side effect of the fact our work is so clearly identified with the client, unlike architecture. The odd approach we take to design history seems to elevate the designer to the position of a God and completely distorts the reality of the profession. (Having lit that particular touch paper let me step well back...)

Here's another point of difference. Take the 30 St Mary Axe building in London. This was commissioned by Swiss Re, but is not known as the Swiss Re building except by those wishing to show off to others (and even then they'd be wrong, like many buildings of this nature it is occupied by different companies). It's popularly known as 'The Gherkin'. Take a look at the web site and see who 'designed' it. It's commonly credited to Norman Foster, but in fact is properly credited to an entire team.
And that's how people in the architecture business trade. No one says 'I designed that' they say 'I worked on that', and clients for architecture projects tend to go via agents who recruit teams, not just designers.

In graphics two things happen: we emphasise the designer and not the team. The copywriter, the photographer, the make-up artist, the model, the printer, the disributor. I bet they operate similarly to architects.
We also teach this individualism both in the studio and in our approach to design history, which creates designers who think that's how they should operate, and how they should value design.

Bear with me here: I don't rate the IBM logo. I think it's dull and uninspired (you can't call it 'beautiful and enduring' as someone did above. It's just three letters with bits missing!)

What's notable about the IBM logo is that it is just one part of a corporate strategy and image. And that was reliant on other people who we manage to airbrush out of the story because we focus on this one tiny little bit.
The criticisms of David's article that have cited examples of graphic design suffer from being overly simplistic, overly heroic and overly aesthetic, and fail to consider graphic design beyond the visual surface, the finished product often viewed in isolation on a white page in a big book. This is a major problem, especially when reproduced in education because it becomes the dominant discourse.

I think David's made some interesting observations and long may he and others be encouraged to think out loud and, as the site suggests, make observations. Why do people get so upset? It's only design, for crying out loud.

Anyway, as I say, all just random thoughts and I'm bound to change my mind several times in the next few hours but there you go.

As someone who finds architecture one of the most overprized and overpraised disciplines in the arts, it sends me nearly into anaphylactic shock to support some parts of David's article.

I may only be exhibiting my ignorance of how architecture is taught but if I take David at his word that it is the standard in architecture for their students to "...take courses in philosophy, women's studies, gender studies, comparative literature, African-American studies, and more, throughout their education," we've got a distinct difference in how the fields of architecture and design regard themselves. (And maybe architecture students bitch about being dragged out of the studio for that stuff too?)

Put it this way: does architecture have the equivalent of a Portfolio Center? I'm making no value judgments on PC just saying that it has a significantly different view of what design is/can be than, say, Yale's program even within design-- and architecture without. But which is closer to the view of design that is dominant in the field?

I'm also inclined to dispute the "permanence" factor of why architecture holds greater significance. All of the important buildings cited here are experienced by a small segment of the (sadly ephemeral) population. Unless you're in them every day for a major part of your life, they may as well be fliers or annual reports. Their real permamence is cultural: something David is advocating here for design--study its history, bridge to other disciplines, be critical.

On another issue, I may be misreading the direction of Ellen Lupton's facetiousness but I see it as no mystery why designers envy architects. What I don't get from David's article is that he possesses an inferiority complex. Unless you're making the argument that he washed out of architecture into design--he's here. Stating that there are attitudes worthy of respect and emulation in architecture as opposed to design is far from genuflecting.

And lastly, I'll again take issue with the stated objective excellence of some of the renowned designers named above. The idea that the regard for the achievements of these celebrated designers would have come irrespective of the prominence of their clients and/or employing institution is highly arguable.

Kenneth FitzGerald

In my scuppered (I totally used the thesaurus for that) design study, we got handouts of rules in school.

Never cry.

Whoops, there goes Chief See-ahth, again, and his idea of long lasting design, for crying silently.


First, my disclaimer - I love history. When finishing my design degree I took all of my extra classes as history whenever possible - English, Russian, Japanese, the colonization of the Americas, general world history to the 15th century. Design history and art history, however, bore me nearly to tears... UNLESS they are used to illuminate the culture and the context in which they were created. Now I'm not making a good/bad/better or worse judgement on this but I will point out there are two ways to look at the arts and history: one, as a product of a particular time and culture, or two, as a self-contained conversation that dialogues with itself and becomes further removed from the culture at large (as, I would argue, Fine Arts has).

>Therefore, much like communication writing, the artefacts produced are just temporary interfaces for ideas.

Graphic design, because of the nature of our intended audience, will always have to be grounded in contemporary culture and contemporary ideas. But that doesn't mean we can't carry on an internal dialogue for our own amusement. That requires knowledge of design history. Or (please indulge my name-dropping), as Robert Bringhurst thundered in one of my typography classes, (I paraphrase): "If you use a typeface without knowing who designed it, it is like sleeping with someone and not knowing their name."
Christina W

Kenneth, Jonathan, the point of bringing up famous designers was not to suggest that their work should be viewed uncritically, or that it did not arise out a client/design relationship. My point is that these designers are known within the design community because of their work, not because of their client list.

This not to say that their client relationships were not crucial to their success -- but isn't this true of architects as well? Would there be a Seagram building without, you know, Joseph Seagram's & Sons? That architecture is more invested in the myth of authorship than graphic design is not a strength. In fact, I would say that the field has something to learn from graphic design's frank acknowledgment of collaboration.

It's been 40 years since Roland Barthes declared the death of the author. At this point, it's really not that interesting to problematize the "hero" designer. Far more intriguing is to map out the networks of relationships -- creative, commercial, political, cultural, historical -- at play in the design process. Did IBM "make" Paul Rand? Did Joseph Seagram "make" Mies Van der Rohe? Of course not. But their work arises out of a network of relationship that included artist, client, capital, government, predecessors, competitors, etc. This is true of both architecture and graphic design; to privilege one practice over the other is not productive.

Saul Bass's titles wouldn't be so famous if the films had been forgotten

Point taken. However, one shouldn't dismiss Saul Bass's role in their success. Not only was he involved in the marketing of the films, in the case of "Psycho," he directed and edited a (some would argue "the") signature sequence.
Jose Nieto

Character defense: David is good guy!

First, what's an architect? My point, I guess you have to care to feel threatened or inferior. I like buildings. I live in one.

As a young design professor, too. (rochester institute of techonolgy) I will make this comment to history and learning design.

Students are freaked out by being "too academic" about history and theory. I do not believe that more history and theory encourages students to being disciplined life-long professionals of the field they choose to follow. Not everyone is cut out to be a heady academic. I like to read this stuff... mostly for the humor of it. It is a joy to learn how other creatives think or think they think. ...

Thank You!
bill Klingensmith

Quote David "...graphic designers prefer client recognition over accomplishments"?

I am not sure about that.

But I am sure both concerns about recognition, because that's when work is seen as accomplishment.

And I am sure many architects concern more about recognition then work. (I have seen too many.)

And of course history is important. Just there are always differences in attitude and perspective from people, clients, designers, alike.

look fr studio LDA

"If you use a typeface without knowing who designed it, it is like sleeping with someone and not knowing their name."

Blimey - that could well be the most pretentious piece of crap I've ever heard.
Jonathan Baldwin

My point is that these designers are known within the design community because of their work, not because of their client list.

Jose, that is exactly how I interpreted it (from you and others) and what I take issue with. It just goes against human nature to claim it's a level playing field, for one. That this situation is also at play in architecture and many other fields doesn't make it acceptable or dismissable.

It's been 40 years since Roland Barthes declared the death of the author. At this point, it's really not that interesting to problematize the "hero" designer.

Tell it, brother. But my interest comes from somewhere else: how value is established. Studying how "hero status" is imparted gives us insight on what we value and why. What contemporary and future designers choose to do will be shaped by what their field values.
Kenneth FitzGerald

That this situation is also at play in architecture and many other fields doesn't make it acceptable or dismissable.

I agree with you: to appreciate achievement without understanding context is naive. Perhaps this is a better way to phrase my objection with David's thesis: I feel that his view of graphic design is too generalized and contextual (i.e. it's all about clients), his view of architecture too naive.

But my interest comes from somewhere else: how value is established. Studying how "hero status" is imparted gives us insight on what we value and why.

Point taken.
Jose Nieto

As David's colleague in the York/Sheridan program, I welcome his comments and share some of his frustrations. But on the whole he seems to be describing a profession, a program, and a student body I'm not sure I recognize.

It's an interesting observation to compare disciplines based on what practitioners list on their resumes. After all, artists list the collectors and collections who have bought their work, and the richer and more powerful the patron or institution, the better. Does this, on its own, tell us much about the complex relationship between art and capital in contemporary society? Clients are smart to ask who else you've worked for, and designers are smart to tell them.

Do we revere designers for "whom they have serviced?" The history I teach doesn't rate the design by the size of the client, and includes many images that hardly prostituted themselves to coprorate interests then or now. We look at designers' works and what they add to the "dialogue with those who have preceded [them]." This is a discourse very much alive with issues of meaning and materiality, life's instrumentality and alienation.

Designers don't necessarily "locate themselves" within branding or corporate identity. Unlike a building, which can change hands (PanAm/Sony), a corporate identity is custom tailoring that is inseparable from its host; indeed, it shapes and defines the virtual image which corporations, as social and legal constructs, require. Does this mean there is nothing more to graphic design than logos? I can't imagine David would argue as much, but his argument logically implies it.

My real concern is the idea that undergraduate design students are dumb to history. Yes, some show little sign of rapt absorption in their discipline's past, but I find most quite attentive, and some bordering on obsessive, about Tschichold, Dair, Heartfield and Sher. They understand that design, also a social construct, is its history. Meaning is rooted in mimesis, the repetition of past practices, and most young designers are quite keen to get ahold of the map.

Designers recognize when visual thinking survives into the present -- "that looks so '70s" can be an educated and meaningful statement, actually -- because that is precisely how we "engage in a dialogue with history." Is the problem that young designers do so little with that information? We might as well ask what has happened to the whole idea of visual culture as a history of progress, taking great avant-garde leaps forward.

I also see many graphic design students who are intensely keen on linking philosophy, literature, and science to their design practices. If they have trouble representing Beckett, well, Beckett's work was all about the existential trouble with representation, wasn't it? They have a great restlessness with received wisdom, and many turn to time-based graphics or photography precisely because they want to avoid a diet of "corporate formalities," and many refuse to be trained simply to fill existing slots in a (print-dominated) industry.

But I can't help feeling that the real target is not so much graphic design's specific complicities or failings, as the idea that visual culture as a whole (and surely architecture is hardly superior in this) has been subsumed in a global, capitalist Culture Industry. This is one of the themes that informs my teaching; it is simply a rational description of contemporary life, whatever your politics. Because so many design students are willing to explore that question, even as, with their other hand, they are listing their clients on their resumes, I find it hard to share David's pessimism about how much our students ask of themselves, or how much we should ask of them.

Brian Donnelly

"If you use a typeface without knowing who designed it, it is like sleeping with someone and not knowing their name."
Blimey - that could well be the most pretentious piece of crap I've ever heard.

Well 'blimey' seems pretentious to me, but then again I'm not English. It wasn't intended in that manner, just to point out that one way of using history in design is to align the history of your materials (ie typefaces) with the intent of your piece. I also intended to point out that likely no one would "get it" except for fellow designers, but that's not to say we shouldn't attempt it anyway.

Maybe you had to be there to appreciate the humor in the situation.
Christina W

A very interesting post and thread. I've long considered the relationship between the two disciplines, architecture and graphic design, and used to be convinced that the unprofessionalized state of the latter had a lot more to learn from the long history of the former than vice versa.

In some ways, the comparison of the two disciplines is valid. For both the 'end product' is always dependent upon its use, and the process of research, design development, and implementation are similar to each. Both processes require intellect and craft.

In other ways, its like comparing apples to oranges. Though buildings are more often now becoming 'brand statements' that demonstrate a corporate or civic body's dedication to design and culture, they are still specific objects. Graphic design is never an end product as its always a container of the essence of something else. The product of architecture (building) without a context or purpose will always still provide shelter and a space for human activity; the product of graphic design (carrier of communication) without a message or purpose quickly becomes irrelevant.

While I don't believe that architecture is necessarily superior to graphic design as an endeavor, I do think that architecture is more developed as both an academic discipline and an arena for celebrity. As an example, at Yale, the School of Architecture offers a research-based Master's in Environmental Design, while Graphic Design is a department within the Yale School of Art. Also, within architecture, there is the phenomenon of the "Starchitect" who is revered within and outside of the discipline. Authorship of a corporate identity by a certain designer rarely means anything to the general public. I believe all this has an effect on how students from each discipline 'learn to speak': Architects are trained to speak with big ideas and carry the big stick of their history; graphic designers are often advised to take business classes to learn how to 'sell' their ideas.

However, as Ellen Lupton alludes to, graphic designers now have the tools of both production and distribution literally at their fingertips. While a recent architecture graduate can toil for years drawing elevations of door handle types, graphic designers can in their first year in the workforce have work they have conceived, designed, and implemented distributed in the world. That's an incredible amount of agency for profession. The practice of architecture is extremely difficult; the practice of graphic design is so accesible that even amateurs on myspace can participate. Graphic design is much more immediately related to culture than architecture is. While many people in this thread place a lot of weight on the 'objectness' of architecture, the actual 'practice' of graphic design in many ways has a lot more immediate validity. It's sometimes a wonder to me that graphic designers lament the ephermality of the profession; for me its one of the more attractive traits.

In response to designers being identified through their client list and not their practice, I think this is too much of a generalization that it reflects either negativity or ignorance. The oft-cited IBM and I (heart) NY logos arent the only examples of achievements, and neither example is a reflection of a practice. As an obvious example of a studio or designer known for its practice, I think Pentagram is identified by their studio model more than any of their clients. Wim Crouwel and Karel Martens are identified through their specific preoccupations with typography and their dialogue with Modernism. Octavo, Lust, O-R-G, Paul Elliman, 2x4, Base, Irma Boom, and Mevis and Van Deursen are all examples of studios/designers who work (mostly) in the commercial and cultural sector and still have an identifiable preoccupation with different aspects of graphic design such as technology, art direction, environment, the book, identity, and typography. These preoccupations are not only developed through relationships with clients, but also visible across a body of work.

Without adding to the rising temperature in here, I wanted to gently throw in my two cents and address some of Mr. Cabianca's grievances -- a few of which I spend quite a bit of time considering as well.

So David, speaking as a designer who runs his own (small) firm, I can assert that some of us...

1. Think client lists are totally cheesy and ostentatious and inessential, and loathe having to present them (even when the list contains impressive names).

2. Would MUCH rather have the quality of our work represent us than the perceived prestige of a client roster. In the end, we'd greatly prefer building our reputations on -- and being remembered for -- the designs we created (and the merit of their functionality/expressiveness/service for the public) rather than who paid us.

3. Would thus feel that your statement "graphic designers prefer client recognition over accomplishments" just isn't true -- or at least isn't completely applicable to all of us. To my thinking, clients are a viable means to a constructive, logical end -- a practical, symbiotic relationship but nothing more glamorous than that.

4. Do a pretty darn good business for ourselves without broadcasting the names of our previous clients to the world. (Or at least tend to provide such information discretely and/or privately, when asked.)

5. Never had an academic background in this profession, and thus learned only by pouring through visual/graphics work through the ages, absorbing design history through acquired books, collections, websites, ephemera, etc., as well as many trips to libraries, book stores, junk shops, printers, galleries/museums, colleagues' studios, etc.

6. Remain voracious and unrelenting about learning design history -- and architectural history, art history, and the history of humanity in general -- and will happily spend the rest of our lives learning yet more.

Why? Because we love it.

7. Took a lot of college classes like (as you mention) "philosophy, women's studies, gender studies, comparative literature, African-American studies, and more" -- and concur that those probably have as much, if not greater, intrinsic value as a graphics class to any designer.

8. Personally couldn't care less about how our professional esteem stacks up against architects (even though some of us happen to be architecture nerds).

Okay, so I may only be speaking for a tiny, peculiar minority -- in fact, the only person I know I'm speaking for authoritatively is myself -- but I figured these (perhaps unpopular or, more likely, naive) perspectives should be voiced nonetheless.

Anyway, that's my long-winded way of saying don't lose hope, David. Some of us are, along with you, doing our best to expand our design horizons beyond the expectations and constraints of the profession's status quo -- even if, in doing so, we're often grappling in the dark. That's the nature of forging one's own path, I reckon.

Jon Resh

You know, I just came across something that seemed to be fairly popular in the '90's and early 2000's... "Information Architect" as an alternative label for graphic designer.

Does anyone still use this?
Christina W

Does anyone still use this?

The term "Information Architect" was introduced (or at least popularized) by Richard Saul Wurman as a label for designers who worked in the organization and delivery of information -- i.e. explanatory diagrams, wayfinding systems, user interfaces, data displays, etc. It didn't quite catch on, though not for lack of effort (RSW himself published a couple of books on the subject.)

These days it's most often used to describe a separate field associated with the web planning process. Check out boxes and arrows for more info on the practice.
Jose Nieto

It a funny thing to read this. Here's my opinion of the subject:

The fundamental difference here between Architecture and Graphic Design isn't so much in the mediums, intent or implied content by the producer (architect or designer as in this discussion) but seems to be mostly about the profession's ego. Graphic design long ago realized something that I think architecture could stand to pick up on and that is that people in general don't give a bunk about the history behind the produced piece. Most people respond to style and quality. A beutiful builing will get a positive reaction just as a well designed website or ad will garner great reviews... Graphic design is commercial work... "Commercial" that means it has one purpose, to convince the public to purchase or link mentally with said product or idea.

Also, it seems to me there are two types of commerical work. Work done to accomplish the goals & desires of the client or work done to satisfy the ego of the designer/architect.

One man's courage is another man's ego, it's all in how you approach it.

My 2 cents anyways...

Jobs | August 09