Being a great designer has nothing to do with your ability to identify typefaces, or color theory, or how you construct and use a grid system. Instead, great designers are informed and engaged citizens—individuals who understand the history of our society and world, the consequences of those histories, and have opinions that influence their actions of the present day. They build practices in which their citizenship informs their practice and vice versa. But for a majority of us, graphic design history is taught as a slideshow of images, addressing only period styles and the names of famous designers. Educator and philosopher Paulo Freire called this form of pedagogy the “banking model” of education—a metaphor for students as containers into which educators place knowledge.1 Freire argued that this model reinforces a lack of critical thinking and knowledge ownership in students, which in turn reinforces oppression. Students and designers get nothing from this “banking model” of education other than a fetish for nostalgia and commodification.
The publisher Standards Manual is guilty of exploiting this fetishization by reprinting and overpricing vintage brand guideline books that were never meant to be sold in the first place. What are people (designers or laypeople) of the contemporary world supposed to gain from viewing these commodified artifacts? A better understanding of how these manuals use outdated practices? An understanding that corporations and clients rule our sensibilities when it comes to play within our design process? Standards Manual are certainly not approaching the production or the purpose of these “artifacts” in such a critical manner.2 Instead, they are capitalizing on graphic design’s love for nostalgia and superficiality, a product of how we teach and view the profession and discipline’s history. Standards Manual’s reprint of the 1977 Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards System manual, in particular, irks me. To capitalize on the EPA name, and consequently stimulating a conversation about vintage aesthetics, especially at a time when the Trump Administration and the EPA’s director Scott Pruitt are dismantling laws and regulations in order to line their and lobbyists’ pockets with more money, is despicable.
Graphic design history is also seen as a vital form of highlighting the fundamentals of the discipline. For example, the work of the Bauhaus or Massimo Vignelli have been vital to the formation of design and should definitely be viewed for novelty’s sake, but graphic design is now a discipline—it’s no longer trying to find its foundation as it was in the past. What graphic design needs to be doing now is evolving its foundation, staying current with the world and its people. Putting a focus on the memorization of outdated Bauhaus principles or branding guidelines of 40 years past doesn’t improve the culture or aesthetics we construct today. We’re living in the hastily evolving 21st century in which the exchange of knowledge has been easily disseminated by the internet. The fundamentals of graphic design can easily be obtained by anyone who has an interest and a passion to do so. Knowledge of the Bauhaus or Massimo Vignelli’s work isn’t mindless baggage, but their practices and works addressed the issues of their time, not ours.
Additionally, Paul Rand’s work—maybe the most prevalent name during the most idolized period of design—has formulated contemporary graphic design as a conservative and commodified construct: no play, no opinions, no dissent—only a pursuit of perfection, clarity, and certainty, all aspects that no one would ever use to describe the world we lived in then or now. Perfection is in the opinion of the viewer, clarity doesn’t always mean strictness or minimalism, and certainty should never be a goal (an urge to inquire, on the other hand, should). I struggle to see many designers questioning the thinking and ordering of the world and instead I see them trying to fit into the profession of graphic design, consequently creating a homogenous world after they willing abandon the idiosyncratic sensibilities and traits of their practices. For a man who had a tantrum when a woman, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, was hired to replace him as the director of graduate studies at Yale University after he retired, I’m not sure Paul Rand and his elitist work and ethos are what designers should be obsessing over or aspiring to be. In addition, there is a severe lack of female and international designers, works, and voices in the graphic design historical canon. Tadanori Yokoo’s visceral work, Maureen Mooren’s acutely conceptual work, and Bretteville’s humanitarian-centric design work and open-minded education curriculum have done more to make our society feel inclusive, diverse, and thought-provoking than Rand and other white men of the celebrated graphic design canon—their contributions of corporate branding and dogmatic modernist principles only perpetuate our capitalist, yes-men society.
Moreover, modernist principles regard a design not as a proposal but as a prescription,3 and those writings of the past were made to direct and shape a profession and discipline still trying to find its footing. Michael Rock’s 1996 essay Designer As Author, for example, was written to question a time in which technological advances with desktop publishing deconstructed the distinct roles of a graphic designer, typesetter, type designer, et cetera, and allowed authorship with those new design tools to be an avenue for anyone. So why is it still gospel for contemporary designers? It’s bullshit to talk about “designer as author” or “designer as whatever” idioms within the context of the present day because they state the obvious—as a graphic designer you should be editing, curating, instilling a point a view and so much more. More importantly, does it not concern designers that there is a severe lack of contemporary and substantial graphic design theory—writing and dialogs that go beyond Fast Company articles about how Google kerned its logo or AIGA Eye On Design designer showcase blog entries? Rereading 1990s design criticism can be fun or inspiring to look back on, but the legibility wars and modernism versus postmodernism debates are no longer a part of our present day profession. We can’t expect Andrew Blauvelt, Lorraine Wild, Jeffery Keedy and the rest of the Emigre squad to be the only voices willing to write or discuss design criticism.
Designers strive to make timeless work, but the output is usually viewed through the lens of style and therefore is a product of its time and place of conception. What is timeless are the histories of business, law, politics, ecology, environmental science, and many others because they are built on theories and tested formulas. Not being exclusive in their understanding of the functionality of the world, these fields have realized that design is the “central metaphor of our time” and have begun to teach design within the curriculums of business schools, law schools, and so many other schools of thought.4 So why doesn’t graphic design reciprocate those feelings? Having a critical understanding and opinions about these fields—who also happen to be clients for many designers—would help inform how graphic design fits within a myriad of cultural contexts while also strengthening and amplifying the relationships between designers, clients, and audiences. Furthermore, if design education were to teach the history of fields other than graphic design, using practices established by Freire that treat students as “co-creators of knowledge” (a truer version of “designer as authors”), it would inspire designers to leave their bubbles of exclusivity and engage in conversation and activism with publics they share the world with.
At this point it should be noted that I’m not advocating for graphic design’s history to be completely abandoned and forgotten. History in general should never be ignored—as the old adage goes, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. To simply abandon graphic design’s history would be ignorant of the fact that improving the present world needs to happen in parallel with an understanding of its history. But there is a difference between referencing history and perpetuating history. A great example of this parallel model can be seen in the work Hagen Verleger did at the Van Eyke Academy. After realizing that the labs and workplaces of the academy were named after men, Verleger created way-finding signage that would be situated adjacent to the current signage except it would use female names. Verleger also rearranged the academy’s library so that all books with male authors or editors had their spines facing inward on the shelves. This revealed a lack of books written or edited by women within the academy’s library. Verleger’s signage is now a permeant fixture throughout the campus and the academy’s library has now devoted its efforts to diversify it’s catalog. If Verleger painted over the pervious signage or removed the male-centric books from the library shelves, the argument would have been diminished because there would have been nothing there to inform viewers of how the past has constructed our present and future. It also worth noting that Verleger is a young designer who is better situated to address contemporary issues than an old-guard designer looking for publicity and quick cash to keep themselves relevant.
(As an aside, old-guard graphic designers have every right to run their practices as they see fit, but there is also responsibility that comes with their celebrity status. To revisit Michael Rock’s “central metaphor” quote, graphic design has seeped beyond its borders. What bothers me is that the old-guard isn’t seizing this opportunity in which the public sphere sees the significance of graphic design and are taking an interest in the field. Instead the old guard, our supposed leaders, fall to the pressure of commerce and milk the defining visual traits that gave them, as individuals, celebrity status.)
The argument to study design history through a political and sociological lens in parallel to the present day has always been alive, its just rarely acted upon, especially by celebrity designers with the loudest voices. Designers need to include more history into their daily practices, but to me that doesn’t mean referencing or imitating major case studies or period styles of the past. Instead of a memorized homogenous design history, our personal memories can be frequented source material. When constructed within a vernacular context, our memories reveal our honest and personal strengths and weaknesses. These memories, most likely, will also be certain shared experiences, and by giving form to these truths graphic design output can be much more relatable for a wider audience. The aforementioned lack of diversity (e.g. people of color and women) problem within the graphic design canon, I believe, stems from the white privilege, systematic racism, and sexism that construct the United States’ past, present, and future. An honesty-driven approach within our practices is a simple and direct solution to instilling empathy within the discipline. It’s similar to a 2016 study, reported by German Lopez of Vox:
Researchers stumbled on a radical tactic for reducing another person’s bigotry: a frank, brief conversation. The study, authored by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley, looked at how simple conversations can help combat anti-transgender attitudes. In the research, people canvassed the homes of more than 500 voters in South Florida. The canvassers, who could be trans or not, asked the voters to simply put themselves in the shoes of trans people—to understand their problems—through a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation. The hope was that the brief discussion could lead people to reevaluate their biases. It worked. The trial found not only that voters’ anti-trans attitudes declined but that they remained lower three months later, showing an enduring result. And those voters’ support for laws that protect trans people from discrimination increased, even when they were presented with counterarguments for such laws.5
Canvassing is an uncomfortable act for both the canvasser and the public being canvassed, but there is a great deal of potential to learn and gain empathy within the construct of discomfort. That said, I can’t think of a better way to sustain discomfort with designers’ practices than to include the public within graphic design discourse and forums. As design history professor Michael J. Golec has proposed:
I have very often heard graphic designers remark that the role of the graphic designer is to "educate" the client on the value of graphic design. Wouldn't it be an ideal situation if clients came to graphic designers already familiar with the cultural, social, and political relevance of graphic design, because of having attended courses on the history of graphic design? One step towards accomplishing this ideal would be to adopt a more inclusive attitude towards what constitutes an audience for the history of graphic design.6
Too often design is dismissive of its audiences. It has lead to work that audiences don’t trust7 or don’t feel a connection to8, yet graphic designers trivially obsess over critiquing said work. I believe including the public as a voice in our discourse would lead to a profession that is less contemptuous for designers, clients, and audiences. I’m not saying that clients and audiences should boss designers around, but letting them direct conversations—about their needs (rather than us tell them what their needs are) or proposals for inclusivity, for starters—would allow designers to truly construct culture and aesthetics that are progressive and for their audiences, rather than eye candy that feeds graphic designers’ self-preservation mentality. Clients and lay-people want sophisticated and intellectual work, and to treat them like philistines obstructs that pursuit. The blame as to why clients pick boring concepts or lay-people don’t grasp a concept falls on designers and how we treat them and what we feed them, which is usually an offshoot of the banality we feed ourselves. When our practices aren’t sophisticated or intellectual and our solutions are nothing but a layer of sheen on a problem, what else are clients to expect from graphic design?
Lastly, much of what we place within the graphic design canon seems to be classified as “perfect” or “handsome,” terms that are completely subjective, and designers striving for these labels lead the profession to the pursuit of toxic, elitist banality. So I’m curious if another form of design artifacts can enter the canon of graphic design history and if the study of said artifacts would benefit the field, instill a sense of urgency to study graphic design history through the aforementioned critical lens or give a platform to more progressive voices. As D.I.Y. tools such as Squarespace or affordable Photoshop-esque apps become everyday tools for the public, I propose that we begin to study the vernacular graphic design output and artifacts made by the public. Although clients provide designers project briefs, designers should and need to be designing for audiences not their clients. Therefore would we better understand our audiences and publics if we understood why they make what they make with D.I.Y. tools?
By studying vernacular design I believe that we may be confronted with the fact that laypeople are more creative than we give them credit for when their true vernacular—rather than their attempt to copy—is revealed through the ephemera and branding they create on their own. During my time at Cranbrook Academy of Art, on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, I love to see vernacular logos for diners, automotive garages, credit unions, and so many other utilitarian establishments. While it could be argued that this is my personal taste, many of these artifacts inform my design practice: the choice of typefaces, the way that those typefaces may or may not be manipulated, the juxtaposition of imagery and typography, et cetera. Regardless of whether it is “good” or “bad,” these works instill feelings within me: happiness, humor, inspiration, disgust, and everything in-between. Why shouldn’t design be as expressive and visceral as the fine arts? Design that strives to be invisible, or is afraid to be an art form, or is afraid to show a slight hint of sincerity and naivety, advocates for oppression upon it’s audiences and itself as a profession. Artist/designer John Heartfield’s anti-nazi/fascism photomontages have done more to inspire collectivity and emotion than Rand’s iconic IBM branding. See Red Women’s Workshop posters may be vernacular, and their practitioners non-designers, but their practice established an alternative definition for publishing: a social process “where issues and ideas can be articulated and acted upon, where skills are exchanged and knowledge co-produced.”9 To quote Peter Hall’s The Uses of Failure lecture:
We don’t need to justify design’s importance to the world or to the art establishment. We need to look into how design works and where it is going wrong. We need a new generation not to venerate design but to sniff out failure.10
Graphic design history is fine for reminiscing, but to study it in such a manner has lead the profession to commodify and worship banality rather than instill an urgency to inquire about progressivism. “The core of [the] profession is analysis: a critical eye.” Quoting Max Bruinsma, “Every design, in essence, is a criticism of the context for which it has been produced. A good design ‘activates’ those contexts by offering an understanding of, a comment on, or an alternative to, them.”11 When navel gazing defines the discipline, its output, and its history, it’s proof that the profession has abandoned its morals and principles to constructing a more just and inclusive world.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire. ↩︎
In Standards Manual’s own words: “We strive to archive and preserve lost artifacts of design history and make them available to future generations. Being designers ourselves, we value high quality books. As an independent publisher, we are able to produce our books using only the finest papers, printing, and finishing methods. We don’t cut corners when it comes to quality.” https://standardsmanual.com/pages/about ↩︎
An Ideal Design is Not Yet, by Max Bruinsma. ↩︎
Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them. https://www.vox.com/identities/2016/11/15/13595508/racism-trump-research-study ↩︎
One Publishes to Find Comrades, by Eva Weinmayr. ↩︎
An Ideal Design is Not Yet, by Max Bruinsma. ↩︎