Graphic Design Needs a New Revolution
“Every generation needs a new revolution.” —Thomas Jefferson
In the early nineties, desktop publishing dramatically changed how designers approached their work. Typesetting and pasting together comps became a thing of the past. The work began to take shape on screens. But bringing desktop publishing to the masses also induced a fear that the careers of working designers would become irrelevant. The tools of the trade were now available to all, prompting designers to rethink their own approaches.
Around the same time, a surfer-turned-designer in southern California named David Carson started designing the alternative arts and music magazine Ray Gun. Never formally trained in design, Carson used desktop publishing programs to experiment with typography and layouts that matched the irreverance of the magazine’s content, including the now-famous article he set entirely in Dingbat. Looking at Carson and others’ emerging style built around this freedom the computer provided, Steven Heller wrote a scathing piece for Eye Magazine titled The Cult of Ugly where he wrote this new work had a “self-indulgence that informs some of the worst experimental fine art.”
I was so enraptured by the latest episode of 99% Invisible this morning that I’ve already listened to it twice. The episode looked at Wallace Neff’s “bubble houses” and it is completely fascinating.
Wallace Neff—an architect I had never heard of until today—was known for designing homes for celebrities in the 1930s. At the end of World War II, anticipating a housing shortage, Neff developed an idea for low-cost housing using air. With a new building method called airform, Neff designed these bubble houses that were twice as strong as concrete. Though Neff tried to create bubble house communities, the idea never took off and all have been demolished except for the one Neff lived in himself, located in Pasedena, CA. Looking at them now, they still have a strange, futuristic feel to them. It’s a shame many are no longer standing.
Listen to the whole episode—it’s a good one.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Graphic Design
“I am a designer—linguist Roman Jakobson famously quipped that asking a writer about literature was like asking an elephant about zoology—so I am inherently unqualified to talk about design.” —Michael Rock1
I’m starting to think I don’t really even know what graphic design is anymore. Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself reflecting on the graphic design profession—what we do and how we do it, our individual and collective output, and our contribution to the culture at large. I tend to turn thoughts like these over in my head every couple months—usually through the lens of my own work—but this time the thoughts were more severe, the thinking more expansive. The graphic design profession keeps getting wider and wider, our role constantly in flux, taking on new ever-changing responsibilities not to mention the occasional identity crisis (Graphic artist? Visual Communicator? Information Architect?) We can now spend just as much time designing systems and interfaces as we do typefaces and illustrations. Graphic designers can now work with moving images, interactions and sound just as much as line, color, and texture. I’m starting to think none us really know what graphic design is anymore. We’re just making it up as we go.
"Every new book I read comes to be a part of that overall and unitary book that is the sum of my readings. This does not come about without some effort: to compose that general book, each individual book must be transformed, enter into a relationship with the other books I have read previously, become their corollary or development or confutation or gloss or reference text."
—Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler
I’m moving to Brooklyn next week so my current apartment is in various states of disarray—the living room is empty save for a few boxes; the kitchen is cleaned and organized, each utensil and gadget categorized and placed in its respective box to make the move easier; the bedroom looks sparse, every surfaced washed of its life. Every surface except for the bookshelf.
I’ve been saving the bookshelf for last. If it wasn’t for my collection of books, I wouldn’t have much to pack at all. Aside of general living expenses, most of my money goes towards books. When I moved to New York a year ago, I had to decide what I could bring with me to my new, smaller apartment. My books automatically made the cut. I wanted to be near them, surrounded by them.
And now it’s time to pack them again to move across the river.
Angela Riechers, writing for Imprint, questions the use of nostalgia and skeuomorphic elements in design:
Maybe we pine for outdated mechanical items because featherweight digital objects and applications lack soul. Quickly obsolete (the average lifespan for digital products is 18 months before a new version becomes available), they acquire no patina, remaining devoid of the gentle signs of wear and tear that prove they were used and even loved. The Singer Company’s 160th-anniversary limited-edition sewing machine—made mostly of plastic, with digital components—borrows its look from the company’s iconic cast-iron machines from decades past. There’s no significant downside, looks-wise; the anniversary edition is a lovely homage to the Singer heritage. But consider how many Singers from the early part of last century are still in use today, working flawlessly—then try to imagine this latest version still operational in 2112. Its nostalgic design is tinged with even more sadness than usual; it becomes an unintentional memorial to a vanished age of durable products.
This is an interesting thought. One look at a few of Apple’s iOS apps and you’ll see old desk calendars, spiral bound address books, old school microphones, and leather notebooks. As we transition more and more of our interactions to screens, we design those screens to echo the analog way of doing things. This provides an interesting challenge for designers. We’ve been given the opportunity to develop new modes of interaction, new standards and iconography, new reference points, yet we are largely relying on the past to dictate where we go.
I’m reminded of an old article by Michael Bierut on the design of baseball stadiums, pieces of architecture steeped in tradition and nostalgia but lacking any sort of innovation in recent years:
We all know that baseball fans love their nostalgic ballparks, and I certainly like the human scale and sense of place that the best of these venues provide. But do those values always have to arrive smothered in old fashioned wrappings? Sooner or later someone has to take a risk on something new.
Perhaps the problem is that we stopped believing both in a better future and in design’s ability to further it. The thread is broken; terrorists have shoe bombs and bioweapons, and we’ve lost hope in the promises of flying cars and glittering cities hovering in the sky. The world’s climate and environment seem headed on a crash course to ruin. And so we cling to design that relentlessly references days gone by because we know what to expect—the scary challenge of the new has been removed from the equation. We seem to want design to give us the reassurance found in the recognizable.
Design is about movement. It’s about building a new future and a better tomorrow. I long for the past — the easier times, the vintage photos, the classy suits, the sound of a cassette rewinding — just as much as the next person but is this longing preventing us from moving forward, from developing new systems in which to interact?
Caught in Suspension
"Nostalgia, it’s delicate, but potent, it’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved."
—Don Draper, pitching a campaign to Kodak in an episode of Mad Men
Sometimes it’s the crisp morning air as I leave for work; I take a deep breath, inhaling a memory lost in time. Other times it comes with the music, the melody triggering something deep in my bones, reviving a distant memory. There are only brief moments in life where one feels they are in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people. It’s these moments that remind us what it is like to be alive.
We long to hold on to these moments, but we’re caught in the suspension of the present—hanging between the past and the future. Each moment that passes is gone forever, never returning to us. Times doesn’t return. All we can do is move forward.
We make art to imagine a better tomorrow, to build new worlds, to anticipate the future, but in the process of making, we end up documenting our histories. “The moment just past is extinguished forever,” wrote George Kubler, “save for the things made during it.” Our art eases that suspension, delicately balancing our history and our future. And maybe that’s the paradox of art, it’s created to give us a glimpse of the future, but is forever locked in a moment just past. Our art, then, becomes mile markers in our stories, keeping record of where we’ve been, creating a carousel, allowing us to travel backwards and forwards all at once.
It’s like when you scan your bookshelf and realize the tattered spines tell just as much about your story as the author’s. Or when that song comes on and you suddenly find yourself somewhere else. The things we surround ourselves with—our books, our music, our art, our objects—they all hold a piece of our story.
Time may never return and memory can be fleeting, but the art we create allows us to hold on to that nostalgia, to keep it close. As I was preparing images for my new portfolio site a few weeks ago, I found myself looking at work I’d done years ago and photographs I forgot I had taken. I was reminded of the late nights in college, hunched over my computer perfecting each project. I could feel the Spring air as I would walk to class each morning, as I prepared to graduate. These pieces are now forever tied to a memory, to a specific time. The art we make become much more profound when we realize they are the only tangible items we have to mark our journey.
The weather has been unusually warm in New York this week. I left my apartment building for work on Wednesday morning and as I stepped outside, a sense of nostalgia swept over me with the same Spring-like air I felt looking at my old work just a few weeks earlier. The past and future coming together in one instant. I breath in and am reminded of what it feels like to be alive. As I walked to catch the train, the sound of birds singing rose higher than the morning commute traffic.