One byproduct of the exchange that followed Rick Poynor's recent post on Neville Brody was the chance it gave us to revisit two classic pieces of critical design writing. One was Brody's collaboration with cultural critic Stuart Ewen, "Design Insurgency." The other was Tibor Kalman's collaboration with writer Karrie Jacobs, "We're Here to Be Bad." Both were scathing analyses of the relationship of the design profession and the forces of corporate commercialism. Both were calls for awareness and resistance.
And both had their roots in a conference that occurred fifteen years ago in San Antonio, Texas, where Brody, Kalman, Ewen and Jacobs all spoke: 1989's "Dangerous Ideas," the third biennial conference of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. John Emerson, the Design Observer reader who sent the above link to his online version of the Ewen/Brody piece, said in an offline exchange, "I had no idea the AIGA was wrestling with (or at least presenting) these ideas back then," and added, "It makes me wonder how far back these ideas go and how the debate has changed."
Each AIGA conference is, to a certain extent, a reaction to the one that immediately precedes it. The 1987 conference in San Francisco was criticized as lifeless and flat; one of the main stage presentations was about what kind of health insurance was right for design studios. At an AIGA board meeting in its aftermath, the two board members who were most critical of it were the renowned Milton Glaser, and a younger designer who was more of an unknown quantity, Tibor Kalman. Dared to put up or shut up, they were appointed to co-chair the next conference.
They gave it something the first two conferences didn't have, a theme, "Dangerous Ideas." Milton, who had been interested for some time in questions of personal ethics in our profession, proposed a number of thoughtful explorations of those themes. Tibor shared those concerns but also seemed to have a more-or-less irresistible compulsion to simply disrupt the complacency of the graphic design world by any means necessary. Tibor took the theme seriously, and even literally; when a designer-led boogie band was proposed for the entertainment at the closing party, Tibor objected: not dangerous enough. (He lost.)
The conference itself had its ups and downs, as all conferences do. But unlike the previous AIGA convocations, which had alternated between the celebratory and the practical, there was a recurring note of criticism and self-doubt. Stuart Ewen provided his critical analysis of the social, economic and political power of the "style industry." Erik Spiekermann's presentation was entitled "Hamburger and Cultural Imperialism: A World View." Karrie Jacobs began her talk on environmentalism by telling the audience, "Everything you do is garbage." And there was one, oddly recurring motif.
Earlier in 1989, Minneapolis's Joe Duffy had sold his design firm to the then-high-flying, publicly-traded British design firm The Michael Peters Group. In the wake of that sale, the merged entity had taken out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal that simultaneously proffered their services and made a case for the value of design to business, including the claim that "...as more and more competitive products become more and more alike, a good package can become a package good's best if not only point of difference."
The Duffy ad was the talk of the conference. I suspect the rank-and-file was actually rather impressed with it. I certainly was. No other design firm had ever done anything as audacious as taking out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal, for God's sake. But to the conference organizers and speakers, who had come to San Antonio with weapons fully loaded, the Duffy ad gave them what they didn't have until that moment: a fat, juicy target. As I recall, Ewen and Brody both mentioned it. Tibor read the passage quoted above from the stage and illustrated it by juxtaposing cans of Diet 7-up and Diet Sprite. Graphic design never seemed more trivial, and it set up his ringing conclusion: "We're not here to help clients eradicate everything of visual interest from the face of the earth. We're here to make them think about what's dangerous and unpredictable. We're here to inject art into commerce. We're here to be bad."
Joe Duffy, bright, polished and articulate, was at the conference too. Finally, he had had enough, and asked for equal time. A hastily-scrawled sign was posted announcing an unscheduled debate: "TIBOR: YOU AND ME. TODAY. 5:15. BREAKOUT ROOM G. JOE." That afternoon, the room was standing room only. Tibor had arranged the chairs in a circle. He and Duffy stood in the middle, circling each other like gladiators. It was pure theater, and more memorable for that than for anything that was said. The arguments, like the setting, were circular. As in the Kennedy-Nixon debates, this one seemed to be more about style than substance; unlike Kennedy and Nixon, the swarthy guy in the ill-fitting suit seemed to get the upper hand. At one point, I made my own unconstructive observation: "It seems to me that both of you do the same thing, except Tibor feels guilty about it." Tibor called me when we were back in New York and yelled at me for breaking ranks. (I stand by my comment, except I've come to appreciate the transformative power of guilt - or let's just call it responsibility - more than I did fifteen years ago.)
It all sounds legendary now, but as I remember it, the crowd wasn't as galvanized as you'd think. People were baffled by Stuart Ewen's Marxism and irritated by the fact he didn't show any slides. Tibor's ringing conclusion failed to get a standing ovation: the audience had been hoping for something funnier. And Brody, the closest thing we had then to a rock star, wore the requisite black but spoke thoughtfully and quietly about our role in society, not about how he did those cool Face covers. Ewen's keynote was called "Design Notes for the New Millenium." Like the whole conference, the title was ten years ahead of its time.