Duran Duran, album cover of "Rio," 1982.
A few weeks ago, in a moment of distracted curiousity, I decided to look up "graphic design" on Wikipedia. Some of you have probably done this already. Maybe those of you who teach, looking for a basic overview of the discipline to share with your students, have looked it up. Maybe those of you in school, or recently out of school, attempting to explain to your parents what it is you want to do with your life, have looked it up. But I had not.
I was expecting to read a dry, unimaginative definition of "graphic design," and I got one. I was also expecting to see a little American modernism, and I got that, too. What I did not expect to see was an album ranked #1 on CMJ's "Top 20 Most-Played Albums of 1982." But, inexplicably, there it was: beneath Saul Bass's iconic poster for "The Man with the Golden Arm" on the Wikipeda entry for "graphic design" was the cover of Duran Duran's synthpop classic, "Rio."
At this discovery, my boredom turned first to amusement, and then to sustained, studio-distracting laughter.
Wikipedia can sometimes be a funny thing. Not "gee-whiz" funny but "ha-ha" funny. The biography of Count Chocula was funny. (Wikipedians have since taken it down.) And the overview of the "five-second rule" is funny too. But generally, when you find yourself laughing out loud at an encyclopedia, it's either time to call the encyclopedia something else, or, as the case of Count Chocula demonstrates, it's time for a rewrite.
What makes the Wikipedia entry on "graphic design" funny starts with the inclusion of "Rio," and what makes "Rio" funny is that it's a visual punch line: you never saw it coming. (From the Wikipedia entry on "punch lines": "Punch lines generally derive their humor from being unexpected.")
The humor doesn't stop there, though. Continuing down the right-hand column of the entry, we get a bit of political satire with a photo of Air Force One whose caption reads in part, "the US flag, presidential seal, and the lettering were all graphically designed at different times and combined in this one design." Graphically designed? The caption goes on to empower us all, explaining that there are "virutally no limits to the size and applications of graphic design." Or as Groucho Marx once said, "Humor is reason gone mad."
A bit of farce comes next: the not-so-iconic Book of Kells, "Folio 114v," appears below Air Force One and gets a special mention in the main text to the left, which explains, "The Book of Kells is a very beautiful and very early example of graphic design." Has anyone ever heard of this? The Book of Kells's own entry on Wikipedia, most likley authored by the same writer who appended this shout-out, is a hefty 6,500 words I think someone needs to get off his soapbox (and throw this entry a Gutenberg Bible in the meantime).
Following the Book of Kells is a Cassandre poster of the SS Normandie (close, but no cigar). After that is Milton Glaser's very worthy "I Love New York" logo and Jamie Ried's also-worthy "Never Mind the Bollocks" album cover for the Sex Pistols. Rounding out the column is a photo of pencils and markers, because "pencils and markers may be used to develop graphic design ideas," and a screenshot of Adobe Illustrator CS2, a "popular application used by many graphic designers." It's hard to argue with either of these statements, but the images still feel so... funny. I can't seem to make myself see them as they were obviously intended to be seen. Why are the markers so cheap-looking? Why are they arranged in that weird starburst pattern? What was this graphic designer intending to draw with them? What is that crazy smoking mouse doing in the Illustrator screenshot? And do we need either of these photos anyway, or would their captions alone suffice? My mental Art Director will not shut up and play along.
This, of course, is the problem with images in general, and with images in a visually-driven field in particular. Unlike broad encyclopedia definitions, images are specific. And in a visual discipline, they're the actual subject matter itself. This isn't a "constitutional monarchy" we're talking about, it's Futura. The c-word canon quickly comes up here. What are graphic design's greatest hits? Because while the entry's text can afford to be a little rough around edges (and it is), unfortunately its images cannot.
It's no wonder that under the "Discussion" tab of the entry you can find comments like these: "This entry is terrible I have just created a Wikipedia account purely to fix this page," and "Quite frankly it's an embarrassment to the industry." A few brave souls have even decided to undertake that rewrite I was talking about, creating the "Graphic Design WikiProject" to coordinate the effort. (And, of course, there is the graphic design Wiki sponsored by Speak Up.)
Where to start? Personally, I like a very simple definition I read last week from the AIGA's Executive Director Ric Grefé. Speaking about the AIGA's redesigned website, he praised its creators for understanding "the pillars of great design: empathy and usefulness." Neither too vague nor too specific, Grefé's definition leaves the door wide open, uniting design's past with its future, and putting the experience of design at the center of its definition. The anonymous authors at Wikipedia may have made an unwitting joke, but perhaps we can avoid making design the punch line.
Rob Giampietro is a principal at Giampietro+Smith, a design firm based in New York City. Rob is also an adjunct faculty member at Parsons School of Design and a regular columnist for BusinessWeek Online.