Graphic designers claim to want total freedom, but even in this intuitive, arbitrary, "creative" profession, many of us secretly crave limitations, standards, certainties. And certainties are a hard thing to come by these days.
I was reminded of this by several presentations at the AIGA's "Power of Design" conference in Vancouver a few weeks ago. Katherine McCoy's talk began with images of one of her own early projects, a corporation's rulebook for their janitorial crew. Kathy worked at Unimark at the time, and the piece was a classic example of High Modernism: sans serif typography on a three-column grid, subheads flush left in the first column hung beneath 1 point rules, geometric icons and diagrams. Emil Ruder would have been proud. Kathy showed it to set the stage for a thoughtful presentation that urged designers to be more sensitive to the vernacular of the subcultures with which we communicate, to not force Ulm and Basel down the unwilling throats of people we would never bother getting to know personally. The implication was: can you believe we used to believe this kind of stuff?
God only knows what all those janitors made of all that Swiss modernism. Moreover, Swiss modernism is so dead that I'm not even sure what those twenty-somethings in the Vancouver audience 30 years later made of it: probably they were wondering "Who is Emil Ruder and why is he ripping off Experimental Jetset?" As for me, I was remembering -- with no small amount of longing -- those days when everything seemed so clear. Working for Massimo Vignelli in 1980, I had no doubt whatsoever that the purpose of graphic design was to improve the life of every person on earth beyond measure by exposing him or her to Helvetica on a three-column grid. That was certainty, and it made design into a crusade.
But that certainty wasn't long for this world, and it was replaced by a series of others with ever-shorter shelf lives. For instance: the purpose of graphic design is to provide graphic designers with a medium of self-expression (great for designers with something to express, not-so-great for designers with access to a lot of Photoshop filters). Or, the purpose of graphic design is to change the world by subverting the goals of its corporate patrons (Tibor Kalman, we hardly knew ye.) Or, the purpose of graphic design is to provide a medium for designers to act as "authors" (see the previous two certainties). For what was great about Swiss modernism was that anyone could do it. You didn't have to have an authorial point of view, political conviction, or even be particularly talented.
But at another presentation, I glimpsed what perhaps will be a starting point for a new certainty, perhaps the ultimate one. Michael Braungart, author with William McDonough of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, talked about how graphic designers are contributing to the destruction of the environment. Braungart is not a designer. He's a chemist. At one point in his presentation, he displayed a chart that described the precise amount of toxic elements in a single ink color. You felt the audience, 2000-plus strong, draw a collective breath. Here, at last, was true certainty: the promise that every piece of graphic design, each an amalgam of dozens of arbitrary, intuitive, "gee, this looks right to me" decisions, could be put into a centrifuge, broken down into its constituent parts, and analyzed for the harm it could do to our environment.
Of course, with certainty comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes power, which, after all, is what those 2000 attendees had come to Vancouver to find out about. And what greater power than to discover forensic proof that even this seemingly harmless profession has the capacity to inflict damage, as well as to do good? Now we can think, as did J. Robert Oppenheimer upon seeing that his atomic bomb really worked, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," each time we specify PMS 032. And, like Oppenheimer, we may find that power isn't all it's cracked up to be.