I have often wondered what a reality TV program about graphic design might be like. Would it feature, say, an imperious figurehead who could make or break the nascent career of a young designer? Would it be modeled on survivalism? On surveillance? On matchmaking? On makeovers? What tension-filled realities might be revealed over episodic time? Or, put another way: where's the drama in graphic design?
Of course, the beauty (and horror) of Reality TV is that drama is generally more of a consequence than a catalyst. To watch any of a number of these shows is to suddenly understand that there is, in fact, a little drama in everything we do. In truth, the effect of watching (let alone participating in) Reality TV is not unlike walking down the street with an iPod: suddenly, the most mundane activities have an accompanying soundtrack, and walking to the bus stop takes on a whole new meaning in your life.
The notion that such activities can conjure up tension-filled situations makes just about everything grist for the mill. Brushing your teeth? Sitting at your desk? Email? Junk Mail? The consumer availability of the crittercam (an attachable camera that can capture an animal's everyday experiences and its precise location) suggests even more opportunities to visualize and televise adventures in micro-scrutiny. And while we can pray for good editorial judgement to intercede, the reality of Reality TV is that such judgments are few and far between.
The tendency to self-edit, however, appears to be stronger in graphic designers than in television producers. And yet, the fascination with everydayness prevails. With honest intentions and perhaps a distant nod to Walter Benjamin, I see students routinely make work that celebrates the everyday: galvanized by the facility with which tiny, digital cameras make picture taking so effortless, they produce books and films and projects about street signage and garbage, an attempt to immortalize the ephemeral. It's graphic flanerie: the banal made big.
If Reality TV captures the banality of dating, job hunting, weight loss and obstacle courses, then how is the design of a beautiful book on garbage or signage really any different? (By the way, Candy Jernigan already did garbage. And Aaron Siskind already did signage. And long before the architecture of the everyday, Robert Venturi gave us ugly and ordinary.) Some have likened this obsession with the everyday to Walter Benjamin, though personally I have always felt that comparing images of graffiti to the experience of walking through a Parisian arcade is a bit of a stretch. Another reading suggests that this amplification of quotidian miscellany is a reaction to the over-democratization of design: put simply, if the tools of design make production available to everyone, then why not take the opposite approach and make a big deal out of the stuff everyone ignores by magnifying nonsense?
I would argue that the magnification of nonsense still demands scrutiny and understanding and, for lack of a better word, taste. Long before agile camerapeople trailed the corridors of NBC's fictitious West Wing, Robert Redford made movie history in Alan Pakula's 1976 film All The President's Men playing Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward: here, Redford raises the on-hold button to a new art form as he deftly volleys between two telephone calls in a single shot. He is on-screen for more than six minutes, and all of them are spent talking on the phone. Where's the drama in that? This turns out to be one of the critical moments in the entire film, which takes its cue from the real-life events that brought down the Nixon presidency. William Goldman's screenplay masterfully lyricizes a plot where the stakes are huge: this is, after all, the movie where Jason Robards (who later won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Post's Executive Editor Ben Bradlee) exclaims: "Nothing's riding on this except the first amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of this country." Hardly the banter of a average afternoon in the studio, but then again, in movie matters, the focus is rarely on the average.
Average may be what Reality TV is all about, but to a good designer, there may be more to life than this. True, Benjamin may have awakened our appreciation for strolling the arcades, but it was Baudelaire who rhapsodized this notion as "botanizing on the asphalt" and Balzac who transformed such observations into poetry. "To walk is to vegetate," he wrote. "To stroll is to live." This ability to transcend the everyday and resonate in the heart, the soul, the mind and the memorythis is graphic design's reality, a reality that is, by all indications, more than a sum of its parts, each one a moving target. Turns out we may find a use for that crittercam after all.