Style as learning. It is your first big assignment in design school. You know, or think you know, about problem solving. You know, or think you know, about communication. You know about composition, about white space, about kerning. But this is not enough. With all those issues addressed, there are still decisions to be made, decisions that seem perfectly, maddeningly arbitrary. What typeface? What color? Not what does it say, or how does it work, but what does it look like? These decisions, arbitrary though they are, have an oversized impact. How do you decide? Do you copy something you like? (Is that plagiarism?) Do you do something that no one else has ever done? (Is that even possible?) The blank piece of paper is overwhelming. You make your choices, and you look at the results. This is your first lesson in the power of style.
Style as destiny. Style was never discussed when I was a student. There was a vague sense that genuine style emerged unconsciously in its own time, like breasts or facial hair. Trying too hard would derail the process and result in something less than authentic. What a wonderful promise: within each of us is a unique voice that will reveal itself, but only through patience and practice. Use the force, Luke. Do or do not, there is no try.
Style as compulsion. Where does style come from? Put more broadly, why do people do what they do? Nature or nurture? Free will or intention? How much of our particular version of the design process is hardwired directly into our basic brain functions? The designer can’t help it.
Style as ideology. It is unnerving to some that certain design decisions, particularly those related to style, are motivated subconsciously. “I don’t know, I just like it that way,” doesn’t always work for teachers, bosses, clients and judges of design competitions. Thus we have the post-rationalizations of the style deniers. Ideology is the superego to style’s id.
Style as habit. At the outset of his political career, Barack Obama decided to wear nothing but dull blue, black and gray suits so he could focus his attention on more important things. Here is William James in 1877: “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”
Style as uniform. Charles Baudelaire: “Dress like a bourgeoisie, think like a revolutionary.”
Style as epithet. Stefan Sagmeister originated the easy-to-remember equation “Style = Fart.” He later said he no longer believed this, acknowledging that appropriate use of style could aid communication.
Style as crutch. Every great designer has a default mode that provides a solution when original thinking, for whatever reason, is impossible. This default mode, deployed with regularity, becomes associated with that designer’s unique personal style. Do not fear your default mode, but nor should you seek it. Simply know that there’s a safety net if you need it. Knowing that makes you less likely to need it.Style as assimilation. We are taught to value originality, to assume that the first goal of every design solution is differentiation. If you think that standing out in a crowd is a universal goal, take a look around. You will see few people sporting hula skirts or top hats. Instead, everyone is trying to fit in. Some design challenges have the same requirement. If you’re creating packaging for spaghetti sauce, you can make it jump out from the shelf by making it look like a bottle of shampoo. But people in the pasta aisle aren’t looking for shampoo. They’re looking for spaghetti sauce. And what makes spaghetti sauce look like spaghetti sauce is the aggregation of a hundred small stylistic cues that need to be understood and mastered. Once you know how to fit in, you can decide what it will take to break out.
Style as nemesis. Paul Rand almost never talked about or even acknowledged living graphic designers: his heroes tended to be European, usually obscure, and preferably dead. But in “Design, Form and Chaos,” he described the styles of some of his contemporaries, and one can almost imagining him spitting out the adjectives between clenched teeth: "squiggles, pixels, doodles; corny woodcuts on moody browns and russets; indecipherable, zany typography; peach, pea green, and lavender; tiny color photos surrounded by acres of white space." On the other hand, I remember being introduced to Rand’s work as a first year design student in 1975 and thinking it looked naïve and old fashioned.
Style as straightjacket. Philip Glass: “I know you’re all worried about finding your voice. Actually you’re going to find your voice. By the time you’re 30, you’ll find it. But that’s not the problem. The problem is getting rid of it.”
Style as rebellion. How to break out. If you’re right handed, draw with your left hand. Determine the most sensible, practical thing to do, and then do the exact opposite. Pick a color at random. Force yourself to use the typeface you hate the most. Take on a problem that you’ve never faced before. Overturn the game board and make up new rules based on where the pieces fall.
Style as substance. Oscar Wilde: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”
Style as groupthink. Everyone’s doing it, why can’t I? It’s difficult to resist the zeitgeist, particularly if it doesn’t even feel like the zeitgeist, but simply the way things are supposed to look these days. And then…
Style as timestamp. [Year] called, they want their [dated graphic trope] back. Oh, snap!
Style as denial. I don’t like to think I have an identifiable style, says the designer with the identifiable style. A way of working can become so comfortable that small differences can seem exaggerated. With surprising regularity, a designer is blind to the fact that it all looks alike, that the same patterns are being repeated over and over. The entire field of psychiatry exists to address this problem in daily life. At what point do you need professional help?
Style as trademark. You can identify an Emily Dickinson poem by the punctuation alone. There is an entire profession called “forensic linguistics;” its specialists can authenticate a Shakespeare sonnet or derive a criminal profile from a ransom note. What evidence are you leaving behind?
Style as narcissism. Or, falling in love with your own handwriting.
Style as disguise. Planner Andres Duany has said that the comforting style of New Urbanism — front porches, picket fences — is nothing more than the nostalgia-imbued Trojan Horse in which the radical planning ideas — no cars, tiny yards — are delivered. Mary Poppins: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Style as professionalism. Eero Saarinen’s motto was “The style for the job.” His design for the TWA Terminal was as different from his General Motors Technical Center was as different from his U.S. Embassy in London as air travel is from automotive engineering is from international diplomacy. Purists viewed him with suspicion, but he was enormously successful and made the cover of Time magazine. After his early death, his work seemed to date badly. Today, everyone loves the TWA Terminal.
Style as prostitution. The oldest profession(alism). Who would the client like me to be today? “I’m a whore,” Philip Johnson liked to admit, preempting any criticism.
Style as homage. The gala invitation done in the mode of the event’s honoree. At a party for architecture dean Jay Chatterjee, famously fond of bow ties, attendees were asked to wear bow ties.
Style as impersonation. It can be surprisingly satisfying to attempt to channel the voice of John Baskerville, or William Morris, or Alvin Lustig, or Robert Brownjohn. Satisfying and, to some, dangerously addictive. Like a painting student copying an old master at the Musee de Beaux Arts, Hunter S. Thompson once typed out the entire text of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He said he wanted to find out what it felt like to write a masterpiece.
Style as indulgence. Even at its emptiest, style can be a source of great pleasure. I work in a building that was constructed 100 years ago as a bank. In the basement, side by side, are two vaults. Each vault has a massive door manufactured by the Remington & Sterling Company, made of brass and steel, with a gleaming mechanism visible behind glass. Each door is covered with elaborate, hand-engraved filigree, graceful and exuberant, purely decorative, and destined to be — literally — locked away from public view, for the decoration is all on the inside. But that’s not the amazing thing. The amazing thing is that the doors have slightly different patterns. One is based on oak leaves. The other is based on maple leaves. It’s as if some craftsperson said back in 1912: these two doors for the job at 204 Fifth Avenue, are they right next to each other? I’d better make sure they’re different. The vault doors would work just fine without any decoration at all, of course. That makes the gift ever more special.
Style as style.
This essay was commissioned by Julia Hoffmann and Joe Marianek for the 2013 School of Visual Arts Senior Library, a book celebrating the best work of that year’s graduating class.