Does anyone devote as much energy to avoiding simple, sensible solutions as the modern graphic designer?
Among the design professions, graphic design is an embarrassingly low-risk enterprise. Our colleagues in architecture, industrial design and fashion design are tormented by nightmares of smoldering rubble, brutally hacked off fingers, and embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions. We graphic designers flirt with...paper cuts. Thus liberated from serious threats, we invent our own: skating on the edge of illegibility, daring readers to navigate indecipherable layouts, and concocting unlikely new ways to solve problems that don't actually exist.
Our daredevil ambitions are never so roused as when we're our own audience. The latest case can be found in the new issue of the otherwise exemplary publication I.D. There, faced with the seemingly simple challenge of faithfully reproducing the winners of their annual design competition, the magazine's creators have opted to take the hard way out. Swerving wildly to avoid the obvious, they've driven right off the cliff of coherence.
Let me say this straight out: I love I.D., I really do. Julie Lasky is a great editor — and a Design Observer contributor to boot — who has produced some of the best issues ever in that estimable journal's long history. But the visual presentation in I.D.'s 51st Annual Design Review is just plain nuts.
The issue is taken up by descriptions and photographs of winners (Best of Category, Design Distinction, Honorable Mention) in eight categories (Consumer Products, Graphics, Packaging, Environments, Furniture, Equipment, Concepts, and Interactive). The descriptions make good reading. The photographs are, well, problematic. Most of the winners are pictured not in isolation but in situ, the situ in this case being the other winners. This means that the reader is faced with page after page of stuff piled up all over the place, handsomely photographed in that flatly-lit deadpan way that's been so popular for the last decade or so, each flea-market-style composition daring us to guess which of the many things shown is actually the subject of the photograph.
As a graphic designer myself, I know how this happens. Every edition of the annual design review presents the same problem. Every year, dozens of products, packages, chairs, posters, books, and devices win I.D. awards, and every year the readers want to know what the winners look like. Simple descriptive images: well, that's been done, right? So obvious! How about if we evoke the confusion, the ennui, the sensory overload of the judging process itself? A daring choice! Does it work? Not really, but as Dr. Johnson said of a dog walking on its hind legs, we're meant to be surprised not to find it necessarily done well, but simply done at all.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Rick Poynor lodged a similar complaint on this site against Recollected Work, the new monograph from graphic designers Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen. The book consists largely of page after full-bleed page of piles of their work, cropped, partially obscured, more or less incomprehensible. To quote Rick: "Seventeen years of work blurs together, like grubby laundry turning over and over in a washing machine. Nothing has any space around it. Everything becomes flotsam. Any sense of development is erased." And that's putting it kindly. Of course, they could have just lined up all the images, foregoing the cropping, proper borders all around — insert sigh here — but that would have been...you know.
And then there was another incident back in pre-September 2001. In those more innocent days, the U.S. graphic design community was embroiled in a gigantic debate over Jennifer Sterling's design of the annual publication of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, 365: AIGA Year in Design. Sterling's design approach had been reliably iconoclastic, cropping posters, showing fragments of books and packages, and generally rendering the work unintelligible. An astonishingly long (for those days) thread piled up on AIGA's website with complaints about Sterling's hubris: you would have thought she was blowing up Buddhas in Afghanistan.
I myself have been guilty of this same kind of straining for novelty. Asked to design a catalog for the AIGA Fifty Books of the Year show back in 1995, I was determined to do anything to avoid shooting the entries on with a flatbed camera on a clean white background. Like laying out cadavers at the morgue, I remember sneering to a colleague. Instead, we brought in Victor Shrager, who lovingly photographed the books in unlikely, if beautifully lit, positions. I fondly remember one shot showing Paul Rand's From Lascaux to Brooklyn masterfully astride a supine copy of David Carson's The End of Print. Flipping through it today, I admire Shrager's beautiful pictures and wonder what those books actually looked like.
Graphic design is easy, of course, so we kill ourselves trying to make it hard. I should have remembered a lesson I received at one of my first job experiences, a summer internship in the design department at WGBH-TV in Boston. I had been assigned a rare design project. Given my status — I was the most junior of three interns — it was probably something like a hallway flyer for the annual blood drive. I labored over this 8.5 x 11 inch opus all day, never forgetting what I then held as the twin tenets of responsible design practice (one, create something absolutely without precedent; and two, demonstrate to onlookers how clever I am). Given my predilections at that point in my nascent career, this probably involved merging the home-grown rigorous modernism of Lester Beall and Will Burtin with the formal experimentation of Wolfgang Weingart and April Grieman. My only inhibition was the lack of a Macintosh computer, which would not be invented for seven years.
Late in the day, the station's head of design, the legendary Chris Pullman, came by my desk. "What's this?" he asked. Breathlessly, I described the visionary thinking that informed the yet-unfinished masterpiece before me. Pullman stared at the mess for a moment, and then his face brightened. "Hey," he said, as if a great idea was just occuring to him. "Why avoid the obvious?" He then took away everything but the headline: GIVE BLOOD NOW. "Try that!" he said cheerfully, walking away.
Poor, poor Obvious. Come sit by me. I'll be your friend.