Are you an Agent of Neutrality? Or are you an Aesthete of Style?
Eye number 53 (Vol. 14, Autumn 2004) is a landmark in the history of that irreplaceable publication. The theme is "brand madness" and editor John Walters introduces the topic with a tongue-in-cheek essay that cheerfully reveals a new Eye slogan ("Love critical writing! Love Eye!") but concludes on a queasier note: "Personally I hope never to use the 'B' word again. In the course of editing this issue, I have literally typed it out more times than I have had hot dinners -- and that can't be good."
At the core of the issue are a group of essays by by Rob Camper, David Thompson, and, in an impressive coup, respected theorist Terry Eagleton, who has been persuaded to turn his attention to Wally Olins's On Brand. (He pronounces it "a slick account of a supremely shallow phenomenon.")
But the article I was most intrigued by was "The Steamroller of Branding" by designer, teacher and Eye creative director Nick Bell. In it, Bell mounts a provocative attack on the encroachment of branding into the world of culture, where museums and performing arts centers increasingly present themselves using the same visual tactics as major corporations and consumer goods companies. Most interesting of all were two footnotes that Bell tosses off almost casually discussing the concerns of two types of designers: the "agents of neutrality" and the "aesthetes of style." Bell's descriptions are so acute that I've asked him for permission to reprint them here.
The agents of neutrality
Those graphic designers who see no role for self-expression in design. For them the graphic designer is a passive mediator of the client's message and is charged with the responsibliity of communicating it with clarity and precision. Unfortunately passive often means mute and can lead to an absence of 'point of view'. Get very excited by regulating systems such as grids, identity guidelines and manuals. Love following orders. Have a positive view of limitation and are lost without it, which leads them to being dismissed (sometimes unfairly) as 'jobbing designers'. Theirs tends to be an apolitical stance which makes it easier for them to practice their discipline for all types of client irrespective of sector without too much soul-searching. Contains a large number contingent of neo-Modernists now that Modernism is merely a style. Tend to view content as something that is delivered by others and must not be questioned.
The aesthetes of style
Those graphic designers who are consumed by the formal aspects of design. Tend to practice design for design's sake and see every project as an opportunity to produce beautiful design. Often guilty of underappreciating the client's point of view or at least seeing their involvement as problematic. View visual expression (often their own) as the most important ingredient in design. Harbour a point of viewbut one which is often meaningless outside their own profession. Complain of being misunderstood or underappreciated. Some hate to be constrained by grids and identity guidelines whereas others amongst them have embraced it and that is when they turn on the style. Get turned on by Pantone flouro' colors, spot varnishes and foil blocking. Not known for their awareness of ecological or sustainable production methods. Theirs tends to be an apolitical stance which makes it easier for them to practice their discipline for all types of client irrespective of sector without too much soul-searching. Contains a large number contingent of neo-Modernists now that Modernism is merely a style. Tend to view content as something that is delivered by others and it will only be questioned if it gets in the way of producing something beautiful.
In two footnotes, Bell has neatly nailed the choice that many designers feel they face. They can choose to become the passive, "objective" voice of their clients, or they can be creative fountainheads, beholden to no one but their own imaginations. These two types of designers are widely viewed as polar opposites and mutually antagonistic: the Aesthetes sneer at the Agents for selling out to big business; the Agents dismiss the Aesthetes for their self-indulgent immaturity.
This divide has been observed and debated for years, if not decades. But Bell's skill is the way he slyly delineates not the differences but the similarities. In his account, both types of designers are willfully apolitical and, tellingly, uninterested in the content of the work they undertake. In short, a pox on both your houses. As we've seen here at Design Observer in the past, designers (and perhaps all of us) resist binary classifications. Yet surely we would all have to concede that Bell's group portrait as diptych that has more than a little truth in it.
But the choice is a false choice. Bell has a prescription: "It's quite simple, it's been said before and so many times that it has become a cliché. And that is to design from the inside outwards." He is talking specifically about designing for cultural institutions, but the advice is universal. "The practice of corporate identity design" -- and here I would add graphic design in general — "must be inextricably tied to the content it is supposedly serving; make content the issue and resist making design the issue."
I have never met a designer who would deny the importance of content. Yet "making content the issue" takes real humility and self-effacement, qualities that are sometimes in short supply in the ego-driven world of creative production. Designers are more often tempted to serve more urgently demanding gods: their clients on one hand, their inner muses on the other. What the world demands, however, is something more. Call it content, call it substance, call it meaning: it is the too-often-forgotten heart of what we do. It is the way out of the binary world that Nick Bell describes so well. It is the third choice. Choose content.