In the first of a series of debates about issues in graphic design, held at Pentagram's London offices on 8 June, Creative Review editor Patrick Burgoyne asked Rick Poynor and Michael Bierut, what is design for? This is an edited transcript of the discussion published in Creative Review's August issue. A few additional edits have been made for its publication here.
Patrick Burgoyne I'd like to start by asking you both for a definition of graphic design and to outline what you think is wrong, and right, with graphic design today.
Rick Poynor This statement, for me, sums the whole thing up. It dates from 1960 and it's by John Commander, a leading art director of the time, who said, "To design is to create images which communicate specific ideas in purely visual terms and utter statements whose form graphically embodies or enhances the essential nature of the notions to be communicated."
But for me graphic design isn't quite the issue. I don't see my focus as being on graphic design. What interests me is visual communication and graphic design is a part of that - it's one of the ways you may approach visual communication. The problem with the discussion we've generated within graphic design is that this term has limited some of the discussion.
There are many things that are good about graphic design. It's a fantastically varied, vibrant, interesting field with fantastically talented people. We're living in quite a good moment now. We seem to have come through the crisis of confidence of the 1990s and the industry feels healthy. The downside is to do with the kind of visual environment that graphic design is helping to shape. As graphic design becomes more sophisticated and pervasive, so there's an enormous capacity for it to become manipulative and I guess that's my biggest fear. Design more than ever has a real responsibility to do with the nature of the media world that we all now inhabit.
Michael Bierut I agree this is about as good a definition as I've read. As a practising designer I've always been struck by how often we formulate a theory of graphic design that magically corresponds to the way that we ourselves do graphic design. When I decided at 15 to become a graphic designer without ever having met one, I did so because I realised that I didn't have any true artistic ability. I couldn't fathom how artists could go up to their studios and do this work for months on end. Then I saw things like record sleeves and movie posters and thought, well, this is good because it's like art but the idea comes from someplace else, then your job is to respond to that idea. So without any sense of selling out, I became a graphic designer.
The problem with that is that it implies a passivity which isn't always about people doing what the client tells them. Often it comes from a very circumscribed idea of what your involvement is meant to be. Too often graphic designers see their job as taking something and making it look cool. We can do that effortlessly because there's so little functional requirement to what we do, so a lot of times it has to do with coming up with a style. The days I look back to with admiration were when graphic designers didn't understand quite so clearly what their roles were and neither did their clients. The Eames didn't clearly understand what the limits of their scope were supposed to be and clients didn't either so they were able to take money from IBM and to make a transcendent piece of design that added to the public good and, almost as a by-product, looked cool.
PB Have graphic designers shifted too much toward being persuaders rather than communicators?
RP You've really raised a complex issue here. There is almost a confusion between graphic design as an activity and advertising as an activity. If you trace the historical origins of design, it's bound up with advertising. In Europe there is this sense, from the 1950s onward, whereby, as design becomes more professionalised, it separates itself from advertising. Those post-war idealists were setting themselves up as communicators in opposition to persuasion, which was seen as a manipulative way of treating other people.
So, the idea was that information is the pure thing, and the visual communicator's job is to convey that information as objectively as they can. But while that might still stand as an idealistic model, as we well know, as emotional, irrational beings, led by our desires, any view of design which insists on pure objectivity seems to reduce us to machines - we aren't like that. Advertising understands this perfectly and increasingly plays up the emotional side. You tap into a person's desires. Design is hopelessly enmeshed in this now. Design is hugely persuasive. When you talk about notions of cool you're absolutely talking about notions of persuasion. Does design want to be part of that process?
MB That's very much at the heart of it. When I first read First Things First [the 1964 manifesto calling on designers to use their skills for more worthy pursuits, which was reissued in 1999], I was reminded of when sometimes, when a crime's committed, people will confess to it even though they didn't do it because they're dying for the attention. Part of FTF sort of reminded me of that - designers are so eager to think they are manipulating the whole world and they're dying to confess. It's very empowering to think that you can manipulate the whole world but speaking as a working designer there aren't too many moments in the day when I think that I possess that power.
PB A lot of the criticisms raised in the original publication of FTF in the 1960s are equally valid today. Back then [British member of parliament] Tony Benn was talking about designers wasting their talents on the frills of society. Why wasn't there any shift? What chance do we now have of changing?
RP FTF was revived for very specific reasons. Its core concern seemed to be more relevant than ever. What has changed as a result? How can I possibly say? You put things out in the world hoping that it might be relevant to someone, but these things are subtle, imperceptible. I got enough feedback personally to sense that there was an audience for whom it was meaningful. It didn't offer any specific answers, but it served as inspiration. In terms of it forcing some kind of huge change in the body politic - this is a ridiculous notion. All it was saying was that you're a designer, you have to make decisions about your life and where you want to invest your time and talent. Are you doing what you want? Would you consider other possibilities?
MB The main message of FTF was that designers should think about what they're doing, and I think there's much evidence that the level of discussion of all kinds has been transformed because of it. If I had a big complaint I would say that there is an alternate reading of FTF where it where it seems to suggest that the core of society - the mass market - be abandoned by designers in favour of the frills. What I dislike is the idea that either you can sell out or you can be marginalised and there's nothing in between: you can either do cute things that no one will notice and will have no effect on the world or you can sell out and put out shit that will be reproduced in the billions and end up in every landfill on earth. There's got to be some route in between which will be found by smart people who are engaged with larger issues in the world. In New York after 9/ll a lot of people were thinking what can I do as a graphic designer to help? I hate to say it but posters weren't really the answer at that time: a cool T-shirt wasn't going to ameliorate pain or address the root causes of that event. There is a way for designers to get involved but it requires engagement with much bigger ideas in the world and not to think that the limit of your scope is to figure out how you make the T-shirt. I am concerned by our eagerness to retreat to the margins where we can work undisturbed - and unnoticed.
If you see the role of graphic design as giving you a platform whereby you can express your unique vision then, unless you can tailor that vision so that people are going to pay you to partake of it, you aren't going to get them to pay you any money. I never had a unique vision to tailor - it's something I've only heard about - but, to me, if there's one bit of advice I always give students it's that the thrilling thing about graphic design is that you get to participate in the larger world. I have this sense of the loneliness of the artist: the great thing about graphic design was not that people paid for it, but that you got to be an active participant in the real world and that your work is seen by people who don't require any special qualifications to enjoy it. How much of that larger world do you want to engage with?
RP This idea of the person at the margins having no influence and then the person in the corporate world who is making a difference because his work has a big audience: I don't buy that dichotomy. When you look at the important cultural makers, not just designers, but photographers, film directors, musicians, over and over they are people who are preserving a position of some kind of independence, being able to pursue their own direction, which produces work which is of immense cultural value.
Does it matter if their audience is small? I'm inclined to think the contrary. The 3,000 people who buy an independent product are engaged in a kind of cultural exploration which is the very stuff of self-education and growing as a human being. Smallness is not a barrier to significant, influential work. If, as a designer, you choose to position yourself there then you've got my support because it's culturally important. It's difficult, a struggle, but it's hard to imagine a world without those people. Without them it would be a monoculture, full of people who shared the same mass experiences, and ultimately it would stagnate. New ideas tend to originate in the margins where those makers are freest.
PB There are thousands of designers working in socially responsible areas like the NHS [National Health Service] but the industry's heroes (and Creative Review as well as other magazines must accept some culpability in this) are the ones working in the corporate sector or in music or the arts: is there a kind of celebrity aspect that makes people think that the cool thing to be working on is record sleeves and that other options are so far down the chain as to be perceived as almost a last resort?
RP That's absolutely true. There was a time when it was extremely unusual for a design magazine to publish a profile of anyone. There is this obsession with personality now but, having said that, in a culture that is obsessed with celebrity isn't it inevitable that designers will start to get treated in the same way and will themselves long for some of this treatment? In terms of design's presence and profile it's no bad thing - it might help to further the cause of design. But if you don't do something with that stardom, that's really rather sad. If high profile designers can help to direct discussion into more productive areas that would be useful.
MB If you went back and looked at what design discourse in the US was dominated by in the late 1950s early 1960s, there was this real optimism about what design could do to improve daily life. The great design artifacts of that time were not done for little charities; they were all commissioned by giant corporations - Eames and Rand for IBM and so on. There was this sense that the captains of industry were the proper people to steward us into this golden post-atomic age.
Speaking as someone who enthusiastically sold out, every time I've done something just for the money, no matter how much they paid, it was never enough. More than half of the work I do now is for non-profit organisations, but that world is neither as acquiescent in terms of helping designers realise their dreams nor as impecunious as you may think it is. They are going to push you around as much as a big corporate client. There's no big Nirvanah there.
Daniel Weil [Pentagram partner, speaking from the audience] It seems that we have been getting away from the social mission of design. In previous decades it was much closer to ideology and very ethical. Are there designers who are ideological in approach today?
RP I've met a few, but they stand out as being out of their time. It's extremely unusual, but then it's unusual in society in general. The age of non-ideology is one we all inhabit so it's no surprise that design is not generating this social intention.
MB My first job in New York was for Massimo Vignelli from Unimark who was an ideologically convinced Modernist. One client after another would come to them with some horrible logo and the guys at Unimark would just shove all that aside, and set the name in Helvetica medium. It wasn't cynical or just a way to make a buck but a way of casting aside all this horribleness and it was purely ideological.
RP That was a moment when, for some designers, the demand for rationality held sway.
MB And they wore white lab coats as they went about this precise work. Massimo sees his mission fully realised as being to redesign everything in the world personally, failing that it would be for people to copy his style and do it that way. Now in an un-ideological age where everyone has their own ethics, you don't see great movements but instead little battles being undertaken.
RP There was some sense in the years after World War Two that design's purpose was to help make people's lives better by designing their environment and information more effectively. This issue of the designer's responsibility came up again and again - it was almost a leitmotif. Now designers, as members of society, do not feel that same sense of social responsibility and this is part of a much larger social shift. The reasons that it's disappeared are very complex, and partly relate to the nature of work. Up until Reagan and the financial deregulation of the 1980s, there was, as Michael mentioned, this sense that the corporation existed for the benefit of society, that it had to give something back. Now there's a denial of social duty by corporations, so it's no surprise that we have absorbed a new set of attitudes. That's the challenge now: how can you reconnect with other people? But it needs larger social and political shifts before you will see any widespread change in attitudes among designers who, inevitably, simply express the values of their day.