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Rob Giampietro | Essays

Comedy of Errors: Graphic Design on Wikipedia

Duran Duran, album cover of "Rio," 1982.

A few weeks ago, in a moment of distracted curiousity, I decided to look up "graphic design" on Wikipedia. Some of you have probably done this already. Maybe those of you who teach, looking for a basic overview of the discipline to share with your students, have looked it up. Maybe those of you in school, or recently out of school, attempting to explain to your parents what it is you want to do with your life, have looked it up. But I had not.

I was expecting to read a dry, unimaginative definition of "graphic design," and I got one. I was also expecting to see a little American modernism, and I got that, too. What I did not expect to see was an album ranked #1 on CMJ's "Top 20 Most-Played Albums of 1982." But, inexplicably, there it was: beneath Saul Bass's iconic poster for "The Man with the Golden Arm" on the Wikipeda entry for "graphic design" was the cover of Duran Duran's synthpop classic, "Rio."

At this discovery, my boredom turned first to amusement, and then to sustained, studio-distracting laughter.

Wikipedia can sometimes be a funny thing. Not "gee-whiz" funny but "ha-ha" funny. The biography of Count Chocula was funny. (Wikipedians have since taken it down.) And the overview of the "five-second rule" is funny too. But generally, when you find yourself laughing out loud at an encyclopedia, it's either time to call the encyclopedia something else, or, as the case of Count Chocula demonstrates, it's time for a rewrite.

What makes the Wikipedia entry on "graphic design" funny starts with the inclusion of "Rio," and what makes "Rio" funny is that it's a visual punch line: you never saw it coming. (From the Wikipedia entry on "punch lines": "Punch lines generally derive their humor from being unexpected.")

The humor doesn't stop there, though. Continuing down the right-hand column of the entry, we get a bit of political satire with a photo of Air Force One whose caption reads in part, "the US flag, presidential seal, and the lettering were all graphically designed at different times and combined in this one design." Graphically designed? The caption goes on to empower us all, explaining that there are "virutally no limits to the size and applications of graphic design." Or as Groucho Marx once said, "Humor is reason gone mad."

A bit of farce comes next: the not-so-iconic Book of Kells, "Folio 114v," appears below Air Force One and gets a special mention in the main text to the left, which explains, "The Book of Kells is a very beautiful and very early example of graphic design." Has anyone ever heard of this? The Book of Kells's own entry on Wikipedia, most likley authored by the same writer who appended this shout-out, is a hefty 6,500 words — I think someone needs to get off his soapbox (and throw this entry a Gutenberg Bible in the meantime).

Following the Book of Kells is a Cassandre poster of the SS Normandie (close, but no cigar). After that is Milton Glaser's very worthy "I Love New York" logo and Jamie Ried's also-worthy "Never Mind the Bollocks" album cover for the Sex Pistols. Rounding out the column is a photo of pencils and markers, because "pencils and markers may be used to develop graphic design ideas," and a screenshot of Adobe Illustrator CS2, a "popular application used by many graphic designers." It's hard to argue with either of these statements, but the images still feel so... funny. I can't seem to make myself see them as they were obviously intended to be seen. Why are the markers so cheap-looking? Why are they arranged in that weird starburst pattern? What was this graphic designer intending to draw with them? What is that crazy smoking mouse doing in the Illustrator screenshot? And do we need either of these photos anyway, or would their captions alone suffice? My mental Art Director will not shut up and play along.

This, of course, is the problem with images in general, and with images in a visually-driven field in particular. Unlike broad encyclopedia definitions, images are specific. And in a visual discipline, they're the actual subject matter itself. This isn't a "constitutional monarchy" we're talking about, it's Futura. The c-word — canon — quickly comes up here. What are graphic design's greatest hits? Because while the entry's text can afford to be a little rough around edges (and it is), unfortunately its images cannot.

It's no wonder that under the "Discussion" tab of the entry you can find comments like these: "This entry is terrible — I have just created a Wikipedia account purely to fix this page," and "Quite frankly it's an embarrassment to the industry." A few brave souls have even decided to undertake that rewrite I was talking about, creating the "Graphic Design WikiProject" to coordinate the effort. (And, of course, there is the graphic design Wiki sponsored by Speak Up.)

Where to start? Personally, I like a very simple definition I read last week from the AIGA's Executive Director Ric Grefé. Speaking about the AIGA's redesigned website, he praised its creators for understanding "the pillars of great design: empathy and usefulness." Neither too vague nor too specific, Grefé's definition leaves the door wide open, uniting design's past with its future, and putting the experience of design at the center of its definition. The anonymous authors at Wikipedia may have made an unwitting joke, but perhaps we can avoid making design the punch line.

Rob Giampietro is a principal at Giampietro+Smith, a design firm based in New York City. Rob is also an adjunct faculty member at Parsons School of Design and a regular columnist for BusinessWeek Online.

Comments [90]

It's not alone by any means in Wikipedia...

The Filmmaking one...oh boy.

For the record though, The Book of Kells is a pretty important book and would merit more than you imply. Nonetheless, a very odd choice for an example.

This article is a joke! What is the point of it? The first piece of information on the wikipedia page asks for help to improve the content. Instead of whining about it here, why not edit it? Your article does not specifically request any help from the audience here, so what is the point?

Images can't be ambiguous, only specific? And are you seriously suggesting that the Book of Kells is not iconic in design? Its the single most important piece of calligraphy the western world has ever produced!

I'm surprised that you are not editing the wiki yourself, but more surprised your an author here.
We reserve the right to edit delete post that do not adhere to the standard

What does "empathy and usefulness" convey to the person who knows nothing about design? Fluff and nonsense. Wikipedia isn't the design wiki, and shouldn't be. My grandma should be able to read wikipedia (which she does) and understand it on a general level.

Edit it and make it better rather than just pointing out how superior your knowledge is. While it might be a bit terse and rough around the edges, for the most part it is a good technical description of the trade.

I'll give you the air force one thing being funny, but that's mostly because the current occupant clearly wouldn't know graphic design if his handlers put it on his press-conference backdrop.

Honestly, I can't believe you are bashing the Rio album cover. Although you may find Patrick Nagel amusing, this album cover DESIGN was created by one of the most successful graphic designers of the 80s (Malcolm Garrett). It also appropriated illustration for its main focus (a common device used in graphic design) and is now one of the most iconic images representing the 80s. If that isn't graphic design, what is?
Furthermore, when someone is writing something for wiki, they make it as broad as possible so it is understandble by the general public. The idea of graphic design is going to be more easily understood by the general public by showing this album cover vs. some absolutely brilliant and conceptual book cover. We, as makers of culture for the masses, should understand this concept to the utmost.
And, really, you just be grateful it wasn't a Styx album cover.

'The Book of Kells is a very beautiful and very early example of graphic design.' Has anyone ever heard of this?"

Um, hell yes? It's one of the most famous documents in all of written history, one of the most important of the illuminated manuscripts, and it's a staggering tour de force of hand-drawn lettering and illustration. Come on, you *haven't* heard of it?

I actually think this is a perfectly good Wikipedia entry. Any expert in their field is likely to feel that little twinge of smugness and annoyance that all the internicene conflicts in their fields aren't represented in their Wikipedia entry. But in fact "empathy and usefulness" are useless to a non-practicioner. You want they should leave out the section on "the grid", maybe? Check out the Encyclopedia Britannica, I bet you'll find it just about as amusing.

(And I think the Air Force One example is fantastic: it shows how graphic design isn't just something done at book-scale, isn't just done with type or paper or posters, and isn't something that's done once by one person.)


It really is problematic that you posted a rant on the informational quality of a wiki.

It's perhaps far more problematic that your rant included a description of the Book of Kells as "not-so-iconic". I don't even know where to start on that one.

Thankfully we can edit and improve the information found on Wikipedia, too bad we can't say the same for your article.
Tom Manning

Ugh! Patrick Nagel was also known fo having his poster "fine art" displayed in countless 80's beauty parlors and cheesy night clubs. I see images of leg warmers, headbands, bad perms and poofy shoulderpads -shudder! For me, Wikipedia serves a valuable purpose, but I agree that perhaps the Graphic Design post needs a refresh from a more modern perspective.The book of Kells is no-doubt retro-sexy-cool, but does it inspire one to go crank-out some innovative design solutions? Nyet. I like this quote: "There is some debate whether computers enhance the creative process of graphic design"...Oh brother!
David Roberts

Yep. Definitely heard of the book of Kells. It's gorgeous!

The Book of Kells is not iconic?

Are you out of your mind?

Have you ever stood in line to see the Book of Kells?

There is probably no other work of graphic design that can boast an hour+ waiting time.

Mr Giampietro, you should pay a visit to Dublin sometime. Spend a while at Trinity College -- just follow the tourists to the Book of Kells. Just be prepared to wait a while; the lines can be very long. For some reason it's a very popular attraction...

The Choukulua Wiki entry is now a full-blown and completely confusing site:

More to the point, where is Malcolm Garrett's Wikipedia entry?
John C

I agree that the article is not well-written; it definitely needs more links throughout its body and probably a thorough restructuring with better clarity and purpose to each section.

That said, it's not terrible. It does touch upon most of the important aspects of the history and methods of design and links out to more specialized articles when needed.

What bothers me more here is that Mr. Giampetro is levelling these criticisms without viewing the edit history of the article in question (was it better before? worse?), and without offering a positive suggestion (let's make it better collectively, or better still, just get Steven Heller to fix it up in between writing 12 other coffee-table books, as he clearly doesn't have enough to do ;)

On a more serious note, you can't criticize a Wikipedia entry to the same degree you'd criticize the Britannica -- people are trying to put together an original, non-plagiarized reference work as a labour of love, and amateurs (in the best sense of that word) get it enthusiastically a bit wrong sometimes. Rather than disparage and discourage these efforts, or try to redirect them elsewhere to clubbier, in-crowd domains, we owe it to the general public and ourselves to ensure that our profession is well understood. In short, it's up to us. And as a show of good faith, the author should dig in and help.

I believe that the point of this article can be found in the ninth paragraph:

"The c-word — canon — quickly comes up here. What are graphic design's greatest hits? Because while the entry's text can afford to be a little rough around edges (and it is), unfortunately its images cannot."

Graphic design, as a discipline, did not exist at the time the Book of Kells was created, so, the latter's beauty notwithstanding, can it be called an example of graphic design, as it is being called in the Wikipedia article? More to the point, can it be called emblematic or symbolic (the meaning of iconic, as it is being used here) of the discipline of graphic design? It is iconic within the realm of illuminated manuscripts, no doubt, but it is not the first artifact that comes to mind when I think of graphic design.
Ricardo Cordoba

What a great flash back to 1982.
Sally are you sure Malcolm Garrett designed the Duran Duran, album cover of "Rio,"? I read that in June 2002 Malcolm left AMX and is now an independent Design Consultant, specializing in design for interactive media.
Carl W. Smith

Well, this is going to go down the same route as the scrapbooking post.

And, as then, it should.

You stepped in it Rob, and this needs a major follow-up from you.

garrett's work for duran duran was iconic, and had a lot to do with the way musicians merchandise themselves nowadays. garrett was involved in nearly every piece of design the band released until the mid-eighties, all of it very well thought and executed.

it's embarrassing to read the last couple of entries and have this site thought of as some of the better design writing online.

There are a lot of points taken in the comments above (weekend homework: check out the Book of Kells), but one point I take issue with is that of this article's uselessness. On that point I respectfully disagree. I think there's a use to writing and working on the Wikipedia article, but I also think there's a use to putting the issue on the table for this community to review. I see the piece as a discussion starter, and I'm happy to see that conversation now underway. I genuinely hope you choose to continue it.
Rob Giampietro

Thank you to everyone who has defended the Book of Kells!
One of Irelands finest treasures...
Mathew Sanders

Carl, I'm postive that it was Malcom Garrett, as his name is on the record sleeve. I haven't kept track of what he's done in recent years, but Assorted Images was formed in 1977 and produced some really interesting work for bands and companies in the 80s that can still stand up today. Neville Brody may have been poster boy of graphic design in the 80s but I think Garrett is just as significant.

"Empathy and usefulness" is as good a definition of nursing as it is of design. So is "problem solving." If you revise the Wikipedia entry, I hope you'll provide something more specific to graphic design.
Virginia Postrel

Wow, I really wish this article was a Wiki so all of the glaring errors and omissions could be cleaned up and corrected by more knowledgeable folks.

conversation starter, my entire rear end. the first 80% of the post is simply pointing and laughing at those you find tackier than yourself.

this is nothing more than yet another stunning display of snobbery towards popular and populist ideas of design, not to mention a naiveté towards an important historical document (and i don't mean the duran duran album cover) that's just as amusing as anything you point out in the wikipedia article.

Which is why I use Wikipedia to look up facts about movies, actors, and 80's pop trivia. NOT subjects like art history, graphic design, and history in general. It's trying real hard, but it's still within the realm of pop usage.

I think there's a use to writing and working on the Wikipedia article, but I also think there's a use to putting the issue on the table for this community to review.

Wikipedia's Graphic Design entry (like many others) has a prominent warning that it does not cite its sources, and so it doesn't even meet Wikipedia's own standards. So maybe that is a good place to begin.

Also, it's one thing to write an encyclopedia entry from scratch; it's quite another to modify an already-existing entry. Not too long ago, there were calls to improve the Wikipedia entry on Typography, both here on DO and on Typophile -- a daunting task which sparked much debate. (The issue of which images to use cropped up with that entry, too.) Nevertheless, the article has gone from not citing its sources to requiring expansion of certain sections.

I think that Wikipedia is well worth discussing, too, now that university students are using it in their research papers and that the graphic design book Influences, which I have not read, cites it as a source. (No negative judgement intended here; I'm just pointing out a fact -- Colin Davies reviews the book in the latest issue of Print and mentions this.)
Ricardo Cordoba

I think this article is useful in that it's reader comments might bring a little humility to Rob.

As for it being a discussion starter, Rob, please. I could post some inflammatory statement about some popular religion or public figure and create just as much "discussion".

I think any article, be it to a blog or a printed publication, should provide some amount of coverage on all areas of the given topic. Something about why the Wikipedia entry is bad, go into some depth on why the Duran Duran cover is a bad choice, explain how to make the article better, etc.

Instead you spend nearly 3/4th of the article simply making fun rather than being constructive. How is that helpful? What purpose does that serve? This isn't an article, it's a thinly veiled flame.

I think the entry is adequate for non-designers. The snippet you propose - empathy and usefulness - is absolutely useless to somebody looking up graphic design in an encyclopedia. And if you have specific issues with the entry, why not fix them? Probably would have taken you less time than writing this blog post.

The Book of Kells, while incredibly beautiful (and well known), is not a piece of graphic design.
Doug B

By a strange quirk of fate, Malcolm Garrett not only designed the record sleeve for Duran Duran's Rio album but, working with Dublin-based company X Communications, he also refined the interface design for the version of The Book of Kells which is available on CD-Rom, and won a D&AD Silver pencil for it.

I should know, I am Malcolm Garrett.

I am currently Creative Director at AIG, fact fans. I still work mostly in interactive media and have recently launched dynamo london, a showcase website for the London interactive media industry.
Malcolm Garrett

The Book of the Kells belongs to the category of illuminated manuscripts. Further back, the Book of the Dead, I would guess, belongs also in this category. In a general sense they combined decoration and text in an arrangement to make the message more readable and meaningful on whatever level. Dare I say cryptic?

Don't all graphic designers still sit on the floor with their laptop and brainstorm like that famous scribe in the Louvre. Or is that just me?

As for explaining what you do to your mothers and fathers?

I would venture another guess that if you were a graphic designer and you were to travel back in time to explain what you do with either printing or computer tools, such a scribe in the medieval ages making illuminated work would best understand what you do. In that sense they are your forefathers, not many foremothers. Granted they had a higher place in society, but that had to do with how society understands and views the written and illustrated word as opposed to just hearing it. Easy come, easy go.

Then again some may not have to explain their calling as they feel that cultural meme being transmitted from generations past all the way back to the stone cutters doing relief and text of Gilgamesh. I've spent years letting go of that fear of making a mistake in the last paragraph and having to redo. I see myself in penmanship practice:
A chisel does not come equipped with Command Z.
A chisel does not come equipped with Command Z.
A chisel does not come equipped with Command Z.

I agree that if you're going to criticize others for inaccuracies and omissions, it helps if your own position is bulletproof. So mend your ways, Mr. Giampietro!

That said, I have to admit that — even acknowledging the signficance of the Garrett/Nagel cover (I was actually a bigger fan of the latter back in the day) and the unassailable importance of the Book of Kells (I have stood in line at Trinity College; also it's St. Patrick's week) — the examples on the Wikipedia page are the most goddamnest random collection of examples one could come up with. Only through the miracle of collaborative anonymous authorship, I guess.

All the Wiki entry needs is a link to The Design Encyclopedia to set it straight.

Michael Bierut

To pay homage to our fore mother, they were doing just about the same thing in making extremely complicated cable knit patterns. In a way, much more difficult in encoding as the needle and yarn does not flow in one smooth curve, rather it is encoded and decoded in line afte line of stitch and row.

Why, where was it that i saw young graphic designers at an advertising firm learning to knit again?

I'd like to come to Rob's defense here and remind everyone that he spends most of his post describing why he found the combination of description and images on the Wikipedia entry funny. Sure, a more constructive criticism is probably due, and any of those images can be defended, if pressed, as good examples of graphic design.

"Why are the markers so cheap-looking? Why are they arranged in that weird starburst pattern? What was this graphic designer intending to draw with them? What is that crazy smoking mouse doing in the Illustrator screenshot?"

This isn't posed as detailed analysis, it's a description of one writer's aghast reaction to the entry. To me, the post was more about the nature of unintentional humor (graphic or otherwise) than it was a call-to-arms to change the Wiki. I thought it was funny too.

(And that Duran Duran cover rules)
Teddy Blanks

I agree with Rob that the visual examples could definately be more useful. The pens and software screenshots are a waste (and funny), as is the Air Force One example, and I have never even heard of the Book of Kells, let alone consider it a result of graphic design as we know it today.

Where's Josef Müller-Brockmann? Tibor Kalman? Lindon Leader?

I love wikipedia. It brings me joy. And I can't help but be wonder about the recent fashion for criticism, which usually focuses on the authority of it's information. Reputable research suggests it's comparable to Encyclopedia Britanica (EB). Last I heard of EB was in the late 90s when it switched to a commercial web model and it seemed that there would simply be no web equivalent to an encyclopedia.

In any case, you wouldn't expect to find Neville Brody in EB. That's graphic design. Too niche. Nor, do I imagine, could I look up Adam Curtis to get an outline of his latest documentary on BBC, and helpfully be told it would be airing the next night at 9pm. I love that. Incredibly niche information about things that haven't quite happened yet.

I often use WikiP while watching documentaries. If there's a reference to something that doesn't jibe with my memory, or I want to do a background check on an interviewee, I check WikiP. There's a handy Dashboard widget which flies in over the digital TV image, which is like having WikiP built into my TV. Wonderful!

There's an old saying, 'never put a gift horse in the MRI scanner.'

There's a lot of fire and brimstone coming out of the comments here; perhaps the piece deserves it. I certainly don't want to fan the flames, but maybe a little clarification is in order.

Whatever my ignorance to the Book of Kells—and I now see that it is great—its presence on a Wikipedia entry under "graphic design" is a confusion, not a clarification, to the general public. Being pre-Industrial, it's better categorized as an "illuminated manuscript" or for its contributions to "calligraphy," as many commenters have pointed out. Likewise, the Presidential seal and its applications are easily defined as "heraldry," but as large-format graphic design projects go, I think Massimo Vignelli's MTA Subway work is both more useful to the general reader and more consistent with the profession's own internal definitions of graphic design. Not all visual culture is "graphic design," and to indicate otherwise confuses the issue. To that end, I really appreciate Ricardo Coroba's comment that the beating heart of this post lies in its ninth paragraph about a graphic design canon. It's not that I see the work above as "bad" or "wrong," I just see it as a little anti-canonical. If you look up Paris in an encyclopedia, you see an Eiffel Tower. If you look up Rio, you see Christ the Redeemer. These are visual icons for these cities, and I think graphic design as a discipline has these visual icons as well.

I also acknowledge the touchy-feely tone of my take-away, "empathy and usefuless," and I think a few of the comments have been right to call that into question. What I was suggesting is that there may be a value to thinking about how to define design not just through its tools—like Illustrator CS2 and markers—but through its uses and the way it affects its audiences. It's the typification of design as a trade rather than a disipline that I'd like to suggest needs some updating.

Finally, to read the article as an attack is to misread it. I was trying to express a genuine bewilderment at what I found when I logged on to Wikipedia that fateful day. I did go back and read previous drafts of the "graphic design" entry, which is where the comments I cite in the article come from. The final sentence is respectful to Wikipedia's "anonymous authors," by calling their joke an "unwitting" one.
Rob Giampietro

If you dive further by clicking on Wiki Books there is a link to Graphic Design statistics which reads:

"The main statistic that I want to point out is that the majority of graphic designers leave the profession within just a couple of years of graduating from design school.

Look before you leap and investigate the profession before you spend years studying it so you will be able to make a mature, informed decision on how you want to invest your time."

Is this really considered a statistic or is this an observation?

This is such a disappointing statement for those who are passionate about design and who have dedicated much time and energy to studying this field.

I also wanted to point out that within this WikiBooks section under the Typography link there are no examples provided, what a shame.
diane witman

I don't understand the fury about this article. I found it amusing and not totally off-base, and any commentary on wikipedia ("wiki-ality") is worthwhile. We all have opinions, and yes, they should be expressed but the "net rage" accomplishes nothing.

That being said, I think PK's point about being wary of indulging in the snobbishness our profession is known for, is worth listening to. Graphic designers can be everything from "exotic menials" to curiously confusing elitists, and its unfortunate that designers often separate themselves from everyone else. Its that ancient problem of complaining that no one knows what a graphic designer does, and then simultaneously behaving in such an alien fashion that its impossible to figure out.

So really, I look at this article as a way of talking about how the "general public" perceives the stands to reason that many people would poke around on wikipedia to find out.
Brad Gutting

I should know, I am Malcolm Garrett.


i'm going to geek entirely out, and be a little more truthful in my disclosure.

malcolm's work for duran duran was the single most important influence upon me as a teenaged designer-to-be. the runes and codes devised for seven and the ragged tiger and so red the rose made me think about typography and language for the first time.

Graphic design, as a discipline, did not exist at the time the Book of Kells was created, so, the latter's beauty notwithstanding, can it be called an example of graphic design, as it is being called in the Wikipedia article?

"Art" (probably) didn't exist as a discipline for cavemen, but the cave paintings are included as an important piece of art history...right?

Just checked EB's entry for Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs, which includes, "Although its advent as a profession is fairly recent, graphic design has roots that reach deep into antiquity. Illustrated manuscripts were made in ancient China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. While early manuscript designers were not consciously creating "graphic designs," scribes and illustrators worked to create a blend of text and image that was at once harmonious and effective at conveying the idea of the manuscript. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which contained texts intended to aid the deceased in the afterlife, is a superb example of early graphic design" and then incudes the Book of Kells.
The term 'graphic design' was coined in 1922 by William A. Dwiggins (again according to EB/Philip B. Meggs).

wow, another completely useless article. thanks for nothing. one more of these intellectual turds and DO is out of the RSS reader for good. i've got better things to do like gouge my eyes out.
design is not art

Not too long ago there were requests, on Design Observer and Typophile, to improve the Wikipedia entry for Typography -- a daunting task which generated some debate, too. Interestingly, the subject of which images were representative or appropriate also came up in that case. Back then that article carried a disclaimer that it did not cite its sources, and now it's progressed to needing expansion of certain sections.

Also, it can't be pointless to discuss Wikipedia when university students are using it for their research papers, and when a graphic design book, Influences, cites it as a resource. (No negative criticism implied here, I am simply stating a fact. Colin Davies reviews the book in the latest issue of Print and mentions it.)
Ricardo Cordoba

Design Is Not Art:

I'd hazard a guess that you wouldn't say that to Rob face-to-face. Language like that is clearly pretty stupid and doesn't exactly salvage what you claim to be the lacking the intellectual content of this site. Don't complain about stupidity if you're only going to answer with more of the same...
Brad Gutting

OK, then, how about we get past the flaming and start making the wikipedia article better?

I would make this a general overview article structured as such:

- definition of term. also, what graphic design isn't.
- history and antecedents of contemporary practice, yes, from illuminated manuscripts onwards to the onset of movable type
- brief paragraph of history since movable type including hand-drawn design, technical innovations (lead type, phototypesetting, DTP), but mostly linking to other specialized articles on these subjects
- more extended section describing contemporary practice, functions, purposes of design
- listing and description of graphic design movements from Arts & Crafts / Art Nouveau to present-day
- listing and links out to biographies of significant graphic designers / typographers
- footnotes

Touché Malcolm Garrett.
Laura Forde

As it happens, I've had Celtic art uppermost in my mind the past couple of weeks doing a CD design for a Finnish band that required some (simple) Kells-style knotwork. I recommend George Bain's "Celtic Art--The Methods of Construction" to help you appreciate that work from the inside, as it were.
John C

I think a little tenderness toward the Wikipedia is in order. I agree that for every way in which it's useful, it's also maddening, but this is a project in its infancy, and all infants are prone to arbitrary, bizarre, and sometimes infuriating behavior. I can't help but wonder how printed books were perceived in the fifteenth century: among the bibles and philosophical texts there were dense tracts by dodgy mystics, bawdy stories (only some of which have passed into the canon of literature), and a lot of genuine disinformation. Sound familiar?

Like you, I'm also frustrated that Wikipedia is given to fluffy topics over weighty ones (seminal typefounder John Baskerville gets 400 words; the video game World of Warcraft merits 7,402) but so goes the culture. I have two books about John Baskerville, and 54 back issues of Elle Decor. I can't really blame the publishing industry for that.

You're right to wonder why any one piece of graphic design was singled out for inclusion, whether it's by Malcolm Garrett or Paul Rand, and it is provocative to wonder what the implications are for a medium that equates opinions with facts. (It's axiomatic that everyone has something to say, but not everyone has something worth contributing, a distinction that's lost on any medium that has no editorial oversight.) But it's also fair to wonder aloud why you didn't just edit the entry, rather than writing about its manifest failings. A useful experiment would be to rewrite the entry, and then chart its progress over time.

Wikiphiles and optimists among us might like to imagine that we'd see a slow accretion of knowledge, produced through the synthesis of well-framed arguments, but we'll have to wait and see. It's telling that since Rob posted this article yesterday, the graphic design entry has been edited ten times, but none of these changes includes a single editorial contribution. Not even the rabid wikiphiles who stopped by to flame Rob even took the time to add poor Malcolm's name to that Duran Duran album.
Jonathan Hoefler

I just set up a Wikipedia account and immediately added three external links to the graphic design page: one to the Design Encyclopedia (as suggested upthread by Michael Bierut), one to the Communication Arts Network, and one to the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. Took me about ten minutes overall. Imagine if everyone here took ten minutes to contribute a link, correction, or bit of knowledge to this page...and how useful a service it would be to the community at large to do so...

Since it's taken nearly fifty comments to largely ignore the most egregious and simultaneously funny and sad problem with this post*, let's help things along a bit.

I will personally send ten dollars(Paypal preferred) to the first five people having made prior comments who within a week make a significant contribution to the Graphic Design article in conformance with basic guidelines and mail me a link to their revision.** I mean like a paragraph or more, not a simple fact-check/name fix.
The contribution will be reviewed by, uh...some people I come up with, and explicitly pointed out on the article's discussion page. If after another week no major problems are reported, you'll get your money. If problems are found and left in, you will be expected to correct them yourself, or forfeit your prize.

The e-mail is expected to come via the domain linked from your comment. Since e-mail addresseses aren't publicly visible, I hope the Design Observer editors will humor me in confirming the addresses of those who didn't provide a URL. If you provided a fake address, that's your problem, not mine.

And yes, I'm perfectly aware the prize is an insult to probably all of your collective consulting fees. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to find the irony in that.

* If I have to explain this, there's no helping you.
** Deadline March 20, 2007 ~6PM EST. One entry per player. Employees and immediate family members of House of Pretty employees are not eligible to win.

I, too, found this article funny. As in, funny ha-ha; let us not forget the smoking mouse.

If you were going to explain graphic design to someone that knew nothing about it would you mention ancient book arts? Glaser's I love NY logo? The Rio album cover?

Get out your cheap markers and start making a list, because Wikipedia wants to know.

I'd like to add that not too long ago there were requests, on Design Observer and Typophile, to improve the Wikipedia entry for Typography -- a daunting task which generated some debate, too (recorded on the entry's Talk tab). Interestingly, the subject of which images were representative or appropriate also came up in that case. (And the article has seen improvements since then -- for one thing, the disclaimer about not citing sources has been removed.)

Also, it can't be pointless to discuss Wikipedia when college students are using it for their research papers, and when a graphic design book, Influences, cites it as a resource. (No negative criticism implied here, I am simply stating a fact. Colin Davies reviews the book in the latest issue of Print and mentions this.)
Ricardo Cordoba

I deleted the Air Force One photo. Who wants to delete the smoking mouse or markers? (The Book of Kells stays since it is, despite Mr. Giampietro incredulity, among the most notable and beloved examples of illuminated manuscript in existence.)

brad gutting:

you're right, i wouldn't say that to rob's face. and that is unfortunate, for both of us. were i a friend or colleague of his i for damn sure would have advised him against writing something so clearly meaningless in a place that is supposed to be design thought high-ground.

you are also right that what i said isn't adding anything intellectual to the conversation, but that was not my goal. there're enough intelligent people here to argue all the ins and outs appropriately in my absence.

my choice of words was over-the-top for a purpose... to get the attention of the people who run this site, let them know i (at least) expect more, and possibly to make them laugh. which i'm sure... some of them did. sure a well thought out, long, boring post could have worked too... but i was going for "where's the beef".

i appologize if offended you.
design is not art

Re my above comment about college students using Wikipedia for research papers, the February 21 edition of The New York Times has an article about the History department at Middlebury College banning students from using Wikipedia as a source for their papers and exams. And there is another article, commenting on the Times piece, in the Amherst Student, which can be found online. (I'm having trouble posting links today.)
Ricardo Cordoba

I deleted the Air Force One photo.

I'm willing to bet that someone will re-post it. Have a look at the entry's discussion page. Besides, wouldn't it be better to replace the photo with a better example?
Ricardo Cordoba

It would be better. What are some suggestions for additions?

Nearly all of of the offending material--including the Air Force One, markers, and smoking rodent images--can be traced to this guy. He also seems to have written the captions.

So damn true... actually it even made me feel like joining wiki just to edit some stuff.
Nuno Coelho

The thought that the critic's job is to personally take responsibility to fix the mess of culture has been put to bed so many times that I find it pathetic that so many have raised this anti-intellectual flag on this good blog. I, for one, have better things to do than edit the humorous musings of amateurs. I do enjoy a good laugh from time to time and appreciate Mr. Giampietro calling this article, which I would otherwise never look at, to my attention. The hopeless scope of it's overview only confirms what I believe - we live in an amateur culture where the monkies run the zoo. I for one would not want to see the faces of many of the posters here, nor want them to write the histories of my profession, and am glad they remain anonymous, lest they be my friends. I also for the same reason do not read anonymous history, though I am interested in the anonymous in history.

Are we so sure these low-brow bee-hive type endevours are truly the best way to advance our graphic profession, for the knowlegable as well as the lay, much less humanity?
Bernard Pez

I can't belive it. Stop barking and write it by yourself. Those people are doing it for free. Means = they are using up their time. Maybe it would be better for you to wrie that entry in Wikipedia than to write this article for selfpromoting reasons.

Well, I would hope the implication of my little wager wasn't that it was the critic's job to etc. anything. I, however, don't define my entire life by any single activity that I engage in, and don't particularly buy it when other people attempt to.

Rob and whoever else can critique all they want when they're wearing that cap, but there comes a point when it is necessary to get down off the critical high horse and, as an individual, actually do something. As with so much of the net-related criticism that pops up in these blogs, there is a major cultural disjoint being ignored. You don't critique a wiki page, you fix it; that's the entire point. Crying anti-intellectualism is all too often a lazy response to, "Don't be pompous," and trying to frame this as a pro/amateur issue is just arrogant. The information is either correct or it is not, regardless of who it came from.

You know how people tell you that if you didn't vote, you don't get to complain about the government? Calling out the failings in this article is all well and good, though founding that on it being funny is...misguided(I'm being diplomatic). But if you're then unwilling to take any sort of action, who are you defaulting into the position? Right: the same supposed idiots who botched it in the first place.

Are we so sure these low-brow bee-hive type endevours are truly the best way to advance our graphic profession, for the knowlegable as well as the lay, much less humanity?

Who said it was? But guess what: You're stuck with it. Wikipedia is, and barring some cataclysm will remain, one of the most powerful sites on the web, ranking far above say, the AIGAs for the term, not that they're exactly clear on the matter, either. You don't need to fix every erroneous definition you encounter on-line, but you do not have the option of simply ignoring this one. And most importantly, you actually have the option of direct participation.

design is not art:

This is the second article in a row that you've trolled to the point of nausea. i am sure none of the admins are laughing at your personal attacks and attacks on the site itself.

In my opinion, and this might seem like a wild idea... No one who is seriously thinking about becoming a graphic designer or hiring a graphic designer is going to rely SOLELY on Wikipedia for their research. As an entry point to graphic design, it doesn't do too horrible in introducing some of the very basic ideas of the field, though it is humorous and a bit silly at times.

my basic point is that, as usual, protecting the "sanctity of design" has produced some fiery diatribes that aren't really necessary.

although wiki is a huge presence on the web, anyone who has dealt with it (and anyone who read this article) can tell you that it's not really all that credible. here's the irony of my post, though (that i'm quoting wikipedia to reinforce my argument against it):

"I love Wikipedia... any site that's got a longer entry on truthiness than on Lutherans has its priorities straight."

-Stephen Colbert as listed on wikipedia's page Wikipedia in Popular Culture

The user-moderated forum of wikipedia just seems to reek of flaws and according to the founder, Jimmy Wales: the way they make sure it's not false information is letting the community monitor each other. sounds credible.
ed mckim

After reading the revised entry on graphic design, I noticed that no women are listed as notable figures in the field. I don't know my graphic design history well enough to suggest which notable women designers should be included, but it would be a shame if this now much discussed wiki entry fell into the usual pattern of how history is written. I can't be possible that only white men shaped this field.

The Book of Kells was mentioned in my history of graphic design class and its in Meggs book about the history of design.

Elitism and professional language is hardly arrogance i.e undue overbearing claims. Indeed it is the height of arrogance for any Joe off the street to think that they can just sit down and somehow craft with a bunch of other anonymouse Joes and Jodys a credible history of anything!. Joe culture is exactly what is killing this culture right now; George Bush is the perfect Wiki president. Also, assuming that criticism is not work, craft, and knowledge applied within its own frame and point of view is simply ignorance of the role, history and function of criticism. The critic is a doer precisely through their criticism.

I am not stuck with Wikipedia - I ignore it even as I admit its existence, indeed right to exist, and there is ample reason to have little trust in it. The more I read the responses to this post the more I quake for the future of our graphic society and society as a whole. Always remember, we are a republic of ideas, not a democracy where every opinion is equal. Discernment and elitism and anti-populism is correctly built into the sinews of civil "republican" culture. Besides, just because everyone is having wikisex does not mean that you should not protect yourself.

Bernard "Bosco" Pez

I wonder how the Ken Doll would look as illustrated by Patrick Nagle?

For the record, the very person who is arguing in the new thread "Image deletion and selection" against deletion of some of the images you mentioned is the same person who added the Rio cover and caption ( which has remained unchanged for about 4 months.

Yes, and the Air Force One photo is back! Apparently, someone is very attached to that image. (On the other hand, the newly-added image of pictograms has not been deleted.)
Ricardo Cordoba

Wow. This thing has really taken off. I think Rob has really started something interesting here.

Although, does anyone else think that this discussion is indicative of the larger problems that out profession is facing?

Greetings all-
This I find funny in the above discussion:
Wiki ignoramuses = some undefined 'the masses' = 'the majority' = pop culture = Duran Duran

.... = Lethargy in the 'graphics' community, unwilling or unable to enlighten the 'masses' to what we do.

After reading through this thread, it seems as if the Graphic Design entry for wikipedia should be changed to:

Graphic Design: A profession consisting of professionals that are so insecure that they fear wikiepedia and who are too lazy to actually edit the wikipedia article in the first place.

Edit Wikipedia to your hearts delight. I'll stick with the sources.

Bernard Pez

Fun thing: how can one post about wikipedia get so many different opinions, postives as nehative.

Re: amateur culture.

First point: the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled over the course of 70 years with the assistance of an army of amateur contributors who looked for word sources. You know the OED? The definitive guide to the English language?

Second point: when is an amateur not an amateur? We all see plenty of design work from trained professionals that's lazy, inept or plain bad. There's a strong "barbarians at the gate" attitude coming from some of the comments above. It shouldn't require pointing out but "amateur" (untrained, qualificationless) artists, writers, musicians, etc have been making "the culture" for decades.
John C

I do not take issue with Rob's article, or the concept of wikipeia, but in terms of scholarly (or even correct) information it is sometimes just downright wrong!
I was trying to find information on the graphic design Pierre Bernard. I happen to know that he won the Erasmus Prize in 2006, so I searched Erasmus Prize, went to the wikipedia entry clicked the hyper link to Pierre Bernard and came to the bio of Pierre Bernard, Jr., a graphic designer and comedian for the NBC show Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Wrong. I submitted a correction to wikipedia, but so far it is still just as it was. Wrong.
Liz DeLuna

A surprising error in Wikipedia, which I stumbled upon this morning, is in the List of Graphic Designers. The Michael Rock I know, the designer, is a principal at 2x4 and a winner of the National Design Award, not a DJ at WFHN, the popular Top 40 radio station in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

William Drenttel

The barbarians at the gate comment is fair. I do feel this at times reading the drool of mainy of the contributors to this post and the blood boils. And yes, unfortunately I find myself sounding like a conservative fool promoting a type of "Aryan" art against a "Degenerate" art. But in this case I think the true degenerative form is the often wrong ramblings of amateurs in the sense of the word that means inexperienced and unskilled. The contributors to the graphic design wiki go by anonymous monikers such as "Designo" and "Strangenet". I could probably e-mail them and strike up a conversation but why bother since their very anonymity makes me question their seriousness, amateur or otherwise. And yes you can question my seriousness too - I go by the name of "Bosco" (for a reason - I do not do my serious work here, I merely test ideas). Nevertheless, and very seriously, I am pained when a virtual "John C" compares the likes of "Lumos" and "oicumayberight" to the members of the Philological Society of London and James H. Murray. Oicumayberight may be wrong much of the time or at best "truthy" and he, I suppose, is trusting the likes of me, "Bosco Pez" to correct his ramblings - somehow trusting that the utopian end result will be ok. There is a genius to this "wisdom of crowds" like process, for sure I admit this. At times wiki may be useful for a first glance. But the process and the product, as the original article by Mr. Giampietro points out (he at least uses his real name) is too often laughable and only the discriminating, the discerning, the experienced, and ther skilled know this (and weep). That would be ok except for the fact that "truthiness" is not a complement - it is a critique.
Bernard Pez

A surprising error in Wikipedia, [...] The Michael Rock I know, the designer, is a principal at 2x4 and a winner of the National Design Award, not a DJ at WFHN [...]

...and let the record show that as of this writing the error was not corrected, nor apparently was any comment left informing anyone who might be willing to correct it of the fact. Not that it would matter, since nothing of any worth was ever written by an Anonymous or pseudonym.



Completely unrelated to the article, I must state that I really like this site's layout and one I've been looking for myself for a long while now.

I hope you don't mind me being inspired by your layout for my next homepage version.

Perhaps we should simply accept Wikipedia for what it is and what it isn't. It is an unusually fertile source of ideas and information. It isn't a carefully edited, written or curated text such as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

I realize, even just by skimming as I scroll down, that other people have mentioned this already, but I just surfed in, and as a result of your bizarre diss of the Book of Kells i not only have trouble taking this article seriously, but have jsut summarily dismissed the whole entire website. I mean really, even if you stand in total ignorance a simple google search should tell you enough about it to stop talking silly talk...otherwise, dude, get an editor....

...and just to follow up: not a single taker. Nor can I see any significant changes made to the entry, though there have been various bits of clean up.

Although this thread appears to be dying, I wanted to add one comment.

Jonathan wrote:

Like you, I'm also frustrated that Wikipedia is given to fluffy topics over weighty ones (seminal typefounder John Baskerville gets 400 words; the video game World of Warcraft merits 7,402) but so goes the culture. I have two books about John Baskerville, and 54 back issues of Elle Decor. I can't really blame the publishing industry for that.

While John Baskerville may be a seminal typefounder, I beg to differ that World of Warcraft (or Elle Decor) is outside the realm of "weighty" subjects.

Over a million people play World of Warcraft worldwide, and its so much a part of the popular vernacular that South Park devoted an episode to making fun of it.

Just to add to the weight of popular culture, Rachel Ray's (who's Wikipedia page is also quite substantially longer than Baskerville's) first issue of "Everyday with Rachel Ray" sold over 20,000 copes in its first two weeks, and has sold over 1.3 million copies in total.

This doesn't dimish the impact of Baskerville, but it is a compelling benchmark to the relative "weight" of these subjects.
David Hartman

You do understand or at least, realise where the lettershapes that make up such a large part of our Graphic Design came from and how they developed, don't you? Knowing this kind of thing means that one could reasonably call The Book of Kells iconic. I know they didn't have as many things to sell or market in The Olden Days but Graphic Design isn't just about Advertising, or is it? Might I also suggest you use a spell-check before you post, it's likely, not likley.
Timothy Donaldson

The c-word — canon — quickly comes up here. What are graphic design's greatest hits?

Obvsiously nothing you have created, dude.

first of all, re: all the talk on the book of kells , true, design as a discipline did not exist at the time of the book of kells, but in my gd history classes in college we studied this book as well as numerous illuminated manuscripts and calligraphic documents -- the discipline may not have existed, but they are its history and as such are not out of place in an entry about graphic design.

but the line that i most took exception to in this article was the implication that there was humor in the statement "there are "virutally no limits to the size and applications of graphic design." this is absolutely true. from traffic signs to toilet paper packaging to book covers to posters to the text on the dashboard of your car. this is all graphic design, whether it is award winning or not. what's so funny about that?

also, i agree that the author of this post should have edited the wiki. that is the power of wiki's and of the internet -- embrace it! but the article wasn't useless, as it opened this discussion.

You don't like it; change it.
Some guy

John C, GREAT point about the OED, and your second point was good too. The line between "amateur" and "professional" is not as well defined as a lot of people think. You can have a job as a graphic designer after having studied it in college and still be less knowlegable than someone who doesn't and hasn't.

I've been reading this blog for a little while now and enjoy it, but when you have a guy writing that has never heard of the Book of Kells it makes me wonder whether I should take it seriously. We covered the Book of Kells in my one semester, survey art history course. I'm a freshman at RISD and won't even enter the graphic design department until next year.

Thats a great article!

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