Mark Lamster | Reviews

Big Book, Small Reward

Among the trends I’d like to see disappear in this new decade, right up there with urban taxidermy and use of the term “foodie,” is the mania among design professionals for obscenely fat monographs. You’re accustomed to the formula by now: a jacketless brick of a book, gnomic text minimally deployed, full bleed images run page after page after page. It was admittedly brilliant when Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau introduced it, back in 1995, with the publication of S,M,L,XL. That book came as a form of liberating empowerment. The two men had applied Koolhaas’s architectural modus operandi — rethink the essential parameters of whatever program a job entailed — into the making of a book: No longer would it be a mere container for text, but a three-dimensional object in its own right, a fully integrated vessel of word and image.

What catnip it was! The designer as a transformative thinker rather than merely a form-giver, a true hero for the global age! S,M,L,XL, inevitably, became a model. Who wouldn’t want a big fat doorstop advertising their genius? Fat books feel good in the hand and they feed the ego. They impress the hell out of clients. Best of all, they’re easy to make. Designers, visual thinkers by nature, could be spared the difficult and time-consuming work of making an argument in words. Images would suffice, and if the result had a cryptic air to it, all the better, for the mystery would only add a bit of cache to the proceedings. 
The latest entry to this field, It Is What It Is, comes courtesy of 2x4, a New York firm with a long history of association with Koolhaas. The book has been received with some avidity, and it’s no surprise, for the design world had been anticipating a book from 2x4 for a long time. The firm’s principals, in particular Michael Rock, are not only gifted visual thinkers but pugnacious writers on the subject of design authorship. Rock is probably best known for his 1996 Eye essay, "Designer as Author," often misinterpreted as a battle cry for designers to generate their own material. With “Fuck Content,” published in 2005, Rock made his position a bit more clear. It was the way of making — call it process or “treatment” — that mattered. The essay concluded with a quote from Roger Ebert: “A movie is not what it is about, it’s how it is about it.” This ostensibly applied to design as well.

That quotation is repurposed in the introduction of It Is What It Is, which purports to be a “portrait of a studio” rather than a traditional monograph. “This book is a blurry telling of a blurry story,” the introduction states. “It superimposes diverse projects, scales, eras and voices onto a typical trajectory, starting from first contact and concluding with delivery into the world.” Effectively, it’s the literary equivalent of a hard-drive dump, a cliché we know from countless sci-fi and action movies. But here, instead of a rapid-fire montage that concludes with the film’s hero seizing on some lost bit of buried information, we have 1,000 unstructured pages, one image to a page, that add up to — exactly what I’m still not sure. If the argument is that the design process is messy and essentially unmapable — “practically autistic” in the book’s own words — then why waste everyone’s time in the first place?

Judged purely on its own terms — on how it is about what it is about! — It Is What It Is is a formulaic work, an appropriation of the Koolhaas/Mau system with some additional borrowings from Irma Boom, though without the painstaking craft that makes her work so special. It begs one to ponder the costs, both real and conceptual, of introducing yet another fat book into the marketplace at a time of scarcity. Make no mistake. From a materials standpoint, fat books are wasteful: they use lots of paper, and their size and weight make transportation and storage an energy intensive business. Ergonomically, they’re less than ideal: they’re too bulky to carry around and they’re a pain to navigate. But like an overgrown loudmouth at a party, they have a have a way of dominating the conversation, in large measure by virtue of their size. (This book, for instance, has now generated two posts on Design Observer.) It’s simply a matter of space. Though we like to think of the intellectual world as a zero-sum arena, where more is always better, that’s not quite the case. We only have so much space in our lives, and so much room on our shelves. Just for example, It Is What It Is takes up as much room in my design library as monographs on the work of Ed Fella, KarlssonWilker, and Robert Brownjohn combined. Something has to give.

The ultimate frustration of this book, however, comes not so much on any moral grounds but as a general feeling of lost opportunity. The book is stuffed — overstuffed — with compelling material, and one would like to see the nimble minds of 2x4 reckoning with it in some kind of rigorous and original fashion. The conceit of the book, in the end, reads as hollow, for it allows them to punt on any kind of engagement with the complex ways their work is about what it’s about. For instance, how does one juggle one’s political and moral principles with the imperatives of making money? In 2006, recall, Rock declined Laura Bush’s invitation to attend the National Design Awards ceremony at the White House, justifying the protest in an open letter that referenced the Bush administration’s “disdain for the responsible use of mass media.” But leaf through It Is What It Is and you’ll find that 2x4 also designed graphics for Koolhaas’s Chinese Central Television tower in Beijing — that is, a propaganda wing of a government assailed by human rights organizations. 

Does this make Rock and his partners cynical hypocrites? I’m reluctant to arrive at such an ungenerous conclusion. I recently wrote a book about Peter Paul Rubens, a most admirable man (and occasional design professional) who took on work from some pretty unsavory regimes. Choosing and managing clients in a world of forced compromise are some of the more difficult challenges any designer faces; it would have been interesting to hear how one of the field’s leaders goes about its business. Alas, 2x4 has not given us that book. But, you know, it is what it is.

Comments [20]

The title immediately struck me as a cop-out, a preemptive strike for critics of it's empty hand. I've trimmed my book-buying dramatically in recent years, saving purchases for what I'd call 'books as artifacts.' The work of Ms. Boom is the high water mark in my eyes (any leads?). I bought IIWII, but regret set in almost immediately: I wasted one of my few yearly buys on this?

With each fatbook released, S,M,L,XL just gains lustre. Though it had its critics at the time as well.

Also, I'm allowed to change my mind later and start liking the book if my sensibilities change at some point - sometimes we forget that.

2x4 has always been the great assimilator of the last word in contemporary taste. Traditionally, I look to them to get the quick one-two on what is hip ("tell, me, tell, me, if you think you know," as the old song goes) since, tragically, I was born without hipness feelers.

But living in the thin air of upper-slope hipdom seems to have affected a bit of the old decision-making process here.

What fun to try to trap process like an insect in amber. What fun to trap confusion in pages. Lots of fun. Academic fun.

But a run of 5,000 or 10,000? Them's a lot of trees, Michael.
Natalia Ilyin

The cynicism that frames this review is truly depressing, and the banality of the elements used to construct the argument betray a lack of interaction with the product it reviews as well as research into the book's subject matter. The simplistic painting of OMA and 2x4 as complicit participants in the erosion of human rights is laughable, though resonates with previous articles that have appeared on Design Observer. Even more disrupting of my confidence in design writing is the way the author is trying to alert us that some sort of moral crime against mother nature has been committed just because a book has been published.

Even the smallest effort to abide by journalistic standards would've revealed that the initial run of It Is What It Is was 2000 copies, self-funded, self-published, and only sold online. Especially considering the bulk of wasted paper the design press produces each month in magazines, I don't think it's a sin against the environment to produce something that, as the author observes, was highly anticipated by designers, educators, and students.

For me, the book embodies an argument: "Designers make things...but these are not always the discrete things for which one gets paid. The simplest study can yield an idea, effect, or emotion. Printing, binding, programming, and building don't necessarily have anything to do with it. A designer's "things" happen at every stage of a design process; they are always finished, and never finished." By admitting that material byproducts of the design process (enacted by the individual designer or studio working within a network of collaborators) are both closed artefacts and open systems, this quote underscores the fact that design is ultimately a creative, and therefore humane, endeavor. I don't think this is a terrible thing to be reminded of right now.

The next 1000 loosely-assorted images are offered in support of that argument, and I believe it is up to the reader to take or leave it. Given that all of the pages are available for preview online before purchase, it is highly unlikely that any of these books will end up in a landfill.

"Designers make things...but these are not always the discrete things for which one gets paid. The simplest study can yield an idea, effect, or emotion. Printing, binding, programming, and building don't necessarily have anything to do with it. A designer's "things" happen at every stage of a design process; they are always finished, and never finished."

While I completely agree that the sentiment seems to be this beautiful and concise statement, one of the issues with many monographs of the last decade is that they all try to show this, but very few of them elucidate this. The author is correct in my opinion: Rock has long been seen as one of the great designer-writers in the profession, and yet here we see very little of his brilliance—as if he's "over it" (and perhaps he is). It's not that we can't glean the message from the book, it's that in a world of feeds, tweets and retweets, many of us hoped Rock and colleagues would still maintain that a more complex visual and verbal dialogue had its value. That may be asking too much of one studio, but nonetheless I fear the real cynicism really lies in the idea that its ok to write a "take it or leave it" for readers than to propose an argument and support it in a structured manner—especially for the team that helped conceive of Seeing & Writing

It's not just the big books either. I remember the reviews of the Mevis and Van Duersen monograph a few years back. It failed for similar reasons...as if it was designed with a disdain for a reader's actual interested in comprehending and understanding MvD's approach and concept of design. Thankfully a few of Paul Elliman's interviews extracted a few coherent ideas from the duo.
Derrick Schultz

Mr. Schultz has hit the nail on the head. It's been uncool for a while now for anyone to explain what they do, and what a drag that is. (Or is graphic design dead, and no one has really called it yet?)
The real cynicism, apologies to "Manuel," is in the title of the book itself. "It is what it is" ? So we are supposed to surmise that whatever it is is all the same thing? That design is flat, not worthy of elucidation? Well....Duh. That can be said in a paragraph, and the only crime against the trees is using so many of them to say so little. Shame on 2x4 for falling for the faux cool stance, and being so ungenerous in the face of their own good fortune.
ps: By the way, editors: isn't this the second time this weighty tome has been written about on Design Observer?

graphic design has been dead for years when any doofus who owns photoshop can say she or he is a graphic designer. the rise of interest in graphic design was also a sign, something that has been happening at least since the days of david carson/raygun. smlxl was an interesting book when it came out, but it was essentially a big piece of garbage. the charmain rolf fehlbaum book is basically a catalogue for vitra (which they also issue). lifestyle is mau's swan song, as he has mostly produced commercial rubbish under the disguise of 'change' ever since. and the 2x4 book looks absolute garbage, despite their making many nicely designed (but content suspicious) work in the past. wouldn't it be easier to say in one line- "big books by big heads but small payback"

I bought the book and was disappointed at the distance between my expectations (given Rock's critical writing) and the empty vessel that arrived in the post. While I appreciate an attempt to present content in unexpected ways, the result here seems aimless and wasteful - not just in an environmental sense, but in the sense of squandered possibilities.

I've always been curious about how the 2x4 reconciles it's criticality and the banality (at best) of many of its clients. "Manuel" seems to suggest that working for Nike, Prada & CCTV for example, isn't problematic. If the suggestion of complicity is "simplistic", I would have genuinely liked to have the book explain why. Maybe "Manual" could have a go now?

Jason's got a point. As belittling as it may sound, but designers (among many other professionals) can sometimes be so obsessive with the idea of achieving high status or the opportunity of a challenging work that they jump on the chance of working with/for big-names. But really, this world is not all about design as it is not all about politics or money-making. If designers poke their heads out of the Designland, we'll soon realize that out there in the world, people ACTUALLY talk and care about things.

Of course working with kingdom of sweatshops, center of brain-washing is problematic and mind-numbingly disturbing. We tend to (or choose to) overlook the facts about these big-names as long as the brilliance of the design is enough to retain our attention. What happened to the social responsibility of a designer? CCTV's way-finding system maybe master's work, but let's not forget how it benefits a organization that coax a sum of 13 billion people to sleep every night.

Design is not and should not be an eye-fold behind which you can pretend that anything you do doesn't in one way or another affect the world.

Does this bother you? It doesn't bother me. Are you selling to the 99.99% of the world who aren't graphic designers? These boring books are just so much white noise. Show them to your mum or uncle and watch their eyes glaze over. I can see lifestyle on my shelf as I type. Once I've posted this I'm chucking it in the bin. Because it's pompous and boring. Really, really boring.
Charles Saywer

"... Best of all, they’re easy to make. "

its hard to take this article seriously, when its written by a non designer who by that one simple statement illustrates his complete lack of understanding of what the design process is.

Regardless of how you judge the final project, a book of any size and scale is incredibly complicated, difficult and time consuming to design and see through to production.

It is that challenge that I suspect motivates many designers to try and tackle a massive book at least once in their careers.

This type of "armchair quarterback" criticism is disturbing to find on D.O. and hopefully not a sign of things to come as D.O. grows.

On content, sure, there are lots of vapid books out there, but while books are meant on one side to be informative they also are one of the only fine art mediums for the designer (the other being the poster).

As a book designer, I've rolled my eyes many times at super slick yet vapid books thrown out into the world by designers, but I respect that fact that they were able to see the project through. Books have different audiences, and for every book that I think is worthless, there is someone who'll think its brilliant. Thats the real value and magic of the medium.

no, in fact, these books ARE easy to make. some of the posters are correct in saying they are white noise, garbage, eyes rolling books... they have no value or real content. i would gladly sell them for a dollar at the bookstore instead of having them stink up my bookshelves.
michael l

Bruce Mau's Life Style has repeatedly been an inspirational source of ideas, information and pleasure for me. I find it sad that you deem such publications as "doorstops". While Kalman's book is actually very small (hardly qualifying as "obscenely fat") it, along with the others, is full of gorgeous photos and compelling writing.

So you didn't like 2x4's model? Fine. But calling for a moratorium on big books is ludicrous. If the content disappoints you or you resent how much real estate it hogs on your shelf, the solution is simple: don't buy the book.

I want to know what other designers are up to, even if their publication format is not a conventional monograph. Design tomes cannot compete with Dostoevsky and they are not meant to. Isn't that the point?
Jenny Kutnow

I own this book. I was introduced to this book via a professor in my grad program last semester. He presented it to me as kind of an ultimate process book so that's sort of how I look at it. 2x4 is showing off the range and scope of their work. And most of the pages are of course fantastic.

Given that it's self published I can't really knock their decision to publish in this way. It's a coffee table book. I'm sure clients are blown away and that's clearly the point. It's shock and awe. It's made to overwhelm. It is very design in that way. It's an approach one could take in design school. Maybe if I just throw out more good images than anybody else (or the most images even!) I won't have to analyze my work.

Maybe Mark has a point here. It's arguably a critical cop-out to not digest or sort your visuals. It also has, yes, that white noise potential. This presentation serves to equate all their projects... so it's completely up to the viewer to decide if something or anything stands out.

I'm glad I own this thing ...but yeah, it's a picture book. Which is fine. I still don't really know how to read this thing. Do you open to a page at random? Or start from the beginning and move slowly? Does it matter? But I'm still on first coffee. I read Peter Paul Reuben's wondering why Mark was writing about Pee-wee's comeback.
Peter A Jacobson

anyone with respect for "journalistic standards," would disclose what, if any, involvement they have had with this book and/or studio -- even in the comments.

Better than most of the junk on the shelves at your local bookstore ... including comm arts, I.D and how ...

Ryan D.

Ok, I'll disclose my involvement: just watching the literature of design sliding downhill the last few years. Take Paul Rand, a guy I do not idolize: still one has to admire the trouble he went through to write his many books, taking great pains to communicate with students, fellow designers, the general public. But now the avant-gard of design just wants to pretend that it's making art. It's hard to believe that 2 x 4 takes such a vague tone with their paying clients, but when it comes to everyone else they (and they are not the only ones) adapt this pretentious stance that seems designed to intimidate. I mean, if you don't get the disorder in the book you are just not cool enough, right? Here we are in a time when cultural practices are supposed to be all interrelated, and yet somehow when design and art meet, the designers throw the communication of design out the window, in favor of strategies of obfuscation. However, it's pretty impressive that Mark Lamster dares to suggest that this strategy might actually be designed to consciously avoid dealing with the "politics" of a globalized practice.

Well, now that this book has caused such a ruckus, I'll need to go and buy it ;-)

I know. The problem here is not enough coffee tables.
Howard Stein

Like glossy ads and loud tv commercials a book like that get people's attention. Whether it's trashy or genius is subjective, but it's most definitely effective.

I like the book for what it is. No it is not designed to the highest expectations by every single person that becomes a design critic. I like its clutterness, its own claustrophobia that we do become sucked into 2x4's own interior world. It's for us to dissect each page on our own terms, not yours.

Jobs | June 25