Rick Poynor | Essays

The Two Cultures of Design

The April issue of Creative Review magazine features an intriguing article by Adrian Shaughnessy, founder of the Intro design group in London, and the man behind the Sampler series of surveys of music graphics. In “From Here to Here” (the title only makes sense if you can see the images that go with it) he argues that the once homogeneous field of graphic design has “begun to separate into two distinct strands”. On one side there is professional practice in all its forms; on the other a field which he terms “design-culture graphics”. This territory is inhabited by designers doing their own, often self-initiated thing: publishing books and magazines, starting websites, and designing and selling T-shirts, posters, DVDs, and other graphic doodads. “Stylistically it is usually radical, adventurous and sometimes even downright purposeless,” he writes.

The only questionable part of this claim is the strangely tentative suggestion that this process of splitting has only just begun. As Shaughnessy, a long-time design watcher, must know, it has been under way and gathering momentum for at least a quarter of a century. In the US, Emigre – the very paradigm of an entrepreneurial, alternative design-culture initiative – has been operating successfully for 21 years. By the early 1990s, it had helped to inspire an international uprising of go-it-alone garage fontographers.

In Britain, the split began with the new wave that followed punk in the late 1970s. Designers such as Brody, Saville, Malcolm Garrett, Rocking Russian and 23 Envelope were so notable because, not only did they shun the mainstream in which designers would once have expected to find work as a matter of course, but they also produced the most inventive and durable British graphic design of the period. Their audience was other young people, and it’s well documented that their example inspired many to become designers. In 1993, I wrote an article for the AIGA Journal titled “The Two Cultures”, describing just such a split in British graphic design (reprinted in Design Without Boundaries). Inevitably, the professional side of design was extremely slow to acknowledge this unwelcome challenge to the status quo. First it rejected this work as “style graphics”, then it ridiculed it as “design about design”.

The splitting has been gradual and cumulative, but it moved up a gear in the 1990s. The reason that Creative Review, which has been around since 1980, is publishing such an article now would seem to be that, in the last few years, the split has become so glaring that it simply has to be taken into account. In Britain, a great many young designers emerge from design schools today with no intention of joining design’s mainstream. For young single people who want to express their individualism in their work, the idea of a small, informal collective started by a group of friends is hugely attractive – it’s an extension of student life. Garrett, inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1960s Factory, tried something similar with his company, Assorted Images, in the early 1980s; Tomato, formed in 1991, did much to popularise the idea of the collective in Britain and other countries.

The arrival of the first Magma design bookshop in London, in 1999, gave tangible expression to the split (Magma has since opened another London store and one in Manchester). By the simple expedient of installing a stylish, ceiling-high shelving system in its tiny shop, located off Shaftesbury Avenue, turning all the book covers outwards so you could actually see them, and playing trendy music, it created a space that conveyed an intense sense of graphic excitement. You can buy the same book elsewhere, but it’s more enjoyable – cooler – to get it at Magma. In other words, the shop recognised the need for careful presentation of the stock, an insight that is absolutely basic in other kinds of retailing. The wonder is that something like this didn’t happen several years earlier.

The most interesting part of Shaughnessy’s article is the claim made by Marc Valli, who runs Magma, that not everyone who throngs the stores on a Saturday is a graphic designer. Valli believes that graphic design (like other three-dimensional forms of design) has ceased to be only a specialist “professional” discipline and become a form of culture that attracts young people whose jobs have nothing to do with design.

There may be an element of exaggeration or wishful thinking in this, but it certainly makes sense to me. As a non-designer, I became fascinated by “design culture” in the early 1980s precisely because of the new wave graphic communication aimed at my own social group. It seemed natural, since I was already fascinated by art, film and photography, to find out about this form of visual expression. Over the last 10 or 15 years, writing about graphic design, I have often wondered why more visually literate people outside design don’t share this interest. I hung in there partly because I was convinced that visual communication was so significant in our culture that it would eventually receive more general attention and analysis. If Valli is right about his customers and their concerns are a sign of underlying developments, that moment may be at hand.

Comments [37]

This observation makes sense. As design seeps through the mainstream, Target, Pottery Barn, Graves et al. All those on the leading edge , not just designers, become hungry for alternatives. Those alternatives are found on the fringes. You see it in sneaker culture where visual literacy is part of the currency. The limited edition sneaker is one example as it overlaps the worlds of design/fashion/art/sport exposing non designers to these worlds. In sneaker collecting culture, the goal for the protagonist is to find the unique and the original, rather than stuff that's for mass consumption. Therefore, in order to compete, you need to be visually literate, hence the increased popularity of design books, design bookstores and magazines.
Edward Cotton

I keep going back and forth on design's potential breakout into the larger culture. As my conceit is that I'm a visually literate non-designer who 'gets' design, I have optimism. Then I see the conservatism of most young designers now (and Adrian Shaughnessy) and my students and remind myself that I'm not representative of much but me.

I agree that design has definitively been operating on different tracks for a while now and the failure to confront the reality has made a lot of design commentary irrelevant. (It happens also when art is discussed; that realm is hardly monolithic).

When I'm optimistic about design breaking out, I believe that designers are missing the real opportunity. They should dump all the rational, strategic-thinking "good-business" selling points and say: we're artists, hire us for the aura we'll lend.

I know that designers have always been hired for somewhat similar reasons (I had a conversation once with the head of a Minneapolis-based design firm who groused that their more economical and designedly-superior bid was passed over by the client, and the job given to a 'name' firm, based solely on reputation. It was Pentagram). But I say go all the way and advertise it's all a taste-based crap-shoot.

Why wouldn't clients then collect designers like they might art? Again, I know I'm not representative, but I do it. I'm not being facetious when I say a big reason I write for Emigre is that I get my words designed by Rudy VanderLans. For me, it's like getting my portrait done by Chuck Close.
Kenneth FitzGerald

that's an interesting article. as a design student, that's definitely an observation i can agree with. i've simply never thought about it that way.

i'm in a course that's composed of everyone from artists to engineers and as such, there are always conflicting perspectives. i personally tend to consider 'designers' who produce "design about design" artists.

is this a bad thing? not at all. it's simply a personal opinion of what constitutes design.

> and say: we're artists, hire us for the aura we'll lend.

I think we already tried that Kenneth. It didn't work.

I think we already tried that Kenneth. It didn't work.
I obviously think otherwise, and my article "Skilling Saws and Absorbent Catalogs" in Emigre 48 is the bulk of my argument why. Designers fuss paradoxically amongst themselves about their artist status but to the world the claims are overwhelmingly functionary and hedged. The claim is "our art works and we can prove it!" I'm saying it might be: "we don't know if our art will work for other people but you (the commissioner) will love it on its own terms." (Emphasis mine.)
Kenneth FitzGerald

It worked for David Carson. "publishing books and magazines, starting websites, and designing and selling T-shirts, posters, DVDs, and other graphic doodads" is all just another way to be David Carson, to increase the odds of getting to do your own funky style, because that's what you're selling. (Not that you have to be in the alternative design culture to do your own thing. For example, I think Tibor Kalman and Joe Duffy were equally where they wanted to be.) But I'm not so sure most non-designers buying design books get how significant it may be. Most design books don't even come near the idea.

I think it's largely an interest in Neat Looking Things. I hear about Geoff McFetridge, The Designers Republic, Groovisions, and eBoy all the time. NLTs dwarf the space and attention books like "Clean New World", "Obey the Giant", or "The Struggle for Utopia" get. I guess NLTs could be the stuff of concern or analysis, but could you tell me of what?

Rick's points tickle my parts because I operate in the latter half yet was schooled in the former. I am an LCP graduate that by way of love finds himself plonked in the middle of corporate Canada.

Though I work for a great award-winning firm, I still am bombarded with the rational, strategic-thinking "good business" selling points on a weekly basis. My heart pulls me into a punky "screw you" angle, but my head (and children's stomachs) convinces me to keep my mouth shut.

I think Shaughnessy is timely with his piece, it does appear that the scales are beginning to tip a little, with more and more self-initiated projects (see Fresh Dialogue 3) being spotlighted. So while the phenomenon is not new, it is now becoming more and more common to see "stuff" created by designers (as opposed to being "by Duff") that is not standard client-driven work.

A testament to design's importance within mainstream culture is the announcement that Ingvar Kamprad-the founder of IKEA-has overtaken Bill Gates as the richest man in the world, "The Power of Design" anyone?
Ben Hagon

I'm not sure what to think of this phenomenon of the non-designer taking interest in objects of design that have been made for design's sake. On the one hand, I could see it as another extension of consumerism and the quest to have the most and best "stuff". I could also see it as a population of people awakening to the realization that design does much more than simply look cool.

Our society reacts to previously held modes of thought and trends, so it would make sense that it would be drawn towards self-proclaimed authenticity when it has existed in a mass-produced consumer state for quite a while. The thing that perplexes me is that consumerism is rarely escaped by the simple act of searching for authentic objects/forms. It remains quite the same, but the object of desire changes.

A while back, a group of friends of mine had introduced me to these "one of a kind" shoes they purchased from Nike. Their lust for the objects confused me, and the fact that Nike even produced such objects both frightened and intrigued me. It's a brilliant marketing strategy to be on the cusp of what a segment of the population wants or desires in the products they purchase. So I see it as Nike fully morphing themselves to address current desires of consumers, even if those desires are purely a reaction to a practice that they helped set in motion (mass production/consumption).

Design made by and for designers will always serve an important purpose. Will the role of this sort of design change if it is consumed by non-designers who are simply extending their own experience of the world (or quite possibly just moving on to the next thing to consume)? If this sort of design becomes accepted and consumed on a mainstream level, will another form of design crop up that once again professes to be "by designers, for designers"? It almost seems more possible that this form of design will be embraced and as a reaction, designers will look towards non-design/common objects/etc.. for their inspiration and sense of community.
Colin Day

Ben, can you just insert "product" or "furniture", even "industrial" between your "The Power of Design"?

Kenneth, point taken. However - and this is veering slightly off-topic from Rick's post, so I apologize in advance - when you say: we don't know if our art will work for other people... you are throwing overboard what we, as graphic designers (at least within the professional practice side), are supposed to be doing; i.e. making "stuff" that will work for other people so they buy or use that "stuff". I'm not saying I completely disagree but isn't that what many of us have been trying to argue for for the past two, three decades? That we know our art will work for other people? (Emphasis mine.) (And in a normal conversation I would probably have used design instead of art in that last sentence.)

ha ha Armin!

Please bear in mind the role of branding in IKEA's success, for if you believe that their fortune came from their products alone, then you and I are in the wrong game.

Ben hagon

It may just be me, but this seems like deja vu all over again. Design has long been split between high and low, class and mass, extravagant and functional. Wasn't the arts and crafts movement about fetishising design products, including graphics? Wasn't the Weiner Werkstatte, German Werkbund, Bauhaus, and all the other leading design collectives concerned with making design into an alluring hook that snatches a certain kind of consumer's passions. Isn't that what Conran's was (and is) all about? Hmmm, isn't that what Target is about too. They have brilliantly comodified the design experience especially through their exquisite commercials and print ads that are collectible in their own right. Design adds value. Design is value. Design is product.

The recent trend, in New York City at least (although I saw this in Magma and London's Forbidden Planet), are designer toys that are purchased not to play but to display. David Kirk, creator of Miss Spider's Tea Party, might very well be the grandfather of this when he opened an East Village storefront during the Eighties to sell handmade and original designed toys, this spun off into a form of semi-mass production of toy-objects in beautifully designed boxes (I still have many), and eventually became totally mass-produced. Today graphic and dimensional products are sold in the finest boutiques. And you know what gets a lot of shelf-space? Type products. John Maeda's various screen programs, Emigre, House Industries, and various other "brandname" designers' wares.

But again, this is nothing new. Erte was a industry unto himself, as were many of the Art Deco creators. Lucian Bernhard's furniture sold through Great Rapids, but along with it were sold his posters. Design has long been considered "art." So, what's new?

Steven Heller

I find this article very intruiging because I feel that I fit into the "strand" that practices "design-culture graphics". Through my design-school years and my introduction to the corporate world (both were very recent, as you may suspect I am very young and still very naive.), I have experienced moments of humility and embarrassment at the hand of peers and family. This rude awakening came from underestimating the non-designer's understanding of design principals. Just as I, the proverbial non-conformist, look for objects that "define me as a person", so do my peers and family. Non-designers are aware of "design products" and they openly purchase these because they want to feel as though it makes them unique. My acquaintances are typically very familiar with the designers that are sold on the shelves of Target, and typically know more about the history of Micheal Graves then I do.

Why do designers produce products out of a corporate enviroment? I feel it is because designers have an innate need to make the world around them better through function or visual aesthetic. The general public latches onto these objects of design because somehow they feel it makes them feel as though they have somehow bettered something.

There may be many pitfalls on the way to design's breakout into mainstream, but in the end I think it can only be for the best.
Matthew Scheuerman

Do I detect a slight insinuation in what you're saying, Rick, that criticism of the new school is the desperate rear-guard action of a declining elite hellbent on maintaining its grip on power or relevance? ; . )

I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I do want to defend the idea that there is something important and distinct and valuable in that which was (and is) practised by capital-D designers, something not present in their younger colleagues' work. I no longer much care what one calls it - essentially religious disputes over what constitutes "design" or "styling" or "art" or "wanking" aren't especially useful - but some distinctions seem worth making.

I think "design-culture graphics," if a somewhat clumsy locution, expresses one of them. Like you, I too was first drawn to design culture through the vital graphic ferment around punk rock and new wave. Black Flag's bars, say, or the Germs' blue circle, or a Gang of Four record sleeve; a lot of this was topnotch corporate identity work, if you will. I had, and have, absolutely no argument whatsoever with the idea of bottom-up, fuck-the-rules, DIY experimentation.

It's the inward-turning nature of "design-culture graphics" that turns me off, the airless, in-jokey self-referentiality of a lot of it. It's cut itself off from the external point of reference that continues to supply justification and energy to the canonical sort of "high" design I believe in, the civilian user of design. It's fun, it's clever, it's even (occasionally) startlingly cool, but it just doesn't speak to my own personal need to feel like I'm doing something engaged and productive with my life time.

I'd be willing to bet that a lot of the talented people currently turning out design-culture-inspired or -styled material will themselves eventually tire of the insularity, and will want to turn their energies toward the solution of some bigger problem. Only time will tell, of course, but while we're waiting I'd prefer not to think of myself as clinging to a fading notion of relevance.
Adam Greenfield

Kenneth, sorry so late to respond to your post, but I needed to look something up:

With few exceptions, I get three types of inquiries. One is the clientele that comes out of curiosity: "They're called THIRST, I wonder what that's like." With that curiosity comes a certain expectation on their side. The expectations are rarely the same as the reality, which is sometimes for the better. The other type of client is the one who seems to know a lot about design. And perhaps the more they know, the more expectations they bring. With more expectations, the fewer discoveries they are able to have and the process isn't quite so smooth. Then there is another kind of client that comes in, the one who wants me for whatever kind of status they want to assign to the project, so they can say, "Yes, Rick Valicenti has designed my piece."

This is from an interview of Rick Valicenti by Rudy VanderLans, Emigre #26, 1993. The impulse to persuade people to hire us just for the "aura factor" has been around a long time. Just ask the guy who bought the "Robert Brownjohn designed this business card for me" business card about 40 years ago.

This is not exactly what Rick Poynor was talking about in the original article, but I do think that the it is the route by which the second culture he refers to influences (and ultimately becomes) the first.
Michael Bierut

This new school of designers have been around for a while. I believe part of this drive to be independant is to not carry the jaded, and closed view that many design instructors have. Coming from a NYC design school with a decent reputation with reputable designers as teachers, i was shocked to see how many of these reputable designers have this really jaded view on the design world. They painted this very bleak, depressing view of the design profession for young designers who where really eager to join the world. Many of the same teachers were disappointed in seeing any new work that didn't look like it was made by saul bass, or milton glaser, or josef muller brockman.

The younger teachers involved in their own work were more eager and optimistic about the future (this was also probably cause many of them were making tons of the internet boom). That independant energy just carried over though.

The logical conclusion to me was to avoid this bleak depressing world by not being a part of it. By being independant and working for your own means you dont have to deal with the negative, cynical energy that seems inherent with being part of the design profession.

As an independant you can concentrate on developing your own voice in design without being restrained by others view of what "design" should be or is.Who wouldn't opt for that?

Basically, I think this split is in part because of design teachers unwillingness to be receptive to change. If the teachers were more receptive to new idea's and in general more optimistic about the design profession as a whole, this split in idealogies wouldn't seem so strong. It would make the design firms which the teachers come from seem like a great place to work.
Remember, many of us got into the profession cause we didn't want the "normal, boring" work experience.


Design has long been considered "art." So, what's new?
What's new is, first, that some 60+ years has passed socially and culturally since the last movement/school that Steve mentions. And that design has not ever, nor still is, considered "art." All the artifacts Steve mentions are firmly considered craft, furniture, industrial design, etc. "Artishness" is applied as a surface treatment in his examples, rather than the object, and category, transformed. So, nothing has changed in that sense.

Let me offer two transformed objects: Piero Manzoni's infamous 1961 cans of his excrement, and the shark in Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). (I could cite many other, more mundane, Hirst works). Something distinctly different is going on here. My main point is that the conversation is far more complicated than most designers care to get into.

The impulse to persuade people to hire us just for the "aura factor" has been around a long time.
Michael is absolutely correct here. I originally intended to cite Steve Jobs' hiring of Paul Rand to do the NeXT logo as a example similar to the ones Michael cites. I dropped it as I was vague on the exact circumstances surrounding that commission (I was home and my copy of Steve's Paul Rand book is in my office) .

So, I would amend my comment to say it's a rarity and gotten no traction in the field. From what I've seen, designers are scorned within the field for making such moves, and thought shallow. It goes against all the functional dogma. And artists don't give a damn about design.

Again, as I wrote in my Emigre essay, I think chasing after "art" is silly and have zero interest in working up some intellectual argument that design is art or vice versa. I just wish people would be honest with themselves and others about what they do and why. I see the designer/commissioner [I try to avoid 'client" when I can] relationship as a two-sided charade where neither side is up-front about their position and are acting mainly out of fear.

I don't care if design is considered art but I do like to shake things up. I have a very real desire which may illustrate what I've said previously. It's my goal to be selected to do the Whitney Biennial catalog (sorry, Abbott) as an artwork in the show. The problem is, as a participating artist, I don't think I can get paid for my work...
Kenneth FitzGerald

The whole idea of "two cultures" is very dubious.

Almost all the stuff Rick cites as being part of some new graphic activity - t-shirts, books and magazines, posters, little catalogues, self-generated work for an audience of friends - has been around for decades. We have all seen evidence of designers having fun, sounding off and showing off in books of graphic design history; Ivan Chermayeff's collages, Brodovitch's Portfolio magazine, Typographica magazine (at least as influential in its day as Emigre), Pushpin's magazines, Renner and Cassandre's type sample books, William Morris' self-published booklets. I echo Steve Heller's comment, "so what's new".

What's new I guess is that this stuff is taken as a sign of some deeper shift in graphic design. The line goes: graphic designers are demonstrably taking hold of the purpose of their designs, obviating the need for a client, and look, the people love it.

The increase in people buying more graphic design magazines and books, and graphic toys, is surely not unconnected with them buying more of pretty much anything and everything - more daringly designed furniture, funkier fashion, bolder food, long-haul holidays. Having chic material on your Noguchi coffee table is de rigeur.

The problem with citing this material as emblematic of anything more profound is - as always - content. So much of what graphic designers do without a client is thin, or hillariously self-referential, or even purile.

This comment in Rick's most recent book cuts right to the quick: "Given the overriding need for a content and for something to say or express in the first place, the specifically 'graphic' component [of such work] is probably not the most significant part of such a venture. On the other hand, there are many examples of self-initiated design projects that have no deiscernible content or purpose other than the private satisfaction of making random graphic marks. Their audience, if they have one at all, is limited to other graphic designers".

Rick's other main point is that Garrett and Tomato and Saville represent some kind of design counter-culture. Is it not just that, like almost every designer, they went where the work was? I don't see how Tomato's founding is any more avant garde to the founding of Fletcher/Forbes/Gill thirty years earlier. (Except that Tomato's turnover, from advertising work, has been in the millions from early on. Shrewd guys.) Garrett is a professor and Royal Designer for Industry (RDI), Saville has been proposed as an RDI and his latest client is EMI (part of one of the world's largest entertainment conglomerates), they both regularly appear on juries, Saville attended the private view of his exhibition at London's Design Museum. Its hard to imagine how anyone can get more embedded in the design establishment than that.
Quentin Newark

Art and design: Big debate. Granted there is a dichotomy rooted in purpose and function. Graphic designers have long either tried to bridge the gap or accentuate the differences.

Before or after they passed away, I'd visit the studios of "modern" practitioners, like Rand, Lionni, Bernhard, Binder, Lebowitz, Sutnar, Nitsche, etc., and invariably I'd find two cultures - and often two lives: Art and design. In the "work room" would be the artifacts of problem solving - posters, logos, brochures. In the "den" would be the documents of art - paintings, drawings, sculptures. In almost every case the art was very different from the design (in most cases the art would be less exciting, less profound, and even less aesthetically pleasing than the design). Of all these mentioned Leo Lionni's organic stone and steel sculptures (a few monumentally standing on his grounds in Radda in Chianti) were the least derivative and most startling of them all. The rest, even Rand's moody still life paintings, were just OK (Bernhard's portraits were down right oppressive). Their art was truly their graphic design.

And yet none of these people were like today's design-as-product entrepreneurs. Sure, Rand, Lustig, and others produced a few graphic textiles, and Lionni produced over 30 children's books, but their design was not sold to anyone other than their clients. They made clear distinctions.

So what's new? Well today we learn there are two graphic design cultures. And maybe there are. Certain graphic designers have become cottage industry entrepreneurs, selling and distributing design as product. Some of it is indeed fun stuff. But I don't necessarily see this as an art versus commerce debate.

It is natural in a creative life that people with imagination and ambition find outlets and audiences for work they cannot sell to clients. And it is highly valued and welcomed in the current gift-show culture. In fact, just spend an afternoon at annual (or biannual) the New York Gift Show and you'll see a lot more offerings by many more entrepreneurial designers than discussed here. As Quentin noted, Push Pin Studios was producing a product line decades ago that was a logical extension of its "artistic" rationale, today the number has proportinally increased. The impulse to produce creative stuff is why many of us became graphic designers .

The reason why this is a big deal to Creative Review is that it fits into the mandate of its title. This current entrepreneurial culture is "creative" and the magazine is mandated to "review" it. But context is everything. This new culture is but an extention of an old culture.

What I think is somewhat new, are how those trained as graphic designers who are using their skills (and art) to produce products that are not simply design for design, but design in the service of something. Quentin is right, content is everything. I'd say that value in people's lives is also something to consider.
Steven Heller

Glad to see that our piece has provoked so much discussion. As some correspondents have noted, this is a phenomenon that has been gathering momentum for some time, however I believe that there are a couple of factors in addition to those already mentioned, that make it that much more prevalent right now.

The first is the state of the economy which makes it that much harder for designers to get interesting work made. Thus, in frustration and as a self-promotional tool, many are looking to produce their own items and initiate their own projects. I wonder how many will persist when they have more than enough fee-paying jobs to occupy themselves?

The second is the internet - any designer can now set up a store for their wares with a worldwide catchment area (eg Airside). I would flip Steven's point in the last post and argue that, as well as the current entrepeneurial culture being "creative", the current creative culture is also entrepeneurial. What was it Napoleon said about the British being a nation of shopkeepers? Perhaps that latent desire to set up store is reappearing in our graphics community?

The third is fashion - this stuff is cool right now. Along the street from my office is a shop called PlayLounge run, I believe, by a relative of Marc Valli. It sells nothing but "designer toys" - the plastic figures by the likes of James Jarvis, Kubrick, Pete Fowler et al the trend for which originated in Japan but is now going strong in the UK. You can even buy these things in Selfridges now. But how long will it last? Already the graphic book market has reached overload: it won't be long untitl the "kidz" move on from cute vinyl characters.

I agree with Quentin that the content of much of this stuff is hardly profound - it's fun, trivial, gimmicky fayre by and large, made and bought by a small coterie. However, as these designers and their customers mature we may see consequences that outlast current fashions and economic factors - the shift away from graphic design as being purely a service industry and toward an alternative designer/maker/retailer model.

If you take, as one extreme, a company like Interbrand and, at the other, say, Airside, do they have enough in common for us to say that they are both in the same business?
Patrick Burgoyne

There are some excellent points here, but an absolutely key point has been rather overlooked. What interested me in writing the starting post was not to note that designers engage in these self-initiated forms of design (we know they do), or to ask why they are doing it, or even to explore the question of quality on this occasion. What intrigued me was the possibility that an interest in the culture of graphic design might - just might - be developing outside the design community. And, along with this, that a broader market for designers' projects and products might also be developing.

Clearly, this design awareness, visual taste and desire to consume already exists in furniture, interior and product design, and these things now engage a much wider public than was once the case. Even here, though, many people are only just waking up to the centrality of design in our culture. (See The Substance of Style, by Virginia Postrel, a journalist who writes about economics. The book is wide-eyed with wonder at how visually attractive everything has become.) In the Creative Review article, the main evidence for a wider interest in graphic design culture is Marc Valli's observations about his customers. This is hardly conclusive, though successful retailers do have good instincts about these things.

If this really is happening, then it is certainly something new (in Britain). Perhaps if there are non-designers reading who have a view on this and are able to relate it to developments in their local culture (I think we have to be wary about transatlantic, let alone global, generalisations) then tell us what you think. The regular presence of non-designers on this site might be taken as some evidence for a broader public interest in visual communication. When we launched Design Observer, it was our hope that we could create a dialogue beyond the boundaries of the design community. Sometimes it happens. For instance, Momus, a well-established musician, has commented here from time to time. He clearly takes an informed and active interest in "design culture", even though this is not his line of work.
Rick Poynor

it's this strange circular logic (these things/people are 'avant-garde' because this design journalist says they're 'avant-garde' and therefore those things/people must have made a claim to be 'avant-garde') that always seems in large part to drive this argument, and which seems to only exist within the writings of design journalists. what this has to do with say, what fuel is actually doing or thinking about, and how that may relate to what landor is thinking, and how those two things might be impacting on wider (or narrower) culture, defeats me.

assumptions, hearsay, second hand information, insinuation (how sure are you, quentin, about the history of tomato's turnover? from how "early on"? and, presuming you know what turnover means, what does it have to do with this debate? what's brian eno's turnover? that might be more relevant if there is to be any heart or ambition in this discussion) also seem to underlie this debate-that, and a certain combination of bitterness and acid conservatism . . . even a sense of the desire for schadenfreude. which is a great great pity, because the true history of graphic design in the second half of the twentieth century is dirtier and more filled with joy than that, power and passion and drugs and debt, life, porn, love and heart-and a real lack of pretension towards anything but a way of living, of belief and being inside marks and shapes, lines, light and words. more time spent talking and listening and less time trying to weave half-truths from thin air might result in that history beginning to be uncovered—or perhaps, instead, one day there'll be a design icon (a person or a group) created entirely from rumour, misinformation and second-hand assumption.

design books studying or attempting to define graphic design are design for designers (not too much wrong with that—a bit inbred, maybe). patterns, toys, objects, sounds, images, books, things-working in the tradition of people like the eames, bruno munari-are obvious outgrowths into the big hard old world of a life spent making and doing. why is that so difficult to comprehend?

Great post, Graham. You direct a couple of comments to me.

I don't know (or, rather I don't have second-hand information on) Brian Eno's turnover, but I am sure its substantial. He does live in tax-exile in Switzerland afterall. I have heard him answer a question on the radio to the effect that his first act every morning is to check the share prices in his portfolio, and that he finds the movement of stock prices more interesting now than music. Ironic I am sure, but perhaps not completely.

You, obviously, know infinitely more about your turnover than any rumour I may have heard, but do you, in heat, miss my point? What Rick appears to be doing - following Adrian's article - is arguing that design has been splitting into 'two cultures'. One; dynamic, daring, devil-may-care, and experimenting with novel new forms like collectives, and largely responsible for a great flowering of books, magazines and various designer products. One; lumpen and 'mainstream'. (By the way, mainstream is just as deadening and empty a term as avant-garde).

I don't buy this view of design at all.

I tried to argue that designers, as you point out with admirable phrases, have always produced "outgrowths" of their life "spent making and doing". This, in itself, is nothing new. Nor "difficult to comprehend". I comprehend it, as the list in my post ought to make clear, I just don't agree that its a new phenomenon. You mention two figures producing outgrowths 40 years ago.

I also tried to argue, briefly, that designers have always experimented with different forms of commercial structure. My mention of Tomato was merely that just because designers form a collective, doesn't mean that this is some sort of denial of the market-place, an extension of uncommercial "student life", a political act. (As it once was, the word 'collective' bringing with it all sorts of baggage from the experiments of Socialism.)

Its in a designer's nature to experiment, and to collaborate with like-minds, whether she be labelled as 'avant-garde' by critics, or 'mainstream'. Fletcher/Forbes/Gill was a collective, so was Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar, Pentagram is surely the most remarkable enduring collective in the design world. In fact many of the studios founded before and after Tomato are collectives, its almost more common than any other form.

I am a bit confused about your idea that we should all talk and listen more, but we ought not to "weave". How are we to talk and argue our points without weaving? Rick's whole argument rests on one comment (reported second-hand, or is it third-hand?) by Mark Valli. Should we only ever talk about what we know first-hand? Talk would be pretty sparse.

I am very intrigued by your idea of a "real" history of graphic design, rife with debt and porn. You obviously know some good stuff, when will you talk more about this, "uncover" it, as you say? You would have many listeners. If anything is going to make design interesting to a wider audience, it would be this.

I sign off now, to go and live inside some marks and shapes.
Quentin Newark

quentin-i did miss your original point-now that you put it as above. i think we fundamentally agree (my examples of eames and munari): but i think it's the 'weaving' that has caused this debate to derail and veer into a kind of twice-a-decade-look-how-new-everything-is cycle. i enjoy the debate, but mostly it's too abstract and, yes, based on conjecture based on hearsay. none of us are more than an e-mail or phone call away. what's wrong with primary sources?

if many of the people here spoke about what they knew and felt, first-hand, with passion, i really don't agree or think talk would be sparse. it would be rich, specific, sometimes enlightening-and, you're right, there would be many more listeners.

I'm glad that Graham mentioned the Eameses.
How silly not to cite them from the get-go. They mastered the fine art of inventing valuable and durable products for mass consumption (including graphics) - and for acquiring an avid following outside of the design community that continues to this day. They also proved that design disciplines are fluid. A typographer can easily design a chair, while a chair designer can invent a graphic design product.

Returning to Rick's point:
" What interested me in writing the starting post was not to note that designers engage in these self-initiated forms of design (we know they do), or to ask why they are doing it, or even to explore the question of quality on this occasion. What intrigued me was the possibility that an interest in the culture of graphic design might - just might - be developing outside the design community. And, along with this, that a broader market for designers' projects and products might also be developing."

Of course, the answer is yes. There is a much broader market as I suggested in my earlier mention of the NYC Gift Show, which often includes designer's wares (i.e. the Zolo line of toys and books, but also various Eames products that are still produced and soughtafter, not for nostalgic appeal but because they continue to function and entertain), which are aimed not at designers but other design-interested consumers.These products further often generate interest from the mainstream press style reporters who blurb or review them in their design/lifestyle pages, which encourages demand, resulting in a modicum of sales and profit. Then they are written about by cultural critics as examples fashion, trend, or zeitgeist, which incidentally, prompts us design writers to get all excited that graphic design is garnering serious attention and then we write about how the culture is coming around to appreciating design. Such is the circle of life.

Steven Heller

I'm delighted to be mentioned by Rick as somewhat symptomatic of this widening of interest in design. My feeling is that he's right: something has changed in the way design is consumed. I think of it as something like the start of a new religion. What characterizes this 'religion' is that design matters to it only insofar as it incarnates some kind of aspiration (and by 'aspiration' I mean the inverted snobbery of 'street' designers like Bast, Faile and Obey as much as straight-up bourgeois snobbery). Design is currently attracting the kind of 'questing' people who, a century ago, would have been young officers sending their poetry to Rilke and asking for advice on how to become a writer, as if it were some sort of religious calling. (Rilke responded very kindly with his 'Letters to a Young Poet', a sort of FAQ or manual for amateur versifiers. Perhaps Rick's next book could be 'Letters to a Young Designer'?)

This 'religion' of design has an expanding network of 'churches': for instance, when I recently returned to my home town of Edinburgh, I was surprised to find a Magma-like store in the Grassmarket. Its stock overlapped with similar stores in other cities: Zakka in New York, ProQM in Berlin, Quattro in Tokyo: Japanese toys, T shirts, low circulation magazines, skate style, DJ culture... But of course, what such stores are really selling is something metaphysical. They're selling 'sophistication', 'cool' and 'aspiration', passports to 'the good life', 'street knowledge', 'subcultural capital'. They're places where we envision a better life, a life where everything has a super-legitimacy, where everything goes just a little beyond the call of duty. (There's a curious link between these values and Japan, which seems to have more than its share of these spiritual 'questers' seeking such 'super-legitimacy' outside of its normal sites in art and religion -- Takashi Murakami has called the paradox of their search for the immaterial in the material 'superflat'. So it is that these 'design' stores are always also 'Japan' stores.)

Although these aspirational values may be far from the daily experience of working designers, they're yearnings design is well-suited to cater to, because design is perceived (at least by outsiders) as being about the adding of value. Its perceived contentlessness (for design is adverbial, an etiquette, a 'how-to-do' and not 'what-to-do' activity) might be seen by frustrated designers as what separates them from fine artists, but it is exactly what qualifies design to be a locus of pure added value, pure fetish, pure glamour. And, as we know, glamour is something projected from a distance, a sort of misunderstanding which nevertheless gives real and meaningful value to the thing misunderstood.

Fascinating post and comments. Can I play mystified outsider and fan for a sec?

I just watched the documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," about Motown's house musicians. They were, essentially, jazz guys who played pop-music backup to pay the bills, but who also spent the evening playing jazz in local clubs for next-to-nothing, if anything at all.

So: you do what you love when and where you can, and you sell to the market what the market seems willing to buy. There's probably some sloshing-over back and forth. The musicians in the documentary, for instance, talk a bit about how they'd bring ideas from their jam sessions back into the Motown recording studio, where the jazz ideas would help keep the pop fresh. And maybe, if you're hot and/or lucky, a small market develops for your jazz too.

So the creative person fakes his/her way through life as best he/she can. Is this anything but common experience and common sense? Ain't it always the way, and is there really any solution to the conundrum?

I confess that I marvel at how often graphic designers seem to complain about being expected to help companies make their images and products more attractive. Isn't that what their job is? I've run across designers who seem to think they should be subsidized by patrons for being creative.

Well, shouldn't we all be subsidized for being creative. But that's not the way the market works, and we all (trust fund babies to one side) need to deal with the market. To what extent, and how we do it, is certainly up in the air. But again: why is this such a big issue for graphic designers? I've never run into a field where so much bitching and moaning goes on. (Apologies for my expasperated tone, BTW. I'm actually writing as a fan of DesignObserver and of graphic design generally.)

If they're feeling creatively hampered by market conditions (and again, aren't we all?), well, why not cut loose during free time? And if you find buyers for what you make on your free time, cool. Why all the agonizing?

Of course, if you sell some of what you make on your free time and then quit your dayjob in the expectation that you'll be able to make a living on your creativity alone, you may well end up feeling more rather than less anxious, pressured and uptight. And, of course too, there are always those half-a-dozen stars who seem to get away with being creative and doing well financially and having almost no one to answer to. But they exist only to drive the rest of us crazy with envy; and the chances of becoming such a person are about as good as being struck by lightning.

Is it worth the gamble? And shouldn't we be grateful for the for-hire work we find and the checks we cash? What's so bad finally about putting your skills to work to pay the bills you need to pay so you can cut loose and be creative on the free time you have?

Admittedly, it ain't an easy life, and reserving time and energy for personal work takes discipline. I'm happy to bitch over drinks about this with just about anyone. But what's the altnernative? Government grants? Then you're essentially working for the government. A flourishing new market for pure design? I'm only guessing, of course, but I'd be surprised to see such a thing ever become much more than a small niche market, able to support only a handful of lucky and industrious designers. The only answer to the conundrum seems to be a trust fund. May we all come into some big money.

I guess underlying my grumpiness here, for which I apologize, is a fair amount of experience with pain-in-the-ass graphic designers. Talented and efficient many of them have been, but bratty too. Instead of being eager to help me with projects -- projects I was paying them with my own hard-earned dough to help me with -- they've too often been whiney about how my demands were stifling their creativity. From a client/customer's p-o-v: why should I care, really? I've got my own problems, including finding my own time to be creative.

So, a question? Might it not be useful to urge young designers to have a more generous and open attitude towards their routine and corporate work (as well as to continue experimenting on their own, of course)? After all, it's where you're likely to have your greatest impact. Those Motown backup musicians aren't likely to be remembered for their jazz, lovely though I'm sure it was and much as they loved playing it. They're going to be remembered for the Motown music.

Michael Blowhard

Michael, great comment. I think it's too easy to forget how many great things were created in the service of simply grinding out another day's work. Motown staff writers Holland/Dozier/Holland just kept punching out songs for Barry Gordy's machine, but those compositions have had a lot more affect on people's lives than, say, Milton Babbitt's (no offense). Likewise, I'd argue that the supposedly onerous Hollywood studio system managed to create many lasting works of art in the form of gangster movies and screwball comedies, just in the process of keeping the distribution channels well-stocked.

The moral? Put your talent into the work that you do, no matter what that work is.Saving it for your "art" on the weekends isn't worth it.
Michael Bierut

I understand that people need to make money, and that good things can happen from doing so.

It would be nice to say that it is a simple choice to either stay in or keep out of the profession, or balance both. But some extra things actually keep you out of this profession (both practice and teaching) even if you consider yourself a practitioner, and can't be kept secret or on the side because of their very nature. Well, I suppose you could keep it a secret, but if you keep the most interesting and time-consuming thing in your life a secret, then you have a big hole in your resume and can't prove that you're anything other than a very experienced janitor and a "poor" student.

Unlike Mr. Poynor, I can't say I'm a non-designer; it's not that simple for me. What I do is design work, and I've opted to go autonomous full-time. It seems to be the only way to do it properly. What's the point of being a pain-in-the-ass graphic designer and letting clients like Mr. Blowhard help you to think that your excess creativity is appreciated to some degree. It isn't, because he has no clue how far you'd like to go. Only what is acceptable to the market is appreciated, and otherwise you're just a pain in the ass.

So I'm a new outsider looking in on a design world that I always thought I'd be a part of. For financial reasons, I may not be able to do this forever, but I do plan through all this to offer the design world more than complaints, given enough time. In the meantime, though, there are lots of people gathering commercial experience and I may have no chance of getting a design job in the end. So what? I won't be remembered for Motown. So what? It's not about not wanting to sell out; it's about doing what you want to do and figuring out how to get money from wherever you can, in a way that won't destroy what you're trying to do.

I think there are many, many designers out there who are becoming very mediocre because of the lopsided "balancing" act that they mistakenly think will help them find the happy medium. No, it takes a shift of the axis, the paradigm, to set it all straight.
Tom Gleason

I was pleased to see Rick's response to my Creative Review article. It is appropriate that it should attract his attention as it was commissioned by Patrick Burgoyne on the strength of some comments I made in a review of Rick's book No More Rules.

I accept that there have been 'two cultures' in design for many years. No argument, and I acknowledge this in the original article. But the genuinely 'new' ingredient in this is the interest in graphic design from beyond the professional domain. Rick points out that by citing the observation of Magma-owner Marc Valli that many of his customers are non-designers is 'hardly conclusive'. Dead right. But in my article I give other instances of this phenomenon, principally the Designers Republic discussion board, a lively arena where many of the participants are clearly not graphic designers. And I have enough anecdotal evidence to convince me that the old professionals-only interest in graphic design is a thing of the past.

Interestingly, this new-found interest from a non-professional audience seems to sidestep the art vs design debate. To non-professional fans of graphic design the fact that graphic design is a commercial activity is an attraction. My guess is that there is a generation who are now oblivious to the old art vs commerce debate that still hangs around design. A generation that considers shopping to be the western world's principal leisure activity is not going to waste time debating this old chestnut.

But it should.
Adrian Shaughnessy

I'm a little over-caffeinated this morning so can't resist droping another mystified-outsider comment here.

Do people in the graphic-design world really go into agonies about whether or not graphic design is given its due and regarded as art? Really? Why? Haven't they followed these discussions in other fields? Movies, for instance.

Admittedly, it took decades for movies to finally be recognized as art. Once upon a time, people really wrestled with such questions as whether or not the movies were too vulgar, or too commercial to be considered as art. Especially (as Michael Bierut points out above) Hollywood-factory movies -- after all, they were team productions, so who exactly was the artist? But movies finally did get recognized as art -- by many people, finally, as the preeminent art form of the 20th century. And this recognition happened decades ago.

Why are these arguments still taking place in the graphic design world? And how to explain this? I mean, to an amateur and a fan, it seems perfectly clear that many ads, products, magazines, etc, are much more brilliant (and fun, and provocative) than most of what you run across in galleries these days.

Do graphic designers struggle with feeling like second-class citizens or something? Mere craftspeople, where the show-off fine artists get all the "creativity" kudos?

Well, that is too bad in many ways. I guess. On the other hand, flying under the intellectual radar can be a big advantage, given that intellectual attention can kill a field with self-consciousness. (Great old line about post-bop jazz: it's what happens to an art when the intellectuals take it over.) One thing I like a lot about DesignObserver is the way y'all discuss these matters without weighting the field down with too much pretense and theory. I guess where I differ from y'all a bit is in suspecting that maybe graphic design profits from having a second-rate rep, if indeed it does. Allows for more speed, less self-consciousness, more irreverence and invention. The great pulp and b-movie traditions, for instance, arose in lit and film not because some critics had made the activity respectable, but because they were flying under the radar. The intellectuals only caught up with them (and invented rationales for them) much later. So why not embrace the second-rate rep graphic design has? Why not see it as a source of strength?
Michael Blowhard

Very interesting thread. And as one who operates exclusively as a designer engaged in self initiated designs I can only hope that there is, indeed, a growing interest in graphic design culture. But my outlook is slightly less optimistic.

Magma is successful because it found a tiny niche. They can make it work for them. But the publishers who produce the design widgets that Magma sells, they need hundreds of Magma stores in order to sell the thousands of copies necessary to make it economically viable.

And I don't see this happening at all. There have always been Magma-like stores. But for every one that opens up, it seems another one closes its doors. We've seen them come and go by the dozens. I have a drawer full of bankruptcy notices and uncollected invoices.

Also, I haven't exactly noticed a "splitting" of design into two distinct strands. It's more like a splintering. The overwhelming majority of designers still work by taking commissions from outside clients.

And are we really experiencing an increase in non-designers on blogs like DesignObserver? I guess going from zero to three constitutes an increase, but are we perhaps kidding ourselves?

Like Motown's Funk Brothers, I suggest you better not give up your day jobs.

Graham wrote:
'perhaps, instead, one day there'll be a design icon (a person or a group) created entirely from rumour, misinformation and second-hand assumption.'

That would be art
Achilles Why

This "often self-initiated thing" gives designers new roles to perform. It's no longer about translation for others, now they're creating for themselves. There's more birthing than delivery. These entrepreneurs control idea, form, and distribution. And while doing all of the extra work, they can pocket the extra income.

Now I wonder, how do these design-driven products, gizmos, and merchandise function any differently from all of the other goods out there? They're just becoming one more brand in an ever increasing nebula. So where's the value? In the designer, that's where. These signatures, these brands, these designers, these people will hopefully stand up for what they are doing and making. Hopefully they'll emphasize their purpose and place in our culture, in addition to their creative births. The product can't speak for itself. And if it's a designer design about design, then it will only speak to designers.

It will be interesting to observe who can remain viable in a global market that chews you up and spits you out. Designers are capable of using style and aesthetic to project messages. Can they do the same when it comes to making their own products? Like David Bowie, will they change and change and change in order to maintain a profit that keeps them afloat? I look at Émigré, and realize that as the times have changed, so has their platform, their look. Yes, it's still about typography and selling fonts (isn't it, Rudy?), but at the same time, the magazine has undergone alterations that for the most part serve it's audience well. Still, that's a designer design about design.

There are plenty of books, products, ephemera, and collectibles being created and distributed by talented graphic designers. If they're making them for designers and about design issues, they're selling to a niche market. That's viable. If they're trying to reach the general public and fall on their face with loads of credit card bills and upaid invoices, then it is merely art, an expressive flight of fancy. Once it's out of their system, they may go back to delivery, because as every mother knows, giving birth sucks the life out of you.

I cannot speak for anyone else besides myself(+Catelijne).
Regarding Michael Blowhard's statements, I think there's a large problem with the line of thought which rationalizes a day job vs. the freetime design mentality. Playing on a jungle gym and designing are two very different things. Design should extend to (and is stronger beyond) freetime, but perhaps it's more influential and existent to force freetime design into the day job. It seems logical to connect design which is less resolved to the day job advice Blowhard has offered.
Many of the great past artists' worked day jobs to fund extraordinary freetime careers.
But did Picasso paint on the side to fund his painting? Toulouse—Lautrec created many posters, and this may be seen as a day job which was taken to create freetime paintings. Is there any loss of integrity in either of Picasso's or Lautrec's 'freetime' activities, I think not.
Blowhard's statement seems to offer an honest reason for creating less than desirable design in the office in order to 'reserve time and energy for personal work'. It would seem that the 'bratty' designers blowhard speaks of followed his advice too closely. Designers who deal with intelligent clients, which we all hope they are, cannot afford to assume such a position. Any talk about 'bratty' designers should address the specific designers per se, and include a client position in the specified design process.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

As far as the 'art vs design' issue, my personal stance is that graphic design mostly isn't art, and there are very rare instances of design that deserve to be treated as art. Not that this makes design in any way an inferior endeavour, in fact I consciously chose to be a designer and NOT an artist; I consider the two as fundamentally different fields, both equally valid, but different nevertheless.
I like the idea of being presented with problems, whether visual or informational, and solving them to the best of my abilities, thus helping people communicate. I don't consider this in any way base or mundane, and in no way inferior to self-initiated art. Of course, self-initiated projects are very valuable in that they permit me to explore issues in a way that commissioned work may not permit, but ultimately, I see them as a way to learn things that will eventually feedback into commissioned work.

Design is a practical field and that's why I love it as much as I do.
Achilleas Why

As designers, it is easy to understand what is shaping the design community. Now more than ever we see a lot of individuals who practice design with all the tools and software that is needed to create books, magazines, websites and much more. So how can the design field have such extremes from the professional practice, with all its forms, to a different kind of practice that Rick Poynor states as a "design-culture graphics". We must first understand what really defines a graphic designer. Is it one who knows how to use all the Adobe Illustrators, Photoshop, QuarkXpress, and Macromeadias' Dreamweaver, and Flash? There are some creative people out there, whether they are a professional designer or not. Is it something deeper that defines who a graphic designer is? One of the problems of defining what a graphic designer is and does, is the term graphic design. The true nature of this line of work is visual communications. All the projects that we do for each client is visually communicating a thought or an idea. Just because one may produce aesthetically pleasing work on Photoshop or Illustrator, doesn't mean that you are creating purposeful and meaningful work, as far as communicating an idea behind the work). We should consider changing this term to a more definitive term so we can seperate the ambiguity among all the practicing designers.

Its clear that the splitting of the design culture has began since the 90's. The reasoning behind this is technology. Technology has made it easier and more accessible to many people abroad. This is why designers shoud be concerned and voice there opinions and always be critical in our profession. It is vital in our line of work to exploit the creative talents that we possess and produce the highest quality of meaningful work! That way it will always differentiate between a true Graphic Designer (a practicing professional) and the one who isn't a professional of this field.
James Hooper

Dive in head first and stop wading.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

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