04.28.08
David Cabianca | Reviews

Two Lines Align


Installation views: Two Lines Align: Drawings and Graphic Design by Ed Fella and Geoff McFetridge, Redcat Gallery, Los Angeles, 2008

Two Lines Align: Drawings and Graphic Design by Ed Fella and Geoff McFetridge was the first exhibition of graphic design at the Redcat Gallery at the Disney/CalArts Theater in Los Angeles. The show, which closed in early April, presented a retrospective of the established “art-designer” Ed Fella and a prospective of Geoff McFetridge, a young designer essentially at an early stage of his career. Curated by Michael Worthington, a design educator at California Institute of the Arts, it is both an examination of two careers and a reflection of the state of graphic design in the now. But after seeing the show, in its context — in California, in LA, in the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall — it occurs to me that this was also a show about the trajectories of modernism, specifically, the trajectories of American modernism, which may not seem so obviously connected to the work of designers such as Fella and McFetridge.

Fella is American by both birth and education and has taught at CalArts since 1987; McFetridge is Canadian born, but received his MFA in graphic design from CalArts. The experience of seeing the show in a Gehry building says as much about American modernism as it does about its California context. And this context is not to be taken lightly. While thoroughly modern, Gehry’s work is expressive, idiosyncratic and stands in contrast to the strict rational glass-and-steel boxes most often associated with the idea of Modernism. Gehry’s work “fits” the particular — some might say “peculiar” — visual environment of Los Angeles. It is disjointed, multilingual, raucous and youthful, and it resists easy summation.


(Top left to right) Ed Fella, poster using excised 19th-century engravings, ca. 1970s; Coming of Age: No. 3, Male History/Self-Portrait, collage, 1981; (Bottom left to right) CalArts Dance Ensemble poster, 1989; flyer for Lisa Nugent, Reverb lecture, 1999

Since the mid-1980s, CalArts has pursued a specific form of modernism that was cut short by the influx Bauhaus-influenced European designers fleeing the conflict of the Second World War; a caesura later reinforced by the popularity of Swiss graphic design. Conventional (European) modernism imposed a grid of rationality from without, a conceptual grid which existed a priori and external to its subject. Guided by reason, that form of modernism placed an emphasis on the clarity of communication and the transparency of organization. It assumed a direct relationship between the message and its manifestation in advance of the act of designing. Alternately, the Arts-and-Crafts-inspired, “decorative modernism” practiced by the likes of Dwiggins, Goudy and Rogers — to which I would add Fella and McFetridge, and the CalArts School in general — developed its logic from within. Decoration, embellishment and “doodling” determine their logic internally, as they are being practiced. Decorative modernism develops a structure relative to its immediate context, during the act of designing. When we doodle, perhaps while distracted, we add marks on the page as a reaction to our immediately preceding marks, and not owing to some predetermined aesthetic organization. Fella’s work is measured letter by letter, with each subsequent addition contributing to the finished piece; McFetridge’s work is measured by time: “If it’s a one hour lecture, I’ll do a drawing for an hour and videotape it and project it while I am talking. So I figured out how much I can draw in an hour.” A drawing is complete when time is exhausted.

The catalog notes the traditionally uneasy relationship that graphic design seems to have with art practices, but that unease was not on display at Redcat. While McFetridge has a longer, established gallery relationship — he has previously exhibited his work in numerous venues — both Fella and McFetridge’s work feels at ease at the Redcat Gallery. This comfort stems not from an interest in producing “client-free” works, but rather because the work maintains its voice irregardless of whether it was client-commissioned or self-initiated. The conventional assumption that the graphic designer should subsume individuality to the client’s message is precisely what causes the public to think that graphic design is an insignificant form of cultural production. Both Fella and McFetridge contradict this assumption: included in the show are posters for music festivals and opera, music videos, sneakers and skateboards — all of which display the same strength of artist’s vision as work done for purposes of self expression.


Vitrine of Ed Fella sketch and collage books; Fella’s first sketchbook, 1976

Fella’s work is discrete. It is not environmental. His work accumulates. Similar to the detritus of American vernacular production that he gathers — bits of found typography, collected Polaroids, ticket stubs, mailing labels, lost dog announcements — these seemingly innocuous elements, when seen together as a fragile web of connected threads, are simply delightful. Fella’s many accumulations are present in the show, including over 50 of his sketchbooks, nearly 70 flyers, numerous collages and poster commissions. Also included are samples from his early commercial work for the automobile industry through his thesis from Cranbrook, on through his early fascination with 19th-century engraving: excised from books, these engravings are repositioned and recontextualized in later collage posters. These collages in turn, with their irregular spacing and cartoon quality imagery, herald the “bad kerning” typography series and “FellaPart” dingbat treatment we have come to recognize him for in his mature work. The magic of Fella’s designs lies in the fact that his flyers belie the labor involved in their production. It may take a full day to wax down three letters to the point of sufficient satisfaction. Thirty years of accumulation covering a gallery wall, as well as seven vitrines, represent untold hours of drawing, photocopy-reducing, positioning, pasting and then starting all over again — simply because the letter “just isn’t right.”


Geoff McFetridge, installation views

McFetridge is a counterpoint to Fella: his work envelops its audience. It covers a surface in grand, generous brushstrokes. His work’s impact and scale is felt in an environment not simply because its been applied to the walls of a gallery space, but because his outlook is broad. Any object is a potential design surface. While much of Fella’s work is discretely arranged, like jewels in a display case, McFetridge’s work wants to “bust out” of any container. His work is cacophonous, boisterous and exuberant. His naïf drawing style acts as a foil to his metaphoric and often enigmatic subjects. Everything is (generally) innocent. Everything is (generally) new. In his reference to the simple clarity of childhood — devoid of perspective, life is “flat” in Geoff’s world — McFetridge returns to the juvenile optimism we lost to our consumer-oriented culture. While Fella’s art riffs on the hackneyed commercial experience of his past, McFetridge recalls the wonderment of childhood. McFetridge reminds us that teddy bears can ski (but should do so without scissors) and that Yetis can be found if one looks hard enough.


Geoff McFetridge, installation views

The restraint of Michael Worthington’s curatorial intervention in Two Lines Align creates a dialogue which would have only been muffled had their work been displayed in a more intertwined manner, however, some interpretive information to accompany at least the major pieces would have been appreciated, particularly for the members of the non-design public who might not recognize with the significance of the work on view. Worthington designed the accompanying catalog (which includes essays by Jamer Hunt, Worthington, and a conversation between Worthington, Fella and McFetridge). Worthington’s shrewd strategy is extended beyond the homonym of the show’s title. Where two-color signatures occur, the book’s design maximizes duotone printing in a painterly manner: the colors do not reproduce Fella’s flyers exactly but rather suggest the printed intent; in other signatures, white paper is colored with “knocked out” white accents to a grand effect. Even the choice of typefaces is a reflection of Worthington’s acerbic wit: the body text is set in Electra, a typeface designed by the American patron saint of graphic design and former commercial artist, William Addison Dwiggins. And the headline type is set in Paul Renner’s Plak, a heavy, “grotesk” interpretation of Plak’s geometric sibling Futura. (Originally released in sizes between 72 and 624 points, Plak was intended for display size use in the coarse reality of advertising — “plakat” is German for “poster”).

Two Lines Align was much more than a collection of commercial poster or package design artifacts. Under the guise of a “two-man show,” it provided a window into an array of differences reflecting the respective practices of two different generations of marginal modernists tied together by a common thread. It is a point of continuity that Fella notes best when he ends the catalog with, “I can also see that as part of a shift that we both epitomize: something ending and something beginning but still being a continuum.”


David Cabianca teaches graphic design at York University in Toronto, Canada. He received masters degrees from The University of Reading UK, Cranbrook Academy of Art and Princeton University. He has been working on his text typeface, Cardea, since 2003; upon completion, Cardea will be released by the Emigre Type Foundry.

All photos by Scott Groller © CalArts 2008 except the following: Michael Worthington: flyer for Lisa Nugent, Reverb lecture, 1999, and Coming of Age: No. 3, Male History/Self-Portrait, collage, 1981; David Cabianca: vitrine of Ed Fella sketch and collage books, and Fella’s first sketchbook, 1976.









Comments [48]

I appreciate your nuanced definition of modernism in which it is not at odds with the decorative. I recall Jürgen Habermas' distinction between what he calls “the project of modernity" versus “modernism". For him “the project of modernity” can trace its root back to 18th century Enlightenment— reductionism, rationality, & universal morality according to an inner logic. He saw "modernism", on the other hand, as a distinctly avant-garde movement. I certainly see the work of Fella as pushing the boundaries of the status quo, and thus fitting Habernas' definition of modernism. While I find McFetridge's work in the spirit of the avant-garde I am left wondering about "the traditionally uneasy relationship that graphic design seems to have with art practices" or rather, the uneasy relationship between contemporary graphic design and the avant-garde. In today's era of high-capitalism and hyper-postmodernity, is it actually possible to create avant-garde work that is also advertising for corporate interests or are the two at odds with each other as one would assume?
Andrew DeRosa
04.28.08
04:49

to David Cabianca: what about that scale difference that you can see in the photos? did scale trump quantity, or was it a draw?
plakaboy
04.28.08
05:37

Where are you getting your definition of “decorative modernism” from?
Glen
04.28.08
07:26

Andrew,

I don't think of Ed or Geoff's work as part of an "avant-garde." I do think their work reflects a search for an authenticity of understanding, which is not the same as the authenticity of communication that was sought by Habermas. But if you see the work as part of an avant-garde, I think there is nothing wrong in pursuing that interpretation.

Plaka,

Both Ed and Geoff had large and small pieces in the show but the circumstances which surround the review affected my choice of photographs. I saw the show the day after it opened, but the review invitation did not come about until a few days before closing. When it came to writing the review, I relied upon my memory of the experience because I did not consciously seek out certain views when I was there: I tried to balance conveying a sense of the show to the public, with targeting specific notions raised in the writing, with trying to use photos which had not already appeared elsewhere. CalArts professional photographer, Scott Groller, did a wonderful job of recording the show.

Glen,

I didn't get the definition from anywhere. I was thinking of what characteristic can be used to describe the work that is also "fair" to the work. Labels are always a difficult enterprise, and I think it is time that words like "decorative" be reclaimed as a form of validation rather than seen as something pejorative.

What started me off on this line of thinking was seeing the show in the Disney Concert Hall. Architects like Gehry, Jacques Herzog+Pierre de Meuron and Peter Zumthor are decidedly "modern" but they all deal with "skin" conditions in architecture. So from there, I started thinking about the surface attributes of the work I was seeing.
David Cabianca
04.29.08
02:20

is the catalog worth purchasing?
am
04.29.08
12:41

David,
I don't know if describing Ed and Geoff's work as design is helpful. Certainly both are very connected to design, but perhaps their work exists somewhere closer to illustration and drawing/printmaking.

Certainly you can approach illustration from the perspective of a designer, which might imply a certain amount of exterior research, planning, trial and error and reproducible result at the end. But that doesn't match your description of Ed's work or Geoff's. Help.
glen
04.29.08
05:03

The catalog is beautiful.
Gluekit
04.29.08
10:52

Glen,
I'm not sure what is not helpful about describing Ed & Geoff's work as design. I believe that discussing their work in the context of design is helpful to the discourse surrounding design. You acknowledge that their work is "very connected" to design and that illustration can be approached with design methodology so why not discuss it as design. Even if it's not design (though I believe it is) it certainly could be helpful to discuss it as design even if only through extended metaphor (I like dancing about architecture). Narrow definitions of design shift and change over time. I enjoy the discussion of what design is and I would be curious to hear your current definition.
Andrew DeRosa
04.30.08
09:32

"When we doodle, perhaps while distracted, we add marks on the page as a reaction to our immediately preceding marks, and not owing to some predetermined aesthetic organization."

"McFetridge returns to the juvenile optimism we lost to our consumer-oriented culture."

I am also curious about this term 'decorative modernism': What are the objects of decoration, and how do those objects attempt a universalist and progressive relevance? I'd agree that there is an interest in architecture in skins, but those skins exist within materials, structure, and a specific urban setting. How does that thinking translate to this work?

Regarding the two quotes above, I think the first expresses the site to which the artist in the second wishes to return. But don't juvenile optimism, the lack of a sense of context in which one's position and actions have consequences, and a consumer-oriented culture go hand in hand?


manuel
04.30.08
11:37

I can't speak for Cabianca, but when I hear the term "decorative modernism," I think of the long line of (minor) notes in the modernist trajectory that would include say, Peche's wallpaper, or Girard's patterns, which are image-laden and yet not really illustrative, yet where the images refer to ideas and communicate symbolically, which is right where both Fella and McFetridge work, at least some of the time. The complicating factor with both of these guys is in their use of language, which is directly communicative (in McFetridge) and obliquely allusive (in Fella) - but both use it as a foil to their symbolic images. The poetic dimension that results from the interplay of words and images in the work of both Fella and McFetridge is what confuses people as to whether this work "qualifies" as graphic design; which is why even Ed Fella had to come up with his own subset term of "art design," to more precisely identify a genre where this sort of experimentation could be legitimately identified as exploring possibilites with the field of graphic design (without being thrashed continuously by pragmatists who claim it is useless because of its limited use).
lorraine wild
05.01.08
12:32

"Decorative modernism" looks like an oxymoron to me.

The relationship between architecture and graphic design cannot be pushed too far. Gehry's buildings do have a very distinctive appearance, but the appearance is only part of their funcion.

Graphic design's function is communication. If it becomes simply about expression and commercial work "display[s] the same strength of artist’s vision as work done for purposes of self expression," then it doesn't merit the term "graphic design," in the Dwiggensian sense, it is art turned to commercial purposes.

What Fella does is very interesting, but he stopped doing graphic design when he started teaching and was freed from the commercial demands on a graphic designer. It was only then that he had the luxury, thanks to the academic acceptance and even embrace (in the field of graphic design) of irrelevance to the realities of practice, to pursue his idiosyncratic embrace of what he calls "art design."

Ruth Chardin
05.11.08
05:00

A question for Ruth Chardin: what makes a flyer announcing an event, distributed to an audience, designed (and written) by Edward Fella not graphic design? (Note: he's done tons of them since joining academia).
Lorraine Wild
05.11.08
05:59

Yes, "Graphic design's function is communication" but communication occurs in numerous ways, and graphic design is not solely a means to communication. Architecture's function is to provide shelter, but it provides much more than that. Architecture is also a source of pleasure and a repository for memory and a signifier of power (these "minor" things have to do with that thing called "appearance"). The biological function of humans can be limited as to eating and reproducing, but would it not be just as ridiculous to reduce the accomplishments and the horrors of human existence to mere shitting and fucking?

I see no problem when art is used for commercial purpose, nor do I see a problem when commercial work is held up to be art. What matters is how a work achieves what it aims to do. Sweeping generalizations are useless when it comes to valid analysis. Each work needs to be analyzed in its own context relative to the conditions that it attempted to achieve.

I hardly think of what Fella or McFetridge do as being "irrelevant." It has an impact on the discipline of design whether the project they do is for a paying client or self generated. John Hejduk, former Dean of Architecture at Cooper Union, used to feel self conscious about the fact that he had not built as much as his other New York Five peers — Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Richard Meier and Charles Gwathmey. He was walking down the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum after it reopened with a show on Russian Constructivism when he realized that only a handful of the designs of the Russian Constructivists were actually built: Yet there he was, in building filled with their creative output, which helped shape the future of architecture practice and whose impact is felt to this day. Hejduk had an equivalent impact on the practice of architecture, both through his teaching and through his (largely unbuilt) body of work.

I look forward to the day when students of graphic design come to understand that graphic design — like art, theatre, literature and architecture — is a repository for culture and not just some service like plumbing, but I very much doubt that change will happen in my lifetime. There are just too many faculty out there teaching students that the sole function of graphic design is communication, without expanding on graphic design's ability to contribute to culture, pleasure and memory.
David Cabianca
05.11.08
10:03

I'm so pleased to see Geoff McFetridge's work featured here. I'm not sure that I'd describe his career as 'at an early stage', though. He's been practicing professionally for at least 15 years, and has been developing his unique style long before he attended CalArts.
bonne
05.12.08
03:05

In reply to Lorraine Wild, it appears to me that the communication of the subject, time, and event in a Fella piece is incidental. His works are about his work more than anything else. Yes, they have a graphic design function, but if I scribble on a post-it "Back in 5 minutes", that, coming from the other direction, could also be called graphic design. In both cases, the visual aspect, or lack thereof, is irrelevant to the message beyond the presence of identifiable letterforms.

Graphic design is a useful term only if the visual tools are used consciously to try to effectively communicate an appropriate message. Otherwise it is something else; art, doodling, play. It doesn’t mean its not valuable, but calling it graphic design makes an already vague and contested term more vague and contested.

In reply to David Cabianca, yes, graphic design is "repository of culture", but if we consider the function and frequency of graphic design as it actually appears in the world, it is clear that it is a reflection, not a creator, of culture of a given time and place. If we think of practicing graphic designers functioning like artists, writers and architects, we are kidding ourselves. The function of the majority (to put it mildly) of graphic designers in practice is far more analogous to that of plumbers.

The assertion that "there are just too many faculty out there teaching students that the sole function of graphic design is communication" is too categorical. Most teach, I imagine, that the prinicipal function of graphic design is communication. And they are right.
Ruth Chardin
05.12.08
09:59

When Marcel Duchamp signed "R. Mutt" to a urinal and called it "Fountain" he threw into question whole institution and categorization of Art, and made it a "vague and contested term" just like a post-it. And isn't that wonderful. There is nothing to be gained by shutting down discourse rather than opening up its possibilities. Duchamp's act made people uncomfortable because it questioned their understanding or foundation of what art (or design) could be, but that is why theory, cross disciplinary studies and greater exposure to culture are so necessary. If all one knows is graphic design, of course it is difficult to see the connections or relevance to other ways of thinking.

I fail to see how Fella's work is not graphic design. His work communicates effectively and it is in a form of expression that is of his making and his choice. What is wrong with that? The principle function of architecture is shelter, but if that was all that is needed, then civil engineers can provide the same services at a fraction of the cost (likewise, we would be teaching designers they only need 5 typefaces). Obviously, there is something else, something "extra," that architects provide in addition to the primary function of designing for shelter.

I don't know what "the function and frequency of graphic design" have to do with limiting its scope. Architecture is as ubiquitous as graphic design and follows constraints of budget, client demands and function. Architecture is also a reflection of culture, not its creator. When we look back to the graphic design of the 1970s, we see that graphic design reflected the same disenchantment with establishment thinking that was occurring in the general public. In the 1980s we see graphic design reflect youth culture and excess. These aspects are in addition to the communicative nature of graphic design, which is why it has the ability to function as a repository for culture.
David Cabianca
05.12.08
11:18

Chardin's condescending comment about principle functions of graphic design aside, it's hard to hear a critique of Ed Fella's work that sounds like it comes from the "Ugly" wars of the early 1990s (and to any reader too young to know what I'm referring to here, there's a thesis topic just waiting there...). Yes, yes, the purpose of graphic design is to communicate: but to relegate all but the most directed messages to some other gray area beneath the vaunted objectivity of the detached designer is to revert to some anachronistic model of design thinking that can only identify design by that which it isn't. Just as the field of mathematics can encompass everything from pragmatic application to theoretical speculation, the field of graphic design now has a similar span. McFetridge and Fella come from that "r+d" camp of speculators (or laboratory researchers, if one prefers). Their work is undeniably pointed at an audience. They use techniques that are eccentric and not universally applicable, but in ways that address the conventions of design and reading in the wider field. But Chardin's dismissal of Fella's work in particular as "doodles" is evidence of her lack of knowledge of the process behind the work (including the use of writing in his work), or a lack of understanding of the purposefulness behind the work, or a lack of the ability to see it at all. And the attempt to bat Fella's work away with the arguments of fifteen years ago is tedious.
lorraine wild
05.12.08
11:52

Lorraine Wild is missing my point. I am aware of Fella's process. I am also aware of his long and successful career as a graphic designer before his current career as a artist and educator. And I recognize the value of his work as art. But these are two different careers. David Cabianca refers to the central problem with his comment about civil engineers. Engineering communication seems a good description of what designers actually do. And just as the world has use for far more engineers than architects, so the world has use for far more graphic designers than "laboratory researchers," which is of significance to the huge numbers of graphic design students being taught the practical reality that " the [principal] function of graphic design is communication."

I'm sure that prosaic graphic design is not as interesting a subject for academics as visual experimentation by other academics, but there is no use in pretending that such visual experimentation is what graphic design is.
Ruth Chardin
05.12.08
12:46

Ruth,

Please don't teach. We don't need more closed minded people.
not a fan
05.12.08
02:14

Chardin, I am glad you see Ed’s work as art. I have the ability to see it as art and as graphic design. The reason why visual (“formal” or “form-making”) experimentation is necessary is because form becomes co-opted or encrusted with associative meaning soon after it is brought into use, i.e. capitalism always seeks the “next big thing.” It is a false assumption that there is some “neutral” form of visual communication. Finding new ways to deliver a message is part of what allows for the intent of communication to be delivered effectively: by finding new ways to deliver content, the message can seen anew. For example, the work being done under the auspices of Karel Martens at the Werkplaats Typografie is quite radical; it is certainly a product of visual experimentation, and I would say the same of Yale’s graphic design students. It may not look radical to some, but it is certainly not the same strict modernist work of the past. The work of the WT, Yale and designers like Will Holder, Daniel Eatock, and Dexter Sinister, among many others is quite fascinating to me, as my own students would attest.

Perhaps because I graduated from a university and now teach at one and not a college (in Canada, colleges emphasize vocational or trade school training and not disciplinary investigation), I see greater possibilities in what graphic design is capable of engaging, I am not sure. But I do think that questions of a disciplinary nature are worth raising.

As to “the need for more engineers,” I don’t know where this information came from. Much of the damage that was done to our cities during the 1960s and 1970s was in the name of efficiency and urban renewal as promoted by engineers. Neighbourhoods were ravaged, waterfronts destroyed and minorities were displaced as they watched their homes being bulldozed in the name of “engineering” (see I-94 in Detroit, for example). One of the challenges of architecture has been to maintain the distinctiveness of experience: the humanity of a place, its warmth, its human scale and sensitivity to the needs of inhabitants — concerns which do not appear on the engineer’s radar of functionality.
David Cabianca
05.12.08
03:50

Yes, the work you refer to is valid, and I am not suggesting that Fella's work may not be inspiring or lead somewhere. Art has always informed graphic design. However, by conflating the two, the value of the terms "art" and "graphic design" becomes debased. This semantic problem will no doubt get sorted out in time, but it is a problem when students, who for whatever reasons enroll in a university to learn the profession of graphic design, find out, on graduation, that they are expected to quickly and efficiently create communication pieces that operate in a well-established visual vocabulary and syntax, and that their days of "disciplinary investigation" are over, at least on company time.

Their education may have been interesting and enriching, but is largely irrelevant to the work that most of them are expected to do. In many cases, the graduate from a vocational college will be better equipped for, and more importantly, have more realistic expectations of what the profession (or trade, if I can so characterize graphic design) they have chosen will entail. There just isn't room in universities for their graduates all to go back and make a living doing and teaching experimental "graphic design."

This is what I mean by the engineer/architect comparison. I don't suggest that the world should have more engineers, simply that more engineers will find employment. The fact that students can study something called "graphic design" at a vocational college or a university (and I can think of no other field where so little differentiation is made between different levels of and approaches to education) underscores the confusion about what graphic design is all about.

Why did Ed Fella leave the profession of graphic designer and go back to, and stay in, school? Presumably because the profession of graphic design had no place for the visual experimentations he wanted to pursue.
Ruth Chardin
05.12.08
04:51

It seems to me that McFetridge makes a decent and satisfying living pursuing 'visual experimentations'. He creates TV commercials, designs snowboards, designs movie titles, etc. He does not model the profession of Graphic Design as it existed 10 years ago. His experimentation informs the rest of his practice. There certainly is a place for it.

As far as design education goes, what makes you think that 'disciplinary investigation' and pragmatics are mutually exclusive in a university program? Universities most certainly concentrate on process and authorship, but that doesn't exclude them from teaching students how to build a strong and competitive portfolio. Pragmatics teach students about the current state of design while visual investigation can teach students about what the future of design can be. Most process-based programs try to maintain this balance, and most produce forward-thinking students who are ready to become leaders in the design community rather than confine them to the production line in a typical design firm.
bonne
05.12.08
11:20

"Why did Ed Fella leave the profession of graphic designer and go back to, and stay in, school? Presumably because the profession of graphic design had no place for the visual experimentations he wanted to pursue."

Why yes, Mlle. Chardin, haven't you heard? They came in the night...Massimo Vignelli's hooded muhajadeen...and took Ed Fella's T-square and triangles away, forcing him to choose between "academia" and "practice." But not before they tried to stuff him in a bag and put him in a UPS truck (old school logo) to Basle. Oh, the horror, the horror...

Anyway, that's what I presume to have happened.
plakaboy
05.13.08
12:26

Ms. Chardin's understanding of engineering and architecture is decidedly old school and reflects poorly on her understanding of design as actually practiced today within marketplace situations. At the most advanced and innovative levels of architectural design practice - and here for example I am thinking about the architectural poetry of structural engineer Guy Nordenson or the engineering acumen of architect Norman Foster - traditional boundaries and definitions of what architects do and what engineers do break down. Nevertheless Guy is decidedly an engineer and Norman an architect and the overlap delectable and based upon pragmatics. I would hate to think that any architecture school would not be up to the challenges that these offices already demand of their young graduates.

Likewise, I do not see a conflict between the art and design practices of Ed Fella and imagine it would be impossible for him to produce his work if he did not have a total immersion into graphic design culture even as he tests its boundaries with other practices. This does not make him something less then a graphic designer even as it does not mean he is not an artist.

Interdisciplinary practice and critical thinking between disciplines are of far greater importance then ever before in the training of designers. In fact, the market place demands it. Who wants to hire someone versed in the pragmatics of today when those pragmatics and the technologies that support them will be mostly irrelevant in five years? I would have a lot more confidence in teachers who are actively thinking and creating in ways that challenge traditional definitions and boundaries of design - like Ed - and in fact reflect the contemporary demands of design practices, then rely on the exhausted and tiring platitudes of so-called educators who insist on obsolete boundaries for communication and design that are poorly related to the practical demands that students will actually face in the workplace.
John Kaliski
05.13.08
03:38

Bonne, John Kaliski and others betray an elitist attitude, which although endemic among architects and academics, is not helpful to most graphic design students. I will argue that, on the whole, the best teachers of graphic design, in terms of the best interests of the vast majority of students, are the currently practicing designers, those relatively uneducated second-class adjuncts to the design education system who turn up once a week and teach students what it actually takes to do and survive design work today. Without doubt, students must be ready to learn new technologies, and every graphic designer will need to be aware of the culture as it evolves. But producing "forward-thinking students who are ready to become leaders in the design community" will just create bitter misfits, as economic realities will, in most cases, "confine them to the production line in a typical design firm."
Ruth Chardin
05.13.08
09:06

Ruth,

Drop the self loathing. It's not helping your argument.
seth
05.13.08
11:39

I propose that Ms. Chardin immediately propose to her institution that the following overarching description of faculty skillsets be added to her school's catalog.

"...educated second-class adjuncts to the design education system who turn up once a week and teach students what it actually takes to do and survive design work today..."

For sure that pronouncement, shall I call it "Chardinism", is not elitist but it sure sounds bitter and surely not inspirational.
Bernard Pez
05.13.08
12:33

I don't understand why concern for students' appropriate preparation to successfully work in the real world should be characterized as "self-loathing" or "bitter." As I suggested, "bitter" is a state schools should not be setting students up for. The "relatively uneducated" (please do not omit the adverb and prefix) adjuncts are there anyway, whether they are acknowledged in the catalogue or not, and some of them appear to have more mental energy and enthusiasm than many tenured faculty, and are often popular with students as well, who also value practical approaches and techniques drawn from current practice. I do not suggest that we live in a perfect world; I merely observe that university education of designers is more about the aspirations and utopian visions for design of a small elite than about preparing the students for a career. If you were preparing them to be design academics or fine artists, this approach would make sense. However, most graphic design schools claim to be preparing students for a career while paying small attention to either the skills or functions that will be required of them in the workplace, while encouraging them to do conceptual work that, though it might be fun, will be little valued at most portfolio interviews.
Ruth Chardin
05.13.08
01:52

I encourage that no one respond further to this dialog with Chardin. She seems to need the last word and the more we encourage it, the more fullfilled and satisfaction she will recieve.
dead end
05.13.08
02:33

"I will argue that...the best teachers of graphic design...are the currently practicing designers, those relatively uneducated second-class adjuncts to the design education system who turn up once a week and teach students what it actually takes to do and survive design work today."

Well, Chardinism (if that's what we want to call it, thanks Bernard Pez) sounds like a Superfund Clean-Up site of academic environmental disaster. I can just see Meredith Davis in a HazMat suit with a giant vacuum trying to clean that sinkhole up. Who ya gonna call?
plakaboy
05.13.08
02:56

I am happy, in this case at least, to be labeled an elitist. It seems this is the popular position, at least with regard to this post.

Perhaps Ms. Chardin takes heart in the idea that the best teachers are - and I am happily corrected - "relatively uneducated". Perhaps she does not believe that it is worth teaching life-long learning skills and takes heart in concentrating on just the vocational facts, thinking these are enough to sustain the body and the soul through a lifetime of work. Perhaps she genuinely believes that lowering student expectations within a creative field is a pathway to (passive?) success - assuming I suppose success is defined as contentment sitting beside the window or more likely behind the screen in the office not really noticed and not really noticing. To me at least this attitude is a reverse type of elitism, an elitism that defines some people as digital worker bees and others as the man. I at least find these types of distinctions distasteful and truly damaging because they bespeak acceptance of a type of educational dumbing down that is all too prevalent and assumes that the highest ideal is the lowest common social denominator.

Ed Fella's story is in fact testament to how an amazing vocational education taught more than just skills and led him to a lifelong pursuit, discovery and passion for graphic design in all of its forms. This type of vocational education, one obtained by Fella in high-school years before he went to Cranbrook, is the opposite of Ms. Chardin's narrow band educational vision (at least as described herein - I trust she strives to be inspirational and critically challenging in person), barely exists at this point in time and seems unalluded to in Ms. Chardin's posts.

If it is an elitist position to hope for something more in education then just the attainment of skills that are largely useless after a short period of time then so be it - I stand accused, am guilty, yet free.
John Kaliski
05.14.08
01:51

Graphic design education has for much of its brief history as a formal profession been the province of vocational schools; its arrogation by universities ("smarting-up"?) is a relatively recent phenomenon. I believe that graphic design is well worth studying in an academic context. But the epistemology of design and extensive visual explorations are not part of everyday practice. For every Ed Fella, there are thousands of designers who do, in fact, essentially provide a service "like plumbing." It is a service that demands creativity, curiosity and research, but that creativity, curiosity and research is mostly confined to effectively communicating the client's product or service.

Is this the way it should be? Perhaps not. But most working designers would probably agree that this is the way it is, even if nobody here does.

Good vocational schools teach, besides design principles and creative applied visual communication problem solving, the importance of and the skills needed for staying abreast of current technology, of practical research, of business practices, of business presentation skills. These programs tend to be designed by unremarkable working designers (though this is changing, as even vocational schools are, misguidedly in my opinion, beginning to prefer educational qualifications to practical experience in their hiring policies) , those who produce the huge amount of graphic design that passes largely unnoticed except by their creators and audience. Graduates of these programs are often well regarded by hiring companies.

Universities give the impression that they teach the same thing, only better, simply because they are universities. But they don't. On the whole, they do a less thorough job of teaching practical skills, and instead teach other things, such as design history, design and sociology, and design-flavoured fine-arts-style exploration. All interesting subjects that have everything to with the function of design in society and culture, but little direct relevance to most design briefs.

Universities should be calling their courses something else: "design studies" or "design explorations" (although I realize that this would be bad for enrollment). Currently, they are perpetrating what amounts to fraud in the case of the majority of students who, though a practical education at a vocational college would better serve their aspirations, trustingly enroll in university in the expectation that it will provide them the best preparation for working in graphic design. But it won't.
Ruth Chardin
05.14.08
09:42

Universities give the impression that they teach the same thing, only better, simply because they are universities. But they don't. On the whole, they do a less thorough job of teaching practical skills, and instead teach other things, such as design history, design and sociology, and design-flavoured fine-arts-style exploration. All interesting subjects that have everything to with the function of design in society and culture, but little direct relevance to most design briefs.

Ms. Chardin may be right. However, until she gives specific examples, it's a vague generality that should be dismissed. Name names, Ms. Chardin, and give evidence that your claim is a majority position. The same goes for "good vocational schools" and examples of companies that demonstrably prefer graduates of vocational schools.

As with many opinions, it's not that I necessarily disagree, it's that the opinionators provide no proof.
Kenneth FitzGerald
05.14.08
03:55

Opinions have been expressed many times in this thread, without any "supporting examples" or other proof. Opinions are what they are, opinions. Anyway, I am confused about what you want me to support. Is it the assertions in the quoted extract, or what you refer to below? I can't tell which "vague generality" you are referring to. However, I will do my best to respond.

Please compare the course lists of (in Montreal) Dawson College's three year graphic design programme, which" trains students to work as graphic designers [and] teaches [them] to communicate effectively using graphics, illustration, photography and typography, and builds problem-solving and project management skills" with Concordia University's design degree offerings which "examine the broad vision or culture of design within contemporary society."

As far as hiring goes, take a look at some job postings, and see what is asked for. I know designers who have expressed disdain for the direction design education has taken in universities, and who have expressed and proven a preference for more practically trained graduates of college programmes, but I am reluctant to give you their names. I invite you to ask any non-academic working graphic designers that you might be acquainted with about this.

However, my feeling is, considering the tenor and hostility of the reactions to my quite commonplace remarks here, that most contributors have very little contact with practicing full-time graphic designers.

Note that this last is not even an opinion, it's just a feeling, please don't ask me to prove it.
Ruth Chardin
05.14.08
06:33

It is not worth the time to respond, but in an effort to clarify for those students of graphic design who are beginning to doubt the necessity of their own education, and for those considering what path to take, I will take the time to do so. The anti-intellectual position displayed here, i.e. the “common sense approach to the world,” is very seductive and dangerously misguided. The fact that a diverse variety of reasons have been laid forth as to why disciplinary investigation is necessary yet the responses continue to parrot ad nauseum the same claims as to why university education in graphic design is not needed is an indication of a lack of ability to engage with the world beyond the myopic confines of one’s own intellectual borders. This in itself should be taken as a signifier of the differences of mindset instilled by vocational training versus a disciplinary education.

A university education is not, and never was, intended to provide a single vocational path. It is intended to provide the intellectual skills necessary in a society where a constantly shifting economy and social structure require an individual to adapt, both constantly (e.g. new software, new projects) and very quickly (e.g. losing one’s job in the middle of a recession). And adaptation is key. The knowledge cited as “irrelevant” to the needs of a graphic designer has little to do with the immediate needs of a client brief — I will grant that, as this is done intentionally — but is necessary to provide the student with the intellectual skill set, the thinking process if you will, to be able to respond to the challenge set forth by the question, “How do I adapt this given situation to my needs?” The focus of education in a university setting isn’t “the product” as it is in a vocational setting, it is the experience or tested process of how to go about pursuing a desired outcome. In a disciplinary investigation, the process itself is “the product.” A university is an environment where students essentially do 4 years of “mental gymnastics” as I like to call it, with the understanding that they will be able to handle the very diverse needs of diverse clients. Vocational training, i.e. an emphasis on “practical skills” at the expense of the ability to adapt and engage with the world, trains a student to do one thing well (see the responses above), it does not ask, “What can this be?” The responses above display a clear lack of understanding of the different aims of higher education and a clear lack of awareness and understanding of the activities of people who teach, particularly faculty within the tenure-track system who are required to practice.

A disciplinary-based education also provides students with greater flexibility should they wish to change careers in the future by enrolling in a graduate program in a different career path, and additionally, part of a university’s mandate has always been to create better citizens, a goal which seems all the more prescient given the numerous crises the world faces today. The following excerpt (which I have posted elsewhere on DO), is taken from Harold T. Shapiro, former President of Princeton University. It was published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1995, and succinctly outlines the needs a university education fulfills in society:

i) The need — in order to better understand ourselves and contemporary times — to discover and understand the great traditions of thought that have informed the minds, hearts and deeds of those who came before us. After all, despite the distinctiveness of ourselves and our own times we are a part of a larger and deeper stream of human experience. Whatever the shortcomings of our predecessors — and there were many — and however limited the surviving remnants of their efforts, they remain a great source of inspiration and understanding as long as we do not deify any particular aspect of this valuable inheritance.

ii) The need to free our minds and hearts from unexamined commitments to received notions (authority of all types) in order to consider new possibilities (including new “authorities”) that might enhance both our own lives and — more broadly — the human condition and build our sympathetic understanding of others quite different from us.

iii) The need to prepare all thoughtful citizens for an independent life of choice that appreciates the connectedness of things and peoples. This involves not only the capacity to make moral and/or political choices that will give our individual and joint lives greater and more complete meaning but an understanding of how the world works and the capacity to distinguish between logical and illogical arguments.

I have to add that I do not think that a vocational education is negative. Rather, I think we have been presented with an extreme case of blindness which has monopolized any discussion — but I have had a few good laughs. It is more important to provide information to allow future students to be able to make an informed choice about what they wish to do with their career paths, but it is a shame that the monologue retreads the same tired diatribe. Of course we will hear it again... (giggle).
David Cabianca
05.14.08
07:13

I am pleased (really!) to be amusing you as I "retread my diatribe." However, I do not question the need for disciplinary investigation for those who choose to pursue it, nor have I have I questioned the intrinsic value of a university education at any point. A university education is a good thing for anyone, be it plumber or graphic designer. But as a university education is inappropriate to prepare for the trade of plumbing, so it is at least somewhat unsuitable preparation for the practice of graphic design, at least with the present model.

I would add that the practice of design required of tenure track academics has little do to with the pay-for-service model of graphic design, which, like it or not is the environment that almost all design graduates will find themselves in ... unless they stay in school.
Ruth Chardin
05.14.08
07:39

Ruth, as I said, I don't necessarily disagree with you. But I need to know the basis for your "opinion" to judge whether it has any merit. It's that simple. If all you can provide is a "feeling," your opinion on universities has no more value than my stating that "graphic designers are anti-intellectual" based solely on you critiquing academia. An excerpt of catalog copy from one university and a claimed reluctance to produce witnesses doesn't do it.

It's true that your comments are commonplace: they've been kicking around for years and surge up again when someone like Ed Fella gets mentioned in a complimentary manner. It's nothing worth being hostile about. It's rather like watching the tide go out. But I like wading in from time to time to see if the newbie who expresses your opinion has come up with anything to support the claim. Guess I'll wait for the next one.
Kenneth FitzGerald
05.14.08
11:08

I agree with the gist of David, Kenneth, and John's posts about University design education, and will also be gladly labeled an elitist if it means I'm free to pursue aspects of design that go beyond the traditional practice and fundamentalist thinking.

For the record, I am heavily involved with teaching graphic design, but have also had my own design practice for 15 years, so I do understand quite well what the needs are for students entering the field. I also have many friends and colleagues working (rather successfully) as designers, and quite often supply them with a list of names of our students who would be wonderful to work with. Again, teaching design from a university perspective does not mean automatic exclusion from the entire profession. We are simply part of a larger community.
bonne
05.15.08
01:07

Well, gang (and the word does feel right), it's been interesting. I've been castigated for my lack awareness and understanding, blindness, vagueness, anachronistic thinking, self-loathing, bitterness, dangerous misguidedness, and for "conducting a monologue that retreads a diatribe."

In fact, I have tried to answer attacks, and seen mainly attacks on my answers. Lorraine Wild expresses outrage at my using the word "doodling" in the same post (not even the same paragraph!)as the name of Ed Fella, though the connection between Fella's work and doodling is made much more explicit in Cabianca's original article, John Kalinski chides me apparently for not admitting to the equivalence of architecture, the design of complexly purposed permanent structures, with graphic design, which in practice is largely the design of ephemeral marketing materials, while Kenneth FitzGerald demands proofs to give validity to my arguments, though his and others are accepted at face value. David Cabianca accuses me of anti-intellectualism in spite of the fact that my questioning of academic approaches applies only to the teaching of graphic design practice.

The pervasive implication here is that the education provided by vocational colleges is worthless, which seems unlikely. Students do enroll, and they do get jobs after having been taught by "relatively uneducated" practicing professionals. I hope this can be accepted without proof. Perhaps someone who had a PhD in the history and sociology of hydrodynamic infrastructure could teach plumbing, but I just don't think they'd be likely to be the best teacher.

The vociferousness of most of the responses (I appreciate bonne's courtesy and plakaboy's good nature) to my considered and generally unaggressive posts make me wonder if my suggestions strike uncomfortably close to home. If so, I sympathize; one does not generally enjoy having the value of their work questioned. But that doesn't mean such questions should be suppressed.

However, for the time being, I'll stop rippling the smooth waters of your complacency.
Ruth Chardin
05.15.08
09:14

Complacency? Chardin, you're the one who keeps insisting that something exists called "vocational colleges" that are somehow different from universities, as if some organizing principle orders the field of graphic design education when in fact there isn't one. Could you name one set of universities and one set of "vocational colleges" that adhere to your hard-set descriptions? If you showed the least amount of awareness of the YEARS of exploration, investigation, research, and practice - yes, practice - on the part of design educators, many, many,who have looked at the issues of what designers are going to need to enter the workforce now and the future, you would find that there is a considerable amount of work that does seek to make some rational difference between say, 2-year associate degrees versus bachelor's degrees versus bachelor's of art degrees. But nowhere in this rapidly developing field will you find an argument for the status quo quite like the one you have presented over and over and over again in this thread. Yes, there are differences in institutions, but mainly because they are totally dependent upon the faculties at each particular institution to actually implement a curricula that makes sense for their students and for their program. And you caricature all of this as somehow "elitist." But buyer beware! If you were a student would you actually go to a school that said "we are going to train you to enter today's workforce, period"? Does that sound like an education, or is that what you mean by "relatively uneducated?" Why would I bother paying to have Ruth Chardin induct me into a career of such cramped vision, when I could buy the software manuals and enter the tuition-free School of Hard Knocks on my own? This Plakaboy comes from an uneducated, blue-collar family that somehow instilled in me the street smarts not to be hemmed in by complacent educational mediocrity claiming to be in my best interests. You cheat your students, even at a "vocational college," if you do not, somehow, in the time you have, give them an honest entry to the field that acknowledges the social, cultural, environmental, and political dimensions that undergird the pragmatics that you are so enamoured with. Leave all of this out, for the good of the children, and you end up basically creating the next generation of hacks. And obviously, from the repetitive tone of your impenetrable re-iterations, it appears to be a self-affirming strategy for you: and it's sad.
plakaboy
05.15.08
12:15

re: John Kalinski chides me apparently for not admitting to the equivalence of architecture, the design of complexly purposed permanent structures, with graphic design, which in practice is largely the design of ephemeral marketing materials...

1. I did not chide Ms. Chardin for not admitting an equivalence between architecture and graphic design. I did and still do chide her for her insistence that disciplinary boundaries are fixed and delimited and the stuff of curricular neccessity or excellence - even at the vocational level.

The Chardinism that tweaked my interest was... "Engineering communication seems a good description of what designers actually do. And just as the world has use for far more engineers than architects, so the world has use for far more graphic designers than "laboratory researchers," which is of significance to the huge numbers of graphic design students being taught the practical reality that " the [principal] function of graphic design is communication."

I suppose I could simply challenge as trite the supposed truism that what the world needs now is engineering, sweet engineering, instead of more mothering of all the arts but instead I tried to argue that insisting on analogies based upon clear professional boundaries in this day and age belies the emergence of advanced multi-disciplinary integrated design practices - indeed practices Ed Fella has no problem crossing and practices that are not practical nor clear enough for Ms. Chardin.

Not feeling compelled or particularly interested in introducing students to the excitement of these emerging practices, even at the so-called vocational level, simply does the students a gross diservice and says more about the limits of the teachers then the possibilities of the students.

2. I love plakaboy, whoever you are.

John Kaliski

John Kaliski
05.16.08
01:49

As an earlier participant in this thread, it's interesting to come back to see how the discussion has evolved to such polarizing questions such as is graphic design a vocation or a liberal art or a fine art? I have to say, I find the cynicism of Ruth Chardin's thoughts very refreshing. Because at least it is addressing in an honest way the context and conditions in which most graphic designers find themselves.

It is one thing to make flyers for a relatively unknown arts gallery (and in some cases, make those flyers after the event has passed), and quite another to make a wayfinding system for a building that will be used by tens of thousands of people and must conform to architectural codes, not to mention be built efficiently and legibly. But both activities (and many more) exist within the world of graphic design, which makes this profession engaging and loose. The discussion so far seems to be so "either / or" (either you practice design as a liberal art or as a vocation, either you engineer or you seduce, either your work is art or commercial etc.) but the more interesting thing is to be able to embrace both.
manuel
05.17.08
04:33

Manuel, There is a system at work in this discussion that should be addressed. Pioneering graphic design educators, such as Lorainne, have fought long and hard against vocational American definitions that grant value to visual investigation only when it can be directly applied to commerce. It is certainly worth while defending the validity of experimentation, and introspection at the fertile edges of contemporary design practice.
glen
05.19.08
01:32

But Ruth is thoughtful asking for something more from the work, not suggesting a redirection. So why the aggressive reponses?
glen
05.19.08
07:03

The "fertile edges" referred to by Glen exist in many, many fields: reflecting the reality of a wide variety of practices, pragmatic to experimental, that work to inform each other; this is true in law, physics, economics, engineering, biology, environmental sciences, etc., etc. etc. (Please note that I am looking at fields that can hardly be written off as purely academic). And all of those fields have educational programs that reflect that range, which contextualize experimentation in regard to practice. Ed Fella does not teach students to copy his own practice, nor did Paul Elliman at Yale, or any number of people I can think of whose work stands outside of pragmatic design and yet have proven to have moved the thinking of students at the graduate level. Reading back on this thread, I realize that Chardin started off by dismissing Ed Fella as irrelevant (because she percieves him to be operating out of some sort of academic "safe house" where he can doodle away and still get a paycheck) and then expanded her critique to write off everything, even design history(really?) as being all beside the point for the preparation of a young employee. And this is what struck me as being particularly naive about the shape of design education as a whole, as it has developed in parallel to other fields of endeavor that I refer to above. In the ecology of professional education there is space for "critical legal studies," engineers experimenting with collaboration with architects and software enineers, the far edges of speculative math and physics, etc.; and while works produced in those environments may not be applicable the day they are made, ideas that are useful emerge from this relationship of the speculative to the applied (and it is a two-way street, undoubtedly): that is how those fields "smarten up" (to use Chardin's phrase). In the end I honestly do not understand whose interest is being served by asking for less, (which is what I percieve to be Chardin's point); by not allowing for a similar multi-valent richness in design education, which is what you get when you seek to define it strictly via practice, relegating all else to the netherworlds of "art" or "design studies" or whatever. All design programs, in whatever kinds of institutions they reside in, should articulate their visions and their goals and their philosophies and curricula as explicitly as possible: and then, in the words of plakaboy, it truly is "Buyer beware."
lorraine wild
05.19.08
12:41

Manuel's remark regarding the 'refreshing cynicism' of Ruth's observations points, I think, to a recognition of the very real divisions of labor that organizes much of professional graphic design. That is, the separation of designers and art directors -- those who 'do' the designing and those who conceptualize projects and direct them. The suggestion would be that the more experimental, speculative, and theoretical work pursued in a certain kind of 'advanced' design program (often at the graduate level) enables one to envision the larger formal, cultural, and conceptual dimensions of a client project that a less well-paid, 'vocationally' trained junior designer (often freelance) will then execute.

Without wanting to endorse Ruth's blinkered vision of design pedagogy, it seems obvious that not everyone can be an art director, and that the very real divisions that shape professional practice shouldn't be side-stepped, ignored, or sugar-coated in the classroom. This seems particularly crucial to acknowledge at a moment when the dubious, exploitative practices of 'permalance' labor are ubiquitous, both in the day-to-day workflow of corporate design departments and large and mid-sized studios, and in the academy in the form of underpaid adjunct faculty across the arts and humanities.

That said, it also seems clear that a number of contemporary designers, often those who have pursued the more risky option of starting their own small studios, are able to 'do both.' More than that, in collapsing the divisions of labor that traditionally separate art directors and designers (as well clients, designers and publishers) these new, more mobile and flexible kinds of arrangements have been able to not simply balance 'conceptual' and 'practical' work, but to begin to reclaim the seemingly prosaic act of making things in the studio as itself a newly radicalized site for professional design practice.

Dale Nixon
05.19.08
02:12

to all,
I reallly appreciate their work of arts! they're kul.
guys, we hav 2 luk at it in deepest view. it has sense. hasnt, it?
diana ross
05.25.10
12:41

Buildings are quite expensive and not everyone can buy it. Nevertheless, credit loans was created to help people in such kind of cases.
ROBINMILLER
06.24.11
01:39



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