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Keep It Simple, Stupid:
The Case for Reviving Communication
By Robin Fuller
“Today the emphasis of style over content in much of what is alleged to be graphic design and communication is, at best, puzzling … The qualities that evoke this bevy of depressing images are a collage of chaos and confusion, swaying between high tech and low art, and wrapped in a cloak of arrogance.” — Paul Rand

At the risk of instantly shattering any credibility this essay may hold for the greater design community, I’ll be honest: I am not a designer. I am merely a design student. Yet my amateur status gives me a unique insight into an important issue in modern design: communication versus mere decoration. For some time now, there has been a strange new aesthetic afoot, sporting various monikers, from deconstructionist to grunge. Even if you’re not familiar with the label, you know the look: dense, chaotic designs crawling with extraneous layers, techie bitmaps, distortion, and type distressed almost beyond recognition. In my experience, this trend, spawned by modern technology, is only perpetuated by design education. Though we are taught that communication is our number one goal as designers, time and again, simplicity, clarity, and legibility fall by the wayside in favor of a slick image. In blind pursuit of a certain look, we are dabbling dangerously in the realm of pure art.

It might shed some light on my views if I mention that my college background was not in the arts, but in journalism. Though both design and journalism are related to communication, they obviously differ in many ways. A big one is the ambiguity that shrouds the actual meaning and purpose of design. People avoid defining the term like the plague. The good sports that tackle it shun any absolutes (“Well, what is art?…”), or make a point of giving safely contradictory answers (Steven Heller quips that design is “order, clarity, disorder, chaos.”) However, while I was learning the ropes of newspaper and magazine layouts, the goal was beyond clear: Journalism is about finding the truth, and communicating it as quickly and clearly as possible. Copy is typically concise and to the point. Typefaces are kept consistent. Any graphics directly support the story. Page elements are arranged in a straightforward, predictable, and recognizable hierarchy. Above all, strict rules govern the placement of almost every element, from headlines to photos to sidebars.

For better or for worse, this was my training upon entering design school. Often, it has felt like worse. I am a very organized, left-brained sort by nature, more creative verbally than visually, and being among so many artists has proven both inspiring and intimidating. But beyond frustrating is hearing the same things from so many different instructors: my designs are too symmetrical, too orderly, too balanced — not edgy enough. (Sound like a newspaper? Big surprise.) Daunted, I decided that in order to succeed in the field, I must discover the look and feel of this revered edginess… and learn to emulate it, as any inexperienced person will. So I started taking a closer look at the design all around me, in trade publications, in the marketplace, and especially in the work of my fellow students.

What I found frustrated me even more, because I feel like the edgy, grungy design of today could take a few lessons from journalism. Granted, good design should probably be more visually engaging than your average newspaper. It should push the envelope, and it should make you think — but it shouldn’t make you work. It is not meant to be a visual riddle. Such designs are more likely to confuse the general public than to intrigue them. As Natalia Ilyin puts it in Fabulous Us: Speaking the Language of Exclusion, “Playing with the forms of graphic design language is intriguing, but languages are created to carry meaning, and to deny responsibility for that meaning is to be ironic, elitist, and chicken.” There is definitely something to be said for clarity, and much of today’s design is simply not saying it.

Perhaps I should make an important distinction here, between designing for the public, and designing for other designers. (I really don’t believe this should even be necessary, which is partially why I am writing this essay.) Many things are still designed with the consumer in mind. For example, it’s not hard to understand the back of a TV dinner box: basic cooking instructions, perhaps some cute fonts, a photo of the meal (inevitably looking better than it ever will coming out of your microwave…) Maybe not ground-breaking design, but it gets the job done. It communicates. However, if you handed this project over to your typical design student, there’s no telling what you might end up with. But I can hazard a guess: random bitmapped images faded into the background; grungy, distressed display fonts layered over each other to the point of illegibility; and most definitely the very en vogue trick of pushing your text to the edge of the image so that part of it is cut off. (What the heck is that all about anyway?) Throw in some textures. Leave huge gaps of white space in some areas, while others are a cluttered mass of pictures and words. TA DA! Congratulations, you have successfully merged frozen food packaging with Raygun magazine. Prepare to have design students and instructors alike kiss your ass.

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration — but probably not as much as you think. Naturally, everybody claims that concept is more important than pure aesthetic. The look of a piece, while important, should play a supporting role. Yet more than once or twice, I have seen some of the same instructors who espouse this idea swoon over student work that admittedly looks really cool, but would probably leave the average person scratching his head in bafflement. (A perfect example would be a party flyer that a fellow student designed and put up around school. It was so chaotic and dense that everyone got lost because no one could properly make out the directions.) Despite the contemporary credo to supposedly challenge the viewer, make her an active participant, change the way we read, etc… Well, I don’t know about you, but if I’m walking down the street or flipping through a magazine, and I can’t decipher a poster or ad in about 10 seconds or less, I’m moving on, no matter how cool it looks. In The New Typographer Muttering in Your Ear, Kevin Fenton points out, “We are less literate and less likely to read than ever before. To speak of �challenging the way we read’ seems almost naively optimistic … I am disturbed by the penchant of contemporary typographers … for creating confusion in a world which already seems sufficiently confused.”

This is not a simple case of “Less is more.” After all, a spare, reductive style does not always suit the concept of a project. I’m not advocating pure minimalism. But as Milton Glaser would say, “Just enough is more.” And I believe a piece can be busy and contain many elements, if need be, without detracting from the message. It just takes some finesse. Erik Cox, partner in C2: The Creative Capital Network, remarks, “The best designers understand the timing of communication. Just enough to draw you in, and then you get the pay-off of the message. It’s a difficult skill to teach.”

Perhaps that’s why many instructors who constantly stress the importance of visual communication still seem satisfied with a slick, overly complex, ultimately empty image. In fact, some actually encourage it. I recall a day when a teacher, whom I know to be very talented, showed us a CD cover he had made while learning some software. Enmeshed in the track listing was a faded duotone of (by his own admission) a random industrial building, as well as assorted unrelated diagrams, creating that familiar grungy, techie feel. Well, wait a second, you may say, maybe that look supported his concept. Maybe — if the band had not been completely made up for the exercise. Very early on, I got the message that regardless of concept, this is how good design is supposed to look. This is what you do if you want other designers to eat up your work with a spoon. Case in point: in another class, frustrated by my peers’ effortless forays into this deconstructivist aesthetic, I started sticking random lines and other elements that had nothing to do with the subject into a class exercise. I didn’t know whether to be proud or disgusted when the instructor said it was some of my best work yet.

After being told more than once that I was “close, but just not getting it,” I did some investigative research. I was surprised and vindicated to find that many successful designers share my views — and have some solid theories about what is happening. Basically, this trend of chaos is in essence a reaction to modern technology.

First, there’s the whole issue of “fast food culture.” As Marshall McLuhan is fond of writing about, the electronic revolution has triggered a major shift in our culture away from linear, mechanistic thinking and toward a more all-encompassing, visual-and-tactile-oriented sensory experience. How can designers compete with the overwhelming buzz of television, cell phones, computer games, and the Internet? Novelty is king. A simple, clean message will never do, some people think. So they throw together an equally overwhelming cocktail of graphics and type, hoping the puzzle will hold the public’s attention long enough for them to decipher the message (assuming there even is one). In Soup of the Day, Veronique Vienne writes, “Today, type designers like David Carson … are worshipped by those whose job it is to capture the attention of a visually overloaded public … Their victory leaves the rest of us to sift through the visual wreckage — tangled headlines, blurred letters, floating pull-quotes, and distressed imagery — unable to figure out what an article is all about.” So much for communication.

Of course, technology is also increasingly accessible in our lives as a tool. It’s no secret that designers loathe the rise of the casual desktop publisher, that 20-something with a Mac who lives in his parents’ basement, cranking out half-assed promotional flyers and the occasional business card with little or no formal training. Who needs training when you’ve got good software? But as Jeffery Keedy says in The Rules of Typography According to Crackpots Experts, “Diversity and excellence are not mutually exclusive; if everything is allowed it does not necessarily follow that everything is of equal value.” What’s more, since there is no one to beat the notion of concept into these people, aesthetic rises to the forefront. After all, desktop publishers are generally hired not for their ideas, but for their technical expertise. Ellen Lupton, curator for the National Design Museum and director of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s graphic design MFA program, notes, “Drop shadows, Photoshop filters, and the like are often performed because the designer doesn’t have a strong idea, so they try to make the surface of their piece more �interesting.’ This rarely compensates for the absence of an idea.” So much for concept.

While the age of the self-styled “designer” has certainly contributed to the decline of communication and the rise of decoration, the design community’s reaction to these wannabes hasn’t helped matters. In an effort to prove their superiority to desktop publishers, real designers set out to create work that not just anyone could do, effectively eliminating simple design. In Towards the Cause of Grunge, Tobias Frere-Jones writes, “tension and noise are the new goal. Album covers, magazines, commercials and posters shiver and twitch with entropy and decay … Grunge becomes a seductive method of self-identity.” Dense, layered, chaotic work became the mark of “good” designers — and set the trend for the rest of the industry. So much for a clear message.

Contemporary designers’ desire to differentiate themselves from the mainstream through overly complex designs fits in well with the modern trend of making the viewer “a more active participant.” The responsibility for the message is shifted off the creator and onto the viewer. �migré — “the magazine that ignores boundaries” — is a perfect example of this. They claim that universality of message is not their goal, because new forms must reflect new technology, as opposed to “antiquated” ideas. Therefore, legibility is not their problem. This kind of attitude is fine when it comes to things like movies and novels. After all, that’s entertainment, not design. But it isn’t antiquated or heavy-handed to make clear what we are trying to say. That’s what design is all about. If you want your work left open for interpretation, I have news for you: you’re an artist. Book a gallery and knock yourself out.

Not only is freedom to interpret not well suited for design purposes; overworking the style and text of a piece can actually take away that freedom. Instead, it forcibly imposes the designer’s interpretation on the viewer. Perhaps Fenton put it best: “the new typography denies the reader the opportunity to experience the text for himself. It feels like someone is standing over your shoulder while you read, underlining some passages, italicizing others, muttering through yet others.”

In the end, the industry’s reaction to modern technology comes back to me: the student. As I mentioned earlier, if you’re inexperienced with something, your natural instinct is to jump on trends and emulate the more experienced. So consider the poor newbie designer, confronted with a plethora of design applications, techniques, software, movements… She may have a basic art background, but this is a whole new world. How can she prove in just a few years that she’s worthy of a top-notch design job? Flustered, she hits the ground running, and tries to soak up everything around her that people deem “good.” She is still struggling with concept and communication, so the simple solutions of masters like James Victore elude her grasp. The thought of her ineptitude so nakedly displayed on a plain white background mortifies her. They’d laugh her right out of critique. So instead, she turns to design icons like David Carson. She may never be that talented, but by imitating the right look, the right balance of complexity and ambiguity, she can mask the emptiness of her message. She won’t fool everyone. But she’ll probably get some projects on display at the end of the quarter. After all, when people come in for a tour of the school, they’re not going to stop and ponder the message of every piece they pass. They’re just going to be wowed by aesthetic technique and ability — which is, of course, just what the school wants to advertise. But the big picture is that design students who skimp on content and message will probably become professional designers who skimp on content and message. “Designing for designers is easy,” says Tan Le, creative director at Young & Rubicam Brands. “Designing for the average consumer and client can be incredibly challenging, and is the real test of a designer’s intelligence and talent. Design experimentation is relatively simple compared to the real-world criteria of market impact and sales.” Too much freedom can be a bad thing, and there is sure to be less of it on the job than in the classroom.

I’ll be the first to admit that it is very difficult to resist the temptation of simply decorating instead of communicating. Just the other day, I advised a fellow student to take a certain aesthetic direction with her poster because “You know it’s what they want to see.” Likewise, when it comes to my own work, it’s very hard to focus on how well my design solution solves a problem, as opposed to whether it looks cool enough to make it into the school display case. After all, many of us are stuck somewhere between too busy and too lazy, and it’s just easier to make pretty pictures and follow trends (as opposed to working to become the trendsetters). Luckily, I’ve got a stodgy, communication-based journalism background to rely on. I’ll be the first to admit that I do have a good ways to go in terms of perfecting my sense of aesthetics. But many of my peers — and, I daresay, much of the design community at large — have a long way to go toward perfecting their concepting and communication skills. Make no mistake; design should be visually engaging. As Steven Heller puts it, “aesthetics attracts the bee to the flower.” But design is not meant to be pure art. Today’s designers — and especially design educators, who essentially hold the future of design in their hands — would do well to remember that in this field, form follows function. At the end of the day, we are communicators, not decorators, and clarity is key.

Robin Fuller is a student at Portfolio Center. This essay is the first in a series by PC students who took part in Bryony’s long-distance Design Thinking class during the quarter of winter 2005.

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PUBLISHED ON Mar.22.2005 BY Speak Up
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
G. I.’s comment is:

Word. More than once I've been called "too blocky" "too constructivist" "not loose enough". Fortunately web design is a somewhat special medium, simple decoration doesn't work, so I can do what I like better...

On Mar.22.2005 at 07:10 AM
elv’s comment is:

I truly understand Robin Fuller, especially when I see a website like portfoliocenter.com... Can you read those white titles and texts? Neither do I.

On Mar.22.2005 at 08:02 AM
Greg’s comment is:

I agree, and disagree. Communication is important, except when it isn't. Is that too “safely contradictory” of a way to put it? You have to consider your audience, and the feeling you want to generate. I totally agree that a student can take a visual concept and apply it to the wrong thing - the post-modern party flyer that got everyone lost, for example - simply for the sake of trying out the style, or even believing that style is what design is. But when you're designing for designers, you have to consider your audience as well. They don't want to see the same old layouts from Women's World or Field and Stream given a new font and smacked into Print or Emigré. The same goes for many professors of design. As a student, I had always wondered this same thing - when can I stop designing for designers and design for real people? I slowly realized that I was going to have to do both. It’s a balance between legibility and art.

On Mar.22.2005 at 08:42 AM
graham’s comment is:

'information overload', 'should', 'we all', 'we are', 'everybody claims', 'form follows . . .'

i'm reminded of the film 'ridicule' where the court philospher can argue both for and against the existence of god with equal logic and skill because (a)his living is to argue and (b) any argument constructed around the pejorative contains its own counter argument.

mallarme's 'the book-a spiritual instrument' might be worth a read: it certainly has a bearing on the newspaper/journal example used in the article.

some examples of work (pro and/or contra) would help a lot.

On Mar.22.2005 at 08:50 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

She is still struggling with concept and communication, so the simple solutions of masters like James Victore elude her grasp. The thought of her ineptitude so nakedly displayed on a plain white background mortifies her. They’d laugh her right out of critique. So instead, she turns to design icons like David Carson.

This is something we all go through in school, trying to emulate what we see in an attempt to learn how to use it for our own advantage. A good teacher would acknowledge what the student is doing while steering them toward a more conceptual result. Heck, I spent many an evening conjuring up fake RayGun covers (and this was when Carson was in full swing) thinking I was really getting the handle on this design thing. Fortunately, I worked my way through it and came out on the other side. Doesn't mean I don't try to slip something "cool" into a piece, but I'm not about to sacrifice the concept for it.

A good design education needs to allow room for the student to experiment —�even into fully charted and overgrown waters. Guidance is key. Teachers should encourage the exploration of different styles, but hammer home that, in the end, it must serve a concept. And finally, even if the world seems to reward the stylistic fare, it's incredibly important that art schools continue to push students to develop a true self, a philosophy to follow (it doesn't need to be complex stuff), and not just try to be someone else.

On Mar.22.2005 at 10:33 AM
ToddH’s comment is:

...I don't try to slip something "cool" into a piece, but I'm not about to sacrifice the concept for it...

It's been some time since my art school days and, while the learning never stops, the one thing I've taken away from all my exeriences is that design for the sake of design isn't effective communication.

As professional creative-folk, our jobs are more than just the assemblage of visual components that combine to create a visual theme. We have to see beyond what looks "cool" because at the end of the day, looking "cool" doesn't necessarily align with client goals.

Our work must be born from the strategy and reside in that area where copy and aesthetic create dynamic and captivating communications, not just pretty pictures.

Design school is a place for experimentation and creative development, but it must also be a place where we learn to use our talents to the benefit of our clients, not just our portfolios.

On Mar.22.2005 at 11:24 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

It’s great that Armin is running old articles. I didn’t even know that Speak Up existed twelve years ago. Can you imagine someone today trying to teach design students to use pixelated type and the other clichés of hipness from when they were in junior high school? Not that graphic design is all great today but it is nice to remind ourselves that that at least we’re beyond that.

On Mar.22.2005 at 11:32 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> design for the sake of design isn't effective communication.

I agree with the notion, but I disagree. "Design for the sake of design" is still communication, it might not be the bestest communication but the designer's intention invariably seeps through the "style". Now, here I am placing a lot of hope/optimisim/trust in designers… Even if a designer is preoccupied with making something designey s/he would have to be really dumb to completely miss the boat and actually manage to not communicate. This, of course, happens all the time but the mere assemblage of images and type — with even the most minute consideration — can and does communicate. Hopefully.

> It’s great that Armin is running old articles. I didn’t even know that Speak Up existed twelve years ago. Can you imagine someone today trying to teach design students to use pixelated type and the other clichés of hipness from when they were in junior high school?

Gunnar, my initial reaction when I read the essay — in one of its first drafts and this final rendition — was, wow, the ’90s called, they want your essay back. However, I find it astonishing that this look/style/whathaveyou is still a hot commodity with Portfolio Center students. When Bryony was going to PC and I was teaching there, four years ago, that style was very much there and everybody oggled at it. To think that it is still prevalent is a bit scary.

On Mar.22.2005 at 11:41 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

this look/style/whathaveyou is still a hot commodity with Portfolio Center students. . . four years ago, that style was very much there

Does it seem to be some sort of student-generated neo-retro thing or are they hiring teachers who got MFAs in 1990 and are trying to bring back the good old days?

On Mar.22.2005 at 11:48 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

my initial reaction when I read the essay... was, wow, the ’90s called, they want your essay back.

I'm so glad you wrote that, Armin. for a while I thought I was even more out of touch than I thought I was. I would have written something sooner, but I'm not feeling as sarky as Gunnar today.

Robin, your sense of frustration is almost palpable, and I feel for you, but I wonder if you are projecting a specific school situation (or maybe a general a general school situation. My lack of actual design education leaves me ignorant) onto the wider world of communication/graphic design. I don't see how it fits with the working world.

People will always do things to try and be cool. I don't think a stricter definition of graphic design will fix that. And the cutting off of art from graphic design is just not healthy.

On Mar.22.2005 at 12:11 PM
marian’s comment is:

I too was going to make a snarky "old article" comment. It is hard to know if this is just an indication of poor education at Portfolio Center, some kind of retro-to-the-80s/90s movement in design, or what.

My impression of design today is that we are just starting to come out of a 10-yr period of clean, simple design-for-communication, and I see no evidence of return to "grunge" or whatever you want to call it.

I recently spent a day with students at CalArts, and I didn't see any evidence of this love of "deconstructivism" or whatever you want to call it.

Not that "post-modernism" or whatever you want to call it isn't worth reexamining or exploring, but ...

Playing with the forms of graphic design language is intriguing, but languages are created to carry meaning

All I want to say here is that graphics are a language, and that language does carry meaning. Don't rely on text to get your message across.

On Mar.22.2005 at 12:24 PM
Matthew Mohr’s comment is:

I would like to second JohnSel's comments. Young designers explore the current trends and ideas, discovering what resonates to them. It is a way of engaging with the dialogue of design.

If emulation is all the student accomplishes, then I agree it is failure. All burgeoning designers look to design and other mediums to learn how to communicate. True designers work towards communication with a personal voice and integration of ideas with solid skills.

Referencing journalism, all communication, even that which makes the front page, involves an editorial voice. One can argue legibility all day long, but what of eloquence?

Design is not just about stating the facts and pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Within the best of the �artistic’ trend, there are levels of visual communication. Immediacy combined with depth. When placed in service of a good concept, the finished work can be a process of discovery for the user; an invitation to dig deeper once the basic level of information has been conveyed.

I don’t see the current style as a reaction against technology. Rather as a reaction against the barrage of information. The work asks its users to think and spend a little extra time on ideas that the designer feels is worthy of their time.

On Mar.22.2005 at 12:26 PM
d.a.’s comment is:

For design students who are frustrated with the over use of this "look/style/whathaveyou" just stick to a concept-driven approach for your projects. This style may appear in some of your work, while other, more clean or direct approaches will be needed for other solutions. In the end your book will represent that you can solve problems and execute good communication, whatever the style may be.

A diverse portfolio will give you a leg up on classmates who are more one-dimensional

On Mar.22.2005 at 12:45 PM
kevin lo’s comment is:

additional snarkiness:

As Marshall McLuhan is fond of writing about

As Marshall McLuhan WAS fond of writing about....

and I'm not sure about fondness either...

I'm surprised people are still trying to emulate Carson in school. I thought something newer must have come along by now, I was trying that six years ago and still haven't succeeded.

American students should look to the Dutch...

On Mar.22.2005 at 02:08 PM
Meryl Friedman’s comment is:

As a design student, I find myself faced with the same issues the author's hypothetical design student faced. Looking at my classmates work, I always felt that my work was overly simple, visually uninteresting, and lacking that 'cool/hip' aesthetic. I felt discouraged when I looked at what had made it into the display cases in the halls in comparison to my work. Fortunately, I've had some truly excellent professors in the last year and a half, who made me re-evaluate my inspiration in design. Many graphic design style trends are fleeting, and by telling me to put down my design magazines and look instead at architecture as 'form suits function', I've been able to get over the style problem. This is not to say that I no longer enjoy the grunge aesthetic (which I can't seem to personally get my hands around) but I now feel like I can properly assess when style supports a subject and when it denies it. It takes wise professors such as I've had to help fledgling design students get over their style obsession. As an illustration classmate of mine put it "illustrators are hired on style, designers on their communication skills".

On Mar.22.2005 at 02:27 PM
David V’s comment is:

kevin lo’s comment is:

I'm surprised people are still trying to emulate Carson in school. I thought something newer must have come along by now, I was trying that six years ago and still haven't succeeded.

More oddly, are they still reading Raygun as a primary source of inspiration?? Perhaps the Portfolio Center library has a wormhole... ;)

On Mar.22.2005 at 03:29 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Small not of clarification:

sark�y adj. Slang Chiefly Brit. Sarcastic

snark�y adj. Slang. Irritable or short-tempered; irascible. [From dialectal snark, to nag, from snark, snork, to snore, snort, from Dutch and Low German snorken, of imitative origin.]

On Mar.22.2005 at 03:37 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

note, I meant.

On Mar.22.2005 at 05:05 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Welcome to design, where there's an exception to every rule, and a rule to every exception.

Communications is key, but it doesn't always guarantee good design. Sometimes good design is just good design, despite any rationalization to the contrary.

>are they hiring teachers who got MFAs in 1990 and are trying to bring back the good old days?

Gentlemen — it's all a cycle, remember? We've all established already that nothing is new.

On Mar.22.2005 at 07:14 PM
Sal’s comment is:

The merits of emulating David Carson aside, I think we should be far more concerned by the quality of instruction the author is receiving.

not edgy enough

close, but just not getting it

This is the sort of nebulous feedback one expects from a client who wishes he/she was an art director, not from an educator. If these comments form the bulk of your feedback during critique, your tuition dollars would be better spent elsewhere.

On Mar.22.2005 at 08:20 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Why is anybody making the assumptions that simple = visually uninteresting and complex = formally strong?

On Mar.22.2005 at 08:52 PM
Matt Waggner’s comment is:

1 - Raygun folded. The clarity police need a new whipping child. I'm sorry if that serves as a model at Portfolio Center, but a lot of undergraduate work is quite different.

Nonetheless, it's probably important to be able to manage "a lot of material" in early compositions, so the choice is yours later to use a lot or to use a little. If the only thing you were willing to attempt was to approximate M�ller-Brockmann, that'd be all you could do, and you'd probably mostly fail at it. One of the things that's always brought up at my school (I'm a student too, eh?) is that most designers have to go "too far" to recognize where "appropriate" and "exciting" meet.

2 - Journalism is not just about communicating literal facts: "the news" as we experience also (through editing, relative length and spatial arrangement) communicates a perspective on those facts. This may have the tone of a counter-manifesto, but in my view, pure journalism is simply experienced life. But putting some (the Schiavo case, for example) in, and leaving others (too many to be listed) out, it is designed.

That said, you make quite a case for graphic design not communicating literal facts, but rather making the food look more appealing, timing the way something is read to maximize its impact, and so on.

3. I would also mention, since you bring up c.1990 design (Raygun and Emigre in particular), that your style of writing very much mirrors that era's design sensibility: bringing a diverse tissue of references together, including those well-known and obscure, and mixing points both sympathetic and contradictory to your own in order to communicate an overall sensibilty about your subject matter. (I can assure you that Jeff Keedy and Steven Heller are not often used together to support the same argument!)

Is this, perhaps, a way of getting at the overall "truth" you're expressing about graphic design? You may not like visual complexity, but the journalistic method you use here shows that your approach of "concepting and communication" is quite compatible with the aims furthered — visually — by those designers.

(Either that, or you're a lazy writer. : )

Seriously, though, you might appreciate Andrew Blauvelt's essay "Towards a Complex Simplicity", or Denise Gonzales Crisp's "Decorational" writings. (Eye #35 and http://superstove.blogs.com, respectively).

What I miss from your essay is a discussion of "how" things mean: you seem to say that simple = communicative and complex = uncommunicative. but don't get into what "simple" does communicate. How many different ways could the microwave instructions on the TV dinner look and still get the instructions across? Now, assuming the answer is "more than one way," why choose one over the other? I would say dozens of decisions (or dozens of unthinking assumptions, depending on your approach) go into just the little, "simple" graphic of the microwave oven, and if you are able to say a lot of things (or a few, interesting things) with the forms you use to make that package, you may yet be able to impress your teachers and classmates using the aesthetic of your choice. Best of luck.

On Mar.23.2005 at 03:42 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

Interesting that it's still called 'art school' and not 'design school' ;o)

I think it just comes down to a matter of taste and client's particular needs. I'm a huge fan of form follows function and I think that's typically a good way to approach things like web design, where the function often needs to be independant of the form.

That said, there's time when form is the key part as well.

In art school, of course, form tends to be the primary focus. So, enjoy it there, but realize the real world can often be quite a bit different.

I went to an art school that actually had professors that really focused on the project parameters. We were rarely given blue-sky projects to work on...there was always a defined set of objectives and requirements.

This, IMHO, always produces better work. As blue-sky projects can ONLY be judged on their aesthetic presentation...not their appropriatness to the project at hand.

Having reviewed portfolios from both more project-based design schools as well as the ones from blue-sky schools, I can say that the former always tended to have much more solid design solutions, while the latter tended to have much more creative aesthetics.

Ideally, you'd hire one from each place and put them on a team together. ;o)

On Mar.23.2005 at 11:07 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

"The Bauhaus mistook legibility for communication."

-Phil Baines

On Mar.23.2005 at 11:07 AM
Chris Rugen’s comment is:

Robin, I graduated about 4 years ago (give or take) and I came out of school with a portfolio full of 'uninteresting' student projects. But I used those projects to give integrity to my more 'stylistic' freelance work (that I did while a student), which is what I used to build my real portfolio. Don't bow down if you aren't convinced. However, I caution you against orthodoxy (in either direction).

Speak Up itself is a good example of the balance that we often need to find: a nice, functional design with a bit of flourish that doesn't hide inadequacies, but amplifies and accents human emotional components that just won't come from clear typography and a solid concept alone. We are humans designing for humans, and so-called decoration is an extension of human emotion and creativity that carries a host of ideas and histories... you get the picture. Challenge your classmates, but let them challenge you. If your work is clear and clean but no one connects with it, is it working?

My biggest piece of advice: do what feels right with openness, brashness, and a dash of humility. Fail gloriously and spectacularly as a student, because there's no better time, and change your mind all the time. It's great.

On Mar.23.2005 at 11:34 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

"The Bauhaus mistook legibility for communication."

Michael—As much as I love Phil Baines’ work, I think he misrepresented the Bauhaus, used the misrepresentation as a straw man, and, perhaps, implied too much about a positive relationship between illegibility and communication.

Which, of course, fits with the big problem of this discussion. Since we can’t see the “simple and clear” work we don’t know if it is merely pedestrian and visually crude and since we can’t see the “overly-complex and uncommunicative” work we don’t know if it is smart and complex for appropriate reasons or visually compelling enough to either draw attention or clarify issues emotionally.

It’s easy to agree with the point of this thread in the abstract but I wonder if we’d accept the characterizations if faced with the work being described.

On Mar.23.2005 at 12:46 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

It’s easy to agree with the point of this thread in the abstract but I wonder if we’d accept the characterizations if faced with the work being described.

Well said.

On Mar.23.2005 at 01:15 PM
agrayspace’s comment is:

I found this article interesting and well written. Though some of the references to style are oddly dated I couldn't help but identify with the struggle.

Just think of how pervasive a single style was in the last Regional Print Annual. While I find the whole highly-detailed-hand-drawn ornate-out-the-wazoo-hey!-im-screen-printing look compelling, it certainly feels like its being applied haphazzardly and rewarded for it nonetheless. So I can identify with the feeling that the ornate/complicated style IS sometimes favored over client considered and effective communication.

Some things never change.

On Mar.23.2005 at 01:23 PM
Randy’s comment is:

or make a point of giving safely contradictory answers (Steven Heller quips that design is “order, clarity, disorder, chaos.”)

Where does this particular Heller quote come from? I think what was intended was that design (the discipline, not the outcome) spans all of these. It is not to be taken as distinct, contradictory descriptions, but words sampled from the great mix of terms that may describe points with in the design process.

“Designing for designers is easy,” says Tan Le...

This is so true.

I think less thoughtful work, like that described and encouraged, can and is being done today by many people. We're seeing entire communities of designers with very, very similar aesthetics, who may very well be working day jobs, doing a handful of freelance projects, and designing a lot of the work you speak of at night. Then, they're selling it to the other designers and their "fans." Given the shear number of designers and enthusiasts of primarily style-based work and the ease of communication and ability to cheaply exchange payment, it is extremely likely that this "style" of design will be able to maintain commercial viability in its own insular community.

As alluded to, designers doing this are certainly not grabbing on to the tremendous opportunity to have greater cultural relevance.

I don't look down upon this work we're putting in the spotlight; I can appreciate its visual qualities. But as the design field grows larger, I think we'll see a great deal of separation between strategy and decoration. The most illuminating cases, of course, will be those where both coincide, with purpose.

On Mar.23.2005 at 03:55 PM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

agrayspace beat me to the punch.

Regardless of what style we are talking about specifically, it will always come down to its context. And as students (which I am as well) it is sometimes hard to differentiate why certain things work and others dont. If one were to look at "award-winning" design in some of the recent magazines, it would seem that rock posters will work no matter what. I don't mean to focus solely on Print, but both their regional annual and their Big Show pull-out from this year showed very little diversity, to the point where I can see a student not well-versed could take it to mean that the "grunge" aesthetic would work on food packaging as well as it could on posters or CD packaging (from the writer's example). At some point, we have to look back on ourselves and what we present as "effective communication" to an outside observer or to newcomers. Yes, screen-print, hand-done work communicates effectively when in the context of cds, posters, and flyers...and could work in other areas as well. But when thats the majority of what is presented in our "best of" mags, what does that say? To be honest, I really don't know what it says. It certainly has me puzzled more often than not, especially when my work which does not follow this aesthetic is overlooked in favor of the other, regardless of communication.

On Mar.23.2005 at 04:30 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

On another thread, someone linked here:

http://nyctotahitinonstop.com/

This is wonderful design. Pretty crappy communication. It took me a LONG time to figure out that this wasn't some artist's pet project, but rather an actual commercial airline site.

On Mar.23.2005 at 04:57 PM
Armin’s comment is:

In the same blog, Kingsley mentioned it last week…

And, sorry Darrel, but a website called NYC to Tahiti Non-stop should trigger some connections with the airline industry, no?

On Mar.23.2005 at 05:01 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Off the topic yet not at all off the topic:

http://nyctotahitinonstop.com/

This is wonderful design. Pretty crappy communication. It took me a LONG time to figure out that this wasn't some artist's pet project, but rather an actual commercial airline site.

Odd. I would have said that it did quite a reasonable job of communicating that Tahiti would be a nice place to be, what specific sorts of things one might do or see, that you can get there nonstop on an airline that somehow delievers a specificly Tahitian experience, and then it connects you to the airline’s regular website where you might buy a ticket.

It seems that you spent a “LONG time” with an experience that may have primed you to become a customer without worrying that you were being sold something. Would that be an unreasonable tactical goal for a site announcing a new flight to a vacation spot?

What did you think it was suppose to communicate that it didn’t?

On Mar.23.2005 at 05:50 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

And, sorry Darrel, but a website called NYC to Tahiti Non-stop should trigger some connections with the airline industry, no?

It could be anything. I thought it was someone's travel journal at first. Sat and watched it. Pretty pictures. Interesting illustration. Finally got to the site's main page...STILL didn't know what I was looking at. Finally scrolled down and saw some unlabeled icons and then realized they were navigation for a travel site.

How hard would it be to communicate the point of the site on the first screen? "Elegant resort packages in Tahiti" or something?

It seems that you spent a “LONG time” with an experience that may have primed you to become a customer

That's a marketing myth. People want to know what you are selling, how much, and where can they can get it. They don't want to stand in lines. They don't want to be given the runaround. They don't want to negotiatie. They don't want sales calls.

Would that be an unreasonable tactical goal for a site announcing a new flight to a vacation spot?

On the web? Definitely. Sure, let them spend time if they so choose to, but give them the option AFTER giving them access to the actual product.

What did you think it was suppose to communicate that it didn’t?

The home page should tell me what the site is. What's the company? What are you selling? What's the added value?

On Mar.24.2005 at 10:31 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

It should push the envelope, and it should make you think — but it shouldn’t make you work.

We need to give “the receiver” (customer, reader, whomever it is) some credit. People like to be engaged and like to figure things out. When you spell everything out, it is not as interesting and not as personal as it can be, and people loose interest. A little work is not a bad thing.

So I started taking a closer look at the design all around me, in trade publications, in the marketplace, and especially in the work of my fellow students… What I found frustrated me even more, because I feel like the edgy, grungy design of today could take a few lessons from journalism

Robin, it would be interesting to know which publications and marketplace references you are referring here that showcase the “grungy” design of today.

However, I find it astonishing that this look/style/whathaveyou is still a hot commodity with Portfolio Center students.

Indeed. I recently had the chance to review the work on display and not much has changed since I was a student. Although it is not as bad as it is being made out to be. There is too much “grungy” design going on simply because it is outdated and done, but there is also a lot of other styles which are also being picked up from many on/off-again trends.

All I want to say here is that graphics are a language, and that language does carry meaning. Don't rely on text to get your message across.

There is more than words and good typography to design, and it is important to learn how these help or not in the final communication. Even when all you have is words, you need to create different levels of information and you need to find ways in which to engage the reader in order to keep him/her interested. If you don’t you will loose them by the second line (even if each letter is perfectly kerned and worked out).

Every design is a conversation, a chance to speak to something with somebody. How many boring conversations have you had in your life? Why? Why were you not interested? Is that something that is happening to your design?

I truly understand Robin Fuller, especially when I see a website like portfoliocenter.com... Can you read those white titles and texts? Neither do I.

They are in need of a serious redesign!

On Mar.24.2005 at 10:48 AM
Jeff’s comment is:

C'mon guys! Give us some credit here! If we PC students are going to rip anyone off in our work it's going to be the Sagmeister/Victore/squiggly thing, handwritten, street style that's plastered all over everything these days. We may spend every waking minute of our lives sequestered inside a concrete block, but I'll be darned if we don't know our trends here. Carson??? Are you kidding me?

Robin. I don't really know you, but as a fellow student emailed me earlier today, you should probably turn down the Nirvana when you write your future essays (and maybe read the rest of the books that go along with your quotes too.)

All kidding aside, before we get labeled as the "dated" school, I'd just like to say that there are a large number of students here that work their asses off to find their own voice in their work and at least try to be original despite the barrage of stylized work that makes up our modern culture. Unfortunately, as in many cases in the design world (ie. PRINT's Regional Design issue), some of the most interesting design created at PC doesn't always make it on display. As we often remind ourselves every quarter, it's all very subjective.

As far as instructors labeling work as not "edgy" enough, I think there might be some bit of misunderstanding with the wording. Could it be that they are saying you are being too safe with your work and not stepping out of your comfort zone enough? I mean what's the point of going to design school if you aren't going to push the envelope a little. Sometimes you may find it appropriate in a design to (gasp) bleed type off the edge of the page. But only as long as it supports what you are communicating.

So there. I will now step off of my soap box but not before saying that the brand new Portfolio Center site should be up soon. I always had a dislike for the old one myself.

Keep up the good work, Armin. I love this site.

On Mar.24.2005 at 12:12 PM
david v.’s comment is:

Darrell wrote: That's a marketing myth. People want to know what you are selling, how much, and where can they can get it. They don't want to stand in lines. They don't want to be given the runaround. They don't want to negotiatie. They don't want sales calls.

This is doubly, triply, quadruply true for a site selling cheap airline tickets! I'm normally quite open to designs that venture outside the conventions of a particular industry, but in this case, I'd have to say this site is a horrible mistake. My partner is one of those obessive airline deal-seekers, and I can tell you, she'd never sit around waiting for some idiotic skipintro to play, or particularly care how cute the little plane is when it lands on the tarmac. And this is true of most people who are looking for airline ticket information. They wants to know the deals, and they wants em now. they hit the site, check the prices, move on. site, price, move on. site, price, move on. Find Deal! Buy tickets. End of story. This site will undoubtedly lure in some customers with its charm and whimsy, but it will also turn away quite a few who will find it annoying. And really, when's the last time anyone didnt buy an airline ticket because they found the site too boring? I just dont see what they gain from it.

On Mar.24.2005 at 12:33 PM
Don Julio’s comment is:

wow, the ’90s called, they want your essay back

Every trend spawns the next anti-trend. Too much clutter and overload means a clean and straightforward solution can now be “different.” Which in turn seems to initiate the next trend. Based on the essay’s timewarp coefficient, this uncluttered trend might start to surface in student work in about five more years. Perhaps that’s the same cycle that all the old design annuals are handed down to art school libraries.

Fer sure. Yet Mr. Carson seems to be making more public appearances again as of late?! Okay, the appearances are still rumored to be as erratic as the work, but let’s hope this is just some archival reflection - being analyzed, deconstructed and then moved beyond.

Deconstructing deconstructivism? In that same vein, I think I'd like to see David Carson parody David Carson. Or is that a double negative with a net result that is invariably something clean, clear and legible?

On Mar.24.2005 at 12:53 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>That's a marketing myth. People want to know what you are selling, how much, and where can they can get it. They don't want to stand in lines. They don't want to be given the runaround. They don't want to negotiatie. They don't want sales calls.

>This site will undoubtedly lure in some customers with its charm and whimsy, but it will also turn away quite a few who will find it annoying.

First of all, if you're seriously considering this trip, you're planning a vacation, not a business trip. You're also probably cruising travel websites after dinner, with travel books and magazines in hand — imagining yourself in many places, enjoying the experience.

Not everything in this world needs to happen a mile a minute, and be shoved in your face like a newspaper ad.

I think this site knows its audience perfectly. If you don't want to take the time, and would rather pour through a catalog site for the cheapest airline ticket — then you probably won't be the kind of client who would drop the extra money to stay in a premium Tahiti resort. Or you won't care to know the difference.

Sites like this one add a little more delight and joy to the Web. Thank goodness for that.

On Mar.24.2005 at 02:34 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

We need to give “the receiver” (customer, reader, whomever it is) some credit. People like to be engaged and like to figure things out.

Damn. We're out of milk? OK, I'll stop by on the way home. Do I want to...

a) walk in, grab the milk, swipe my credit card, and walk out or

b) be 'engaged in an immersive shopping experience tailored to my lifestyle needs'?

I want the damn milk.

Time to look for a new car. Do I...

a) research the car online, take one for a test drive, then email 5 dealers for the best price or

b) visit the showroom, spend an hour with the salesman, watch a promo video, sign up for the free tickets giveaway, have a brat, see pictures of the salesguy's kids, then spend 2 hours negotiating the price?

etc...

Now, I'm not saying that site was bad. It was quite beutiful. Definitely engaging and immersive, and that did add value. But for common sense's sake, put a sentence on the home page that simply states what the site is:

We offer exclusive resort vacations in Tahiti leaving NYC daily. Click here for pricing/ticket information.

Why play cat and mouse with the consumer that has his/her credit card out ready to give you money?

If you don't want to take the time, and would rather pour through a catalog site for the cheapest airline ticket — then you probably won't be the kind of client who would drop the extra money to stay in a premium Tahiti resort. Or you won't care to know the difference.

Know your competition. It's so insanely easy to google the competition these days. On the web, it's ridiculous to put up hurdles and mazes between you and the eager-to-pay-you customer.

On Mar.24.2005 at 03:08 PM
Ben Hagon’s comment is:

In the UK there is a big push in design school to go back to handcrafts (letterpress, screen-printing, photography).

When I graduated from the London College of Printing four years ago, the books consisted only of hand-printed pieces; colour outputs were not acceptable as finished work. Also all images were original, either our own photography, illustration, or both. In fact I had never even been to a stock page until I started working in Toronto.

The outcome of this process is that it is near impossible to merely emulate styes (Carson, M�ller-Brockmann, or whomever) on your screen, as there are many (almost spontaneous) stages after the mac work is finished.

Interestingly enough, I was recently informed that the large design institutions in the U.S. had contacted my old course director to talk about revising their programs to align more with these approaches.

For a deeper insight into these ideas please refer to Susanna Edwards, Julia Lockheart, and Maziar Raign's excellent article in TypoGraphic 60: Primal Typography:

http://www.istd.org.uk/flash_content/index.htm

On Mar.24.2005 at 03:55 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Darrel, I understand where you're coming from, but you also have to understand that not everyone is looking for the most pragmatic, utilitarian experience. That doesn't mean things have to be cryptic, it just means that fast and easy doesn't always mean better.

It's not all like buying milk. And FYI, Ford recently conducted a study and found that a majority of buyers still preferred the "showroom" experience to buying a car. They don't want the hassle of haggling prices, but what most online buyers miss is the unique experience of seeing their shiny new cars in a shiny, fancy showroom. They expect a grander experience when they're shelling out $40 grand for a new car these days. So automakers are re-examining a hybrid of dealer showrooms specifically geared to providing the new car buying experience with the perceived control of an online purchase.

On Mar.24.2005 at 05:19 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Darrel,

NYC to Tahiti Nonstop is selling Tahiti, not a plane trip; a destination, not a conveyance; a vacation, not a commuter trip. I hope you agree that most people don't go to Tahiti for family obligations, conventions or business trips. And in this case, I think we can let other airlines get folks from here to there quickly — and do the same with their websites.

After three passionate comments...perhaps a vacation to Tahiti...

;)

Robin Fuller,

The fact that you're a design student, not a designer, doesn't diminish your credibility. On the other hand, holding intractable positions and thinking that there's one approach to problem solving could.

Your Communication vs. Decoration argument is a fool's errand; where all arguments have merit at least half the time. Certain effects go in and out of fashion, and that's just what it is.

The battle should be internal: Self-doubt vs. Confidence. If you're comfortable... if you know what the final result will be as you boot up Photoshop... if you've got a schtick... then you're merely competent.

By the way, most — and I mean most — of us are just that; merely competent.

By the by the way, Communication, the cultural relevance of design, whether something appears in an annual, and being edgy? Often overrated. Worship the internal struggle, not the result. To quote the graffiti artist http://www.banksy.co.uk/help/index.html" target="_blank"> Banksy, (featured in today's NY Times) you don't go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.

On Mar.24.2005 at 07:42 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>you don't go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.

Ha! I'm going to make a tshirt with this quote. Thanks M.

On Mar.24.2005 at 07:47 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

If it's on a black t-shirt, make one for me too.

On Mar.24.2005 at 07:52 PM
david v.’s comment is:

btw, is the original author of this piece reading this thread? I'm surprised there have been no responses from her.

On Mar.25.2005 at 09:20 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

That doesn't mean things have to be cryptic, it just means that fast and easy doesn't always mean better.

We're in agreement.

So automakers are re-examining a hybrid of dealer showrooms specifically geared to providing the new car buying experience with the perceived control of an online purchase.

Well, Saturn has made a few bucks off of the 'sucker' mentality so I guess it has merit.

On Mar.25.2005 at 10:26 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

btw, is the original author of this piece reading this thread? I'm surprised there have been no responses from her.

I am searching for her… no luck so far.

On Mar.25.2005 at 11:35 AM
Don Julio’s comment is:

Ha! I'm going to make a tshirt with this quote.

Tan, If you’re designing it, I'll take two. Can I get an autographed version?

btw, is the original author of this piece reading this thread?

Must be spring break. Design career on pause.

On Mar.25.2005 at 11:50 AM
Tan’s comment is:

>Can I get an autographed version?

Not my quote, Don — so it'd be wrong to sign it. But if you like, I'll wear it first. It'll be all stretched out and comfy when you get it.

On Mar.25.2005 at 12:34 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>Saturn has made a few bucks off of the 'sucker' mentality so I guess it has merit.

Sorry, not to dwell on this, but you'd be amazed at how interested people are about the process of buying a new car. A friend, whose girlfriend just bought a Mini, told me that the dealer treated their new purchase as if it was an adoption. The Mini was tracked from "birth" overseas, and the couple was kept abreast of their Mini's delivery process via email from port to port, ship to truck, etc.

Sure it's frivolous, but it's an expansion of a unique brand experience. It's smart marketing, unique, plus it's fun.

So it's not just the communications, but the style in which it's delivered is also important.

On Mar.25.2005 at 12:59 PM
Robin Fuller (author)’s comment is:

FROM THE AUTHOR...

Wow, I had no idea my piece would generate such a response! :) I'm very pleased, both by those who agree and those who have made me think about a few things.

Just wanted to make a general note that there was a bit of a miscommunication about dates and how available I needed to be... I just finished up my third quarter last week, and now I'm on vacation. Unfortunately, since my essay was the first turned in for this class, mine was the first published, so now I am on a cross-country road trip down historic Route 66, with almost no net access! (I'm posting this from a cafe.) Obviously, I don't currently have the time or resources to address everyone, and for that I apologize. I will do my best to respond when I get back to Atlanta next week.

So it's not that I'm not interested; really just a case of poor timing for me! I hope you all understand.

Thanks so much for all your inisghtful feedback! :)

Robin

On Mar.25.2005 at 01:50 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

The Mini was tracked from "birth" overseas, and the couple was kept abreast of their Mini's delivery process via email from port to port, ship to truck, etc.

Stop. You're making me nauseous.

;o)

On Mar.25.2005 at 02:31 PM
david v.’s comment is:

Tan wrote:

I think this site knows its audience perfectly. If you don't want to take the time, and would rather pour through a catalog site for the cheapest airline ticket — then you probably won't be the kind of client who would drop the extra money to stay in a premium Tahiti resort. Or you won't care to know the difference.

On further reflection, you're right about the site, but something still rubs me wrong, and I think I figured out what it is: the URL. nyctotahitinonstop.com sounds like the name of a bargain ticket seller, not a luxury resort. It sounds like "cheapflightstohawaii.com" or "lowfarestoparis.com" or something of that ilk. I would never in a million years see that url and think "ooh, I bet they could get me a luxury, elite vacation to Tahiti". I'd think "ooh, I bet they'd get me to Tahiti cheap for spring break, and I can spend the leftover money on beer! Sweet!". ;)

On Mar.25.2005 at 03:04 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

I think it's a mistake to lump all non-modernist design styles together and call them all 'grungy' or 'edgy'.

A lot of work I see coming out of the design colleges is very illustrative, very detailed and very interested in the crafting of minute detail.

To call this work 'grungy' does it a huge disservice, as this label implies a rejection of beauty, clarity and communication.

A lot of desing students I know are trying to explore the minute details of how communication is achieved, through the intricate crafting of bespoke typographic and illustrative solutions.

Of course a lot of the time they won't achieve this: it's a very tall order.

But I don't think we should be so hard on those willing to experiment. Particularly on those who are just starting out.

Most of the work I produce is of the modernist/minimalist style: it is a style that has proved successful in many situations, and continues to do so. But I'm glad there are designers who remind me that novelty is just as important as clarity.

The comparison of design with journalism is unfair. Written communication operates within a very tight structural framework: one cannot easily create new words and new ways of writing. But design is a much broader and much less precise tool, and there's much more scope for experimentation.

It would be a great shame if educators began to teach their students that there is only one accepted style for effective communication.

On Mar.25.2005 at 03:34 PM
Rob’s comment is:

As one who considers himself merely competent (with some poentetial to move beyond that?), Robin reminds me of some the same arguments I have had myself when working through my career as writer and designer.

Clearly, within the design education field, there is a body of diverse opinion as to whether not graphic design should be taught as an art or as a form of communication. Considering my own background, I usually side I feel most comfortable with. Or as Art Chantry puts, "this ain't art."

But on the other side of things, are people like Cranbrooke's Elliott Earlson who's made an art of design that works. And I've even go so far as to argue that some of Chantry's work while not created as 'art,' certainly could be considered as such.

But in either case, school is the place to begin the act of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. And even as a working designer, I've always felt that often the best solutions that work for client's are those that push them slightly out of their comfort zone.

Design school is not J school. There's no AP style book to keep you on the straight and narrow. You're not using words to describe the situtation at hand. Journalism in itself does not solve problems. It just reports. It's linear.

Good design is design that solves the problem. And the challenge is in school, fair or not, is sometimes solving the problem in the way that your professor wants to. But is that really that much different from meeting the needs of a client? It may not be your preferred style but it is your grade. And you never know what you might learn by trying it out.

Design school, Robin, is your chance to go places you've yet to explore. It may seem uncomfortable or not right, but it's school. It's learning. And through all of it, you'll learn when and when not applying the rules leads to the right solution to the problem.

On Mar.25.2005 at 03:51 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Tan, as someone who's sort of had a crush on the Mini since it's remaking (and more than once has been tempted to take a test drive), I think that whole birthing/delivery shtick is a great way to turn the negative of waiting for a new car into a positive emotion-building experience. Yeah, it's obnoxious if you're not into owning a Mini: it's a fairly obvious attempt at brand spin. But as David Barringer mentions in the latest Emigre #68 (pg.36), one can intellectualize oneself back to liking it again. Or, like a true Star Trek or Star Wars fan, you acknowledge it's corny, but still like it anyway for all of its saccharin sentimentality.

Getting back to the subject of this thread...

Many of the previous posts have already covered things I would mention, but I'll offer this...

Both minimalism and what is described in this thread as "grunge" are styles that can be utilized depending on the context of the project at hand. Staking out a universal aesthetic stance to all creative endeavors can only help to promote miscommunication and distortion. One form is not inherently better than the other for all projects. Context changes everything. Like a series of overlapping circles, each being a component of the complex nature of the project, the potential solution lies within the intersecting union. It is the nature of that overlap that drives the outcome of the project. Forcing the circles that we, as designers, add into ridgid, artificially constructed positions doesn't allow for a natural construction, and therefore creates distortion. And given our own inherent biases or abilities, we will place those circles within a general zone anyway, so why limit oneself even more by visual dogma?

And for the record... The term "grunge" was just as incorrect and inaccurate to describe the music scene of the late 80's and early 90's, as it was to describe the graphic design of that period. The ripped jeans and flannel shirts stereotype of the bands (created by the major labels to conveniently package a cultural phenomemnon) had more to do with being poor kids living in a frequently chilly environment, not a stylistic affectation. And, as many of us know, but for those that don't: the underlying motivations behind the graphic design of that period really wasn't being driven by "modern technology " as much as theoretical considerations (1 & 2).

On Mar.25.2005 at 05:41 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

I hope we don't start seeing 'Cabbage-Patch Minis' born in a hospital, with owners having to perform an adoption ceremony.

I don't know about you, but I don't think cars should be given human characteristics.

Eurgh Herbie!

On Mar.26.2005 at 10:00 AM
Robin Fuller’s comment is:

elv:

I truly understand Robin Fuller, especially when I see a website like portfoliocenter.com... Can you read those white titles and texts? Neither do I.

Funny you should say that, since I go to PC. :) When I was writing this essay, there was some discussion of the fact that our school in general tends to encourage this aesthetic - possibly one that's not even used so much in the real world since the 90s! I don't have enough experience with design history to really know. But as far as the web site goes, they must be doing something right, b/c that was a big part of what drew me to the school.

On Mar.28.2005 at 01:47 PM
Robin’s comment is:

Greg:

I guess part of the point of my essay was that people shouldn't be dsigning for designers in the first place. I mean, if you're specifically asked to design something for us, like AIGA literature or something, that's one thing. But in general... Well, it's like the example I gave with frozen food. That is obviously meant to be a functional design understandable to the consumer, but if you got someone to do it who was a student or a top-notch designer at a design firm, it's almost like as soon as you attach that elite label of design to it, designers feel like it HAS to be more than just text and a picture of the food, or else it's not good design. The whole idea of if anyone can do it, then it must not be good. Which is not necessarily true.

Can you give me an example of a design where communication is not important, that isn't art? That might help me respond to you better. I think all design should communicate something, even if it isn't with words. Even building design communicates.

On Mar.28.2005 at 01:54 PM
Robin’s comment is:

JonSel:

I think you're absolutely right and have a good sense of how design education should be. This is something I would like to explore further, but the assignment this time was not to write a novel, which is what I would have ended up doing. :)

Teachers should be able to guide students in both a stylistic and conceptual direction and, more importantly, recognize the difference in student work. But as they are only human, I guess in the end I can't really blame them for being full of praise for snazzy-looking (though empty) designs after having to wade through all our mediocre work day in and day out. Must become quite tiresome!

On Mar.28.2005 at 01:59 PM
Robin’s comment is:

ToddH:

Design school is a place for experimentation and creative development, but it must also be a place where we learn to use our talents to the benefit of our clients, not just our portfolios.

Thank you! I could not have put it better myself. I had several projects this quarter where I was encouraged to do completely unrealistic things (like run body copy across a page gutter) because the point is not to be ultimately usable, but to look good when photographed for my book. :-/ On the one hand, it's nice to be given the opportunity to be more creative and less restricted. On the other hand, how will that help me on a less creative, more restricted job?

On Mar.28.2005 at 02:04 PM
Robin’s comment is:

i'm reminded of the film 'ridicule' where the court philospher can argue both for and against the existence of god with equal logic and skill because (a)his living is to argue and (b) any argument constructed around the pejorative contains its own counter argument.

It doesn't surprise me to hear you say this about my arguments, but I consider it a good thing to be able to see both sides. I don't believe in black-and-white thinking or fanaticism, and have little respect for those who do. I think if you can't at least partially see both sides of an argument, then you're blinding yourself. Also, I think it is important to anticipate and cite the potential arguments of the "opposition," because it makes your own points stronger to shoot down their points before they are made, so that people see you have thought the whole thing out.

I understand the temptation - and occasional need - to decorate in design, to make overly complex designs, to let concept take more of a backseat, etc. But I still think that design should be first and foremost about communication, and I don't think being aware of exceptions or counterarguments makes my point any less strong.

On Mar.28.2005 at 02:09 PM
graham’s comment is:

robin- have you got any examples of the kinds of work you're talking about?

and

any examples of work that doesn't communicate?

On Mar.28.2005 at 02:14 PM
Robin’s comment is:

NOTE TO ALL:

I am currently still on the road, so I will continue to respond to more comments as the opportunity arises. (I'm lucky if I get cell phone reception out here!)

Jeff Gill:

Robin, your sense of frustration is almost palpable, and I feel for you, but I wonder if you are projecting a specific school situation (or maybe a general a general school situation. My lack of actual design education leaves me ignorant) onto the wider world of communication/graphic design. I don't see how it fits with the working world.

It is a distinct possibility, as this is something Bryony remarked on as well. This type of aesthetic is present in the real world too, of course, but maybe not as much as it was in the 90s (which, incidentally, was the time period when a lot of my cited research was written!) I wouldn't really know; I was only 15 in 1995 and was not exactly design-savvy!

Thus I acknowledge the idea that my arguments against grunge and whatnot may not be that relevant anymore outside of design school, which is unfortunate. However, my larger point - that design should seek to communicate above all - still stands, regardless of the style trends of the day.

On Mar.28.2005 at 02:19 PM
graham’s comment is:

robin-just saw your response . . . coincidence.

without examples it's hard to see the point you're making . . . i read your essay and it's all hot and lathered but i really don't know who the 'we' you talk about is . . . actually i don't recognise a lot of the things you claim: the essay reads more like a list of borrowed assumptions than an argument (which was the 'ridicule' point). a few examples of what you mean by what you say would make a massive difference.

design isn't one thing: designers aren't one kind of person, and design projects are not all the same: sometimes they're not even recognisably 'design' projects-and then it's a question of what do you do now . . . no form, no function, and very little clarity with perhaps no necessity for it.

have you ever looked at medieval manuscripts?

On Mar.28.2005 at 02:48 PM
graham’s comment is:

thinking more . . . and seeing your last post: "design should seek to communicate above all"-yes, but . . . water is wet; everything communicates . . . if you're talking intention then perception and the relationship between them then it's a question of degree-and yes signage would need to point the way with a greater degree of accuracy than a cd case might be capable of expressing (or otherwise) the music in it.

where i get lost in your essay is in the (abstract) notion of a conflict: the work of people like gert dumbar, total design, north, h.c. ericsson, bjorn kussofsky, fuel, why not, jon barnbrook (the list could go on and on) ranges across signage and timetable/form work to staging operas and making concrete poetry-things that are necessary in order to find your way, or plan, or (perhaps) live, and things that catch the eye and mind like a reflection of sunlight off of a bowl of water-which are also necessary.

schoenberg's 'style and idea' is another good one.

On Mar.28.2005 at 03:23 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

A problem with imposing a communication/decoration dichotomy is that neither end of the spectrum really exists.

What is decoration without communication? The very definition 'decoration' implies a changing of appearance for a purpose (to change the way the intended audience percieves the object).

Is spitting on the floor decoration?

And what is communication without decoration? All forms of communication rely upon physical symbols, and these can be altered in a variety of ways. Unless we are psychic, we have to decorate our communication in one way or another

Is thinking communication?

To approach design from a journalistic perspective is missing the whole point (missing the bits that make it interesting).

The mistake is to reduce all design problems to a simple formula: message a needs to get to audience b (where a and b are clearly defined).

If this were the case then we wouldn't need typography, illustration or photography: we could just write the message.

But what if a and b aren't clearly defined? What if we need to explore and experiment to find them?

Of course there are occasionally charlatans, and of course there are occasionally fools; but we shouldn't reject creative endeavor in favor of a safe road.

On Mar.28.2005 at 07:35 PM
Shahla’s comment is:

The extremes of a URL specific to a particular �deal’ on travel and the sumptuous art evident as soon as you click the link immediately gave me the impression this website was designed for the visually literate —therefore quipped about on speak-Up. A place for those who hate the clanging clutter and too-mechanical functionality of, say, airline sites or sites with banners advertising vacation spots.

Now, how many of the New Yorkers posting here want to go to Tahiti non-stop?

As to the clear communication you have coming across in your work, Robin.

Keep it up.

And, if you add the decorative, I think as long as you have a good explanation why you use textures or graphic elements �of the time’ (how it fits) into the message —with a twist in usage which makes it more your way of using it (technique) to tell the story rather than the job of a copying cat. The work will be genuine and, for lack of a better word, edgy.

Most projects require the synthesis of the visual and the written content. A few will be purely typographic where through scale and type the words become balanced elements on the

page,

business card,

computer screen,

tradeshow banner,

wayfinding sign,

book cover,

package,

building,

store front,

menu…

the list goes on.

Especially while in school, rebel against what �they’ want to see!

On Mar.29.2005 at 08:30 PM
Ezekiel’s comment is:

this is our logo

On Apr.02.2005 at 04:06 PM
Ezekiel’s comment is:

I guess it did not show. Can see it at http://www.hodari.net/h.gif

It's about keep it simple in our time of post pop complicated thinking/design. When I talk to my design students they seem to need to hear long, non-audible stories about design. Stories they find "useful" to justify being there like Peter Sellers....

On Apr.02.2005 at 04:12 PM
Robin Fuller’s comment is:

MORE FROM THE AUTHOR

Well, I'll be honest and say that reading through all of these responses is a very sobering affair, not because I feel like they are unfair (although I do feel - and others agree - that a few are unnecessarily snide or petty, which I don't really understand, since this is supposed to be about friendly, constructive discussion.) Mostly it gets me down because I realize that many *are* valid points. I have always done well in school and made a point to give my best for assignments. But the reality of the situation is that I had 24 deliverables to complete in 10 weeks this quarter, and I was simply not able to devote the time to this essay that I would have liked. This was the most stressful period of schooling I have been through in 24 years, especially since I consider myself more of a quality than a quantity person. Doubtless a more narrow, well-defined topic and more thorough research would have done me good.

For those who asked, I did use a variety of essays and books (many from the 90s!) as sources, but I also interviewed a lot of designers, from Steven Heller to some of my peers and teachers, via email.

In my defense, I have talked to a couple people here at Portfolio Center about this essay and the responses. I was told that they understood what I was saying completely, but they saw how it might not make sense to those outside the school. So perhaps I just didn't explain myself well.

Some clarifications:

1) I realize that simple does not necessarily mean better. Complex is great - if you have a REASON for doing it, other than just because "that's what good design looks like."

2) I realize that just using type is not the best solution for most design problems. In fact, I don't recall advocating that anywhere in my essay.

3) While I did compare design with journalism, you will notice I said "good design should be more engaging than your average newspaper." I was not saying the two are synonymous - simply that both are about communication, and SOME designers could take a few lessons in how to communicate more clearly.

4) yes, I realize that all things communicate, regardless of intent. But when a complex aesthetic is used just for the sake of using it, how can it be communicating your desired message?

5) Yes, I know that communication and decoration are not mutually exclusive, and both have their place.

6) Jeff - *I* was not making a point to make the school look bad. It was everyone ELSE that started saying my tuition dollars were being wasted here. I love this school, and I agree with you: we turn out some truly fantastic stuff. I fail to see where in my essay I claimed that ALL portfolio center student work was like this, or that ALL teachers here encourage it. But even if you haven't noticed it and don't do it yourself, this is a real phenomenon here. bryony herself commented on it, and other students who have read this essay know exactly what I'm talking about, b/c we have discussed examples and students who often use this technique.

As for examples, several that are currently displayed in our school come to mind, but obviously naming names isn't very nice. when I was writing this essay, for example, one poster here kept coming to mind that I literally walked past and stared at every day last quarter without having ANY clue what it was about except for the logo in the bottom right corner. Just a mish mosh of interwoven text, scribbles, and images. When I finally parked myself in front of it one day for about 10 minutes (which I doubt someone on the street would do), I managed to untangle the dubious message. Sure, it look interesting, but I can say with some confidence that it doesn't communicate worth a damn. Now that's one thing if it's a CD cover, but this is a poster to raise awareness for a cause. How the heck did it make it up on the wall?

As for everyone's doubts about Carson still being an influence in 2005... Well, again, I don't want to name names, but a certain teacher and a fellow student leap instantly to mind.

Anyway, I would rewrite the essay and research further if I had the chance. To everyone who identified with my core message, without getting caught up in the details, and simply advised me to follow my heart and instincts when it comes to design and not worry about trends and the like, I thank you. That is probably the best advice I have received, and that is what I will take with me from this enlightening assignment.

On Apr.04.2005 at 04:31 PM
Pepper’s comment is:

You had me at hello.

I've been a successful print designer for 35 years, taught at prestigious design college, etc.

It's all about the audience. In design class the audience is your classmates. In life it is the client's audience. This is simple. You do what communicates to them, and if it is not youth, it should not be grunge.

The greatest designers communicated clearly, sweet simple visual analogies speak powerfully.

Complexity is not instantaneous communication of anything but confusion.

If we are confused - then let it be known. Otherwise the same principles hold that apply to excellence in writing.

On Apr.06.2005 at 12:50 PM