I've had a tremendous amount of difficulty finding a way to form clear, simple, specific questions about each essay (which
will be clear once you read further and see how complicated it gets!).
In some pieces, nearly every paragraph requires a page of explanation, refutation, or simply clarification. So instead,
I'll try to take one idea from each piece--not necessarily the piece's main idea (impossible to find in some cases)--and give
a few sentences on it. Then I'll extract some general questions from that. This may or may not work, but here goes.
All Speak Up readers are freely invited to raise other points specific to any single piece, idea, or even sentence.
In the following quotations, anything [in brackets] is added by me. Anything else is from the original.
Quietude, Kenneth Fitzgerald
Unbearable. A bad start. Insert your own personal opinions on any designers or designer's books here.
"We may be at a stage when all formal innovations have been exhausted: post-modern postscript time." Aye? Nay? Worth responding to?
Towards a Critical Autonomy, Andrew Blauvelt
"Lacking the specificity of a medium [which means that design works across many mediums], graphic design tends to be
identified [by whom?] more through its varied products [what gets printed or made, and through that buy its clients]
than any sense of disciplinary practice [aka, critical discourse or theory]." p. 39
This sentence is a minefield. It essentially says, perhaps unintentionally, that design schools are unnecessary. If there
is no discipline of design, there's nothing to study. There are no ideas, only objects. The next sentence starts "Thus
design is reduced to a commodity form..." Blauvelt says this is a "reductive understanding" of design, by which he means it is
incomplete and unhelpful and not-good view of design, and I agree. However, his solution is the subject of his essay:
creating disciplinary autonomy for design. Here's how he gets there:
"We need to imagine a historical language of design that transcends styles and is embedded in the continuity of discourse." (p. 40)
In other words, design needs a body of design theory (if "historical language" can be translated as such). The
"continuity of discourse" is either design history as a whole (practice and theory combined, maybe) or else it's
what replaces design once we are free from "undue reliance" on design practice and the products its creates (see exhibit C).
"Graphic design must be seen as a discipline [now it's a discipline and not a commodity] capable of generating
meaning on its own terms without undue reliance on commissions [aka, clients], prescriptive social functions [meaning that
there's no reason why a poster must fulfill its function of informing the public, or a book jacket of representing the text, or any
design piece functioning as it usually functions to communicate], or specific media or style [in other words, without undue
reliance on form, aesthetics, or design itself]." (p. 41)
So, in order for design to develop as a discipline, a language of design must be developed that has nothing to do with clients (commissions)
or the pragmatic world in which design is practiced (social functions), and it must not rely on what design looks like or the form it takes,
and this language must be able to be meaningful.
Is such a thing possible, you say. And what would we call it?
Behold, Exhibit D:
"A newly engaged form of critical practice is necessary, one that is no longer concerned with originality as defined by personal expression,
but rather one dedicated to an inventive contextuality [!!!!!!!!!]."
At which point I am slapping my forehead saying, Of course! It's so obvious! Inventive contextuality! So simple, so pure,
so beautiful! A new age of theory can begin and I am prepared to greet the Emperor and compliment him on his wonderful new critically
autonomous and inventively contextual clothes!
So my question is, is this an example of why design theory can never work, or this just a convoluted piece that says
nothing in language that seems to say something? What could "inventive contextuality" mean? Are you suspicious that autonomy
is really a wish to practice design without clients and without restrictions? Doesn't that seem too easy?
Visitations, Denise Gonzalez-Crisp, Kali Nikitas, Louise Sandhaus.
Without having been on the trip with the writers and seen the work they discuss, this piece is difficult to debate. Near the end,
Louise Sandhaus asks, "What do we want to invent for this culture?" (p. 54) It's a fair question. Do designers "all just want to move beyond
the overly designed object, or the oh-so-clever graphical aloofness"? (p. 53) Do you?
Do you equate cleverness with aloofness? Do you think "overly designed" means visually complex work (an example that comes most
immediately to mind would be Scott and Laurie Makela's work, but you know what I mean), or is very clean work (Design:MW) also overly designed?
Is this a bad thing?
Modernism 8.0, Jeffrey Keedy
Keedy does not, other than Dot Dot Dot, cite any examples of the styles he is talking about, making it (perhaps deliberately) difficult
to debate. This is just a guess on my part, but maybe "cuteism" is something like the work of FutureFarmers; "in-faux-mation graphics" seems to
refer to the design of McSweeney's; and "designerless design" leaves me baffled. "Just let the software do the designing," Keedy writes,
and perhaps he is talking about the my-nephew-likes-computers kind of stuff, supermarket newsletters done in Word, or similar
things made by people with software who aren't designers. In other words, the type of "design" that is probably not properly equated
with the work of Futurefarmers or McSweeney's, regardless of whether you happen to like their respective aesthetics.
Keedy's anti-Modernism-8.0 argument is based on his Postmodernist principles ("graphic designers should have faced their Postmodern reality
with critical optimism" (p. 67). What is your definition or description of Postmodernism? This piece seems vaguer and weaker for not making
clear what Keedy thinks
Postmodernism is, and thus the comparison to Modernism 8.0 is less supported. Would you agree there is such a style as Modernism 8.0? Whose
work does the list on p. 71 describe?
And then there's this: "The myth of authentic, undesigned communication is a fantasy . . ." (p. 62) I'm not sure I'm clear on this--
the myth is a fantasy. This is almost like saying the falsehood is a deception, or an illusion is a misperception--
not quite, but still. And doesn't he go on to identify undesigned communication as a whole category? He does (p. 65). Ugh.
Design and Faux Science, Jessica Helfand, William Drenttel
Like Fitzgerald, Visitations, and Keedy, this pieces seems to be purely personal subjective taste-based judgment disguised
as something analytical and informative. There is so much that is wrong with this piece, from the intellectual posturing of misrepresenting Hegel
to the lack of cited examples (again) to the failure to distinguish between science and technology. This last strikes me as a serious weakness of
the piece, since the writers seem to take issue more with a visual style
of design that is technology-inspired (Joshua Davis maybe, or John Maeda, or Steve Tolleson, but without examples who knows).
This piece argues that design has adopted the language of science in order to benefit from science's authority: "It is as if
science offers a kind of credibility that design itself lacks, an instant validation of seriousness of purpose that, quite possibly,
design never had in the first place." (p. 75)
First of all, do you feel that design needs a validation of its seriousness or purpose? And if so, can design be validated on the level
of science and technology (in other words, up there with curing cancer, making more fuel-efficient cars, or maping the genome)?
Second, did anyone see the whole argument fall apart with this sentence: "Design has always built its discourse upon the languages of parallel
professions." (p. 80)
Again, minefield. First, to clarify, I read "discourse" here to mean not critical/theoretical discussion , but rather to mean
"stylistic cues and aesthetic techniques," or a visual vocabulary of science/technology. The essay is discussing visual
design itself--the stylistic and aesthetic--and even goes out of its way to talk about a specific shape, the lozenge. So the issue
is not that design adopts a theoretical vocabulary (which is certainly does, but that's off-topic of this piece) from science, but that design
adopts all the little "sciencey" things like diagrams and numbering with decimals (in case you missed the section heads) from other professions.
"Language" in this case means bits and pieces, not concepts: a "style idiom" (p. 74).
So then, did anyone feel the piece falls completely flat because yes, design has always borrowed from other professions--not just science but
art, architecture, even music, in fact other endeavors of all kind. Yes of course. And?
Cranky, Rick Valicenti
Ah. Rhythm. Flow. It's exciting, isn't it? It's like scat (the musical kind). And he wrote it so fast.
So what is Valicenti's message, after all?
The piece has some rough sections:
1. A ironic-to-cynical view of contemporary culture (86-88)
2. "I am designer" : a rosy view of the power and glory of being a designer (88-90)
3. Responsibility shifts (combine section 2 with section 1) to "we" (91-93)
4. Questions and second thoughts (94)
5. Hostility as purge (95-96)
What are we left with? Do you think the hubris of section 2 is in fact purged by the contrition self-questioning of section 4? Does anyone
other than Valicenti come away from the piece with greater clarity or relief? Does the whole thing seem kind of smug to you--
in particular this: "oops did i say something to disturb you?" Did you simply enjoy it or did it bug you?
What's My Motivation, Shawn Wolfe
The first sentence alone--"Maybe I'm too old to still be such a confused lad,
but it takes years to become as confused as I feel right now"--let you know Wolfe can write. Funny coincidence that both Chip Kidd
in The Cheese Monkeys and Wolfe single out the Wrigley's gum design to focus on, albeit one the original and the other the redesign,
as classic great design.
The note that runs through this piece is that Wolfe--and designers like him who care about what things look like and what
things mean and doing work that really matters in the face of so much junk culture--face a crisis of meaning now, as symbolized
by the Wrigley's Doublemint redesign. There's a significant dilemma here--things have to be redesigned in order for the
profession to be profitable, as Wolfe acknowledges. But design history is still a kind of history and people always have a desire and
need to protect that history. Wolfe writes, "Despite their newness...strike that...because of their newness these
redesigns are scarcely tolerable, incapable of becoming history." (p. 103)
Do you find yourself struggling between a love of the past and a desire for the new? Do you love only the new, or only the old?
Does Wolfe strike you as a reactionary against the new (he's an Emigre-published designer, after all), or more precisely a reactionary
against the crappy? How do you distinguish among new design work that's good and stuff you might like but isn't good?
The "State of Graphic Design" selection, while at least providing some visual examples, is as spotty as any of the written work, showing only
that the field is varied and scattered and perhaps unwieldy. Is there anything wrong with this? I don't know if it was intentional--it seems
a level of meta-commentary that's out of the scope of this book--but the Adobe ad is placed in such a way that it too becomes a part of the visual
essay on the state of things. Ditto the sales info for Emigre products: in the end (literally), there are goods for sale. And where do the goods end up? The
dumpster. Not too subtle, not too complex--this is perhaps the state of graphic design writing, at least at Emigre.