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Where’s the Love?

This thread evolved from a couple of comments made in the VH1 discussion and Sean Adams’ comment about Speak Up being one of the only communications that plays it raw and the question of why do we whitewash?.

Where’s the love then? Everywhere. Or so it seems in terms of graphic design commentary (or design media as Sean put it). I don’t want this to be a congratulatory thread on Speak Up’s openness and rawness, rather an analysis of design media so far. We have dozens of trade publications that focus on the end results and that choose to publish work that is deemed good and successful. Where is the bad work? Why isn’t anybody pointing out? How come we whitewash everything? Sure, there is critical writing here and there, but anytime the profession is challenged (be it FTF Manifesto or Mr. Keedy or FitzGerald going on in one of their trademark rants) designers are up in arms and offended.

Props and happiness is great, it keeps us motivated and feeling rewarded. Questioning, probing and reality on the other hand gets us down and feeling disappointed. Can graphic design survive its own reality?

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PUBLISHED ON Feb.04.2004 BY Armin
graham’s comment is:

obviously, speak up and design observer (among other things) are a response to this lack in printed design 'journals'. some are pretty good (or have gotten better over the years)-eye, creative review (particularly in the past two or three years), dotdotdot and idea magazine (japan) all fulfill different needs with a degree of success. tokion too.

this is because the people who run them know what they are talking about; they follow their passions, their obsessions. they are interested and commited, and their enrquiries run deeper than 'what programme did you make this in?'

on the other hand; ignorance, disinterest, the need to fill pages with anything, a lack of depth, a lack of knowledge, of emotion, a kind of strange one-sided 'free publicity' contract that one didn't ask for and doesn't particularly want, total lack of research or even any concept of the subject, contemporary or otherwise, slapdash and fuckheaded.

and that's just one recent experience.

it's very rare that anyone asks the right questions, to be honest. one thing the experience of talking to design publications has left me with over the years is a wariness of journalism-after all, if someone can't get the date of a little piece of dodgy design right when you've told them it to their face, what hope can one have that anything one reads is even slightly accurate?

but-back to the subject-design can stand a lot more probing than it currently gets. that's why something like speak up exists. save cash; don't buy waste paper. cancel subscriptions and have design observer/speak up/etc. as the hompage on everyones computer. or something.

On Feb.04.2004 at 12:49 PM
mitch’s comment is:

I have always felt that the design process has been greatly underrepresented in design publications. Much the way a lot of the VH1 logo discussion asks why they did what they did, so too are publications not answering the why. To an “outsider” (read:non-designer) the final product is often what matters and is all that is shown. As an “insider” I want to see the process so I can learn where the ideas come from, and indeed have someone else’s process influence my own through inspiration and precedent. Page after page of final products, while certainly interesting in their own way, do not break the surface at all and indeed remove much of the meaning from the project itself. It can make a design problem become another marketing item as opposed to something with a discourse that can be more interesting than the final product itself. I look at Peter Eisenman’s House series like this: the actual final houses are really incidental to the process of getting to them. If there is not a design magazine out there called "Process" yet than I am going to start one. Who is with me?

it's very rare that anyone asks the right questions, to be honest.

I agree with Graham on this one. In fact, I have a great example of it: I was at a lecture Tomato was giving at RISD this past fall to a packed house. After showing much work they opened the floor to questions. One question was “Where does the name Tomato come from?” The look of near contempt on Graham’s face was priceless as he answered (paraphrased) “I don’t know. Does it matter?”

This is one humorous example of a real problem. I like SU in that there is a chance to really look below the surface of a lot of design projects, but I also the think that more designers need to be aware of the road they are on to finishing a project more than just the final destination. Granted school is not the real world, but I personally always try and present process sketches with final projects whenever I can.

On Feb.04.2004 at 01:21 PM
KM’s comment is:

Can graphic design survive its own reality?

I honestly believe it can and will. I do enjoy the questioning and honest critical writing that I see time to time and feel that there is definitely not enough of it. Actually discussing graphic design will only benefit in our growth and 'survival.'

On Feb.04.2004 at 01:23 PM
Ben’s comment is:

The idea that media is whitewashed is an interesting one.

I believe it comes down to the blanding of the world, choice by committee, over-use of focus groups, lowest common denominator, etc.

Which as all professionals all over the world realise, comes down to one unifying element: the DOLLARS.

By making everything accessable to all, we can shift more units. Whether that be bars of soap, newpapers, or tv programmes, it doesn't matter, the bottom line is all that counts.

Quality is irrelevant, all that matters is figures.

In the case of Speak Up, the gang are not specifically trying to sell anything so they are immune.

I recently sent an truthful essay in to most of the major design rags and with the exception of Emigré, all slammed it as immature ranting. Or "treading on toes" as I call it.

It is up to us as citizens of these societies to rebel against this recent phenomenon. Realising it exists is the first step.

On Feb.04.2004 at 01:26 PM
mitch’s comment is:

I just realized I did not really answer the actual questions posed by Armin in the original article. My personal experience is that designers love whitewash because we are, as a group, arrogant and eliteist, and being told we are great just adds to that. Having said that, the best arrogant and eliteist designers also know how to look at critisism in an additive way, not a subtractive one. I have found that really harsh critique hurts when you are getting it, but really helps the next day. Good graphic design can get critiqued and survive, great graphic design can get dissected and mangled and it still stands up.

On Feb.04.2004 at 01:28 PM
Greg’s comment is:

One of the things I've always wanted to do if I ever taught a design class is have my students work on something really intensely for about three weeks, and then have them bring the final in and all their notes and copies and backups and what-have-you, and the only way that they could get an "A" on the project is to burn it right there, on the spot, and destroy every copy they have.

As designers, we create, and as creators, we tend to love our creations, no matter how good or bad they may be. You just have to be impartial, which is tough considering that what we do is so heavily reliant on our own emotion and creativity. Love the work, not the design.

On Feb.04.2004 at 01:49 PM
Dan’s comment is:

The look of near contempt on Graham’s face was priceless as he answered (paraphrased) “I don’t know. Does it matter?”

So, eliminate curiosity? Maybe my question was another wrong question. Was Graham's question any better? I don't know. I can't think of a situation where it would matter.

On Feb.04.2004 at 02:06 PM
mitch’s comment is:

I really dont want to get off topic here, but in response to that, I would say we should not eliminate curiosity but ask questions that DO matter - i think considering the body of work shown it was a pointless question. It was the kind of question that a marketing person would ask, not a designer. I just got the feeling that the boys from Tomato get that question a lot and maybe they get sick of answering it.

But that does bring up the point: are the wrong questions neccesarily bad ones?

On Feb.04.2004 at 03:22 PM
Sarah B.’s comment is:

My favorite thing, well one of them,is my sketch book.. if we are hiring a new designer (we've only done it twice), I always ask to see it or other items that helped the process... I wish we could stop there and judge by that... but the higher-powers want to see the final result...

I for one want to see how you get to that.

If someone interviewed me that way, I know I would impress them (I hope).

Does anyone out there at 'real' design firms actually do that? I know I was told in school to always have your "sketchbook" around for interviews...

I say 'real' design firms because I have never worked for one, well, not yet anyways :)

Anyways, a problem I think is that we are so focused on the end result.. with almost everything, besides things like brain surgury.. :P (it has been a long Wednesday)

On Feb.04.2004 at 04:01 PM
Bradley’s comment is:


I like that idea. I still haven't been able to do it myself, I'm such a fucking pack-rat and keep nearly everything I've done; somethings it'd be foolish to trash, other things...well, maybe it only makes sense if you scratch the stuff you love. Keep the ugly ones, learn to love them.

As far as whitewashing goes, the whole notion of aimless adolescent hero-worshipping is nothing new in the press and it's pretty frequent among designers too.

Its the profession as a whole too though, and all of its sacred cows--A.G.I., Art Director's Club, Type Directors, D&AD, and whatever else you can be a part of. The recognition is fine but some people (odd, rarely is it the members of these groups) get so caught up in it that they lose sight of anything else. For me school was the worst--the emphasis on awards, attention, and recognition created a pretty vile culture in some quarters and to no real benefit.

Will graphic design survive? That's an interesting question--design as an action, as a verb, will always persist for as long as it can be used to indicate differences between two similar things. Design as a noun, as an established field or profession...I'm not so sure. It won't die but I think it could change rather quickly in terms of what we expect it to be and in what clients expect from us too, and just in what sort of role it plays in business in general.

On Feb.04.2004 at 04:18 PM
aizan’s comment is:

I agree with KM, that graphic design will thrive if design media pays more attention to the whole of our realities, not just all of the (thus far) boring award shows, conferences, famous designers, etc. Most magazines and professional organizations are uninteresting, and they really should get with the program. Questioning and probing don't get me down; they're the only things that charge me up! If Communication Arts or Print could do one good interview with one interesting designer, then maybe I'd pick it up. Until then, I'm having fun on the Internet and magazines like Dot-dot-dot (Ben, did you submit to them?) and...well, that's the only magazine/journal I'm excited by. Emigre, Visible Language, Design Studies, Design Issues, Information Design Journal, and Eye are close, but no cookie. No luck with any orgs, either. =(

On Feb.04.2004 at 07:31 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I find that the subject matter in most of the design media is ridiculously self-absorbed and insular. While I still get a virtual hard-on from reading about points, picas, ciceros, and the other bizarro crap we deal with everyday, and appreciate the knowledge and intelligent discussion of it to no end, there's something terribly vacant about most of the pubs these days. Graphis from time to time is interesting...but there's still a part of me that's captivated by how I can take the work by some loftier-than-God minimalist/modernist/"clean" designer, show it to my layman pals and see the quizzical looks in their eyes. And then of course, showing something cool but frequently loathed and ignored by the design press, and getting an actual live reaction. Kinda cool. Are we here to impress the design elite, or are we here to move people?

I'd like to see a design rag reach the sort of cultural relevance that something like...ugh, hate to say it...Wallpaper had a few years ago. Could possibly help the profession, more forcefully injecting art into commerce and daily life. Self-serving? Yeah, probably, but, it might boost the general aesthetic--cuz seriously, we all like things to look purty.

On Feb.04.2004 at 09:06 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Interesting comments so far. Reading again what I posted (I admit, I posted a bit in a hurry), like Bradley, I think the interesting question is Can graphic design survive its own reality?

What is the reality of graphic design? Let's forget for a moment what people on the outside think of graphic design(ers). Let's focus on how we define what is good, what and who is worthy of praise and how much, how do we arrive at such levels of end-product worshipping? I am not saying this is innately bad, I'll be the first one to order a Cahan Annual Report from this place but it does seem like the reality of graphic design is based on and measured by an end-result and the person or group responsible for it. Once more, this is not evil or wrong, it's just a strange way of defining a profession.

Jumping a bit from that — I really enjoyed Michael B's writing on Paul Rand over at DO. Starting with the title "The Sins of St. Paul," while the Saint title is meant as a very elegant joke it is a truthful representation of how high we place the leaders of our profession. Michael's article dares to blaspheme upon Rand and you can feel the earth shaking as he does it... there isn't enough of that in graphic design.

Which also brings up the question: does it really matter? Do we really need such questioning and doubting and blasphemy? Again, forget about what other people think — which is by far the silliest excuse I hear from designers — forget about whether plumbers or lawyers care about Rand. It matters. We need it. Not for the good of our clients — we have enough branding mumbo jumbo to keep them happy for years to come — but for the betterment of our profession, to make it more valuable, stronger or like I like to say not wuss. I don't know… I've been in a weird idealist mode this past month and I truly think graphic design can be more than it is and that we can (and probably should) take ourselves more seriously, not to the extent of becoming obnoxious but it might make us feel more confident in what we do.

(I was going to end my semi-almost pointless- rant with Fuck Rand, but I just can't blaspheme).

On Feb.04.2004 at 09:19 PM
Steven’s comment is:

It is really interesting that, seemingly, most of us are annoyed by the content of the mainstream mags, and even with some of the more elitist ones, and yet we are still surrounded by them.

Ya know, the sad truth may also be that there are still just large amounts of designers whose main interest is just about being hip, getting awards, and making money. And these designers just want to look at the pretty pictures for things to rip-off... uh, borrow. Okay, I'm being a bit uncharacteristically pessimistic. But, I have to say, there really are a lot of veneer visualists out there in the greater design community.

Certainly, with any for-profit editorial enterprise, there are pressures to conform to the monetary interests involved. The investors and the advertisers do influence editorial content, as well as needing to appeal to the broadest market, to have market share. And then let's not forget about that often seen phenomenon of editorial content about Product X, with, "coincidentally," a nice big full-color ad placed a few dozen pages away. I hate that. It's so shameless.

To be fair, you can also have it both ways and make money and have good content, to a degree, if having meaningful content is a part of your competitive advantage, brand, ideology, or whatever. The editorial content will still have some amount of compromise, due to the above, but it has the ability to present more. I think these are in the "not bad; pretty good" category.

On the other hand, Speak Up and Design Observer are driven by passion and inquiry, not by the concerns of money. No butt-toner or lite beer ad banners found here. And really, the only way to really be free to develop more open and intensive content is to be independent, to large degree.

But, it's important that we also acknowledge that we're comparing print media to online media. So they're very different. SU has an editorial integrity and intensity because, besides Armin's amazing dedication, the site benefits from each and every one of us that put down our thoughts, and all of those that maybe only once-in-a-while put down your thoughts. Blogs are a fluid and evolving media. Each thread is a swirling inter-connection of feedback loops of thoughts and feelings, which interact and adapt in various evolutionary directions, and sometimes create new meaning and content which is then fed back into the loop. How the hell can you compare that super-rich experience with just reading a magazine article? Even a good magazine article?

On Feb.04.2004 at 10:35 PM
marian’s comment is:

This thread is also related to DO's thread regarding fame and the blind desire for fame both within this profession and in the world at large.

When we worship idols or make adulation our goal we focus on the end result without accounting for the process. Just as this profession may have ignored the potential "hack" years of Rand, so does the world ignore the soap-opera start of hot movie stars.

It is not peculiar to our profession that we focus on the final, successful product of the industry star. Brain surgeons lecture on their successful technique without--I bet--dwelling on the botched surgeries that got them to that point, even though the botched-surgery stories would be more instructive.

Recently I attended a presentation given by Infinite Scale, an environmental design company comprised of three of the key designers for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics. What I appreciated most about the presentation was the emphasis on all the problems they encountered and overcame in this truly Olympic effort of design. They talked about politics (olympic committee), money, logistics, compromise, mishaps and mistakes. Ultimately it was about success--but in the face of what seemed an absolutely overwhelming litany of details.

It is easy to wish to be famous when it appears as though our idols have sprung forth like Apollo, already armed and ready to do battle. It's a very sobering and instructive thing indeed to learn of the struggle it actually takes to get there. I'm with Mitch, I'd love to read a magazine called (and about) "Process." Just because we are like the rest of the world, brain surgeons and all, in celebrating the boy- and girl-wonders and the products of their genius, doesn't mean we have to be.

On Feb.04.2004 at 10:40 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Do we really need such questioning and doubting and blasphemy?

Yes. Absolutely! Churn things up! Not for the sake of being a contrarian, but for the sake of creating a deeper understanding of the creative process, how we practice it, and how we as thinkers and doers affect the greater meaning of our profession.

On Feb.04.2004 at 10:43 PM
krf’s comment is:

Do designers suffer more from lack-of-worth, self-esteem issues more than others?

I mean, c'mon, we're all pros here right? We try to educate our peers and associates on the difference between good and terrible design. They may not get it or have to or need to, but they want a good product and know where to go (most of the time).

It's up to us to develop the processes and find the ways to great design. The reality is, most folks just want things to work and work reasonably well without too much fuss. When design works, no one notices, but when it doesn't....

I for one love to discuss the merits of what it is we do and why we do it. It makes me laugh at the thought of two plumbers sitting around saying, "ya know, are we plumbing right, do people care, do they know what goes on down there?"

Sometimes we need to back away and get a slightly different focus and realize that while we make an important contribution, we don't work in a vacuum.

I don't have time to whitewash. Folks can critique away, but some articles get more attention than others if you know what I mean.

On Feb.04.2004 at 10:58 PM
Jason’s comment is:


We create this environment--whether through print or online--to talk about what we do from our perspective. We’ve survived our reality for this long because there are people out there digging deeper and asking the tough questions. I feel that happy-go-lucky, satirical, or whitewashing attitudes are just therapy, a break from the deep and complicated matrix we operate in. There's nothing wrong with a little pat on the back now and then.



The design community at large is a tight-knit group. People take care of what they say in order to maintain votes, and climb a little here and there. When they become Great Ones, they don't give a damn what anybody else thinks because they're on top, so they say what they want and crap on everyone else. That's okay because the best thing about the Great Ones is that they're older, and when they're dead we get their jobs.


Pragmatic Survivalist

Design discourse is insular because it is meant for designers. Doctors don't read about setting a rag, they don't research logos on the cereal boxes, and they don't question why design isn't considered a profession, but they do read about the ethics of servicing patients without health insurance in one of their own specialized journals. Neither a doctor nor the general public will grasp what designers do, and we don't want them to because there are enough people who think that knowing Photoshop and some fonts in Word makes them a designer.



If I wear the black shirt with the black trousers, will it make me look slimmer for the lecture I'm giving tonight? Absolutely, I'll do black on black, but I wonder which glasses I should wear.

Optimist + Cynic + Pragmatic Survivalist + Egoist = _______

On Feb.05.2004 at 12:58 AM
Greg’s comment is:


Definitely the lower pair. (I mean, who wears round frames anymore?)

On Feb.05.2004 at 08:48 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

or Mr. Keedy or FitzGerald going on in one of their trademark rants

I love everybody and everything.�

On Feb.05.2004 at 11:59 AM
Armin’s comment is:


Being a graphic designer completely rocks. As much as we complain about all this shit, what other profession lets you play with colors, shapes, fonts, paper, pixels and computers and let you charge people for it?

On Feb.05.2004 at 12:54 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Jason, you forgot Sadist. What the hellz that?

On Feb.05.2004 at 01:45 PM
Jason’s comment is:

[π ( Egoist + Cynic )] - ( Great One / 2 ) = Sadist

On Feb.05.2004 at 02:31 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Analysis aside, Armin's asking a difficult question about a real problem. And I have to agree that Michael Bierut's post on D.O. brought this problem to light for me.

How much whitewashing will we put up with? The reason Speak Up and Design Observer along with Eye and Emigre matter is because they hit the issues, and they hit them hard. As long as these places exist for Skeptimists+Optimists, we'll survive. Skepticism+Optimism is a good thing. It makes us question for the benefit of advancement. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming passive and weak, and at another extreme... slaves.

On Feb.05.2004 at 02:39 PM
Steven’s comment is:


For God Sakes Man! Don't wear those cliche round "Philip Johnson" glasses. The other pair is so much better.

And I agree that, in order for our profession to evolve and grow, we need both nurturing and antagonistic forces. This is a universal requirement of all living systems, be they bacteria, plants, or human beings.

On Feb.05.2004 at 03:27 PM
rebecca’s comment is:

Brain surgeons lecture on their successful technique without--I bet--dwelling on the botched surgeries that got them to that point, even though the botched-surgery stories would be more instructive.

Actually hospitals require their staff to talk openly with each other about their mistakes in closed-door meetings that are off-limits to the public. It's not perfect but is considered a necessary teaching tool. I lamented the demise of the "Critique" section of Speak Up, forever ago, but I think the public nature of this forum makes it hard to feel safe talking about mistakes and critiquing others' work.

I have to agree that Michael Bierut's post on D.O. brought this problem to light for me.

Just for the record, it was Jessica Helfand's post.

On Feb.05.2004 at 03:43 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Helfand? I swore Bierut made the initial post.

However, I enjoyed all the reactions there, including hers.

And, Steve, I'm with you on the round factor.

On Feb.05.2004 at 04:26 PM
Bradley’s comment is:


It's interesting that you're in "idealist mode" because I find myself struggling with this all the effing time. For as much as I chide and poke and prod about how damn seriously designers can take themselves (it IS comical), I fundamentally believe we have GOT to be more dead-serious about things. But not just in terms of how it relates to specific design issues.

The fact is, the graphic design press doesn't really mean much to anyone but graphic designers--sure, so it goes for certain other professions, but not always. Its no surprise that most people don't quite "get" what we do, when the primary information sources take years to decode. The conversation SHOULD open itself up a lot more, design needs to be applied to culture in general, not just black turtleneck land. Dare I say it--we need a graphic design supermarket tabloid. I'd read it.

As far as "Michael B.'s" critique of Rand, I was thrilled to see it and read through it--that's the sort of forward thinking that I can't get enough of. Paul Rand was great...for his time. Times have changed though and we need to move on.

On Feb.05.2004 at 05:33 PM
rebecca’s comment is:

Sorry Jason, I thought you were talking about the recent fame post on DO that Marian referred to (above).

And Armin, as soon as I get a break I'm gonna write something about bad work. Promise.

On Feb.05.2004 at 05:45 PM
Sean Adams’s comment is:

I think it's OK that the design media talk only to us if the voice were authentic. The primary issue I have with the whitewashing is the subtext that there is a small group of successful individuals and all others have less meaningful lives. While this is clearly not a conscious intent by design editors, it is a by-product of focusing on the end product and success stories. Most people don't want to buy magazines with tragic stories and kvetch-fests, so it's understandable. However, there is a place for authenticity, confusion and contradiction.

Years ago, Noreen and I were hitting a wall. I remember talking on the phone with a friend in San Francisco who happens to be an industry "superstar". She told me that she was going home every night and crying in the car. That small piece of information validated my fears and issues. I was not a loser designer while a charmed few had it pulled together beautifully.

This is a tiny story, but one that would not find a home in most publications. It drives me nuts that there are designers who feel less than based on the sanitized information they receive.

On Feb.05.2004 at 06:19 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Optimist + Cynic + Pragmatic Survivalist + Egoist =


Sean said: That small piece of information validated my fears and issues. I was not a loser designer while a charmed few had it pulled together beautifully.

Beautiful. Thanks, Sean. Glad you're here.

On Feb.05.2004 at 08:19 PM
aizan’s comment is:

my objection to tabloids is the celebrity-only focus. i'd read a design tabloid if it targetted both famous and unknown designers, surreal and real. it needs to cross into both "their" and "our" lives, put them in the same context.

On Feb.05.2004 at 10:11 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Well put, Aizan. What I enjoy most about a magazine like EYE is the broad point of view---specifically, that I get to learn about design in other cultures. Design Issues does a great job of this also. They had an issue dedicated entirely to Asia some months ago.

While there are plenty of other well-written and edited publications pointed out above, most design magazines resonate closely with how People, Vanity Fair, ELLE, or Esquire function. Those who are in the now get prime real estate, and things are very muted in color. Rarely does writing go outside the boundaries of reporting, like USA Today, who can't hold a candle next to the opinions and criticism found in the New York Times.

Focusing on great designers and heroes has its purpose, but let's not praise them if they're unworthy. Let's not follow their shadows without questioning where they're going. Yes, we're only human...

On Feb.05.2004 at 11:29 PM