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In Search of Authenticity
“For me, as a filmmaker, admitting that you are stammering, that you are half blind, that you can read but not write, is, in our everyday framework, to respond more honestly to this famous question of communication.”

— Jean-Luc Goddard

So here I am, starting the research for my thesis proposal by reading a great overview of ‘zine culture, and I’m struck by a strange paradox. The key feature of any zine, the binding thread tying all these diverse ephemeral pieces of communication together, the thing that makes them so appealing, is that they are authentic expressions of one person’s views. This authenticity carries over to the aesthetic and material considerations of the zine, the DIY aesthetic of (pre-digital) cut and paste, letter-sized photocopies and misaligned saddle-stitching. mmmm…. great stuff.

But then this begs the question, if I, as a trained graphic designer, were to make a zine, what would it look like and how would others react? If I were to try and mimic a DIY approach, this would hardly be authentic—nor would I even be able to do it, I would go crazy if my text wasn’t well set, and god forbid using comic sans or arial. But would a “nicely” designed zine, carefully considered typographically, be any more authentic?

As designers, we’re trained to employ a variety of aesthetic approaches for the variety of needs our clients have. Some have developed a personal style that they become known for. Most of us don’t, but we usually manage to get our kicks in somehow. Otherwise we wouldn’t do this. We know how to make things look “good”, we know how to make things look “cool”, we even know how to make things look “real”. But do we know how to make things real?

What does it mean to communicate honestly, authentically? Postmodernism has convinced most of us that an adherence to modernist rationalism isn’t necessarily honesty, it has taught us that though fragmented flying type might be really cool, it doesn’t say that much more about who we are. Can a designer, with the years upon years of aesthetic education crammed into his brain, still express an authentic self?

Does this even matter anymore?

…just some rambling musing with my armchair philosophers hat on today. Hope everyone is doing well.

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PUBLISHED ON Jun.30.2004 BY Kevin
billy baumann’s comment is:

I try to accomplish this feat on nearly every project and the simple answer is, no. It's impossible to have a true expression without it being tainted by knowledge. We'll never be able to achieve that "freeness" that we had as 1st graders, never be able to dance without now being self conscience. Even if you are able to replicate it, it will never be honest or pure. sad really

On Jun.30.2004 at 05:35 PM
James Song’s comment is:

I think the real challenge here is to use these tools of good type, layout, scale etc that we know of and manipulate them to create something that will express ourselves. Just like pretty much everyone has Photoshop, Illustrator/Freehand etc we all have the same tools yet come up with vastly different results. Every decision and environmental stimulus in your life has led you to conclude that the right font for this project ISN'T comic sans and is, in fact, Mrs Eaves or whatever. You cannot help but inject yourself into your work whether or not you are emulating a style or "making things look cool."

On Jun.30.2004 at 08:47 PM
Armin’s comment is:

A semi-related quote. Probably one of my all-time favorites, by Kenneth FitzGerald in Emigre 66.

"The simple truth is that professional design will almost always fall short of touching hearts because it's second-hand love. Designers love doing design, the client is just a vehicle."

This applies probably to something else, but is one of the reasons why design gets lost on its path to authenticity. Who's authenticity is it by the time something gets done? Unless you are an unbelievably awesome salesman, your initial, utopian idea will not make it to the end untouched. But this is veering slightly off-topic.

I think you can see designers' authenticity come out on personal projects. When they are done by the hard-nosed desire and convictiond of the author/auteur. The only difference from an underground magazine is that it will look pretty damn cool. Authenticity then takes shape in the content, the language, the "spirit". For example, last year, the talented folks at Honest published a magazine called, um, Honest Magazine. An oversized, glossy and pretty nicely designed magazine about stuff the authors thought was interesting. It was authentic in that they were trying to share their interests with whatever public was willing to shell out 10 bucks.

This is why it's important for designers to embark on personal projects that reach a broad audience. By broad meaning more people than your significant other and your parents. Personal projetcs allow for the missing authenticity in graphic design.

However, as I write this, I find it hard to understand exactly the meaning of "authenticity" within graphic design.

On Jun.30.2004 at 08:56 PM
Steve Mock’s comment is:

The old jazz guys will tell you, "Learn everything, then forget everything."

I have to disagree with billy's comment that we can never achieve the "freeness" of a child. I think we can. Work on your wonder. I'm sure it's because I'm of a certain age, but there comes a time when one can stop worrying about appearing simple, or dancing funny, or getting the girl (metaphorically speaking). Then... the authenticity and honesty sets in and it's great!

I never went to design school. My education came in the form of gobbling up design publications, hangin' out with questionable characters and learning everything I could about this.. this.. job. Then... I just stopped. I haven't looked at a design rag in years. (Those things can really bog you down, IMO.) As a result, the work got better and the confidence level went way up: I trust myself and my instincts.

I forget who said it here, but you cannot escape your own hand. Everything you touch will have a fingerprint on it. It's yours and it's true.

Just be honest. Always. Crank it out and move on to the next thing.

"Make work. Make work. Don't wast time." - graham wood

On Jul.01.2004 at 07:28 AM
Kev Leonard’s comment is:

If work is created in the absence of a direct visual reference (plagiarizing) then I would say it can be considered authentic.

It seems though that the work featured in our hallowed design publications features work that tends to look all the same (cool/trendy).

I think more annuals should include a brief synopsis of what the problem and the thought process that went into solving it. Doing so may help clarify the whole authenticity issue at least when it come to published work.

On Jul.01.2004 at 10:29 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> If work is created in the absence of a direct visual reference (plagiarizing) then I would say it can be considered authentic.

Well, there is a difference between originality and authenticity. Originality is creating something "new", while authenticity is creating something "real". Maybe?

Authenticity, in the context of graphic design is what I'm still not sure what it is. Is it designing a logo for Nike that looks authentically "sporty"? Is it designing a package for Whole Foods that looks authentically organic? Because other than printing on organically produce lettuce, I'm not sure how to achieve ultimate authenticity.

On Jul.01.2004 at 10:42 AM
Casey Conroy’s comment is:

Communicating honestly and authentically would mean to show and tell the truth about a given subject matter. But I really don't think that is what graphic design is all about. Design tends to be too well-crafted, slick and consulted about to ever really give a truthful view of a given subject. It becomes a particular side of the subject that we want to show. How often are we designing something that points out our client's weaknesses?

On Jul.01.2004 at 11:18 AM
erica’s comment is:

i think what kevin's talking about has more to do with medium than with a design style. "the DIY aesthetic of (pre-digital) cut and paste" and all the small inconsistencies and the roughness that goes are a product of that medium.

it's not necessarily about authenticity of a design style, per se, it's more about the authenticity of the medium. trying to mimic that approach on the computer necessarily brings in some artifice because of the tool you're using.

On Jul.01.2004 at 12:24 PM
The Humble Empire’s comment is:

We make zines, I'd like to think that they are nicely designed and that it doesn't take away from the spirit that most zines have.

On Jul.01.2004 at 01:05 PM
Rob ’s comment is:

For some reason this thread made me think first of David Carson and Raygun. Wasn't in a way, totally his product (does that make it a 'Zine?) and his style and while you can argue back and forth whether or not it communicated or was good design, it got it's message and meaning across. (In that sense, it worked).

I think communicating honestly is all about being up front with what you do, how you do it and don't resort to something you don't feel comfortable with. If you don't believe in a product, you don't do work for it. It's about having your 'morals' drive what work you will or won't do. How you do that work is up to you and your client. If you and that client don't mesh, the work isn't going to be 'honest.' I think being honest is being into the work with heart, soul and mind.

In that sense, every piece we create, no matter who the client, is at least embedded on some level with our "authentic" selves.

On Jul.01.2004 at 01:44 PM
Aaron’s comment is:

>>I haven't looked at a design rag in years. (Those things can really bog you down, IMO.)

I couldn't agree more; I recently cancelled my subscription to HOW because it was making me ill.

Back on topic, I kind of get where Kevin is coming from. There have been times where people I know needed some sort of design service but couldn't afford to pay for it. Instead, they hacked something together themselves. There have been times when I've seen some really cool results (provided the person has an ounce of good taste, which of course, is subjective). There is something to be said for work that is created by a person that has no training, no guidelines, no rules to break...

I wouldn't say it's any more honest or authentic than what a professional designer would do, but it definitely makes something more raw and primal, and in some ways, a little more 'cool'.

...I used to get pissed that someone was taking away work from my field, but I've learned to appreciate certain aspects of DIY projects. fuggit.

On Jul.01.2004 at 06:31 PM