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Emigre 66 › Mute

As part of the ongoing Emigre 66 audit we come to Ben Hagon’s Mute — a retort to Emigre 64, Rant. A few weeks ago I told Ben what I thought about his essay. I said, “Ben, your essay is inflammatory for the sake of it”. That’s what I said alright. This is Ben’s first essay for Emigre, a nice achievement for anybody interested in writing about graphic design. Then I said to myself, “Armin, you youthful fool, have you read your first essay on Emigre?” so I sez back to me “Yeah, so?”, “So, it’s gratuitously opinionated. Think about it”.

I can relate to Ben. We both reacted to Rant. We screamed, we kicked (me, to the groin), we pulled hair, we punched… and we punched below the belt. It’s funny looking back at the stuff you create, you just go “What the fuck was I thinking?”. Good thing is, that we can only learn from it. It is then, in this spirit of moral scholarship, that I would like to offer some of Ben’s inflammatory quips completely, and purposely, out of context.

“‘Visual Communications Specialists’ continue to reproduce faster than horny rats, yet new voices and new ideas, are scarce. As a result, our days are as dull as the work we produce, and our relevance, both cultural and commercial, dies.”

“I will go as far as to say that designers are actively discouraged from thinking. Instead we are taught to be ‘creative’.”

“Instead of living and changing with the questions and tensions created by Adbusters and First Things First 2000, designers are content to dismiss them as idealistic, unrealistic, Commie bullshit.”

“We are more apt to cuddle up to old faithful Pentagram, and spit-polish our Yellow Pencils.”

“By using outside sources to influence our work — Macmonkeys, get away from your desk — our field may have some effect besides selling chocolate bars, lawyers, and easy chairs.”

“The design era of 1996 to today could be called the monograph years. These egoists’ crutches are stunting the growth of design.”

“Monographs are even more disturbing when dressed up as socially aware, as in Bruce Mau’s Life Style.[…] Other monographs, such as Scher’s Make it Bigger and Kalman’s Perverse Optimist, are equally disgusting. Pity should be assigned to newcomers in this climate.”

“Choose to be messy. Choose sentences of Faulknerian proportions. Choose an indirect route. Choose something new.”

“Without significant change in the method by which we create work, Joe Client will, in time, catch up.”

“…Without a significant revolution, design as we know it will perish.
The ball rests motionless in our court.
Smash it.”

I have to admit I was pretty riled up with the closing remark. The metaphorical ball is indeed motionless in somebody’s court. There is much to discern in Ben’s article, while the thoughts at time seem innocently nefarious there is validity in them. And it takes a pair of motionless, um, you know, to say a lot of what he said. What do I have to say to Ben today? “Cheers Ben!” Yes that’s what I say.

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PUBLISHED ON Jul.02.2004 BY Armin
Bradley’s comment is:

Those were some great remarks...perfect amount of flamboyance, rage, energy, and insight, all things that this industry needs quite badly.

Before I formally studied design I remember reading somewhere that graphic designers are the most vain people only after ballet dancers and opera singers--couldn't agree more. The point about "The Era of the Monograph" is well taken and stunningly accurate because...well...how self-important can you possibly be? For all the volumes of designer arm chair social commentary, there's little to be said about the results; everybody has an opinion, everybody has the right to express it, but you're not entitled to be listened to or taken seriously. There are many graphic designer monographs. None of them really affect anything, and all the back-patting in the world won't change that.

Paul Arden, former creative director at Saatch & Saatchi, once said that nobody owns an idea, because ideas are always just floating out there and all we do is pluck them away for our own personal applications. What I liked about the tone of Ben's rants is that they're very IDEA focused, and honestly, ideas are far more important than typefaces, paper stocks and techniques that designers frequently drool over and get obsessed with. In fact, I'd argue that design is important only in the sense that its one way of communicating ideas and making them explode, but, if design continues to be as stagnant, self-satisfied, and insular as its been lately, then there are other ways to communicate brilliant thinking and provoke action.

As far as the Adbusters comment goes, I agree that its useless to cast the manifesto off as being idealistic and unrealistic, but I have other reasons for hating that publication. Mainly that its just as contrived and vacuously structured in terms of its agenda and messaging as the entities it criticizes. Adbusters isn't revolutionary, it just likes to play revolutionary, not unlike angry frustrated teenagers or the folks who think the anarchy symbol is cool.

Overall I really like the message in this essay, it doesn't make design out to be this critical, life-changing, be-all and end-all dancing snowflake. Or maybe that's just how I'm taking it. The one thing I will always stand by in regards to this field is that design and the act of designing is valid and worthy only if it aids in the expression of fresh thinking and dynamic ideas. That's the call to action I'm seeing here, and I'm glad that someone's shining the signal.

And yes, he was rather gutsy in writing all of it. Because designers can be really bitchy.

On Jul.02.2004 at 01:07 PM
Matt Waggner’s comment is:

Ben's article was my favorite of the whole group -- actually, I was a bit embarassed, because I wrote a letter to Emigre, but missed "Mute" on my first two times through, and it got at what I was thinking in a much better way. Alas. When talking about the absurdity of "style vs. content" debates, I feel that he was saying something really valid and interesting about practice and polemics, putting John Q. SuperBrand and Jane Academic on warning that wisdom is not to be had through making or thinking alone.

At the same time, and this is a thread that follows from "Rant" through Ben's essay, graphic design is not intrinsically valuable, and if our profession doesn't start displaying said wisdom, it'll end in ruins sooner rather than later.

Rick Poynor once said that, as a non-designer, he felt his audience "quite rightly expected" him to be on the "side" of graphic design. In "Mute", Ben said he was worried that once the "Poynors" of the world disappeared, we'd be fresh out of critical voices, but I think his article is a touch of the medicine we'll need to keep us healthy into the next generation. Props to you, Mr. Hagon.

On Jul.02.2004 at 01:15 PM
nick shinn’s comment is:

Ben (particularly in the last two points Armin quotes) is onside with Mr Keedy's viewpoint, as expressed in Rant and consistently over the years.

And I agree. There is such a thing as design.

A good way to stay ahead of Jane Client is by buying some new fonts (please, no retro).

On Jul.02.2004 at 02:38 PM
kevinhopp’s comment is:

ok, I'm getting frustrating.....what we have here is a pretty simple, and far too repeated problem:

Ben blames product. Ben blames machine. Ben rants at product and machine. Ben could care less to comment on how the machine that creates the product is fabricated.

Our problem, people, is deep within us. Deeply rooted in our morals, our education(graphic design), our market, and our minds.

Everyone on SpeakUp is Ben, or has been Ben...and you're not going to find the answers here, at least not today, because we've done did Ben plenty of times.

Look inside, rip it out, change yourself, and design will change with you.

On Jul.03.2004 at 07:53 PM
Bradley’s comment is:


I think that's the whole point of Ben's essay, isn't it? That the problem is within ourselves? I really liked what you had to say, primarily because its distracted me from working and focused my attention on writing something here worthwhile...which can be damn challenging.

When I was in college, I remember a communications theory professor talking about all the things you could attempt to change in people--out of the list of four broad components, I only remember two: behavior and values. Behavior is tough to change, values even harder. So I guess what's going on now is that we (designers) are in a position where the values HAVE to change.

People of all sorts resist making that change; change is always hard, how many smokers risk certain death rather than quitting? So in some aspects its hard to criticize designers specifically for not tossing the old way and picking up a new one...not everyone sees reason to change, and of those who do, how many know in what direction to proceed, how many are truly willing to follow through?

What evidence exists now that conclusively demonstrates that design and designers should change? I'm personally not sure. But, ultimately I believe that if you find yourself content with anything, it'd be in your best interest to pause and reflect on it a bit. Are we too content?

On Jul.04.2004 at 04:35 PM
kevinhopp’s comment is:


Are WE too content? I usually try not to make mass generalizations, however, it appears that either designers are too content, or they lack passion and energy, perhaps both. Although, I don't think that is the only problem.

What I've run into through my stints at design school, work (large agency side design group), and continuing my education are different types of ignorance.

For instance,

-Spelling, nobody could really spell simple or complex words.

-Foreign Language, none had it.

-Working within groups, we never once took the angle of 'let's pool our resources and collectively find the best solution.' It was always, every designer for themselves.

-Judgemental, insecure and plenty of vanity - tons and tons of attitude.

What I tended to find were these self-centered, unworldly, know-it-all type, scaredy cats that have major issues with writing and overall acceptable 'smarts.'

You'd find a lot of comments like...

"....well, THIS is how I'D do it..."

"....NO, you don't need any information for the project, just design it...."

"....who cares, it's just some crappy POP campaign...."

"....how do you spell luxury? Is it with a 'k'?"

"....Wow, you know Spanish and some Arabic...."

"....hey are those new shoes? Cool. So what are you doing for lunch today (cool guy)?"

These are crossover problems that society in general breeds. It'd be difficult to change these values and behaviors because most of the above mentioned is way deeper than design.

For instance, the more conventional graphic designers despise 'techno', but why? Because they don't relate and are ignorant, and they think it's trendy. It's 2004, we're post information age, and all of the abstract and minimal techno pieces speak directly to that pre-millennial mentality and society as they know it - graphic design(techno) created a visual language that these people identify with. So, for me, to say techno is lame, is like saying I don't like vinegar on my fries - in my time here (being born in 1974) techno should go down as a success story for graphic design. Techno is not a fad, it's a way of life.

Overall, and through my experience, graphic designers lack the understanding that the field is well interdisciplinary. In my opinion, you first have to understand the world to be a responsible and valid graphic designer. You'll just never 'get it' if you live a simple life on the inside.

I'd like to think people can change, maybe education is the catalyst. And you?

On Jul.06.2004 at 10:05 AM
Matt Waggner’s comment is:

Kevin—There's a great bit at the start of the first Dune book (don't know why I'm remembering it just now!) where Paul is subjected to a test where he must endure a wracking physical pain, or potentially be killed otherwise. The point that the author is making is that human beings have the ability to overcome our "baser" instincts by force of will, when we perceive it as necessary to survive.

I hear you about designers lacking a broader range of perspectives/talents (especially speeling!), and while education can be a catalyst, I think just the world changing is a bigger one. If we've got to scramble around like squirrels learning Arabic and decent writing skills when the profession implodes, I figure we'll probably do alright—and maybe lose the "hot shoes" fashion instinct while we're at it.

Too bad more people aren't talking up "Mute": Ben, if you're kicking around here, I wouldn't take it too hard, and instead attribute it to the Yglesias Inaccuracy Principle:

I've written many, many, measured and (in my humble opinion) totally unimpeachable attacks on various folks out there that have simply died on the vine. The trouble is that when you write something really good, in the sense of being sober, on-point, factual, and tightly argued, your targets would do well to simply ignore you. And so they do. Maybe a person or two will recommend the story to their friends, but basically it vanished into the HTML ether. Something sloppy, offensive, over-the-top, or in some minor way inaccurate, by contrast, will provoke a flood of responses. If you're lucky, those responses will, themselves, be someone sloppy, and folks start defending you. Then you find yourself in the midst of a minor contretemps, and everyone gets more readers.
On Jul.07.2004 at 12:08 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> The trouble is that when you write something really good, in the sense of being sober, on-point, factual, and tightly argued, your targets would do well to simply ignore you.

Like many people who comment here, Ben's Mute is a firestarter… and only that, it doesn't offer how to either fuel the fire some more or how to clench it. Now, starting a fire isn't easy but one must take responsibility of what one says. So for example:

“The design era of 1996 to today could be called the monograph years. These egoists’ crutches are stunting the growth of design.”

I just wonder how exactly are monographs stunting the growth of design. This is an opinion of Ben's, not factual nor tightly argued. So what if some talented designers want to show off the work they have done over the past decades? How does that harm design students who want to learn about the icons (both human and graphic) of our profession? How does that stunt anyone? Because it encourages plagiarism, copying, laziness? Believe me, that is a much bigger problem than a designer monograph. Then:

"As a result, our days are as dull as the work we produce, and our relevance, both cultural and commercial, dies.”

That's treading on personal experience… not a universal truth. Seems like Ben is bored at work *wink*.

But Matt, you do point out one good thing in that last quote: your targets would do well to simply ignore you. As I said in the AIGA thread, it's easier to be evasive than to be responsive.

On Jul.07.2004 at 08:47 AM
Matt Waggner’s comment is:

This dovetails nicely into the "Designer on Designer" conversation, and this problem we have where craft/composition/execution are the only grounds on which we usually judge a design artifact. The "monograph years" (or, maybe, the "design annual decades") furthered this tendency to just show Hot Looking Work, but I think Ben makes a case that this represents an entrenchment into empty formalism—"If all a new designer has as inspiration is somebody else's work or approach to work, he or she cannot be expected to think originally. When the industry finally focuses on critical thinking over idolatry..." Since this bit comes 2 sentences after the "crutches" line, I think he at least gets round to his point with some kind of efficiency.

My opinion, and why I think Ben harps on historical quotation, those "old guys" really did have this worldview they wanted to further: I can admire Paul Rand's work formally, but there's this different level where I personally a) find his worldview repellent, and b) realize it did quite well what he wanted it to do. "The New Typography" and the swiss grid stuff really got at a certain way of seeing the world that was new and unique: today, do we use these form-making techniques just because shit, they sold a lot of manufactured stuff with those styles, or because we really think we need to head in that particular direction culturally? (That direction is "backwards", by the way.) Maybe another way of saying this is that while we don't have flying cars just yet, we live in a culture profoundly influenced by the hope for flying cars and space-age cities. Do we still want cars that fly, or do we have new goals? Is it better to spend all of our resources getting those f*cking cars airborne, or really get some new ideas that aren't ripped off from a generation or two ago?

Genuinely new forms will (probably) rise from an engagement with contemporary science, culture, politics, or what have you... the "big picture" version is that we can actually make things that engage with and improve the human condition from where we are at now, but only if we're honest in assessing that condition, and successful in captivating our audiences with our peculiar visions of the future.

On Jul.07.2004 at 12:07 PM
kevinhopp’s comment is:

Matt -

Although I haven't had the chance to read the entire Yglesias link, the paragraph rendered here reminds me of one of my favorite free thinkers, Noam Chomsky.

His arguement though was geared more towards the American norm and how we tend to be attracted to 'offensive, sloppy, immoral' material such as Madonna, The Sopranos, Howard Stern and such.

Please make note, there has been a void of responses for this thread....hmmmm

On Jul.07.2004 at 12:08 PM
Matt Waggner’s comment is:

Er, shorter version: Paul Rand, Jan Tschichold, and Joseph Muller-Brockmann thought the best way to further their ideas was to write a textbook, but all today's design heroes need is to have nice, big pictures, along with personal anecdotes about how they made it to the big time. Doesn't that feel cheap and tacky by comparison?

On Jul.07.2004 at 12:19 PM
kevinhopp’s comment is:

Maybe another way of saying this is that while we don't have flying cars just yet, we live in a culture profoundly influenced by the hope for flying cars and space-age cities. Do we still want cars that fly, or do we have new goals? Is it better to spend all of our resources getting those f*cking cars airborne, or really get some new ideas that aren't ripped off from a generation or two ago?

Well today we call it gravity control. Same thing, just better said.

My point is that it's extremely difficult to be a transcendent within our limits of experience. Society hasn't drastically changed in the past five years, but yet we hear these gentlemen Rant every day all under the ospisis of a slow, real slow, society. (Take for instance the word n*gger, it's said more now than ever before)

dysfunctional bullshit rides again...

On Jul.07.2004 at 12:33 PM
kevinhopp’s comment is:

-Our predecessors you mentioned lived in a time when the world was more sacred, now the earth island has taken on an entirely different worldview.

-Maybe because everyone was screaming existentialism in the 90s, they created these books sans substance. Yes, it seems tacky in relation to the above mentioned graphic designers. I can't disagree with an autobiography, but that seems a tad too liberal at this point.

-The further we go Matt the closer we're coming to our original thought - it's not the computer, it's the user.

On Jul.07.2004 at 12:52 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> it's not the computer, it's the user.

Good point, I (gladly) see that we are slowly, but less and less, blaming the computer for our profession's problems.

> I think he at least gets round to his point with some kind of efficiency.

Yes, true. But again, he is assuming how these books will be perceived, I can't speak for anybody but myself, but I take a monograph for what it's worth: a monograph. I read them to learn, to see what others have done in similar situations and, most times, how come they did it so well, it is not any sort of launching pad for my projects. I do acknowledge Ben's point, the problem is more with what Kevin's saying, the problem is not the monograph, it's the "value" designers have placed on the monograph. It's not the "egoists" who need to stop making these crutches, it's the designers who need to stop using them as such.

On Jul.07.2004 at 01:33 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I have some things to say about this article but I think I'll keep my mouth shut for a while. I'm just wondering what Ben means when he mentioned "neo-modernism".

On Jul.08.2004 at 04:28 PM
mark shepherd’s comment is:

Interesting thread...

A few things --- in my humble opinion,

Seems that in this day and age as designers breed like horny rats so do the ideas and voices - seems to me design has taken very positive leaps in regards to exciting directions and varied voices (due to monographs, internet, zines, historical essays, etc.) Seems the growth of publications is ever expanding!

I simply do not understand how this observation holds any weight - especially if we look historically - and who is to say Paul Rand's text writing was not self-serving or ego driven? (his version of a monograph? a product of his times?)

hmmm, I can honestly say as a Professor, that students do come to the design program seduced by the stradom and fame that some designers achieve. The main goal becomes attached to this cult status...and they may be looking for that short-cut --- (a product of THEIR times) much like a reality program - when do I get my "15 minutes"??? This pursuit seems to be more important adn inticing than developing skills in thinking, reading, researching and analyzing. ( I guess I can't blame them, with stardom comes the valued money and admiration) Funny thing is - I assign research projects each semester...students are to research a chosen designer and critique his/her work - one student felt she had much in common with Peter Eliot Earls and could not express a single thought in regards to his very personal idiosyncratic works. It was in a way a wake up call for this student - she could not figure out exactly what was being communicated in most of the work she researched - and realized the value of the obtuse vs. lucid...when communicating visually.

Not to gripe - but I feel the responsibility lies more within our culture (cult of celebrity) and poor education system at this point- oh boy, a whole other can of worms!)

Also - I wonder if "design as we know it" persishing is necessarily a bad thing - ( it has always happened) some would call it evolution and growth, much like communication itself.

Good, bad or ugly communication styles, ideas, theories do change and perish. Why not let it perish - didn't someone say that is the beginning of creation?

On Jul.10.2004 at 01:33 AM
Steven’s comment is:

Look inside, rip it out, change yourself, and design will change with you.

Kevin, I really liked that statement!

I thought the spirit of Ben's article was right on the money--even if it was incendiary without giving any solutions. But then, I don't think that he was interested in trying to give an easy answer as much as stir the pot. And I empathize with that spirit.

Much of the neo-modernist stuff so prevalent these days is quite derivative and regurgitative. It really feels much more like youthful designers trying to be different from the recent past just to be different, without really understanding the history and reasoning behind it--just restomping old territory with "cool" new shoes. The pendulum has swung back to the conservative forces of universalism and reductive minimalism. As stated by more than a few designers in Emigre 65, Helvetica seems comfortable and nostalgic. Yet the historical and philosophical meaning behind the font meant very little to most--if they even knew it.

As far as change goes, I have tried in my own thinking/conceptualizing to move away from both modernist and post-modern paradigms. It's not easy! It's a scary place to be and I'm not always sure that I have the wherewithall to make it. And now that I've begun the journey, I can't really go back any more. Ahead, there are no even paved roads--just a GPS reading to where my heart lies and a topo map of disparate thoerists. I know I have misstepped already, but I feel the general direction is true.

I liked Ben's article, with all of it's hyperbola. I take the spirit of it as giving us all a collective shove away from compacent security and out toward the frontier of the our individual enlightenment.

So yes Armin, "Cheers Ben!" indeed!

On Jul.11.2004 at 01:22 AM
James Briggs’s comment is:

Why couldn't post modernism be a phase like any other? If style moves in a circle (and I am not saying that it is) then couldn't there be a time when style tended to be simple or primitive and then over time the style would tend to become more and more sophisticated. Once the style becomes sophisticated to the point where it is as sophisticated as possible then style would tend deconstruct. We could call the most sophisticated phase modern. The next phase would be deconstruction of the modern style and that phase could be called post modern. Eventually things would get primitive again.

Now I don’t know if that idea is the case or not but there is enough examples to suggest that the idea might possibility be true. If that is the case then these terms might be of some use as long as these terms are not too rigidly defined.

On Mar.18.2005 at 07:57 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Sensibilities, and their embodiment as style, are indeed cyclical. Recursivity is a phenomenon embedded in all living systems. However, it should be noted that this process isn't just regurgitating old ideas, like some sad 70's or 80's band revival tour. It's the process of taking past ideas and framing them within a newer "modern" context, in order to manifest fresh insights.

Nothing is ever truly new in an absolute sense. But within specific contexts, there is an infinite opportunity for individual perspectives, like a giant mandelbrot fractal. The wonder of our collective existence is that we all have unique stories and insights to tell one another.

Some aspects of Ben's article are a bit hyperbolic, but I whole-heartedly agree with it's general spirit.

On Mar.19.2005 at 03:03 PM