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Chasing the Perfect part 1.1

I owe Natalia Ilyin an i or two. I misspelled her name a couple of weeks ago in Chasing the Perfect part 1, my plea for people to read Natalia’s book so we could have a discussion about it. (In my defense, despite Karl Marx’s theory of equitable distributions of vowels, the former Soviet empire included countries where names include way too many vowels and others where consonants stand alone). How can I keep then straight? Anyway, my apologies to Ms. Ilyin.

If you haven’t taken the time to read Chasing the Perfect then I’ll reiterate my suggestion that you do so. That’s not just so you can contribute to this conversation. Chasing the Perfect is one of the few books that really takes design seriously.

I’m curious whether other readers believe the book takes design too seriously, projecting personal crises on the screen of Modern design.

Even though my earlier post didn’t ask for the conversation to start until now, Jason and Mark jumped on the first chapter title, “The No-Draw Rule.” So we might as well start there.

Even though much of the book is logically argued, it is far from being overly-neat in its argument. “No draw” is an example. It seems at once central to the theme and superfluous. The story of being asked to draw a mouse mascot for a bed-and-breakfast resonates with several issues:

1) The ostensible point is that the activities of designers are limited by unwritten rules inherited from the Modernist revolution of the early 20th century. One of those rules is that designers don’t draw in a realistic/representative style.

2) Another connection is the whole notion of taste and/or seriousness. How are we limited in our functional job (in the case of graphic designers, communication) by our notions of “good design”? Is that sort of self-limitation unique to designers? Is it wrong? Lawyers don’t pull guns to defend their clients and bodyguards don’t write letters. Isn’t it better to realize that we can’t (or shouldn’t) do everything? (See #5.)

3) Are the roles of graphic designer, illustrator, artist, draftsman, etc., distinct? Just because most of the people performing those roles went to art school, does that mean that traditional art school activities are part of each?

4) What is the relationship of drawing and other design activities? Does
drawing reinforce various sorts of design thinking or interfere? Does producing “artwork” skew the perception of designers by clients and others? What does it do to self-image and choice of roles?

5) Is the role of a graphic designer simply irrelevant to a sweet bed and breakfast on an island in the Puget Sound in the sense the proprietor also shouldn’t care much about stock options or chain-of-command or any of dozens of issues that affect a hotel chain? Just because graphic designers design signage and paper and promotional material, does that mean that we should do that for everyone (or that they should want us to)? Are we the people who plan gourmet menus or MREs and maybe we should stay out of the way of people who just want mac and cheese at home in front of the television?

I’m hoping for a conversation and trying to avoid a straight book review from me partly because the style of Chasing the Perfect invites conversation. The whole time I was reading the book, I wanted to meet up with Natalia and argue with her. Sometimes that was because I thought she was wrong about something; usually it was because I thought the argument would teach us both something more.

I hope Natalia will feel free to join in on all of this.

Readers?

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2757 FILED UNDER Discussion
PUBLISHED ON Jul.30.2006 BY Gunnar Swanson
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Armin’s comment is:

> I’m curious whether other readers believe the book takes design too seriously, projecting personal crises on the screen of Modern design.

I did, but I wouldn't consider it a detriment to the book – it's what makes the book work. I loooove design, I spend more time on "it" than I probably should and, in more ways than one, design has defined how I live my life, but I don't project the maladies of the world and society unto it. It is what it is.

> One of those rules is that designers don’t draw in a realistic/representative style.

Designers are trained to funnel information, to clarify it, condense it and distill it into a quickly understandable set of visual cues that take the form of a logo, brochure or package, right? More or less? Regardless whether one draws or not, I think the most difficult part of designers metaphorically "drawing in a realistic style" means that we are somehow not doing our job, we are simply saying here is a perfect rendition of an apple, it looks like an apple, right? So it must be an apple. Presumably we take joy in distilling the apple to its bearest essentials and find a new form that still stands for an apple but can have additional meaning by the way it is rendered and used. I think it is counter intuitive for designers to draw in a realistic way.

> What is the relationship of drawing and other design activities? Does drawing reinforce various sorts of design thinking or interfere?

I don't draw and I am a designer. Or am I?

On Jul.30.2006 at 06:52 PM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

There is a sense of joy and pride Illyin expresses when commisioned for the mouse drawing. How lovely, right? Do you ever share that feeling? I don't draw nearly as much as I should (yes, I feel a sense of obligation), but when I do and someone commends it, likely surprised by a designer drawing, I really do get a deep satisfaction. Maybe it's easier for someone to appreciated because they don't think "I can do that too." That's how I feel when I look to my illustrator friends--envious really, of their talent.

We when do we get to talking about the glowing modernist box house?

On Jul.31.2006 at 08:54 AM
Mr. Frankie L’s comment is:

To clear up any confusion:

The No Draw rule shouldn't be confused
and interpreted as No Sketch.

On Jul.31.2006 at 09:41 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

The “no draw” rule as presented is that designers don’t draw realistically, that they aren’t draftsmen. I suppose that is one of the unstated rules of Modernist design, but how and why?

You’re right, Frank. That clearly doesn’t imply that designers don’t use some sort of drawing skills in their work. Translation drawings—multiple reinterpreting of a given subject—have been a Basel (and elsewhere) staple. The “What sort of drawing?” question is an interesting problem in education when drawing skills in foundations courses are discussed; painters and graphic designers are—or probably should be—talking about two different things.

So the rule might be more like “displays of classical drawing skills are not the work of a Modern designer.” Then we have several bases for the “rule”:

1) As Armin states, it’s just not the job.

2) Realistic drawing was prized in pre-Modern visual culture so it is (was?) old hat.

2a) It’s too easy to appreciate so it doesn’t take us anywhere.

2b) It’s ultimately just a cheap parlor trick and parlors are so bourgeois.

3) Modern design (i.e., the turn of the 20th century avant-garde) lionized the machine. Photography can produce “realistic” images better than painters and the camera is a machine so photography outranks illustration. (Sorry, Mark A.)

So is the cute mouse proscribed by the no draw rule? I suspect that a no sentimentality rule shoots the rodent down before one has to worry about that. (Neither Ed Roth nor Walt Disney were Modernist designers and Adolf Loos was big on sanitation but I don’t think there’s a generic Modern design anti-vermin rule.)

Randy—I was keeping my comments in the same order as the book so architecture wasn’t coming up next on my list but I’m up for anything anyone wants to get to.

In the middle of the no-draw stuff was an interesting point. (It’s on page 7 for anyone reading along.)

“Objects hold ideas like amber traps insects. A sofa or a chair is an artifact of the time in which it was created, its lines and planes are what’s left behind in the world when the storm of an ideology has passed. . .”

She says that remembering what things meant is what keeps them alive and that ignorance of meaning leads to narcissism and hollow aestheticism. I don’t argue with that point but think there are a couple of interesting related issues:

1) Does the ideology really pass or do the winds of the storm just slow down? Isn’t, in fact, her claim in much of the book, that the beliefs of the early Modernists infect Modern design and its users?

2) Form had strong meaning for early 20C designers. Phrases like “Nazi typography,” “socialist typography,” and “Jewish typography” seem bizarre today. The same held true to a great extent for the mid 20C: I used to get questioned by the police and had things thrown at me because of my long hair. But now stockbrokers have tattoos and ride Harleys. Does form no longer have meaning, are people just worse at reading signs, or have we gotten so boiled into an ironic soup that displays of tribalism need to be more overt (or more subtle)?

On Jul.31.2006 at 01:07 PM
Christina W’s comment is:

Does form no longer have meaning, are people just worse at reading signs, or have we gotten so boiled into an ironic soup that displays of tribalism need to be more overt (or more subtle)?

I think corporations have done enough work turning different (what used to be shunned as 'lower class') into cool (ie mainstream Harley Davidson or the grunge phase) that people now make less of a 'stay away from me, I'm an outsider' statement and more of a socially acceptable 'I'm cutting-edge hip' statement.

Or, if you want to be optimistic, society is just more open to differences than it was twenty, forty, or a hundred years ago.

On Jul.31.2006 at 03:20 PM
Christina W’s comment is:

Which really doesn't answer your question about form. Sorry.

On Jul.31.2006 at 03:22 PM
A.S.’s comment is:

The No Draw rule is absurd. Illustration is the very reason I came to love design. Absolutely the observance of form, the feeling of line, texture, proportion and balance educate design principles we apply in design. It how we understand the world and reinterpret it to give it new meaning. Perhaps drawing isn't design, but of course it's a part of it. How one draws, or in other words interprets the world around in order to communicate ideas, is a matter of style and ability, but mostly style... um, just like design. Same could be said for photography and computer illustration. Design wouldn't exist without drawing, neither would type.

Why do we need distinctions? Distinctions create boundaries, and boundaries limit creative out-put and innovation.

At this point it's such a mish-mosh hybrid that I see movements pop up here and there. And why not? It's best this way. Symbolic dialogue is being used in all walks of cultural platforms. Maybe realistic design is the next movement? What would that look like?

On Jul.31.2006 at 03:29 PM
Pesky Ilustrator’s comment is:

I've put in an order on Amazon.com for this book, Gunnar. It's difficult discussing serious books like Natalia's without reading them. You convinced me. All else is opinion leading nowhere.

But, if you want my idiot opinion to start a conversation: I think the Modernism had it's day. What started as a fresh, self-conscious break with the Past, has, itself, become the Past. Any search of new forms of expression go beyond the now souless dreams of Modernism. Time itself made it obsolete. Like so many other "isms". Luckily.

One of the many saving graces of the computer - as a post-post-modern tool - is that we can explore whatever we want. I can sit here listening to streaming music of Hildegard von Bingen from the 12th Century (recorded by Joycelyn Montgomery "Lux Vivens".) I think of design the same way. It's up for grabs. Inspiration interfaces with business and the marketplace. It's a three-way conversation.

Oh, just shoot me...

On Jul.31.2006 at 03:41 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Modern design (i.e., the turn of the 20th century avant-garde) lionized the machine. Photography can produce “realistic” images better than painters and the camera is a machine so photography outranks illustration. (Sorry, Mark A.)

Gunner, you misguided fool, drawing is for hands that have skill. Every brainless MySpace kid has a camera: it may be pervasive, but is it anything more than data smog?

On Jul.31.2006 at 04:19 PM
Callie’s comment is:

I, personally, think that drawing can aid in the design process as a form of visual articulation. In order to draw a concept, it forces you to thoroughly think through the idea you're trying to communicate. But it doesn't seem as important to graphic design as it is to industrial design and architecture.

I just graduated with my MFA from the University of Washington, a school steeped in modernist pedagogy. They're in the process of introducing a more comprehensive design curriculum and design drawing is required of all sophomores entering the design program, regardless of their final discipline (Design Studies, Industrial Design, or Visual Communication Design). So maybe those attitudes are changing?

I also think that Natalia's thoughts on drawing are a mere symptom of the problems posed by Modernism as a whole. And having had her as a professor, I would also wager to say that she's not blaming her ills on modernist design, per se, but rather the philosophies and attitudes upon which it was constructed.

Natalia?

On Jul.31.2006 at 06:14 PM
Natalia’s comment is:

Callie, you are right. I do not lie about blaming my various crises on design. I have lived in the design world all my working life. For this reason, it was natural for me to pick modernist design as a metaphor for a larger topic. The book is a memoir that uses design as a crucible. (A crucible is a "story" container in which the action happens in a book.) The action that I am interested in, and which all my books seem to center upon, is the action of unmasking or avoiding the true motivations and philosophical underpinnings of our lives. Ideas of that kind--and if you write, you know this-- have to be held together in a container, in a story, or narrative, or by a big metaphor, or the manuscript grinds into a puddle of BORING the size of Lake Baikal.

I am very interested, as a writer, in the twin motivations of fear and love in response to our primal understanding of our own death. This homey topic needs a crucible or no one will read past the first page. For me, design became that crucible: A well-known world that could provide the examples I needed to move the question about masks and fears and loves along. Sadly, people seem not to be getting past the seventh page. But at least they bought the book, and for this I am grateful.
If I were a breeder of beagles, perhaps I would have used beagle-breeding as my crucible for exploring fear and love. But sadly, I am not a Beagle breeder. The story I know best, one of the stories I know best, is about design and the world it has created. Draw back from the book a bit. It was not written to be a practical handbook on the value of drawing in educational environments. What I deem the no-draw rule is interesting to me ONLY because it is an outward manifestation of an inward state of mind prevalent at the end of World War 1. Yes, it is an example of only one of the outmoded attitudes we still encounter in our education. It is an example of the ways we box ourselves in without knowing it, because our educators unconsciously carry the basic insecurity of the early Modernists. But it is our boxing-in of ourselves that is interesting to me. As designers, yes. But as people, first.

On Jul.31.2006 at 08:02 PM
Peter Piper’s comment is:

I recently went to an event where a musician was creating music on a computer as an artist was creating a painting on the pains (sp) of a discarded window. The friend I was with was so moved my the freedom of his creativity that he approached the artist and bought the piece at the end of the evening. I should mention that he works designing labels (and such) for a well known clothing company. When he got home he discoverd that the window was really, really dirty. so he began to clean it up. Long story short, after a few glasses of cheap merlot he ruined the piece by washing, and then painting the window itself in a too white, white. It was completely wrong. The free image ended up looking imprisoned in this white, white prison. Sanitised. He killed the thing he loved most about it. But he could not help himself.

I hope this wasn't a rediculous thing to write, but it made me think about the book and why we love design, and then how we actually design. He was clearly compelled by the freedom of the love driven designer, but was so compulsively destined to be rooted in fear.

On Jul.31.2006 at 08:51 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Natalia—Even though design was, to a large extent, just a conceit to hang your personal story on, metaphors are usually as revealing when they are reversed as they are in the author’s intended direction. Design may have been the way to make a personal philosophical discussion more palatable but the personal made a design philosophical discussion more real. By making design secondary you made design important.

Design doesn’t work in a vacuum (or at least it doesn’t work fully.) It is about people and relationships and ideas. People and relationships and ideas are interesting to me. Designed objects can be numinous but their power is what is interesting. Natalia’s bug-in-amber metaphor moves us toward remembering that no matter how cool amber is, the bug is what makes it more than just solidified tree goo. (Which isn’t to say that a random bug in some polyester surfboard resin would also have similar power.)

Mark A.—The problem with dismissing Modernism as having had its day is that we haven’t come up with much of anything to replace it. And I don’t think dismissing Modernism’s dreams as “soulless” gets us anywhere; I don’t believe it’s accurate but it also becomes a straw man. Yes, we can explore whatever we want but what do we do with that?

Every brainless MySpace kid has a camera but they didn’t in 1920. The Bauhausian/Dadaist/Constructivist enthusiasm for photography represented a belief that it was a medium that represented what was vital and hopeful for their era. What would the current equivalent be? Was their belief misguided then or has it become completely irrelevant for us?

Callie—Can you tell us what the “design” part of “design drawing” means? Is it the mouse-in-a-bonnet/Russian dog sort of drawing or something else?

On Jul.31.2006 at 10:25 PM
Mr.Frankie L’s comment is:

From what I am aware of, many if not all of
the influential Modernist designers could draw and illustrate pretty adequately. It was
due to their philosophical idealogy which dictated
their move away from representational depiction.

With this philosophy instilled as a foundation
for many designers today, this particular mindset
lends itself to abstract, to simplify...With
that said, the skills needed to render realistically
have atrophied over the decades and why should
anybody be surprised?

It's great if a designer can also illustrate
and vice versa, but because of the evolution
of designers' roles and duties, not everybody
can be as versatile as WA Dwiggins, or
Milton Glaser.

On Jul.31.2006 at 10:37 PM
Mr.Frankie L’s comment is:

I'm aware I may have just digressed from
the main areas of discussion, if so, my bad.

On Jul.31.2006 at 10:39 PM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

Theres so much I love about the book. One of the the signposts I have for good writing is that it spawns more ideas, and each idea could be a book longer than the original book itself. With Natalia's book, I feel I could write at least one or two books per chapter further exploring her alusions and references.

Re: the no-draw rule

I am an avid collector of Erik Nitsche's work. One of the more interesting things I find is his development over the years. It coincides rather directly with the rise of modernism. Much of his early work is very illustrative, figurative, and, yes, drawn. His middle work, the work he is most known for is that of Modernist style — abstractions, "clean" lines and a use of technology of the times. His late work (which coincides with the cynicism of postmodernism) is in fact a return to illustrative and "realistic" work.

What does this say? I dont know, its up for interpretation. Was it the clients he designed for at the time? Was it him blindly following stylistic trends? It could easily be interpreted that this was modernism weighing in on him. For the period that it was most prominent, he could have felt compelled to follow.

I'm not as well versed in my Paul Rand work, but from the few pieces I can recall on the spot, I think you could see similar trends in his own work. He of course, stuck with modernism til he died. Was Nitsche stronger than Rand and resisted in the end? Again, interpretations.

Regarding my own education:

I'm enrolled at the University of Cincinnati. Currently, I feel pretty safe in saying it is one of, if not the most, Modernist of schools (perhaps UArts is better). A friend and I once made a joke about making a flow chart of all the modernist schools and their widening influences (Callie, UofW is once removed from UC thanks to Ms. Cheng). It was a joke, but its actually rather serious now.

Design drawing is taught, and its all well and good, but is essentially taught and then forgotten about. Only foundations classes and the first HALF of the first design drawing class is about representational design. Almost immediately it becomes about abstraction, which I think is Ms. Ilyin's point of differentiation. Even most illustrators now do not work with representational drawings. They are on some level abstractions.

I've already written close to half a chapter.

On Jul.31.2006 at 11:18 PM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

I always do this. I wish you could edit comments once they were created.

I feel pretty safe in saying it is one of, if not the most, Modernist of schools (perhaps UArts is better)

should actually read "(Uarts is perhaps closer to the beginnings of Modernism in America)."

The value comment is misleading.

On Jul.31.2006 at 11:21 PM
Mr.Frankie L’s comment is:

He of course, stuck with modernism til he died. Was Nitsche stronger than Rand and resisted in the end? Again, interpretations.

I don't think Rand was stuck with Modernism,
it seems he truly believed in it as a philosophy.

Perhaps Nitsche wasn't resisting, but following
the trends of the time.

On Jul.31.2006 at 11:30 PM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

Frankie,

"stuck with" and "being stuck on" have different connotations to me. "Stuck with" being proactive and determined, "being stuck on" meaning not being able to move on despite a desire to. My mistake if that wasnt clear. I think Rand's decision was concious and not made for lack of ability.

as for Nitsche, like I said, your interpretation is a possible one. But I think he may have been as determined in his choices as Rand was.

On Aug.01.2006 at 12:42 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Let me read the book first, Gunnar. And I'll get back to you. But briefly let me say a few points:

The problem with dismissing Modernism as "having had its day" is that we haven’t come up with much of anything to replace it.

Sure, Gunnar, perhaps your right that we haven't come up with anything better - YET - but the Century is still young and perhaps we just don't see the larger pattern yet.

We're still under the influence...

People tend to view the future, some, in a backwards looking way, at first. The automobile started as a horse-less carriage. Post-Modernism and then what? Post-Contemporary? Apocalyptic?


Every brainless MySpace kid has a camera but they didn’t in 1920.

Invention of 1849 - the telephone leads to explosion in amazing technology. Phones with pictures and ringtones . The theme from "Scarface". But seriously, is the ability of everybody to take photographs superior to drawing?
Seems like there are a lot of budding artists out there in cyberspace...

And I don’t think dismissing Modernism’s dreams as “soulless” gets us anywhere; I don’t believe it’s accurate but it also becomes a straw man.

Agreed. Unnecessary. Straw men are so 19th century.

On Aug.01.2006 at 06:48 AM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

Sorry for misspelling your name, Gunnar.

On Aug.01.2006 at 08:11 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

My copy of Natalia's book is out on loan, so I can't get into the specifics required by Gunnar's comments. I hope my book-review-ish comments don't kill the discussion (or, the worthy parts, anyway).

I enjoyed reading the book and hope for more of this type of cultural/personal exploration. Natalia addresses an important question I've pondered for some time, and clumsily expressed as "What does perfection mean?" It comes up all the time, and I'm happy that I can now (or will again when it comes back) hand someone this book, which introduces the relevant ideas far better than I could hope to.

One of my book-reviewer-ish reservations is that the sections weren't expanded beyond their original magazine column-length. Too often I was into the story and it just ended. I wasn't looking for a grand resolution but sometimes I felt matters just went nowhere. The positive spin is that I was really into every chapter.

And that's the same with the 2nd concern. Natalia's a delightful writer; someone so wittily self-deprecating is after my heart. But the self-expensed-jokes got mechanical after a few chapters. This is a wholly subjective comment, but I got the feeling the story might be getting too close for the author's comfort, and the wise-crack became a protective mechanism. Asking someone to bear even more is asking a lot and it isn't voyeurism. I just wanted more insightful Natalia, as opposed to the, er, humble.

So everyone go buy her book. Not the least reason being so I don't feel guiltier at having (and loaning!) a free copy.

On Aug.01.2006 at 09:42 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Sorry for misspelling your name, Gunnar.

No big. Mark. You’ll not be surprised to hear that you aren’t the first person to spell my name wrong and are highly unlikely to be the last. I suspect that you become Anderson nearly as often as Natalia becomes Natalie followed by some random selection of I, l, i, and y.

Yes, Kenneth, what does perfection mean? It’s easy to make the case for good being conditional and contextual: This book is good because it held my full attention on Tuesday and I could get it read before Veronica Mars/this book is flawed because it lacked the depth I wanted on Wednesday when Lost was a rerun.

One of the reasons that successful Modernist design is great is that it aspired to so much—reshaping political, social, and economic relations, reconsidering the roles and value of our possessions, embracing a real and positive future, making the image of our world an honest reflection of (an optimist’s) reality, etc. There’s something about revolutionary fervor that inspires absolutism in judgment. There’s also a real satisfaction in having concrete ideals. It’s too easy to make it all into something like an eternal version of a “wired” and “tired” list, resulting in something that stinks of connoisseurship or purposefully-arcane aestheticism.

How does perfection relate to greatness? Are they the same? Is one the beautiful and the other the sublime that dominated much of the 19th century in art? (If so, which is which?)

Or am I just too wistful about early Modernism and should instead heed the Modernist rule that is much more important than “no draw”—no nostalgia?

Maybe the real problem with Modernist design is the problem with most revolutionary movements: They are fit to see problems and overthrow them but they suck at actually running things.

On Aug.01.2006 at 02:00 PM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

Gunnar, my dislike of Modernism is that their BIG PROMISE of revolutionizing the world thru Applied Design had such disasterous consequences. (With the exception of some architecture, some furniture and a few paintings.)
Saying they "merely suck at running things" is like elderly Russians saying that except for the gulags and purges they're nostalgic for Stalinism.

On Aug.01.2006 at 02:35 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Mark—Modernist architects pretty well blew city and regional planning wherever they got to do that. Other than that, what have the disastrous consequences been? For instance, where are the gulags of Modernist graphic design?

On Aug.01.2006 at 03:59 PM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

Kill me with literalism, Gunnar. I'm taking a wild guess: Siberia, California? Stalingrad, North Carolina?

On Aug.01.2006 at 04:31 PM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

> One of the reasons that successful Modernist design is great is that it aspired to so much—reshaping political, social, and economic relations, reconsidering the roles and value of our possessions, embracing a real and positive future, making the image of our world an honest reflection of (an optimist’s) reality, etc. There’s something about revolutionary fervor that inspires absolutism in judgment.

Gunnar, I think what you're describing are (in the history of consciousness) more ramifications of the Enlightenment than capital-M Modernist principals. I personally find it easier to consider Modernism a "religious" movement (as suggested in Derrida) that prescribes an inherent essence to phenomena: i.e. individuality, Louis I. Kahn's let spoon be what spoon wants to be, etc.

> There’s also a real satisfaction in having concrete ideals.

Such is the (human) nature of the enthusiastic and the visionary -- no matter the "ism."

To clarify the first point in your post:
Modernism (the style) was not a revolution, but rather an extension of the Industrial Revolution. The move away from representation was a result of the development of photography combined with the Modernist (the ontology) realization that paintings were basically paint on a substrate; so why not let art be the abstract entity that it wanted to be.

On Aug.01.2006 at 05:16 PM
Natalia’s comment is:

where are the gulags of Modernist graphic design?

The Soviets used to take a few truckfuls of prisoners out miles and miles into the middle of nowhere, force them off the trucks, throw a few hand tools into the snow and drive away, leaving them to construct their own shelter-- their own prison.

Comparisons to the hell these Russians went through are odious, as we sit here in front of our G-4s and ponder our fate as PM designers.

Where is the Gulag, Gunnar? Do we not continue to construct our own gulag with the tools of the moderns? Their tire tracks are long snow-covered, but we sit here in our self-made prison and wonder whether it is safe yet to go outside. We teach our students how to stay in the hut. We have done a wonderful job designing wallpaper for the hut. Many attractive posters and brochures and websites hang in the hut. Because, you know, it's cold outside.

On Aug.01.2006 at 05:24 PM
Mr.Frankie L’s comment is:

Where is the Gulag, Gunnar? Do we not continue to construct our own gulag with the tools of the moderns? Their tire tracks are long snow-covered, but we sit here in our self-made prison and wonder whether it is safe yet to go outside. We teach our students how to stay in the hut. We have done a wonderful job designing wallpaper for the hut. Many attractive posters and brochures and websites hang in the hut. Because, you know, it's cold outside.

Excuse my ignorance, but exactly what is wrong
with Modernism again? And why does it have to be
compared to a Gulag -- isn't that quite extreme?

On Aug.01.2006 at 08:11 PM
Joseph Coates’s comment is:

I just finished Natalia's book but, I'm in the hell of moving so, Natalia, if that isn't true friendship, I don't know what is....

First let me say I really enjoyed reading the chapter Dodos in Fleeceland. If I had known, I would have come to drag you away to somewhere better than that NYC apartment hell. This was a brave chapter. Maybe another book titled such too?

I also enjoyed the book in general. Some chapters did end a little too fast. They felt like a boiler building up a head of steam and the big whistle blew at the end (or not at all). Maybe that is not all a bad thing - whistle or no whistle?

Secondly, sorry for any mistakes in my comments. Just no time to revise in a perfect manner. Ha!

As an initial aside, I agree with Gunnar's July 31, 10:25 PM comments.

Here are some from me:

I'd like to put fourth this notion, and Natalia partly eludes to it toward the end: Modernism (rightly or wrongly understood or used by those who came after the originators of early 20th C. Modern art and design - Paul Rand, you, me, Natalia, professors, students, etc.) is popular and important because it emerged during a time like no other and was so different in the scope of previous human endeavors (because of the emergence of technologies, science, and ideas not heard or seen before), it could not be ignored. That is stating the obvious but good to refresh that information.

This kind of stuff does not happen all the time in society. The Renaissance, Greek city states, moveable type, Industrial Revolution, early human settlement (writing!) in Mesopotamia, etc. So the idea of the modern and the art, architecture, and design that is derived (good or bad) from it, is important. People tend to focus on important changes. The modern must also be looked at in the context of what came before. Slums were common so to move from a rat, lice, and flea hell holes into a sleek new building was a good thing. In retrospect, perhaps it was density that was the problem with modern public housing be it modern or gothic revival.

Dirt streets filled with horse droppings gave way to automobiles and the interstate. Faster. Humans like fast. (Personally, I could use some slow back....) Mix it all up: faster transport, urban updates, later urban renewal, all this was considered positive at the time. (Indeed, it is considered positive in China now, much to consternation of those who care about Chinese health, architecture, and the global environment - but us Walmart shopper are to blame more than a billion poor farmers leaving the land. Those poor farmers are moving to one of the 630 Chinese cities over 200,000 in population. BTW: 11 cities in China are over two million population and 67 are over 500,000. Can this many cities this large reliably function or more importantly, run efficiently, safely, healthily, etc. in anything but contemporary buildings?) The Victorian era was complex, dirty, dangerous, and slow. Modern meant simple, fast, clean, and safe. We, the West and Japan/Korea, wanted it and got it. China wants it. Brazil wants it. India wants it.

Natalia also grazes a bit through the school of thought that considers modern to be classical. I would argue that the modern is an essential element of human civilization and a perception of separateness is only because of its emergence during the tumultuous times of the industrial revolution and the early 20th C. period of world wars and massive displacement of artists, scientists, etc. of Europe.

The noble and romantic quest of the arts and crafts movement to look back to pre Renaissance did not stick. But, their work had an impact on early modernists - which has its own irony. I think that perhaps some of this recent modern revival in design will and is producing a new direction. But it is probably not a return to pre modern (if that is what Natalia wants?)

I think we are in a back and fourth mode of minimal and decorative (with surface, concept, everything, even interface, etc.). Perhaps this is an extension of van Toorns design schizophrenia writ large.

A few more observations:

- I am worried about Natalia's thoughts on the modern. I fear she advocates a kind of Arts and Crafts world. Which would be wonderful but - how? Emerging countries again loom before us. We cannot nor could not deny them this and they want it.

William Morris was from a well to do family and sold his work mostly to the rich. But his goal was always to sell hand crafted works to the lower classes. It never worked. Also, the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement matched that of socialist movements at the time. I see a similar confusing contradiction in Natalia's writing on the matter. Is she a socialist in favor of realism (see where this is headed?) or a capitalist in favor of Norman Rockwell (see where that is headed?)

- Constructivism ended in the USSR in the mid 1930s because of Stalinist policy toward art and design. Then WWII broke out with Germany. Times changed. People involved died, or were sent to Siberia, or fled. End of story.

- I wonder, is Natalia's placement (replacement?) of her emotions onto Modernisms failures shooting at the wrong target? Is it the Modern or is it her own experience that should be biographed? That sounds like a critical comment but, its not meant to be. It's all interesting but, I almost don't even care about the whole modern design thing. Natalia is the focus and I'm OK with that. But I came away wanting more.

- Best line in book they neglected to put on the jacket flap: "I fell asleep in my clothes, curled like an infant on the bunk bed, under the bluish glow of the giant breast." Dear reader to be, if that does not get your attention to read this book, nothing will.

On Aug.02.2006 at 12:37 AM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

People involved (in Constructivism) died, or were sent to Siberia, or fled. End of story.

End of story?? You've go to be kidding. Of all the social Modernist countries, Russia probably experienced the worst of it. Utopianism eventually turns ugly when "the non-designers" resist the great revolution they are promised. Just ask any Russian who isn't an addled Stalinist. There IS no end of this story yet, because the damage done was so massive. The dead became merely a statistic. History takes a while to pass away. If Russia - and America - succeed in throwing off the vestages of both Capitalist/Communist Modernism, it'll all be for the better. 100 years of it sounds like enough. Maybe it'll live forever on college campuses like Che t-shirts.

Modernism isn't the only future we can envision.

On Aug.02.2006 at 10:42 AM
Joseph Coates’s comment is:

I wrote: "People involved (in Constructivism) died, or were sent to Siberia, or fled. End of story."

Mark Andresen wrote: "End of story?? You've go to be kidding."

This was written before Natalia’s August 1 response and was not a comment on it or previous gulag comments by others.

I was referring to a section in the book, and I am doing it from memory but, I think Natalia mentions something about how Constructivism would have ended on its own. Something to that end. But it did not. Stalin ended it. I should have pulled the quote from the book but, busy moving!

But yes, it obviously lives on in the modern and if you hate modern, what can I say.

I neither love love modern nor hate it. It’s like saying you hate pants or ranch houses or hats. All those things come in many varieties over many years of history but you have likely experienced or seen one of them that you like or dislike. But most people and most designers don’t go around bemoaning them all the time. All things being equal, I think the modern is ultimately a good thing. Maybe not to everyone, everything, or every place. It’s a tool. It’s an idea. It’s a meme. Depends on how you and others use it and ultimately, society will continue to use what it finds valuable in it.

One thing I forgot to add to my comments, I think this is a good time to discuss the modern movement and its outcomes like it or not. Depending on when you start the clock, perhaps 1917 or earlier, the 100th anniversary is coming up for the start of 20th C. Modernism.

On Aug.02.2006 at 12:22 PM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

In rereading this, I seem to be taking this way too seriously. You'd think I was shot in Siberia last lifetime or something.

And I haven't even got Natalia's book from Amazon yet.

Graphic design isn't politics, for one thing. It's itself. But the way I'm interpreting it, modernism stretched beyond design though.

On Aug.02.2006 at 12:24 PM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

Joseph, Modernism's beginnings can be traced to 1580, the year Michel de Montaigne's Les Essais was published. You can't get more Modern than his motto: "Que sais-je?"* (What do I know?).

*Not to be confused with the perfume by Jean Patou

On Aug.02.2006 at 02:28 PM
Pam Heath’s comment is:

I’m curious about what folks think about this paragraph from p. 53:

“Since designers are bound up with industry, we never consider what people really need to be whole people or what the collusion of design and industry has offered them instead. We create devices that distract people from thinking, from working through the fear that accompanies real thinking, from coming out the other side. We help to make people believe they can’t live without movement, communication, distraction. We teach them the exact opposite of the truth.”

Do you think that is this true, folks? I think that it is. Oh, I don’t hold it against you. I do lots of things to hold fear at bay, and you folks are really just some of my many, many enablers.

And anyway, I’m one of you. I tyrannize people with the new. I make them feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t want to be connected and entertained all the time. I leave them no room for silence in their lives because, after all, they really should be buying things, not thinking. I make them want stuff. Modernism doesn’t make me do that. I’m just living in the world of late-stage commodity capitalism.

My real point is this: Natalia thinks. Natalia cares. She’s looked at her own life and invites us to look at the impact of Modernism - and the modern world - on ours. OK, that and the impact of losing your mom, your boyfriend and your flat all at the same time. She gives me new ways to look at things that I stopped noticing existed. She reminds me that, among other things, we all – designers or dog catchers – have an obligation to each other, to our mutual well-being. I am grateful to be reminded of that.

And she reminds me about that truth thing, too. But that's harder. So like exercising and flossing every day, I'm going to put that part off just a bit longer.

It seems to me that the next design paradigm at least partially resides 1) somewhere in exploring the ideas behind that p. 53 paragraph and and 2) applying them in web design, in creating truly useful and respectful experiences in this medium where we (people generally, not just designers and those who blog with them) increasingly spend time.

We could start the exploration with the technology and the design that contains/hosts/presents this discussion. This container sucks. A conversation is not a series of linear comments. Give me a better experience for that & you’ll win my heart for at least a day (was forever in pre-internet time).

On Aug.02.2006 at 03:49 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

We find ourselves speaking of Modern design and designers (and even modernism) in the singular. It glosses over way too much to speak of Hannah Höch and John Heartfield in the same phrase, let alone Alexander Rodchenko and Ray Eames.

Mark A: their BIG PROMISE of revolutionizing the world thru Applied Design had such disastrous consequences.

Could you be more specific? What were the consequences? Were these consequences generally attributable to Modern design or attributed to more specific design failures?

Mark K: I personally find it easier to consider Modernism a "religious" movement (as suggested in Derrida) that prescribes an inherent essence to phenomena: i.e. individuality, Louis I. Kahn's let spoon be what spoon wants to be, etc.

and

the Modernist (the ontology) realization that paintings were basically paint on a substrate; so why not let art be the abstract entity that it wanted to be.

I have no trouble with your characterization; I warn my students that I actually teach comparative religion. As a design theologian, I find Kahn’s direct, functional animism much more useful than the social darwinist meta animism of “art” having a generic will.

Isn’t seeing Modern design as a religious movement but merely part of the industrial revolution like seeing Taoism as merely an artifact of the warring states period of Chinese history? Yeah, it’s true in a sense but that’s hardly a reason to pretend that there’s nothing in the way of a separate, structured philosophy worth considering.

BTW, Natalia, it might be interesting to apply the fear/love thing to Lao Tzu. (But maybe not in this thread.)

Natalia: Do we not continue to construct our own gulag with the tools of the moderns?

Frank Lin’s “why does it have to be
compared to a Gulag” question is worth answering. The obvious answer is a train of literary allusion—a design movement partially based in Marxism-Leninism tends to lead us to 20C Russian history and with an name like Ilyin we might not be surprised if Natalia’s metaphors had a different geographic center than those of someone with, say, a name like mine. We’re starting from her book and carving runes, colonizing Greenland, and raiding the Hebrides don’t seem to fit the subject, anyway.

Frank’s concern shouldn’t be ignored. Maybe it’s because I made the mistake of watching “Match Point” the other night. Maybe it was a Washington Post article last Wednesday on Woody Allen that pissed me off with: “‘You do the best you can within the concentration camp,’ he says, cutting straight to the life-as-Auschwitz metaphor.” All I could think was anyone who thinks living in Central Park West and having people give you a lot of money to do just about anything you want is in any way similar to being loaded onto boxcars, starved, then gassed is morally retarded. We’ve managed to avoid running afoul of Godwin’s law because the Bauhaus boys were, if not angels of all that is Good and Right, at least opposed to the readily-available side of absolute evil (Herbert Bayer’s later German work aside.) So Germany has, thankfully, not cropped up in our analogies.

I want to be clear that I’m not accusing Natalia of doing the New York nihilist/narcissist “I live in Tribeca but it might as well be Treblinka” thing. It is worth questioning whether some of her comments on Modern design are hyperbolic and maybe even arbitrary: If she had gone to Cal Tech instead of RISD, would be reading about her escape from Seattle and the evils of caffeine and coding and the safety of Greenwich Village?

I’m glad Joe took time off from moving but I’m glad he knows that resisting quibbling with Kingsley is one of the few things harder for me than not finding something to argue with in anything Joe writes so here goes: Maybe “Walmart shopper are to blame more than a billion poor farmers leaving the land” as are various Chinese policies (under Mao and currently) but one important reason is that it really sucks to be a poor farmer, especially one who doesn’t own and control any land.

But back to my plea for talking about specific Modernisms. Mark A says: Modernism isn't the only future we can envision.

and I wonder if that’s true. If we dismiss Modernism as merely a style, sure. Memphis could come back or McDonald’s could serve burgers on neo-Wedgwood plates or we could all wear turquoise jewelry and sleep under Navaho blankets. If we think Modernist design is something beyond a surface treatment (as most of the Modernist designers did) then we could still easily imagine the future as a worldwide Islamic caliphate or a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We could also imagine everyone living in a nice cottage with great views but it’s harder to figure how we’d get there. But what can we, as designers, imagine as a non-Modernist future?

Let me rephrase Frank’s question and ask what, specifically, is wrong with what specific Modern design? Or what is wrong generically with all Modern design?

I see Natalia’s argument as being twofold: (1) Modern design was the child of fearful control freaks and as such sucks the life out of the world and (2) Modern design is specific to another time and place and as such is an invasive weed that chokes out other growth that would be more appropriate to the current terrain. I’m sure she’ll correct me if I mischaracterized.

What about Chasing the Perfect’s fear/love thing? Does it fit? Is it a fair characterization? If we buy it, do we dismiss all attempts at real progress as fear mongering? (For anyone following along, that just gets us into chapter 2. “The Love Bucket.”)

On Aug.03.2006 at 12:16 PM
Natalia Ilyin’s comment is:

You're right, Gunnar. With my name and my background, it is natural to start using heavy Russian references. Like all writers, I use big metaphors to keep me from having to pound all ideas to pablum through meticulous explanation. However, there is a kind of mind that does not feel comfortable with the imprecision of metaphor, and that is perhaps a difference in cerebral function and cultural upbringing.

It is interesting to me that many of the posts here take issue with the way the book is written, and I find as I scan down the posts that references to the emotional experiences in the book are being used to punctuate the intellectual arguments, since intellect is what is valued here. And so the value of half the book is diminished in the eyes of the person who has not read it yet, and is explained away as most probably not related to design but to intrinsic issues Natalia would have had to work out no matter what field she had pursued. How irritating.

I am not suggesting, Joe, that we all become Morrisites, nor do I argue in the book, Gunnar, that living in a cottage with a view should be the goal of future design.

As I have said in other contexts, the language of Modernism is our design language and we aren't going to blow it up and start over. It is a beautiful language: It is a narrow language, but beautiful. It has no words for snow.

What people describe, they value. What they do not take the time to describe, they don't value. Our culture's design vocabulary only describes part of human experience. I'd like us to speak a design language that has the power to describe both sides of human consciousness, both sides of human experience.

It's as if all the type fonts in the world just contain the letters A through L. We know that there are other letters, but we can only find fonts with A through L, so we use only those fonts, because who has the time to design new letters? My question is: What happened to the other letters-- those letters with which we can describe so much more of what I value? Why didn't anyone draw them? I want us to draw them. I'd like to be able to use M-Z.

On Aug.03.2006 at 01:20 PM
Christina W’s comment is:

I will first say that I haven't been able to read the book yet... but after reading the conversation I feel like I have to now. What Natalia states as her fear/truth theme that was put into the design crucible is a theme that's near and dear to my heart. In the meantime...

Here is why I can't identify with the Modernist ideals, and why I think they aren't a terribly great guide to constructing a future (in a very general sense). If Modernism advocates a total break with the past, is this a wholesale rejection? a dismissal? And wouldn't that be refusing to look at certain truths about ourselves and society that would tell us how we came to be in such a position? History is so valuable, and yet, we are so often required to only memorize the conclusions that others came to, instead of tearing apart how/what/why it happened, and figuring out what that means for change in our current society.

Any other ideas on this?

On Aug.03.2006 at 01:53 PM
Christina W’s comment is:

Here it is... "the action of unmasking or avoiding the true motivations and philosophical underpinnings of our lives."

To me, modernism seems to embody the avoidance of coming to terms with these true motivations. The machines will make it better.

On Aug.03.2006 at 02:08 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Natalia suggests . . .
I'd like us to speak a design language that has the power to describe both sides of human consciousness, both sides of human experience.

So, in order to recondition ourselves, first we must recognize that Modernism is at fault, at the root of a design language that denies (loathes, ignores?) the human. Natalia's book, and her other writing, does this rather well. But we may have difficulty recognizing her arguments having lived and communicated in one way for so long.

You can teach an old dog new tricks, so you can certainly teach humans (designers) new tricks (or new ways of thinking, communicating, working, etc.). Once we recognize the roots of Modernism, how it impacts our being and discipline, then what? Where do we start to reprogram ourselves? What is the method, the training?

On Aug.03.2006 at 02:59 PM
Joseph Coates’s comment is:

M. Kingsley wrote:
"Modernism's beginnings can be traced to 1580, the year Michel de Montaigne's Les Essais was published."
This raises an interesting point which might tie in with some of Gunnar’s comment on the wide swath of modernism both in time, definition, variety, and succesfulness or failures. In a way, this is my biggest criticism of criticism about “the modern”. What modern do you mean? I think it is just too diverse and complex to tar and feather all at once or even significant chunck of it. I like hats, pants, and ranch houses but I have seen some ugly/poorly made/inhuman/disastrous/dangerous hats, pants, and ranch houses.
The word “publish” was a new thing in 1580 so maybe Les Essais could not be considered a start because that is after 1455 and moveable type.
The industrial revolution is also sometimes marked as the beginning of it all. I agree that this fundamental ingredient, mass production, is the key to it all. Without that, none of it would have happened. (I wonder, is that really what Natalia means? I would be more affraid of the inhumanity of digital warefare then mass production. It is easier than ever to bomb the crap out of a country and never see a dead child.)
When I was a student it was the Wedgewood factory that was seen as the birth of the industrial revolution. But the Lombe silk factory was a bit earlier in 1721.
But the start point could be any number of significant social, cultural, or economic advances in Europe and later N. America and especially after the fall of the Roman Empire. But that analysis excludes Asian cultures....
For design (and really, let's say graphic design and its cuzins) I like to pretend it was a twinkle in the eye until about 1917 onward. This neatly coincides with development and more importantly the adoption of electricity, vaccination, education through 12th grade (in U.S.), and emergence of liquid fossil fuels as a common means of fuel for various engines (before being coal, water, etc.) and as a manufacturing material (plastics, ink, etc.) The first synthetic polymer, Bakelite, in 1907 could also be start point though.
Could modernism have emerged with out mass production? No. I think because WWI was critical for it to appear and WWI was an industrial war. The ideas informed the materials but the materials did not exist until they existed.

On Aug.03.2006 at 04:36 PM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

Seems like the problem starts with using the word MODERN in the first place. To place Modernism in anything but the 20th Century is just a confusion of modern and Modern.

Now I have Natalia's book, finally, but I haven't done anything yet but look at the pictures. I'll read it as soon as my deadlines subside.

their BIG PROMISE of revolutionizing the world thru Applied Design had such disastrous consequences.

Think ugly urban housing projects in almost every major city. That's applied Modernism, Gunnar. It's been a boon to both corporate and governmental cultures, but has it added one jot of measurable quality to our lives?

To those who think this is all negative, may I add what I DO like about Modernism:

1.) 20th Century American Jazz
2.) Some good abstract paintings
3.) Some cool chairs
4.)

On Aug.03.2006 at 07:42 PM
Joseph Coates’s comment is:

Mark A. wrote "Think ugly urban housing projects in almost every major city. That's applied Modernism, Gunnar"

Are you confusing urban planning with modern architecture and architects? Any urban planning people out there? What does "modern" mean for you?

I think social policies on public housing tied to mid 20th C. urban planning practice is what failed.

On Aug.04.2006 at 01:59 PM
Callie’s comment is:

My real point is this: Natalia thinks. Natalia cares.

And that she does. I know; from personal, in-the-flesh interactions with her.

Re: design drawing. What I mean by design drawing is the ability to render three-dimensional things objectively. Lots of perspective drawing required, no abstraction allowed.

Joseph, I totally agree with you about the failure of social policy. I really don't think you can separate the two. For aren't most public work projects the direct result of social policy?

I'm not an urban planner, but I took an urban design seminar in grad school. We read a lot of Henri LeFebvre, whose writings might shed light onto this question.

Lefebvre innovated by extending Marxist analysis to the sphere of "everyday life" and problems of urbanism--questions that had been ignored by the Left. He witnessed after World War II the rapid modernization and urbanization of French life. His critique of the "bureaucratic society of controlled consumption is reminiscent of Marcuse, but suffers from a certain impressionism.

On Aug.07.2006 at 03:02 AM
Natalia’s comment is:

I appreciate Callie and Pam saying I think and care! The first is an honor coming from these two, the second is a gift, since "caring" is not high on the value-list of design professionals in general and administrators in particular, it being emotion-related and therefore suspect.

However, who among the conversants here does not think and care? We're all thinking and caring our heads off because we are living in a house that need significant repairs and a big whomping addition. We love the house. It has been in the family for generations. We grew up in it. But there's mold in the subflooring and a river runs through the crawlspace. So to me the question really is: where do we go from here, given our education, given our inculcated ways of seeing (forgive me, Mr. Berger). Where CAN we go, now that business is increasingly viewing design as a commodity, one that is increasingly sent offshore? (I reference Pierre de Vries on this one.)
What CAN we accomplish?

I notice that graphic designers, at this point in a conversation, often retreat into saying that what they do is not important or serious ("No one ever got killed by a brochure falling down,"I love design, but I just don't take it so seriously.)Let me suggest this: if you are over 22 and you have been doing design for over five years, you are kidding yourself or adopting a false ironic pose when you say you don't take design seriously.

Graphic design acts as a Rorsach test for culture: you may not be aware of it, but you spend your day forming what can be deemed the outward representation of the mores of our society. How much of that "forming" is unconscious? I think a lot. I think that as you bring your prejudices and societal "rule book" to consciousness, you will find a number of things informing your design with which you yourself may not agree. THat can be a difficult moment. Sort of a Bridge Over the River Kwai moment.

I think it is valuable to uncover some of the unconscious forming patterns we live by. If you are interested in your culture and how it could work better for all its members, taking graphic design seriously is a given.Funny to hear myself say this, because it shows what I advocate is not antimodernist, but in fact, hones very closely to the original modernist agenda. I just hate ironic moments.

SO. This is my question. How do we work with students so that they will not feel alternately constricted by an old set of rules, or overwhelmed by our era's major design problems?

On Aug.07.2006 at 02:51 PM
Mr. Frankie L’s comment is:

Having read the posts (but not the book yet),

I can see how one might use "Gulag" as a metaphor
to describe the Modernist movement of the 20th
century. But I think Modernism has a bad reputation
because folks take it too seriously: The philosophy
is idealistic and pragmatic and it would be the
perfect manifesto for the robot race but not the
human animal. Modernism fails us because quite
frankly, we can't handle it. But it can be a great
tool if we know when and how to use it.

We are in the Gulag because we put ourselves
in there. It was never meant to be a prison;
probably a very nice cottage with a view. But
we got carried away with our grand vision and
neglected our humanity...And now we are so
imaginative as to think Mr. Modernism is
the cruel basturd, but wait, he has a great
resemblence to...

On Aug.07.2006 at 03:06 PM
Christina W’s comment is:

I think one of the biggest problems is that many people (people, never mind designers) are never taught how to think critically, how to question accepted status quos and how to remove their personal ego from an attachment to results. How often have you seen someone get upset after a crit because the instructor didn't "like" their work?

I did finally get to read the book, which I enjoyed very much. At certain points I had to chuckle to myself because it all sounded so familiar. In college there were only two of us in my advanced typography class, so for our final project we put on a gallery show at a little cafe downtown – opening night turned into a fairly rocking little party. The pieces I had put up ranged the gamut from a very painterly piece (literally, a painting of two figures having a pasted-on conversation in Greek) to a very conceptual typographic little silkscreened book.

My type instructor, a hard-core modernist and very conceptual British designer, loved the booklet but thought the painterly piece was a complete waste of time. My painting instructor, whom I can only affectionately describe as a remnant of the New York painting scene in the sixties, thought it was the best one in the show.

Now, would any of us been able to open up a conversation about how our values or unwritten rules (modernist or otherwise) shaped our view of the work? We would have easily been able to discuss the pros and cons of the work as we saw it, in a theoretical context... but that's not the same thing. I don't mean to imply that we couldn't have had that conversation because someone would have been offended – but often we assume that the rules of debate are fixed and objective, when they are entirely subjective, and perhaps our most important conversations are ones where the work serves as a 'crucible' or framework for examining our subjective values.

On Aug.09.2006 at 11:12 AM
Mr. Frankie L’s comment is:

SO. This is my question. How do we work with students so that they will not feel alternately constricted by an old set of rules, or overwhelmed by our era's major design problems?

I want to answer (or attempt trying) this question
but when you say "old set of rules", you're
talking about Modernism right? And when refering
to "our era's major design problems" – any specific
examples?

On Aug.09.2006 at 02:23 PM
natalia ’s comment is:

Let's see:
Frankie L: I was thinking about the seemingly objective "rules" of modernist design. And the graphic design problem I was thinking of is the use and abuse of stock photo. On a grand scale,I was thinking about design's role in reversing global warming, pumping up the ozone, this sort of thing. I am far more interested, however, in your view about what rules exist and what problems designers face today. And how we-- if you would address it-- can add on to our current design lexicon and create a language of design that is flexible enough to take on these current problems.

Christina W:
"we assume that the rules of debate are fixed and objective, when they are entirely subjective, and perhaps our most important conversations are ones where the work serves as a 'crucible' or framework for examining our subjective values."

I think that part of the modernist agenda has been to make those "rules" seem objective, because of design's entanglement in the myths of the objectivity of "science," which values a mental culture of hypothesis and evidence over one right-brain image-making.
As you, I am sure, have experienced, it is far harder to defend subjective values than to argue allegedly "objective principles." I think "objectivists" (hey, I like this new word) believe, albeit unconsciously, that there is a non-negotiable "Truth" out there, which it is incumbent upon the designer to find, and the "subjectivists" feel that "Everything," as my Uncle Nicholas used to say, "is so damned relative."

On Aug.10.2006 at 03:07 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

I join Joe in worrying that the obvious alternatives to Modernism in design have problems including questions of scalability and sustainability. There is only so much ocean front property. I’d love to be one of the few who live in beach cottages (and am one of the privileged few who lived for many years in an old deco hotel on the sand) but face it, we have a few billion too many people for that. It is only because of the people who work in central locations that many of us can get away with working away from central locations.

That’s not an argument for sterility or brutalist surroundings but I have problems with reducing all Modernist design to sterility and/or brutalism. Corbu’s buildings may have failed the homeyness test but the motives weren’t entirely obsessive terror-filled control freakery. And Charles and Ray Eames managed to be quintessential Modernists while producing quite humane objects (although hardly cheap ones.)

But Natali’s right. One a strain of Modernist design reeks of a sort of scientism—the respect for things being science-like as opposed to actually scientific. It’s that nasty flip side of anti-“elite” populism.

That’s not surprising. One of the basic elements of early Modernist design, uniting disparate philosophies and styles, was the embracing of—maybe even a worshipping of—engineering, machinery, and mechanical methods of progress.

One prime piece of scientism is Adolf Loos’ famous “Ornament and Crime.” He set up a metaphor comparing aesthetics to the then-current understanding of evolutionary biology. Not only has Haeckle’s Law long since been repealed and “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” relegated to the level of linguistic oddity of “antidisestablishmentarianism,” but the mapping of design choices on scientific facts makes no scientific sense. Many of the assumptions of that essay are still with us (or at least, I confess, with me.)

Even though I’m worried about all-encompassing use of the word “Modernism” (a mistake we’ve made here but one we share with a range of critics from many of the CalArts/Cranbrook anti-modernists of a few years ago to old school Modernists like Paul Rand), I think we can identify a few fairly generic Modernist principles. It might be worth looking at how they do or don’t apply to the world of nearly a century later.

Just because Loos, Marinetti, and some others were nutters and raved about indoor plumbing and fast cars, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some worth in wanting to shape objects that reflected the best of their world and their hopes. Machine forms were their hopeful future. What is ours?

One general Modernist principle might be stated as an affirmation of honesty thus a rejection of form for form’s sake. Designed objects should reflect something of themselves and/or their times. They should not pretend to be things they are not. Does this apply to current use of the style “Modernism”? Does the principle make any sense anymore? Did it ever? If stylistic Modernism falls short, what design or design method applies now?

On Aug.10.2006 at 04:37 PM
Mr. Frankie L’s comment is:

SO. This is my question. How do we work with students so that they will not feel alternately constricted by an old set of rules, or overwhelmed by our era's major design problems?

Despite what they might think, I don't think
students are actually constricted by any rules
of Modernism. Instead, they may feel frustrated
because the instructor won't let them design like
David Carson 2.0. Actually, is it the legacy
left by Modernism that you have a beef with –
the type of methodology that is applied in the
corporate world? While some principles of M.
fit well within the scope of branding, businesses
only pretended to buy into Modernism while their
real motivations were to use it as their own
means of control..since the 1950s.

And the graphic design problem I was thinking of is the use and abuse of stock photo.

I'm not sure if this is really a problem.
Commercial photography has always been a
commodity to the buyer; companies such as
Getty, Corbis, and Veer simply took the
business model to another level. Many great
photographers don't seem to have a problem
with it – they participate and make money too.

Within the graphic design industry, the companies
churning out templates of any sort like a Nike
shoe factory in Indonesia have been accused of
threatening our professional health, but I think
this is moot because it is occupying only a
certain niche among many niches in GD.

On a grand scale,I was thinking about design's role in reversing global warming, pumping up the ozone, this sort of thing.

Design's role in reversing global warming is
creating awesome packaging for a revolutionary
new fuel which is environmentally harmless and
very efficient, but has yet-to-be invented by
a yet-to-be named genius chemical engineer.

I am far more interested, however, in your view about what rules exist and what problems designers face today.

IMO, the biggest problem designers face
pertain to being seen as either a commodity or
"artist". Read an issue of CA from 1996 and
you'd think time stood still. As long as our
current k12 education system is the status quo,
nothing on a marco-scale can occur.

And how we-- if you would address it-- can add on to our current design lexicon and create a language of design that is flexible enough to take on these current problems.

PostModernism has been good enough for me.
What do you want to add to the current lexicon?
More colors? A new post-postmodernist philosophy?
As we are still living in the dawn of the 21st
century; there hasn't occured any political
or social movement severe enough to instigate
the brightest minds of this generation to come
up with another revolution. For now, it seems
we are in a relatively stable transcient stage,
and our current state of graphic design is a
reflection of this.

...
Natalia, I hope I interpreted your post well
enough to provide something resembling an
articulation.

On Aug.14.2006 at 11:14 AM
Christina W’s comment is:

"On a grand scale,I was thinking about design's role in reversing global warming, pumping up the ozone, this sort of thing."

"Design's role in reversing global warming is
creating awesome packaging for a revolutionary
new fuel which is environmentally harmless and
very efficient, but has yet-to-be invented by
a yet-to-be named genius chemical engineer."

Respectfully, that's really taking the easy way out. There are many things we can do right now to help slow global warming, but which require a change in values on the part of the consumer. One of my teachers in university, Jorge Frascara (a former president of Icograda I believe), has done extensive research on this, some using traffic accidents and the seatbelt phenomenon as a subject. People must perceive a benefit to themselves before they will change their attitudes. It took multiple campaigns over many years to change ideas on seatbelt usage, but now (most of us) buckle up without a second thought. This can be one of the purposes of graphic design; we don't have to wait for a product to package, we need to try and change attitudes now.

On Aug.14.2006 at 11:52 AM
Mr. Frankie L’s comment is:

People must perceive a benefit to themselves before they will change their attitudes. It took multiple campaigns over many years to change ideas on seatbelt usage, but now (most of us) buckle up without a second thought.

Christina,

My guess is that the multiple campaigns on
seatbelt usage were initiated not by designers
but by a government department or administration.
Designers were then brought in as an execution
tool to carry out the message.

Similarily, if the United States government
took seriously to environmental issues, I'm sure
various agencies would spring forth to educate
and incorporate public policies – designed by
of graphic designers, peoples' attitudes would
eventually change.

If a group of interested designers got
together and established some sort of entity
with the goal of trying to be an enlightened
public servant – this is getting further away
from design and more into the realm of politics.

While I wholeheartedly agree that each individual
should do their best to help make the world a
better place, I'm not convinced design is
effective at all without the proper sponsorship
from either a corporation, political party, or
non-profit entity; in which case we should join
either of the above if we want to contribute.

On Aug.14.2006 at 02:20 PM
Natalia Ilyin’s comment is:

I was thinking that 53 posts may be a bit long for this thread. So many interesting related topics have been raised thatI feel overwhelmed and cannot give each brain its due. Gunnar. Help.

On Aug.14.2006 at 04:17 PM
Joseph Coates’s comment is:

Gunnar said the early moderns wanted "to shape objects that reflected the best of their world and their hopes. Machine forms were their hopeful future. What is ours?"

I think this ties in nicely with some of what has come up so far.
- Relevancy of "old" modernism (all variations and forms and definitions - Randian to McCoyesque, et al) for today and particularly in the coming 50 years.
- Understanding historical views on modernism in relation to todays social, political, economic, and environmental realities.
- Assuming a denial of ignorant pure anti modernism. Assuming a denial of ignorant Modernism worship. Assuming we all know or are learning the basic histories. What is our pathway going forward?

I would put forth one option: Clearly, renewable resources and the environment will be more and more critical for humanity. The planet is only so big. The forests, land, and oceans can only take so much. Design and whatever this thing, Natalia needs to name it, is called could play an important role. Sure, better branding to save the planet but much more. But all of us should care, not just Bruce Mau or the 30 or so odd groups and blogs covering the issues. I also think a larger encompassment of global issues can come to play in education. Good design is efficient, beautiful, useful, pleasing, urgent, etc. to one degree or another as needed. Perhaps we need to keep some of those basics in mind for this new thing as yet un-named or, is that just good design? Modern (any of them) design or otherwise?

On Aug.14.2006 at 05:34 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

The conversation has moved to Chasing the Perfect part 2

On Aug.15.2006 at 01:15 PM