Michael Bierut on non-design

“More than twenty years ago, I served on a committee that had been formed to explore the possibilities of setting up a New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Almost all of the other committee members were older, well-known—and, in some cases, legendary—designers. I was there to be a worker bee.

I was suddenly in—what seemed to me then, at least—the center of the design universe. There was already so much to see and do, but I wanted more. I was ravenous. Establishing a New York chapter for the AIGA would mean more lectures, more events, more graphic design. For the committee’s first meeting, I had made a list of all designers I would love to see speak, and I volunteered to share it with the group.

A few names in, one of the well-known designers in the group cut me off with a bored wave. ‘Oh God, not more show-and-tell portfolio crap.’ To my surprise, the others began nodding in agreement. ‘Yeah, instead of wallowing in graphic design stuff, we should have something like…a Betty Boop film festival.’ A Betty Boop film festival? I wanted to hear a lecture from Josef Müller-Brockmann, not watch cartoons. I assumed my senior committee members were pretentious and jaded, considering themselves—bizarrely—too sophisticated to admit they cared about the one thing I cared about most: design. I was confused and crestfallen. Please, I wanted to say, can we start talking some sense?

I thought I was a pretty darned good designer back then. A few years before, in my senior year, I had designed something I was still quite proud of: a catalog for Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center on the work of visionary theater designer Robert Wilson. The CAC didn’t hire me because I knew anything about Robert Wilson. I had never heard of him. More likely they liked my price.

About a year after my disappointing meeting with the planners of the AIGA New York chapter, I finally saw my first Robert Wilson production. It was the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 1984 revival of Einstein on the Beach. And sitting there in the audience, utterly transported, it came crashing down on me: I had completely screwed up that catalog. Seen live, Wilson’s work was epic, miraculous, hypnotic, transcendent. My stupid layouts were none of those things. They weren’t even pale, dim echoes of any of those things. They were simply no more and no less than a whole lot of empty-headed graphic design. And graphic design wasn’t enough. It never is.”

— Michael Bierut (via 79 Short Essays on Design)

Paul Rand on working with your hands

“It is important to use your hands. This is what distinguishes you from a cow or a computer operator.”

— Paul Rand (via Conversations with Students)

Lorraine Wild on culture

“There’s all sorts of work that designers do that falls somewhere in the spectrum between marketing and protest, and I would argue that some of it is critical to the existence of what culture we have, unless you cynically write off all culture within a capitalist society as simply serving a market.”

— Lorraine Wild

Dan Friedman on design

“Design should be repositioned so that it is viewed more as an enrichment to culture and not only as a service to business.”

— Dan Friedman

Michael C Place on design criticism

As an established designer, do you think Twitter is the right place to criticise work?

Michael C Place: No. My biggest problem with the people who are openly criticising the work is that they have no idea of the process involved and how it led to the end result. They are not privy to the discussions with the client. It’s critique based purely on a visual outcome. Which we all know is just one element of the whole design process.

The whole ‘I could have done better’ is utter bullshit. It’s disrespectful to the client, agency and designer. Basically, it’s design as spectator sport or clickbait.

— (via)

Comm Arts on design arrogance

“Because the communication arts are just that – arts and not sciences – a designer must be prepared to resist the logic of the client and the presumed taste of the consumer in favor of his own convictions. Arrogant design can be one of the strongest modes of graphic expression. But in order to work it must be rooted in the designer’s security, for arrogant design is the confident and reasoned assertion of his individuality against the guesses of market research or the decisions of the board room. (On the other hand, it could easily be the result of an ego problem or of indigestion.) It has never been easy to be an artist. It is in some respects even harder to be an artist who has elected to use his art to convey someone else’s message. The eccentric sonovabitch in us keeps breaking through, and that’s good. Pride goeth before a fall, but without it there may be no pinnacle to fall from.”

— (via Communication Arts, Sept/Oct 1971)

Graphis on Polish posters

A piece on Polish posters from an old issue of Graphis, published sometime in the 1960s/1970s:

“All styles and trends are subject to certain laws. What was initially new and creative gradually loses its originality as it comes into wider use. Forms that were once simple become more complex and sometimes even degenerate into a baroque exuberance.

In the last few years this fate has begun to overtake the Polish school of poster art. Painterly élan was once most effective on walls and hoardings, since the poster that displayed it was surrounded by other posters mostly restricted to the dry and factual approach. The two were complementary. Today similar posters hang beside each other.

The generalisation of a style is a danger in an art form like the poster, which depends entirely on its direct impact in the street scene. This is particularly true in Poland, where the small poster, displayed on fences and occasional walls, has to hold its own in an obtrusive environment. A design which might be an ornament for the ‘school’ is not always very well qualified to perform the practical function of the poster.

It therefore seems probable that an analysis of the true function of the poster and the search for new techniques will lead in the not-so-distant future to new metamorphoses in the Polish school of poster art.

The numerical predominance of the theatre and film poster in Poland is, however, not the only difference. The function of the cultural poster is also far removed from that of Western advertising. Paradoxical as it may sound, the Polish poster does not attempt to convince or entice the theatre or film public. This is apparent not only from the treatment of the posters themselves but also from the commentaries of their designers. Thus one of the most prominent film poster artists, Jan Lenica, tells us: ‘I have not met anybody up to date who went to see a film merely on the strength of a film poster. It is therefore pointless to demand that a film poster should affect box-office returns.’

Now if a film poster does not affect box-office returns, we are justified in enquiring into its raison d’être. To this Lenica replies: ‘The poster only announces a film, it informs the public about its character and atmosphere, in a word it is a visual synopsis of the essential nature of the film.’

This view of the character and purpose of the film poster and thus of by far the most important poster category in Poland) has very little in common with our own standpoint, but agrees very well with the Western attitude to the book jacket or record sleeve: in these too the intention is less to advertise and sell than to communicate character and atmosphere by the media of graphic art.

— (via)

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in 2021

A few excerpts from a 2021 piece on designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon:

“People really believed modernism was going to save the world back then, if only we would take the serifs off the type,” she says. “With no serifs, perhaps naively, we thought the type would be more truthful and would be used for books that everyone could afford.”

Nowadays, the kind of sans-serif minimalism that Solomon is talking about is perhaps most used by Big Tech giants. She laments that her beloved Helvetica “became the typeface of capitalism, not socialism as we’d hoped”.

“Of course, the capitalists took it over in the end – all the smart people decided they liked that clean look and took it for themselves,” she says, adding the same thing happened with modernist architecture. “It was supposed to a be a solution for low cost housing for the poor, but so quickly was changed to represent expensive housing that only the rich could afford.”

“The history department in particular helped me to learn to write and it was about simple words – none of that long-winded bullshit they talk in other subjects,” she says. “They liked clean, clear and minimal writing, and of course I was already familiar with those ideas.”

Now she prefers writing over design in most cases. Design, she admits, was a way to make money.

“If I hadn’t called myself a graphic designer, I wouldn’t have got paid,” Solomon says, adding that she learned how to charge from her architect friends. Even then, she felt there was a stigma attached to being creative for money.

“People thought I was less than because I was a graphic designer working for a living, rather than an artist earning nothing,” she says. “I think it’s some weird purity thing that still happens now.”

— (via)

Richard Hollis in 2006

A few excerpts from an interview with Richard Hollis conducted by Christopher Wilson in Eye Magazine:

Christopher Wilson: Was Ways of Seeing the first time you integrated images into the text column?

Richard Hollis: Yes. The influence was Chris Marker’s book Commentaires, which has stills set within the text. I was a fan of Marker’s films, independently of Germano [Facetti stars in Marker’s La Jetée]. As you read you knew exactly what was being talked about. It was a substitute for description: instead of talking about something, you show the objective visual evidence. That’s how I wanted to do Ways of Seeing, rather than have images by the side or text followed by a page of images. Only recently I noticed that this is exactly what John Heartfield did in Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles in 1929, although Ways of Seeing looks more like Marker.

CW: And this relates to the ‘supranational form-language’?

RH: Indirectly. It’s anti-authoritarian: ‘These are the facts; we’re not interpreting them.’ Obviously you can use facts in different ways, so it’s rather naive.

CW: Images are placed next to where they’re discussed – there’s no searching around. Is there never a value in forcing the reader to work a little?

RH: That’s like saying that you should get out and push your car, because then you’d realise the amount of energy expended on making it move.

CW: No, it’s more like getting out and walking for the sake of exercise.

RH: It is an argument. In working to find the answers, the reader might learn something else along the way.

CW: So you have never wanted to display an image huge because you felt like it, or because it worked but you couldn’t say why?

RH: The ideal situation is where you sit with the client and design with them. If anything is emphasised, it’s what they want to emphasise. So often you’re left with no guidance as to what to give prominence to. I much prefer collaborative effort to doing what I want to do. It’s diametrically opposite to being an artist. Artists are free to put things into any form they like, which may or may not be comprehensible in the way they hope. For me, working with the person whose message it is is the most comfortable.

CW: Designers who prefer more space might argue: ‘I’m the expert; why should I let someone who is quite possibly visually illiterate tell me how to do my job?’

RH: It’s more like a consultation with a doctor, who has the knowledge and expertise, and the patient, who explains what the symptoms are, and later says whether the prescribed treatment is working. The client certainly shouldn’t express any expertise in design – they should only express an understanding of what they want to get across. In conversation the designer can sometimes help them understand what they’re saying. It’s a mutual engagement to effect a response from anyone who looks at the material being produced. The more distant from the client you are, the worse it is. This is why client questionnaires are so good: ‘what are you trying to say?’

CW: In some cases, marketing teams are now determining how things should look before the designer is involved. And when the layout is done, the results are taken away and discussed without the designer present. What do you feel about that?

RH: This is where it’s gradually changed. Marketing people have an idée fixe about what they think is marketable, and that’s so often proved to be completely wrong. They don’t understand that other people have expertise. One really needs a long-term relationship with a client before they trust the designer. Competitive tendering is one thing which has destroyed the notion of a long-term relationship: people switch advertising agencies all the time.

CW: I’ve seen cases in in-house departments where marketing staff pull up a chair behind the designer and say: ‘Move that type a little to the left … now let’s see it in green …’

RH: I’d tell them to fuck off.

CW: But where is the borderline here? You advocate design as a social process, but with the current technology the client-designer relationship can devolve into a situation where the designer is merely required to move elements around.

RH: This is true, but it’s partly because designers have taken over many tasks which used to be the printer’s.

CW: You carry a lot of idiosyncrasies from one client to the next: big indents, multiple alignments on a single plane and the extracting of many colours out of few prints being just three examples. You can tell ‘It’s a Hollis’, can’t you?

RH: That’s bad. Hitchcock said ‘self-plagiarism is style’, but you can carry it a bit far. Because of typefaces you’re happy with, and certain ways of putting things together, it does become a sort of style. It’s not conscious. The atmosphere of the client influences the way you treat something.

— (via)