Writing L O R E T T A . S T A P L E S



Visual Research

U dot I, Inc.



Less Is More 2000 (or "Who Needs Design?")

The recent multiple publishings of the "First Things First 2000" manifesto came as no surprise to me. We're now at the turn of the millennium, and the heady days of "graphic agitation" that preceded it have drawn to a close. Through the typographic radicalism of the mid-1980s through the 90s, graphic design professionals got it all out of their systems. On top of it, the digital revolution that technically sustained all that agitation, saw us through unprecedented shifts as the democratization of design wrested graphic control out of our (professional) hands. The end isn't just near. It's upon us. (Witness Rudy VanderLans' goodbye-ish declaration in Emigre 49 that "there are no significant debates happening in graphic design today.")

Sobriety and reflection seem in order.

Despite the earnest, well-intentioned re-declaration of the manifesto--an attempt to kick-start design into the new millennium--I remain skeptical. A significant portion of the design profession proves, day-in and day-out, its inability to engage complex critical topics--an inability most clearly conveyed in the lack of self-critique that characterizes the very profession and all its official organs. Witness the homogeneous profusion of design magazines, conferences, professional organizations, and annual awards through which it publicizes and sustains itself (not to mention omni-present corporate sponsorship). This describes the discursive space of design--the institutional delimiters that define our profession.

Yes, "there are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills [than advertising and marketing]." Yes, "unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention." Yes, "many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programs, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help." Or do they?

Recently, I was reading a progressive political magazine, Z, and couldn't help but notice how "badly" designed it was--a desktop-published venture. But as soon as I caught myself recoiling (albeit slightly) from its appearance, I recognized how irrelevant professional graphic design was to Z's identity, and to its editors and audience. As a designer I tried to envision how I might remake the magazine, but all my imaginings recast the publication in a crisp light completely antithetical to the spirit of the publication. This experience illuminated the limitations of my own initial response and the extent to which I've been viscerally programmed to respond predictably to graphic conventions. Maybe Z is just fine as it is.

Could it be that increasingly graphic design is less the solution and more the problem? This is the squeamish possibility professional graphic designers are loathe to confront, because in so doing, the profession risks undoing itself. This is the threat posed by any rigorous discursive critique. And graphic designers are as seduced as their clients and publics into believing design's mythological status (after all, we made the myth; it's called "self-promotion"). If graphic design is to begin re-situating itself as a cultural practice, this is where the conversation needs to begin: right at home. How inextricably linked is professional design to corporate agendas? Is anything besides optical pyrotechnics (read: "eye candy") at work within the award-winning designs we've all learned to love over this past decade? Does graphic design simply propagate the lingua franca of modern-day "production values," or is it (are we) capable of constituting more complex messages and meanings?

To begin grappling with these difficult questions is the real challenge. Designers tend to respond by "personalizing" their work (as an "expressive" counter-position to the neutral anonymity of "information"). But as far as I can tell, this just results in the next round of "radical" design, or even worse, bad "art."

I take issue with VanderLans' claim that there's "nothing that you can really sink your teeth into." There's a lot. But is the profession up to it? I'm wary. Design's cultural location precludes the vantage points that would afford insight. Those who've glimpsed through these peepholes are going elsewhere, if they haven't already, seeking new opportunities for visual critique and radical cultural practice. I suspect these renegades have always been around, but most designers are too busy patting themselves (and each other) on the back to notice critical alternatives. Designers need to stop talking to themselves. When design is able to recognize itself as "other" it will begin to come to terms with its own limitations and the opportunities that reside elsewhere.

An example: I didn't notice any response from the graphic design community to Thomas Frank's recent critique of Tibor Kalman (Artforum, February 1999), in a review of Perverse Optimist, a compendium of Kalman's work. While I'm as much a fan as anyone, Frank's incisive review succinctly pointed out the limitations inherent in Kalman's critical position as a designer. Beneath the clever sophistication is a stunning naiveté: "What Kalman overlooks is that it is not simply a fluke that a 'radical' like him has become one of the most sought-after architects of the corporate facade.... That business allows 'radicals' to do its graphic design is not the inexplicable exception, the 'crack in the wall' that Kalman believes to be such an opportunity for disruption; it is the rule." The design community has always been too busy idolizing Kalman to subject his work to serious critique. It took a cultural critic to point out the ironies. (I guess designers don't read Artforum, much less Z.)

In closing, I call on the manifesto's signers (and all its adherents) to take a close hard look at the cultural location of your own practice. If you're serious about your claims, take apart everything you ever thought you knew about what you're doing. Set out in uncharted territory. But if you do, if you really do, something tells me you'll no longer recognize what you're doing as design. Because that will no longer be what it is. For this new work, as a new kind of practice, will need a new name.

And we don't know what to call it yet.


©2000 Loretta Staples