Essays and Reviews
To be published in 2013 as part of the 6 X 6 letterpress collaboration
One of the more workable ideas I had for 6x6 featured a row of severed keys accompanied by the tagline Keys Cut. I thought that I was being clever by referencing the signage of a locksmith over the road from our temporary base in the west-end. I liked the idea of playing with tense, suggesting either an opportunity or an observation. When I showed Ed (Pickstone) he suggested that I might use the keys to our old caseroom (1). It didn’t take long to get tooled up and soon I was facing The Crossroads of Civilization with a hacksaw.
The caseroom was housed within the Foulis Building which had been demolished the previous summer along with a couple of other 1960’s buildings that housed the various departments of the design school. It took its name from the Glasgow-based Foulis Press, which had been at the forefront of the Scottish enlightenment and introduced design education to the city. Yet Voltaire, who claimed to look to Scotland ‘for all our ideas of civilisation’ would have been baffled by the Foulis with it’s lobotomised façade of sodden concrete. Shortly before it was demolished it was the tv presenter Muriel Gray who twisted the knife in one final Glaswegian tribute, casually dismissing it as a ‘ned’. (2)
Yet the caseroom sat comfortably within this modest setting. Largely hidden from tourists and academics it could be found at the end of a long, narrow corridor. Waiting at the door was Warde’s famous treatise: This is a printing office... Although she probably intended to cheer the spirits of the faithful it was difficult to ignore the feeling that this also carried menace, the portent of imminent disgrace or some future masonic bollocking. No doubt Voltaire would have been at home, encouraged to find a refuge of all the arts confirmed in the cloistered order of the space, the silent submission to a common higher purpose: Friend you stand on Holy Ground. Which is fine until the building is demolished.
The replacement designed by Steven Holl is due to be completed next year. Here the emphasis will be upon light and transparency. The caseroom will occupy a more prominent, central space and the walls will be translucent as if to remind the viewer that all have access. But what will future users be looking for? These days it is fashionable to talk about the physicality of letterpress, the touch, feel and smell, the weight of the type and the value of the object. Will letterpress merely continue to function as a sign for the authentic with the physical processes of printing as a form of re-enactment? Or will these processes be further investigated in order to articulate forms of embodied knowledge neglected within digital practice? Post-Bologna design educators need to find ways to describe and justify these benefits, particularly when a seven-year – and largely redundant apprentiship – is scuttled down to a 20-credit module.
Whilst the material factors continue to fascinate little seems to be written about how difficult and time-consuming it can actually be, and this may provide the most valuable aspect. As if to frustrate the auditors such benefits are diffuse, yet when handled carefully even failure, frustration and disappointment carry great value in education. In order to investigate, the student/designer/academic has to relinquish layers of professional pride and assume the role of the apprentice. This can be traumatic: the promise of routine humiliations played out in a kind of victorian Generation Game where the potter’s wheel has been replaced by the inking stone. Patience, stamina and humility are by-products of this process and as such may be difficult to articulate and justify within module descriptors. However they do represent forms of knowledge, keys perhaps to surviving the ravages of time.
(1) Caseroom is a Scottish term for letterpress facility
(2) Ned is a Scottish term for chav
Published in Eye 79. Spring 2011
A few years back I found myself in one of those academic workshops geared to speculate on ‘future models’ of course delivery in Higher Education. The territory was all very familiar: lots of talk of credit transfer and flexibility, of synergies, abrasions and temporal collaborations; the kind of stuff that excites some educators and terrifies others. And then, from one colleague, out it came, ‘What about one-year degrees?’ At first it seemed absurd, hilarious in fact: the pedagogic equivalent of fake tan or a stick-on beard. Surely no one would be fooled?
But then I realized that this was a serious proposal. He went on to describe how a friend of his - a doctor who held ambitions to become an artist – would be ideally suited to such a course. Unlike the average school leaver he wouldn’t need all that time laboring through unnecessary projects and essays, he would have experience and maturity! Fighting the temptation to enquire whether my colleague would be willing to be diagnosed by an artist with a one year medical degree, I looked around the room for objections, someone to shoot it down before it made it into the minutes of the meeting. But no, it met only with a silence located somewhere between recognition and dread.
A couple years on and this proposal no longer seems so ridiculous. Indeed global recession has created what appears to be an ideal climate for AIR’s - Accelerated and Intensive Routes of Delivery. A recent funded study in England confirmed that ‘fast-track degree’ students outperformed those on three-year degrees ‘by an average of two thirds of a degree classification’ (1). And it seems that in the future fast-track will be one of many routes on offer. As the Chief Executive of Britain’s newest private-sector ‘University College’ recently noted, ‘The education landscape is changing, and over the next decade we will see a different picture emerging, where both students and employers will drive demand for their preferred method of study and training’ (2). So what is driving this change?
Currently the issue of what actually constitutes a degree is lost within arguments of who should pay for it. In England the recent, highly controversial rise in tuition fees enable Universities to charge up to £9K per year through a ‘graduation tax’. Those applying to study art and design subjects in England will be equally dismayed by the relocation of their teaching budgets into Science and Technology. And so from 2012 the survival of ‘low priority’ courses such as graphic design will depend entirely upon tuition fees, which will need to be raised without incurring a loss of customers.
Some observers see the severity of these measures confirming a shift in Higher Education leadership from west towards the east Asian or ‘Confucian’ zone, an area that includes China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, and which blends private investment with tighter state control (3). One characteristic that distinguishes the Confucian model from the west is the expectation that families will readily invest in a child’s education from schooling right through to University leaving the state to focus funding upon the elite and high-end research institutions. In contrast western families have traditionally expected some form of state support as a means of supporting the greater public good.
However, depending upon age, those of us in the UK have inherited different ideas of what Higher Education actually is. Older relatives of today’s school leavers may still picture the residual image caught somewhere between the sherry-addled dons of ‘Lucky Jim’ and the prowling lefties of Malcom Bradbury’s ‘The History Man’. Both figures occupying a privileged, high altitude space paid for by the state and made available – mainly through grants – to the higher-end achievers. Back then the ‘Art School’ existed either as a distinct institution (monotechnic) or as part of a larger Polytechnic.
Those like myself, who studied later during the Thatcher years will recall the effects of spending cuts as many Art Schools were swallowed up into new and ambitious Universities, leaving bewildered staff to conform to alien management structures and modes of course delivery. And more recently, the Blairite ambitions to widen access has driven a huge increase in student numbers, with bloating bureaucracy, and sadly for many design courses, the crippling loss of studio space and teaching budgets.
Whilst increased access has partly compensated for the lack of opportunities in other UK employment sectors – such as manufacturing – it has also raised the expectation that Higher Education is both accessible and affordable. With the sharp rise in fees this expectation has been cruelly snatched away from many.
For those who see education merely as a route to employment the fast-track will suddenly seem an attractive alternative. And for those wishing to become graphic designers: why even bother with a degree? With an absence of a recognized charter anyone can practice. Shillington College – which operates in the USA, Australia and the UK – supports its claim that ‘a world class education needn’t take forever’ by pointing to a host of well placed alumni from their three month and one year part-time courses. The cost of these represent a fraction of an undergraduate degree course, and in return offer studio space, a mac for each student and regular contact with industry professionals.
Consumers hoping for something deeper will inevitably look to the traditional degree.
However the environment they enter might not be the one they expect since in the shift to embrace instrumental and the quantitive values, the promise inevitably begins to warp. Art School has traditionally offered a kind of breathing space, a region described by Francis McKee as a ‘mental ‘free-state’’ and a ‘republic of ideas’. For many school leavers this comes as a welcome respite to the relentless testing that now operate in schools. Yet for the cash-strapped student, mindful of future tax obligations, time becomes an enemy rather than a friend. The space to speculate, to daydream, to get things wonderfully wrong has to be carefully budgeted, since it comes at a price. Similarly the investment required to hone and refine skills, to do a job well for it’s own sake – values so vividly described in Richard Sennett’s ‘The Craftsman’ – need to be balanced against future employability in an industry that doesn’t always share such concerns. When buying time the element of risk – which is necessary to all genuinely creative endeavour – becomes magnified, curiosity is stunted and fear can creep in. Professor Simon Marginson notes how in the most mature Confucian systems the sudden-death competition ‘brutalises adolescents’(4) and is hard to imagine how creativity can survive under such pressure.
The expectation of the UK government is that standards of tuition will be raised to meet the demands of the market. But in graphic design this quickly becomes problematic since the range of activities bundled into the term contain all manner of practice, scale and intent and this is reflected in what employers look for in a graduate portfolio. Some want immediate payback, others are prepared to invest time in raw and original thinkers. Some look for something specific to suit the focus of the studio or perhaps to address a gap in skills, others prefer to take on good ‘all-rounders’ with the flexibility to adapt to different situations. The challenge to educators is not so much to meet the needs of industry but to maintain a learning environment that recognises professional diversity.
If the hope that an intended rise in standards of tuition can somehow be accurately measured then the grounds for optimism are questionable to say the least. Under the constant threat of litigation how easily can genuine academic rigour be applied within a culture increasingly fixated upon league tables, surveys and ‘Rate my Professor’? To apply the principles of the supermarket is to undermine the time and trust necessary to build any genuinely successful learning environment. As Professor John Sutherland of University College London concludes, in an education market where ‘the customer is always right’ ‘the cash nexus will, over time, rot the system – the delicate balance of authority and intellectual submission that makes education, at any level, work.’(5).
So it is hardly surprising to find therefore that some of the most exciting developments are emerging outside of institutional strictures. When describing their aims in recently setting up the virtual ‘Parallel School’ Samuel Bonnet and Mael Fournier-Compte talked of the need to create a ‘hiatus where everything is permitted, where mistakes and weird ideas are a necessity…where education becomes once again a place of elevation, and not an answer to hierarchically-defined standards and market needs’.
The tragic irony in Britain of course, is that when Art Schools have operated with the freedom of Parallel School they have made a huge and unquestionable contribution to the economy. As if to confound the auditors and performance indicators, so much of this success cannot be measured in the short term, often coming through those who might barely scrape a degree but who flourish in the only space available to think with any degree of independence. Without them where would the British music industry be? And then there’s Brit Art and Cool Britannia, both championed to exhaustion in recent years. If the auditors were to look at the bigger picture, the leading Nation Brand Index (6) recently confirmed that Britain is still recognized as both excellent place to study and one of the world’s leading providers of contemporary culture. The connection seems obvious, but sadly not to those who make policy.
1. Morgan J. Research backs life in the fast lane. Times Higher Education Online, 13th January 2010
2. Private university to be first in Britain for over 30 years. The Guardian, 26th July 2010
3. The Reviews Reverberations. Times Higher Education, 28th October 2010
4. Marginson S. From Where I sit: Confucian Values. Times higher Education 27th May 2010
5. Sutherland J. English degrees for £27k - who's buying? The Guardian, 30th November 2010
6. Anholt GfK Roper Nations Brand Index 2010
For Further Reading
Extract published on Eye Blog March 2012
I was lucky enough to spend most of last Christmas with Keith Richards, up half the night, wantonly bingeing on Life his gloriously candid memoirs. Keith’s powers of recollection would have been tested in the project and doubts remain as to whether he is a reliable witness. In an early chapter he included a letter to an aunt describing the thrill of being spotted carrying a Chuck Berry record by another devotee of the great man. This chance encounter proved a pivotal moment for the teenager, who would now be introduced to London’s burgeoning R&B underground through this new acquaintance Mick Jagger.
Books can function in a similar way to records, forging friendships, shifting values and occasionally redirecting lives. As we are often reminded, graphic designers are in a complex, long-term relationship with the book, role-swapping between creator, consumer and critic. But the rules of attraction can vary. For some the primary drive is physiological, and you can spot them lingering by the shelves, swooning in dreamlike ink-fetish, caressing spines and smelling the page. Others are drawn to a sharp intellect, or maybe a sense of humor, or the certain promise - through detailed instruction - of long-term security. Tutors are conscious of this when compiling reading lists for students. Whilst they may aim to provide some form of coherent, structured guidance they are also aware that the most casual of recommendations can lead to a lifetime commitment.
There was a time when creating a reading list was a lot easier. Books about graphic design were relatively scarce and studio tutors would direct students down a familiar, well-worn path: Meggs, Spencer and Hollis for history, James Craig for typo, Berger and Sontag for a ‘bit of theory’ leaving the rest to be handled by the critical studies staff. This collection appeared modest when compared to the demands placed upon those studying languages and science and seemed to confirm that graphic design was a ‘soft option’ best suited for those who struggled with reading.
All this has changed over the last twenty years and graphic design has stormed the bookshop. For history we read from many sources, most notably Kinross, Heller and Poyner. For Typography Bringhurst, Lupton, Spiekerman, Hochuli, Haslam et al. Graphic design theory and criticism has been greatly expanded by Emigré, the Looking Closer series, the Hyphen Press and more recently Limited Language, and Dot Dot Dot. Alongside the flowering of ‘essential guides’ and skills-based titles we find books that focus upon professional practice and the sub-genres of editorial, identity, type and interaction design. And of course there are the inspirational celebrity tomes of Seigmeister, Fletcher, Saville and Kessels Kramer. More recently – perhaps in response to the digital competition – we have a raft of publications that seek to offer an alternate, multilayered reading experience (dependent upon reading the introductory chapter explaining how to read the book). The task of filtering these options down to a singular, affordable list is increasingly difficult, but do we need one?
The term ‘reading list’ confirms a certain balance in which the tutor acts as gatekeeper and guardian to the ‘right’ sources of knowledge, the secret inventory locked within the printed page waiting to be passed down to the student. It is an arrangement that sits easier within the older, traditional academic disciplines of medicine, law and engineering, where the authority of certain texts rests upon an agreed process of cumulative, empirical investigation and academic rigour. Typography draws from a long history in printing and is therefore more comfortable within this picture than the adolescent graphic design.
What is deemed to be an appropriate ‘text’ is of course, determined by the aims of the program and the level of study. The creation of a list demands that hidden values are made explicit. A balance needs to be found between the personal and the objective, the focused and the expansive, the skills-based and the theoretical. Yet those eager to see graphic design mature will surely be drawn to texts that open rather than close debate, that question professional identity rather than offer a ready-made template to secure it. Parrinder and Davies (1) distinguish between the presentation of Graphic Design as ‘list’ and as a ‘history’ noting that lists often reduce and flatten whereas histories expand and add depth. To that end the term ‘reading list’ can be problematic and remains open to abuse.
Ironically within the boom period of graphic design publishing this comfortable hierarchy has been shattered. Suddenly the book as a physical object has lost its primacy, relegated to one among many options for the net-genner to access content. For today’s student gathering research through google, blogs and wikis is as natural as a walk to the library, only much quicker. As one commentator notes to the generation raised on home pc’s and games consoles ‘the internet is like oxygen’(2). Whilst the shift from print to digital continues to raise anxieties about student reading habits and concentration spans it undoubtedly enhances learning opportunities for those with dyslexia and attention deficit disorders for whom the analogy of the mind as a kind of flexible hypertext network will surely resonate. Yet this current balance of provision is unlikely to remain stable and the book as physical object appears increasingly vulnerable.
Liberated by web 2.0 the unrelenting march of the digital threatens to trample print out of existence whilst simultaneously carrying evangelists of OER - Open Education Resources - ever closer to their dream of providing a global, accessible education for all and ‘redirecting funds from expensive textbooks towards better learning.’(3) With increasing numbers of institutions following MIT in making course material freely available online the range of potential course content multiplies exponentially. Not surprisingly these developments have raised critical debate surrounding the future of intellectual property rights, funding and licensing. Within this emerging paradigm the studio tutor no longer holds the privileged role of gatekeeper and guardian and is now encouraged to collaborate, to create and share content which itself is no longer fixed, but open to scrutiny, inviting constant revision.
Yet the sheer range of possibilities threatens to overwhelm, leaving the tutor to function as some bewildered checkout operative in the vast, ever-expanding supermall of higher education. Charged with multi-tasking, with facilitating speedy, unlimited access and extending consumer choice it is easy to fall behind and tempting to disengage and data-dump because, in the world of cut-and-paste, creating a reading list is as easy as stocking the shelves. However, as Clifford Lynch reminds us, access to information and access to education do not necessarily equate to the same thing (4)
One natural response to this explosion of provision is to search for the security and assurance of certain ‘key texts’ to provide a form of anchor. Hilary Kenna (5) identifies one such example in Emil Ruder’s epic treatise Typographie first published in 1967. With the aim of discovering critical patterns of influence Kenna created a literature map which revealed a surge in the publication of books about typography from 2000. Within these titles she found that most made reference to Ruder, either explicitly or within the biography. Of course one explanation could be the relative paucity of material prior to 2000, but Kenna moves on to argue that Typographie possesses a timeless quality, that it provides not only the most considered blend of philosophy and practice, but also a vital resource for students working in screen-based design.
Although the identification of other key texts may afford some degree of stability – and in turn create another reading list – the priority must be to encourage curiosity, discernment and genuine critical reflection, and the value of any list has to be measured against these aims. Whether the list is physical or virtual – or indeed exists at all – is no longer the issue, the main focus of the tutor now has to be upon navigating alongside the student through the blizzard of opportunities and helping to convert access to information into access to a genuine, meaningful education.
So where does leave the book as physical object? Alongside the alternatives the shortcomings are brought sharply into focus: the limited availability, the weight, vulnerability to damage or loss, and of course, the cost. But it would be foolish to ignore the benefits. Limited availability can build patience – which is, of course a virtue – the weight and physical presence of the book will remind us to read it, whilst the cost and vulnerability can render it more precious. One of the many qualities of the book as physical object is that once read it can be passed on. I was given another book for Christmas. Anthony Froshaug: Typography & texts / Documents of a life by Robin Kinross. It is a beautiful collection, a rich and scholarly account of another complex creative life. Keith Richards will no doubt end up in the charity shop, but Froshaug will be staying with me for good.
1. Parrinder. M & Davies. C. http://www.limitedlanguage.org/articles/unlisted.php
2.Tammy Savage, personal communication 2003 reproduced in:
Oblinger. J. Is it age or IT: First steps to understanding the net generation. Educause 2005
3. Cape Town Open Education Declaration:
Unlocking the promise of open educational resources. 2007. http://www.capetowndeclaration.org
4. Lynch. C. Digital libraries, learning communities and open education reproduced in:
Opening up education: the collective advancement of education through open technology, open content, and open knowledge. Toru Iiyoshi, M. S. Vijay Kumar. Mit press 2008
5. Kenna. H. Emil Ruder: A future for design principles in screen typography Design Issues: Vol 27, No.1 Winter 2011.
Published in Patricia Cain: Drawing (on) Riverside
Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum. 15th April – 14th August 2011
In the early stages of designing this catalogue Trish passed on to me a CD containing a batch of technical drawings. Once opened in Photoshop they revealed what looked to be various sections sliced through the hull of a ship, each one meticulously detailed in line and ink. And suddenly I was back in Thatcher’s first term, and my first job.
I had left school at 16 to join the drawing office of a large civil engineering firm as trainee teaboy. It was like being catapulted into a kitchen sink drama. The gloomy office was found at the end of a narrow, winding staircase and was occupied by two rows of drawing boards, each lit by an angle poise lamp and separated by a naughty calendar. And here a dozen or so middle-aged draughtsmen maintained a focused, quasi-monastic silence, broken only by fervent bouts of whistling when a job was going well. For a school leaver it was thrilling to realise that the physical world of bridges, dams and viaducts was somehow conjured up from within this very space, this secret society of clutch-pencils, cardigans and tobacco.
Once I had proved that I could make the tea and fetch the fags, I was introduced to my drawing board. It was roughly the size of my bed. After a couple of days of wrestling with it, I had figured out the various levers and pedals, and, perched on my swivel chair, was ready to offer my contribution. Yet over the next few weeks and months I quickly realised that this amounted to very little. Given the opportunity to draw, my hands became like clumsy boxing gloves within which paper buckled and creased, ink spilt and pencil lines smudged. Then there was the challenge of trying to converse in a new, highly complex visual language that seemed to insist upon concealing the architect’s intent.
Unfortunately for some, Mrs Thatcher was to stay in her job for a good deal longer than I, who was out within the year and didn’t look back. That is until now, where patched-in behind my firewall it is easy to smirk in hindsight, to sentimentalise and ridicule the office with one phone and the dusty cellar with a thousand rolls of embalmed directives. Compared to my toolbar in Photoshop, the various scale rulers, French curves and pens that I have kept from that time seem crude and uncanny, like implements from some covert masonic ritual.
A little later on, Trish had another CD for me. This one contained photographs of oil paintings. In contrast to her other work, these captured buildings in varying stages of demolition: torn gables, ripped bedrooms and kitchens precariously hanging over piles of rubble and twisted wires. Violent and elegiac, these paintings seem to offer a sober reminder that we can only occupy a temporal space. Design technology is only one detail in the picture, the freeze-frame between the residual and the emerging, the half-broken and the half-built.
Review of 3030: New Graphic Design in China.
Published in Eye 69. Autumn 2008
Now that the Olympic Circus has finally rolled out of town, it is highly likely that most of us will be left vulnerable to some strain of China fatigue, what with all those column inches dedicated to human rights abuse, security and dope testing. Yet it remains an opportune moment to present a new generation of Chinese graphic designers. And given their government’s enviable investment in design education, both at home and abroad, there will be no shortage of interest from a student demographic eager for heroes.
3030: New Graphic Design in China brings together 30 designers, most of whom were born around the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and therefore roughly 30 years old. It is edited and art-directed by Hong Kong-based Javin Mo, who extends an impressive reach, gathering designers from thirteen different cities. Having grown up in British Hong Kong and worked in Italy, Javin is able to offer a degree of objectivity to his introduction, where he notes the liberating impact of the internet in releasing portals, blogs and new ideas upon young designers seeking to establish ‘a new sense of Chinese creative identity’.
This ‘new generation’ is fleshed out over the following pages by the writer Bono Lee in a short portrait of a typical Chinese student, who, as a product of the single child policy and the focus of affluent parents, seems to epitomise the ‘Little Emperor Syndrome’ while also a product of global monoculture: a young life digitally immersed in the all-too-familiar brands, bands and social networks. For those brought up on distant reports from foreign correspondents caught between grey tides of cyclists, the intention of this short cameo is clearly to dispel any lingering notion of China as a detached or backward nation.
The designers are each represented by a selection of work and a paragraph detailing their educational background and awards. While the career profiles conform to a similar pattern – educated in China and showered in accolades – the actual work is, on first impression, refreshingly diverse, often beautifully crafted, and full of personality. However the enjoyment is soon lost in the pursuit for more information.
Hangzhou-based Jon Fong is introduced by two delicate typographic posters, which are captioned collectively as ‘Type’. Since the reproductions are quite small, it is impossible to establish whether these form part of a commission or a personal exploration. Similarly, the MEWE Design Alliance is represented by an intriguing mixed-format book, but the caption ‘Heilongiang Box-Qui Xiaofei’ is meaningful only to those familiar with the artist they created it for. Huang Yang’s visual identity for ‘InChina’ occupies three pages yet the caption neglects to inform who or what InChina actually is, and so the reader is left to speculate on what may be a branding exercise, a political campaign or a student prank. The Wide / Narrow book by designer and curator He Ming includes a stunning monochrome print of what appears to be a dilapidated road sign. Is it included merely because the object itself is wide?
And the muscular typography of Jiang Hua is literally lost without translation. It looks fabulous but what does it say? And so on.Sadly, in the absence of any contextual information, the reader is left purely to ponder over images, making judgements based upon aesthetic novelty or finesse, choice of colour and use of space. There is, of course, a great western precedence for the exotic ‘picture book’ and so many will find inspiration in these pages, and others will delight in the opportunity for post-colonial plunder. The publishers might argue that it is intended to function merely as a showcase for those that deserve a wider audience. Perhaps so, but the sad irony is that these Chinese designers have not been given the opportunity to speak for themselves or offer any form of insight into the professional setting that they operate within.
Considering the surge of interest in cross-cultural design, the 3030 Press should be encouraged to consider further publications that begin to address the questions that quite naturally arise. Given the opportunity, how would the designers describe their education? Has there been any discernable break with the historic model of master / apprentice? Is plagiarism considered to be an act of respect? To what extent has exposure to western design influenced their own practice? Has this brought with it any particular tensions? Can they identify any characteristics of what may form an emerging ‘Chinese creative identity’? And western designers will be curious as to how all this is worked out on a professional level. How do they get their clients? Is ‘free-pitching’ a common practice, and what about fees?
Such essential background information would surely furnish deeper discussion that might, for instance, reflect upon the influence of Confucian thinking towards ‘individuality’ and ‘responsibility’, or consider whether creativity does indeed flourish from within an alternative political / economic model, such as a dictatorship.
The alternative is yet another picture book (volume 2) but that will be helping nobody.
Dancing and Demolition
Published in Eye 65. Autumn 2007
In Invisible Cities (1974), Italo Calvino sets out a series of fictitious exchanges between the Emperor Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Each chapter introduces a place that Polo might or might not have visited, each description offering a different way to interpret a city. It was Khan who had made Beijing the capital of an empire that ‘under a certain light appeared as nothing more than an endless, formless ruin’. A visitor taking a taxi today through the boulevards of hoardings, cranes and dust might be forgiven a similar observation.
With the 2008 Olympics fast approaching it seems that the starting point of the Silk Road is being dragged through an urban time-tunnel, and has re-emerged as a globalised trade centre full of international trade. Higher, faster and stronger: Beijing is SimCity on speed. For design tourists most of the photo opportunities are coming from an imported a-list: Foster’s International Airport; Koolhaas’s gravity-defying cctv centre and the heavy metal bird’s nest that forms Herzog and de Meuron’s Olympic stadium. The call for global participation is also extended through the Games’ official emblem, ‘Dancing Beijing’, which sees the Jing character – standing for Beijing – revisited as a dancing figure, arms open wide in joyful invitation. The Games’ website confidently claims that the emblem represents a ‘celebration of peace, friendship and progress for all mankind’.
‘Dancing Beijing’ takes centre stage within an identity programme gently rolled out by a team of staff and students at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Academy of Art and Design at Tsinghua University. As with the dancing figure, the 35 pictograms took their inspiration from ancient seal characters and inscriptions upon bronze and bone. Experts from the respective sports were also consulted, in an attempt to capture defining movements, and meet the approval of 28 international federations and the International Olympic Committee.
Min Wang, the director of the design team, describes the Olympic identity as part of a broader challenge ‘to brand China as part of the world community, a country that should be associated with harmony, peace and progress’. Given China’s human rights record, this makes for a very difficult brief but their attempts will no doubt be boosted by the refurbishment of the Forbidden City and the various temples that act as potent reminders of China’s spiritual heritage.
Yet only a few minutes walk from the Forbidden City and Beijing reveals a darker side to £42 billion makeover. Through successive waves of land requisition and forced evictions, vast hectares of hutongs, the narrow alleyways that once defined the city, have been cleared to make way for high-rise developments, many of dubious architectural quality. The cultural loss is significant. Many of these tiny streets and courtyard houses date back to the Ming dynasty and many would have been build in consultation with the local feng shui priest. The term ‘hutong’ was imported by the Mongolians 800 years ago and signifies the community gathered around a water well, but as Ian Johnson describes in his book, Wild Grass, the hutongs ultimately conformed to the city’s broader ambition, to form a complex manifestation of ancient cosmology and ‘the purest urban expression of this fascination with attaching spiritual principles to earthly objects’ (1).
With celestial ambition now abandoned, the forms and structures of the emerging city represent quite different desires. By 2005, according to unesco, a third of the central part of old Beijing had been destroyed, and half a million people relocated, many to large high-rise developments on the edge of the city. The process has continued apace, accompanied by lawsuits against the authorities, the most keenly contested being the constant assertion that the hutongs are no longer clean or safe. The social impact has been devastating, with many reported suicides as families are wrenched from ancestral homes.
As the hutongs have been gradually emptied of inhabitants and their personal histories, they offer up a scene reminiscent of Calvino’s Zaira: a city that ‘does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand’. With demolition imminent, the narrow lanes reveal a complex typographic city: children’s chalk drawings; telephone numbers sprayed and stencilled, advertising the services of heating and ventilating engineers and sex workers; and everywhere the ‘Chai’ symbol identifying the property for demolition.
Desire and memory are dominant threads throughout Calvino’s text, as they are in the designers’ challenge to bridge China’s cultural memory with the desire for global respect and inclusion. But while the pictograms created by Min Wang’s team make a genuine attempt to gather and reconnect with a past severed during Mao’s cultural revolution, their efforts are crucially undermined as the city’s developers are allowed to remove other supporting points of reference at will. And so, as Calvino might suggest, desire begins to erase memory in another, more subtle cultural revolution.
So where does this leave the designers? Given competing demands of sponsors, politicians and television networks, and the public – witness reactions to the London 2012 logo – it seems that the once highly valued Olympic challenge has become a poisoned chalice. Furthermore, it seems virtually inevitable that any design will suffer unfavourable comparisons with Mexico ’68 and Munich ’72. One of the four key people behind the Mexico Olympics designs, architect Eduardo Terrazas, considered the identity ‘not so much a graphic image per se, but a political and a cultural statement’ that possessed ‘a kind of cultural logic’. Terrazas recognised that ‘graphics is more than drawing, image is more than repetition of symbols, great design is spirit’. The same altruistic ambition drove Otl Aicher’s identity for the 1972 Munich Olympics, which caught a powerful desire to move away on from memories of war. Delivered under the shadow of terrorist activity, Aicher’s blend of optimism and utility seemed to possess almost a healing quality.
By comparison, the Beijing Games – already steeped in controversy – may serve only to remind of the difficulties that arise when graphic design is not part of a coherent statement, and is not supported by genuine vision applied evenly across all sectors of design. Without supporting points of reference, without Terrazas’ spirit, graphic designers can find themselves isolated, required only to supply a surface. In a city that is losing its memory their efforts operate merely as another form of reminiscence therapy.
It seems likely that Beijing will follow the pattern Calvino presents through Marco Polo’s observation on Maurilia: ‘Sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another and without communicating among themselves.’
1. Ian Johnson, Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, Pantheon Books, 2004.
Supply and Demand
Review of Supply and Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey
Published in Eye 62. Winter 2006
The hard-sell intro to Supply and Demand will, no doubt, have many digging into their pockets, eager for the promise of this hefty tome. Carlo McCormick writes: ‘A ringmaster in the circus of signs, Fairey makes meaning jump through flaming hoops, hucksters like a true carnie the tinctures of an impossible cure, and stomps his way through the public spectacle like a herd of elephants coming to town.’
For £35 the hard-backed monograph delivers 360 pages and a generous proportion of colour illustrations that span the high-wire exploits of Shepard Fairey, street artist and father of the phenomenal Obey Giant. Hopping between contributions from writers including Roger Gastman and Steven Heller, Fairey divides and reflects upon his work under headings such as ‘Propaganda’ and ‘Surveillance’, before completing with his ‘Commercial Work’. Of course, one could argue that ultimately all of his work is commercial, since Fairey has made a decent brand of himself with many advertisers keen to make it to his corner of the street.
Fairey begins, however with his defining venture: the conception of Andre the Giant. It is an inspiring account of how a student prank elevated a dead French wrestler into a counter-cultural brand-icon, and all this whilst securing a little theoretical validation from Heidegger. Illustrations capture various stages of development as Andre evolves – under the influence of Barbara Kruger – into the ubiquitous Obey Giant. Fairey follows with an extensive photographic archive of his campaigns, congested spreads recording audacious ‘bombs’ and ‘hits’ staged across a variety of global cityscapes. Written accounts of the rooftop chases, the imprisonments and the police brutality – something of a rarity in the art and design section of most bookshops – confirm Fairey as one willing to suffer for his brand.
Yet there is more to this project than bravery and cheek. The success of the Obey Campaign can credited to the ambiguity, the supposed emptiness of the Obey Giant image. Who are we to obey? And why? Placed within a western/urban/consumerist context it inevitably infers brand manipulation. Yet in a controlled environment – such as Hong Kong – it could operate quite differently. As a form of intervention the saturated repetition of the Obey face is a dazzling achievement. As the instigator Fairey revels in a certain vacuity, freed from the responsibility of delivering a coherent singular message. But is he really making meaning ‘jump through flaming hoops’?
As the Obey campaign rolls on Fairey calls on a number of iconic figures – Lenin, Castro, Mao and Stalin – to support the idea of ‘propaganda’. Drawing from historical sources, the posters acquire greater sophistication yet lose the engaging emptiness of the original Obey face. The ‘non-message’ washed away in a flood of familiar signs for ‘revolution’. The enthusiasm for celebrity endorsement continues in the following chapter as Fairey drafts in a collection of freedom fighters and dictators. Bold, vectorised portraits of The Black Panthers, Angela Davis and Emiliano Zapata find themselves bundled in with Richard Nixon and Ming the Merciless.
A later collection of delicate mixed-media tributes to Strummer, Marley Seale and Chomsky reveal a growing dexterity, but cannot disguise a broad-brush approach to his content. In his written contributions, Fairey is confident that these pieces act as platforms for ongoing dialogue and questioning. But suspicion grows that his heroes have replaced his ideas.
Perhaps one of the few examples of a genuine dialogue and questioning occur when his posters of Che Guevara are defaced by a graffiti artist accusing him of capitalizing on other peoples cultures. The prickly subject of exploitation re-emerges as Fairey introduces the Giant Fab Four (Andre replacing George in a collection culled from John Kelley’s White Album portraits). He admits to ‘another example of my piggybacking onto the cultural cache of something and benefiting from it, but I don’t feel guilty about it because that’s the currency out there and there are lots of exchanges of currency.’ But unfortunately Fairey seems to be trading down. As with his freedom fighters and revolutionaries he is unable to re-ignite their original moment, and so each of these celebrity portraits become what Frederick Jameson refers to as a ‘blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs’.
As a street artist and a graphic designer Fairey is technically very good at what he does and his work at times attains a genuine beauty. But he is not as important as this large publication would suggest. Aside from the success of the Obey Campaign his prodigious output lacks the sheer rage of Jamie Reid or the wit and popular touch of Banksy. And so the ‘ringmaster in the circus of signs’ never really shows up. Instead he is replaced by a highly polished tribute-act with a back-catalogue of favourites from counter-culture.
Imperialism by Another Name?
Published in Eye 60. Summer 2006
An Indian photographer recently told me how the West had taught him to fear his own drinking water. He hadn’t developed a phobia so much as a growing mistrust. Only a few years earlier he and his friends would find great amusement in seeing Western tourists clutching on to their bottled mineral water. Yet now, after years of gentle coaxing, he wouldn’t dream of taking a long journey without buying water prepared by Pepsi or India’s good friends at Coca-Cola.
Such a subtle erosion of confidence is nothing new to the world’s largest democracy. During the 1850s the Raj set up art schools in the major cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras to meet the demands from a new world market. Arguing for the necessity of Western techniques such as perspective, the traditional Hindu and Muslim art of the princely courts was sidelined to make way for an imported British syllabus. But the effect was to train a generation of ‘copyists’ churning out European-style watercolour studies for British military officers. Not surprisingly the suppression of the ‘native’ approach in favour of Western naturalism and the implication that Indian taste was somehow ‘inferior’ fed a growing insecurity within Indian artists: the idea that ‘West is best’ had taken deep root.
Strong resistance came from Gandhi, Tagore and the English art educator Ernest Havell, who took charge of the Calcutta School in 1896. Fuelled by the growing nationalism, they championed the pursuit of swadeshi or ‘indigenousness,’ and called for a return to an art that truly reflected India’s spiritual heritage. Yet India’s readiness for assimilation secured the Western hold. In Calcutta, Havell’s attempts to re-introduce Indian teaching methods led to a strike organised by students keen to maintain their Western art education. Meanwhile the growing popularity of the painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) – who successfully blended Victorian salon art with Indian history – had reached a entirely new generation of urban graphic artists, signwriters and illustrators. Untrained in the formal sense, these artists were entirely comfortable taking reference from the increasingly accessible Western advertising and print material. With an easy oblivion to categories of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art their joyous hybrids, in the form of educational charts, packaging and calendar art have found recent favour with many Western publishers.
And so with the benefit of hindsight we may ask whether their work is sufficiently ‘indigenous’? Or would the Gandhian drive for nationalism, together with the ‘homespun’ spirit of swadeshi, demand the extraction of a purer form of Indian-ness?
Walking with graphic designer Rabia Gupta through an awful shopping mall in central Mumbai (formerly Bombay) it is difficult to avoid parallels between the effects of colonialism and globalisation. From the familiar gathering of known logos she picks out the Indian brands, each carefully camouflaged to fit within the bright monoscape of pastel colours and backlit plastic fascias. The brand names and typographic treatment are studiously Western, offering little clue to the brands’ origin.
Gupta is head of RGD, based on Mumbai’s Worli seafront. Having set up the company fifteen years ago, she has witnessed the effects upon designers as the Indian economy opened up in the early 1990s: ‘Back then the whole infrastructure was very young and we hadn’t got a strong sense of identity or self-belief. There was always this feeling that the West had somehow got it right. Over the past seven or eight years the concept of India has changed: now it is ok to be Indian, and so as designers we start to look within our own boundaries.’ Yet on the evidence of this brief visit it seems unlikely that such enthusiasm will ever break into the mall or buck the trend towards globalised monoculture.
Thrilling as it may seem to Mumbai’s new generation of shoppers, the mall reveals an insidious form of imperialism, a psychological rather than physical ruling: the ‘colonisation of the unconscious’ as Wim Wenders famously observed. And so within this context do contemporary Indian designers – like the court painters working for the Raj – find their taste challenged or their confidence undermined? Has there been any form of reactionary movement, any re-awakening of swadeshi within design education?
For India’s design educators the notion of a true Indian aesthetic or design approach can be problematic. Kumkum Nadig heads the communication design course at Srishti School of Art and Design in the boomtown of Bangalore. This comparatively small independent school set up in 1996 with funding from the Ujwal Trust is actively engaged with social and development issues, particularly in rural communities where students are encouraged to work alongside local craftsmen. Nadig, a Cranbrook graduate of the early 1980s, worked in the us and the Netherlands before returning to set up her own practice in Bangalore. Although now, as a tutor she is actively engaged with issues of identity, Nadig concedes, ‘I have been taught in English throughout my schooling. In terms of art and design education it is impossible for me to think about design as an Indian. Everything we have, all our art and design history has been borrowed from the West.’
An institution that ‘borrowed’ more heavily than most is the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. NID was set up following recommendations made by Charles and Ray Eames in the late 1950s in a report commissioned by Nehru’s Government and with the intention ‘to create an alert and impatient national conscience concerned with the quality and ultimate values of the environment’. The report, which seems equally relevant today, recognised that India was experiencing a change of kind rather than of degree, a change that was a result of increasing communication and ‘not some influence of the West upon the East’. With the aim of training a generation of educators, nid’s founding faculty were farmed out to carefully selected Western institutions such as Ulm or Basel, and given time to soak in ‘universal’ design values before returning to India to teach.
The optimism of the time is reflected in the cool concrete and glass of the NID campus buildings, which, set within quiet gardens offer welcome relief from the mayhem outside the gates. Yet as with the shopping mall in Mumbai, there is little to suggest that this is India – just a different take on the global theme of everywhere and nowhere.
Back in the studio, photography tutor Deepak John Matthew explains how India has always been a blended nation, a product of exchange between differing cultures competing for her wealth with the result that ‘it is now impossible to identify an Indian aesthetic or a Western aesthetic. It is all mixed up.’ The students waiting outside his office for a crit seem to support his argument: clad in jeans and sneakers, all clued up on Western design publishing, they will have ample opportunity to contribute to the economic boom. Competition for places may be fierce but as graduates of India’s premier institution they will have little difficulty getting a job. But once outside the NID campus the streets of this Gujarati city carry a different charge. Customised rickshaws burn though corridors of tarpaulin and temporary wooden sheds. Improvised spaces contain a wealth of trades: furniture-makers; basket-weavers; welders; stonemasons and signwriters.
Despite the obvious need to provide a skilled workforce that can compete in the global arena there seems to be a cruel irony in operation. Within a country endowed with a rich and natural creativity the Western notion of the ‘trained designer’ has now followed the imported notion of the ‘trained artist’. As within the Victorian art schools it becomes an exclusive process as it elevates those with the financial means to access education above those who cannot and bestows ‘professional’ status upon completion. It may be an acceptable norm in the West but somehow seems alien to a culture where, as one academic reminded me, everyone can be a designer.
Former NID tutor Mahendra Patel received ‘special typography training’ at Basel and under Adrian Frutiger in Paris before returning to teach at the National Institute in 1968. He retired in 2003 but continues to teach the design of letterforms in a number of Indian colleges, actively encouraging his students to explore vernacularism. Many choose to work from languages or scripts from their home state or region, each of which reveal subtle variations in the handling of the reed pen. Patel admits that working with such issues within a vast and complex culture can be demanding. In his professional practice he undertook a signage commission for the pilgrimage centre of Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh that required he accommodate five different languages; no doubt his time in Basel came in useful.
In a recent essay for the journal Design Issues Mahendra Patel concludes: ‘I am stranded between being Indian at heart, but handicapped by the widely varied languages and scripts, and yet trying to be with the people of India.’ Although Patel’s workshops occupy tough terrain they clearly offer an opportunity for the kind of cultivation Gandhi had in mind and the ingredients for designers to create essential difference. Yet for all the integrity found within these typo-hybrids their future use remains uncertain.
In autumn 2005 the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry invited comments upon a draft National Design Policy that recognised design as ‘a new engine of economic and industrial growth’. Among the proposals were the establishment of an Indian Design Council, the crowning of NID as a ‘Centre of Global Excellence’ and a host of other ventures to strengthen the design and manufacture of cars, jewellery, leather, textiles and toys. Communication design didn’t warrant a mention but there was strong encouragement for Indian firms and institutions to develop strategic alliances with design firms and institutions worldwide to gain ‘knowhow’ for the ‘effective branding of products’. And so it seems that Western brand specialists will follow Western education specialists, welcomed into a culture eager to assimilate new forms and ideas. Their success should not be measured purely on economic gain, but also in the degree to which they engender a genuine and sustainable confidence within India’s own community of designers. They would also benefit from reading the Eames report. When Charles and Ray called for ‘an impatient national conscience concerned with the quality and ultimate values of the environment’, they didn’t have that Mumbai shopping mall in mind.
1) Singanapalli Balaram, Thinking Design, NID, 1998
2) Tim Edensor, National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life, Berg, 2002
3) V. S. Naipaul, ‘Synthesis and Mimicry’ (chapter 6 in India a WoundeCivilisation), André Deutsch, 1977
4) Helena Norberg-Hodge, ‘Break up the Monoculture’, The Nation, 15 July 1996
5) Mahendra Patel, ‘Search for a Vernacular Identity’, Design Issues vol.21 no.4, MIT, Autumn 2005
6) Sirish Rao, V. Geetha, Gita Wolf, The Ideal Boy, Dewi Lewis 2001
7) The Eames Report can be found on the NID website: www.nid.edu/aboutus_emsrpt.htm
8) The Draft Design Policy can be found at: dipp.nic.in/design_policy/design_policy.pdf
Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means
Review of Abram Games: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means
Glasgow School of Art, 28 Nov 2005–14 Jan 2006.
Published in Eye 59. Spring 2006
Visitors to this exhibition may have noticed a London bus ticket modestly tucked into the corner of a large frame of drawings. It contains the embryonic forms of what was to become a famous Guinness poster of 1956. A few Biro lines hurried together in a moment of clarity and signed by Games probably before he left his seat. Some designers love this sort of thing: lunchtime epiphanies rattled off on cigarette packets and napkins seem to lend support to the romantic notion of the ‘ideas men’. Yet ultimately this large retrospective reveals a very different kind of practice.
Organised by the Design Museum, Abram Games. Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means brings together the highlights of a career that spanned six decades and saw commercial art develop to become the profession of graphic design. It is a collection that confirms a man of tireless invention, as prototype copiers and elegant coffee-makers take their place alongside the more familiar posters, stamps and logos that were to define this major contribution to British Modernism.
The work – which is hung more or less in a chronological order – reveals a consistent quality from the early years. A self-initiated poster for Airmail, designed in 1935 when Games was 21, cleverly exploits an open envelope. The piece demonstrates both careful attention to detail and a growing mastery over the airbrush, a skill Games developed while working in his father’s photographic studio. The manner with which the lettering was integrated into the composition anticipates the drive for visual economy that was to become his hallmark as he strove to achieve ‘maximum meaning with minimum means’.
During the next decade Games secured his reputation through a series of stunning posters for the War Office of whic Join the ATS (1941) and Your Talk May Kill Your Comrades (1942) are the most familiar. These posters and many more from the period feature alongside postwar commissions for London Transport, the Festival of Britain, Guinness and the United Nations. The collection reveals his uncanny knack for blending a British wit and sensibility with the adventure of the avant-garde, in particular Surrealism. In See Britain By Train (1951) a carriage door forged into the shape of Britain hovers Magritte-like over a railtrack, while posters for BOAC from the same period carry a strong hint of Dali.
Despite the value to design students there is an irony in the choice of venues. Games tried unsuccessfully to discourage his three children from going to art school. The East End boy had not enjoyed his time alongside more privileged students at St Martins and had left to work in his father’s studio after only two terms. Yet crucially he recognised the value of life drawing and attended classes four nights a week until his conscription in 1940. After the war, and with his career firmly established, he returned to education as a regular visiting tutor at the RCA.
His students would have noticed how drawing was central to his method of generating ideas. While exposure to the avant-garde had broadened his outlook, it was his commitment to life classes that ultimately instilled the confidence to really explore figurative and geometric options. Development sheets framed alongside the London bus ticket swarm with thumbnails of hands and faces, all part of a relentless searching and wearing down of possibilities until finally, the right resolution emerged. Seen within a contemporary educational setting it is these large frames containing his rough sheets, scribbled notes and the odd bus ticket that serve to remind us of the importance of drawing in all its forms: that and sheer hard work. Hardly minimum means!
Review of Era 05 World Design Congress
22-28 September 2005, Helsinki, Gothenburg, Oslo and Copenhagen
Published in Eye 58. winter 2005
Delegates registering for Era 05 in the vast lobby of Copenhagen’s Bella Centre were greeted by a series of bold posters promising that: ‘In the new era, design will influence the evolution of society, where the focus will be on quality of life for all, unrestricted by geographic, ethnic or economic boundaries’. And so it was inevitable that the opening session of the World Design Congress would descend into chaos, routed by a chain of highly embarrassing technical problems. As one speaker later in the programme reminded his audience: ‘Hubris is always followed by nemesis.’
The Joint Congress concluded a series of pre-Congress meetings in Helsinki, Gothenburg and Oslo. An international programme presented 120 speakers and a healthy absence of celebs. Sessions concentrated on how design could respond to the changing global scene: the shifting economies and populations; inequalities in health and technology; the effects of multiculturalism.
The introductory text for one session said that: ‘as the world grows more complex, the complexity of being a designer increases correspondingly’. Some were clearly feeling the pressure more than others. Despite the confident claims of the conference posters there was a discernible anxiety: presentations peppered with gloomy demographic forecasts, records of dwindling natural resources and potential future conflicts.
The Icograda session promised to examine the ‘fourth dimension’ – fascinating stuff, especially for those of us previously unaware of the other three dimensions. The opening address by David Berman – Chair of Ethics for the Society of Graphic Designers in Canada – encouraged designers to reject working with clients who were ‘asking them to lie’. Jakob Fenger from Danish artists’ group Superflex talked through some projects that aimed ‘to expose and question economic structures’. One collaboration saw Brazilian guarana berry farmers work with Superflex to develop and market their own drink in response to crippling price-dumping policies of their major buyers. While there was considerable merit to what Berman and Fenger had to say, by mid-session the ‘fourth dimension’ was looking increasingly slim. Having been reminded of the global context, the prospect of isolated designers ‘doing good’ seemed almost futile.
In contrast the presentation by Terry Irwin offered a far more considered and robust alternative: not so much the recognition of a fourth dimension, but rather the call to paradigm shift. Drawing heavily from her studies in Holistic Science at the Schumacher College in Devon, UK, the former principal designer with MetaDesign San Francisco delivered a passionate and highly convincing demand for graphic designers to step back and rethink the role and definition of design. She called for a rediscovery of principles found within nature, for designers to design ‘for relationship’ and to repair the damage of a Cartesian world view that had emphasised the ‘parts’ instead of the ‘wholes’. Her suggestion that ‘life is co-operative not competitive’ came as a shock of common sense, offering the kind of unified and radical argument lacking elsewhere in the conference.
Sadly the session closed without any real debate. Graphic designers were no doubt itching to know how, if at all, the new paradigm of deep ecology and the move from Euclidean to Fractal systems of design would manifest in typography and layout. Would it acknowledge the hand of technology or retreat to the safety of woodcuts in Photoshop?
The future role of aesthetics emerged again as the dominant theme in a cross-disciplinary session titled ‘For a Better World Press One’. Danish architect Per Feldthaus heralded the arrival of ‘the inter-disciplinary creative man’ who would use ‘artfulness’ to complement the current scientific approach to problem-solving through a radical new recognition of aesthetics. In contrast, the Canadian writer and Massive Change collaborator Jennifer Leonard called for aesthetics to be ‘taken off the table’ to enable the ‘world of design’ to become the ‘design of the world’. Again the opportunity for crucial debate was missed as delegates hurried off for coffee and networking. So it was left to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek to conclude the session and reflect on how global variance in toilet design proved that designers could never really escape aesthetics. His observation that design is ‘one of the most interesting of the crucial professions today’ seemed more appropriate for the conference poster.
Thinking in Solid Air
Published in Eye 57. Autumn 2005
Like many design students educated in the mid-1980s I suffer a form of typo-identity crisis, a slight feeling of deficiency or fraud. It is probably something to do with arriving too late for letterpress and too early for the Mac.
Within our graphics department final year students had priority on the photosetter, a large and clumsy lump that hummed and spewed out bromides to command. For the first two years, all our projects had to be hand-rendered on to a layout pad, which led to many early morning scrambles for a studio lightbox. As full photocopy-card-carrying students we had depth scales with us at all times and kept our Rotring pens clean. We assumed that all that squinting was doing us good, like some sort of visual detox or optical boot camp.
The lead type – or what remained of the university’s facility – had been squeezed into a small, rarely visited room in another building. Unlike my peers I did venture in once and allowed the technician to demonstrate how to set up a forme. But I ‘pied’ it while he was on his tea break and fled for the familiarity of the lightbox. I regret I never got any further than that. The lead type, the photosetter and the lightbox are of course long gone, replaced by successive squadrons of plastic monitors.
For those working in design education this will be a familiar story and quite understandable. From an institutional point of view the cost of maintaining letterpress may outweigh any initial and measurable benefit. A letterpress facility requires space (money), maintenance (money) and a watchful eye (money). Large groups of students will need tight timetabling if they are to get a reasonable introduction (money). And, of course, the managers will cite those academics who consider it obsolete, antiquated or folksy: the preserve of ‘fine printing’, and craft fairs. For students up to speed in Quark or InDesign, hand-setting type can seem painfully slow and laborious. Once printed, the results can be meagre and frustrating; dirty fingernails and a bin full of scraps can be a poor return for a day of standing. Even worse, for those academics who dare venture in for a few hours of honest research, a casual flirtation with lead can remind one how easy it is to romanticise the things of which we have little experience.
In design schools, a few letterpress facilities have survived the cull but are coming under increasing pressure to justify their existence per square metre. Their cause is not helped by the fact that letterpress can at times appear to be caught in a romantic time warp, locked up in the chattering of decorative borders, wood type and poetry. By comparison, successive generations of Mac-literate design students have stretched and redefined the typographic terrain through engaging with the opportunities provided by the same technology they will use in industry. So it would seem that most institutions were justified in their decision to melt down and move on.
However despite the financial and spatial savings and the initial enthusiasm for new digital possibilities there has been a downside. For many students who find themselves hot-desking on crowded courses, design is something to be done in the school’s computer suite (or more likely at home) and then printed out for a crit or presentation. There is no denying the benefit that the Macintosh has brought to typographic practice through opportunities for increased precision and refinement. In fact the most grateful recipients appear to be those trained in letterpress. Unfortunately, for those students unaware of, or unable to access other ways of working, it can prove counterproductive, as the creative process defaults to something more akin to Tomb Raider, singularly dependent upon a computer and a prior knowledge of shortcuts and cheats. At times it can appear that the sheer number of opportunities afforded by the various filters and behaviours is inversely proportional to the quality of the output. Most noticeably, the effect has been to dumb down the physical act of design (even if for some of us this was realised through carrying paper over to a lightbox). As Jean-François Porchez (see Eye no. 45 vol. 12) recently noted, ‘Today students are sat in front of computers all day, they have lost their ability to play with their hands; they are not just for adding ink to their inkjet printers!’
While one could argue that typography has always relied heavily upon technical knowledge – whether it be when hand-composing type or keying into an image-setter – there has always been the need for other skills, most notably the visualisation of ideas through drawing. Yet, as we all know, these physical activities are no longer necessary to answer most student design briefs. In their place, the computer presents a new and artificial arrangement of distances: between the hand and the eye; the screen and the object; the object and the means of production. As a consequence, tutors working on print projects often find themselves peering though crowded desktops, zooming between the palettes and dialogue boxes only to suggest that the student print the piece out to enable a ‘a proper look’ (albeit mediated through the limitations of inkjet paper, printer size, condition of the cartridges, etc.) This ‘proper look’ implies the opportunity to handle, to judge under differing light, to move around and fold, to mark, cut up and reconfigure. Unfortunately these important reflective aspects of the design process, so useful in building spatial and material awareness, can prove practically impossible in a crowded computer suite and appear pointless to many students who consider ‘design’ to be synonymous with moving the mouse.
Yet over recent years ominous cracks have opened up right across the digital monoscape, driven to a large extent by a strong revival in drawing and customisation. A journey through current design periodicals proves the difficulty of avoiding anything that has not been painted, scrawled, etched or stitched. Not surprisingly, letterpress with its craft associations, finds a welcome space within this new arrangement and has been widely celebrated in recent publishing, most notably in David Jury’s excellent Letterpress: the Allure of the Handmade. This shift indicates that a generation raised on PlayStation and Pagemonkey are now looking for something else – a heightened experience of making perhaps. Not surprisingly, those schools that managed to keep letterpress are now seeing an ever-broadening range of students reap the benefits. Vicky Squire, who teaches at the University of Plymouth, notes an increasing interest among illustrators, artists and printmakers keen to engage with an aesthetic traditionally associated with typography. At the University of Oregon, senior instructor Megan O’Connell encourages student mobility: ‘We move seamlessly back and forth between a wide range of media and methods: from printmaking to photography, from xerography to rubber-stamping, from antique magnesium dyes to custom photopolymer plates. This is a tonic for students who find themselves spending most of their time thinking in pixels and RGB and not trusting the abilities of their own hands.’
Not surprisingly, as these students graduate the enthusiasm permeates out into the design industry. London-based designers Sophie Thomas and Kristine Matthews made a conscious effort to continue a passion fostered while studying at the RCA. On setting up their company they bought a proofing press through eBay which now sits alongside the computers in the Thomas Matthews studio. While Thomas concedes there is a certain ‘decadence’ in owning a press, they have put it to good use. Their recent CrackOut campaign for the Lambeth and Metropolitan Police in London uses bold wood typesetting for the campaign identity, and while the inconsistent inking and crude composition may not be to every printer’s liking there is something refreshing in their use of recycled paper and vegetable-based inks for all print material. Matthews considers letterpress to be essential in the teaching of typography: ‘The problem is that default settings on the Mac stop students from really looking and making genuine design decisions. The actual restrictions of letterpress can be really liberating.’
The manner in which these restrictions build and encourage creativity is carefully examined in the ‘Codex’ research project carried out at Central Saint Martins by Susanna Edwards, Julia Lockheart and Maziar Raein. The project, which questioned how the introduction of the computer in the 1980s has affected the teaching of graphic design highlighted the role craft-based media, in particular letterpress, have to play in design education by nurturing creativity. [See TypoGraphic no. 60, 2003.] Their report reveals how the demands placed upon the student increase their capacity to hold an image in the imagination and to visualise an outcome. A typical example would be how the student will be forced to ‘abstract pictorial space’ when having to set type upside down. While conceding letterpress to be a technology of the past, the project concluded that ‘its intrinsic qualities are of direct relevance to the teaching of computer-aided design . . . we have realised that through the teaching of older technologies we are able to challenge students to be more questioning about the use of new technologies.’ The findings would suggest that despite the revival of letterpress in ‘the industry’, the greatest benefit well may be to education, acting as a counter or foil to the speed and expanse of digital possibilities. Such sentiments will hardly be welcomed within those institutions that have chosen to invest solely in digital facilities and the golden promise of e-learning environments, but they also offer a timely reminder of how modernism needs to maintain a connection to the past to remain truly modern. As Marshall Berman suggests, ‘If Modernism ever managed to throw off its scraps and tatters and uneasy joints that bind it to the past it would lose all its weight and depth, and the maelstrom of modern life would carry it helplessly away.’ (All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity)
But if is it to be truly modern perhaps letterpress itself needs to move on. Despite an ever-increasing popularity and presence within the design press, the actual work featured can sometimes feel disappointing and predictable. While working within restrictions has clear benefits in an educational context, the limited materials available can sometimes carry just too much historical baggage, and as a consequence the designer can appear trapped within a bright world of farting exclamation marks and Victoriana. Equally while much of the work emanating from the ‘fine press’ community may aspire to a position ‘outside of time’ the movement itself seems deeply caught up in a variety of beautifully delivered period dramas. However, within the hands of a new generation of designers, Mac-literate and less concerned with division or specialism, there is evidently the opportunity for the letterpress revival to be accompanied by new and exciting expressions, for it to be – as Robin Kinross described the works of the Kelmscott Press under William Morris – ‘backward-looking and forward-looking in one moment’ (Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History ). But for this to happen there needs to be a more fluid exchange between the two independent technologies.
Oddly enough, a solution may be found within the fine press world, where many printers have abandoned working purely with lead to achieve greater typographic refinement through the use of photopolymer plates. This simple, affordable process seemingly offers the best of both worlds as computer-generated type is output to film and exposed via UV light on to photopolymer plates ready to be printed in conventional manner. One designer who has already exploited the potential is Steven Byram in his covers for Screwgun records (see Eye no. 42 vol. 11) printed by John Upchurch at the Fireproof Press in Chicago.
The leading spokesman for this process is the Californian printer and typographer Gerald Lange. His seminal Printing Digital Type on the Hand-operated Cylinder Press (Bieler Press, 2004), now in its third edition, offers the benefit of his extensive interrogation of the process. Lange teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena alongside Gloria Kondrup, professor in graphic design and director of the school’s own Archetype Press which boasts more than 2500 drawers of rare American and European cases of type. The School, and the many others like it which have fought to retain those ‘uneasy joints, scraps and tatters’ and which actively encourage students to study in both foundry and digital environments prove that to be ‘backward-looking and forward-looking in one moment’ is to be truly Modern and genuinely exciting.
I Love my India
Review of I Love my India: Stories for a City
Avinash Veeraraghavan. Tara Publishing/Dewi Lewis Publishing, £16.99
Published in Eye 53. Autumn 2004
‘In a realm of Calvino-esque echoes, the "invisible cities" begin to unravel their presence, at times stripping away their clothes, at times dressing up until the entire space is filled with accessories of powerful and resounding language,’ observes the Italian designer Andrea Anastasio in his introduction to I Love my India by the Bangalore-based artist Avinash Veeraraghavan. The short introduction promises ‘neither a fixed meaning nor a given interpretation of visual signs, but rather a whispering of unending possibilities’, which, one could argue, is postmodern-speak for ‘sweet nothings’.
The book fits neatly within the genre of the visual essay: digital cut and paste from the streets of Bangalore and other Indian cities divided into three loosely themed sections – although Anastasio is keen that we do not perceive this structuring as the ‘closing of intent’.
Opening with a chapter entitled ‘Billboard City’, it presents series of compositions that play upon symbiotic relationships: the real and the imaginary, the producer and the consumer, the fluid and the fixed. Veeraraghavan uses familiar design strategies – surrealist montage and a suggestion of Dieter Roth – yet I would guess the sources of inspiration are more likely to be Designers Republic, Fuel and David Carson.
He finds his most articulate response in the second section entitled ‘Weak Architecture’, which welds together a range of intentional, accidental and temporary surfaces of urban tissue. This collection – of food kiosks, sheds and temples, of rubble, temporary awnings, concrete tower blocks and bamboo scaffolding – toys with culturally derived notions of space. One of the strongest compositions features waste ground reconsidered as a Christo-esque corrugated mall. In another spread, an illustration of layers of skin culled from an educational chart is cleverly juxtaposed with a photograph of the gable end of a building bearing the trace of the previous, now demolished adjoining building. Veeraraghavan reminds us that the architectural membrane, although dead on the surface, contains lives and memories within a network of nerves and cells.
By comparison the final chapter ‘Remote City’, which blends Bollywood, news footage, sci-fi and cartoons, holds fewer surprises. Banks of stills from cable TV, followed by a photograph of torn fly-posters confirm that we have seen all this (many times) before. A series of pages are perforated horizontally across the middle, inviting the viewer to ‘make your own generic advertisement’ – yet this seems unnecessary and suggests the designer is trying too hard.
Such interference in this chapter also serves to compromise the more rewarding work, such as the collage featuring a folk painting of the revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad, who appears to gun down a Bollywood star. In another composition icons of film and TV are placed opposite an illustration culled from a school first aid chart demonstrating the treatment for a person saved from drowning. In both of these collages the meaning is neither ‘fixed’ nor is it ‘unending’, but rather finds itself, quite seductively, somewhere in-between.
I Love my India celebrates and re-affirms our enduring love of ‘the street’. Yet it is uneven, at times witty and incisive but all too easily drawn into the predictable and derivative. The biggest disappointment, however, is with the clumsy typographic treatment which, given the nature of these particular ‘invisible cities’, has to be considered a missed opportunity.
Advertising and the Artist
Review of Advertising & the Artist. The work and collection of Ashley Havinden
The Dean Gallery Edinburgh, 15th October 2003 – 18th January 2004
Published in Eye 51. Spring 2004
There is a photograph of Ashley taken for Country Life sometime late into his career. He’s well turned out: three piece suit, handkerchief in the top pocket and the immaculately groomed moustache. Perhaps the Major from Fawlty Towers? A designer of magnificent flying machines? So thoroughly British, and therefore so hard to reconcile with the idea of Havinden: the champion of modernism in British advertising.
This sizeable collection marks the centenary of Havinden’s birth and thirty years since the loan of part of his estate to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. The show features all the major advertising work from a long and distinguished career with W.S Crawford Ltd. a lifetime resolving the problems of Pretty Polly, KLM, Simpson, the Milk Marketing Board and Chrysler Cars amongst others. There are commissioned designs for rugs and textiles for the celebrated Edinburgh Weavers under Alistair Morton. Also featured are a number of his paintings, of which the curators note ‘a quintessentially English presentation of modernism, combining rigid geometric planes and lines with biomorphic motifs’ and these sit comfortably alongside the collected work of his friends: Nicholson, Hepworth, Calder, Moore and Scott. Ashley was clearly a busy chap.
The story itself is inspiring. Without formal training Havinden began his career with Crawford’s as a £1 per week trainee, was promoted to Art Director in 1929 and stayed with the company becoming Vice-Chairman before retiring to concentrate on painting in 1967. During the wartime Havinden served as a camouflage officer, so who said that design isn’t a matter of life and death? Sadly there is little evidence of Havinden’s spell in Berlin in 1928 directing the European campaign for Chrysler Cars. This leaves the visitor to guess exactly how and when Havinden came under the influence of modernism and what the term may have meant to him.
What is clear is that the young Havinden found himself in a forward thinking company at a particularly exciting time. In 1931 the futurist Fortunato Depero claimed ‘the art of the future will inevitably be advertising art’ and this same optimism is reflected in the energy of Havinden’s early work, the dynamic streamlined campaign for Chrysler in the late 1920’s and an exquisite photomontage campaign for Dewar’s Whisky from the same period. These campaigns, along with a 1929 campaign for the Western Electric Sound System suggest the strong influence of Tschichold and McKnight Kauffer.
However, within a few years the conviction of the early work is tempered with a very British caution. The celebrated campaigns for the Milk Marketing Board, Brewers and Wolsey are characterised by a retreat from formal innovation towards a combination of his signature brush script and cheery caricature. Advertising and packaging for Mochonochie’s soup are somewhat prosaic by comparison, confirming a broader typographic palette and the influence of Stanley Morrison. Yet in each of these campaigns there remains a nagging suspicion that Havinden’s characters smile down in the absence of what we would now call ‘real ideas’. By comparison, the later campaigns for Pretty Polly, Yardley and DAKS are much more engaging and confident, finding a stronger resolution of the formal and conceptual.
Havinden was clearly a talented and forward thinking designer, sharp enough to see the relevance of painting to his work as art director, and sufficiently brave and energetic to push through any notional boundaries of his profession. Yet there are missing elements: the economy or wit of Paul Rand, the technical virtuosity of Abram Games, the radical and truly modern exploration of his European contemporaries.
Despite the temptation to perceive Havinden as something of a celebrity artist/designer, it would be remiss to separate the man from the many that supported him and helped him on his way. Who else could boast the typographic advice from Stanley Morrison, drawing lessons three times a week from Henry Moore, of the studio ‘assistance’ of Edward McKnight Kauffer and Tom Eckersley or the friendship of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth who introduced him to Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer. And Havinden clearly came from a good team: his wife and account handler Margaret and copywriter‘Bingy’ Mills. Perhaps the greatest credit should go to Mr Crawford himself who, seeing the potential in the lad, steered him in the direction of the likes of McKnight Kauffer and gave him the company base from which to build such a strong profile.
Re-tooling the Culture
Re-tooling the culture for the Empire of Signs
Published in Eye 52. Summer 2004 (extract
Indian legend has it that the small town of Sivakasi in southern Tamil Nadu derives its name from an aborted journey in the mid-fifteenth century. The King of Tenkasi had been on his way to worship the Hindu god Siva, but finding his path blocked decided to build a temple instead. The town that grew around the temple came to be known as Sivakasi.
Within Hindu culture Siva is revered as the destroyer creator, who will annihilate all worlds at the end of creation. In the meantime he is committed to necessary acts of destruction, cleansing creation of all that would stand in the way of spiritual progress, forging rebirth and renewal.
Sivakasi itself is a small town with a reputation for enterprise. Dubbed ‘Little Putty’ (‘Mini Japan’) by Nehru, the town boasts more than 400 printing presses – mostly imported second-hand from the former eastern bloc – that produce 60 per cent of the subcontinent’s offset printing. Their main output is packaging for safety matches and fireworks for the many religious festivals that pepper the Indian calendar.
The town offers a vision of time collapsed: bullock carts ease pallets of print between vivid fume-belching lorries, while letterpress compositors set URLs. In a small unit off the main street a group of labourers squat bundling labels. Upstairs, in a dusty office, a designer uses Photoshop to paste images of Hollywood icons on to a design for firework packaging. Such work was once the domain of skilled illustrators, who would make reference to a wealth of Indian folk and religious icons. Now they use a fictional English schoolboy wizard to push the brand. The choice is symptomatic of the seismic shift within Indian culture over recent years as the economy opened up, and MTV and other global exponents of youth culture moved in.
The impact is most apparent in the larger cities, which find themselves subject to the competing claims of national and regional identity. Under the influence of the Shiv Sena party in the late 1990s, many Indian cities have had their names changed, and in an attempt to restore Maharastrian identity and pride Bombay was renamed Mumbai. Within the city itself this has been followed – much to the confusion of the traveller – by the renaming of many of the streets and public buildings. The British influence is still evident in the signage for public buildings in the Fort and Ballard Estate areas of Mumbai, yet these have been neglected over the years and now assume a certain elegaic quality.
In recent years new imperialists have moved in, epitomised by the large swoosh on Nike’s flagship store on the Colaba Causeway – rivalled only by a nearby (and equally large) Adidas logo. Such visual invasions have been enabled as much by new technology as by economic expansion. The celebrated hand-painted Bollywood film posters have gone digital, leaving artists either redundant or grappling with layers, dpi and blur filters. Customised shop signs, idiosyncratic and gloriously unpredictable, are being replaced by vinyl, backlit plastic or neon in the colours of familiar global brands.
Further south, the leafy, former retirement town of Bangalore is in overdrive, leading India’s technological revolution and winning vital contracts from the West. The area around Mahatma Gandhi Road is sprouting fast-food outlets, coffee shops and designer bars for an increasingly westernised clientele. Bespoke hand-painted shop signs are now to be found only in the margins, for example, cluttered above small industrial units on nr Road. The vestigial British presence in the signage of older shops, and buildings such as Higginbothams Ltd., the Andrews Building or the Plaza cinema, while increasingly hidden by the sprawling plastic, reminds us that globalisation is hardly a recent phenomenon. Whether through Coca-Cola or the East India Trading Company, we share a history of creative destruction, of cleansing and renewal, of obliterating identities and uprooting existing communities merely to build new ones . .