Context in Critique (review of Emigre No.64, Rant)

Reviews by Dmitri Siegel
2 146 words11 min read

I was excited to receive it: Emigre magazine, No.64, an issue entitled Rant. Emigre, it seemed, had returned to publishing criticism and theory. The back cover promised that rant would ‘challenge today's young designers to develop a critical attitude toward their own work and the design scene in general.’ I'm a young(ish) designer. I accepted the challenge.

Over the course of the 1990s the pages of Emigre were the battleground on which much of the so-called Legibility Wars was fought, and rant features many of the critical writers of that period. I am disappointed to report that this generation of writers is still largely mired in the arguments of that past era. It is only in the subtext of the same old discussion that one can discern the faint outline of the issues to be contested in the next design debates. Beneath the ritualized sturm und drang over style for styles' sake one can hear the faint rustling of a new criticism, one that vigorously explores the connection between graphic design and the context in which it was created. Unlike art, there is no pristine gallery or gilded frame for graphic design: it is integrated with the social and political context in which it was created. This unique context is an opportunity for us to distinguish our work and our criticism. The formal arguments of the Legibility Wars are no longer vital to the evolution of the field; we need critical writing that explores the where of graphic design as much as the how.

Typography: Get Over It

The dubiously titled Legibility Wars took place in an era when typographic form was being pushed to the point of experimental exhaustion. Young designers at the time were reacting against the rigidly prescribed guidelines of what constituted ‘good typography.’ They used letterforms as a way of visually representing philosophical ideas (in the case of the Cranbrook Academy of Art designers) or as a vehicle for personal expression. Ironically, in the pages of rant we find these same designer-critics reserving their most virulent scorn for what they perceive to be abject or lazy typography - what the leading American design critic Michael Beirut once described to me as ‘fell-off-a-ledge type.’ In Rant, work of this kind is generalized as ‘the cult of default.’ Apparently, the generation that championed transgressive typography has come to institutionalize its own ideals. Regardless of the position one takes, the debate over typographic form and legibility is an exercise in mannerist hair-splitting. Those who argue against style for style's sake are still positioning graphic design as a pursuit concerned solely with form. They seek to make the impossible distinction between empty style and meaningful style. The futility of such parsing is bluntly outlined in ‘Quietude,’ design critic Kenneth Fitzgerald’s opening salvo in Rant, which contains an evisceration of Bruce Mau's coffee-table manifesto, Life Style. In a few blush-inducing paragraphs, Fitzgerald lays bare Mau's failure to distinguish between good lifestyle and bad lifestyle. It has always been the role of the established designer to shake his or her head mournfully at the wayward type of younger colleagues. Perhaps the outrage over so-called ‘default design’ is merely the latest installment in this intergenerational soap opera. Yet default design is an informed reaction to changes in the technology of typesetting and the focus of typographers. The latest version of Adobe InDesign (coincidentally advertised in the back of Rant) can hang quotes and optically adjust margins with some finesse. These tricks of the trade – once benchmarks of typographic refinement – are becoming defaults themselves. Many young designers are wary of directing their efforts toward these fussy formal details. They have seen that type of purely visual exploration yield dissatisfying or inconsequential results for a generation of designers. No amount of visual exploration, for example, could have cured the existential crisis described by Shawn Wolfe in his Rant contribution, ‘What's My Motivation?’ It was only by changing the context in which he worked - starting the Beatkit™ anti-brand and getting involved in the ‘awake’ campaign to promote The Center For A New American Dream - that he was able to regain his love for design.


Experiments In Context

In ‘Towards Critical Autonomy or Can Graphic Design Save Itself?,’ Walker Art Center design director Andrew Blauvelt advocates a new kind of design practice concerned with ‘an inventive contextuality.’ He correctly identifies a new discourse of design ‘that questions not so much the form of design but the possibilities of its practice.’ For many young designers, the client's problem is no longer the issue - instead they are concerned with becoming the client. Young designers are focused on creating a context in which they can do work that is satisfying and new. That this novelty need not be based on formal qualities is what seems to most vex the veterans of the Legibility Wars. How can something be new if it looks old? they ask. Don’t these youngsters know that what they are doing is just retooled modernism? Or Cal Arts work from the late 1980s? They miss the point. Formal novelty is not of urgent interest to many young designers, and this disinterest does not stem from laziness or naivete. Not only is the style vs. substance debate not their fight (it being as much a relic of the 1950s as it is of the 1990s), it does not address the fundamental nature of graphic design. As is noted in passing by many of the Rant writers, the defining characteristic of graphic design is that it inhabits a sliver of land suspended between commerce and culture. It is simultaneously art and craft, passion and occupation. Successive waves of technology have undermined our ability to define the activity of graphic design in terms of process or medium. The roles of typographer, word-processor, artist, filmmaker, editor, author and designer are in constant rotation. What remains distinct about graphic design is the unique context of its practice. The next phase of innovation and debate will be toward renovating this context - expanding our sliver of activity and influence.

I can already hear the imperious retorts from the new design establishment. In fact, I’ve already read them in rant. In the words of Denise Gonzales Crisp: ‘Been there, done that.’ Indeed, some pioneering work has been done to change the context in which the designer works. The writing and editorial consulting of Michael Rocks 2x4 studio in New York and the fearless variety of Cranbrook designer-in-residence Elliot Earls have annexed bits of the author and filmmaker territories respectively. For the most part, however, graphic design - even design that raises questions about context - is still critiqued in the paradigm of the 1990s. The arguments about whether formal qualities are arbitrary or superficial are getting less relevant by the minute. Jeffrey Keedy's assertion that even the style of no style has to be designed is the best argument yet for abandoning this line of criticism altogether.

Context In Critique Groping for contemporary trends in graphic design, most of the rant writers turn to recent work coming out of the Netherlands. In their published online chat, ‘Visitations,’ Denise Gonzales Crisp, Kali Nikitas and Louise Sandhaus touch on new work from Goodwill and Experimental Jet Set, among other Dutch designers. Kenneth Fitzgerald cites Dot Dot Dot magazine for its new take on design writing, and Andrew Blauvelt points to another publication out of Holland, The World Must Change: Graphic Design and Idealism. In his essay ‘Modernism 8.0,’ Mr. Keedy unleashes a critique of Dot Dot Dot that has all the glee of a Saturday Night Live parody. At his most vituperative, he raises questions that a new wave of designers may actually be interested in answering; for instance, ‘What do we need designers for?’ But the critique of Dutch design in Rant gets bogged down in the dialectic of style vs. meaning. This is unfortunate, because work that attempts to recontextualize graphic design deserves to be critiqued in those terms. The best work coming out of the Netherlands since the turn of the millennium - featured in books like HD: Holland Design New Graphics and The New Handmade Graphics: Beyond Digital Design - presents graphic design as an open intellectual pursuit, not merely a means of emphatically solving visual problems. Although many of these designers have adopted a formal vocabulary similar to the work of early modernists (including the use of Helvetica and grid systems), criticism that focuses on the connection between this visual style and early modernist ideology is a distraction from what makes Holland’s graphic design so vital. Dot Dot Dot, for example, is most interesting because the designers have created a context in which graphic design continues to interest them. Within the publication they have undertaken an expansion of what constitutes graphic design writing. By not merely seeking their place in the established design press they have created what Andrew Blauvelt describes as ‘a space of autonomy for graphic design [which] affords an opportunity to engage in a more critical examination of its practice.’ Much work from the Netherlands shares this autonomous spirit. The early modernists advocated the opposite: the assimilation of design into the greater machinery of society and economy.


There are several environmental factors that nourish the inventiveness of Dutch graphic design. One is the long tradition of visual art and specifically the printing arts in Holland. Dutch critic Max Bruinsma has argued that a strong typographic tradition combined with extended economic prosperity has created a class of wealthy clients who consider original graphic design to be a critical part of their success. Graphic designers in the Netherlands also enjoy a level of financial support from their government and their society that frees them to be more adventurous in their work. The Dutch government funds specific design work though project subsidies and grants administered by cultural institutions such as the Mondriaan Foundation. Publications are often funded by the government as well, and Dutch designers can apply for general support and travel grants. The government even gives grants known as startstipendium to help young designers launch their own studios. One of these grants helped Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen open their own studio straight out of school, where they initiated and continue to inspire much of the design work noted in rant. Agencies of the Dutch government also commission a great deal of innovative design. Dutch Royal Telecom, for example, has long been one of the most respected graphic design clients in the world. Book designer Irma Boom worked for the government printing office, where she produced challenging publications on the government's behalf. Civic projects such as stamps and currency have consistently been entrusted to young and unconventional graphic designers as well. The social and institutional support in Holland extends to design. The website for the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam notes that tuition fees have been legally fixed at the equivalent of US $1,626. Legally fixed! A year of undergraduate design training at a comparable school in America averages around $17,000 a year, with graduate tuition hovering near $20,000. This is even more alarming when you consider that academia has been the only institution in American society that has consistently supported innovation in graphic design. Fleshing out this context of contemporary Dutch design provides a valuable frame of reference. The critical pretense raises difficult questions for the designer. Am I satisfied with design's place in society? How are my educational and professional institutions supporting innovation in design? What can I do independently? Making these questions central to design criticism encourages the ‘socialization of design’ advocated by Andrew Howard in his Adbusters essay, ‘A New Kind of Dialogue’. It challenges us to affect change in our work - maybe even our society.

The Peace Dividend The critical rehash of the grunge typography debate in Rant is peculiar in that almost no one acknowledges his or her involvement in the fracas. Rick Valicenti's rambling mea culpa, ‘6.26.02: Cranky,’ is a glaring exception. It is perhaps the most important article in Rant because it suggests a way past the post-traumatic stress disorder that cripples so much contemporary criticism. Valicenti takes credit for all (‘I am the embodiment of culture’) and admits to all (‘We raped the street of its character’). Perhaps what graphic design needs is an opportunity for all sides in the Legibility Wars to come clean, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of sorts. Then maybe we can move on and begin to examine graphic design as a process that inscribes economic and social context. A dialogue based on the presupposition that design is not only an open creative process but a conversation with the world beyond design may help move our profession in unexpected and reckless directions - a sure sign of growth.