Culture Guide
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Culture is not always popular

By William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand

Please note that this presentation is also posted at Design Observer. Visit the AIGA discussion boards and Design Observer for additional dialogue.

Jessica Helfand: At a faculty meeting not long ago, a colleague of mine suggested that smart designers need to resist the impulse to over-intellectualize things, as though such efforts are counterproductive — if not entirely paralyzing — for the designer seeking to make work. Upon hearing this, I was immediately catapulted back to an episode in high school — which, sadly, had been permanently etched on my memory — when a teacher suggested that in order to be more "popular," I might consider using fewer big words around my peers. Specifically, he noted, around boys.

Even for this talk, we were encouraged to be "engaging" and "visual." The implied caution? Don’t use big words, don’t be too intellectual. Remember, this is an audience of visual people.

Where does this come from — this notion that thinking and making are seperate acts? That graphic design must be inherently anti-intellectual because it is a creative enterprise? And why is being "popular," — and by extension, participating in "popular" culture — understood somehow as antithetical to an engagement with the larger world of ideas?

William Drenttel : Designers talk about creating a body of work, but they seldom talk about acquiring a body of knowledge. They take pride in being makers, but seldom identify themselves as thinkers. They claim to be emissaries of communication — to give form to ideas. And while we would like to believe this is true, it seems to us that all too often, we, as designers, are called upon merely to make things look good — rather than contributing to the evolution and articulation of ideas themselves. This is an age-old criticism of design, but it seems especially relevant this morning as we talk about the Culture of Design.

In a recent interview, the British designer Peter Saville was quoted as saying, "graphics is the communications platform for culture." The syntax here is very revealing: Whoever thought we’d be hearing the designer of New Order talking about "graphics" let alone "communications platforms?" So, what is he REALLY saying? That design is a lens onto culture? Or that our culture is only evident and visible through design? Whatever the answer, we’re struck by the presumption in this statement that design = culture.

We’re not so sure.

We believe the "Culture of Design" has become implicitly about branded culture: culture that we can see, that we can name, that we can buy and sell and package; culture that is synonymous with style; culture that resonates with novelty and which, by conjecture, dismisses history as mere nostalgia; culture that determines and drives our reactions to the constantly changing pulse of modern life.

So this morning, we want to ask three simple questions. Every time the word "culture" is used at this conference, we’d like you to ask yourselves:

Whose culture are we talking about?

Is this the culture we want?

Is this the only kind of culture possible?

JH: Almost a decade ago, at an AIGA gathering in Kansas City, designers pleaded for design to be recognized as a powerful force in commerce and modern life. The consensus was that AIGA should help put design center stage and, on some levels, this desire has largely been fulfilled: today, less than 10 years later, design is generally acknowledged as a ubiquitous element in contemporary culture.

The assumption was that designers influence just about everything — from toothbrushes to television titles, bridges to brochures.

This ubiquity is evident in everything from corporate culture —

to world culture —

to sports culture —

to media culture —

all adding up to something we call popular culture —

And all of these, let’s be honest, performing increasingly as functions of a much larger branded culture —

Coming full circle, to Vancouver, even "design" has become its own, well-designed brand.

WD: Obviously, there are many ways to look at this. One of the benefits of weblogs is the opportunity for ongoing critical discussion. Last week, Jessica and I launched Design Observer, a collaborative blog with Michael Bierut and Rick Poynor, as a forum for a broader kind of critical writing on design issues — broader because its collaborative; because it’s international; and because we rarely agree on anything.

In the spirit of such thinking, we’d like to take a few moments to look at design and its impact on culture from a more critical perspective.

I’d like to begin with AIGA — and here, as a former president, I want to commend AIGA for its many dramatic strides forward in increasing the purpose and profile of the profession. But consistent with such strides is a level of critical discourse which seems, in many ways absent, from our conferences and our publications.

For instance, we are troubled by AIGA’s generally uncritical endorsement of branding, both as a process and as the primary programmatic focus for the profession. We are troubled by the loose interchangeability between between "designing" and "branding."

So to revisit the Peter Saville position: design is not only a communications "platform" for culture, but is now vetted by an AIGA-approved 12-step program for problem-solving, innovating, and generating value.

We are not making a flip attack on an organization we value. We do not doubt that these ideas are appropriate for many design practices. We do not doubt that these concepts will play well in the media as AIGA seeks to gain attention for our profession. And we appreciate the shift from an emphasis on award-winning design artifacts to a deeper discussion about process, participation and impact.

But we do believe that we are fundamentally restricting the pluralistic character of design by adopting a fixed vocabulary for process. Not everyone in this room sees "generating value" as a rationale for what they do. By expanding the very definition of design, are we simultaneously narrowing the rich variety that makes design such an exciting profession?

Further, we would hope that creating brands is only one of the many potential outcomes of "designing." "Branding" is primarily a function of the designer’s engagement with material culture: again, this is NOT the only culture there is, and it is NOT the only culture in which design can make a difference.

So, we wonder: why hasn’t there been more critical discussion of these issues in the year since the AIGA board adopted this new focus? Such discussions are critical to a mature profession, and imperative if we want to consider and ultimately, contribute to the culture – or cultures — of design that we want to create in the future.

JH: The American writer, James Baldwin, once observed that it is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the human mind.

Regrettably, the current state of design education does little to refute this notion: our curricula primarily support the strengthening of formal skills and the cultivation of conceptual abilities. Intellectual diversity — and by extension, an understanding of cultural diversity — is less encouraged, but why?

In most design schools, for instance, we discourage learning a second language because it requires too much time in the language lab and therefore away from the studio. Along the way, our young designers aren’t expected to really study science or math; history or anthropology; economics; music theory or literature. They’re not even really required to learn to write.

How is this possible?

The state of illiteracy in design schools is staggering, but sadder still, it mirrors a basic scarcity of cultural literacy across the nation. A recent study revealed that when asked to name 3 boy-bands, 97% of the US population had no problem: however, only 17% could accurately name three Supreme Court justices.

So if knowledge is power, isn’t what we, as designers, contribute a function of what we know?

And what is it, exactly, that we DO know?

In an educational context, is The Power of Design really just a brand itself? Is it the promise of an exciting view of culture? The packaging of design as a lucrative career choice? Or are we talking about …

Power through communication?

Well, there is little in the culture of design education that places a premium on achieving a level of literacy which, in our view, goes hand-in-hand with designers being truly knowledgeable, and capable, and thereby empowered to participate, in an increasingly cross-disciplinary world.

Power through voice?

Certainly there is an abundance of experimental student work that aggressively critiques corporate rhetoric or denounces commercial culture: work that, if nothing else, is commendable for its sheer gutsiness. Often though, we see voice expressed less as an act of subversive will, and more as a staging of false identity: this work says a lot about designers wanting to be artists, using "design" as a weak metaphor for "art" and expressing their personal experience without practical context or intellectual foundation.

Power through craft?

While design education has a long and distinguished history of reinforcing formal principles, it is often assumed that a student’s "intellectual" development is perhaps of less immediate consequence.

Is it powerful to develop a typeface based on the letterforms taken from one’s apartment signage?

Is it powerful to make a video of the dramatic lighting conditions between ramps in a parking garage?

Is it powerful to tabulate the color shifts in a series of expired plastic bread tags over the course of nine months?

Each of these are student projects I have seen over the past few years: exquisitely designed, these projects were meticulously produced as evidence of a kind of working methodology in design. Yet while conceivably empowering to the student, such projects, more often than not, are framed by what the student already knows.

The distinction here is that while such independent work encourages our students to think for themselves, our narrow-minded curricula restrict their capacity to use their minds to truly advance their ideas; And in turn, we limit their ability to advance themselves.

This polemic raises many issues, but let's return to the idea of culture. We want to propose a different view of culture, one that presupposes a more expansive view of the world that design inhabits, not limited by form or function, budget or brief, process or style. This notion of culture — which we call intellectual culture — operates from a different premise, and quite possibly, demands a different educational approach: for at its core, it suggests that in order for design to really matter, designers need to think and know more about things besides design.

Our premise is that behind the best design there is not only an intelligent process and visual solution, but an intellectual foundation based on history and ideas.

To expand upon this premise, we’d like to take a look at one particular set of ideas in our culture — in the realm of science.

In a recent issue of Emigré, Jessica and I published an essay on what we call "faux science": it’s a cultural critique of the indiscriminate appropriation of scientific imagery for the making of cool things. Along the way, in an effort to understand design as it might relate to real science, we began to do a little research.

In the history of chemistry, we focused on the Periodic Table of the Elements and discovered numerous, and quite varied, examples.

Here’s the first publication outside of Russia of the Periodic Table by Mendeleev from 1869.

And a classic wall chart by Henry Hubbard from the 1950s, which went through 12 editions, and hung in thousands of classrooms across the country for decades.

Since the last edition of the Hubbard wall chart, we have discovered 16 new elements. These discoveries have confirmed the genius of the Periodic Table as a template that not only summarizes information succinctly, but also provides a system for predicting future outcomes.

Yet for designers, the Periodic Table, like other areas of science, is often just a genre that’s ripe for appropriation, offering an easy visual metaphor and a ready source for imagery:

From art by Damien Hirst —

To an identity program by Lana Rigsby for Strathmore Elements —

To a chart in a recent GQ, by Fred Woodward, on nerdiness —

To a self-promotion book by Stone Yamashita

To a chart on cereal typologies published in 2wice

To yet another self-promotion book, this one for Fold 7 in the UK —

To type specimens by Test Pilot Collective —

To dingbat specimens by Scott Stowell and Chip Wass —

To a periodic table of desserts —

WD: We’re not claiming today that we have all the answers, or that we’re even remotely capable of fulfilling the challenges we’re proposing this morning. In fact, what we’re going to show you now will illustrate just how hard this is, and what a struggle it continues to be for us.

It is therefore with some trepidation that we’d like to share a bit of our own experience, as designers, working in the area that we call, albeit a little hesitantly — intellectual culture.

Like most of you, we need to make a living. We work in a small studio with only two employees in the northwest corner of Connecticut.

For the first five years that Jessica and I worked together, we had a fairly traditional practice, including a lot of work we’d classify as branding.

We designed interfaces for internet companies —

Websites for newspapers —

Identities for local museums —

Posters for our town library —

Even annual reports for local community foundations —

About 18 months ago, we asked the question: Could we sustain a practice if we stopped doing brand-driven work and only did projects with some kind of real intellectual content? This definition is a pretty slippery slope — obviously more thematically driven than "intellectually" rigorous — and we are not suggesting that brand-based projects don’t have their own value and intellectual challenges. But on a very personal level, we wanted to try to create a different body of work, engaging with different kinds of ideas — and collaborating with different kinds of clients.

As we began to work against these criteria, every new project seemed to raise its own questions.

JH: The answers were pretty humbling and almost immediately, we were forced to consider the limits of what we know:

Does an 18-foot accordion-fold book with over 3,000 entries charting the evolution of Greek mythology benefit from a knowledge of history?

Does the statistical analysis characterizing econometrics inform the typography on this college textbook?

Does an understanding of the "culture wars" within journalism today benefit the online extension of a university journalism program?

What about student journalism? Can a student newspaper be conceived in such a way as to help redefine educational parameters for the way journalism is actually taught?

What about the role of religion as portrayed in the media?

How much do we need to know about Judaism to promote literacy about Jewish culture and literature?

Or the evolution of American foreign policy since the Vietnam War?

Or the complexities of US diplomacy in the Arab-Muslim World for this report to Congress?

How does an understanding of the rampant mutation of flu viruses inform preventative public health initiatives?

What about the history of propaganda, political caricature and comparatively radical, early forms of medical malpractice?

WD: … led her to rethink primitive, early forms of navigation.

My interest in the darker side of life often seems to lead me back to German literature. And while Jessica and our children did stop me from naming our puppy Kafka …

… we co-published this book, Kafka Goes to the Movies, with the University of Chicago. Faced with an interesting but problematic work of scholarship, the design became a way to fix the book and to deepen its visual narrative.

Last month, I bought the world English rights to this book — a literary description of the destruction of Hamburg in 1943. Probably not a bestseller, but potentially an important book that grapples with the problem of describing — without aestheticizing — the horror of urban destruction. In many ways, it resembles certain critiques of writing in the months following 9/11.

Recently, a young historian brought us this Victorian scrapbook — 240 pages of newspaper clippings pasted into an old geometry textbook — meticulously documenting every weird kind of death and murder that transpired over the course of a single year: 1894. The gruesome detail evident in the language suggests a cultural interest in death at the turn of the century that is a new topic in American Studies.

This summer, we collaborated with the writer Lawrence Wechsler on the design of a new magazine prototype.

Omnivore is a celebration of what Wechsler calls: "A distinctly American innovation … the extended, writerly, not necessarily immediately topical piece of non-fiction reportage … an endangered form of writing that is one of the greatest contributions of American culture to world literature in the twentieth century."

Here in the 21st, Omnivore pairs unlikely subjects —

From Helen Wilson’s photograph of a denuded clementine to a stripped-down billboard in Bucharest, revealing the menacing eye of former Romanian dictator, Nicholae Ceaucescu —

To discoveries of moons circling asteroids —

To work by a remarkable range of writers and artists including Oliver Sacks; David Hockney; and the South African dissident poet, Breyten Breytenbach, among many others.

WD: But if Omnivore pushed us by challenging the perceptual juxtapositions between pictures and words, our year spent redesigning The New England Journal of Medicine revealed a different set of challenges. In collaboration with Michael Bierut, our process involved working closely with a group of physicians whose view of information design was dictated not only by the expectations of their readers (who are primarily doctors themselves), but more importantly perhaps, by the scientific imperatives of the material itself.

In retrospect, we were able to bring to The Journal a more refined typographic vocabulary, as well as some basic editorial insights. But because of our lack of knowledge about real science, I don’t know that we ever really understood how to effectively visualize and communicate discoveries and innovations in medical research. Given the Journal’s seminal, groundbreaking data about personal and public health issues — the outbreak of SARS, for example — did design really contribute anything?

If our experiences in the past year have taught us anything, it is that we do not know enough to participate in any of these project in the way we might like. The good news is that — and every student in the audience should hear this — we were able to make a living without focusing on strategy or branding or marketing. There are other types of work out there where designers can play a role, and where acquiring a body of knowledge becomes an asset both professionally and personally.

JH: Several weeks ago, two Americans and a Russian shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in physics for theories about how matter can show bizarre behavior at extremely low temperatures. Bear in mind that where we live in the Berkshires, it was 22 degrees last week when we were finishing up this lecture: Another benefit of science is that now, at last, we have a rationale for the "bizarre" behavior that led us here today.

But it is sobering, nonetheless, to consider how culture awards real contributions. The French cubist painter, Georges Braque once said that art is made to disturb, while science reassures. Design, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle: it is both and it is neither, playing both ends against the middle: and it is this middle-brow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road intellectual apathy that diminishes the real power of design: its power as a humanist discipline. We believe that to engage that discipline — and the many cultures it serves — means simply being better educated. This has perhaps less to do with culture, and more to do with having a cultivated mind; less to do with technical virtuosity, and more to do with intellectual curiosity. Less to do with popular culture — and more to do with culture, period.

WD: Francis Bacon once said that knowledge and human power are synonymous, and it is in this spirit that true power is perhaps ideally achieved: it is power informed by learning, collaborating and considering how the ultimate quality of our lives is made, whether in reference to our health or our schools; our environment or our foreign policy; our aspirations in science or in space; or our humanitarian achievements, as people, in war and in peace.

It's that simple. And it’s that complicated.

©2003 AIGA | the professional association for design | credits